Was Lost In Translation.

IF you have seen the movie Lost in Translation or have been in Japan, you would know or at least have some idea of what it is like for foreigners in Japan – if you do not speak Japanese.

I have to say when I first arrived in Japan, I felt as if I was blind, deaf and mute. And I must add, it was a culture shock! But as my Japanese improved, it felt better. When I first went shopping, it was a terrifying experience. I dreaded going to the supermaket..LOL. I couldn’t read the food labels and at the check out, I prayed that the cashier could not ask me anything (e.g the cashier would normally ask if I needed cash as change or would prefer a card if I gave a 10, 000 yen note). Initially, I just said “yes” and nodded to everything the cashier asked.

When I think back to those first months in Japan, I have a really good laugh.

I am now preparing to return home and have been having alot of farwell parties. I have spoken to many Japanese medical students and most want to communicate in English. They feel that English can offer many opportunities for them. By speaking only Japanese, they feel restricted only to Japan and not being able to visit or work in other countries.

Infact, a few students told me that, despite the fact Japan is a leader in world economy, they somewhat feel that Japan is still closed to foreigners. They feel more foreigners would like to visit Japan but are putt off by the language barrier. And most Japanese do not visit other countries (although they would like to) because they are not able to speak English.

It has been said that Japan is a difficult place to live – for foreigners. In spite of the  fact that most things are easy and convinient (e.g transportation, banking, paying bills etc) you can still feel lost and isolated. I get mails – in Japanese – and I wonder to myself, “how the heck do they expect me to read this”.

Another experience. A Japanese friend gave me car to use and we went to change the ownership because I have to pay the insurance, and I was told that I needed a traditional Japanese stamp to sign the documents. For this stamp to be done, you have to have your name written in Kanji, the Chinese characters used in the Japanese language. My signature was not acceptable! Eventhough the police and the banks said it was OK. So I had to either change my name to a Japanese name (to be written in Kanji) or refuse ownership of the car. I decided I didn’t need a car after all.

Anyway, I’m glad I made the trip to Japan. The past two and half years have been a huge learning curve. I was brought up exposed to the “Western life-style and culture” and this past years have opened by eyes to the “Eastern life-style and culture”.

If the Europeans are the West and the Asians are the East, who the North and South?


About rodney itaki

Medical doctor and public health specialist from Papua New Guinea.
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