Lost in Translation

A few years ago, I was at Sakuradamon Subway Station when I came across an English guy who seemed to be having a hard time getting to his destination. At first, I watched from afar as he tried to ask for directions from three high school students. Horrified, the students nudged each other and started mumbling and pointing fingers as to who should answer the guy. With a shaky voice, one of them blurted out "So, so...sorry. We don't speak English!"

Even from afar, I could tell that their knees were shaking and that they were sweating bullets. They couldn't even look at the man in the eyes!

When they left, the guy fished out his cellphone from his bag and started looking around, apparently trying to figure out where he should go next.

I couldn't just sit there and watch him. Thus, I took a deep breath, slung my bag over my shoulders, got on my feet and approached him.

From what I can recall, he told me he's from a place called Leads (or is it Lids? Leeds? Lieds? Sorry, I honestly couldn't make out what he was saying half the time because he spoke real fast. You guys familiar with the accent of the lead guy in 'God's Own Country'? Yeah, he had that accent, but rest assured, I did my utmost to help him) and that he was in Japan for vacation.

After showing him the way he asked me, "Mind if I ask you why are some Japanese people in such a rush to announce that they can’t speak English and why do they look so panicky and everything?"

My response was somewhere along the lines of "Well, many Japanese people perceive foreigners in Japan as their society’s guests, and feel a responsibility, and pressure, to accommodate them. Not being able to do so sometimes creates mini panic attacks, which can lead to premature apologies like “I’m sorry I can’t speak English,” since they’ve already played out the scenario of being unable to comply with an English-language request before a request, in any language, has actually been made."

If someone would ask me the same question right now, my response would be much shorter: Well, there are loads of reasons why. For a start, I suggest you go watch Lost in Translation, and you'll have an idea why.

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