We have found 5 tweeted tales of confusion from Japanese people who have had amusing encounters with foreigners in Japan. Some strike such a chord with Japanese that they have been re-tweeted and shared thousands, and sometimes even tens of thousands of times.
So what is it that foreigners do that’s so amusing to the Japanese?
1. Foreigners still run into trouble even if they speak Japanese
Point: “How much?” sounds like hamachi, the Japanese word for amberjack, while “ikura desu ka?” can mean both “How much is it?” and “Is it red caviar?” in Japanese. Who knew that fish ling could be so confusing?
The following conversation was overheard by a Japanese Twitter user at the fish shop: Foreigner (speaking English): “How much?” Fish Monger (speaking Japanese); “That’s not hamachi (Japanese amberjack), that’s maguro (tuna)”. Foreigner: “How much?” Fish Monger: “I told you, that’s not hamachi, that’s maguro”. Foreigner (switching to Japanese): “Ikura desu ka? Fish Monger: “That’s not ikura (red caviar), that’s maguro!!
2. Foreigners use sensitive Japanese words with careless abandon
Point: Foreigners today might use the word Kamikaze in the literal sense of Divine Wind, particularly in situations when the wind blows to their benefit. Of course, the kamikaze was originally suicide attacks by Japanese on foreigners and something that neither side of the Pacific would have taken so lightly.
The tweet reads: “I was outside a convenience store and a strong wind blew up the skirts of a Japanese high school girl, momentarily exposing her underwear. A couple of foreigners standing next to her said, “Wow, lucky!’ to which the other foreigner replied ‘it’s the Japanese kamizake!’ They laughed and Tokyo is still at peace.”
3. Wear t-shirts with hugely inappropriate messages on them
Point: Fuhoutaizaichuu means “I’m staying here illegally”. While you might think a funny shirt like this would get a giggle from passers-by, sarcasm isn’t a common form of humour in Japan so be prepared for things to be taken seriously. That being said for the Japanese such bad taste by a foreigner is actually amusing.
“A Japanese man was walking down the street and saw a foreigner wearing a shirt that said 「不法滞在中」. He stopped the foreigner and told him it was bad taste to advertise the fact that he is staying here illegally. The tourist said “That’s what I’ve been waiting for!’ and gave him a high five.
4. Foreigners have bottomless stomachs
“A worker at the ramen shop explained the concept of okawari jiyuu to foreigners as ‘endless rice.’
Point: okawari jiyuu means that free refill, but that doesn’t mean it’s an endless supply! Foreigners are known for their healthy appetites so promising an endless supply could be an unwise business decision but highly amusing culturally for the lack of foreigner’s decorum.
5. Foreigners have a weird sense of humour
Point: In the West it’s not uncommon to use humour to overcome an awkward situation, but sometimes that is when they start digging a hole for themselves that is difficult to get out of, and their jokes don’t always translate well.
“During class, when our teacher asked us to make pairs, I was left standing there alone without a partner. The foreign instructor appeared in front of me with a kind smile. He pick up my eraser and put it in front of me. This is your friend.”, he said as a joke. The Japanese student was bewildered and didn’t understand the joke!
Sarcasm will result in 0% Success
The Japanese have a reputation for “not getting sarcasm.” There are highly elaborate social rules designed to avoid the feelings that sarcasm creates. When you break that politeness protocol, everyone is going to mobilize to remedy the situation.
English-language sarcasm makes the Japanese think either a) You are totally unreasonable foreigner, or b) They misunderstood, because no one could be that unreasonable.
The situation: You’re served a ton of food. You think it’s clear that there’s a ton of food.
You say: “Boy, I don’t think this is gonna be enough food.”
Result: Your host goes to the kitchen to prepare more food, which you won’t eat.
If you can’t speak Japanese, your humour is somewhat inexplicable. The feeling is definitely mutual. Some try to explain jokes or funny situations in broken English, most often leaving out everything essential to understanding the joke. Nothing kills a joke deader than an explanation! The first rule of making a joke in Japan is to resist. It will never help you!