The Starbuck And The Crab

Posted by on Oct 9, 2011 in Chiba, Travel Volunteer Journey | One Comment
The Starbuck And The Crab

A typical reservation people have about coming to Japan is that the language barrier is too much to overcome. Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation hardly helped. The first few times I saw that movie, I was completely blown away – it had the effect of making me want to immediately go to Japan (possibly with the intention of tracking down and marrying Scarlett Johansson’s character Charlotte).

But the last time I watched it – about three years ago – something had changed. The depictions of the Japanese seemed cartoonish and facile, and Bob’s (Bill Murray) inability to function in the world’s biggest city seemed, at best, unlikely. Watch it again: he does a quite phenomenal amount of moaning.

I still love a lot of things about that film (maybe Charlotte, too) but now we’re actually in Japan, it seems more and more ridiculous. For a test – and because, honestly, there isn’t a great deal going on in functional Chiba City when the sports teams are playing away from home – we decided to spend the day seeing how hard it is to get along speaking only English.

The short answer is: not very. Urban Japan does hold some challenges for the average westerner – especially the impregnable kanji – but most thing can be overcome with a bit of patience and common sense. Half of the brands on the street are immediately recognisable (the infamous yellow M and the caffeinated green circle are depressingly visible on every other street) and the majority of you people in service jobs have a cursory grasp of English. Failing all of that, a bit of pointing and smiling got the job done. The only time we found any real difficulty was trying to use a card to pay in a shop: the POS came up with a baffling array of kanji that we couldn’t fathom and the shop assistant couldn’t explain. We paid in cash instead.
Out on the street signposts to all major points of interest are in both English and Japanese. Like the terribly modern travellers we are, though, we stuck to the GPS on our phone. That lead us to the cinema, where we bought tickets for the latest Planet of the Apes instalment (the enormous picture of a furious chimpanzee was a dead give-away) and watched the entire thing, in English.

We know from experience that Russia and China are far harder when it comes to getting even the basics done. English is much more widely-spoken in Japan, though of course nowhere near as much as in, say Germany or Holland. But then Japanese has the not-inconsiderable advantage of having borrowed many words from English. Occasionally they pop into sentences, and suddenly the whole point becomes clear, our brains seizing the little clue with both hands. Then the impatience dissipates and everyone is happy again.

I write all this as though the world should know English, as though it’s everyone else’s fault for not speaking our language. But of course that’s not the case – I don’t care what Bill Murray says.

Our time in Chiba prefecture was made possible by:

Yuki and Bill Burgos, and their wonderful dogs Pat and Momo, who are currently building their dream home in Chiba’s remote south. It will be something very special when it’s finished, but even though it’s still under construction, they managed to whip up the best home-cooked meal we’ve had in months.








1 Comment

  1. Jon Allen
    October 11, 2011

    I’ve been here 4 years, I still can’t string together more than 2 words of Japanese and I get on fine. English is no problem.