Near Yellow Mountain

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Lost in Translation

Today I have a long layover at LAX on my way to Tokyo. During the flight from Charlotte to LAX, I listened to a Japanese language learning Podcast. Since I was closing in on 40 when I started learning Japanese in the mid 90’s; I need all the help I can get trying to maintain a reasonable level of fluency.  When people ask me about the process of learning Japanese, I usually explain that before you try to learn Japanese, it is important to learn how to understand and speak Japanese English (aka Japanglish).
As was common in the relationship my company had with our partner company in Japan, the interactions were very polite – cordial meetings, good dinners, golf, etc but very few details regarding our customers in Japan. Visits from “the gaijin” were met with smiles that got much broader when they put us on the train to the airport at the end of our trips to Osaka. At the time I got involved with our Japanese business, we had been partners for almost 25 years. Nobody from our side had ever learned Japanese beyond “konnichiwa” so we relied on the three people from our partner that spoke some level of English to help us communicate. Both sides were making very good profits so everyone was relatively happy with the status-quo. Everyone except me. 
As the “new guy” I felt I should try to do things to better understand what was really happening in the Japanese market.  So prior to my third visit, I sent a fax (imagine that - they didn't email at the time) to Japan requesting to visit our actual customers not just our partner’s staff. This is when I learned that when Japanese say “this could be difficult” they mean “hell, no”. I didn’t see any customers on that visit but I did spend a lot of time requesting to visit customers on my next trip. As our company is in the lithium business and the lithium ion battery had just been launched in the Japanese market, my request was strongly supported by my boss so to keep the peace with our company they “agreed”. I was told customer visits would be arranged on my next visit. This is when I learned the concept of “passive resistance”.
When I arrived in Osaka several weeks later, I was told that “all the English speakers are busy this week” so I was sent to visit customers with two smiling gentlemen that spoke about 60 words of English in random order. They also selected customers that did not provide anyone that spoke English. I began to learn Japanglish on this trip. On the bullet train to the first customer, a lot of smiles were exchanged until we got near our stop when Fukuma san stood over me and in a more of a scream than anything else poured out a brief torrent of English “off the train, now!!”. It seems that the soft spoken Fukuma san was taught English was spoken in high decibels. Once we got to the customer’s office, things got more interesting. After checking in with the receptionist, Fukuma san pointed to a chair in the corner and said “please shit here” followed by “please, please yourself at your home now”. Of course, he was asking me to “have a seat” and “please, make myself at home” rather than to relieve myself in the reception area before playing with myself.  In cases like these, the bad English is funny and the true intention is easy to understand but that is not always the case. More on that in an upcoming post.
As it turned out, the “English speakers” were not available during the day but were free each night for dinner and drinking. They were hoping I would give up on my quest to “get to know” customers and were disappointed that I seem to enjoy Fukuma san and his very limited English. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of telling the story about getting screamed at to “get off the train” and to “shit down”. This brought howls of laughter from the English speakers and poor Fukuma san heard about it every time we were all together for the next five years.  “Ha, Ha, Ha Fukuma san – “shit here”, “shit here”.
As the week went by, I learned to enjoy green tea (served at every meeting) and to use a whiteboard to communicate in chemical formulas and numbers. Our partner’s plan to discourage me also inspired me to begin my study of Japanese – some of my early gaffes in Japanese still follow me today. One of the early phrases I learned in a restaurant was to ask for the chef’s recommendation – very useful when you are alone and can’t read the menu. Unfortunately, I used the same word when asking a caddie to show me the line for a putt. My Japanese friends found that to be just about the funniest thing they ever heard and to this day will smile at me when we play golf and ask me if I am going to ask the caddie for her recommendation…….