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Law Of Inverse Returns Essay, Research Paper

The Law of

Inverse Returns

Scott Barlow

December 6, 1996

Shoji Azuma

Japan 355 – 1

The law of inverse returns states that the better the foreign learner’s Japanese is, the worse the reaction of the Japanese native population will be to the learner’s use of Japanese. In this paper, I argue that the better the learner’s Japanese is, the better the treatment to the learner of Japanese from native Japanese. I will argue this point by making three statements and then provide opinions and reactions of others whom I have interviewed over the Internet.

The better the Japanese language that one has, the more the freedom he feels. I felt this feeling while I was in Japan and I could finally go to the bank and make a deposit or withdraw without fumbling and literally making up my own Japanese vocabulary. Until further Japanese study, did I find out that the word to “withdraw” money from the bank was the same as “taking something down,” like from a shelf. These are the same words, but in Japanese it is the context that they are used is what is important. Not only does better Japanese save you the embarrassment of making a mistake, but having better in Japanese also helps natives feel less of a burden on them, than if you didn’t speak good Japanese. In Japan as a missionary, I had the opportunity to visit a retirement home once a week. During our visit with the elderly, we also cleaned up. doing the normal housekeeping that was necessary for them to live in a cleaner, better environment. I am very glad that I had Japanese that I was able to understand the retirees, especially when the needed someone to talk to and when I was able to understand and help them clean where they asked me to. Through the understanding that I had then as a missionary in the Japanese language, I feel that the full-time workers there were less worried about us performing duties for them because we had better Japanese. This resulted in the better treatment I received as I was in Japan because of the position I was in able to serve.

The second argument I would like to make on a related topic of being less burdensome to the Japanese. Everyone doesn’t like a lazy person, although a lot of people in America like being the lazy person. In Japan if you aren’t busy doing something, it is like being counter-productive and demeaning the existence of society. The better the learner’s Japanese is, the more likely he is to be literate and can perform the normal daily functions of getting around. When I mean getting around, I mean not only the activity of going to and from work by public transportation, but I also I mean getting around in society, helping to be an active contributor to others. A Japanese language literate person is more likely to be able to function in society providing for the benefit of the Japanese economy and income for his own household. I as a 20 year old missionary was never too good at reading and writing Japanese while I lived there, but as I have returned again after my experience there, I feel a better sociability and friendliness towards me because I can read and write Japanese at a decent level. I feel this way because I can read train and bus routes, I can tell what a store sells what by reading their sign outside, and I also can read people’s name better when we exchange business cards or see their name tags. The ability to read and write Japanese characters has had a profound impact on my cultural awareness and growth towards the Japanese people. Although I know that I can never be Japanese, being thankful that I am, who I am, and that I grew up here and still live in America, the time will come that when I am able to read the books and the newspaper that Japanese people read, function at a job, somewhat like a native Japanese and hopefully be a productive tool for society in Japan and teach others my experience here in the United States.

Having a Japanese learner with the ability to speak better Japanese than normal, we have talked that he will help provide a less burden for the native Japanese and that he will be able to provide better for the society because the fact that the better the learner’s Japanese the more likely he is to be literate and productive. Thus the last argument. The better the learner’s Japanese, the better cultural growth and awareness those he comes in contact with will become. I found this true, that even though I speak fair Japanese, and usually speak Japanese to natives when in Japan. There is a curiosity that arouses natives to ask questions about English and ask about my experiences and life style in the United States. The interaction among natives of Japan and the United States brings a cultural awareness and growth which promotes sociability that couldn’t happen if either one didn’t speak better Japanese than the natives English, or the opposite for fact.

I have included other’s opinions whom I have interviewed over the Internet on how they feel about the law of opposite returns. These people are Japanese speakers, and have at least lived in Japan at some time, or are living in Japan at the present.

Case 1: Brett D. DePaola. Graduate student at the University of Kansas.

Scott: Brett, how do you feel about the law of inverse returns?

Brett: Nonsense! I think that perhaps for a *gaijin* in the everyday work environment of a “sarariiman”, this *might* be true. For a gaijin just visiting Japan this is really not the case (at least in my experience). From my own experience, I’ve approached people on the street (to ask for directions) and seen their look of terror melt into surprised smiles of relief as I spoke, not in the expected English, but in Japanese. In restaurants as well, the chefs and waitresses always seem very happy to find that I speak passable Japanese. In a small place they would all find their way to my table to “test” my Japanese out. I think they were somewhat impressed, but more importantly, I think in general people were happy to see gaijin that cared enough about the Japanese culture to spend the time to practice the language. So much for spoken, what about written? In my experience, Japanese people seem to be (pleasantly) shocked that I can read/write enough kanji to get by. I definitely don’t get the feeling that people are offended. Once in a small bar/restaurant in Iidabashi my (Japanese) friend and I got into a discussion of that day’s sumo results — in a very weird mix of Japanese and English language. (Turns out that neither of us had caught that day’s matches and we were guessing who might have won.) The 2 guys next to me had seen the matches and started filling us in. We exchanged business cards and, looking at the cards, I repeated the gentlemen’s names. They were astonished and started to immediately quiz me on other (very simple) kanji. Turns out one of them had a very nice pen/brush that had a replaceable cartridge for its source of ink. Before we left, this guy *gave* me the pen as a gift. (I found out later that this was a $40 pen.) This does not sound like resentful behavior to me!

It occurs to me that perhaps a certain balance between fluency and “polite talk” is required. That is, if someone is technically fluent (good grammar and vocabulary), but doesn’t know even the basics of how to be “polite” — for example all the polite phrases used when meeting someone for the first time — this could cause some uneasiness among some Japanese people. Also, I feel like it is very important to try to assess the “pecking order” of the people you talk to, in order to figure out how “familiar” or “Polite” you need to be. I get the feeling that failure to do this causes some uneasiness among some Japanese people.

Case 2: Clifford L. Cook


I don’t know where you are getting your information or who your teacher is, however, in my many years in Japan I have only received favorable comments on my ability to speak Japanese. Now understand this, I did not flaunt my Japanese ability as do some. Never, in my experience, have I ever encountered any antagonism from the Japanese towards a foreigner who speaks their language. In fact, in my experience, it has been quite the opposite. I have noted that the Japanese people respect someone who attempts to learn their language. I would be interested in learning your teachers source of information and how it was obtained.


Case 3: Andrew Scal.

Regarding the present question of fluency posed by Scott, I’d like to jot down (from memory) and experience related by George Field in his book _From Bonsai to Levis_ (He’s the son of a Japanese Father and an Ozzie Mother, who is an expert on marketing in Japan) He writes that once, after giving a speech in English, he privately suggested a better choice of words in Japanese to the official interpreter. Her reaction was “Ooooh, kimochi warui wa….”. Fields went on to speculate that she was either saying that his Japanese was so good that it made her uncomfortable, or that she was uncomfortable at being corrected by someone other than a Japanese. In my experience (not that my Japanese is THAT good) both are very likely possibilities. Especially in light of the latest Kume Hiroshi gaffe where he said on his evening news program in reaction to a non-Japanese’s fluent Japanese, something to the effect of ‘well isn’t a little better when foreigners speak broken Japanese?’ (instead of fluently) I’ve made Fields’ acquaintance, and in fact have been told (by my ex) that when speaking to him on the Phone she had no idea he was not, Well…100% Japanese.



Case 3: Xavier Bensky replying to Brett on his comments:

Brett, I have also had mostly favorable reactions from Japanese people when I speak Japanese. However, from my experience, knowing how to be polite can potentially be just as “disturbing” for some Japanese people as not knowing how to be polite.

Allow me to explain. When I was working for a Japanese company, I was often told by my “sempai” [seniors] that I spoke too politely. In fact, I had observed the other “shinmai” [newbies], and I spoke no more politely than they did to the same individuals. Perhaps my language was a bit too “textbook Japanese” and this sounded unnatural. Then again, perhaps they would have preferred that I didn’t use polite language so that I could remain in my gaijin “box”.

> Also, I feel like it is very important to try to assess the “pecking order” of the people you >talk to, in order to figure out how “familiar” or “Polite” you need to be. I get the feeling >that failure to do this causes some uneasiness among some Japanese people.

I agree with you here. And not only do you need to modify your language according to the rank of the person you are speaking to, your language may shift in degrees of politeness (technically speaking, from “sonkeigo” and “kenjogo” to the simple “desu, masu” form) according to the situation and how well you know the individual! That’s something I still have a hard time with.

Xavier Bensky

Case 4: Bob and his comments:

I can say that My Japanese is pretty bad, and everyone was great, so I don’t know what that proves, I hope to live long enough to try the other part…..!


From the majority and from my feelings and experiences, the better the learner’s Japanese, the better the reaction to you from a native Japanese perspective. Better language ability proves greater efficiency in communication, causes less burden on the native speaker with less worries, provides you to be able to be more productive within Japanese society, thus better acceptance, and in promoting the cultural growth, awareness and sociability of yourself and those whom you come in contact with. This is why I support the idea that the law of inverse returns is not as it has been stated, “…residents of Japan who learn the language well are treated poorly by Japanese natives…”, because it is not the majority case.

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