Preparing for Questions in Japan

Imagine for a moment that a new student from Japan showed up in your classroom. How would you introduce yourself? What would you want to say to them? Presumably, you’d have a lot of questions you’d like to ask them, about where they’re from, what they like doing, why they’re here, and what it’s like in Japan. Perhaps you’ve wondered for many years about whether something you heard of in Japan is actually real or not, and now is your best chance to get closure on that. To you, that might seem like a question that’s been building for ages, but to the new student, it could seem completely out of left field, and the answer might be simply “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

tanabata-group

Studying and living abroad are truly great experiences, but these situations are far from rare, and when you go to Japan, it’s highly likely that you’ll be asked a number of questions. Your host family will, of course, try to make conversation, but so will people you meet at school, at local events, and in day-to-day interactions. When I visited my first elementary school in Japan, I was asked a question that I had no idea how to answer: “What kind of bugs are there in Canada?” I would later learn that bug-catching is a very popular hobby in Japan, but at the time, all I could manage was some garbled mess about bees and wolf spiders, and admit that I had no idea. I was mildly embarrassed, but the schoolkid, on the other hand, was devastated. My disinterest and lack of knowledge in the topic brought him to the verge of tears. I’m very lucky that he happened to be wearing a Samurai Blue jersey, and I had just seen the team win the day before, so we talked about that for the next while. Whew!

I knew that next time I might not be so lucky. I took three lessons from that experience, and I figure that it’s worth sharing them sooner rather than later.

Be Careful about Initial Reactions

I don’t particularly plan on taking up bug-catching any time soon, but I also certainly didn’t intend to convey disapproval of or disdain for the schoolkid’s hobby. If he thinks bugs are cool, then that’s great for him, and if he wants to show me or talk to me about it, then I’d be happy to listen. I thought that then just as I think it now, but my wince at the question and my crinkled-up facial expression gave him a very different impression. To him, it was as if I had just called his pastime weird and uncool, and since I was probably the first foreigner he’d had the chance to ask that question to, it might have seemed almost like my confusion represented the confusion he could expect from other foreigners, too. I take pride in being open to new ideas, but I certainly didn’t show it there.

If there is something you’ve never heard of before that might seem strange at first but that you could potentially be interested in, then it’s worth thinking about how to convey that more successfully than I did. If I had simply said, “that’s an interesting question, hmm…” and then told him that I didn’t prepare any visuals or anything that’d make a good answer for that, but that I could get back to him, I think the whole interaction would have gone very differently. The simple act of showing the other person that you are open to the conversation can be very meaningful.

Be Mindful of your Potential Impact

If the very first Japanese people you met at school said that they’d never heard of something you thought was really cool and popular in Japan, you’d probably think (quite naturally, but potentially incorrectly) that maybe your whole idea was wrong and that you’d been living a lie. That’s not necessarily the case, but because it’s such a salient, new example, first impressions like that can have a big impact.

The same goes for us in Japan. Remember that you’re one of very few foreign people Japanese people will get to interact with one-on-one, so if you are that 1 person out of only 4 in their life, that’s about 25% of the responses they get. Now, that doesn’t mean we need to walk on eggshells — far from it. It just means that we should be mindful to treat others as we would have them treat us, and to remind others that our own knowledge and experience is limited. If you’ll forgive a little cheesiness: while we are representatives of our home culture, we are not representative of the whole of that culture. It’s good to remember that we are likely to run into the flawed idea that one person represents the whole of an unfamiliar group often, and in both directions (for example, “My host family does [X], and therefore Japanese people…”).

Be Prepared

It is, of course, impossible to prepare for every potential question, but it’s also not like we’re going in completely blind. Here are 8 questions it would be helpful to practice an answer for:

  1. Where are you from?
    • For some people, “America” is probably enough, but for your host family, or people you’re hoping to get to know, it obviously won’t be. Try to gauge how much detail you think would be good for that person. 五大湖の近く (godaiko no chikaku, ‘close to the Great Lakes’), シカゴの東 (shikago no higashi, ‘East of Chicago’), and so on, are good starters.
  2. What is your hometown famous for? Do you have any World Heritage Sites (sekai isan, 世界遺産) close to your home? (None in Indiana, but several in the surrounding area such as Mammoth Cave National Park)
    • You’re not expected to be a walking encyclopedia, but people will want to know something about where you’re from, and Indiana has quite a few things you could talk about. Just like the first question, it’s good to have a 5-second answer (e.g. “the Indy 500, corn, basketball, and the current Vice President”) and an extended conversation answer to this question.
  3. Why did you come to Japan?
    • Again, practicing a one-sentence answer and a more extended answer is worth your time.
  4. Do Americans really all have guns / have a flag in their house / eat hamburgers all the time / say “I’m fine, thank you, and you” / listen to Taylor Swift / play Pokémon / pronounce it “ポークマン”?
    • Some of the things people will think about America might make you laugh or even seem surprisingly spot on. Some of the ideas people have might seem a bit outlandish or even offensive, but chances are, they aren’t any worse than the bizarre ideas that many Americans have about Japan, so while you shouldn’t feel hesitant to disabuse people of stereotypes, it’s probably good to make clear that you don’t think they’re a horrible person for asking or not knowing any better.
  5. What do you think of President Trump / current events?
    • Be honest, even if that means saying you’d rather not talk about it, but it’s best to ease into a discussion like this.
  6. Are you okay with / can you handle (something perceived as typically Japanese such as) natto, sushi, chopsticks, seiza, washiki toire, …?
    • If you really do hate natto, then first of all, we need to go eat some together because I will try my best to change your mind, but also, it’s good to show in your answer that you are at least making an effort (“I do like edamame, but the smell of natto is a bit much for me”).
  7. What is your favorite Japanese ____ (food, baseball team, soccer player, song, actor, comedian, season, custom, word)?
    • You don’t need to choose a favorite, but it is nice, if nothing else, for your own self-esteem, to have an answer to the question. Even if you don’t watch sports, listen to much music, or watch many movies, I’m sure the difference between these two answers below will be pretty clear. What’s your favorite Japanese soccer team?
      • “I don’t really follow soccer, sorry.”
      • “I don’t really follow soccer, but I hear that Gamba Osaka is pretty good.”
    • In that second answer, you’re being honest about your own interests and limitations, but you’ve shown that you care enough about them to at least have taken the time to learn the name. Even if they tell you, “well, they were good, but they’re not as good anymore, haha,” then everyone can leave that interaction having something positive to say. (And now you have one more detail to talk about next time)
    • Not that it’s particularly helpful, but if I had to pick, in order mine would be unaju, the Yakult Swallows, Okazaki Shinji, Ozaki Yutaka’s “I Love You,” Kitano Takeshi, Yanagihara Kanako or Ramens (little behind the times, but still), winter (Canadian), omiyage, and I have too many favorite words to pick, but 木漏れ日、ありがた迷惑教学相長、グサッと、and 勝負 are some of the ones I think are more interesting.
  8. [Something you have no clue about]?
    • Think about what kind of answer you could give to something completely out of left field, for example: “How many schools in Indiana have Japanese classes”? It’s never a good idea to just make something up randomly and pass that off as truth, since again, you’re in a position where your opinion will be highly weighted. Becoming comfortable with something like “That’s very interesting, but I don’t know,” is helpful preparation.

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