One thing that has put me off learning Japanese is the trend for a foreigner to be increasingly shunned by Japanese society as his language skills improve. It’s considered cute if a foreigner makes a halting effort, but once he actually reaches proficiency his efforts only disturb the people he meets. For a long time, I had only anecdotal reports of this by acquaintances who had lived in Japan. But three decades ago Roy Andrew Miller, probably best known in these parts for his classic work on tying Japanese into an Altaic language family, wrote an impassionate book about Japanese sociolinguistics entitled Japan’s Modern Myth (New York: Weatherhill, 1982) that gives a context for this frustration:
The members of most societies are pleased when a foreign tries to learn and use their language, and they reward such a foreigner with approval in direct proportion to the degree of success achieved with the same.
Thus, it always comes as a particularly rude awakening when the foreigner who is resident in Japan for any length of time finally realizes that Japanese society behaves in a fashion that is directly contrary to this general rule. Japanese society usually distrusts and dislikes any attempt by a foreigner to learn and use the Japanese language. The distrust and dislike grow strong, and show themselves more and more stridently, the more the foreigner gains fluency in understanding and using the language.
This state of affairs is a direct consequence of the thoroughgoing confusion between language and race that we have been discussing here. If the Japanese language is equivalent to the Japanese races—and we have seen how firmly, if erroneously, contemporary Japanese academic and intellectual circles continue to hold that this equation is true—then any attempt to learn and use the language by a foreign can only be interpreted as an attempt by the same foreigner to acquire Japanese racial identity and to enter Japanese society. Since both these attempts mmust, it goes without saying, be resisted by all means, so also must learning and use of the language be resisted. It is the fatal equation of race with language that triggers this sociolinguistic defensive mechanism.
I do wonder if such disapproval by the Japanese is always a ‘sociolinguistic defensive mechanism’. Certainly in a few languages I’ve studied, the disapproval of those around me is directly proportional to my command of the language for the simple reason that, once I’ve lost the cute façade of the stumbling foreigner and people are dealing with me more directly, they just decide I’m a jerk. One needn’t imagine a vast sociolinguistic conspiracy when personal dislikability might be to blame.