Japanese culture experts, help me decode this situation

I’ve been living in Tokyo for the past couple of months. I’m here for a business trip and have been in an apartment in a seemingly old-style, mostly residential area of Tokyo (Kita-shinagawa for those that are curious).

I have a decent grasp of the language and culture from studying in college, but of course I have a long way to go until fluency.

However, although I understood the language completely in the incident today, I’m not quite sure what happened.

Last week I noticed a small store just a block from my apartment that sells Wagashi. These are Japanese-style sweets that are very intricately designed. I was curious what they taste like. I’ve seen them before, but haven’t eaten them yet. I figured a small neighborhood store would be a great place to be introduced to them.

So I walked in and the storekeeper came out. I excused myself for bothering him. So I mentioned to him as I was looking at the display case that I had never eaten them before, and asked him if he had some recommendations.

His response was a very terse, “食べられない” (You can’t eat them)

Okay. Not what I was expecting. So I figured it was a joke or something. So I said to him that I’d like to try them, which ones are a good introduction? Again he says “食べたことない人は食べられない” (People that haven’t eaten them can’t eat them.)

I was unsure how to respond to that beyond a simple, “本当ですか?” (Really?)

I asked him about the flavor… “They’re sweet, right?”

He said, “甘いけど、食べられない。” (They’re sweet, but you can’t eat them"

So I thanked him and left. I got the message, I was not meant to eat these sweets.

But I’m puzzled about the situation. I wanted to try something new and either this guy was trying to save me from hating myself for spending money on them, or he didn’t want to do business with me for some reason. I’m kind of leaning toward the second explanation due to the fact he was using the plain forms of all the verbs when talking with a potential customer. In my experience here, the store owners have been stepping all over themselves to use polite forms or 敬語 (super polite!) when speaking with me.

But really, why would someone limit their income like that? The store was obviously open for busines – the doors were wide open and there was an 営業中 (Open) sign hanging outside, so I don’t think he was just trying to hint that the store was closed.

Did the shopkeeper have any tattoos? All of his fingers intact?

Maybe it’s his idea that you, as a foreigner, won’t like the Japanese version of sweets. They seem to think that we won’t like anything that’s laden with sugar so when he said “Amai, kedo…” I think he’s saying “They’re sweet [to me as a Japanese person], but [to a foreigner like you…probably not.]” and was trying to save you from a potential disappointment.
But since he used futsuugo instead of keigo towards you, my other hypothesis is that he could be a bit xenophobic and just didn’t care to have you as a customer to his traditional shop. A bit sad that there are still people that are so closed off like that, but I’ve seen it during my stay in Japan.
My third (and least likely, I think) hypothesis is that he thought you wanted to buy the samples themselves and he was trying to explain that you can’t eat the samples and decided to use the easiest form of verb. I’m not sure about everyone else, but I was taught the -masu form first but I have heard of other classmates where they were taught the informal/futsuu form first.

I’ve seen and heard similar experiences in Japan and my opinion is it is often racism.

When I’m in Japan I’m often with a friend of mine who lived in Japan for 10 years married a Japanese women and speaks the language fluently. He is white, in some social situations he is treated notable different then the Japanese.

I understand when I’m treated differently it can certainly be for non-racial reasons. My Japanese sucks. I’m not familiar with all their customs. When I’m treated like a dumb American I kind of expect it. For the most part the Japanese seem to love Americans and will take great steps to provide exceptional service in every way. It seems to be only a rare few older Japanese that at times can be completely uncivil towards me.


Booked two hotel rooms with twin beds online. Got their got our keys went to the rooms and found they gave us two rooms two adjoining rooms with queen beds. Go back down stairs explain we needed rooms with twin beds and am told they can’t offer them. Ask for a manager. Manager comes out we elect my my friend for that conversation. The manager starts out talking to him in very slow broken English. My friend tells him in Japanese he speaks Japanese. The manager starts speaking Japanese for the conversation briefly goes over to a computer comes back and reverts to speaking English again. It was like he could not grasp the concept of a white man using Japanese. The problem was resolved they had rooms with twin beds they just weren’t adjacent. When we talked about it later my friend said that was nothing unusual even though he is fluent in Japanese many Japanese have an expectation he can only speak English and treat him as though he can’t speak their language.

Wandering around looking for a place to eat. See a small shop with a menu that interests us. Open the door to walk in. Immediately get shooed out by a lady with a broom in hand. She tells us ‘no English menu’ and slams the door.

Ha, no signs of Yakuza activity that I could discern. I’ve seen little old ladies in there buying candies before.

I thought I obviously demonstrated to him that I could understand the language, so I don’t think he would have to simplify too much. Of course, I’ve run into at least two other cases where old men here absolutely couldn’t grasp the fact that I can speak and understand Japanese. In one separate case, there was an old man that was trying to offer to take my picture at somewhat of a tourist attraction (the summit of Mt. Takao). So I after he made the international ‘finger squeezing shutter release’ motion towards me, I asked him very politely (in Japanese) if he would kindly take my picture for me and I was explaining how to use my camera (My training was Japanese for technical use, so that is something well in the realm of my capability), but he was completly puzzled by everthing I said until the other guy with him (I’m thinking his son or something, about my age) repeated verbatim what I had said and suddenly he got it.

So, he either doesn’t want to sell to foreigners… Or I’m guessing that he had some Americans or some such come in, buy the candy, hate it, spit it in his face, and demand a refund. Or some such thing. We’re good at righteous indignation, after all. But seriously, I’ve eaten every strange thing my Japanese friends have thrown at me without a problem… I don’t always like it, but I want to give it a try so I can know for sure!

For the record, I’m very obviously not Japanese (blond hair, blue eyes, red beard, the whole gamut, although I’m generally dressed in Tokyo-style clothes while I’m here). But it’s so fun for me throwing everyone for a loop here because nobody has assumed I can understand anything yet.

Wait, let me get this straight: you can speak Japanese?

Ha! :smiley:

Sometimes reactions like the one I mentioned make me question myself (Am I accidentally speaking English and not realizing it?). Is my pronunciation bad? (My teacher and coworkers say otherwise… but they’re probably just being polite)

I have had similar experiences with Japanese people before. Note, I studied three years in high school so I am VERY far from even being decent at the language, however I have been told by my Japanese teacher and also some Japanese friends that I have good pronunciation of what I DO know. So I am inclined to believe my pronunciation is not the problem, the other person’s brain being turned off to the possibility of a foreigner speaking japanese was.

I worked at a tourist attraction, and saw an older Japanese man among a group of Japanese speakers. It was a sunny day, and I asked him “Nice weather, isn’t it?” He looked at me like I was speaking martian. I’ve had other experiences where the Japanese speaker REFUSES to interact with me in Japanese. (and some very fun and cool experiences with Japanese speakers who are willing to talk to me in Japanese to let me practice. Most of the cool ones are 20-somethings!)

(I have only ever been to Japan at an airport as a stop over, so all of my interacting in Japanese has been in the USA.)

My Japanese is probably 10x better than my spanish in terms of vocabulary size and accent, yet Mexicans have NO trouble communicating with me, so it definitely is cultural.

Yeah, this sort of thing has happened to me on occasion in China. I’ll walk into an obviously open store and be told that it is closed, I’ll be passed over by empty taxis. I’ll be told that lively restaurants with empty tables cannot accommodate me. I’ll have people who simply will not talk to me no matter how correct my Chinese is.

Lots of people are scared of foreigners, and lots of people are just outright racist.

snarky post deleted

This is not at all rare. I don’t speak Japanese, but I trained with someone who lived in Japan for years and was relatively fluent. But he was Caucasian.

He said it was common for him to say something to a Japanese person, in Japanese, and have the person say back (in Japanese) “I’m sorry, but I don’t speak English”. :smiley:


I just want to respond to them in Japanese with something along the lines of “I’m both insulted and appalled that you would assume that I can’t speak Japanese based solely on my appearance.” But I can’t even bring myself to say something like that jokingly. Someone did approach me randomly trying to sell me something in English and I just said, “すみません、英語がわかりません。” (I’m sorry, I don’t understand English). It was good for a laugh and then we both went about our own business.

It’s difficult to know what was going on. Your Japanese seems good enough for this simple transaction so I’m not going to assume that the problem was you (although I will just say that for people who have no experience dealing with foreigners, tiny variations in inflection which we wouldn’t even notice in English, can throw them for a spin - but it doesn’t seem to be the case here, since he seemed to understand you).

Also, it doesn’t seem like this was a wholesale-only shop, as you said you’ve seen old ladies buying from there.

Occam’s razor applied, I’ll guess the xenophobia option. In situations like this I like to play with them a little, just to make sure. “No, really, I love little Japanese sweet things. I eat them all the time. Do you have a daughter?” :stuck_out_tongue: (I reached the limits of my patience a long time ago).

bwahahahahaha, I lived in Japan for 3 years and this is one of the funniest comments I have ever seen. Ranks up there with teaching the Japanese “how to use a spoon:” :slight_smile:

You’re white, that little exchange had nothing to do with your fluency. Doesn’t take a expert in Japanese culture to see that.

I might have to try that… I actually found myself reaching my politeness limit today, too. I’ve mostly lived in smaller cities with not so many people. And I’ve lived in Japan before, but in Kanazawa, which is very different from Tokyo. So when mixing with the crowds here I’m always careful and try not to plow over people. But today an entire family of 4 stopped in the middle of a crowded sidewalk in front of me. There was a wall on one side and a short fence on the other; going around wasn’t an option and there were throngs of people behind me as well. So I shrugged and just walked right into them on purpose without even trying to slow down or squeeze through and then kept going. I saw the teenage girl about to say something and looked at me and just stopped. Hah, for as famous as Japanese people are for considering others - and that’s exactly what I’ve seen in my travels outside of Tokyo - people in Tokyo seem completely oblivious to what’s going on around them. (it’s a lot like the U.S. in that regard…)

Now I want to go back to that store and see what I can get away with, but I’m afraid they’ll call the cops on me for harassing them or something…

Oh, I’ve certainly heard of this sort of thing happening in Japan, but in Tokyo? in 2009? And with someone who has obviously taken the time to learn your language? And wants to give you money? And it’s not even the type of business where I could even damage something and cause trouble (like renting a room or something…) Seems odd to me, but I’ll take it as a learning experience.

Impossible to say without seeing the person, but the location is telling. Kitashinagawa is an interesting neighborhood, just south of grimy Shinagawa (before the renewal and the high rises) but definitely not Ota-ku with it’s politer society, including the stronger tendency to keigo honorifics. I used to walk though there to visit a customer.

Of course, you aren’t in shitamachi the older working class part of Tokyo, which would push the scale right over to disliking foreigners. (Not everyone, but enough that I wouldn’t live there.)

A couple of thoughts.

First, the important fact (I’m guessing) is that this is wagashi, Japanese sweets. Not many Westerners like them that much. I don’t particularly, although I’ve got American friends who do, so it’s not universal. It’s possible that he could have had experience with Westerners who haven’t liked them.

Also possible, that because they are wagashi, (the words literally mean Japanese sweets) that you’ve come across a xenophobic shop owner who feels that this is something which intrinsically non-Japanese couldn’t understand.

The “logic” here “ダメのものはダメだ” (What is bad, is bad) is certainly old school, where no explanation is given.

Many tiny shop and restaurant owners (with the adjective modifying the establishments, and not necessarily the persons involved) deal with neighbors all day and consequently don’t use honorifics in their daily lives.

Is your Japanese not good enough to simply ask him, when he says “You cannot eat them!”, why?

Can you not just tell him, you have tried Japanese sweets before and liked them and would now like to try these?

Failing all of this, why wouldn’t you ask, “Is it because I’m a funny looking white guy?”

If that’s towards me- hey look, I’m in a bad mood. I just had a half dozen students walk past my office, notice me, point, laugh, shout “Laowei!” and run away giggling like I’m the funniest thing they’ve ever seen. I’ve been here a year and a half, am obviously highly visible, and I really think at this point I shouldn’t be such a surprise to the students on my small campus. These are college students, not children. Maybe I’m wrong, but I expect better from them.

(if it’s not towards me, ignore that!)