“Unbuttoning the uniform”

Over the years, this blog has had so many posts on the wretched “kabuki play” cliche that we gave them their own category, but we never mentioned a related pet peeve cliche of mine: “opening the kimono“. Well, in yesterday’s New York Times, the acerbic David Carr1 spun a new twist on it.

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In his article on the intense secrecy of the Bradley Manning Wikileaks trial, “In Leak Case, State Secrecy in Plain Sight” and the difficulties that has so hindered  journalists and other citizens interested in the case, he has the following paragraph:

Finally, at the end of last month, in response to numerous Freedom of Information requests from news media organizations, the court agreed to release 84 of the roughly 400 documents filed in the case, suggesting it was finally unbuttoning the uniform a bit to make room for some public scrutiny.

As far as I can tell, Carr is the first writer to use this spin on the nasty cliche (although it has certainly been used before in reference to, say, soldiers undressing), which I honestly find pretty amusing. At least, unless it turns into a cliche.

  1. Incidentally, a resident of my home town, although we have never met. []
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Corner store

Waiting for a breakfast sandwich at the bodega.

“I can’t get a bag?” asks a woman angrily, as she pays for her can of soda. Thin, probably in her forties, but looking unkempt and sickly enough that it’s hard to tell. The weird kind of too-skinny, where her lips seem shrunken, making her teeth look over large.

“Just get out of here,” says the cashier, in the tone of annoyance at a scene that has been so repeated it’s almost ritual.

“Fuck you!”

“Get the fuck out of here.”

“You won’t give her a bag?” asks one of the pair of slightly younger women still doing their shopping, incredulously.

“Nah. She’ll just drop it right outside. Nut.”

The two woman are skeptical and defensive, as if they know her.

“He’s right. She’s crazy,” says the pale, obese man behind them, short-legged and wheelchair-bound. “Her husband died and she didn’t tell no-one for three days.”

One of the two woman squints and cocks her neck slightly in his direction. “What did you say?” she asks.

Her confusion is understandable. His speech is slurred and hard to understand. Probably a mixture of accent and something else, but it’s hard to tell.

“He was dead, and she was sleeping right there with him for three days,” he repeats and clarifies.

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, I was friends with him. Nice guy, Colombian. Anyway, I was looking for the guy and couldn’t find him. Three days he was dead and she just kept him there in bed. She crazy.”

The two women are now wide-eyed. Formerly aggrieved at the treatment the other woman had been given by one of the ubiquitous Muslim bodega staff, they seems to have switched sides.

“Well. Damn.”

They pay quietly, and leave.

My sandwich is ready. As I am waiting to pay, a young man is trying to negotiate the purchase of a single garbage bag.

“50 cents? I just want one,” he complains.

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Japanese people can’t speak English because they live among tainted, Japan-savvy foreigners

It seems to me that a major factor behind Japan’s vaunted problems with the English language could have to do with the learning environment.

Specifically, some Japanese people are not sufficiently aware that Japanese-accented English is often incomprehensible to listeners who are not familiar with it.

I call it the Heisenberg property of language – simply being among Japanese people causes native English speakers (eikaiwa teachers, friends, coworkers, etc) to get used to how Japanese people speak, and of course alter how they speak to ensure Japanese people understand them.

This concept came to my attention in a big way at an investment conference that I recently attended for work.

The keynote speaker was a well-known American investment manager, and when it came time for the Q&A session, there was a roughly even mix of question-askers who were native English speakers, Japanese who asked their questions through the interpreter, and Japanese who opted to ask in English.

The guest speaker had trouble understanding all of the Japanese people who asked questions in English. One person in particular asked something like, “What is your view on Abenomics?” and it took about three tries before the speaker got that it was something about the new prime minister.  I understood it the first time because I could hear him say the katakana “abenomikkusu” just really fast and with an attempt at English inflection. But to the American guest speaker, the questioner must have sounded like he was mumbling “obb-nom” instead of the properly enunciated “Abe-nomics” that sounds similar to Reaganomics.

This is just one small example, but I encounter cases of this phenomenon all the time:

  • Several English-speaking Japanese people in my life have heavy accents, but I can understand them because my years in the country have gotten me used to how Japanese people tend to speak. 
  • Japanese commercials are flooded with simplified English
  • Eikaiwa teachers tend to use simplified English to make themselves understood in class. I have even known some to incorporate common Japanese phrases like “hora” to get students’ attention.
  • Lip my stocking!

And so on.

If a Japanese person spends all their time in this “Japanese-familiar” bubble, then when it comes time to go face-to-face with a less Japan-savvy foreigner, they are likely to run into trouble.

I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. For the sake of communication, speaking to make yourself understood (and listening carefully to understand) is only the most natural thing in the world. I just feel like pointing it out because Japanese people who equate speaking English with native speakers in Japan with “immersion” might be in for a rude awakening if they ever step outside that environment.

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