Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Art (and Lack Thereof) of English Language Meetups in Japan

Despite the continued doubt about exactly how useful English language really is in Japan, there is no denying that there is in fact an active, if small, segment of avid English learners in Japan.  To call them "avid" does not imply half-heartedness.  Instead, the avidity comes from the fact that there really is no urgent need for them to learn the language at all.  They do not use English in their jobs, they have no need to travel abroad for either work or pleasure, and indeed, they have no need whatsoever to interact with foreign persons or cultures if so they wish.

But, quite courageously, they are often actively seeking out whatever few opportunities that is available to the average Japanese person in Japan to speak to foreigners in English (or other foreign languages, for that matter).  And as Tokyo becomes more and more internationalized with a larger foreign population, time may be on the side of these active English learners in Japan to quickly become the mainstream.  Having attended several events sponsored by in the past few days in Tokyo, the author is further convinced of the enthusiasm for interacting with foreigners some Japanese arenow having.

Even compared to some other places that the author have resided in the past, such events in Tokyo are of a much bigger scale.  Renting out large sections of bars and pubs, these events can sometimes host up to 70-80 people at once, usually split 50:50 across Japanese and foreigners.  Like what the author has experienced in other places, some of these events exist as a way for organizers to have a rather nice side income, but given the amount charged (in other words, what people are willing to pay), few events are as profitable for the organizers as they are here in Tokyo.

And what is interesting is the composition of the Japanese who come to these events.  Yes, there are the regular "I-am-so-connected-with-foreign-countries" types, who grew up or studied/worked in foreign countries for extended periods.  But surprisingly, the large majority is just regular salarymen working for regular Japanese companies, who, instead of reveling in regular post-work salaryman shenanigans, have decided to invest their time in practicing their rather basic, rusty English.  In the process, most express strong desires to at least work with more foreign staff, clients, and partners, something that is still lacking today.

These events, moreover, provide a platform for communication that extends beyond simply being able to meet foreigners and practice English.  Interestingly enough, for many Japanese, it has also become a place to meet other like-minded Japanese people.  With desire to learn English already as a common hobby, it might as well be the case that Japanese people who met in English meetup events are much more likely to keep in touch and become regular friends than would be the case for Japanese with foreigners or foreigners with other foreigners.  Among Japanese of the opposite gender, love can even blossom out of these events.

It speaks volumes about the dearth of outlets for meeting new people here in Japan.  When asked about their social circles, the regular Japanese person would almost exclusively point to their friends from school or, more commonly after they start working, their coworkers.  Because they spend so much time with their coworkers both in and outside work, it becomes even more difficult to find the time and opportunities to meet people outside such job-related connections.  Somewhat relatedly, any businesses that cater to strangers meeting strangers tend to be small despite massive market potential.

To make matters worse, cultural inhibitions of the Japanese to meeting strangers present further obstacles.  People often introduce mutual friends to their other friends in group drinking setting as a matter of finding potential mates (known as "合コン" go-kon in Japanese).  These meetings tend to be riddled with unwritten social rules for which lack of strict adherence can lead to faux pas that pretty much ends one's chance of finding any success.  It creates situations where it becomes extremely difficult for people to express their unique/individualistic (and slightly abnormal) sides to appeal to others.  Foreigners, obviously, care much less.

This is why English language meetups in Japan contains so much value in ways that extend much more beyond the simple need to learn the English language.  It enables people to meet a variety of people, all of whom are willing to be more expressive of their true selves in ways that Japanese society often implicitly do not allow them to do.  While such events are still only known by very few people among the local population, and may even only draw a small minority of people among the people who do know (as they fear the embarrassment of subpar English speaking skills), given the reasons above, it will only continue to expand in interest and attendance.

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