Speaking Japanese to servers in a Japanese restaurant?


#1

Have you ever asked if you could speak Japanese to servers (who are Japanese) in a Japanese restaurant to practice your speaking? What were your experiences like?

I’m only at a beginner’s level but I would be able to order food without any problems. Would it be not 気を使う to even ask? If not, how should I phrase it to do it most politely? Thanks.


#2

I assume you are thinking about restaurants outside Japan. It can be a bit hit and miss; certainly here in australia a lot of Japanese restaurants are run or staffed by Chinese or Korean. I remember one time at yakitiro place in Sydney; my wife (who is very ペラペラ) launched into a whole discussion about the menu only for the waitress to say she was from Taiwan, seemlessly my wife switched over to apologise in Mandarin. There’s a bar we go to in Melbourne with a Japanese bartender and he’s happy to chat in Japanese.

I guess the answer is try it out and see what happens.


#3

OMG, that’d be one of my worst nightmares… luckily, I know they’re 100% Japanese because they speak Japanese to each other all the time. I find it tough to start talking to them in Japanese because, from the moment they ask how many people need to be seated, they’re already speaking English.

EDIT: And my Japanese isn’t that good, so it’s not like I’m asking for convenience, but purely to practice?


#4

Unfortunately, practicing a foreign language with hotel/restaurant/airline staff is not a good idea because those are situations where you really want to make sure you can receive 100% information that you can get.

What if you have food allergies, and this is not communicated well to the server and the chef doesn’t prepare your food accordingly? What if your hotel staff says to you that the pool is closed after 8 pm but you thought he said 10 pm? What if your airline staff said you got automatic upgrade to business class but you decline it because you misunderstood?

Unless you’re an advanced speaker, you should stick practicing speaking with other people such as your teacher, language exchange partner, or other students.


#5

I guess it depends who’s convenience you are trying to satisfy. Are you looking for a moment to finally use your Japanese or trying to make their life easier?

Memorizing phrasing is not that difficult however be prepared to listen and give a proper response if need be. If your waiter/waitress ends up giving a grammar lesson while their english is perfectly serviceable, that isn’t reasonable IMHO. Then again, some people just “go for it” no matter what and feel no shame but I think they are missing an important cultural aspect. Of my Japanese peers, there is a wide range of English ability between them all and I will usually adjust to what makes sense for the scenario and my ability level (rather than pin them down as my current exercise partner).


#6

I’ve never practiced Japanese at a restaurant, but I do go to Japanese Festivals and practice there. So far the responses are those of happy surprise that I can even try to speak and a willingness to allow me to speak in Japanese. The people seem very happy to speak with me in their own language, even though I am nowhere near fluent. But what I know I know well, so I guess that really helps. Also I keep it short so as not to be bothersome.


#7

I went to a family run sushi place back in Janurary that was really nice. I heard the family talking in Japanese, so when the waitress came over to take my order, I decided to order in Japanese, only to end up getting blank, confused stares from the girl. It turns out that she was the one person in the family who didn’t actually speak Japanese.


#8

Restaurants are usually pretty high stress workplaces. While I’m sure they would be happy you’re speaking to them in Japanese, if it causes the flow of things to slow down at all, there’s a good chance you’re inconveniencing them (unless the restaurant is slow at the time, of course).

My suggestion would be to find a language partner via a language exchange app like HelloTalk.


#9

Sounds like a risk-free scenario given that it’s light conversation without a service exchange :smiley: I’ve occasionally come across some strangers while in Japan looking to strike up a light English conversation for the same reasons.


#10

Exactly! I have worked in restaurants and know how crazy it can get, so I wouldn’t even try to practice Japanese there. But festivals are more laid back and the people seem way more free to indulge me. And I love how surprised they are to hear an Anglo speaking Japanese to them. It’s like the last thing they expect, so they will talk forever, it seems, if I wanted to. At the last one I went to, we got into a Japanese Geography lesson that the lady just kept going with. She saw I was interested and knew a bit about it, so she went into teacher mode, which was great!


#11

Eh, I feel like that might be extreme. Like in your hotel example - if the pool closes at 8 instead of 10… so what, you miss out on some pool time, not the end of the world. Or if it’s not too busy and you can ask the staff to repeat it one more time - also no big deal. Though for sure, food allergies aren’t something I’d be messing around with!

I think at some point you have to go out and use the language for real and get a little outside of your comfort zone. When, and to what extent, probably depends entirely on situation and the speaker’s proficiency and comfort level. Quieter / lower stress situations are easier for dipping your feet in the water. But I also wouldn’t discourage people from trying until they’re “advanced level” with speech.

Granted I may be eating my words when I go to Japan next month :slight_smile:


#12

I would say, if you are not particularly great at Japanese, I would only ask to talk to them if there is nothing else going on. Like, if you’re the only customer, it would be fine. Servers are not really going to want to waste much time doing idle chatter, especially if it’s labored idle chatter.


#13

I am ethnically Japanese (mother from Japan, late father was Canadian-born and not very fluent) and while I’ve never been a waitress in a Japanese restaurant, I spent my youth working a range of service jobs, including for a time in a tourist town where there were quite a few Japanese, both as residents and as tourists.

Personally, I find it super irritating when people who obviously don’t speak Japanese very well and who don’t know me start speaking to me in Japanese. Though this happened to me more often when I was a retail worker or barista, particularly in said tourist town, it still happens occasionally, with random strangers saying “konnichiwa” or something to me in the elevator or in the street. (I often also get people saying “ni hao” or something too, though I don’t speak Chinese.) Most of the time, it comes down to one or more of the following:

  • Men trying to pick me up
  • People assuming I don’t speak English
  • People who want to unnecessarily call attention to my ethnic origins out of context. It feels “othering” and borderline racist.

(I am not counting the Asians who greet me with a “ni hao” or something; though it’s slightly irritating too, I chalk it up to people wanting to speak to others in their own language.)

If I was, say, volunteering at a Japanese festival (which I have done), I would be a lot less bothered, because (a) it would be fair to assume my ethnic origins and (b) I would assume the person is interested in the language and culture rather than in me personally, whether the intention is “hey, you’re cute” or “hey, you’re not white.”

I have occasionally met people who either want to practice Japanese with me or ask me about Japanese culture. The ones who didn’t irritate me approached me:

  • When I wasn’t busy
  • In English first
  • By explaining who they were and what they wanted
  • And gave me a chance to get a word in edgewise, for instance by explaining that I’m not from Japan and not all that fluent in Japanese.

#14

I went to an Izakaya last night and sat at the bar. The bartender was also the owner, and I ordered in English, and we chatted a bit in English. Enough that I learned which city in Japan he was from and which restaurant he trained at in Japan.

So, I got brave, and when he shook my hand and told me his name, I said the greetings in Japanese. He smiled and said “Perfect!” Then we switched back to English, and no more Japanese until I paid the bill and left. We each said “arigato gozaimasu”, and I walked out. This was the first time in my life I had ever spoken Japanese to a human instead of to the CD player. I was so proud I could barely contain myself.

So yeah, I think that keeping it mostly English is the best practice as a begginer, but trying out a phrase or two won’t hurt. Best thing to do if you can afford to is go back to the SAME Japanese restaurant frequently, get to know the staff, and gradually increase the Japanese/English ratio when you communicate. Regulars get away with murder.


#15

It really depends on a number of factors. The main goal is to never, ever inconvenience the wait staff in question. I actually go to a Japanese restaurant near me every Thursday evening and language exchange with a server native to Tokyo. The key was that she brought up my language ability to me after overhearing a conversation I was having with someone else. I was interested in ordering in Japanese, but I never would on my own volition unprompted. That would’ve been unthinkable to me. From there is when I asked if she was okay with doing a partial language exchange as long as it didn’t interfere with her work flow and we are good friends now. The other staff have told me that she finds it refreshing to be able to use Japanese regularly with a customer outside of the occasional Japanese customer who likes having a conversation.

I would never impose a language exchange upon someone knowing that I was the one paying the bill for the meal, especially in America with a tip at stake, and potentially accidentally prey upon Japanese tatemae / hospitality. I always try to keep that in mind considering Southern Hospitality has a few of the same rules of potentially backing someone into a politeness corner.

EDIT:
I was also clear that I was studying the language in earnest. People are aware that there is a fad-like attractiveness to learning Japanese because of manga/anime and the like. I didn’t hide that from her, in fact I said that it started there, but now my favorite part of Japan is its excellent public transportation infrastructure. I hate my daily commute. She’s the complete opposite and loves the wide, openness of where we are in Texas. I guess the grass is always greener, eh?

Anyway, an important thing to shed is that your language study isn’t just a passing thing, but something you are wholeheartedly pursuing. I think it’s important to show it at least as a form or respect. I am interested in speaking Japanese because I want to speak to Japanese people, not just engage their media, but that’s just me I suppose.


#16

I worked at a teeny tiny family-run Japanese in the US for a few years (wait staff of 3 people). We had one American, one Canadian (me), and one Japanese server, all with varying levels of English and Japanese abilities. Sometimes Japanese customers would talk to me in Japanese, then frantically correct themselves lol, and sometimes Japanese learners would practice their Japanese with our Japanese server.

I can’t speak for every server out there, but all of us are really patient people and I personally loved the code switching, alternative between languages, overall multilingual environment. Now I’m a fulltime language teacher at college level, and I would say any second you get to practice your target language is beneficial. You could ask (in Japanese, or English :slight_smile: ) the server directly if you can practice with them if that makes you feel better. They might just be a little rushed if the restaurant is busy that day.


#17

A lot of these stories are really wholesome! :slight_smile:


#18

Yeah, sure. Now replace “pool closing time” with “check-out time” and suddenly you’re paying for another day of hotel rooms. Have fun!