Japanese Language Use In Foreign Settings

Michael McCaskey mccaskem
Wed Aug 22 11:35:47 EDT 2007

I'm currently doing work on a small project concerning Japanese views of America and Europe as expressed in on-location Japanese films, and vice versa. In the process I've become aware of the "language issues" involved.

In the 2007 dorama Manhattan Diaries, which is completely set in NYC and environs, everyone speaks Japanese--people on the streets, in restaurants, everyone you meet. I believe almost the only English spoken is when Kuroki Meisa, as a waitperson, greets a customer briefly outside the restaurant.

They made this film with the Japanese actors speaking Japanese, and all or most of the American actors speaking English back--which was then dubbed in Japanese. In a special feature the main Japanese actors spoke of how difficult and distracting it was to do their lines in Japanese, but have the Americans do their lines back in English. But I guess it makes things much simpler and smoother for Japanese audiences.

In Moyuru Toki, (actually filmed in Australia but) set in Southern California, the Japanese speak Japanese, the "Anglo" Americans speak English, and the Hispanic Americans speak Spanish or sometimes English. Samantha Healy, as the interpreter, translates Spanish and English into Japanese as the situation requires and vice versa. Nagai Ki'ichi occasionally speaks a bit of English as well.

In Doris Doerrie's Enlightenment Guaranteed, the situation is more as I've found it for non-Japanese-speaking foreigners in Japan. The two main German characters do not know Japanese, so they speak simple English when they try to communicate with Japanese people, and they tend to seek out Japanese people who seem as if they might somehow know English. They find only one person, an expatriate from Belgrade (Anica Dobra), who speaks German.

I haven't yet seen Doerrie's latest film partly set in Japan, "The Fisherman and His Wife," to find out how she handles language issues this time.

But in Doerrie's film before Enlightenment Guaranteed, Bin ich schoen, set in Spain, it's like Manhattan Diaries. Everyone encountered in Spain, except for one subtitled character who is almost immediately set upon by thieves and knocked unconscious, speaks German.

In Hazard with Odagiri, the main characters in NYC speak to each other in Japanese, and the secondary American characters speak English, mostly among themselves.

It seems to me that in Tokyo Tower--the film from several years ago, not the recent film and dorama of similar title, that in the part set in Paris at the end the Japanese character speaks French.

I think that in a lot of American films set overseas it's partly like Manhattan Diaries, but usually there are only a limited number of "foreigners" who speak English with the American characters. Other non-English-speaking characters are either peripheral, or get English subtitles when needed.

In Rikoran, set mostly in China, most of the main characters speak Japanese with each other, with occasional subtitled dialogues in Chinese.

Do most Japanese films set overseas have all the characters speaking Japanese, as in Manhattan Diaries? Or has Manhattan Diaries done something new? Or is it just, as it may well be, that I've simply never noticed these language issues before?

Michael McCaskey
Georgetown Univ.

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