Do you really need to learn Japanese to live in Japan?

The New York Times Books section posted a tweet that set off a firestorm of debate and condemnation about whether or not a long-term foreign resident of Japan should actually have to learn Japanese if they live in the country.

The tweet in question linked to a review in the New York Times of Pico Iyer’s new book, Autumn Light. Iyer is a well-known essayist and travel writer who has lived in Japan off-and-on for the past twenty-five years.

The debates touched on matters such as Orientalism and how Japan has traditionally been portrayed by Western writers, the status of women in intercultural marriages and the unpaid labour that foreign-born men often rely on simply in order to function from day to day in Japan, and the hierarchy that exists in the foreigner community in Japan.

According to Iyer’s publisher, the new book is intended to be “a far-reaching exploration of Japanese history and culture and a moving meditation on impermanence, mortality, and grief

Not every long-term foreign resident of Japan has the time and energy to master the Japanese language, which makes it easy for those of us who can speak and read Japanese to feel smugly superior (although, in the foreign hierarchy of Japan, there is always someone who has achieved an even higher mastery of Japanese than you, and who can, therefore, feel even more smugly superior).

It’s unlikely that many people on Twitter actually read the New York Times review of Iyer’s book. Most of the 290-some-odd replies to the original tweet, as well as a number of conversations among “foreign-residents-of-Japan Twitter”, focused on Iyer’s never having learned to speak Japanese despite having lived in the country for a long, long time.

Do you really need to learn Japanese to live in Japan? Like anything else in life, the correct answer to this question is entirely personal. At the end of the day, no matter where in the world you live, it’s totally up to the individual whether life is mundane, rich with variety, or mysterious

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