In November last year, DIMSDRIVE Research interviewed via an internet-based questionnaire 3,604 people (1,620, or 45.0% male) regarding what foreigner they thought was good at Japanese.

To most people who have never been to Japan this probably sounds like a really bizarre question to ask, but with Japan having only about 2% non-Japanese residents, and with the vast majority of these actually being born in Japan and often bred as Japanese (Google for zainichi), the number of non-native speakers of Japanese is very low, and of course Nihonjinron tells the Japanese that we gaijin cannot learn the language properly. (Actually, Japanese is relatively easy for basic speaking fluency, as most verb and noun conjugation is regular, the core vocabularly is quite small, and pronunciation is mostly straightforward. However, the intricacies of polite language and kanji (although kanji is not excessively difficult, there’s a lot of it to learn!) inhibit most people from getting to perfect mastery.) In fact, being told you are good at Japanese by a Japanese person is more often than not お世辞, oseji, flattery, bordering on the line of patronisation, which I suspect is the reason that the third-placed person is there.

Q: Who do you think is a foreigner who is skilled at Japanese? (Sample size=3,604, free answer)

Rank   Votes Character sketch
1 Dave Spector (USA) 766 Dave Spector is probably the white guy who is most often on Japanese TV, and one of the few who actually gets taken seriously (or as seriously as anyone or anything gets taken on Japanese TV), appearing not on the language learning circuit nor as a comic turn, but as a commentator on issues of the day in both Japan and the USA. He apparently speaks Japanese with a very country-bumpkin kind of accent. (Dave Spector, if you’re reading this, I’d like to do a short email interview with you.)
2 Thane Camus (USA) 611 Thane Camus came to Japan as a 12 year old or so, but is still considered a gaijin (dual nationality is not recognised by the Japanese government, so that is one thing stopping people naturalising). He used to be the lead eikaiwa clown for NHK, and is now sometimes gaijin wrangler for Sanma’s Karakuri TV and sometimes is allowed to appear as himself.
3 Bobby Ologun (Nigeria) 181 Bobby Ologun has only about five or six years in Japan, and is rather fluent at Japanese, apparently, but he always plays the slow-witted character botching his Japanese. He reminds me of Frank Bruno, I feel. As mentioned in the introduction, I don’t know whether the people voting know the real Bobby or are just giving him credit for effort.
4 Patrick Harlan (USA) 168 Patrick Harlan irritates me immensely, so as my mother often said, if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.
5 Yoon Son-ha (Korea) 156 Yoon Son-ha is a regular of the entertainment circuit and seemingly highly skilled in Japanese, although that hasn’t stopped at least one television advertisment having her deliberately mispronuncing the shampoo (or whatever it was) she was selling. My favourite of the top ten.
6 Kent Dericott (USA) 126 Kent Dericott came to Japan as a Mormon missionary and ended up a TV star. Don’t ask why or how! I don’t think he appears on Japanese TV any more, however.
7 Daniel Kahl (USA) 119 Daniel Kahl is the housewife’s favourite, I think, still occasionally popping up here and there. I see him on Osaka’s Asahi TV’s morning show once a week, where he keeps a woman with a big organ and two giant rabbits company.
8 Kent Gilbert (USA) 115 Kent Gilbert is another ex-Mormon missionary from the 1980s who no longer appears on Japanese TV.
9 Asashoryu (Mongolia) 95 Asashoryu is the big man on top of the sumo world. I’ve only once or twice heard him speaking, as I don’t follow the sumo news.
10 Agnes Chan (Hong Kong) 83 Agnes Chan is a now mostly-retired signer who was extremely popular in Japan many years ago, and still appears once every few months on retrospectives.

Q: Who do you think is a foreigner who is skilled at Japanese? (By sex, free answer)

Rank Male
N=1,620
Votes Rank Female
N=1,984
Votes
1 Dave Spector (USA) 333 1 Dave Spector (USA) 433
2 Thane Camus (USA) 217 2 Thane Camus (USA) 394
3 Bobby Ologun (Nigeria) 74 3 Patrick Harlan (USA) 114
4 Kent Gilbert (USA) 72 4 Bobby Ologun (Nigeria) 107
5 Kent Dericott (USA) 69 5 Yoon Son-ha (Korea) 98
6 Asashoryu (Mongolia) 59 6 Daniel Kahl (USA) 68
7 Yoon Son-ha (Korea) 58 7 Kent Dericott (USA) 57
8 Patrick Harlan (USA) 54 8 Agnes Chan (Hong Kong) 50
9 Daniel Kahl (USA) 51 9 Kent Gilbert (USA) 43
10 Agnes Chan (Hong Kong) 33 10 Asashoryu (Mongolia) 36

It’s interesting (I suppose) that the same 10 people featured in both top tens. Looking at the detailed age breakdown, there is nothing particular of note contained within.


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