... presumably as a result of superb JET influence in the past, but many are afraid to use it. They are out of practise, you see, and therefore even those who will eventually be revealed to be near fluent will be reticent in revealing their talent to even the most winsome foreigner. Those who DO eventually engage one in conversation will inevitably be female (though, perhaps if you are male, you would be approached by your biological counterpart, but most of them are either asleep or drunk most of the time, which is not conducive to bilingualism), young, bored and lacking in an outlet.
Perhaps my favourite experience of a random Japanese woman practising her English on my gentle ears was also the shortest. I was standing on the subway, making my way home from a long day at school. As I waited for my stop, I noted a young woman sitting across from me, staring. This is, in itself, not unusual. I am a rare, caged animal in Japan, and it is freely acceptable for the natives to eat popcorn and observe my mating rituals; however, most observe covertly and will instantly divert their eyes when they are surprised, feigning immediate and concerted interest in the floor/ceiling/middle-distance. This woman continued to stare even as I glared back, showing bravery and, perhaps, ignorance of the animalistic gaijin tendency to attack when provoked. A stop before mine, she stood to get off. I moved aside to let her pass, and as she did so, I heard, ever so softly 'Excuse me'. Before I could react, the doors were closed and she was gone. In all likelihood, during the time she had spent staring at me, an intense inner-monologue had been going on, as she debated pronounciation, approach and tense. Probably, she was fluent. Probably, she had studied English for all her years of schooling. Probably, she could read Hemmingway, Proust and Wordsworth, backwards, in a clear English accent. And yet, it took all her courage to whisper two words to me.
This reticence and fearfulness is a frequently observed characteristic of the Japanese psyche. It is not considered a flaw, but an attribute.
They are a smart and dedicated nation. Their students are rigorously taught and rigorously tested (I know, because all of the fifteen year old I teach are fitter and smarter and sassier than me). No one slacks off, no one skips school - in the 6 months I've been teaching, not one single student has asked to be excused to go to the bathroom (which makes me wonder: when do they smoke their first cigarette? engage in sexual experimentation? bedaub themselves with eyeliner? if not in the toilet stall during class, then when?). Necessarily then, generations and generations of young Japanese have been released from high school primed and imprinted with at least the very basics of English speech. Most will know enough to carry out a conversation. But with this knowledge is also imparted the importance of humility and heirarchy, and, even though I am no more than an exotic foreign animal, imported to dance for the entertainment of locals, I am potentially above them, and thus even a whispered 'excuse me' risks breaching conventions of conduct.
Also, no one speaks on the subway. So, if she'd got it wrong, 100 pairs of well-educated ears would be quick to (silently) condemn.
I've had other encounters. Recently, I summoned all my courage and entered a shoe-store. This takes courage principally because usually, when I approach the sale-staff, they look at my feet, widen their eyes and shake their heads dolefully, briskly retreating in their 20-centimetre shoes. I am Gulliver, attempting to be appropriately shod in Lilliput. This time, though, I was entering the Timbaland store, a hearty American brand which must surely cater for the foreign foot. I was enticed in by a pair on display, in the iconic fawn leather, but with a particularly Japanese twist: leopard lining. I got the doleful head-shake when I asked for a pair of those in my size, and was supplied with a pair of simpler, basic boots which might admit my foot. The sales assistant spoke no English whatsoever, so all of this communication was achieved through mime.
Luckily, the purchase of boots is more conducive to theatre than the purchase of laxatives.
I sat next to a Japanese woman who was, spitefully, trying on a pair of the same leopard-print boots that I had so coveted. She saw me looking and I sighed dramatically for her benefit, accompanying this with a properly doleful headshake. Instead of sniggering, she said, in perfect English 'Why don't you try their biggest pair? They might fit'. Her name was Risa. She had lived in America for four years. She never had the opportunity to practise her English since moving back to Japan two years ago, and my sitting beside her had provided her with the chance. And, thanks to her, I attempted the size 7.5 and found them to be a - if not perfect then certainly bearable - fit. We bonded over our matched boots and then marched to opposite ends of Pole Town, her relishing in the exercise of her rusty linguistics, and me delighting in my Brogdignagian Boots.
Encounters with adults like Risa are rare, but school children are young and hormonal and impulsive and therefore less bound by precedent than their older counterparts. They are often more willing to speak to me, usually when they have been snapped staring. Giggling girls will shout 'Cuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuute' as I bypass them on the escalator. Boys will yell 'Good afternoon' as I trudge up to the school entrance at 8am. Japanese school children may be smarter and better dressed than their Western counterparts, but they are still subject to the same whims (cat-calling; bullying; cross-dressing), and they often expose my continuing ignorance of the fact that I stand out here like a neon sign at midnight.
You see, in New Zealand, if someone walking/running/driving/biking past you at speed yells 'Come home with me now!', it is entirely likely that he/she is talking to someone else. An errant toddler, perhaps, or a confused elderly father. One can walk on, head down, safe in the knowledge that there are hundreds of people in one's immediate surrounds to whom the statement might pertain.
However, in Japan, where you are the only foreigner within a kilometre radius, it is probably you who has just been authoratively sexually propositioned by a sixteen year old on a blue bicycle.