An Austrian in Japan… You mean Australia?

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If you ever get a chance to visit Austria and stroll down the beautiful history-filled streets of an old town of any major city, you will certainly pass many souvenir shops, which sell T-Shirts saying: “No kangaroos in Austria” or “No kangaroos, just mountains”. As a child I found that funny and believable, after all “Austria” and “Australia” do sound similar, and given that Austria is a fairly small country, surely countless people all around the globe are confused. Another point of evidence was and is the internet. It is filled with odd stories where Austria is mislabeled as Australia on maps or where mail got sent to the other end of the world. But as I got older and traveled, my views changed….

To be from Austria around the world

In my experience, nobody in Europe ever confuses the two (no surprises here), they might misspeak, but even if they do they catch themselves and correct themselves. Traveling south-east Asia nobody corrected my “Austria” to “Australia” but at the same time only few people engaged with my answer. This to me either means that they do know Austria, but have no follow-up questions or that they do not know Austria and don’t want to ask where or what that is. Once I traveled North-America I met three different kinds of people: The Where-is-that-people, the In-Europe-right?-people and the Never-heard-of-that-is-it-real-people. But none of them ever thought that I just could not pronounce my own country in English or that they misheard what I said. Never was I asked “You mean Australia?” or “Oh, you’re from Australia?”. I have even been to New Zealand and when I told the kiwis I was from Austria, nobody confused it with their closest neighbor Australia, in fact, most people I met there, did know about Austria. Therefore, as much as I loved these souvenir T-shirts back home, I came to the realization that they do not represent reality. I understood that if people do not know Austria, they will ask where it is and not just assume I meant Australia. Or so I thought…

To be from Austria in Japan

I arrived in Japan on a very hot and humid day in August. After immigration and getting my residence card, I got picked up at Narita airport by my research host and we went to my new flat in the researcher town of Tsukuba in Ibaraki prefecture. The apartment complex is exclusively populated by foreign researcher and many use it as a first point of landing. In the administrative office, the clerk took my details from my new residence card, where オーストリア (oosutoria – Austria) was clearly listed as my country of origin. She proceeded to confidently write オーストラリア (oosutoraria – Australia) on her paper form, but my host quickly corrected here, that it is in fact Austria. She looked confused, checked if it truly said  オーストリア (oosutoria – Austria) on the residence card at least two more times, as if she could not believe it and corrected what she already put down on her form. I did not really think much of it. After all, she was probably just used to seeing オーストラリア (oosutoraria – Australia) listed as a country of origin and just did not read properly.

On the next day I had an appointment at City Hall to register myself and my address. Luckily, someone from my Japanese research facility accompanied me. We had to go to multiple windows to register my address, my insurance, me as a person and so on. And it happened again! At each window, almost without fail! When asked about my country of origin my Japanese guide would answer “オーストリア” (oosutoria – Austria) which lead to staff confidently locking in Australia. Then my guide or myself would correct the person which lead to multiple “sumimasen” (I”m sorry!) and sometimes to the question “Where is that?”. It even came to the point that my Japanese guide just preemptively said “Austria, not Australia”. The next day, we had an appointment at a bank. And the same thing happened AGAIN! And it keeps happening to me in Japan. I don’t have many official appointments these days, but I keep meeting new people at work and at bars and about 80 % will try and correct me when I answer “オーストリア” (oosutoria – Austria) to the question where I am from. And when I correct them back, that I truly mean オーストリア” (oosutoria – Austria), not オーストラリア (oosutoraria – Australia), they are surprised and – of course – apologize.

My Australian… I mean, Austrian feelings

Now, you might think, that this annoys me or that I am angry or offended, but I’m really not. If anything, I’m fascinated! This is so interesting! After all, it seems that Austria produces souvenir T-shirts which represent Japanese reality only! That is amazing!

When discussion with native and foreign people why the Japanese seem to confuse these two countries so easily, a few explanations were offered to me:

  1. I look Australian (sort of…). Australia is relatively close to Japan and a lot of Australians come to Japan for work, study or as tourists. As a white westerner, I look like I could be from Australia, so it just is the default assumption when I answer with a country vaguely starting with “Aust…”.
  2. Language barrier. This can be the case in two ways: I am either asked where I am from in English and since many Japanese are not very good at English (see this blogpost), they might just truly mishear what I say.  Or the conversation will happen in Japanese and the other person will just assume that since Japanese is a difficult language, I probably just dropped a syllable by accident and was actually trying to say Australia.
  3. Japanese are really bad at geography. I have no data on this, but other foreigners have told me that apparently Japanese schools do a bad job at teaching about geography outside Asia. Intuitively this feels true, after all, my geography classes in school also focused on Europe and North-America, not Asia.

Whichever it is – maybe a combination of all three – I’m sure my home country will keep confusing many more Japanese in future too. And I am glad, after all this often is a great starting point for a conversation.