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I am not Japanese but I usually speak in Japanese with everyone, because it is the language I use all day long at work (I live in Japan).

At the register of a convenience store in Tokyo downtown, I usually say a few words like カードでお願いします (by card please) or 袋なしでお願いします (no plastic bag please).

What language should I use when the clerk does not "look" Japanese?

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    Is there a presumption in Japan that employees of convenience stores will speak Japanese, or would it be common to have employees who don't speak the local language (perhaps to serve customers who don't either)? – Monica Cellio Dec 6 '17 at 15:45
  • @MonicaCellio: I think any statement of presumption should be part of an answer rather than part of the question. Even if that means that only people who know the cultural situation of this particular country are able to answer. This is especially important because my presumptions might not be correct. – nic Dec 7 '17 at 2:57
  • @nic: Even in the same country, there can be vast differences between a region that has many tourists, and one that doesn't really have many tourists. Similarly, when visiting abroad (e.g. France), I would resort to English if I'm e.g. in a city hotel, but would use my pidgin French if I was in a rural B&B. – Flater Dec 8 '17 at 15:09
  • @Flater: Thanks for the feedback, I fixed that problem by adding that it is in downtown Tokyo. Cheers! – nic Jun 11 at 2:57
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My current strategy:

  • If possible, wait for the clerk to talk first, and use that language (ignoring the いらっしゃいませ salutation that they use anytime the door opens).
  • If I need to talk first, use Japanese.
  • Only switch to English if necessary to safely/efficiently perform the transaction.

Pros:

  • Not all Japanese people have the same look. Some of my friends who are black (or caucasian) were born and raised in Japan, and naturally their native tongue is Japanese.
  • Even if not Japanese, not all non-Japanese people speak English. Kombini clerks are often Japanese language majors from non-English speaking countries.
  • Even if they are actually foreigners from a English-speaking country (or with good English abilities), they might find it tiring to be treated as if they were not able to do their job.

Cons:

  • They might actually prefer talking in English.
  • Speaking to them in Japanese may be felt as cold. If the clerk is actually a foreigner, we share some common challenges and a tiny bit of bonding would not be unwelcome. In addition, the Japanese language by itself places a great distance between clerk and customer.
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    "Speaking to them in Japanese may be felt as cold." Cannot really agree with that part. I just imagined how I would expect a "non-local looking" clerk to be spoken to in my country. And I have to say, I'd always start with the local language. Assuming he is not capable of speaking it might be more offensive than a little "try-and-error" starting with in OP's case Japanese. – Fildor Dec 6 '17 at 13:16
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    Also, people who want to actually learn the language may get a little tired of explaining why they prefer using the local language. (I think there was a question about that recently on IPS) – Fildor Dec 6 '17 at 13:18
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You may very well consider how they feel and what they might prefer but I would suggest a "harsher" approach.

If they have a job in Japan they should at least be familiar enough with the language to say:

Sorry, my Japanese isn't that good. Can we speak in english, please?

Honestly, even a written card with this on it would be fine.

Also you are likely not the only customer there so the clerk has to know somehow how to deal with people who only speak Japanese.

Further more you make the assumption that the person's English is better than their Japanese. This doesn't have to be the case.

For this reason I suggest starting of in Japanese and only switch if you see the person is really uncompfortable or straight up asks you to switch.

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In this case, you should use Japanese.

Most foreigners in Japan, especially in service sector as part-time, don't speak English any better than Japanese. Because most of them are from neighboring countries (China, South Korea, Vietnam... depending on how you think these people look "foreigner" but most Japanese can recognize it easily, especially since in CS clerks have a name tag) their English isn't as good as what you expect.

Also, the vast majority of Japanese speak little or no English, so shop owners generally hire only foreigners who speak decent Japanese. So you don't need to worry about their Japanese competency.

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