Now lest you think I'm dumping on Japanese people, there's a similar phenomenon that happens when I meet other foreigners in Japan for the first time.
Naturally, ex-pats do not share the belief that foreigners cannot learn Japanese. Many to most of them can speak a little. One of the most common topics of conversations for expats is "Do you speak any Japanese?" As with all ice-breaking topics, there is always a certain amount of jockeying for position in these discussions, the same as when asking where a person went to university or what they do for a living.
Even if the topic doesn't come up directly, there is often a subtle power struggle over who is going to order at the restaurants, talk to the Japanese staff, lead the group the right direction to the next bar. The person with the best Japanese language skills automatically has a valued position within the group, and people generally jockey to be that person.
It is always an amusing spectacle, particularly if it's a group with a lot of young men. You are guaranteed that every man who is at all masculine will take a turn trying to show off their Japanese skills and become the group interpreter.
Since I've been studying for around 15 years, I'm better at Japanese than 99% of the foreigners I meet. Generally, the 'elite' foreigners can speak conversational Japanese, read hiragana and katakana, and maybe a few of the most common kanji. In other words, they're limited to basic communication, but this lets them 'get around' most situations.
This stage of the social bonding process is always a bit awkward for me. I don't like to brag or force myself to the front. On the rare occasion that the group has someone better than me, or it's a group where everyone can fend for themselves, it's a relief - it means I can relax and enjoy myself.
But almost inevitably, something will come up. The menu will have too much kanji and no one can read it. The staff will try to explain how the All-You-Can-Drink system works and no one can understand it. So of course, I fix the problem, and of course, everyone realizes that I'm on a different level linguistically. Inevitably, the question of "why are you so good at Japanese?" comes up.
And just as with Japanese people, the only thing foreigners fully accept is "I've passes the N1." If I say, "I majored in Japanese," people still look troubled or unconvinced - maybe they've met Japanese majors who can barely order in a restaurant. Or if I say I've been studying for 15 years, they still seem a little unsatisfied. But if I say, "Oh, I'm N1," there is instant relief and acceptance. Their faces scream "Oh, of course!"
You'd expect it to run the other way, but the cause and effect get switched. People say "Oh, you're N1, that's why you're so good at Japanese." It's as if being certified N1 makes me good at Japanese, not that being good at Japanese makes me N1.
This is oddly similar to the Japanese. In general, neither group accepts that a Japanese language learner can be good at Japanese unless they have Credentials. At the very least, the existence of Credentials is an effective shortcut to make people accept language ability.
Here's the issue: Credentials are more effective at convincing people of my language ability than my language ability. I can speak, read, and write Japanese in front of them and yet this manifest ability is less effective in convincing people that I can do these things that I am doing than stating that I have passed an exam.
This is deeply troubling for me.