General: Japan

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General: Japan

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Review of "General: Japan"

published 25/02/2008 | Mitsudan
Member since : 18/05/2007
Reviews : 13
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About me :
Pro Successful communication feels like an achievement
Cons It pays to invest some time and effort
Value for Money
Ease of getting around

"Konnichiwa! Tips for Visiting Japan Part 3"

Realistic imitation food in a restaurant window.

Realistic imitation food in a restaurant window.


Welcome to the third and final part of my top ten tips for visitors to Japan. Having looked last time at the potential pitfalls for gaijin (foreigners) in blowing their noses and taking a bath amongst other hazards, this time I'm dealing with the biggest minefield of the lot - the all-important business of communication. So here is tip number 10.

The Devil's Language…

The brick wall up against which most foreign visitors come in Japan when trying to communicate is of course the Japanese language itself. It's said that in the sixteenth century the missionary St Francis Xavier, on discovering the difficulty westerners had in deciphering a single word spoken or written by the Japanese people, concluded that Japanese had been devised by the devil to prevent Christian missionaries from doing their good works there. Consequently Japanese, which seemed impenetrable to foreigners at the time, became commonly known as "the devil's language".

The Japanese language is fraught with complications: the strange (to English speakers) word order, the long and tricky subordinate clauses that throw you off the track, the different levels of politeness (plain, polite, humble, honorific) for various situations, the different words and styles of speech used by men and women… and then there's the written language. In English we have just one alphabet of 26 letters; the Japanese also use this in some situations and know it as romaji, meaning Roman letters. "Real" Japanese, however, uses three different scripts, one of them (called kanji) borrowed from Chinese and the other two (called hiragana and katakana) home grown. The basic characters of the hiragana and katakana phonetic scripts number 46 each, while the Sino-Japanese kanji characters run into many thousands with most of them having several alternative readings or pronunciations as well. Japanese children spend a large proportion of their school time learning to read and write these characters, being expected to know 1006 characters after six years study and at least 1945 by the time they finish secondary school. Those 1945 characters, known as the jouyou kanji or "general use" characters are considered to be the minimum number one needs to know to be able to read everyday Japanese text, such as newspapers and magazines. Remembering them all is no mean feat.

So should the foreign visitor give up all hope of communicating in Japanese and stick to the time-honoured methods of shouting and pointing instead? Not at all: at the most basic level, spoken Japanese is a relatively easy language to pick up. Verbs behave themselves nicely, there are none of those gender problems with nouns that you encounter in French and German, plurals of nouns are generally the same as the singular, there are no definite or indefinite articles, present and future verb tenses are the same, pronouns can often be dispensed with… isn't it beginning to sound like a piece of cake? What's more, pronunciation of Japanese is considerably easier for most English speakers than that of French, for example.

Let me show you just how easy beginner's Japanese can be. The Japanese for fish is sakana, meat is niku and vegetable(s) is yasai. A polite word you can use to mean "is" or "are" in most situations is desu. Unlike in English, this word goes after the noun in a sentence. Armed with these words, you can now make three short sentences in Japanese:

Sakana desu. (It is fish) Niku desu. (It is meat) Yasai desu. (They are vegetables)

Note that the pronouns "it" and "they" are not needed at all. And by learning one more little word you can turn these sentences into questions - just add ka at the end:

Sakana desu ka. (Is it fish?) Niku desu ka. (Is it meat?) Yasai desu ka. (Are they vegetables?)

Desu is a very useful word for the beginner and, by the way, the final u is usually not pronounced, so it sounds like "dess". Let's add a few adjectives to increase your repertoire:

Oishii desu. (It's delicious) Suki desu. (I like it) Kirai desu. (I hate it)

See? Two minutes learning and you can practically hold a conversation at the Japanese dinner table. Alright, it's the sort of conversation that might get you certified but you've made a start.

It's best to know your limitations and not to get too carried away anyway: a little learning is a dangerous thing, as Alexander Pope warned us. A few years ago in Tokyo I was introduced to a friend of a friend, a lovely girl in her twenties, who had a baby about six months old. It was her first child and when she arrived at the restaurant where we were meeting for lunch it was obvious that the baby was her pride and joy. It was the first time my friend had seen the baby and as the two of them jabbered away in Japanese their conversation unsurprisingly centred on the child. The proud Mum spoke no English at all so it was a great opportunity for me to practice the Japanese I had been studying and considered myself to have become fairly proficient in. Having disposed of the usual introductions, I ventured to say something complimentary about the baby. I looked into the buggy and was slightly taken aback by the child's rather unattractive appearance. Kawaii akachan desu ne (what a cute baby), I lied. Mum's face lit up, she thanked me and my confidence in my Japanese language ability was bolstered enough for me to attempt another disingenuous compliment. What could I say? Ah yes, I'll tell her the baby looks just like a little doll. Ninjin no you desu yo! Mum's smile instantly faded, my friend looked daggers at me, then they both started to laugh. Wait a minute, the Japanese for doll is ningyou, not ninjin. I had just told proud Mum that her beloved baby looked just like a carrot.

In Tokyo, a cosmopolitan city that has to cater for all nationalities, it is often possible to get by without knowing any Japanese at all but in smaller towns it can be quite difficult to communicate in English. Even though Japanese children learn English at school, the standard of English teaching is generally not particularly high and they tend to focus on written rather than spoken English. You may sometimes encounter a Japanese person who wants to practice his English with you (and I have actually had people approach me in the street or on a train and launch into a conversation straight out of an English language text book) but more often than not they are too shy or embarrassed about their linguistic ability to say anything in English. This sometimes means that even if they understand what you are saying in English they may pretend not to, so as to avoid having to reply in English.

My advice to the gaijin visitor is that your experience in Japan will be greatly enhanced and considerably more enjoyable if you take the trouble to learn some Japanese. Although it's probably true to say that it's an advantage to know the local language wherever you travel, the Japanese seem to appreciate your efforts more than most because they generally consider their own language to be very difficult to learn. If you learn enough to be able to go through daily activities like shopping, buying travel tickets, ordering in a restaurant and the like it will make life there more comfortable and less stressful. In my experience, if you can hold a simple conversation in Japanese people will open up to you and engage with you, resulting in a much more rewarding travel experience. I'm not suggesting that you try to discuss global warming or the American election campaigns, just talking about simple matters such as the weather or what kind of food you like. This is the sort of level of competence you could expect to achieve by taking a short course at an evening class or through self-study with a good text book and CDs. I also highly recommend the JapanesePod101 web site, which has free audio lessons at every level from complete beginner to upper intermediate. Downloading their free mp3 files and listening to them on an mp3 player is a painless and effective way to learn grammar and vocabulary with a fighting chance of acquiring an authentic accent into the bargain.

Reading and writing Japanese is another matter altogether; it's really only for the dedicated student of Japanese rather than the casual visitor to Japan as it's a hugely time-consuming business learning and remembering hundreds of characters. Even so, if you're keen enough, the phonetic hiragana and katakana scripts can be learned with a few hours conscientious study and will enable you to read some signs and bits of text in Japan. Take it from me, it will do your ego no end of good when you succeed in reading your first real Japanese words, as well as having obvious practical benefits.

To wind up this section, in case you are making a one-off trip to Japan and would like just a few useful phrases to show willing, here is my personal top ten:

Ohayou gozaimasu - Good morning
Konnichiwa - Hello (used from mid-morning to early evening)
Konbanwa - Good evening
Oyasumi nasai - Good night
Arigatou gozaimasu - Thank you
Dou itashimashite - You're welcome (in reply to thank you)
Gomen nasai - I'm sorry
Sumimasen - Excuse me (also used for sorry and thank you)
…wa doko desu ka - Where is… (e.g. otearai wa doko desu ka - where is the toilet?)
…o kudasai - I'd like …please (e.g. ehagaki o kudasai - I'd like some postcards please)

All the above are at a polite level of speech that is suitable in almost all situations.

With Barely a Word…

But what if you don't have the time or inclination to learn any of the language? On occasions it's possible to avoid speaking altogether. The Japanese don't make great use of gestures and there is little point in learning how to gesture Japanese-style but it's useful to know what they mean should you see them used. For example, If someone crosses his forearms in front of himself, making an x sign, this means that something is no good, not allowed or impossible. A tilt of the head to one side, often accompanied by a "saa" sound, usually means that something is difficult or troublesome. A hand out in front, with the open palm facing sideways, means that the person wants to pass in front of you. And the Japanese gesture for referring to oneself (where we might point to our chest, as in an unspoken "who, me?") is to touch the tip of the nose with the forefinger. One gesture that I've yet to hear anyone explain satisfactorily is the V sign (as in the peace gesture, not the other one) that Japanese people, young or old, male or female, often make to the camera when having their photograph taken. Nobody I've asked, even after I've just seen them make this gesture, has been able to say why they do it, except perhaps that "everybody does it".

If pointing is more your style than speaking, Japanese restaurants help out sometimes by displaying pictures of the dishes they sell or even realistic plastic models of the meals. Point at what you want and not a word need pass your lips before your lunch does.

It's often possible to do your shopping in a British supermarket without saying a word and the same applies in Japan. Just load the trolley, present the goods at the checkout and pay what the till display tells you to. But if you're uncomfortable with your inability to exchange small talk with the shop assistant, there's a way to avoid human contact altogether when making your purchases. Almost anything you care to think of can be bought from a vending machine in Japan. Thanks to Japan's very low crime rate, these machines, known as jidouhanbaiki, are rarely broken into or vandalised, thus offering a facility that would be impractical in the UK. I've often seen rows of ten or more of these machines on the street, selling everything from hot and cold drinks to magazines and books, from CDs to fresh flowers. Batteries, umbrellas, porno DVDs, you name it and it's for sale in a jidouhanbaiki. So ubiquitous are these things that they're as likely to be seen in the grounds of a temple or half way up a mountain as they are on the streets of Tokyo. The most celebrated Japanese vending machine is the one that sells used panties, each pair guaranteed to have been worn by a Japanese schoolgirl. I somehow doubt that this has ever existed and even though several Japanese people have told me about such a machine, I'm fairly convinced that it is an urban legend. Notice I say fairly but not totally convinced though; we are talking about Japan, after all.

I remember once bumping into a friend I hadn't met for some years and telling him about my newly-developed passion for Japan and all things Japanese. I was shocked when he replied by expressing his view that the Japanese were "like ants", by which he meant they are indistinguishable from each other as they scurry about in groups; I suspect that this is a popularly held opinion. I can understand why people might think this if the extent of their experience of Japan is watching one of those bits of footage of milling pedestrians in the Tokyo rush hour that the British media seem to think is adequate to accompany any news item about Japan but it's a very shallow view indeed. Japanese people are individually as different from each other as any other nationality but they are characterised by a "group mentality", a strong desire for harmonious relationships, a willingness to conform and a reluctance to enter into any form of confrontation. I'm generalising here, of course, because not everyone is "typical" of their nationality but these are qualities the vast majority of Japanese exhibit. My point here in relation to communication is that the Japanese tend to play down their feelings in the interests of harmony and lack of confrontation, so they will rarely express anger in public, for example, considering that to lose one's temper is childish. They will make every effort to resolve disputes amicably, to the extent of apologising when they consider themselves to be in the right. They make a point of being good listeners too, frequently nodding or making short comments to reinforce the point that they are listening carefully to what you are saying. This often leads the unsuspecting gaijin into believing that they are agreeing with everything he says, when in fact the opposite may well be true; they are just too polite to disagree openly. Something else that has often caught me out is the Japanese response to a negative question. For example, you say to a Japanese person "You don't like beer, do you?" and he replies "Yes". His answer doesn't mean that he likes beer; it means that he is agreeing with you that he doesn't , that is "Yes, I don't like beer". This unsurprisingly has great potential for confusion and embarrassment.

Getting back to non-verbal communication, I have to mention the Japanese smile. I recall taking a Japanese friend to an English pub where he was obviously enjoying himself immensely, even though it was crowded, noisy and rowdy, as he was beaming broadly. I persuaded him to try several different kinds of English beer for the first time, which I could tell from his smiles of delight he clearly loved. I later discovered that in fact he had felt thoroughly uncomfortable and anxious in the pub and had hated the beer, for the Japanese smile is not always what it seems. Although Japanese people will smile when they are pleased or amused, it shouldn't always be assumed that a smile indicates positive feelings. Lafcadio Hearn, one of the first Englishmen to "go native" in Japan in the late nineteenth century, remarked that a Japanese can smile in the face of death and usually does. The Japanese will smile when they are distressed, embarrassed or confused, having generally been taught in childhood to smile in the face of adversity. This smile of self-control can be difficult for the gaijin to recognize - be warned!

Silence too plays a part in Japanese communication and many Japanese people believe that they should not have to use words to make their feelings known. The trap for foreigners here is one that I have experienced myself: when friendship with a Japanese person grows you can find that rather than becoming chattier and more outgoing as you might expect, they sometimes tend more towards silence as they expect you to have developed an intuitive understanding of their feelings. For the foreigner who doesn't know about this characteristic, it can be a very confusing and frustrating business. In a similar vein, many Japanese people will not say something directly if they think it might cause disharmony, so instead of a refusal you will often hear that something "might be a little difficult" or "will have to be discussed" or even that "I'll think about it" when in fact it has already been dismissed out of hand, often raising false hopes in the mind of the hapless gaijin.

I can't finish this section without taking a look at the Japanese custom of bowing. The Japanese bow is commonly considered by westerners to the equivalent of our handshake and to some extent that is true. However, any visitor to Japan will soon notice that the Japanese seem to be bowing to each other constantly, certainly far more than we would shake hands in the west. The commonest occasions for the Japanese to bow are when they meet or greet someone, when they say goodbye, when they apologise and when they thank someone. The depth of the bow is very important in that some situations require a deeper bow than others. A "standard" bow to suit most occasions means bending your body about 15 degrees. When bowing to a friend of similar age and social standing the bow need often be little more than a nod of the head but a deeper bow should be given to someone older or of higher social status. The deeper the bow and the longer it is held, the more strongly it will convey a person's gratitude, respect or apology, right up to the full 90 degree bow for the most extreme occasions. Bowing is done by bending from the waist, with men keeping their arms straight by their sides, while women usually place the palms of their hands on their thighs. Despite many visits to Japan, I still find it comical to watch a couple of Japanese acquaintances who are reluctant to be the first to straighten up for fear of hitting the wrong social note, so they stand opposite each other bending nearly to the floor for minutes on end. Or those who bow to each other repeatedly on saying their goodbyes, whilst they back away with the apparent intention of keeping up this performance until they eventually back right out of sight. The sight of a husband and wife bowing to each other on the doorstep rather than having a quick kiss as the husband leaves for work is a shade bizarre at first too. And do you, as a foreign visitor, need to join in this ritual? Whilst I don't think it is really necessary, most Japanese people will appreciate your effort to respect their customs, so it is worthwhile in my opinion but just stick to the 15 degree version until you're well acquainted with the rules.

English in Japan…

Although Japanese schoolchildren are routinely taught English they face several obstacles to becoming proficient speakers. Firstly, the method of teaching English to children leaves a lot to be desired in my opinion, with an emphasis on reading and grammar rather than speech and vocabulary. Secondly there seems to be a common perception amongst Japanese people that they are not natural linguists and having convinced themselves of this notion it is to some degree self-perpetuating. Thirdly the Japanese language uses a very limited number of sounds compared with English, which gives rise to two problems. One is that some sounds, such as "th", that do not occur in Japanese are tricky for them to pronounce and the other is that the Japanese language borrows extensively from English (and other languages) but applies its own limited number of sounds in assimilating these words into Japanese.

The upshot of this as far as the foreign visitor to Japan is concerned is that the English used by the Japanese is often mangled beyond recognition. A Welsh friend of mine told me that she was once sharing some travel experiences with a well-travelled Japanese visitor in Cardiff when she asked him where of all the places in the world he had been he liked the most. Taken aback by his reply that his favourite place in the whole world was Barry, she double-checked that he meant Barry Island. Yes, he said, Barry Island. Delighted that he should prefer this Welsh seaside resort with its funfair to the many exotic places he had visited, she asked him what it was that he found so appealing about Barry. It was only when he began to describe white sandy beaches, clear blue ocean and palm trees that it dawned on her that his favourite place in the world was not Barry Island but the island of Bali.

Most Japanese people are genuinely unable to distinguish between the sounds of the letters "r" and "l" at all, so that the words "writer" and "lighter", for example, sound identical to them. It is unfortunate for them too that one of the commonest words in the English language is "the", since not only does the Japanese language not use the definite article but also there is no Japanese sound equivalent to either the "th" part or the "e" part of this word; it therefore often comes out of a Japanese mouth as "za", the closest they can manage.

As I mentioned, the Japanese have borrowed many English words to incorporate in their own language but the casual foreign listener is unlikely to be able to pick these up in a Japanese conversation. The reason for this is that not only do the Japanese have to adapt them to fit their limited number of sounds but English words are also often uncomfortably long and unwieldy, sounding awkward in the context of Japanese, so they also become contracted. Thus the word "television", which in full would be transcribed as "terebijyon" becomes "terebi" in Japanese and "(personal) computer", which would be "paasonarukonpyuutaa" in full, becomes "pasokon". Such words have become part of the Japanese language but there is another way in which English has been adopted in Japan and that is as a kind of stylish adornment to various goods. Just as we sometimes see Chinese or Japanese characters used here in Britain to decorate items of clothing such as T shirts, the Japanese will often use English words. Most British people who walk around displaying Japanese writing on their shirts will probably neither know nor care what it means; they just like the look of it. The same applies in Japan, so that you will see complete gibberish written on T shirts, department store carrier bags, notebooks and so forth. Some examples: printed on a T shirt, "Let's have boil the dog mad core"; on the label of a cardigan, "

Refreshed and foppish sense and comfortable and flesh styles will catch you who belong to city-groups"; on a carrier bag, "Traditional assertion PRESTIGE The latest style Now the fabulous goods is styled for the fashion of it. Take a pair to the streets". I've taken those examples from a web site but they are typical of the sort of nonsense I have seen written on all sorts of goods in Japan. People don't care what the writing says; they just think it looks stylish.

You can also see some amusingly-named products in Japan, such as the soft drink called Pocari Sweat and the brand of noodles called Wanko but remember that these are just quirks of language and the Japanese are just as likely to snigger at the name of the British rock singer Mick Jagger, which to them sounds like a popular type of Japanese beef stew. And what about the Welsh singer who was in the band Steps and liked to be known by the nickname of H? The Japanese are sure to find this one a bit of a laugh as to them H is a slang term for sex.

Final Thoughts…

In essence my advice to travellers to Japan is to respect Japanese customs and traditions, to recognise that different doesn't always mean weird and to be patient when trying to communicate in Japan. If you have time, learning some Japanese will almost certainly reap rewards and allow you to enjoy the experience to the full but if you have to communicate in English, bear in mind the problems our language poses for the Japanese.

Japan is such a marvellous country to visit that you will be almost certain of a good time regardless of any of my advice but I hope that this and my previous 9 tips might just help to enhance the experience of the traveller who is new to Japan. Well, everything must come to an end. And for my ten tips this is it. Thanks for reading.

Copyright © 2008 David (Mitsudan on Ciao)

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Comments on this review

  • petrolheadguru published 06/07/2010
    Great review,I travelled alot to Tokyo over the years and know exactly where you are comming from having made plenty of mistakes myself!
  • flyingllamas published 18/07/2009
    Fantastic review
  • retireduser published 06/06/2009
    Nice review. ^_^ Would love to be there someday.
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