I’m a bit embarrassed at my Japanese ability after living here for three years. I took a year of Japanese in college and two years of lessons here in Japan, which got me up to a very basic functional Japanese while being quite poor at any kind of intellectual conversation.
My office insists on speaking to me in English. When I try to speak Japanese, it’s a hassle – they can speak English far better than I can speak Japanese, and they’ve hired me to practice communicative English. Speaking Japanese takes longer for everyone and results in far less clarity for everyone involved.
As a result, my speaking ability is bordering on infantile. But being exposed to radio, TV, office meetings and overheard office gossip (and looking up words I don’t know when I hear them) I’m usually able to pick up on about 40-50% of what’s being said. This leaves me in the awkward position of understanding things while stumbling to say that I understand them. My brain has learned to listen through constant exposure, but hasn’t learned how to make my tongue move. This only comes with practice, and I regret not doing more of it.
Reading was a different matter. I learned Hiragana and Katakana in about 2 hours (I still can’t tell “tsu” and “shi” apart on a menu but I’ll live with that as my kryptonite) and have worked my way up to understand about 100 kanji on sight and about 250 more with some thought. That took about a week, which would be impressive, except that I stopped caring.
In kanji and in life, I am lazy about things I seem to be good at. I never rushed to learn the remaining 1650 kanji because I anticipated picking it up easily once I actually tried. Now I’m leaving Japan and have never actually tried. That was totally stupid.
Stupid not only because it makes me a lazy foreigner, but because Kanji is actually a lot of fun. The symbols are interconnected, so once you understand what the component symbols mean, you can start to see how they reflect each other. For example, the symbol for rice field is one square divided into four: 田
The symbol for “business” is a rice field divided into four with three little roads coming out of it, the roads beside the rice field where the shops might be: 用
You can put various combinations of these characters together and make meanings. You could imagine what this means just by looking at the pictures: 凹田 On the left is the kanji for “concave” (notice it is, literally, concave) and to the right is a rice field. This means the rice field is in a concave area: Literally, a low-laying rice field, such as in the center of a mountain.
I think this stuff is crazy good fun.
One nice thing about learning Japanese kanji is that once you learn all 2000 characters, you are 1/5th of the way to reading Chinese fluently! Another reason I regret not studying Japanese kanji: I’m tasked with learning Chinese by 2015.
The Handy Bit
If you do end up moving to Japan it does behoove you to study Japanese intensely when you first arrive. Then, you can blog and make self-deprecating remarks without the Foreign Defenders of Japan on the Internet (the FDJI, most of whom serve on foreign shores) shouting that your language learning abilities are not good enough for them, even though you are a reasonable person who gets by fine in daily life and enjoys casual social situations in a second language.
One hangup I had was being so concerned about levels of formality that I wouldn’t speak, lest I offend people. This also contributed to my speech paralysis. However, unless you work in an office full of dicks, remember that you have been hired as a person who doesn’t speak Japanese and people are gonna let a lot of formal-language stuff slide.
With that as a backdrop, I’ve made a list of what amounts to be the most useful words and phrases I’ve learned in Japan. The more vitriolic FDJI troops will be shocked and appalled by this list because they are offended by “beginners,” but it will go a long way toward getting by initially if you aren’t expected to know anything else. I don’t encourage anyone to actually stop at this list!
So, I present to you a quick-start guide to being understood in Japan when you need to do so quickly. These are not the only words I know, but they are the only ones I ever seem to use.
Learn this one and then forget it. It’s “Nice to meet you,” and you may end up sliding into the habit of using it more than once with the same people. Try to avoid that. When in doubt, go with “Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu,” more of a “Thanks in advance for being really nice to me” but you can say it more than once to the same person.
This is “good morning.” It starts your day. If you work in Japan, the strength and power of your ohayo as you walk briskly into the office will affect your reputation the same way a handshake would in the States. You bellow out an “OHAYO GOZAIMASU!” with genuine passion and enthusiasm, or you have dead fish for hands. That said, in my office at least, you say it to everyone you pass. So for a long time I did the full bellow, but then I started shortening it. “Zaimasu!” is fine. Soon, you learn that even “Mas!” is fine. But this week I came in literally hissing at my coworkers: “Ssss!” Everyone was fine with that, too.
Konnichiwa / Konbanwa
“Good afternoon” and “Goodnight.” You say these as a greeting. If you say them at the end of a conversation – say, after you start walking away from the convenience store clerks – they will laugh at you. These translate more or less to “It’s noon, isn’t it?” and “It’s night, isn’t it?” Also Konnichiwa is OK to say in the morning if you’ve been up and about for a while. It seems relative to where you are in your day.
When in doubt, say “sumimasen.” It is the Swiss army knife of Japanese. It means “forgive me,” and implies that you don’t really deserve to exist (really) but you can use it to get past people on a train, to get someone’s attention, to reply to a compliment, to thank someone, to call the waiter over, to stall for time, to end a conversation, to start a conversation, to respond to a gift, to offer a gift, or to apologize for not speaking Japanese well. The more often you acknowledge that your unworthiness for existence, the more people will like you.
“It’s OK.” This is useful if you are being asked a bunch of questions by a store clerk or waiter. When you say this it basically means “hey, whatever you do is fine.” It also means “I’m OK” so you can use it if, say, someone is trying to help you do something that you can actually do on your own, or if you trip and fall on an escalator or whatever.
“After you” or “Go ahead.” Useful in a wide variety of office-doorway scenarios. Let the person go ahead of you by saying “Douzo.” Let the person have the first edamame or the last onigiri by saying “Douzo.” Same with giving someone a seat on the train, or if you both start talking at the same time.
A lot of people are confused by “kudasai” and “onegaishimasu,” which both basically translate to “please.” My rule of thumb, which is probably wrong, is that you say “kudasai” when you want a thing or action done as a part of someone’s formal responsibilities, but you say “onegaishimasu” when you want someone to acknowledge that someone is doing you a bit of a favor (even if they aren’t). Thanks to American egalitarianism, I see the waitstaff as doing me a favor when they go to the kitchen to get my food, so “onegaishimasu” is comfortable for me to say when I order. I don’t know the last time I used “kudasai” outside of a classroom – where you ask kids to listen by saying “kitte kudasai,” not “kitte onegaishimasu,” because kids are expected to do what you say in a classroom. That said, kudasai isn’t a respect thing, you can say “kudasai” to anyone or “onegaishimasu” to anyone, nobody really cares except the Foreign Defenders of Japan on the Internet.
Shows understanding and implies agreement. This is actually just the word “so” three times, which means, roughly, “so,” as in the English “It is so.” You’re basically saying “Yes, that’s very true.” “So” as a pause to link subjects happens as well, as in “That’s end of chapter three, so… let’s start chapter 4.” I said that once shortly after I arrived and the teacher turned to the class and complimented me on “learning some Japanese.”
Issho aka Ijou / Betsu Betsu
Issho means “all together” but you can also think of it as the phrase “that’s all wrapped up.” This is useful because you can say “Issho” to signal that you have finished your order at a restaurant or have finished a speech (or at least “ijou” which sounds exactly the same), but you can also use it to say that you want all your stuff in a single bag (Japanese clerks tend to separate hot and cold things into different bags). It is also useful because it’s how you keep the bill from being divided (“all together”). “Betsu Betsu” is the opposite, it means “separate,” and it’s how you divide something, such as the bill at a restaurant if you want to pay separately.
Otsukare sama deshita
“You must be exhausted!” This is the ultimate compliment. People will say it to you starting around 11 a.m. The implication is that you have been working so hard, you need a rest. The thing is, this is also said when the Shinkansen arrives at your destination, or the taxi driver pulls onto your street. People say it at the end of events, too, including drinking parties. If you work in an office, this might be the only thing you say to some coworkers for years at a time. It also takes on something of a jubilant air when you’re informal, which is hilarious: “OTSUKARE!” as in “Good work!” is just shouting “Fatigue!” as a exclamation.
“It’s alright,” as in “Don’t worry about it.” Useful when people are making more of a fuss over you than they need to, which is always. Also a polite way to refuse something, even small things like an extra shopping bag. Saying “No” (Ee-yay!) is a bit curt. “S’alright!” is the way to go. Basically the same as “Daijoubu.”
Kore desu / Kore wa
“It’s this.” / “What’s this?” My French teacher once told me that this is really the only word you need to know in any language, and I suppose that’s true. Knowing how to say “This” guarantees you can eat, knowing how to say “what’s this” guarantees you will know what you are eating.
“Whatever you suggest.” You will have no idea what is happening to you, ever, but everyone will insist on asking what you want to happen to you, even in situations where your options are obscured by a wall of incomprehensibility. The best reaction is to throw your hands up and say “whatever you suggest.” This is basically the Japanese version of “I don’t care, it’s all good.” Useful in restaurants, unless you have an aversion to having a living creature served to you with a fork, which is just one potential consequence of spinning the “o-susume” roulette wheel too many times.
So desu ne!
“That’s true, isn’t it?” There is a woman in my town who is sort of older and maybe a little crazy. Sometimes on my lunch break I pass her on the way to the grocery store. She instantly starts speaking to me in rapid-fire Hakata-ben, a local variant of Japanese that is all kinds of weird. She’ll always ask me about something that happened recently at the school, like a fire drill or sports event, or say how the weather is, or something. The answer is to just smile and nod, and if there is a gap in the machine-gunned “kaTA-ta-katakaTAka-tata-TO’s” of Hakata-ben I just say “So desu ne!” as slowly as possible. It seems to work.
I promise nobody asked me to do this, and I’m not getting kickbacks, but if you are beginning to learn Japanese I think you might find Tofugu’s online Japanese textbook a pretty awesome resource, and the first “chapter” is free: Textfugu.
Douzo! Like This Japanese Life on Facebook, onegaishimasu!