This article is part of the series on my July 2018 trip to Japan. Please see the table of contents page for other articles in this series as they are posted.
While I have been interested in Japan’s culture as far back as I can remember, as you can probably tell from this blog it is the language itself that interests me the most. That’s why on this trip I tried to make best use of the time to absorb and immerse myself in the language while I was there. In this article I’ll give some of my observations as well as suggestions for others who want to practice using Japanese in Japan themselves.
You can group language related activities into two broad categories: passive and active, with the former being where you only listen/read and the latter involving direct speaking/writing on your part. The active ones involve real time feedback which is helpful for quick improvement, however the passive ones are much easier and, to be frank, require less courage on your part.
The simplest passive language activity is reading signs and other written language around you, because you don’t have to worry about background noise, dialects, or other difficulties involved with listening. There are things to read all over the place, especially in larger cities: advertisements on the trains, explanatory text on things like menus and train ticket machines, names of stores, even text on people’s shirts. The biggest challenge with reading is that often these things don’t have furigana (or as much as you would like), so it will be a big help to have some knowledge of kanji. Of course katakana and hiragana are also used very frequently so you really should learn both before a trip to Japan. If you start looking around at the signs you’ll soon discover there are some kanji used you may never have come across in your studies, especially if you used academic resources like textbooks. One example is 珈琲 which means “coffee”, although this can also be written in katakana as simply コーヒー. Also, many restaurant names in Japan are completely different from the obviously named ones in the U.S. (think “Tokyo”, “Oishii” or “Sakura Sushi”). Restaurant names in Japan, especially ones with a longer history, may be named after some uncommon word of historical or artistic merit, possibly even involving a play on words. Modern restaurants may have more catchy names, though.
Reading something like the text on a poster can be much different than reading Japanese in a novel or magazine, especially in terms of the context and type of language used. For example, you may find more slang words used, abbreviated sentences (with verbs dropped, etc.), and also things like puns or wordplay. I saw one poster that made a play on the word ‘mikata’, which can mean both ‘way to see’ and ‘ally’, and to emphasize this it was written in katakana as ミカタ. Also many of the advertisements are be about things needed in daily life, like for example renting a house, finding a cell phone provider, or even taking a vacation camping. If you are planning on living in Japan all the terms on these will be very useful––not only for reading but eventually hearing them spoken and speaking them yourself. You’ll also start learning what the bigger companies in Japan are and what kind of products or services they provide, and this knowledge will help you interpret future advertisements better.
Many places in Japan, especially in bigger cities, have English translations for things like street signs and it is not uncommon for restaurants to have a separate English menu or multi-language menus. This is great for English-speaking travelers, but just like subtitles when watching a Japanese anime or drama, I would recommend initially ignoring the English versions and trying to figure out what the Japanese means, only going back to the English to check if your understanding was correct.
As for passive listening, the easiest way to do this is to just keep an ear open for conversations around you, whether it is on the train, bus, or in a store. I generally try not to be too noisy, and if I can’t hear well enough I’ll try to avoid sneaking up too close to the people speaking, but even just listening to a passing word or two when you cross people on the street can be good bite-sized listening practice. I did this on this trip and noticed I was able to pick up a lot of little phrases here and there. One great thing about listening to random snippets of conversation is you can even learn things about pronunciation and intonation.
One of the perks of having studied Japanese for a long time is that I’ve developed the ability to recognize when someone has an accent, whether it is regional or because they are a non-native speaker. For an example of the latter case, when we went to an Indian restaurant in Aomori I soon picked up on the waitress’s accent when she spoke Japanese. I had several experiences like this, and it was actually liberating because I felt that I had something in common with that person and was able to speak much more freely without concern for making mistakes. One pattern I noticed is that non-native speakers seemed more often to use tameguchi with me, for example less polite forms like suru instead of shimasu, which normally I wouldn’t expect to hear by a store or restaurant employee.
At the end of the day, many people traveling to Japan will return to their hotels to get a little rest, and maybe return there during the day to take breaks. Fortunately, there is a really great resource for practicing passive listening and reading at the same time: Japanese TV.
If you are reading this blog you probably already know how valuable things like Japanese anime, dramas, and movies can be for increasing vocabulary and overall language proficiency. However, what is typically available to English-speaking audiences is only a fraction of the plethora of Japanese TV programs available to people living in Japan. For example, there are news and variety programs where you can hear Japanese you typically wouldn’t hear in anime.
But my favorite is the children’s programs on Japanese TV, especially on NHK’s “E TV” channel which touch on a variety of topics like history, culture, science, and math. For example, I remember watching a short clip where a series of experiments were performed on a fiber optic wire to try and determined how it worked, and got to learn words like danmen (断面), which means “surface” that I normally didn’t come across in my reading. For those wanting to learn practical, everyday Japanese, TV shows like this are a great tool. And while you might be able to find some of them available via Internet streaming back where you live, you’ll still have to make the time to watch and focus on them. When you are in Japan it’s much easier to just flip through the channels and find some program that seems interesting. Just try to avoid the children’s program teaching English, as there’ll be some content there you already know.
Another good way to get some reading practice is go to a bookstore and just try to quickly skim the covers of a few magazines or books, or even try reading the first page of items that seem interesting.
Once you are ready to take things to the next level, you can begin active language activities. The easiest way to get your foot in the door is places like restaurants and stores where often a little spoken Japanese is required (the exception is restaurants where they use food coupons since those can sometimes be navigated 100% without saying a word).
When ordering at a restaurant you can start with simple phrases, like just saying the name(s) of the item(s) you want, followed by “onegaishimasu” (a phrase used when asking for something). Even this basic exercise is helpful for pronunciation practice. You’ll also get to hear some of the set phrases used like “oazukari shimasu” or “oazukari itashimasu” when your credit card or money is taken.
With a few tries (and perhaps a little embarrassment as you struggle to communicate) you will get to the point where you can do the basic back and forth. However, you’ll find that there are occasionally other phrases that come up, and may catch you off guard. For example “fukuro irimasen ka?” (“Do you want a bag”) or “oshiharai kaisuu wa?” (“payment frequency?”). The former can be answered with “iie, kekkou desu.” if you don’t want a bag or “Hai, onegaishimasu.” if you do want one. For the second question (which generally only comes up when using a credit card), you can just say “ikkatsu” which means to pay everything at once. But the more experience you have interacting at restaurants or stores in Japanese, the more situations you will learn to understand and respond to appropriately.
On previous trips to Japan I generally had someone else do this type of interaction, but this time I was somewhat active about participating and got to learn some new phrases. Once you get comfortable with restaurants and stores, the next level is interacting at hotels which generally involves more questions and more phrases you will need to learn.
Of course, if you are traveling by yourself (or a group of people not fluent in Japanese) you will be forced into some of these situations out of necessity. If you are comfortable enough you can begin in Japanese, and then switch to English if you get stuck (the other party may do the same depending on their ability and if they think you might speak English). Just keep in mind that the more likely foreigners are to visit somewhere, the more likely the employees there will speak at least a little English. You can also try and pay attention to native speakers in the place in question to see what sorts of phrases they use and them emulate them.
One important note about restaurants: unlike places in the U.S. where the waitstaff can be super friendly, introducing themselves by name and asking how you’ve been, the trend in Japan seems to be the opposite, where waitress and waiters are generally polite, serious, and avoid small talk. Once, in an izakaya we asked a waitress her name so we could have her called if needed and she seemed to almost panic, as if she had been asked some intimately personal question. It is not that uncommon for employees at stores or restaurants to have name tags, but generally I would avoid calling them by name. An exception to this is a place like maid cafes, where the interaction with the waitstaff is the main draw of the establishment.
For those interested in translation, a final thing I spent a lot of time doing was comparing the English translations on places like signs with the original Japanese. I think funny English translations from Japanese have been somewhat of a cultural thing for many years now, with famous phrases like “All your base belong to us” and countless online articles that talk about such translations. A long time ago I myself got some laughs out of some of these, but have matured to the point where I try to avoid making jokes out of someone else’s errors.
Rather than using such mistranslations for comic relief, I like to analyze them to determine the cause for the error. Many of the bad or awkward translations I saw on this trip were caused by a handful of things: plurality, verb tense, lack of context, and overly literal renderings. On the other hand, I saw a few excellent translations that were worded in natural English and managed to carry the nuance of the original Japanese text quite well; these tended to be much less literal, often adding things for context or breaking up phrases into separate sentences for clarity.
One example of implied context is the phrase “座ってください” (suwatte kudasai) which is the first step of how to use a toilet, often written on an explanatory sheet on a bathroom wall. The best translation I saw of this simple phrase was “Sit down on the toilet.” This translation has two things that differ from the original text: the replacing of the “kudasai” (literally “please”) with a less polite wording, and addition of the “on the toilet” phrase for added context. While you could argue that English-speakers can eventually figure out the verb “sit” means “on the toilet”, I feel that such things are more often omitted in Japanese and more likely to confuse English-speakers. So often it is easier to understand if extra context is given in the English translation. I also saw an example where lack of context made a confusing translation of the phrase “離れないでください” (hanarenaide kudasai) on an explanatory text for using a baby changing station in a bathroom. The English was rendered as simply “Don’t leave” and when I saw this I smiled to myself, thinking how it can be interpreted to mean anyone who enters the bathroom should never leave (is it a trap of sorts?). A better translation with added context would be “Do not leave your child unattended”.
Sometimes it wasn’t the translation itself which was thought-provoking, but the fact that certain languages were or were not included. For example, on the train I saw a diagram about secondhand smoke that had detailed explanations in English without equivalent text in Japanese. I guess the assumption is Japanese people will grasp the ideas just by looking at the pictures, and English-speakers need more context. In other places, there was a textual warning message about a prohibited action (without a diagram of picture), and messages in several languages except for Japanese. Again, that warning was probably culturally obvious to Japanese people without having to spell it out. Finally, in a bathroom I saw a diagram about an embarrassing misuse of a toilet, and the explanation was only in a single, non-Japanese language. Had I been from a country that spoke that language I might have felt insulted, but perhaps they have different toilets there.
While in Japan I couldn’t help but be reminded of how deeply western culture is being integrated into Japan, and one way to see this is the amount of loan words from English. I have written about this before so won’t go it until detail here, but on this trip I saw the gairaigo-ization of a word very fundamental to Japan’s culture that I never expected would be converted: ライス (raisu).
These are just a handful of suggestions which I utilized myself on this trip, but if you are saying for longer there are many more things you can do to take your Japanese ability further. For example, you can try to make friends with native speakers or seek out volunteer opportunities where you can use Japanese. For true fluency, I recommend eventually getting a job where you are forced to use the language on a daily basis. Don’t forget that language differs greatly depending on the domain, so don’t expect to become skilled at philosophical debates by working at a restaurant.
As a final note, there are research studies that have found correlations between hours of sleep with memory, so while you are in Japan I recommend getting a good night’s sleep whenever possible. Exhausted at the end of each day, I ended up sleeping 9-10 hours and I think it helped me integrate the new memories I learned. Also, though Japan is a great place to party, alcohol has clearly negative effects on memory so I don’t recommend downing too many beers (or whatever your drink of choice is).
(Back to the table of contents page for this series)
[Note: the featured image for this post, reproduced below, is of a group of last name stamps (判子, hanko) which I found in a store. Reading last names is already difficult, but the artistic font on these makes it a true challenge. How many can you read?]