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Loco in Yokohama #3: Learn that Japanese!


This should go without saying but I’m gonna say it anyway: #3 Learn that Japanese!

I studied French for 2 years in JHS, 4 years in HS and 2 years in University, and if you asked me right now how to say anything in French except “Would you like to do the nasty with me tonight?” I’d be hardpressed to answer you. Btw, it’s: voulez vous coucher avec moi ce soir? Thanks for the French lesson Patti LaBelle (-;

Demo, Go-nen ni Nihon ni sunde ite mada perapera jyanakute mo kekkou syaberemasuyo. (But, I’ve been living in Japan for five years and even though I’m not fluent yet, I’m pretty good.) Listening is still difficult, my vocabulary is still embarrassingly low and the improper pronunciation of certain sounds persists despite my efforts (? and ? are my nemeses,) but I can get by until i can get there.

And, at the risk of overstating the obvious, it’s very useful, not to mention good manners, to at least try to speak the language of the people in the country where you live. Unfortunately, there are some people in the world who don’t agree.

“Why are you studying English?” I always ask potential students when I first meet them.“I’m going to abroad so I want to communicate to foreigners.” (This is an exact translation of Japanese thinking. Notice that abroad is considered a place, meaning any place but Japan, and foreigners are people encountered in these places, meaning anyone not Japanese, no matter where they go theother people are foreigners, or rather outsiders.)

“Where are you going? I mean, which country?”


“Don’t you think you ought to study French?”

“France people speak English.”

I don’t push the issue. Last thing I want is ?4000 yen an hour walking out of the door looking for Pierre or Jean to give their money to. And, he’s half right. I’m sure a good number of people in France can speak English. But, that doesn’t mean they want you to come there presuming they can speak English and totally disregarding their native language like it’s some kind of relic or outmoded or obsolete custom like slapping someone in the face with your gloves to indicate you want to have a duel (I’ll have satisfaction! swords or pistols? ah,the good ole days!) or wearing kimono on a daily basis. The statement you’re making: French is passe. English is the future! What country wants to hear that said about their national language?

Apparently, Japan does.

The Japanese, in general, do not care whether you study or speak Japanese or not, I’ve learned. I used to think it was because they considered their language a dead, dying or useless one. I later learned that, in fact, in most cases, the assumption is that we foreigners do not or cannot learn their language. Why? From what I could gather over the past 5 years they believe that our foreign brains are too limited to handle such a complexed language as theirs; accustomed, as our brains are, to the simplicity of (in the case of English speakers) a 26-letter alphabet and what not. So, of course we are forgiven well in advance for not even attempting to accomplish the virtually impossible. No offense taken. We understand.They’ll dish out offenses like these in heaping bowlfuls. And, I used to believe they were aware of how offensive this position is. It spurred me to study harder and prove them wrong, so i’m kind of glad I misunderstood.

But, you know what? They are oblivious….really…I’m not kidding, and I’m not exaggerating or defending Japanese. To them, obviously Japanese is more complicated than English…I mean, look at Kanji compared to the alphabet. Those little stick figures we use to make words as opposed to those perplexing pictograms they use. And, obviously that means that Japanese brains are more complexed than Foreigners’. Obviously moisture collects in the atmosphere and falls to the earth in the form of rain or snow. And obviously E equals MC squared.

And, obviously, other country’s people speak English and we speak Japanese.

This problem is not solely a Japanese one, of course. Americans are perhaps more guilty of it. They really expect everyone to speak English.

In New York, English is useful but not mandatory nor essential. Many Haitians, Latinos, Middle Eastern, Eastern Europeans, Russians, and other Asians can’t speak it a lick, but they survive, and even thrive in some cases. It can get a little annoying sometimes, like when you get a cab driver who can’t understand the words coming outta yo mouth, but usually it doesn’t cause any unresolvable problems. But, in other areas of the country, they get really uptight about foreigners living in their country and not deigning to learn their language.

I would not be party to that so I studied Japanese for a few weeks before I came to Japan. Got myself a little head start. Then, once I arrived here I continued studying. I nailed all the basics. I could kore sore are dare, kono sono ano dono, koko soko asoko doko, etc…greetings and salutations were mastered. I used to go shopping just to practice…

Sore wa nan desu ka? Ikura desu ka? Ah, so desu ka. Ja, kore wo kudasai. Arigatou gozaimasu.

Shopping is a great place to practice. The staff at most shops are always polite. If you make a mistake, mispronounce a word or two, no problem. They’ll praise your Japanese ability profusely, regardless. In fact, all Japanese will praise you the same way.

“Ohayou Gozaimasu,” you say to anyone.

“Oooooo! Sugoi desu ne. Nihongo ga umai desu ne!” WOW! That’s wonderful! Your Japanese is great!

Yes, the Japanese will applaud the tenor for clearing his throat. It’s their way. Flattery is like a cultural icebreaker. Ignore your feelings about this mannerism. It means nothing, You must learn to accept it and not let it distract you from your study.

Also, there isn’t much room for error in Japanese. Nihongo is fraught with subtlety so it’s a very delicate and inflexible language…especially for foreigners. All Japanese are linked almost symbiotically so instinctively they know one another’s thoughts and feelings. But, you, as a foreigner, start any conversation with two strikes against you. You’re a foreigner-a swing and a miss: STRIKE ONE! You can’t speak Japanese and they can’t speak English (the automatic presumption in any conversation with someone you don’t know;) A knuckleball on the inside corner of the plate: STRIKE TWO! If you do not say what you want to say almost to perfection you will definitelybe misunderstood. Yappari! STRIKE THREE! you’re out!

It will feel like they don’t want to understand you, trust me. Like there’s a conspiracy to discourage you, and they’re all in on it. But, I implore you: don’t go down that road. You will quit! And with a good deal of anger and resentment to boot. I’ve quit so many times. Just hang in there. Sooner or later things will start falling into place. Don’t expect any encouragement, though. You have to be a self-starter and self-motivated, like with most endeavors that are worthwhile in life.

I’ve put together a list below of the 10 most used and useful Japanese words I know. If you understand and can use these words effectively you’ll find yourself well on your way to understanding Japanese language and people.

1-Sumimasen (sometimes contracted to suimasen)- It’s the magic word in Japan. It means…everything. Sorry, excuse me, pardon me, thank you, hey you, repeat that…it’s used in so many context that I’m still learning new contexts from time to time.

2-Gomen Nasai – Basically, it means I’m sorry. That’s the easy part. Knowing when to say I’m sorry is the tricky part. I still have trouble with this one. I use Gomen nasai when I should have used Sumimasen, and vice versa. You just gotta listen to Japanese people use it and understand the situation (which is more difficult than it sounds) and you’ll pick it up. It also depends on the relationship with the person you’re speaking to. Gomen nasai has more emotion that sumimasen so you probably shouldn’t use it in public. But, I hear it done all the time. It’s hit or miss, but if you use it in the wrong scenario, chances are you’ll never know.

3-Yappari – (Aka Yappa) Loosely translated it means: As I thought or as expected or I knew it (as in, “I knew you was gonna say that shit,) but in the cultural context of Japan it indicates a certain comfort. It’s only used with people you know. It’s kind of rude otherwise. I used to call Japanese the Yappari hito (The As Expected People) because they’re always looking for consistency, predictability or confirmation of their beliefs. Most questions begin with “Do Americans…” “Do black people…” “Do foreigners…” Every time I turned around someone was using Yappari in reference to me. I used to stop at McDonald’s most every morning and pick up breakfast, usually the same thing: sausage mcmuffin, hash brown and orange juice. My co-workers would see me when I entered, glance at the bag and the “Yappari”s would begin. At lunchtime the Yappari parade was for the Coca-Cola I wash down my bento with. With the students, in the gym, it was for my jump shot (it’s about 65% accurate on a good day). I still think it’s kind of rude. So, I started eating rice balls, drinking Green Tea and shooting bricks on purpose just to stump them. And whenever they say Yappari, I say, “Yappari. I knew you were gonna say Yappari.” It’s always good for a laugh. Usually I’m laughing alone, though.

4-Ganbatte / Ganbare! – I have short love affairs with Japanese words and phrases. I love them and I leave them. My first affair was with “Sumimasen.” It was a hot, steamy, tumultuous rendezvous, with no strings attached, that lasted about six months. Now, she’s just a booty call. The second was with Ganbatte! I fell head over heels with Ganbatte and her twin sister, Ganbare. But, she was a cruel one. In the end, she broke my heart. I was in the hospital room with Aiko’s mother and sister while she lay in the bed dying of cancer. She had gone into a coma that morning and her lungs weren’t working properly, so they had to feed her oxygen. Death was en route. So was her father. He was stuck on a train, some kind of delay. We were all taking turns talking to her, not knowing if she could hear us or not. Her mother, hoping her father would arrive before she passed kept saying, “Aiko, Ganbatte…Ganbatte ne,” through streaming tears. I’d heard and used the word a thousand times before then but I never truly felt it until that day. I’d never felt Nihongo at all, until that day. it was like some kind of tool, or weapon, or parlor trick before then. It was never real to me. Now, it’s real, and Ganbatte is the most real word in the Japanese vocabulary to me. When I use it, I feel it. I understand it.

5-Sou desu ne / Sou desu ka- (Aka: Sou da ne, sou ka) The Japanese are all about synchronicity and avoiding confrontations and Sou desu ne / desu ka achieves this to an extent. It doesn’t mean you agree, but it smells like agreement. It doesn’t mean yes but it suggests a respect for the speaker. It basically translate into something akin to when Americans use right, or uh huh, uh huh, so basically it means nothing. But, it’s used in virtually EVERY conversation you’ll ever hear in Japan, so listen and learn. but be careful of the other sou desu which means I’ve heard or there’s a rumor going around, but that one doesn’t stand alone. it usually follows a verb.

6- Otsukaresama desu – (AKA Ostukaresama deshita, Otsukare, Otsu) Here’s one of those ubiquitous Japanese phrases that simply can not be translated accurately into English. But, you’ll hear it everyday, all day, and eventually you’ll get a feel for when to use it and what it means. It’s something like “You must be tired” or “thanks for being a active contributor to our great society…this Bud’s for you!” or “I’m outta here! Peace!”

7-Sugoi / Kawaii – (Aka Suge, moe, moeeee) Well, not a day will go by in your life in Japan when one or both of these words will not be heard. Sugoi translate as wonderful or terrific, or awesome. And, Kawaii might as well be the name of this country. I call it Kawaii land sometimes it’s such a cultural staple. it translates as cute or pretty. But, it’s a feeling attached to it that pretty much sums up the ambition of an entire culture. It’s pretty scary sometimes. Actually Moe can be used for stuff that is cute and disgusting simultaneously like Mickey Mouse or Hello Kitty.

8- Wakarimashita / Wakarimasen – (Aka: Wakatta, wakachatta, Wakannai, wakaranai, etc…) You got it? Got that? Understood? You with me? You there? Got it. Gotcha. I’m with you. I got it already. Alright already. I get it goddammit. I don’t know what the hell you mean. I don’t get it. I don’t know. Beats me. I don’t know anything about that! 

9- Kanaa / Kamo / Tabun/ Deshou – The subtlety of Japanese is expressed through words like these. Basically they are ways of stripping anything you say of any directness or surety or accountability. Would you like to go to the movies with me? Tabun iku. Iku kanaa. Iku kamo. Maybe I’ll go, I might go, I’ll probably go. By the time you get a straight answer the movies on DVD.

10- Onegai Shimasu – You want something? Stick this at the end of your request. It’s hard to refuse. it roughly translates as do me a favor but it’s much nicer. I use it all the time. I probably overuse it. Wanna put a cherry on top? Change the shimasu to the more formal itashimasu.

Shitsurei shimasu – (Aka shitsurei shimashita) Also deserves honorable mention. It means something to the effect of Pardon my intrusion or forgive me for disrupting this harmonious gathering. It’s another veritable staple.

One more thing. I mentioned that you shouldn’t expect any encouragement. But, you need to find something to keep you motivated. I went through several stages. Initially I wanted to impress people back home. Then I wanted to nanpa (pick up girls.) Then I wanted to spit in the face of the Japanese assertion that their language is incomprehensible to foregners. Then I wanted to learn how to cut them down to size verbally in their own language. Then I wanted to get a better job. Then I wanted to improve my quality of life and gain some independence from the circle of Japanese people I’d recruited to assist me in all task that require a high proficiency in japanese. Then I wanted to…Well, you get the idea. It doesn’t matter what you use to keep yourself going, just keep going! Just keep going!

That’s about all the leads and incentive I can give you on studying Japanese. Hang in there and you’ll be glad you did. You’ll be smiling all the way to the Immigration office to renew your visa (I just got a 3 year extension so I’ll be smiling til 2012 (-:

By the way, that leads me into #3: Just keep Smiling (-:


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