Tongue tied

I arrived in Japan at the end of January 2003. It was to be a break from University just before I graduated and went into the real world. I previously had no real interest in Japan apart from what I had to study as part of my International Relations course. I wasn’t into anime or manga, I didn’t speak the language, or eat the food. So why did I choose Japan as opposed to Hong Kong, Korea, and China which were other options?

I’d studied aspects of all these countries but mostly from a political and economic view with minimal looks at social issues. Assessing the modernization and development of the countries it was clear that Japan was the leader in this respect although the others were showing signs of growth. For me the more developed a country was the more comfortable I thought it would be to live, in particular, the language. Oh how wrong I was on that account.

Upon breaching the arrivals gate I was warmly welcomed by the representative of the company I would be working for but that was the last warm thing I’d experience that day. As the sliding doors opened I – in my woefully insufficient sweater – was smacked in the face by the most biting cold I’d ever experienced. It was snowing in Osaka that day and white covered the landscape like I had only seen in the movies and in paintings until now. It’s one thing to see depictions of Northern hemisphere winters but another to feel it.

Anyway my guide ushered me to the train which would immediately whisk me away to the city of Hiroshima. I was informed my luggage containing my warmer clothes would arrive the following day. Here is where the first sign of the struggle I’d have communicating with the locals would arise.

I thought I’d get a lay of the land around my new digs and see what, if any, interesting restaurants, bars, shops were nearby. On my excursion I began to feel a little peckish but unable to read the signs and not being so adventurous at the time I settled on KFC because “how hard could that be to order?”

The menu looked pretty much the same as back home so I ordered a zinger set and when the cashier asked which drink I’d like I answered “Coke” to which I got a puzzled look and an inquisitive “Coke?” Confirming that I indeed did request a coke she still looked confused and the awkwardness increased as neither of us knew what was happening. I tried to order it once more but to make sure there was no confusion this time I said “Coca Cola”. Immediately it registered on her face what I meant and she repeated the word “cola” which I’ve since learnt is the word you use regardless of brand. But a KFC worker not knowing the commonly used name of the most popular beverage in the world made me think I might need to learn the language at a quicker than planned pace.

I spent the next three months going out as much as possible and immersing myself in the city and the culture. Naturally I learnt all the bad words first many of which the more demure Japanese will feign ignorance of. Mostly though I learnt survival Japanese as well as some of the local dialect known as Hiroshima-ben (considered very rough and identified with the Yakuza).

Learning the language would present some embarrassing moments in itself. There are less sound in Japanese than English so some words are pronounced the same or very similar even though the meanings are completely different. Context is key as well as the grammar in order to differentiate between meanings.

One day needing string for the paper garbage bags I went to the convenience store to purchase some. The word for string is “himo” (紐) and “do you have?” is “arimasuka?” So you should say something like “Himo ga arimasuka?” It’s quite simple and should not pose a problem. As I was looking along the aisles for the string the female shop staff approached – a rarity for Japanese staff to voluntarily approach a foreigner because of language fears – and asked me if I needed help to which I replied, “himo ga imasuka?” She looked at me a little shocked but fortunately she understood my mistake and didn’t slap me right there on the spot. The word “imasuka” is basically “do you have” for people e.g. “Boifurendo imasuka?” is “do you have a boyfriend?”

Using imasuka instead of arimasuka changed the meaning of himo to another word that sounds the same which meant I asked her, “do you have a pimp?” Quickly realizing my error I spat out the correct phrasing with a few embarrassed apologies that she fortunately took with good humour.

The worst mistake I made was fortunately limited to an audience of one. My Japanese friend and I were driving to a restaurant and he was telling me about the practice of “gokon” which is a small group of single women and men – 3-4 each usually – who are introduced by mutual friends and they go out for a blind group date. It’s a very common practice and how many people here meet their partners. Any way I thought this sounded like a fun time so I thought I’d suggest to me friend that we organise such an evening by declaring excitedly “gokan shimashou!” Instead of an expected positive nod to this wonderful idea all I got back from him was a long “Eeeeeeeeeeeeeh!? What did you say!?

Becuase I said “gokan” instead of “gokon” I ended up asking for something completely different in the worst possible way. The word “gokan” means “rape” in Japanese so I basically suggested to my friend that we do some raping. Mortified yet relieved I had not made the mistake with any women I vowed to improve my vocabulary even more.

Recent changes to the education system and how English is taught in schools should ensure English is more commonly spoken. Previously English lessons at school were almost entirely taught in Japanese with the focus being on grammar. The Japanese English teachers themselves in many cases couldn’t speak English so they worked from text books exclusively. It meant though every student in Japan would study English for about four years and at the end of it barely being able to ask “Where are you from?”

I am grateful that the lack of English here even in tourist spots meant I had to take the time to at least get a basic understanding and learn to partially read Japanese. With three different writing systems (kanji, hiragana, and katakana) reading and writing is the most difficult aspect of Japanese which is the opposite to the problem Japanese have with English and the listening and speaking side.

English speakers are fortunate that it is now the lingua franca around most of the world. We can pretty much travel anywhere and get by using our native tongue. But while Japan is slowly changing it is still one of the last places where the native population have remained – in practical terms – untouched by the English juggernaut.

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