Moving to Japan, the Language Question


The subject of learning Japanese while one is living here can get a little heated. There are those who don’t want to learn the language at all, for various reasons and there are those (many of them in the blogosphere) who think none of those reasons could possibly be legitimate and subscribe to the wtf-of course-you-should-learn-the-language-what-are-you-some-arrogant-jumped-up-tourist-learn-the-language-or-gtf-out-of-the-country opinion.   Though I lean towards the learning the language side, the latter opinion is a touch harsh and, if examined honestly, based more on principle than practicality.  So, I thought I’d explore the question of how much, or little, Japanese one really needs to live here from a practical and perhaps a little more compassionate point of view.
To calm those reading this who are already sitting with tight chests, faces growing red and poised to skip straight to the bottom and flame me in a comment I’ll get this over with: OF COURSE there is no such thing as too much Japanese. And, also of course, utterly refusing to learn any Japanese and expecting everyone to understand your language (even if it is English) in all situations and doing the good ol’ shouting-slowly-as-if-they-are-deaf-or-stupid is plain boorish – there’s no excuse for it. But, as always, I want to pay respect to the people at whom these blog posts are mostly aimed – the expat wives,  people often forgotten by the young buck gaijin blogger crowd (and I say that with affection 🙂 ) who blithely rant about being here voluntarily and about what “should” be done.

Expat wives and their families are here for a finite amount of time, the average being three years but that is exaggerated by a small number of people who stay for much longer periods (and somehow remain on the ICT roll instead of being transferred permanently, lucky buggers!) I have only met two ICT’s here (remember 176 of them arrived just in the week we did) who are here for more than two years and many are here for 1 year (some 6 months but you don’t get to bring your family for that small a stint). Fact: you will not become fluent in that period of time even if you put an inordinate amount of time into it – and most expat wives don’t actually have that much time.

Most expat wives are, or suddenly find themselves happily on the brink of being, mothers. They have a husband who is basically absent, thanks to the hours they work here, and children to help settle in to this new country who had, potentially, only just got settled and made friends in the previous one. Spending more time than necessary learning a language which you have no chance at becoming fluent in, is just plain impractical unless you passionately want to do it and no one should be made to feel guilty if they don’t. Better to work out what you need to know to help you live well here and focus on that.

That being said, let me give one little suggestion which may actually be a bonus for an expat wife with children. If your children are going to learn Japanese at school you have, I think, something that those of us without children don’t have – the best teacher in the world! If you get right in there with them, learn Hiragana with them and follow along with their work you will be likely to pick up a lot and you’ll have a great bonding experience. Every kid uprooted from home would, I’m sure, love the opportunity to teach Mum or Dad a thing or two – so why not Japanese!

So on with the advice! *Note – I originally had a LOT of kana in this post but unfortunately it seems Live Writer could not input it properly to WordPress and I have no idea how to find out why not 😦 Sorry.

Doesn’t everyone speak English over there anyway?

The simple answer is: speak English, no. I am told that every Japanese high school graduate will have completed at least five years of English language study – this does not translate into speaking English. Both anecdotal evidence and discussions with Japanese tell me that those five years are spent learning to read and write English with very little, if any, emphasis on speaking or listening to the language which means that most Japanese are quite timid about speaking English, especially if they have given it a try and found you didn’t understand (exactly the same as us in Japanese, ne?)

I noted in Tokyo that many more people were far more fluent in spoken English and were appropriately more confident in speaking it – but these were mostly people who had been hired for their English skill, at the hotel for example.

Nevertheless, it is surprising how little you really need to use Japanese at all if you are just living your life as usual – shopping and keeping the family going. With charades and a basic smattering of phrases and an ear and mouth tuned to “katakana Engrish” you can get along fine for everyday excursions (as long as you know you can call on a translation service in an emergency – most consultant companies which move you over here will give you details on that.)

Where to start? Katakana

As I outlined in a post several months ago there are actually three types of the “Japanese writing”: Katakana; Hiragana and Kanji. Hiragana and Katakana are the two alphabets which are the straight out phonetic scripts – which means if you learn them you will be able to pronounce anything you see written in them by simply sounding them out. Except for a few extra combinations of symbols in Katakana, the syllables both scripts represent  are the same, the difference between them is purely visual (katakana being somewhat more angular) but only those words considered to be natively, or “purely” Japanese are written in Hiragana.  Katakana is used to write those words which are borrowed from other cultures whether English, French, Chinese or even Swedish.

So, why start with Katakana?

First, katakana is EVERYWHERE. It’s very trendy, or so it seems, to use the non-Japanese word for things, even where there is a legitimate Japanese word – especially in restaurants and cafes and other such tourist frequented places.  Shop and company names, even if they are Japanese, are more often in katakana it seems – the first katakana that I read without thinking was Bic Camera  and I’m sure I’m not alone in that!  So it’s very useful to find shops and such.

Second, if you can read katakana there is a huge chance that you will, after rolling it round your tongue for a bit, realise that it is actually an English word and you know what it means! For example in a restaurant you might see ko-ra  (cola) and  ko-hee, hoto, aisu(coffee, hot, iced) or even ba-ga (burger.)  And this is why I suggest katakana before Hiragana – even if you are lucky enough to see a word spelled completely in Hiragana rather than a combination of Hiragana and kanji, you still need to translate the word – not so with katakana! If you know a little French, you’ll be even better off, in Nagoya at least it seems there is a lot.

Finally, I have a third, more subtle reason for you: you will be training your ear.  No matter how little Japanese you intend to learn, you will want to be able to hear people clearly, at the least to recognise your own name!  There will be phrases repeated at you that you will want to pick up eventually so that you can respond properly – for example being asked if you have your loyalty card or whether you want hashi for your konbini lunch and whether you want it heated for you. If you don’t want to spend your entire stint in Japan in a fog of Charlie Brown’s teacher-style “Wah wah wah”ing, you will want to tune your ear to the syllables being spoken.

In my opinion, the best way to tune your ear is to hear your own language spoken with a heavy accent so that you have a reference point from which to work when you strive to change your mouth shapes to achieve the sounds of the other language – katakana gives you exactly that!  If you spend sometime getting used to the extra vowels the Japanese insert into their spoken English and the changes from ‘v’ to ‘b’ and ‘h’ to ‘f’  etc… you will also be
able to make yourself better understood as the Japanese may recognise words they were taught to read rather than pronounce.

For a great site to help you drill your katakana, in various types of font, too, you can go to Real Kana

What about Hiragana and Kanji, then?

Well, if you found learning katakana easy and relatively painless then, by all means, learn Hiragana but it will be fairly useless to you without learning kanji, too. I know Hiragana but I have not yet begun to learn any kanji and so I could spend hours on trains reading “kanji imasu”?”kanji imasen” so the most I know is that there is something that I could do or something that is somehow in the negative but I have no idea what because the rest of the verb is in kanji!  So my advice is that Hiragana and kanji can be put in the “only needed if I’m going to learn the language” column.  You will come across various kanji in your day to day life (like on the stop signs for example) and you will learn them because you will be prompted to ask about them and then you will have the context required to make the memory stick.

There must be some words I really need to know?

Of course there are and here’s a list of things to learn before you arrive (if possible.)

The Japanese have a basic set of numbers which you should learn into the thousands and tens of thousands for money. When it comes to counting things, though, the Japanese have different variations on the number words which go with different suffixes depending on what it is you are counting.  Don’t worry too much about it as you will gradually pick up the correct counting suffixes as you go (you learn that the suffix for “floor”, as in second floor, is “kai” very quickly as your lift announces each floor it stops on in your hotel!) To start with, though, learn the basic counting which children are first taught and which will be okay to cover everything until you learn better – the basic starts with “hitotsu, futatsu, mitsu,” that’s one, two, three of something where “ichi, ni, san” is just one, two, three.

Leaving the actual exchange rates aside, the Japanese don’t really have the equivalent of the word “dollar” and instead count in “en” (which is where ‘yen’ comes from) and is the equivalent to a cent (meaning it is the base currency). You will need to get used to dealing in hundreds of yen instead of dollars and thousands of yen instead of tens of dollars etc… but it is fairly easy as it is straight numbers with en on the end.  Supermarket shopping will really help you with this – not just in the obvious way when working out your payment at the end but the check out person will say the price of each item they have just scanned as it comes up – even if they scan 6 of the same things in a row  they will say the price six times – so if you listen and watch the price coming up you will get used tot he money really quickly!

The Usual Pleasantries

Such as:  (note – once again apologies for the lack of kana, when it comes to the Romaji, English letters, a twofold warning – first, I haven’t learned my Japanese using romaji and two, there are different ways to write things so it may be different to what you are used to – this is one of the reasons I refuse to learn Japanese in romaji, with kana there is less confusion about pronunciation.)

Good morning = ohaio gozaimasu – used till about 11am

Good day = konnichi wa – any time is cool

Good Evening =  konban wa  – use after 5ish or sundown

Please (as in please do sthg for me) = onegaishimasu

Please (as in please give sthg to me) =  kudasai

Please (as in please, do come in or feel free to do sthg) =  douzo – as in “please do come inside” or “please do take my seat” if you are offering a seat to an elderly person on a train – in these cases you only need the word douzo and the gesture toward the inside or the seat.

I’m sorry (for doing something wrong)  = komenasai – a bow works well with this one … as with all of these really lol

Excuse me/Thank you (for going to such trouble for me) =  sumimasen – use this when pushing through a crowd as “excuse me” or as a “thank you” if someone picks up something you have dropped or puts themselves out in some courteous way

Thank you = (doumo) arigatou (gozaimasu) – add gozaimasu to be polite, i.e, all the time, and all three to be extra polite (as far as I understand)

Do you speak English?  Eigo ga hanasemasuka?

I don’t speak Japanese. Nihongo ga hanasemasen.

There will be countless other phrases you will gradually learn during your stay and it will be made easier if you have tuned your ear by learning katakana.

A Last note on addresses

You will note fairly quickly that the Japanese address system is difficult, to say the least. The system is based around blocks rather than street names and numbers and all but the largest of Japanese roads have no name at all. This is why when you manage to ask someone where something is they will give you a long list of directions and buildings it is near. I suggest that you have your address written in Kanji and keep it with you on either business type cards or even in a small notebook which you carry everywhere so that you can just show it to people when you need it.  This still may not help, though, I have found that many people (particularly taxi drivers) don’t know how to find our address even when looking at the kanji and so it is best to just tell them the station nearby and the name of the biggest road and then wave madly saying migi! (right!) or hidari! (left!)  and then Hai! Ima! (Yes! Now!)  So get to know the routes to your house that you might need to guide a taxi along!

I think that will do for yet another ridiculously long post! I hope it is useful and that it has put your mind to rest if you were losing sleep about the language issue.

If anyone who has been through the move has any other thoughts or phrases to add – please do pop them in the comments – every bit helps!

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11 comments on “Moving to Japan, the Language Question”
  1. Anonymous says:

    Moving to Japan Tips: The Language Question…
    I have at last managed to pump out another in my Moving to Japan series, this time on how much language you really need to move here. As usual it is aimed at the only semi-voluntary crowd of expat wives (lol) but should be useful to others, too. …


  2. I love it – great post! There is a lot of guilt and frustration about learning the language and you are absolutely correct that it isn’t reasonable to expect to become fluent in the short period of time that most people are ‘assigned’ to Japan.
    Makes me wish I had kids though so I could take advantage of the structure in their language education 😉 which by the way is a great tip.


  3. Anonymous says:

    […] another great take on How Much Japanese? take a moment to read through Moving to Japan Tips: The Language Question at Narrative Disorder which is written from the perspective of an expatriate assigned to […]


  4. I used a flash card program called Anki to learn hiragana and katakana. A similar program, called Genius, will serve the same function. Alternatively, if you have a Nintendo DS, try using “Japanese Coach” to learn.
    Great post. Very useful info.
    Adding your blog to 2JPN, hope that’s ok.


  5. A few tools that can send you from no experience to basic functionality quick-style.
    -Japanese dubs of American TV. Take your pick of American primetime, and it’s probably on Japanese cable, with the voices entirely dubbed over. You’ll get the plot enough to be able to put their speech into context, and if you stick with it, you’ll get darned good at aural comprehension.
    -Rikaichan. Google it. A firefox plugin that displays a reading and definition for moused-over Japanese anywhere on the internets.
    -Denshi-Jisho (electronic dictionary) or Nintendo DS. Write a kanji in (your strokes don’t need to be perfect), and it’ll look it up for you. While you’ll just get frustrated if you try to sit down and read a newspaper, for stuff like deciphering shop and place names, it’s indispensible.
    -Heisig’s “Remembering the Kanji.” It’s pretty counter-intuitive, and kind of a waste if you’ve already got a good number of Kanji under your belt, but you can literally go from zero experience to being able to get meaning out of a newspaper article in the space of 6-12 months (dag!). I wish I had found it way earlier in my studies.
    Good luck!


  6. Hi Rick,Thanks for stopping in and I’m happy for you to add Narrative Disorder to 2JPN – nice resource you are building there! Superman uses Anki to learn Kanji (which is his first priority as his work documents are filled with kanji but he has little need to speak the language) and he swears by it.
    Thanks for the extra tips! A Denshi Jishou is a great idea for checking labels in shops or deciphering those little things that come in the mail, like failure to deliver notices for packages. I have one that I bought online from a lovely expat here in Japan who puts together systems especially made for English speakers. I found this system far less frightening than the Japanese ones for which you need a slightly higher than beginner skill to use with confidence. I wrote a review of mine a few months back. Thanks for the reminder!


  7. I started studying Japanese back home for a couple of years before even deciding to come live in Japan. It was just fun for me, and I enjoyed so much about Japan that it was easy to stick with. After arriving, it didn’t take long for me to become conversationally fluent, even though I wasn’t, and am still not by any stretch, good at Japanese.
    I suppose, at first, I used to get annoyed by people who didn’t spend much time learning the language. But, after the months started to turn into years, and I saw how transient the Japan experiences of so many people were, I realized it was pretty pointless for them to spend much time learning more than just survival Japanese. I mean, if we’re just talking a year or so, that’s pretty much an extended tourist’s stint. Enjoying one’s stay as much as possible and not letting guilty feelings about minimal Japanese skills bring about stress and frustration is a better way to go for people who have a relatively quick exit-from-Japan plan.
    That being said, people who spend 5+ years in a foreign country without gaining some measure of ability to communicate in that country’s language are pretty hard to understand.


  8. Totally agree, Billy though I’d say three years is enough time to do have a chance at becoming decently good at the language and I honestly don’t understand why anyone would want to be in a country for that long and not want to have the advantage and insight that the language would give. Then again, I have friends who have been here longer than three years and just have been working so many hours teaching English, without any assistance from their company for lessons or even time to study and I can understand that it can be a real struggle.The ones I really don’t understand, though, are those who marry Japanese and don’t make any attempt to learn – even if they met in another country and only moved here later, that says soo much to me – none of it good 😦


  9. Great post. I find it interesting that you suggest starting with Katakana. I never looked at it that way, and if your goal is to live there, I can definitely understand your point of view. I really need to concentrate on Katakana. I have a pretty good grasp of Hiragana, and a handful of Kanji, but I still don’t feel comfortable with Katakana.


  10. In the interests of full disclosure – I learned hiragana first, too (way back in early high school actually and again last year when we started lessons) and I avoided katakana for the looongest time because I had this loony idea that I would mix up the two scripts because they have the same sounds. If you are planning to learn Japanese in a serious way then you need to learn both at the start and I am very strongly for learning all Japanese in kana rather than romaji (that’s another post) we insisted upon the kana version of text books etc…
    If, however, you don’t plan on learning the language fully or more than a smattering of phrases just to get along (which includes tourists here for just a week or two) then katakana is outrageously useful while hiragana really isn’t useful at all since even if you get some furigana above the knaji hiragana will be mixed with you still won’t understand the word.


  11. i still have problems with katakana… for less familiar words, i have to read it aloud a few times before something in my head goes “click”.


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