Japan and English

Japan has a problem with English, that much I’m aware.

They have two mentalities, I think, going against them here.

First, this is a culture that doesn’t like mistakes. There’s a kind of public shaming that takes place, even in elementary school classrooms where I used to do assistant teaching, when someone makes a mistake. I remember being told by my organization at the time to not point out mistakes teachers write in English on chalkboards. I thought that was strange because it meant the kids would be writing down in their notebooks blatantly wrong English and learning it. However, pride gets in the way here, I think. People here want to just magically be perfect at English. As anyone who’s learned a second language can attest, however, mistakes come with the territory of learning a language. Even if you’ve never tried to learn a second language, think back to when you were a kid learning your native language. Did you come out of the womb speaking that language perfectly? I think not. Mistakes are crucial to language learning, and Japan seems to be allergic to mistakes.

Second, they share the isolationist mentality that America enjoys as well – Why bother learning this language when we live in Japan? For America, I often hear the idea of “We’re never leaving the States so why learn anything beyond English?” Japan has that mentality, too, I think.

I don’t have a clear answer to why anyone should learn another language, just my own opinion. I think learning another language helps sharpen your mind, for one thing, but it also helps you better understand just how vast the world is. Even if you never leave your own country, at least you’ll have experienced a taste of a different culture in trying to learn another language. I think that’s so crucial to human development and empathy.

I also understand that English is the major second language of the world, but I think that’s kind of a shame because English is just so complicated and contradictory. I remember trying to learn Esperanto just for fun, and I have to say the creators really did work hard to make that language so much easier to learn than English.

As Esperanto isn’t taking off at all, however, unfortunately lots of people across the world have to suffer through the insanity that is English. And I think Japan’s roadblocks to English success aren’t going to go away anytime soon.

Drinks in Japan

A milk tea that says it will help you stay healthy. The label at the top proclaims “A first in Japan!”

Every time I visit the grocery store, I love perusing the bottled drinks section because I’ll usually run into a drink I’ve never seen before.

Companies like Pepsi love putting out “limited edition” flavors, which for me is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s fun seeing what’s new. On the other hand, if I love one of those flavors, I know they’ll only be there for a month or so and then vanish.

My favorite drink Pepsi has produced thus far was Blue Hawaii from back in 2008. I was studying abroad in Kyoto at the time, and it was my drink of choice for almost the entire time I was there. I sadly, at the time, wasn’t aware that this was limited edition. When I came back to Japan about a year later, devastation reigned when I scoured grocery store after grocery store and never found a single one.

I think drink companies marketing in Japan have all jumped on the latest bandwagon – healthy drinks. Over the past couple of years, I’ve seen an outcropping of drinks that declare they will: lower your cholesterol, burn off fat, help your body not process too much sugar, keep your immune system up, or help you de-stress. I don’t trust any of them, but I still like to try them.

The latest find in the “healthy drinks” department is milk tea (seen above) that seems to be stating it will help you stay healthy somehow. The label says there are probiotic elements in the tea, though it doesn’t have the Health Ministry’s stamp of approval (the silhouette of a person with their hands up in the air) so I have no idea if this actually does anything at all. I’m highly skeptical, but I still bought one to try it.

Studying Japanese

To native English-speaking people, Japanese poses several challenges. In fact, the Foreign Service Institute put it in the top-four hardest languages for us to learn as a second language.

Japanese earns this place of honor largely for its writing systems.

Yes, systems plural.

While English enjoys one writing system (the alphabet), Japan decided it’d be fun to mix three writing systems together, which they do all the time. You can actually see all three in action in one sentence.

For example: ここでサインして下さい。(Please sign here)

Here’s a quick breakdown of the writing systems.

Hiragana ひらがな

This is the first writing system people in Japan learn. Every symbol represents one sound only, which is easier than the alphabet in many respects (I’m looking at you, letters A, and C).

Katakana カタカナ

This is the second writing system, and it’s mainly used to put foreign words into Japanese. This isn’t the only reason for its use, but I think it’s the main one. Just like with hiragana, each symbol represents only one sound. There is one katakana symbol for every hiragana symbol.

Kanji 漢字

This is where many people want to just throw in the towel with Japanese. Each Chinese-imported character represents not only sounds (and the sound can change depending on the surrounding Chinese characters), but ideas. For example, 木. You can read it as “ki”, and it means “tree.”

It might help your mind to know right now that there is kanji for almost every noun you can think of. Even if Japanese usually write coffee as コーヒー (in katakana), you’ll often see older coffee houses writing the word as 珈琲 (coffee) on their store signs. There’s kanji for everything.


Sounds – It’s important to understand that Japanese has a pretty bare selection of sounds it can make compared to English. That’s why it’s just plain wrong to pronounce “karaoke” as “care-ee-oh-key” because Japanese symbols only have one sound per symbol. Karaoke is written as カラオケ in katakana (“empty orchestra”), where the カ symbol can only be read as “kah”, ラ can only be read as “rah”, オ can only be read as “oh” and ケ can only be read as “kay.” Together, you get “kah-rah-oh-kay.” If you can figure this out early on in your studies, you will swiftly master pronunciation.

I think the best way to learn how to properly pronounce Japanese is to listen to it as much as you can. Just like the way babies learn. Even if you’re not a fan of anime, try to find a TV drama, a movie or a TV show in Japanese that you can listen to with subtitles. It’ll help you listen to the rhythm and ways of speaking the language. If there’s a Japanese club nearby or a language exchange, go for it.

I know of a lot of native English-speaking people who brag about how easy it is to pronounce Japanese, only to sound exactly like an English-speaking person trying to speak Japanese. Your goal should be to sound Japanese. My favorite challenge is to try fooling people on the phone into thinking I’m a native Japanese person. I’ve found that people who are good at music tend to be good at copying pronunciation for various languages. That’s just what I’ve found anyway.

Writing hiragana and katakana – This is painful, but the sooner you can ingrain hiragana and katakana into your head, the better. I’ve heard of some Japanese classes sticking with Romanized Japanese for far too long. Writing out Japanese in Roman lettering will not help you out here that much. Even if you never master kanji, at least being able to write out things like “I’m lost” or “Where is the station?” in hiragana or even katakana will vastly improve your odds of the average Japanese person helping you.

The Japanese way of learning is to write each symbol over and over again until you can write it in your sleep. Do whatever you can to memorize each one. More and more handwriting is getting worse here, and people’s expectations of your writing abilities are low, but if you really want to become a master calligrapher, then I recommend finding some children’s hiragana/katakana workbooks online and copying what you see. Stroke order in Japanese is important so pay attention to that, too. This is all about precision and beauty.

Learning kanji – Another painful thing to learn, but again it’s all about memorization. It really helps, I think, to read children’s books where they put the way to read kanji (in hiragana, which they call “furigana”) above the actual kanji. Manga meant for younger people also usually put the furigana above all the kanji. This helps you remember how to read a lot of the kanji. Flash cards also helped me a lot, as did writing the words over and over again. To really get kanji to soak into your brain, you really need to make it a part of your life. I also love that a lot of Japanese TV shows will, for some reason, write out what the person on the screen is saying, as they’re saying it. It’s like they put closed-captioning on everything. This immensely helps me learn how to read kanji. Again, stroke order is king here.

Dictionaries – I know many people like to buy electronic dictionaries, but I am going to confess to you here that I have gotten to a passing level of Japanese with the help of Nihongodict.com. They are definitely not paying me to write this, but I love them. It’s a free online dictionary that I’ve been using for years and years, and it’s gotten me to where I am today. So thank you, people at Nihongodict.com

Beyond that, kanji dictionaries can definitely help. I wouldn’t really bother with hiragana and katakana ones beyond children’s workbooks (I have learned to never think children’s books are beneath me when learning a second language). I also love reading manga (mostly heart-warming romances). You’d be surprised to find there’s a manga basically for any interest you can think of. I’m sure there’s a gardening one out there I’ve missed.

Japanese TV dramas – Part One

I am a huge fan of so many of the TV dramas Japan has produced over the years. I’m a huge sucker for romantic gestures in light-hearted romantic comedies, in general.

I’m going to introduce a few of my favorites and hope maybe one day you might try to watch them.

General note about Japanese TV dramas

To the great irritation of a lot of my Japanese friends – who say they love American TV shows so much more because big budgets mean movie-like quality – most Japanese TV shows simply don’t have money for good special effects. This is not the place to go for that.

Instead, Japanese TV dramas must rely on great acting and great storytelling to make for a great series.

Unlike American TV shows that can go into 14 seasons or more, Japan usually only ever has one season of a drama, with about 10 episodes. If the show does amazingly well with viewership ratings, they’ll make another a couple more episodes, then maybe a second season. If that goes well, they’ll put out a movie and be done with it.

The only massive exception I’ve seen to this is a cop show called Aibou, 相棒 (“Partner”), which has done 19 seasons.

As such, the stories are usually fairly well thought out, and the acting can be really good. I like that special effects also can’t distract from bad acting or bad stories. If it’s bad, you can immediately tell. Stories that aren’t well received usually stop by around episode 10, sometimes 8.

Hana Yori Dango (花より男子)

(Boys over Flowers – this is a play-on-words for the phrase hana yori dango, which sounds the same, but the kanji for dango is supposed to be 団子, a type of wagashi Japanese sweet, and it means “preferring food over looking at flowers”).

My favorite TV romantic drama of all time, it was truly a force to be reckoned with when it came out. It did so well that they added more episodes, then a second season, then a movie. Everything this production team did was adored in Japan.

Brief synopsis: A ridiculously poor family pours their money into sending their daughter to a high school for the rich in the hopes she marries rich (it’s cringe-worthy just writing here). The daughter has no interest in anyone there, loathing their self-entitlement sentiments, until she finally makes a friend at the school. When that friend ends up on the wrong side of one of the school’s elite students, the daughter shows the whole school what she’s made of.

Review: While I hate the parents and their idea of marrying off their daughter to bring themselves out of poverty, I love basically everything else about this incredibly ridiculous but fun drama. I love watching the male lead (Matsumoto Jun) figure out how to be a human being, I love the daughter (Inoue Mao) for being so unapologetically strong. The two had such strong chemistry in this series that there are still rumors they’re actually dating.

Saikou no Rikon (最高の離婚)

(The greatest divorce).

This is my favorite TV drama for acting. It was received fairly well, though as far as I know, it only got a special (basically a one-hour episode recapping the series and adding about five minutes of original content). I would’ve loved to have seen more.

Brief synopsis: An extremely high-maintenance man wonders more and more how he ended up marrying his polar opposite. Meanwhile, an old flame of his ends up moving into his neighborhood.

Review: My God the acting in this is just superb. I can’t even begin to properly describe how much I love it. To me, this entire series was like watching a stage play on TV. This, I think, is what happens when you boil down a good script to the very best it can be and mix in some high-quality acting. It’s just a treasure to watch.

Although a lot of places seem to describe this as a romantic comedy, a dramedy would be a better description. There are quite a few gut-punching moments in here mixed so beautifully with antics. I can’t recommend this show enough.

Ryusei no Kizuna 流星の絆

(Meteoric bonds?)

This is truly a gut-wrenching story with more fantastic acting from some of the top actors in Japan all in the same drama (much like Saikou no Rikon).

Brief synopsis: Three children are left orphaned after the brutal murder of their parents. When the police can’t find a suspect, the three vow to one day catch the murderer.

Review: This is not a happy drama, though there are moments of light-heartedness. It’s part whodunit, part grieving. There’s nothing like seeing that the older brother’s desktop picture is the police profile sketch of the potential suspect. And the reveal of who the suspect actually is…it’s just incredible.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Letters from Iwo Jima, you might recognize the lead in this: Ninomiya Kazunari, who’s a pop idol currently on hiatus.

This is a tragedy, though the ending is a little bit healing. There’s closure, at least.

Last Friends ラスト フレンズ

This is not for the faint-of-heart or for anyone who doesn’t want to relive being in an abusive relationship. That being said, I love that this drama tackled incredibly important topics Japan usually doesn’t love talking about: gender identity, controlling behavior, abusive relationships that are well hidden.

Brief synopsis: A woman moves in with her boyfriend, only to find out he’s not at all what he seems. Meanwhile, her best friend is struggling with being trapped in a woman’s body while trying to hide her feelings for her friend.

Review: This is not only another unhappy drama, it’s really intense. The abusive boyfriend is played, quite masterfully, by a Japanese pop idol named Nishikido Ryo. (He’s also in the previously mentioned Ryusei no Kizuna) Seeing him acting like this is just something I’ll never get out of my head, no matter how many times I see him in other things. Another actor named Eita, who is famous for his superb acting, also makes an appearance here. (You can also see him in the previously mentioned Saikou no Rikon.) I will never be able to express how much I love Ueno Juri in this show, either. She’s fantastic on so many levels.

Again, this is not a happy show. There are a few sparse moments of levity, but mostly it’s wondering how long before Nishikido Ryo’s character just finally kills his girlfriend. Mercifully, he doesn’t, I’d like to add. I love it for the acting; I love it for tackling tough subjects.