learning japanese

Do you speak Japanese? When inquiring minds learn I am spending a lot of time in Japan, I am invariably asked this question.

It’s a fair question, but one that constantly reminds me that the unfortunate answer is no, I do not speak Japanese!

Will I learn to speak Japanese? That’s a more complicated question.let's learn

At first, I thought I could get by if I only learned conversational Japanese, but friends living in Japan looked doubtful when they heard my plan. They gently suggested that I learn to read and write as well. Taking their advice, I bought books about learning to read and write hiragana, katakana or kanji.  I bought apps as well, this being the technological age.  With each new effort and purchase I realized just how far I had to go.  That’s when things started to go downhill.

j for dummiesEach new teaching venue stressed how simple the process of learning would be. I can easily imagine thousands of other gullible and overly optimistic foreigners doing the same.  BIG LESSON LEARNED: there are no shortcuts.

Becoming genuinely competent in the language requires a BIG commitment of time and energy.  I’m now back to wondering if I should limit myself to learning conversational Japanese as I originally planned twenty years ago.  I also know that wondering won’t get me very far. If I’m ever to make significant progress while I’m here in Kyoto, I’ll need to get a tutor for some intense one on one.

I have learned some basic critical phrases, mostly about how and when to be polite. I know when to say sumimasen (I’m sorry for the trouble I’ve caused you). You can’t go wrong saying sumimasen for most interpersonal interactions, be it requesting a menu, when climbing into a taxi, before buying something at a store, or requesting a glass of water, beer or sake at a restaurant, or just getting someone’s attention. sumimasen

Additionally I can wow you with yes/no, hot/cold, big/small/, this/that/, here/there, ok, where is the bathroom? pretty, cute, dog, cat, etc.; I essentially have the vocabulary of an 18 month old just learning how to talk, except the toddler wouldn’t care where the bathroom is.cute toddler

I’ve got to do better!!


Japanese are noted worldwide for their politeness to each other and to their guests as well.  If you’re not prepared for this tradition, it can catch you a bit off guard and make you feel as if you’re just a step above a barbarian, in terms of manners.

It took very little for me to fall in love with Japan.   On my first visit there, in 1983, I didn’t travel far beyond a covered shopping arcade in the large business- oriented city of Osaka. The visual explosion of color, pattern, and sights in that commercial tunnel immediately beguiled me. I slowly snaked my way through the long arcade because I felt compelled to look at absolutely everything.  It was a new and exotic world.

shopping arcade

japanese anime


The arcade terminated at the spotless glass doors of a Japanese department store. A friend and I arrived a few minutes before opening.  We watched dozens of clerks, in immaculately tailored uniforms, bustling around in preparation for this event. At precisely 10 AM, with a great sense of importance, the manager of the store unlocked the doors, warmly greeting all the waiting customers.

My friend and I were the first to enter. We were not quite ready for our experience as Exceptionally Honored Customers.  Being the first in line, we began to make our own way past the gauntlet of welcoming sales people .  It seemed as if suddenly, we had become royalty.

A clerk stood silently in front of every single counter. To our great surprise, as we passed them, each salesperson bowed and wished us welcome.  It seemed as if suddenly, we had become royalty.

woman bowingsalesclerks bowing

As a foreigner, I try not to offend.  Unprepared for this show of politeness, my friend and I made a split second decision that the right thing to do was to bow back.  We slowly inched our way through the large first floor main aisle of the store, bowing  in response to each clerk on our right and then our left.  When at last we reached the escalators where there was no more bowing possible, we turned around to note that the Japanese customers who had entered behind us performed no such exchange of bows, they’d just strolled on in!

japanese types of bows

Our bowing performance had  probably held up the rows of other customers behind us, because no one had passed us.  They were probably having too much fun watching us.  All I could think of was that we were like the toy drinking birds of my childhood, who would bow formally and incessantly at the waist towards a glass of water.  All we were missing were the bowler hat and tail feathers!

drinking birdAs I looked over my shoulder, I expected to see everyone in the store erupting in laughter, but I think everyone was far too polite to show their amusement. My friend and I quickly were overtaken by our own laughter and embarrassment.

I did suspect that our foolishness must have made a great tale around many supper tables that evening!  Sometimes, the eager – to – please and uninformed can be TOO polite!  Lesson learned.