What does Japanese sound like if you directly translate it into English? Let’s talk about keigo.

As a native English speaker learning Japanese means throwing out everything you know linguistically and basically starting from scratch. Vocabulary, sentence structure, writing, phrasing, and idiom.

After living in Japan so long, especially after the 6 years of Japanese-only schooling, it seems my brain has decided to create a Japanese mode and an English mode in order to compensate for the differences between the two languages. If I go into Japanese mode, I end up sounding really stupid if I have to say anything complicated in English, like describing how something technical works, even if I can describe it normally in Japanese. My brain just says “NOPE.” and lets me down more often than not.

I think I’m not alone when I say that simultaneous interpretation is, while not incredibly difficult with some practice, very tiring. It’s like your brain is playing a tennis match myself running back and forth to each side of the court to keep the ball in play.

The Japanese language is so essential to understand how the culture works that I really believe that having a grasp on how real Japanese conversations work, even on the basic structural level, will lead to many insights into how Japanese people really feel about a situation, even if communication done in English or some other language.

Direct translations (直訳) of Japanese is probably the cause for many of the hilarious or strange Engrish that is generally associated with Japan. (Fun fact: If you backwards engineer some Engrish to Japanese again, it will usually not sound so weird in its native Japanese.) I can kind of understand why that happens though… you can’t directly translate Japanese most of the time with a natural sounding outcome in English.

I’ve thrown together a simple chart to explain a bit about keigo (敬語, polite language) because the concept of honorific and humble speech does not really exist in English in the capacity that it does in Japanese, and it is one of those things that does not directly translate well. Many learners of Japanese stumble with keigo (myself included), but if you can figure out your social proximity to the person you are talking with, then it becomes easier to figure out what level of politeness you should try to use while speaking.

Understand your place in this world, and all will be well.

Understand your place in this world, and all will be well.

Just to further clarify what keigo actually sounds like, here is a template for a business email that I’ve directly translated into English without consideration of how the receiver (a native or proficient English speaker) would react to reading it. Formalities, honorific tone, vocabulary, and all that have been preserved while trying to be as grammatically correct as possible. This is completely normal sounding in Japanese.

XYZ Inc.

Mr. (or Mrs.) Watanabe

I am always in your esteemed care.
This is ABC Inc.’s Suzuki Taro.

Today, during your busy schedule, I humbly partook of your valuable time,
and I am terribly grateful.

Although the time was short, if we were able to humbly receive your honourable understanding for our firm’s ideas, and service’s merits, I would be happy.

As for your esteemed questioned that I humbly received, concerning the possible limits for the “up-to-you plan” custimization,
it will be upon confirmation from our firm’s service department,
and I humbly will give you another esteemed contact tomorrow.

From hereon as well, if for your honourable company there is anything that would assist you,
I was humbly thinking if I could introduce information.

This is simple, and just a hasty note to express my gratitude.
From now on, I humbly implore you to treat me well.


(Original Text)








While in English I think for this email you would probably just keep it short and sweet saying something like “It was great meeting you today, thanks for your time. Let me know what you think.” Some people would probably be really annoyed to get a flowery, long email like the one above, regardless of your relationship to each other. However, in Japanese if you were to write something short like that to a new client, it would probably make the person on the receiving end feel uncomfortable and give the impression that you are unnecessarily blunt. We don’t want that now, do we?

(Unless you really want to be known as that “pushy, blunt foreign guy ”…that’s your call. I’ll totally respect it.)

Intra-office marriage in Tokyo is more common than you think.

This is the story I want to share with my grandkids.

This is the story I’d like to share with my grandkids.

The typical office working environment in Tokyo can be brutal (mentally and physically). Overtime is expected to some extent on a daily basis, and like most other Japanese social constructs, there is a strong emphasis on building a harmonious group. Depending on your industry, staying at work until 8, 9 or 10pm everyday can be completely normal. Early morning to late at night with the same group of people day in, day out. You share coffee and meals together on a regular basis, and just based on the vast amount of time spent together, it becomes pretty easy to form close bonds.

This makes, to me at least, dating between coworkers seem like a perfectly reasonable thing to happen. I’m not talking about sordid office affairs here, but rather goofy, awkward crushes between two single people blooming into a serious committed relationship.

Jim and Pam know what I’m talking about.

Jim and Pam know what I’m talking about.

I personally know about 7-8 or so couples that are the result of shanai kekkon (intra-office marriage 社内結婚), and it seems like it one of the easiest ways for people to hit it off if you are a busy, young professional.

Long hours combined with team assignments and frequent office nomikai (drinking parties 飲み会) are the right ingredients needed to create the spark between two people. Trust me, I’ve seen enough episodes of the Young and the Restless to know what I’m talking about.

This all holds specially true in some Japanese companies where younger people are usually de facto sorted by age due to the new graduate system. You will spend A LOT of time of people around your own age. Your life, as a new graduate, will revolve around your job. You will probably not have enough time to go on regular dates or see a potential sweetheart more than 2-3 times a month if you are really busy (because remember, he/she will probably be in a similar situation to yourself!).

If you are dating someone who is in the same company as yourself, it is easier to see them frequently. Even if it is as a group, you can regularly grab lunch or dinner, and it takes less time to get to know them when compared to going on sporadic dates. You also probably have more topics in common that you can chat about, and can probably even help each other out with work-related issues.

Are Japanese companies okay with shanai kekkon? Depends. Some places will make you break up or have one person quit if they find out you are dating or planning to marry. Some places will allow it, but will place you in different departments if needed. Some places think it is the bee knees and will get pissed face drunk at your marriage ceremony to celebrate your new life together.

I think many people who’re seeing their coworker* will keep it on the down low until they make a formal marriage announcement because dealing with the aftermath of a break-up is probably 100 times worse if everyone around knows the two people involved. Office gossip in Japan is a beast unto itself.


Thoughts from my Japanese husband: Movie edition

In order to find important cultural differences in our relationship, and myself having the strong desire to work for the good of science, I often engage in discussions with my husband to further understand his perspective on things we experience together.

I have asked him in English about what he thought of some films we watched together. From his answers I have compiled a list of 1 line movie reviews. Please keep in mind he is a very special guy, and his answers reflect his specialness.

Probably more accurate than Rotten Tomatoes. For Real.

1. Intersteller
“Now I know what it feels like to be a father.”

2. American Sniper
“I don’t know why it had to end so sad. That’s depressing”

3. Tom Hanks
Not a movie, but he asked me if Tom Hanks was in all those documentaries like Captain Phillips.

4. Poltergeist

5. The Lego Movie
“Everything is awesome”. (note: This has been his catch phrase since watching it. Several months ago.)

6. Pacific Rim
“It reminded me of my childhood.” (I think he is an Ultraman fan)

7. Jurassic World
“It was really interesting, but I don’t remember why”

8. Guardians of the Galaxy
“Lots of good action but boring.”

9. Evangelion 3.0: You Can (not) Redo
“Anyone who says they understand this is lying.”

10. Ringu
Cowered in fear and did not receive a comment.

11. Frozen
“The songs I didn’t really like, but it is memorable.”

12. Rec
“The scale is 3 from 1-5 because it’s just okay.”

13. Maleficent
“It sucks. The story is totally different from the original story.”

14. Back to the Future
“Kissing his mom was not the point of the movie.”

Some great insights from this, but even after all this time it is hard for me to predict what he will like or not. The biggest surprise so far is how he turned into a big Les Miserables fan after seeing Hugh Jackman sing.

On Being Polite

No matter where you go the area is guaranteed to be populated with some jerks. Maybe those jerks are being a different type of jerk than you are used to, but they are still jerks nevertheless.

The following question has come up in conversation a few times recently, and I’ve really been thinking about how to answer it because it isn’t really a yes or no question.

Are Japanese polite?

I guess it all depends on your definition of polite. Is saying please and thank you consistently polite? Is consideration towards others polite? Is it a combination of both?

While I can’t say the word never, you will probably not usually witness people in Tokyo go out of their way to hold a door or readily give up a seat for someone on the train or help carry a heavy suitcase for someone who is struggling with their luggage. It doesn’t really happen normally. It isn’t because people have some sort of deep-seated animosity amongst themselves, but rather that they occupy their own bubbles when they are outside, and rarely do they exit of their bubbles just to assist another person. It really isn’t expected to have random strangers do small favours for you, so it doesn’t really feel all that rude when someone will not hold a door, even if you are going through it right behind them.

In general you will see that most people will try to follow the rules or try to be as close as the perceived norm as possible. That means saying your aisatsu (挨拶 greetings), lining up and waiting in the predetermined spots with everyone else, and being mindful as for doing things that are not going to infringe on other people’s feelings. I these sort of things are what people are referring to when they talk about how Japanese are polite: bowing, constant thanking, and the use formal speech.

In America (and other places too probably, but I can only talk about what I have experienced!) saying “please” and “thank you” are drilled into you when you are kid as the necessary basic manners, which is not unlike Japanese children experience, but at the same time there is also a strong emphasis put on helping people whenever possible. I think that is why opening doors for others, giving up seats on a train, paying a quarter for the guy’s drink in front of you at Starbucks because they are a bit short and all of that are associated as a part of being polite.

I’m not saying that doing small favours for others in Japan isn’t taught to children, but being mindful of people’s feelings and not bothering others seems to be emphasised more. You’ll often hear moms and dads reprimand their kids with phrases like 迷惑かけないで!(don’t cause trouble for others). It feels like the average person in Tokyo will keep to themselves with everyday affairs, especially when out in public places.

However, I think this also has something to do with the fact that there is a conservation of kindness by trying to do a similar of “give and take” among the people around yourselves. If I do something nice for someone, then the party that received that favor feels obligated to do something in return so that we are even. If I buy the person in front of me a cup of coffee when they forgot their wallet, they will feel pressure to do something in return so that my kindness is repaid. There is actually a word in Japanese for having to be thanking for an unwanted favor: arigatai meiwaku(有難迷惑 thankful nuisance).

This kind of back and forth between people can sometimes start a vicious cycle of giving, and it will boil down into a contest of ultimate kindness.

I guess this is one of the reasons why Tokyo has so many faceless machines set-up everywhere to serve humans. You don’t have to feel obligated to do something in return for the automatic doors opening up for you, and it must relieve a bit of pressure from the cycle of obligated kindness.

These automatic door sensors really pick up a lot of slack and deserve more credit. Society would be a bit more crumbly without them.

These automatic door sensors really pick up a lot of slack and deserve more credit. Society would be a bit more crumbly without them.

If I were to make a blanket generalisation, than I think rather than outright saying Japan is just polite, it might be better said that it is, relatively speaking, incredibly organised and homogenized from a social standpoint. Tokyo lacks the chaos of places like New York City, despite being more crowded and moving at a faster pace. If you can sync to everyone’s wavelength in Tokyo, then you’ll feel very comfortable keeping to yourself and following the rules, albeit you’ll also probably stop holding open doors for strangers because that is just not a thing you do.