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.)


International marriage: communication problems during the decision making process.

This is something I’ve noticed when trying to make decisions with my husband. Even if the outcome of what we decided is the same, the subtle difference in use of negatives and positives can impact how we both walk away from the conversation.

I’d like to preface this by saying that it doesn’t apply to 100% of conversations for either of us, but just an observation of our natural patterns of speaking.

The unexamined life is not worth living. Also, color coding helps.

In many cases I believe Americans will initially use “no” or a neutral tone when trying to come to a decision. If they warm up to the idea during the course of the conversation, than it becomes a “yes”. If not, it remains “no”. The initial “no” is not intended as a complete rejection, but as a way to hear each other out on the matter.

Conversely, Japanese tend to start with a placeholder “yes” or a positive response, and continue on the conversation with positive feedback while listening to the other person’s idea. However, if a definite “yes” isn’t placed at the end of the conversation, it doesn’t necessarily mean the are fully onboard with the idea despite their previous positive approach. It’s sometimes left to the other person to understand that while they were attentively listening, they are not really interested in going forward.

I think that’s why as an American it feels like it takes longer than necessary to come to a decision in Japanese than in English.

Think about bar hopping with a group of mostly Japanese people vs. a group of mostly American people. Which one normally comes up with the next place to go quicker? Maybe it can take 15+ minutes to pick the next place with the Japanese group, but the Americans will take 2-3 minutes to make a choice.

I naturally want to say “no” and not make a commitment until I can hear more about the other person’s idea. As they explain everything, I’ll think more about whether it is something I’ll consider agreeing with in the end. This carries over into my Japanese sometimes; people probably think I’m being curt if I use the Japanese language with an American decision-making process.

I want to illustrate this with the classic “What do you want for dinner tonight, honey?” scenario with an “American” pattern and “Japanese” pattern:


Husband: What do you want for dinner?
Wife: I don’t know…why?
Husband: How about a hamburger?
Wife: Hmm…really? Where?
Husband: Near the station.
Wife: There’s hamburgers there? I don’t know…
Husband: Yeah a new place opened up. I want to check it out .
Wife: Oh… What’s it called?
Husband: It’s called Amazing Burger. They use aged beef and have craft beer.
Wife: That actually sounds good! I was kinda thinking curry, but that’s fine.


Husband: What do you want for dinner?
Wife: I’m cool with anything!
Husband: I was thinking of hamburgers..?
Wife: Oh that’s cool. Hamburgers are good.
Husband: Yeah! There’s this place near the station
Wife: There is? I didn’t know that.
Husband: It’s new… Called amazing burger.
Wife: Oh interesting.
Husband: They have aged beef and craft beer.
Wife: Oh that sounds nice, but I was actually thinking of getting curry…

The first one is an American style development that ended in agreement to the suggestion: a neutral response followed by apprehension then information gathering, with a decision ending with a positive statement when in agreement with the suggestion. The initial apprehension is explained by the Wife sorta jonesing for curry, but did not have her mind completely made up with what she wanted.

The second one is a Japanese style development with a rejection of the idea at the end: positive reaction and continued positive tone and agreement with the explanation, but ends actually with a vote “no” to going to the burger restaurant. Wife politely listened to the whole suggestion, but her heart was set on curry so she declines. A decision really has not been finalized in the course of the dialogue, and will continue on from there.

So what does this all mean? From what my husband and I have talked about, a Japanese person might feel that the “American” conversation pattern is pretty negative and a bit standoffish, but the “Japanese” conversation pattern sounds a bit wishy-washy to an American.

Long story short, trying to change my natural instinct to say “nah” when at I’m home has been a challenge. (But don’t forget my “nah” is also full of love and respect!)

The somewhat macabre warning signs in the streets of Tokyo

If you ever go out exploring around Tokyo, you will have the chance to see various cartoony warning signs that highlight some sort potentially dangerous situation. They can range in style from formal to cute, but the ones that stand out are a strange mix of whimsy and horror.

The Japanese word for danger is abunai, but it almost feels like it has a vaguer meaning in Japanese than in English considering how it is thrown about in conversation and writing. In situations in English where native speakers would use phrasing like “be cautious” or “take care”, Japanese speakers are more likely to say “danger (abunai)!”. In other words, it feels like there is a higher danger frequency in Japanese.

Here are 3 of my favourite warnings I have seen around the city:

Literal translation "That crossing forgets the speed of the car"

Literal translation “That crossing forgets the speed of the car”

This is a warning mural in the middle of a long pedestrian crossing between Shinjuku and Takadanobaba on Meiji-douri. Is this 10 meter drawing warning the consequences of not briskly crossing the crosswalk, or is it painting the tragic story of a grandpa who’s tired old body couldn’t bring him across the road in time?

The thing is that on the other side of that mural is drawing done in the same style, but it shows a man without a helmet on a motorcycle with death riding in the rear. I could kick myself for not getting a photo of that last time I was over there. It is just as morbid as grandpa getting mowed over by a speeding car.


Literal translation “Grandpa, Grandma, that’s dangerous!”

This one gets me too… the child obviously does not want to walk right into traffic, but the grandpa/grandma is pulling her out in front of the cars. The text on the right says “A request to my grandma and grandpa who I love very much…” Is this based off of something that actually happened? Are old people remorseless jaywalkers? Does grandma have a death wish? This just opens up a whole can of worms.

Literal translation "DANGER!  DEFINITELY DO NOT GO IN."

Literal translation “DANGER! DEFINITELY DO NOT GO IN.”

This warning sign is pretty good in my opinion. The assertion of danger is clear. The lion obviously means business. I know that I should not go inside. Are there lions inside? I don’t know, and I’m not going to go find out.

If you go down smaller streets in Tokyo I’m sure you can find some amazing ones of your own. It is totally worth it to keep your eyes open. Be careful out there, because apparently danger is everywhere.

Bilingual People Problems

I have to admit it. Sometimes I forget English, and it is embarrassing. Here are my coping methods when I’m stumbling around basic English conversation. I know I’m not the only one. Right?

How to Cope wHen You Forget English. (1)

When I was in language school and university, I only used Japanese. 6 years, day in and day out. My kanji handwriting was gorgeous too with all that note taking. (Sadly, after working full-time my writing is pretty rusty since I use the computer all the time.) I was fully emerged in the language, but during that time my brain decided that English wasn’t important enough to remember.

Even now my brain switches from an English to a Japanese mode, then back again without any notice. It can be frustrating to deal, especially when I need to go back and forth between the languages during the day.

More than once I have said something as eloquent as “Yeah, my friend said that she was applying to uh… you know those schools you go to… uh…after you graduate college… it’s like the one step-up from universities?” or “Where is that thing that you hook up to the game stuff for the TV junk?”

I think my best bet at this point is to embrace this as a cute quirk.