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One Year in Japan I: Language and Food

Today, one year ago, I left the US to come to live in Japan, making tomorrow my 1-year Japan-iversary! 🎉

Overall it's been a great experience, though not without its challenges, and because I like marking time, this feels like an appropriate opportunity to reflect on what I've learned... about Japan, about big life changes, and about myself.

Here are some high- and low-lights from one year in Japan.

(I promise you'll get to see some nice pictures of food too!)

Let's start with some fun stuff!

Japanese (language)

I find learning languages fun, and as I indicated in my Three Years in Israel post, I think you can learn a lot about a culture by understanding how the language works.

First, a test (no cheating!): Which of the languages below is Japanese?

  1. こんにちは友達、私はあなたがここにいることを感謝します

  2. 朋友您好,感謝您的到來

  3. 안녕 친구, 당신이 여기있어 주셔서 감사합니다

The sentence I translated was: "Hello friends, I appreciate that you are here."

The answer is here (highlight to see): Number 1 is Japanese

Did you get it? Maybe you think it was easy, but I wouldn't have known the answer two years ago. (The other two are Chinese and Korean, which I do not speak at all, so I can't promise the Google Translate worked well.)

I learned a long time ago, in the book Guns, Germs, and Steel, that humans invented language independently possibly only twice: once in West Africa / Middle East / Mesopotamia, and once in East Asia. (Possibly it occurred a third time by the native peoples of Australia or of the Americas, but these are less likely (as I recall).) English is derived from the proto-Mesopotamian language, whereas Japanese is from proto-Chinese (or whatever you call it).

This partly explains why, as a Westerner, I have found learning Japanese much more difficult than learning e.g. Spanish or French (not that I speak either of those well either). The structure of the language is extremely different; here are a few big differences.

  • In English, you always specify the subject of the sentence; in Japanese, this is often omitted and assumed by the context of the conversation.

    • Example: Hello, my name is Josh. --> Hello, is Josh. (in the context of introductions, it's understood that this is a name, and that I am giving my name and not someone else's)

  • In English, the main verb appears right after the subject; in Japanese, the main verb comes at the end of the sentence.

    • Example: Jon and his wife buy a computer at the store for $300. --> [Jon] with his wife at the store a computer for $300 buys. (Japanese format)

  • English is read from left to right, line by line from top to bottom; Japanese is traditionally read from top to bottom, line by line from right to left.

Same text, English way (left) vs Japanese way (right)
  • English has one alphabet, with 26 letters (21 consonants and 5 vowels); Japanese has two alphabets (Hiragana and Katakana) with 46 characters each, which are combined [consonant+vowel] combinations. Japanese also uses a third set of symbols called Kanji which are pictographic, similar to Chinese characters.

These are the two alphabets, Hiragana (used for native Japanese words) and Katakana (used for imported words like "coffee" or "grapefruit"). You need to know both to read any amount of Japanese in the wild, plus many hundreds of Kanji. (If you look closely at the test from before, you'll see that some of the symbols in Line 1 (Japanese) are the same as a few of the symbols in Line 2 (Chinese).)

These are the additional Kanji (roughly 80) needed to pass the lowest-level Japanese language certification, JLPT N5; to really read Japanese like a native, there are thousands more. (If, like me, you want to make a serious effort to learn, I can highly recommend the WaniKani program, with the user-made companion application Flaming Durtles for Android for your daily lessons. All hail the Crabigator!)

I was warned before coming to Japan that the language was difficult because (paraphrasing) there's a polite and a casual way to say everything, and you have to navigate this complex world of manners carefully. I've found this to be only partly true. Yes, there's a polite (often "masu" form) and a casual ("plain" form) version of everything, and in fact even a super-duper polite form used by customer service people (the sentences are often insanely long even when they're just asking you "do you need a bag?"). But it's simple in practice: when in doubt, just use the polite form of everything, and aside form seeming a little stiff, you'll get along just fine.

(Frankly, too, as a foreigner, people don't treat you any differently if you used the casual form even in a polite context; they just assume you don't know any better.)

English isn't that different, actually. We have polite forms, e.g. "Would you please pass the salt?" and casual forms, e.g. "Pass the salt?", and even super polite forms, e.g. "My good sir, with utmost respect I ask you, would you do me the honor of passing the salt?" It's just that we use the casual form for almost everything, and in Japan they care much more about politeness.


So if you're like many foreigners, you may try to get by without learning any Japanese. It would be helpful to know, do Japanese people speak English? Mostly, no. According to a 2019 survey, less than 30% of the Japanese population speak English at any level. I'm told it's taught in school, but people are very nervous about speaking it and will usually refuse (this is consistent with my experience). I certainly don't blame them--I'm the outsider, it's more my responsibility to figure out how to assimilate if I can!--but their English is almost always better than my Japanese, even after more than a year of study. We do find ways to communicate, if only by waving our hands at each other and pointing at things.

The other common Japanese work-around for non-Japanese is to have pictures of everything. I don't know if this is upstream or downstream of the Japanese anime/manga art that suffuses the culture, but I'm grateful for it anyway.

Sometimes it's a bit overkill, though.

But we have Google Translate, right? Yes that helps, but it's actually not so simple.

Left to right: restaurant menu; a letter from my internet company; instructions to make a mixed rice meal. "I'll have the bird proposal also cheese, please!" These examples are not cherry-picked; this is very typical output of a translate request. Word by word, Google does an ok job, but for whole sentences or complex ideas, it fails badly, far worse than I've noticed for German or Italian or even Hebrew.

So, it's sometimes very difficult to get around here, even after a year. But as the great Japanese artist Miyazaki says:

I'll keep working on learning the language, and maybe the coming year will be a bit simpler.

My secret goal is to learn enough Japanese to understand what it this sticker says that I find in every public bathroom :

(Don't spoil it! I'll get there eventually, I know about 1/2 of what's on here already!!)

Japanese (food)

In Japan, food is life, as many businesses continually remind us.

Japanese food is extremely varied and complex. Fried food, rice bowls, grills, hot pots, noodles, raw fish... on and on! (You can also find raw red meat, including beef and horse, which isn't really my thing, but the point is that there's something for everyone!)

Relatively speaking, eating out at a restaurant is cheaper than I'm used to, and buying groceries is more expensive than I'm used to. Fruits and vegetable prices vary much more with the seasons; melons and berries are always SUPER expensive, like $20 for a small cantaloupe is typical.

Some flavors here are very new to me, and some are familiar but I wasn't used to them being so common. If you buy a frozen meal, even if it's chicken or veggie, you can count on it being fish flavored (packets of flavoring are very common). Seaweed is another common seasoning that gives everything a distinctly Japanese flavor profile. Most sauces you find in dishes at restaurants use soy, which is tasty but not good for someone who is gluten intolerant. Overall, the flavors are good, but take some getting used to.

In Japan, things are often sweetened with red beans (called "azuki") crushed into a paste (called "anko"). Anko is everywhere; it's haunting me. I bought some pancakes for breakfast, and found they were filled with anko. Later I bought a snack, a baked sweet bread, bit into it and: anko. So then I bought what looked like fruity red popsicles, but no... those were anko too!

There isn't much else to say, but I felt a section on food would be necessary to include, since the #1 thing people say to me when I tell them I live in Japan is "Isn't the food AMAZING!?" Yes, I like it a lot! Let's move on!


I have more to say, particularly about Japanese culture, which I will post in a second part sometime this weekend.

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