There are many different ways to say I in Japanese, each with their own unique nuances. While explaining the intricacies of the different nuances of watashi, boku, and ore, I would like to recount some of my experiences with this from my seven years of experience living in Japan.
The type of “I” you use will dictate how other people perceive you
In one of the first articles I ever wrote on this site I laid out the instantaneous switch that can occur in peoples demeanor, which I coined as the switch. Japan is often said to be a lateral society (tateshakai 縦社会 in Japanese), where people are constantly evaluating their own social position based on the makeup of their immediate surroundings. People will switch their entire attitude based on who they are talking to. The interesting thing about this is that because this switch occurs so frequently in Japanese social situations, it is completely acceptable and even desirable to show your desire to adjust yourself to the demands of your social situation. This means that it is acceptable to put on different faces, and to change these faces at will in front of your peers. While in a western country this may come across as disingenuous, in Japan this is a great gesture of your willingness to strive for communal peace and harmony. This is where choosing the correct I (choosing between boku, ore, and watashi, etc) becomes a vital social component of life in Japan.
The most important thing to consider is that one does not always use boku, or always use ore. It is important to use them all of these options as tools in your arsenal to be employed in different situations. If someone asked me if I use boku, ore, or watashi, I would tell them that, of course, I use all three.
How many different ways are there to say “I” in Japanese?
There are a ton! Historically speaking many outdated self-referential pronouns exists, and they can create many different nuances.
Watashi, boku, and ore; The main self-referential pronouns used in modern Japanese.
The most common ways to say “I” in Japanese are watashi, boku, and ore. Watashi is used by everybody, but is usually only used by men in more formal situations. Boku is used by boys, and generally by more polite or scholarly men. Ore is the most masculine personal pronoun and is used almost exclusively by men.
By it is a bit more complicated than that, so please allow me to elaborate.
How to switch between watashi, boku, and ore
The good news is that it is completely normal to use multiple self-referential pronouns in Japan depending on the context. I remember in one of my first Japanese class back in the US (a long time ago), two Japanese workers from the local hitachi plant came to visit our classroom. They talked about how when they were in meetings with higher-ups they would use watashi when referring to themselves. When they were working on the ground floor they would use boku. And when the two of them were out drinking together they would use ore. I think that this progression demonstrates pretty well how one can properly switch between these 3 versions of “I” correctly. I think when many people start studying Japanese they learn about this concept and think “I’m a gentleman, so I’m going to use Boku”, or “I’m a leader! I’m an ore kind-of-guy!” But this is still thinking like a westerner. The real answer on how to assimilate into these types of Japanese situations is to be all 3 at the same time. You have to learn how to use different faces. The personalized-bit and where people differ is in how often they choose to use watashi, or how often they choose to use boku or ore. Through natural Japanese conversation you should be able to pick up this balance over time subconsciously.
What does watashi mean in Japanese?
You can think of watashi as the most standard way to say I in Japanese. This is what you will find being taught in all beginner Japanese textbooks. Watashi is the most standard and safe option to use when referring to yourself in Japanese.
When should you use watashi
If you are interviewing for a job, giving a presentation at work or class, or are generally in a position where you want to good first impression to a group or a variety of people that you are meeting for the first time, you should use watashi. Watashi is a safe bet to use for all formal settings.
Do both men and women use watashi when speaking Japanese?
Both men and women use watashi in when speaking Japanese! You should always consider watashi to be the standard way to refer to yourself in formal situations. That being said, to use watashi in an informal setting is considered to be pretty feminine, and men will typically swtich to boku or ore.
This is a concept that is a bit difficult to visualize if you don’t speak Japanese, or haven’t had many conversations with Japanese people. Essentially, conversations ‘graduate’ to more and more casual forms of speech, where this is reflected in the specific Japanese grammar people will use. As a standard, you can think of watashi as a starter self-referential pronoun that you may branch off from when you become closer to whoever you are talking to.
What does boku mean in Japanese?
Rather than give you a textbook definition, I can tell you that based on my seven years of experience in Japan, Gentlemen use boku. Boku is the proper way for men to refer to themselves in Japanese, which can still come across as slightly feminine. Boku is more polite than ore, but less polite than watashi.
Do both men and women use boku when speaking Japanese?
Boku is primarily used my men and boys *which can make it come across as a bit childish. Women almost always use watashi, although I have heard than many teenage girls have taken to the trend of using boku recently.
Many boys rebel against the idea of using boku because it is viewed as the proper self-referential pronoun for boys to use. For girls who want to appear more independent and push against the proper image of women only using watashi, many have started using boku, which has become slightly more accepted in recent years. Women who use boku are called bokukko (ボクっ娘), and are seen as being generally rebellious. I asked a few friends what they thought of bokukko, and they said that they would see them as trying to be a bit different, but wouldn’t think too much of it. “I would just want to ask why they’re using boku instead of watashi. I’m really pretty curious of that.”
What does ore mean in Japanese?
Ore is the most masculine way to say “I” out of the common three self-referential pronouns. Out of the three watashi, boku, and ore, as a man using ore is a correct and convincing way (especially as a foreigner) is probably the most difficult. Generally, you can use ore with people you would consider to be your friends.
Do women ever use ore?
I’ve never heard it, and I think it would be pretty strange. It is more common to see women occasionally use boku, but I can’t think of a single time in seven years of living in Japan where I ever heard a woman use ore.
Using boku or ore as a man, and how it affects dating in Japan
This is an interesting one. In my experience, there are girls that like guys who use boku, and girls that like guys who use ore. It’s a bit of an interesting dilemma, and yet another reason why relationships in Japan can be oh-so complicated! My general rule of thumb is that if you are out with a girl who seems like she wants a guy who takes-charge, use ore while on the date. If you’re out with a girl that seems more reserved or quiet, go with boku. If it was going to work out this probably wouldn’t have been a deal-breaker anyways, so try not to give it too much thought. It’s just one more thing to consider in a sea of considerations to-be-had that is the process of interacting with other human beings in Japan.
It is important to adjust to the needs of each situation and use watashi, boku, and ore interchangeably depending on your surroundings. While it will take some time to get used to the dynamic of shifting between these self-referential pronouns, it will come more naturally with time and continued exposure to Japanese as a language.
If you are learning Japanese, please check out my guide on getting started learning the three Japanese alphabets at the link below
I have lived in Japan since January of 2015, and I have found it both extremely fun, and at times difficult to work my head around the process of making friends in Japan. There are many factors to consider including Japanese culture specific culture such as honne and tatemae, as well as a cultural difference in timing.
In this post, I ‘ll go over my experience making friends in Japan over the last 7 years.
Is it easy to make Japanese friends in Japan?
It’s different…the way of making friends is certainly more formulaic in comparison to the west. I feel that this is one of the great barriers to forming relationships in Japan for westerners. Spontaneity is not a concept that has a strong hold in Japanese culture.
Relationships are typically segmented into varying levels within the Japanese social structure, with strong consideration to where people stand within a kind of ‘social-progress-bar.’ In order to become friends with somebody, first you need to become acquaintances. Then after ‘X’ amount of times meeting you may become friends. Then you may graduate to the titular ‘good friend’, and then ‘closer friend.’ In essence, you level up through various milestones .While the way I am attempting to describe this may be a bit overdramatic, I don’t believe it is an exaggeration to say that most people think this way regarding relationships in Japan. In general, westerners may come across as being too pushy or trying to rush things when meeting new people in Japan. This issue of timing is a pretty complex one, and is something that I have heard many expats mention here as a factor that makes it particularly difficult to make friends as a foreigner in Japan.
The biggest difference is in the timing of things
I have spoken before about the phenomenon of switching to casual Japanese, from the more polite form of Japanese. This more polite Japanese is used as a default the first time you meet somebody, and people will graduate to more and more casual forms of the language as time goes on. The funny thing to me is, there isn’t any clear time that this change takes place. One day, someone will just decide to ‘slip’ a little casual Japanese into the conversation and see how it goes. Actually, I talk at length about this topic in the video below.
There is this sense in Japan that you are constantly ‘closing distance’ over your different relationships. Your social standing with another person will determine the level of honorific Japanese you use, the amount of time between when you meet, and the kind of things you will do. One of the biggest things that surprised me when I first moved to Japan in regards to making friends with Japanese people as a foreigner, is how far out people will set plans with somebody they first met. I’ve heard a lot of other expats talk about this in Japan as well. Say, for example, you met somebody in June, and you wanted to invite them out for lunch. I have met many people who would open their schedule, fumble around with the pages for a few seconds, and then suggest we meet in August. 2 whole months later! At first I assumed they didn’t want to meet and were just blowing me off, but the more people I met, the more I heard that they were doing this with people they genuinely liked, and even people that they wanted to date! This is just the norm in Japan, it seems. When people ask me what I miss about living in The United States, I always say that I miss the spontaneity. In order to make friends as a foreigner in Japan (or even just as a Japanese native), it takes a lot of patience, and even more planning. Which is why you will need a planner, or a techo (手帳) in Japanese.
Japanese people love using their planners…a lot
The amount of time between initial meeting and subsequent meeting is one of the reasons why the techo yearly planner business is booming in Japan! Okay…I don’t really know if the industry is booming, but I really wouldn’t be surprised. Of course it depends on the personality of the individual, but I have seen people fill these absolutely to the brim here, with different hour-long plans stretched out for months-to-come. It’s a pretty intimidating prospect for me, because having my schedule planned out more than a week in-advance honestly just stresses me out. Eventually I learned that keeping a schedule would make things a whole lot easier. You don’t have to have your schedule completely full, just because you decide to keep a schedule. I also think that there are a few things one should keep in mind when living in Japan, if they want to make friends with Japanese people, and if they want to learn the Japanese language and succeed in general. Mainly, that it is always good to write things down! You want to make Japanese friends? Write down their name, how to write their name in Kanji, and when you are planning one seeing them next. You want to memorize Japanese? Document, document, document. Writing down everything you want to memorize, everything you want to do, and everyone you plan to meet is a good way to keep the minutia of life ( a life that you are now living in your second language) organized and less overwhelming.
How to make Japanese friends in Japan?
In my experience, the best way to make Japanese friends is to be patient, friendly, and to enjoy every encounter for what it is. Despite Japan’s emphasis on over-planning, Japanese people generally feel comfortable around somebody who can have fun in any setting.
I wrote about this a bit in my article What Do People Do For Fun in Japan? The Concept of “Nijikai”. I think one of the most important things is to create an environment where everybody can have fun, and then graduate to something more specific with friends that you have known for quite a while. This is a very important aspect of making friends in Japan. The overall group is more important than any smaller cliques, which I enjoyed in a lot of ways. In Japan, people try to get along with each other, even if they don’t have anything in common. This is one of the reasons why probably 90% of all Japanese friend gatherings are spent eating good food. There aren’t too many people who don’t enjoy eating great food right? Typically, more unique things will happen at the nijikai, which you can read about at the article I linked above.
It it easy to make expat friends in Japan?
This is a question that I am attempting to answer myself more and more recently. Before I moved to Japan I had heard how easy it was to get trapped in an ‘English bubble’, where you only have foreign friend and always speak English. Hearing this, I kind of pulled in the other direction. Almost all of my friends were either Japanese, or where non-native English speakers from countries like South Korea, Malawi, and so on. i have dabbled in the foreign community here-and-there, and my experience has been that people have either been extremely nice, or extremely elitists. There are ton of different reasons for foreigners to be elitist here. Maybe your Japanese is better than someone else, or maybe you have a job where you make more than most people but can’t even speak Japanese. I think most expats in Japan secretly hope to achieve some kind of acceptance or assimilation in Japanese society, and we all face constant micro-aggressions and small rejections that can add up if you let them. I think this may be why people build up some kind of insecurity that comes off as elitism over time. That being said, I have met a lot of nice people, and now that I lived in Tokyo it should be much easier to make other expat friends. My biggest advice for making foreign friends in Japan is to just let people be who they are. Some people will never want to learn Japanese. Some people will care about how many years you have lived in Japan and judge you for that. You really need to just let people live their lives, with all of their insecurities and all. You can only control yourself, so taking the effort to focus on your own actions is really the best course of action.
While it can be challenging making friends in Japan, I would definitely say that the reason I am still living in this country is the friends I have made, and how much I love talking to people here. If you can get through the hurdles, I think it’s worth it.
If you are interested in reading more about my life in Japan, making friends, or Japanese culture in general, please check out the articles below!
I have created a guide on how to write Japanese city names in kanji, and have also provided some cultural and historical context behind the kanji that are used. I noticed many people are wondering how to write Tokyo in Kanji, or perhaps how to write Osaka in kanji. I want to provide people with a resource that you can bookmark and come back to whenever you need it.
I will compile all of this information in order of highest-to-lowest city population, and will cover all cities with a population over 1,000,000 (I may edit this article and add ALL the cities in the future. Who knows?)
Tokyo is written in kanji as 東京. The characters for Tokyo are made up of the characters 東(To) which means East and 京 (Kyo) which means capital. Modern day Tokyo was originally called Edo, but was changed to Tokyo (meaning Eastern capital) when it became the capital of Japan in 1868.
Yokohama is written in kanji as 横浜. The characters for Yokohama are made up of the characters 横 (Yoko) which means horizontal, and 浜 (hama) which means beach. Tokyo is less than an hour away from Tokyo by train, and it’s southern beaches are a famous day-trip destination.
Osaka is written in kanji as 大阪. The characters for Osaka are made up of the characters 大(o) which means big and 阪(saka) which means slope or hill. Osaka was originally the primary economic hub for the previous capital Kyoto.
Nagoya is written in Kanji as 名古屋. It is made up of three characters being 名 (na) meaning name or fame, 古(go) meaning antiquity, and 屋 (ya) meaning house. One possible origin of the name Nagoya is the adjective nagoyaka (なごやか), which means peaceful.
Sapporo is written in Kanji as 札幌. It is made up of two characters being 札(sa) meaning note or bill, and 幌(pporo) meaning canopy or awning. The name for Sapporo uses Kanji characters that mimic the syllabary of the original Ainu language “Sat Poro Pet”.
Kobe is written in Kanji as 神戸. It is made up of two characters being 神 (ko) meaning god or spirit, and 戸 (be) meaning entrance or doorway. The name Kobe comes from the word Kanbe, an archaic title for supporters of the city’s Ikuta Shrine.
Fukuoka is written inkKanji as 福岡. It is made up of two characters being 福(fuku) meaning luck, and 岡(oka) meaning hill or knoll.
Kyoto is written in kanji as 京都. It is made up of two characters being 京 (Kyo) meaning capital and 都 (to) which also signifies the location of the imperial palace. This duality exists because Kyoto was the capital of Japan from 794 AD to 1868 AD. A very long time! Kyoto is the hub of traditional society and architecture in Japan.
Kawasaki is written in kanji as 川崎. It is made up of two characters being 川(kawa) meaning river, and 崎(saki) meaning cape or peninsula. Kawasaki is one of the major suburbs of both Tokyo and Yokohama.
Saitama is written in kanji as 埼玉. It is made up of two characters being 埼(sai) meaning cape or peninsula (similar to 崎 in Kawasaki) and 玉 (tama) meaning precious gem. Saitama is perhaps the most populous suburb of Tokyo, and is famous for it’s plethora of family friendly areas and neighborhoods.
Hiroshima is written in kanji as 広島. It is made up of two characters being 広(hiro) meaning wide and 島(shima) meaning island. Hiroshima is not actually an island, but is part of the central Japanese landmass Honshu, but is near one of the most popular islands for tourists Miyajima (宮島).
Sendai is written in kanji as 仙台. It is made up of two characters beings 仙 (sen) meaning lone or hermit and 台 (dai) meaning pedestal or stand. Sendai is a central city of Miyagi prefecture, which is one of the more unexplored areas of North Japan.
For now, this is where I conclude. If you are interested in learning more about life in Japan (in this case, my experience living in Japan), please check out my article below. I think you will like it!
I can confirm as a Japanese speaker that the differences seen in frequency of vocabulary, as well as unique words that don’t translate across multiple languages are enough by themselves to significantly alter one’s way of thinking when speaking another language.
That being said, in my experience, this change is mostly limited to when you are speaking a chosen language. More specifically, I don’t feel that knowing Japanese has affected my English personality to the extent that knowing Japanese has allowed me to create an entirely different alter-ego version of my personality that I can switch on and off at-will. For this reason, in my explanations below I liken knowing another language to having the ability to switch between different lenses. This is one of the reasons for code switching. I will go into code switching more deeply below. First, let me touch onto one of the most important concepts for decoding whether language affects the way we think or not; the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.
What is the Sapir Whorf hypothesis?
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, also known as the theory of linguistic relativity, is the theory that the language we speak influences our cognitive functions, and thus the way that we think. In essence, it is the idea that our view of the world is relative to the languages our mind has been trained to use.
In this way, one can think of the language that they speak as a lens upon which light filters through, allowing us to see only what we have been granted the capability to see. Something I will point out is that the Sapir Whorf hypothesis is a theory that is mostly arguing for the cognitive influence of one’s native language, and not any new languages that one learns in their lifetime. That being said, The Sapir Whorf hypothesis was formulated in the early 20th century, well before the rise of globalism and multiculturalism. Tackling the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in the field of developmental linguistics is nearly akin to tackling the meaning behind life itself from the point of view of the philosopher. It is a topic so ethereal, most people don’t even bother tackling the topic. Thus, there has been little progress in the last 100 years to either challenge or defend the concept. Despite all of our technology, the intricacies of the brain still remain a mystery to a large extent, although there have been many social-experiments and small advancements in favor of linguistic relativity as an idea.
Japanese is a noun-centric language, while English is a verb-centric language
Look at the picture above. How would you describe it? What would you focus on? In Japanese, people would say that this is scene is komorebi. In English, perhaps we would say that the ‘light is passing through the trees in a beautiful way’, or something along those lines. I know that the term god rays has been circulating recently. Maybe most English speakers wouldn’t even notice the light. Perhaps you described the trees, or the path, or the people. In essence, English speakers may generally tend to focus on the action of our surroundings, while Japanese speakers tend to qualify the entire overall experience around them. This bias of categorization is at the heart of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Language affects the way we quantify and qualify our words. It affects the words that pop into our heads first, which in-turn affects the kinds of conversations we gravitate to as a culture, and as a form of bias. From a certain point of view, it may be the ultimate example of a butterfly effect. Japanese having a word like komorebi lead to komorebi becoming a more common element of Japanese folklore and storytelling, which further perpetuated the cycle. Perhaps you can think of it as a positive version of confirmation bias.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t any negatives to this phenomenon. Tribalism and a closed-mind are much more common symptoms of the monolinguist.
This cognitive-language that exists as a result of the language we speak, and predominately our native language, can perhaps better be illustrated through the example below.
What word would you use to describe the speed between jogging and running? Observing the words I have inserted above, jog and run, we can see that these are speed qualifiers. When somebody says the word ‘jog’, both a sense of speed and the image of an activity may pop into your head. These words carry a deeply-engrained nuance in their usage.
Now, what if I asked you, what is the difference between ‘jogging’, and ‘running’? Without consulting a dictionary, would you be able the difference of jogging without using the slower walk, or the faster run qualifiers? It would be challenging to say the least. Furthermore, imagine if there was a speed of movement that suddenly became the standard for all English speakers. Let’s say, a word that indicated a speed somewhere in-between walking and speed-walking. Now let’s say hypothetically that this speed became the new norm, to the point where NOT having a concept for this new idea would be strange. This is one way culture’s have come to be shaped around language.
What is code-switching?
Code-switching is the practice of alternating between two or more languages rapidly within a conversation, often in an attempt to achieve a more specific nuance or added meaning that can not be achieved by only speaking one one language.
Code-switching is way more common than you may think if you are used to living in an environment where one primary language is spoken. Within any given conversation I have with foreigners in Japanese, even if we are primarily speaking English, I know that I personally will throw in tons of Japanese vocabulary to help enforce the nuance of EXACTLY what I’m talking about. Code-switching, or the process of switching between two languages, often within the same sentence, provides the speaker with an added plethora of ammunition from which to draw from when constructing sentences. It helps provide context, and is a fantastic way to strengthen relatability from those who speak the same languages. If you learn to speak a language like Japanese, you too will begin code switching without even realizing it.
An example of how language affects the way we think; In Japanese there is no word for foot or leg
Well, this is actually not true. These words do exist. Word to be more precise, because it’s the same word… the word for leg and foot is the same (ashi 足) in Japanese. Because of this, people in Japan almost never distinguish between the two English concepts. They just don’t do it. It’s not that they can’t do it, but just like how we may describe the above komorebi as ‘light passing through trees in a pleasant way’ or something similar, in Japanese they would have to locate ‘this part of the ashi’, as in ‘this part of the bottom half of your body’. There are words for kneecap ( Hiza 膝 ) ankle (ashikubi 足首), and butt (Oshiri お尻), but there’s simply no way to differentiate between legs and feet like we do in English. Judging from how that information may challenge your perception of human anatomy and general communication, you can see how it may seem strange to a Japanese person that there is no English word for komorebi. You may be turning your nose up at this comparison. “Well, that’s not the same! The concept of a foot is much more important than the concept of some god-rays passing through the trees!” you may be saying to yourself. Honestly, with the number of songs and poems that contain the word komorebi in Japanese, it might be a closer competition than you may think. Komorebi may be used in media so often because of the fact that komorebi exists as a word and concept. Or, perhaps komorebi became to be used as a word and concept because it was such an integral part of Japanese art and culture. It is difficult to work this out, and is a constant topic of both developmental linguistics and societal linguistics.
How does language affect our society?
This is all conjecture, but perhaps the concepts most central to a civilization become core principles to a point of no-longer being definable in a truly objective way. I believe this can be seen in both the Japanese word enryo (very difficult to translate, but I will call it restraint, 遠慮 in kanji), which I have written about in the article below as well.
What does the Japanese word Enryo mean?
The Japanese word for enryo can perhaps be translated best into English as restraint or hesitation. More specifically, restraint is the sense of one sacrificing something they want for the overall harmony and well-being of the group. It is often used to describe a state of mind, rather than only as a verb.
This is one of the core elements of Japanese culture, so you should memorize the word enryo. You see this concept everywhere in Japan. People will often have grand unspoken battles with one-another to show their sense of enryo and willingness to sacrifice their own well-being for the group. I think that this is one of the reason why excessive overtime and undiagnosed depression runs rampant throughout Japanese society. This may also be one of the reasons why Japanese people are so characteristically diligent and punctual. It is a blessing and a curse. As a concept and word, enryo is so prevalent in Japanese society that to try and define it outside of the concept of Japanese society would be nearly impossible. Based on my years in Japan, I would make the personal argument that enryo is perhaps the central concept one must experience firsthand to begin to get a deeper understanding for the core of Japanese culture.
How has being bilingual affected my life?
I certainly notice the time it takes to shift mentally from one language to another. The mindset of Japanese may linger in my brain for 30 minutes at an hour after I switch to speaking English. I did notice the time required to make this shift getting shorter as my proficiency in Japanese increased.
There really is no way to describe how knowing another language that is in a completely different linguistic group than your native language impacts your life. It can be truly inspiring, and eye-opening, as you realize the number of different perspectives that exist in this world. It can be exciting, and can push you to ask more questions of yourself and the world around you. And, it can also be lonely, especially if you don’t know anybody else who has had a similar journey to you. In Japan, despite having a bigger population of foreign expats than ever, foreign residents in Japan still make up only 2% of the population. Of that 2%, native English speakers still make up well under 1% of nationwide demographics. Japan has a pretty difficult barrier of entry as well, and a notoriously high turn-over rate, with the majority of foreign residents going home after just 2 to 3 years. Of the less than 1% of native English speakers in Japan, the percentage of those that speak Japanese fluently is even lower (maybe much lower), meaning that there are maybe around 500,000 people who I can make bad Japanglish dad jokes to in Japan. It’s… not enough. I need more Japanese dad-joke time! As of 2021, there are around 50,000 American citizens residing in Japan.
Really though, it can be awesome, but like many things in Japan, being a bilingual expat here can also be lonely. Not knowing many others with my specific experiences or background can be a somewhat isolating but fascinating thing. I couldn’t recommend it to everyone, but I’m creating a whole website around it, so obviously I’m enjoying it!
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If you are interested in learning Japanese, or hearing more of my perspective on language learning and Japanese culture, why don’t you check out the articles below? I will send you inaudible and very indirect love if you click on one of my other articles below! (wink)
If you are interested in trying out learning Japanese yourself…
If you want to learn more about Japanese culture and some additional linguistic concepts unique to Japan…
If you want to learn a bit about the history of Japanese, and why Japanese books are written from right-to-left…
People in Japan probably don’t eat sushi as often as you think. Sushi is typically consumed on special occasions and is considered more of a ‘communal dish’. There are many social aspects why people don’t have sushi in Japan as often as you would expect, which I will go over in this article.
When and how often do people eat sushi in Japan?
In my seven years of living in Japan, I have noticed this interesting phenomenon in Japan. There are certain dishes that acceptable to eat by yourself, and there are meals that are typically only eaten in a group setting. Essentially, there are dishes that are…weird to eat by yourself. Because of this, I would say that sushi is generally only eaten during special occasions or at family gatherings, and occasionally when you are out with your friends. Sushi, however, is also seen more as a daytime food or lunch food. (you’ll understand my thought process throughout this article.)
All of these factors considered, Eating sushi out is one of those luxuries that you would never buy for yourself, if you get what I mean? People eat it with friends or family, but I think it’s pretty rare for somebody to eat at a sushi bar by themselves in Japan. Of course, I’m not a sushi aficionado, so there may be some exceptions to this rule. In reality, there are always exceptions to these kinds of rules, but in my experience, people in Japan don’t eat sushi quite as often as you might expect.
So…why don’t people eat sushi as often as other foods?
As I had stated above, in Japan there are certain dishes that acceptable to eat by yourself, and there are meals that are typically only eaten in a group setting. Why? Well…this can get…complicated. It’s certainly far more difficult to describe why this is than what I was initially expecting. Upon writing this article, I realized just how many unspoken rules affect what people eat in Japan, and how often they eat individual foods depending on the social setting. These rules can become difficult to keep track of, and I think many people in Japan follow these rules subconsciously and may not even realize that they’re doing it until it is pointed out directly.
There are foods that are…just a little bit strange to eat by yourself in Japan.
I’m not quite sure why, but, because sushi is just generally thought of as something you don’t eat by yourself. I think this may be because most group interactions take place be at night in Japan (people work very long hours, and often on the weekend too), and most of these interactions will be at an izakaya for a nomikai. This means that they won’t be eating sushi that night…probably, because it’s pretty rare for an izakaya or general nightlife style restaurant in Japan to serve sushi. Sashimi, yes, but sushi is almost never eaten at restaurants like izakayas in Japan. This means that sushi is usually only eaten with families at nightly gatherings and occasionally with friends, due to the awkward timing. If you want to learn more about this timing in regards to Japanese nightlife and group gatherings, please feel free to read a separate article I wrote I have linked below, where I outline the timing and unspoken rules to group gatherings (and restaurants) in Japan. Essentially, sushi isn’t commonly eaten out during night gatherings in Japan (I’m not sure why, it’s just the way it is I think), which results in Japanese people eating sushi much less often than other foods in japan, because nightlife is such a huge part of the Japanese lifestyle.
I think it might be a little bit difficult for you to imagine exactly what i’m talking about when I say “nightlife style restaurant” or “izakaya”, so I’m going to link to another article I wrote about izakaya and what people generally do at group gatherings in Japan below.
Some examples of foods that are commonly eaten alone when out in Japan;
It is common for people to eat ramen by themselves or in a group. There is kind of a subtle design shift in the way some restaurants are laid out for single diners, and group diners. Restaurants will generally lean more to towards one demographic or the other. A great example of a ramen chain that is catered to the solo diner is the Japanese ramen chain Ichiran, which has partitioned seating and a curtain separating you any staff. The entire experience at Ichiran is designed so that you don’t have to interact with a human being. To order you buy a slip from a vending machine at the front of the restaurant and fill out a form with the specifications of how hard you would like your noodles to be, the thickness of the broth, if you want an egg, etc. They literally have a pen chained to the wall in your booth like you’re filling out forms at a bank. After you fill out your order sheet, you can press a button and a member of staff will lift up the curtain on the other side of your ‘ramen pod’ (I’m choosing to call it that), and take your order without you ever seeing their face. It’s an introvert’s dream, and I do recommend trying Ichiran if you visit Japan, because it is a pretty unique experience.
A gyudon is often translated to “beef bowl” in English. It’s essentially strips of beef on top of rice, often with added green onions and ginger. Not much to say here. This one is very rarely eaten in groups, and very often eaten alone at gyudon restaurants, typically by Japanese salarymen and students.
The unspoken rules of food etiquette in Japan; a few examples
These kinds of social unspoken rules are everywhere in Japan, and are often a wall foreigners will butt-up against unknowingly in their goal of becoming part of the Japanese community. This exists not only in the case of what meals are meant to be eaten alone, and what meals are meant to be eaten in a group, but in regard to the appropriateness of timing and circumstance in general. This factor is tied heavily to how often people in sushi in Japan, as well as different foods in general. I found them pretty interesting when I moved to Japan, and there are a TON, but let me go over a few key cultural differences that I found quite interesting.
Unspoken rule of what to eat or drink where in Japan #1; In university you can only drink green tea, coffee, or water
A good example of this shift idea of unspoken rules in regard to specific setting is an experience I had during university. In Japanese university (or at least in my university), probably 98%-99% of the students would drink bottled green tea, water, or coffee in class. That’s it. If you had anything else you would be labeled as a “KY” (short for kuuki yomenai 空気読めない, which basically means you have no common sense.) Anyways, I remember one time I was going through a bit of a green dakara phase.
Green dakara is a Japanese drink that is basically a flavoured water. The taste is subtle and struggling to describe it.
Apparently this was a really weird thing to do, because you’re only supposed to drink coffee, green tea, and water in class. It’s just normal! Don’t you want to be normal? I also had people comment when I would enjoy a nice milk tea (another super popular drink in Japan). “American! That’s so American! Wow!” They would say to me…
Yeah, because if there’s anything that’s an American stereotype, it’s that we really love to drink our milk tea. When in doubt, pinkies out!
Unspoken rule of what to eat or drink where in Japan #2; Never ever…don’t even THINK about having yakiniku alone
If you don’t know yakiniku is Japan’s version of Korean barbecue. This one is actually very real, and is from one of my favorite Japanese TV shows, “He Who Cannot Marry”. It’s basically about this guy who’s a total creep and general awkward weirdo. He has no friends, and comes home to his apartment with paper-thin walls to blast classical music and enjoy his favorite yogurt drink. I think this happens in one episode.
I would actually really recommend this show because it pokes fun at a lot of these unspoken rules in Japan, and a lot of the common tiny annoyances you will face in everyday life.
One episode revolves around how the main character, played by Hiroshi Abe, is such a slimy pathetic loser because a few of his coworkers catch him eating yakiniku by himself when out one night. Whenever you walk into a restaurant in Japan they will ask you “nanmeisama deishouka 何名様でしょうか？”, which is a polite way of asking “How many are in your party?” Well, when Mr. Abe had confidence to say “party of 1”, the waitress could hardly process his answer. You want to eat…yakiniku by yourself? BLASHPEMY!?
She thought to herself in perfect English
Then they all talk about him behind his back about he ate meat by himself! HE ATE MEAT BY HIMSELF! Really though, it’s a fanstastic show. If you’re interested in watching He Who Can’t Marry (which is a fantastic show to use to study Japanese), you can watch it on Japanese Netflix.
Perhaps readers abroad can work some VPN magic?
I would say that compared to the west, it is more common for people to eat out by themselves in Japan, but there are only certain foods that people commonly feel comfortable eating by themselves.
Due to a slightly higher price tag, and the cultural norm that sushi be eaten in a group setting, Japanese people don’t sushi as often as you may expect. Many Japanese families will eat sushi during special occasions, and sushi is often treated as a more premium item. I would guess that people in Japan eat sushi once every other month or so? This is a total estimate, and obviously depends on the person, but is based on 7 years of experience of me living in Japan.
If you are interested in learning more about Japan’s food culture, please check out the article below.
If you are interested in learning Japanese or beginning your journey to becoming a Japanese master, please check out one of the articles below.
Immersing yourself completely in a language is essential to improving listening comprehension. While living in Japan for 7 years, I have seen a ton of Japanese movies, but these are the one’s that I would recommend personally to language learners.
Before the feature presentation…
Do you know what dagashi are? Dagashi are Japanese snacks that are meant to be devoured with passion. Dagashi are cheap Japanese snacks that most people in Japan have fond memories of from their childhood. If you are thinking of vegging out with some Japanese films to support your language-learning process, why not help create a more authentic atmosphere with some dagashi?
Now that you have your ninja dagashi, let me recommend some of the best Japanese films for learning Japanese I have watched over the last 7 years.
1. Kokuhaku (告白)
Not only is this probably my favorite Japanese movie, but it also happens to be a fantastic movie for learning Japanese. Well… at least for the first 30 minutes. This is because the first 30 minutes of the film is one long monologue spoken in a more-natural and contemporary Japanese compared to what you may have been exposed to thus-far.
I make a point of this because so much of the Japanese people end up learning is from anime, or is spoken is a samurai ‘mysterious ancient warrior’ vernacular.
I really think you should go into this movie blind, but the basic gist is that a teacher is recounting to her class something horrible that happened to her. Something that the students may be responsible for…
And it’s free milk day! (This will make sense after you watch the movie)
Much of the story is told to us through the perspective of this teacher, and becomes one of the rare examples I can think of in a film where the old adage ‘show not tell’ is flipped on it’s head in a truly effective way. I wouldn’t be surprised if the first 30 minutes of Kokuhaku hold the record for the most lines spoken in a film’s into…if such a record exists…It’s a good watch, and probably is somewhat removed from what you may be expecting.
I would just like to caution that the second half of the movie can get pretty dark, so it may not be the best thing to watch if you’re going through a hard time. That being said, like so many Japanese films, I think that the artistic vision that is accomplished by choosing to omit any happy ending that you would likely see in a western retelling of this story is worth the emotional downer. The ends justify the means, and I think it’s absolutely worth it.
Why this is a good movie to watch for learning Japanese
Japanese differs from English in that the grammatical structure of sentences incorporates varying levels of ‘politeness’ or ‘honorifics’ in Japanese. To really oversimplify, one’s position in Japanese society dictates the style of Japanese that they use. Kokuhaku offers you many different perspectives on one singular event, similar to films such that inspired it such as rashomon (羅生門.) Kokuhaku allows you to view one situation from many different angles, and through many different perspectives. Kokuhaku features copious amounts of both casual Japanese (tameguchi ため口 in Japanese) and various forms of honorific Japanese (Keigo 敬語 in Japanese), that will allow you to experience a wide range of of the kind of Japanese you will come across in real life.
2. The Snow White Murder Case (白ゆき姫殺人事件)
Another film based on the works of novelist Kanae Minato. I like her work, what can I say? I would recommend this film for many of the reasons I recommend Kokuhaku, so I won’t get too much into the film. This is another mystery, and is another one that is worth going into compleltely blind. I will say, however, Kanae Minato has a tendency as a writer to create these grand openings that may not always live up to the build up. This may be especially true with Kokuhaku, although I think that this film mostly sticks the landing. If anything, there is a little bit of fat that could be trimmed around 2/3 of the way through the movie.
Why this is a good movie to watch for learning Japanese
Just like with Kokuhaku, this film presents one story from a variety of viewpoints. Compared to Kokuhaku, however, the Japanese in this film is comparatively less dramatic, and is more similar to what you would see in everyday life living in Japan. Most of the characters are adults, too, while many of the characters in Kokuhaku are teens are younger. I also think that this movie is VERY Japanese in it’s story beats and settings, to the point where it may actually be a little bit difficult to catch the subtle nuances in character development as well as the story if you have no prior knowledge of Japanese culture. This makes it a great immersion tool…but it may confuse you if you’re a beginner, so just keep that in mind! I think it’s a great example of a more dramatic Japanese movie done right. Give it a shot!
3. Josee, the Tiger and the Fish
It’s difficult to even describe what this one is about. It draws many comparisons and makes metaphors to Japanese culture, and well as everyday life in Japan, Josee, the Tiger and the Fish is about the reality, vs. the ideal, of what we can all accomplish given our unique limitations. The main character is going through the new graduate job hunting process, which is one of the most suffocating and challenging experiences people go through during young adulthood in Japan (I can say it is from first-hand experience). At the same time, he meets a a girl named Josee who is crippled from the waist down. She can’t move, and she lives with her barely capable grandmother who pushes her in a run-down baby carriage around her neighborhood for her daily walk. She can’t move, but she spends her days learning to read and cook. The main character, on the other hand (played by probably my favorite Japanese actor Satoshi Tsumabuki, doesn’t have any clear limitations, but he spends his nights working at a seedy Mahjong parlor and trying to figure out his way through the job hunting process. From his perspective, Josee doesn’t have to dear with the harsh realities of society outside of her tiny room. From Josee’s perspective, he doesn’t understand what it’s like to not be able to face those challenges. It’s an interesting look at the perspective of both of these characters, and ends in a way that probably isn’t what you’re expecting.
Why this is a good movie to watch for learning Japanese
Josee, the Tiger and the Fish exposes you to a number of different kinds of people in Japanese society, from college students, Josee’s grandmother, Mahjong parlor goers, and many different perspectives. Really though, it’s just a good movie regardless, and will encourage you to keep listening, which is one of the most important things when first starting out. The actor who plays the main character, Satoshi Tsumabuki, is also in a TON of movies, especially from the early 2000’s, so you will definitely recognize him in a ton of other works, especially stuff from the 2000’s to early 2010’s.
4. Shin Godzilla
It’s funny…I know…recommending a Godzilla movie to learn Japanese. Really though, this might be one of the most politically dense films I have ever seen…period. At the time of release, I was taking college courses in Japan…in Japanese, and I still had no idea what was going on. The Japanese in this movie may be the most difficult to comprehend of any Japanese movie in the last few years, and will be a challenge to nearly anyone. So, if you are looking for a challenge, this is a great pick. It’s also a great political satire and is very steeped in the current Japanese climate and attitude towards politics in the country. This film just screams symbolism, particularly in it’s imagery depicting scenes similar to the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. Godzilla, after all, was conceived as a comment on the use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as Japan’s relationship with nature and frequent natural disasters. It’s a good watch! I would just say that it is DENSE, so if you are watching it with somebody who isn’t interested in Japan, or learning Japanese, they WILL probably be bored. In my opinion, however, it’s the best Godzilla film from what I have seen.
Why this is a good movie to watch for learning Japanese
As I covered above, it is DIFFICULT. This would be a great learning resource for the prime minister of Japan, let alone some person abroad who is trying to jumpstart their Japanese-learning career. It may be above your level, but it will let you know what you may want to ultimately shoot-for. I say watch it for the cultural satire and look into modern-day Japan. Use it as an immersion piece, and less of a study tool, untill you get to a certain level.
5. The Wind Rises
I wouldn’t normally recommend anime as a study tool (sorry to the many proud weeb’s reading this), however, the Japanese is The Wind Rises is fairly standard, and it may be one of my favorite Ghibli movies. The story centers around Jiro Horikoshi and his quest to create amazing planes. Based on the real person and true story, the story follows him from childhood, up until World War II, where he would somewhat reluctantly take part in designing the infamous zero Japanese bomber. This is the central theme of The Wind Rises. Jiro just wants to create beautiful planes. He lives, breathes, and see’s plane schematics in his sleep, where he is visited in his dreams by his idol, the famous Italian aircraft designer Giovanni Battista ( who was also a real person.) Is it okay to create a beautiful thing that is used for destruction? At what point should the artist take responsibility for their creation? These are the kinds of questions The Wind Rises asks of it’s audience. It’s one of the more adult Ghibli films, which I think has left it in somewhat of a strange spot. I think this may be the most challenging and interesting Ghibli film, however, I don’t know…it is difficult to decide. I really can recommend that anybody what this movie. While I think you definitely should watch it with it’s original Japanese, this one does has a really good dub available as well (Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Jiro).
Why this is a good movie to watch for learning Japanese
This film is a good way to expose yourself to some more old-fashioned Japanese, without diving head first into a samurai film, or something that is nearly completely removed from modern Japanese. The film also provides a lot of historical context to many things that will stick with you across your varied Japanese studies, albeit language, history, or culture. I think this a fair and mostly unbiased view at wartime Japan from the Japanese perspective, and is also a view into the way Japanese was spoken at that time. It’s a good watch, and is fairly educational as well. All of the violence is suggested, or is depicted through visual symbolism, so this is also a good Japanese film to watch for families.
Why you should use films to study Japanese
Films are perhaps one of the greatest tools we have to immerse ourselves completely in a different setting and culture. I always suggest people who ask me how to learn Japanese to just do ‘more’. Spend more time immersing yourself in the language. Spend more time writing Japanese characters. Spend more time using the Japanese language, etc.
This is how you get better, and for those who cannot just uproot their lives and move to Japan, immersing yourself completely in a Japanese story for a few hours can be a decent substitute. Just make sure that you find a way to practice Japanese in a more active way to accompany it.
If you are interested in learning Japanese, please check out some of the editorials and other resources I have linked below;
Sumo wrestler’s diet and unique training techniques lead to a healthier distribution of body fat, as well as a comparative lack visceral fat that allows them to build size while maintaining their health.
What do Sumo wrestlers eat?
Sumo wrestlers traditionally eat two massive meals throughout the day. Their primary meal is Chanko-nabe, which is a stew consisting of fish, vegetables, and tofu. This dish provides copious amounts of calories as well as essential vitamins and nutrients. Bowls of rice and pints of beer are often added to pack on calories.
The name of the game is bulking. But more importantly, healthy bulking. This is what is particular about the diet of the sumo wrestler. Nothing in their diet is particularly unhealthy. Often the opposite, infact. They just eat A LOT. The average sumo wrestler eats up to 20,000 calories per day.
How much do Sumo wrestlers weigh?
The average competitive sumo wrestler weighs around 148kilograms (around 326 pounds.) The heaviest sumo wrestler goes by the ring name Ōrora and weights 288 kilograms (635 pounds!) The lightest champion in history (known in Japan as the Yokozuna) is Tochigiyama Moriya who weighed 104 kilograms (229 pounds.)
I think they should start measuring people’s weight in chanko-nabe pot’s. And i’m not just talking about measuring sumo wrestlers. Let’s make it happen!
Why are sumo wrestlers so HUGE?
Its a simple rule of physics. An object with larger mass has an increased inertia and potential to displace objects in front of them. The object of sumo is to move the opponent out of the ring by using the force of your body. Being bigger helps sumo wrestlers overcome their opponents.
Of course, as much of this weight needs to be muscle as possible. Sumo wrestlers lead incredibly regimented lives with strict training sessions beginning as early as 5am! They work out until exhaustion, and then chow down on protein and vitamin-fueled chanko-nabe.
What are the origins of sumo wrestling?
Sumo has a religious background based in Shintoism. Evidence suggests that sumo originated from a ritual dance performed to bring about a bountiful harvest, with Historical records dating back to 712 depicting the Japanese islands being won in a great sumo match between the Shinto gods Takemikazuchi and Takeminakata.
Throughout History Sumo and Shinto would become spiritually and politically entwined, with sumo playing a vital role in the court of the emperor. From the 12th to 17th century sumo became decentralized. As power within Japan shifted from the emperor to the shogunate, and thus the samurai, sumo began to play a vital role in the training of samurai warriors, Over the centuries, sumo would become a popular form of entertainment for the masses.
Get it?! “Masses”!! Nobody can comprehend the number of days I sat here rewriting this until I came up with that one. I did a funny!
To summarize what happened thereafter, ruling Daimyo began sponsoring sumo tournaments as a means to raise money and provide entertainment to commoners. This would be the beginning of the sumo tournaments that are still continuing to this day.
How do sumo wrestlers train?
Sumo wrestlers are required to be associated with an official training stable known as a heya. With practice often beginning every morning as early as 5am, Sumo wrestlers participate in rigorous training exercises designed to increase flexibility and train sumo wrestlers to properly administer their weight towards opponents.
One of these exercises is known as shiko, which is the process of practicing the ritualistic foot-stamping sumo wrestlers perform before each match. This movement is designed to strengthen lower-body strength and improve balance. Another exercise is teppo, where sumo practice proper leg and hand placement to most optimally topple their opponents.
Sumo will them partake in moshiai, which is essentially a king-of-the-hill style tournament where victors will continue to wrestle against opponents until they are defeated. This will continue into the morning, as unranked trainers take to the kitchen to prepare the chanko-nabe for the heya. Trainers will then have lunch, and continue to repeat various exercises throughout the day until the 2nd and final meal of the day.
More on Chanko-nabe and Chanko-nabe restaurants
Chanko-nabe has become iconic as the meal of the sumo wrestler. Did you know that you can eat chanko-nabe if you visit Japan? In fact. to fulfill its purpose chanko-nabe is loaded with protein, so this would be the perfect thing to eat after a day of walking around. Don’t worry, you don’t need to eat sumo-wrestler-level portions.
Not quite, anyways…Maybe.
Assuming that you’ll be hitting one of these cities, i compiled a recommendation of where to get chanko nabe to fulfill your sumo wrestler fantasy in Tokyo, and where to go in Kyoto.
Where to eat chanko-nabe in Tokyo:
Considering the convenience of location, I would have to recommend Chanko Shiba Matsu (相撲鍋 中目黑 芝松 in Nakameguro. Not only does the food look pretty delicious (I haven’t been there personally, but I looked up Japanese reviews), but this restaurant is located right in the center of a great off-the-beaten path area (well, compared to other tourist areas) in Tokyo that you should definitely check out! Nakameguro is famous for it’s multitude of shops, river walk area which is one of the most famous areas to view cherry blossoms in early April, as well as pudding!
Really, there are a lot of famous Japanese pudding shops in this area for some reason. Chanko-nabe and pudding. Truly a combination for a king!
You could spend some time walking around Nakameguro, and then fuel up with a delicious pot of sumo culture goodness. Sounds like a good time to me.
Where to eat chanko-nabe in Kyoto:
What better than to enjoy a nice big fat bowl of sumo wrestling culture in the ancient Japanese city of Kyoto?
That sounds incredibly weeby and genuinely cool at the same time!
I recommend Ikoro Sumochaya ( 相撲茶屋 いころ) for it’s and fantastic location and reviews. As someone who has visited Kyoto around a dozen times, I can definitely recommend the surrounding area as it is right in-between the famous Kiyomizu-dera temple, as well as the Heian shrine. You can walk from probably the most famous Buddhist temple in Japan, stop for chanko-nabe, and then go to a famous shinto shrine. Now THAT’s a day in Kyoto. Temple, Shrine, and sumo culture! The best part is that you can probably avoid tourists for a bit in this area in-between the two sites, and you will probably need the breather.
Do you want to try making chanko nabe at home?
If you want to experience sumo culture at home, you might want to try making your own chanko nabe. A really big component of chanko nabe and Japanese nabe culture in general, is that people gather around a communal nabe pot and take their share with chopsticks while the pot continues to boil. If you don’t have a communal pot like this, it really does add to the atmosphere. I checked out a bunch of listings and I would like to recommend this one. This was the most authentic option I saw on amazon.
Now that you have your communal pot, you can begin creating your very own chanko nabe.
*Growkaru is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program. I receive a small percentage of sales made with the above link. However, I will ONLY recommend quality products I have used and feel comfortable recommending.
Here’s the recipe:
5 cups of dashi broth <a href="http:// ” target=”_blank” rel=”noreferrer noopener”>(if you are having trouble finding this, you can purchase pre-prepared dashi by clicking this link)
Tsukune (Japanese Chicken Meatballs) – several balls.
Pork belly – thinly sliced.
Chicken thigh fillets – cut to large bite-size pieces.
Chinese cabbage- cut into 4-5cm / 1½-2” long pieces.
Bok choy – outer leaves separated, centre cluster halved or quartered.
Carrot – thinly sliced into rectangle shapes.
Shallot/scallions – cut 5cm / 2” long.
Shiitake mushrooms – stem removed (cut a decorative star on the head if you want).
Enoki mushrooms – bottom of the stem removed.
Kamaboko– thinly sliced.
The main thing to keep in mind is that chanko nabe is a dish created to achieve a desired means, and is not very particular about exact ingredients. So feel free to experiment and have a good time. Most shops in Japan have their own spin on chanko nabe preparation, so there is no need to follow the recipe exactly.
If you are interested in learning more about Japan’s culinary culture…
I recommend you check out the article I wrote about the history of ramen in Japan, as well as the characteristics people in Japan consider in good ramen that most people abroad don’t think about.
I had originally moved to Japan in early 2015 to study Japanese at a Japanese language school. While at language school, I saw the ferocity at which other students were studying to for the ‘Nihon Riyuugaku shiken” or（EJU). This environment really inspired me to go ‘absolutely ham’ studying Japanese, where I would remain in a tiny Japanese library studying with everyone else for 10-12 hours at a time. It was great! And crazy…
I saw Japanese university as a chance to take courses in Japanese with other Japanese students, and ultimately test myself in what I had learned. It was the ultimate challenge after 15 months spent studying in a Japanese language school.
How to get into a Japanese University
Most Japanese students spend the majority of the second half of their high school careers cramming information into their heads. This is because entrance to a Japanese university is almost entirely predicated on your ability to perform well on each Japanese universities’ respective entrance exam.
Contrary to my experience in the United States, grades and extracurriculars have very little to do with it. It’s just not something that people really care that much about compared to the west, especially grades. You can be a D student, but as long as you perform well on the entrance exam you have a shot at getting into even the top universities. This is why there is an entire cram-school industry in Japan. In fact, I taught English in a Japanese cram school while I was in University, and every single student I tutored there looked like they were struggling to even stay awake! I felt pretty bad for the kids, because I knew none of them wanted to be there, and it was a little awkward as a 21 year-old forcing a 17 year-old Japanese student to study their English.
For me personally, I choose to enter Kwansei Gakuin University which had an entry process for international students that involved an essay written in English as well as an essay written in Japanese, as well as a round of interviews in Japanese.
I’m an exception to my own rule! Woo!!
So I didn’t take the most traditional route, because Kwansei Gakuin is kind of famous as an exception in Japan, where more people are admitted from letters of recommendation or personal connections that by official entrance examination. Of course, many people still do enter through the enter exam, but maybe half of the people of knew there personally were admitted through some other means. I think I was able to get in because I had received formal lessons on following proper Japanese interviewing etiquette, and I think my demonstrating this really improved my chances.
I think this is a pretty good option for any international students who are looking to study in Japan, although I am unaware of how the application process works if you are not currently residing in Japan.
How much is the tuition at a Japanese university?
This really depends on whether or attend a private or public university. In regard to public universities, Under Japanese law national universities are required to charge the same tuition regardless of international or domestic programs, which means that the tuition is set to 585,800 yen ( which is around $5348 ). Public universities also charge an admission fee to first year students which is set at 282,000 yen (around 2575 US dollars). In the case of private universities, things can get a lot more complicated. Many private universities in Japan charge different tuition depending on your major, and most also charge an admission fee as well. For the sake of simplicity I will compile the tuition fee’s of international students (so I will factor in international scholarships) who enter a humanities undergraduate program. I have compiled some of the reputable private universities in the Kansai region, which is where my university (Kwansei Gakuin University, or 関西学院大学 in Japanese) was located.
Name of Institution
Tuition Total For All 4 Years
Kwansei Gakuin University (my university)
￥869,000 ( $ 7,963.99)
￥ 3,476,000 ( $ 31,855.98)
￥ 1,219,000 ($11,187)
￥ 4,414,000 ($40,508)
￥ 732,000 ($ 6,717)
￥ 2,928,000 ($26,871)
Should you study abroad for a year at a Japanese University?
Definitely! Studying for one year at a Japanese university as an exchange student is a much more casual experience, and will allow you to experience the culture while avoiding many of the stressful things about committing to life in Japan long-term.
Should you study for 4 years at a Japanese University?
I think so! I had a pretty good experience, although it may not be quite you’re expecting. Compared to the experience I had in the US, the experience of studying at a Japanese university is actually a much more flexible one. Japanese university students have a lot of freedom compared to other countries regarding their curriculum because there are very few gen-eds. I also found that people tended to fall into two categories; people that really want to goof off, and people who take studying very, very seriously. There isn’t much of a middle ground in this case. While I would like to write a very thorough article about this topic as well someday, the job hunting system for new graduates in Japan is one of the main things you should consider, as your major and grades play a much less important role in Japan when time comes for you to find a job. To be honest though, from what I hear from my friends in the US, a degree in America definitely does not guarantee a job nowadays either, so I think you should do what sounds the most interesting to you, and not what is the most logical of safe choice. I think you should take the plunge!
What are the classes at Japanese university like?
Classes in Japanese university are taught mainly using the ‘seminar style’, meaning you have a lot of old Japanese guys standing in front of the class talking to themselves for 90 minutes at a time. I personally like studying on my own so this didn’t bother me, but I know that it definitely would bother some who prefer the Socratic method. More in Japan than any other class I had every been in, the people who care sat at the front of the class, and the people at the back played puzzle dragons on their phone. This was a few years ago…
This is because a lot of courses at Japanese Universities split their grading scale to somewhere around 50% attendance, and 50% from the midterm and final exam. There are many cultural reasons for this, but put simple, in Japan the most important thing is to show up. The 2nd priority is to actually do a good job. So people would show up and play puzzle dragons! Well, maybe 1/4 of the class was like that, but I did notice that the teachers here had a pretty passive attitude about it. “DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT SKIPPING CLASS NEXT WEEK!!!”, they would half-jokingly say, and then would proceed to give people attendance points to manage their pokemon-go indexes in class. I found the passiveness of this to be a little strange, but it was nice being able to decide the level of effort I would like to put in each day. Of course, not every class was like this.
The time me and all other foreign students in class confronted our teacher
If you are taking classes in Japanese along with other Japanese students, there will be times when, despite doing your absolute best, no matter how much you study, you will fail a class not because you didn’t know the information, but because you couldn’t explain the information in the way your professor wanted. I had a bit of an eye-opening experience with this during my 1st year of university. I was taking a course on business coaching, and all was going well. I could participate in class, give presentations. I think that the teacher knew that I understood the content.
Then the test period came around…
The professor had just taken paragraphs out of our textbook (we were instructed to read something like 50 pages the week before), and he had redacted certain key words from the passages.
I needed to write the exact same word, choosen randomly from 50 pages, or I would get zero points.
So I panicked and panicked. Tried meditation. I called my inner voice, listened to my inner demons, tried to channel my energy into reading the teacher’s mind.
No, I did terrible on it in the end. And this is how all tests would be conducted. I bombed them all. It was a little like this. Try to fill in the blank.
Business coaching is not restricted to external experts or providers. Many ___________ expect their senior leaders and middle managers to coach their team members to reach higher levels of performance, increased job satisfaction, personal growth, and career development.
Did you choose “Companies”, perhaps? WRONG!!! You get…nothing! YOU LOSE! The answer was “organizations”…what are you stupid or something? You need to study more…
It went like that every time, And I wasn’t the only one having trouble
Venting aside, Every other person in our class who was…well, basically everyone who had learned Japanese as a second language were all getting zeroes across the board. So one day, we went to go talk to the teacher about this, and begged him to change up the test format. He pretty much told us that there was nothing he could do, that we had chosen to take his class in Japanese, and that we were free to drop it if we couldn’t handle it. He was pretty much a jerk about it.
In my other 4 years I never came up against something quite as ridiculous as this, but it may be something to keep in mind. The system may not be flexible, even if it is completely flawed and ridiculous.
Japanese students don’t participate in class.
Ever. The teacher will ask the class a question, and then their words will mysteriously get lost somewhere in the void. There were of course exceptions, but most people seemed to adhere to the old Japanese saying “Deru kugi wa utareru” or, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” (出る釘は打たれる)
So, I had a few teachers that were so fed up with this they would storm up and down the aisles, frustrated at everyone`s attitude.
Quick! Shut the pokedex!
In an effort to put myself out of my comfort zone and permanently cement myself in everyone`s eyes as a massive American stereotype (or at least a massive westerner stereotype), I would make an effort to participate as much as possible in certain classes like this. Partly because I tend be an obsessive workaholic, and partly because I found the notion of a foreigner leading the class to be both funny and a point of pride. Of course, there are a lot of people of different leagues studying at Japanese universities. There are people who are there to study, and the people who are there to goof off. I found that most people either fell into one of these categories, while it was rare for there to be much of a middle ground. Most people choose their zemi in their second year of university that will mostly decide how intense the rest of their university career will be. So…what is a zemi?
How busy are Japanese university students?
This really depends on the person. I really put myself in a tough spot because I decided to enter after less than two years of studying Japanese, but I found a way to push through it. At this point in life, Japanese students have just gotten through the ultra-strict environment of primary education and are more than ready to enjoy some time off and make friends for the first time in a long time. Many people dye their hair for the first time (A no-no in Japanese high schools), and everyone seems eager to make new friends and try as many things as possible. At the same time, everyone around me seemed to be on overdrive at all times, with plans filling up their techo pocket books to the brim. Contrary to my experience in the US, Japanese university is not for people who like to ‘go with the flow’, so to speak. Most people I knew were so busy with plans, part time work, and especially club activities, that I actually don’t know when they found time to sleep. I talk more about this phenomenon with how serious people take clubs at my YouTube channel, which you can watch below.
People practice long, and they practice hard. And…some people study hard! That really depends on what kind of ‘Zemi’ they choose to join. I go into the zemi culture below…
All about Bukatsus and Circles
In the video above we talk about the concept of Bukatsus and Circles, which are the primary way people in Japanese universities meet people outside of their classes. Most Japanese students are either still living with their parents or rent an apartment. It’s pretty rare for anyone to live in a dormitory or anything like that, so most people join clubs or some kind of group so they can meet like-minded people. The interesting thing about this is that you usually have the choice of two options for any given sport or interest, being that you can either join the circle, or you can join the bukatsu. These are both types of clubs. For example, there could be a tennis circle, or a tennis bukatsu.
What is a circle?
Circles are typically the more casual fun version of whatever you are doing. People join a circle so that they can make friends with people of the same interest, practice together, and then hang out after practice. The attendance at a circle is usually pretty casual, and is more come-and-go than a bukatsu would you. You can bascially drop in, hang out for a bit, and then move on with your day. I only ever joined circles during my time at university, because doing all of my classes in Japanese barely left me with time to scrape by in my classes.
What is a bukatsu?
A bukatsu is hardcore. They are not for the faint of heart. While it depends on what your are doing, most bukatsu’s involve long practice hours (as in, you start at 6pm and then go pick up breakfast together before class long), and are generally taken pretty seriously. Bukatsu’s reflect some of the more extreme aspects of Japanese social culture. People feel this pressure to be there, and to put on this insane perfectionist persona that is just way too much. For some reason, the dance bukatsu at my university was especially intense, and I witnessed a girl have a near-nervous breakdown in the lobby because of the stress.
How to make friends?
I made most of my friends through some connections I had made in the Jazz circle. I’m a guitarists, so by entering the jazz circle I was able to meet some people who knew some people. So on and so on…In the end the friends I made were because of the music I liked, and my ability to impress some people on the guitar. Then those friends introduced me to their friends…I think? It was a while ago, but my point is that it is a good idea to have a hobby that you can use to cut-through the initial barrier or approaching people as a foreigner. Having common interests definitely helps. It does become easier, as Japanese people usually feel a lot more comfortable talking to you when they see you talking to another Japanese person.
So does that mean you should avoid getting stuck in the ‘foreign bubble’, a.k.a only talking to other foreigners?
I think you should just talk to everybody. I tried to make it a point of only using Japanese for my first year in university, but I think it might have balanced out in the end. Whereas my goal was to improve my Japanese ability, and not get stuck in the foreign bubble I had seen so many people get trapped in before, me over-doing it made it so I ended up making foreign friends anyways, because my brain would just give up every few weeks and I would revert back to English. I think the thing most people struggle with is balance. Talking to everyone and enjoying the process will get you further in the long-run than trying to cram Japanese into your brain.
Making people comfortable with your existence; a fulltime job for expats in Japan
It also helps to have courage and the ability to push yourself outside of your comfort zone. I recently spoke about this on one of my patreon podcasts that you can listen to here if you become my patron. One of the great ironies I realized while living in Japan, is that everyone else’s shyness forced me to become a much more outgoing and assertive person over the years. People generally lack the courage to talk to you, and you kind of become a walking potential incident waiting to happen, because most Japanese people seem to have this fear that you’ll talk to them in English, they won’t be able to respond, and then they’ll feel really stupid. They carry that fear around with them, and as a foreigner it really becomes your job to dispel that fear. This gets to a lot of people who interpret this as racism, and I can understand that. I have definitely felt that way before, but I choose not to have that attitude. If that kind of thing sounds like it will bother you, Japan may not be the country for you. Because…
Every conversation, every potential interaction, every time you buy yourself a strong zero at the local conbini, every single interaction…it becomes your job to prove to other people that they can interact with you, and this can get exhausting to say the least.
Conbini is short for convenience store. It is not a type of bikini
That being said, These are all opportunities for you to grow and come out of your shell. Just like most things in life, it really is all a matter of perspective. You can accept that it’s difficult to meet people, or you can grab those reigns and go and try and make people want to interact with you. By putting all expats in difficult positions like this, Japan really does expose the strengths and weaknesses of all of us who choose to call this country home. It demands the best of you, and reveals things about yourself that you may have been able to hide in the comfort of fitting into your ‘proper place’ in your home country. This is an opportunity for you to take responsibility for your life, and become very real with yourself. It can be an amazing opportunity, but I have also seen it virtually destroy the mental sanity of other expats over the years. I’ve certainly had my ups-and-downs myself.
The lesson is this: life in Japan really will become what you make of it. YOU have to make it happen, because nobody else will feel comfortable enough to help you. For better or worse, everything is within your control.
Your ‘Zemi’ decides most of the experience you will have at Japanese University during your 2nd-4th year
Your ‘Zemi’ (short for zeminaru, which is the Japanese-English loan word of ‘seminar’, not sure why they went with a Z), is something that every University student in Japan enters. It’s basically a group of people that you join in your 2nd or 3rd year that come together to do public research, give presentations, have discussions, go on countless field trips and drinking parties with, etc. The list goes on and on. Your ‘zemi’ is really the only class that matters in your 3rd and especially 4th year of university, when most Japanese students begin the tedious and dare I say insane process of doing job hunting while they are still students.
While I can only comment on the experience I had at my university, choosing your zemi was essentially choosing your fate, and the difficulty of your university experience for the last 2 years. I’m a self-proclaimed masochist so I joined the most ‘serious’ and ‘traditionally Japanese’ zemi which was run by the head of my degree program, and a professor that graduated from Tokyo university, which is a university that rivals Harvard as being nearly impossible to get into. He was eccentric as it get’s.
Both a genius and a bit of a goofball. Actually, he always reminded me a bit of… professor frankly from Paper Mario. That’s a bit random, I know…
The interesting and somewhat unique thing about these zemi classes in Japan, is that they are all-encompassing. It’s a little bit less about being in a class with a group of people, and is more about just being a unit in a group of people that is striving for a certain cause, with a certain lifestyle. You will study together, give presentations, and have discussions, but you will also have Karaoke all-nighters, go out drinking more than you will with your friends, and travel domestically more than a few times a year. The zemi you choose will influence a huge amount of your time during your 3rd and 4th year, so I think doing some research on what kind of environment is best for you would be worth your time.
Japanese families traditionally gather to eat seasonal-appropriate foods such as Osechi ryori, and participlate in Hatsumōde (初詣, hatsumōde) which is the first Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine visit of the Japanese New Year. In Japan, New Year’s is an important holiday to spend with family.
But I know the truth…I know what everybody really cares about…
How I spent my New Years in Japan, and how I ended up watching that…
Many people may think of the wholesome picture I painted above. Oh, not the one where the guy is getting humourously and very publicy humilitated. No no… the picture where Japanese families gather harmoniously to eat wholesome osechi ryori and do their happy humility-filled hatsumode run. No no no…
They are trying to keep it a secret…but I know the reality…
There is a harsh reality… and I know it! I know the truth that the Japanese people look forward to a national New Year’s past time that is much more cheeky than you may be thinking.
A New Year’s past time that involves copious amounts of spank-by-club
But how did I experience this…and what am I even talking about? It all started when I was hanging around in my tiny tiny Japanese apartment on new years. It was about to become 2017.
“Looks like another New Year’s in Japan spent sitting in my room eating crunky and drinking salt & fruit,” I thought to myself. Just as another man once had…
But no! I wouldn’t be relegated to a night of lonely kaigui (basically means buying a bunch of cheap sneaks at a convenience store and shoving them down your throat). No…no no it would be a few more years until those dark times… Alas. A Japanaese friend came to swoop me off my feet, and take me away from my gelatinous sugar-staled fever dream. Was this him doing me a favor? Well, life is an enigma, and most things are a matter of perspective. Salt & fruit on a Japanese New Year’s Eve can be a truly amazing experience, and a humbling one at that!…but I did ultimately decide that I would rather go and hang out with some friends.. This was back when I was studying at a Japanese university, and in living arrangements that are somewhat rare in Japan. Most Japanese university students live either on their own in an independent private apartment complex, or continue to live with their family. I was living in my university mandated semi-private set of apartments (i’m not sure exactly how that worked), and so I was living in my own apartment, but a lot of the people in my building were also studying at my university. So it was just a walk down the hall for me to enter this different dimension. The dimension of booty punishment. I’ll get to that…
Anyways, this Japanese new years event was basically a Japanese house party.
Do Japanese people have house parties?
Japanese apartments are notoriously small, so Japanese house parties typically revolve around sitting around a ‘kotatsu’, or central table, and drinking cheap beers. It’s modest, but that is part of the charm.
Here is my experience…
I was invited into a room on the end of the hall. I had walked this hall many times, but this was the first time I had actually entered another room for more than a few seconds.
I walk in to be suddenly greeted with what must have been around 500 bags of garbage. It crunches, it crinkles, it oozes beneath my Onitsuka tiger’s (A Japanese shoe brand. It’s like the Japanese equivalent of converse.) It was actually pretty disgusting…I don’t think this is a Japanese thing, but he was like that for some reason. I should mention that I had eaten lunch with this guy in question a few times prior. I didn’t just let him pull me out of my apartment and drag me off to his sticky trash dungeon. I would never do something like that…
I make my choice of trash mound. I contemplate my position, and eventually choose the used sandwich wrappers over the moist ramen containers and sticky rice mounds. I nestle in. People are drinking copiuous amounts of alcohol, but it’s more the kind of alcohol you don’t openly brag about enjoying in an unrelated conversation. Strong zero, happoushu (発泡酒) (A type of Japanese beer that is actually not beer, but is sold much cheaper because it technically isn’t beer and can thus avoid taxes. In essence, ‘near beer’.
It’s new years, so I’m curious on everyone’s plans. “They must be planning on spending some time with family. Eating some of those attractive shrimp heads I have scene posed so romantically on top of osechi ryori flyers, or maybe even going on a small trip?” I think to myself. I ask them directly.
“No, we’re really here to watch Gaki tsukai. This is everyone’s favorite part of Japanese New Year’s.”
This is what they all told me. And I didn’t believe them until I saw the first frame
But first, let me cover something more boring. Let me build up that tension. Just let me build up my thing.
Be patient! I’m building it up…
Kouhaku Uta Gassen (紅白歌合戦), The other thing people watch on Japanese New Year’s Eve
Okay, okay…so not everyone watches middle-aged Japanese comedians getting their butts plastered on live TV. But the fact remains that New Years Eve is typically a day of sitting around and watching TV in Japan. Don’t get me wrong, Gaki no Tsukai is really popular, but I think that Kouhaku Uta Gassen is the perhaps slightly more popular, more mainstream thing to watch on New Year’s Eve.
So what is this Houhaku Uta Gassen, you ask in flawless Japanese pronunciation.
Well, it’s basically like Japan’s version of American idol, except all of the participants are artists that are already famous in Japan, and the whole event wraps up in a day. So, for people who are super into the modern music scene, and especially the pop scene, I guess this could be pretty fun. For me, it was the thing we flipped to when commercials started on the Gaki no Tsukai channel.
Gaki no tsukai; The original ‘try not to laugh’ challenge…with much higher stakes
‘Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!!’, or more commonly referred to as just ‘Gaki no Tsukai’ is a comedy show formed by Japanese comedy due Downtown that has a long run. Since 1989! But the segment that airs every New Year’s Eve in Japan is Waratte wa ikenai, which is essentially the original “Try not to laugh” challenge. More specifically, Waratte wa ikenai is what is known as a batsu game. (罰ゲーム)
What is a batsu game?
A batsu game is a popular trope seen in Japanese comedy. The term comes from a mix of the Japanese word batsu which means both ‘to punish’ and ‘incorrect’. Typically, a batsu game refers to a scenario where participants are punished for breaking a specific condition of a game.
The batsu game of Waratte wa ikenai is… well…Let’s just say you and your butt will never be the same again.
Since from when I started watching it three years ago, the format has been basically the same. There is a theme, and the Gaki no Tsukai members are brought to some location to solve mysteries and accomplish tasks for 24 hours. The show then escalates by placing comedians in increasingly weird scenario’s, and repeatedly punishing them by smacking them in the butt with giant clubs if they dare to laugh.
You know…like you do!
At the end of the show, they show the total number of whacks received by each member. They usually start in some field where they meet this guy who tells them about the year’s theme.
Waratte wa Ikenai started in 2003, but it was not until 2006 when they decided to turn it into a New Year TV show. Now everyone knows it. Maybe this is one of the reasons why ‘Try not to laugh challenges’ never picked up in Japan, because when you say ‘Try not to laugh’ (waratte ha ikenai), everyone thinks of this New Year’s Special. Also, maybe everyone would expect a soldier dawning a black face mask and club to come out and smack them. It isn’t really ‘Try not to laugh’ if there are no clubs and butt-whacking. See the video below. I couldn’t find one with English subs, but I think you can get the idea. Basically they’re cracking jokes, playing word games, and calling each other out if someone laughs.
It…isn’t long enough…The moment I realize it will be a whole year until I can see the magic of butt-punishment again is enough to make me tear up. It’s enough to make me change my life! It’s enough to make me want to make a…resolution. A NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION!
The funny thing is how normalized this was for everyone else I was watching with. They didn’t even blink. Of course this is something you would watch on a national holiday about new beginnings, new hope, and spending time with family. I can’t think of a better way to usher in the new years than a little…
*Giggle* tee hee…… SMACK!!!
No no… you see, the rear-smackdown brings us all together. Everyone can enjoy it! So, as you see, there is a reason why this kaboose-punishment fest became a Japanese New Year’s tradition.
It really is much more sentimental than you may be thinking.
Due to the logographic nature of the Japanese alphabets and their historical origins from China, Japanese people can make out the meaning of written Chinese text to a certain extent, however, spoken Chinese is virtually incomprehensible to Japanese speakers.
Can Japanese speakers understand spoken Chinese?
While Japanese has imported some vocabulary from Chinese, the way both languages are spoken is fundamentally different. Thus, the average Japanese person will not be able to comprehend a spoken conversation in Chinese.
This is because Chinese is a tonal language, while Japanese is largely monotone. (Although there are subtle differences in Japanese pitch accent when you start getting more advanced.) Chinese speech is based around the usage of 4 major tones. This system is known in Chinese as pinyin, and enables Chinese speakers to easily distinguish between homophones. Because of this, the pronunciation of Chinese words is fundamentally different than Japanese words even regarding words that Japan imported from China. Japanese vocabulary and grammar was constructed in a way that does not have a way to distinguish easily between homophones in speech. For this reason, it is very difficult for Japanese speakers to understand anything in Chinese, even when using similar vocabulary.
Can Japanese speakers understand written Chinese?
Due to the logographic nature of the Japanese alphabets and their historical origins from China, Japanese people can make out the meaning of written Chinese text to a certain extent. In many cases, Japanese speakers can make out the meaning of characters but not their pronunciation.
Logographic? What’s that? Think about the character below. What does this mean? How do you pronounce it? It entirely depends on the context. It could be a ‘number sign’, ‘pound’ or it could be a hashtag, etc. This is somewhat similar to how Chinese kanji characters are read.
So why can Japanese people understand the meaning of characters, but not their pronunciation? Before having had any contact with China, Japan up to that point had no written alphabet. The Chinese alphabet (known as Kanji in Japanese. Literally means Chinese characters) was created roughly 3,300 years ago during the Shang dynasty. As China would become the central most prominent power in Asia, and would form the backbone of many Asian civilizations, Kanji would eventually migrate across the continent and beyond. It is believed that Kanji character were brought to via Chinese immigrants through the Korean peninsula to Japan sometime in the 4th or 5th century. This created a number of really interested phenomenon, because Japanese as a language was very established at this time. While there wasn’t a formal writing system across Japan, part of which is because of Japan’s history of civil-conflict and divided nation states, Japanese has a very established unique linguistic culture and history that had flourished independently up to this point from the influence of China.
This created some pretty fascinating divergences linguistically. The Chinese language was imported into the language of Japanese which was in many ways incompatible with Chinese both linguistically and culturally. After all, I did mention that Chinese is tonal while Japanese isn’t, which is an absolutely massive linguistic difference. These differences would lead to the division of traditional Japanese and newly imported Chinese pronunciation that is still extremely relevant in modern Japanese today.
Japanese people should be able to understand Chinese vocabulary…right? About on-yomi and kun-yomi
The pillar of this division can be seen with utilization of two separation versions of pronunciation for most words. The original Japanese pronunciation for words is called the kun-yomi, and the pronunciation that is based off of ancient Chinese pronunciation is known as the on-yomi.
There exists a problem…
The Japanese alphabet doesn’t contain the same sounds as Chinese, so many of these on-yomi original Chinese pronunciations were converted to their closest possible equivalency in the Japanese pronunciation. For example, the word for library in Japanese is toshokan, which is an on-yomi word that is derived from the Chinese túshū guǎn. While the pronunciation between these two words is…similar, enough of these minor differences have added up throughout history to create increasing more divergent forms of communication.
You can see this dynamic in the use of Kanji as well! One of my favorite examples is how the usage of the word tegame (手紙) has evolved from it’s Chinese origins. In Japanese logic…
手 (hand) + 紙 (paper)
= 手紙 (Letter)
As in a letter that you mail. Seems reasonably self-explanatory right? You could maybe event guess that, right? Well…in Chinese they also use these two character together. They use 手紙 too! Do you know what it means?
In Chinese 手紙 means toilet paper…because you grab the paper…with your hand…to wipe your butt!
Ahhh…TP! The harbinger of doubt! Sanitary!…sanitary??? and educational!!!
Seems pretty self-explanatory right? I think this example demonstrates the point that no matter how close to language may appear to be, differences in linguistic nuance taken hold over thousands of years can compound themselves resulting in often gargantuan levels of change.
Japanese and Chinese have diverged over time, and Chinese especially has changed dramatically in the past century.
Nowadays, taking a look at any language settings on virtually every device will give you two options regarding mandarin Chinese; Simplified or Traditional. The Chinese government, as in the People Republic of China government, has implemented several measures in the past 50 years to ensure a higher literacy rate across all of continental China. One of these measures was to simplify the 10’s of thousands of Chinese character’s required to memorize if one is so understand most written Chinese texts. China has taken significant effort to reduce the number of stroke’s in the majority of characters, and has achieved a more easily memorized set of characters for the population to learn. At least, that is the theory. When I personally dabbled in memorizing some simplified Chinese characters, I found their logic to be somewhat inconsistent to the rules traditional characters had followed, and thus, the Japanese side of my brain would short circuit at the sight of any simplified characters.
But wait…there’s more…
China isn’t the only country that speaks Chinese. Taiwan (how dare he call them a country, China thinks to themselves…) was established as a nation after the democratic nation after the Republic of China (which was a democratic power) was defeated by the CCP, or Chinese Communist Party in 1949. With the Republic of China exiled to Taiwan, the nation became a democratic power, and Taiwan and the-then China of 1949 would begin to diverge further and further apart. The point being, Taiwan uses (supposedly more complicated) traditional Chinese characters, while China uses a new simplified alphabet. This makes things more complicated for Japanese speakers.
Can Japanese speakers understand both simplified and traditional Chinese?
Japanese took influence from early Chinese characters which are much more similar to the traditional Chinese characters that Taiwan and other Chinese speaking countries use today. China simplified their list of characters beginning in 1949. These characters are different not only in their logic, but also in their overall appearance. However, Japan imported the original Chinese characters, meaning the more complicated one’s. For this reason, it is actually easier to read texts written in traditional Chinese because of similarities to Japanese Kanji characters, despite them being more complicated.
Thus, a Japanese speaker would be able to read more Chinese characters in Taiwan, for example, than they would be able to understand in modern China, because Taiwan still uses traditional Chinese characters. However, the tonal nature of mandarin Chinese is vastly different from Japanese, so Japanese speakers likely would not be able to understand very much at all if they were to listen to a conversation in Chinese. The characters were traditionally similar, are diverging, but spoken Japanese and Chinese was never similar aside from some borrowed pronunciation. Even these pronunciations were altered heavily to match the Japanese tone’s and natural pronunciation of the time, and have continued to diverge farther and farther apart over time.
So, if you are a Chinese speaker and want to communicate with a Japanese speaker and you both can’t speak English, it would probably be best for you to try to write everything down.