Tag Archives: Japanese

Life in Japan: Learning Kanji

After 10 years in Japan, you’d think I’d know the 2000 main kanji, right? Well, I only know about a quarter of that. But is it really important to know kanji in Japan? How has knowing only 500 kanji affected me? Here’s my answer.

I Read Encyclopedias for Fun

There are three writing systems in Japan: hiragana (ひらがな), which is the main phonetic set of characters; katakana (カタカナ), which is the phonetic characters used mainly for foreign words; kanji (漢字), which is used throughout Japanese, and is taken from Chinese. It’s this last one that gives a lot of people trouble. It’s extremely important to know how to at least read kanji to be able to read a newspaper or book in Japanese.  This week’s question comes from Ellen Hawley.

I had friends who lived in Japan, and even after years reading Japanese (not the phonetic alphabets but the characters) remained a problem. Have you been able to learn enough to manage well? If not, how does that affect you?

Chinese_characters_logoI’ll begin by saying that I love kanji. It’s fascinating to me, but the biggest problem with it is that I often forget how to write them. But that’s…

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What Is Japan?

I’d like some opinions from anyone who lives in Japan or has visited Japan. Please visit this blog post and answer the questions. It would be appreciated. Thanks!

I Read Encyclopedias for Fun

As expected, the response to the Canada post was much less.  However, I did expect a bit more than that.  But now, another country.

This time, it’s the country I live in, Japan.  With 1,130 views last year, it’s the number three country with 6% of the views.  Why do I get so many views from a country whose people don’t speak much English?  Well, my first blog is about Japan, and a lot of my readers there are expats, just like me.  So, logically, they also read this blog.  I’ll be relying on residents of Japan more than citizens, but I’d also like the opinions of people who have traveled in Japan.  So, have you been to Japan? Live in Japan?  Then I want your opinions.


Japan is an island country with four main islands and many smaller islands.  It’s a very long country spanning from subtropical Okinawa…

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New foreign registration system

Today, the new registration system for foreigners began. Say goodbye to alien registration cards, hello to resident cards. The new system is handled by the central government, rather than municipal governments, so visa holders receive the new card the moment they arrive in Japan. Visas are now being extended from 3 years to 5 years. Re-entry permits are no longer required. Those who have an alien registration card can keep using it until it expires, they move, change companies, or get a new visa.

What I like is that the length of stay is extended to 5 years, and we no longer need re-entry permits. What I don’t like is that we now have to go to an immigration office to notify them of changes. Before, we just went to the local city office.

But today, there was a problem. The system to issue the cards at immigration in Narita airport stopped working. The same thing happened at other immigration offices. It’s a big headache for those who have to wait.

I won’t be getting the new card until I have a change in my registration or my alien card expires. I’m holding onto that for a while longer.


Filed under Daily Life

Studying Japanese: Should you do it?

I’ve been in Japan for more than 6 years, and while my Japanese isn’t conversational, I can get by doing some essential things.  However, I cannot describe symptoms to a doctor, nor can I understand the financial terms used in banks.  Amanda at “Whoa…I’m in Japan?” made a post recently about being discouraged from studying Japanese.  What’s the reason?  Because it’s impossible for foreigners to learn Japanese.  What makes Japanese impossible to learn?  Well, in reality, nothing.  It is entirely possible to learn Japanese well.  I’ve heard that what’s impossible to learn is keigo, which is the skill of communicating in different formal situations.  I wouldn’t say that’s impossible, either, just difficult.  And I’m sure many Japanese people don’t even have a good grasp on keigo.

My reasons for studying Japanese are personal.  It’s not for business (although it will be useful in the future for me), it’s for being able to communicate with those around me.  My fiancee is Japanese, and we’re expecting a baby in January.  Our baby will grow up to be bilingual.  I will speak English, my fiancee will speak Japanese, and when we speak with each other, it’ll mainly be in English.  However, even though I’ll be able to speak to my child in English, I can’t do the same with my fiancee’s family.  Her parents, sister, grandparents, most of her cousins, aunts and uncles can’t speak English.  Most of her friends can’t speak English, either.  I need to be able to speak with them in Japanese if I’m ever going to communicate with them.  I can’t rely on my fiancee to translate everything.  It’s important for me to learn Japanese.

There’s another situation that many Japanese speaking foreigners encounter.  When ordering food at a restaurant, the foreigner orders in Japanese, and the waiter/waitress looks at the Japanese people with the foreigner to confirm that he/she is actually ordering that.  When I eat out with my fiancee, I get the same thing.  I say my order, and the server doesn’t say anything.  My fiancee repeats what I said and the server confirms with her, as if he/she was completely ignoring what I said.  When I order food alone when I’m by myself, I have no problems, though.  It’s when I order food while I’m with Japanese people that they always confirm with the Japanese people that I really ordered what I said.  It’s quite annoying.  I ordered in correct Japanese, yet they behave like I was speaking English.

Have you had annoying encounters with people while speaking Japanese?


Filed under Daily Life, Japanese

“Yes, I can,” and other answers to Japanese

I’ve been living in Japan for more than 6 years now.  I’m a foreigner living in an area of Japan that has a lot of foreigners.  I’m not unique.  I see other foreigners regularly, usually every day (and I don’t mean at work).  In the beginning, I was asked a lot of questions that I didn’t mind.  They were curious about me, so I answered.  But after 6 years, I still get the same questions.  Here’s a sample of the most common questions:

Can you use chopsticks?

Yes.  Yes, I can.  I’ve been able to use them since I was a kid, long, long before I came to Japan.  Don’t act surprised.  Many people in Canada can use chopsticks.  Asian food is popular, and Asian restaurants provide chopsticks.  That’s where I learned how to use them.  Most of the time, convenience store clerks ask me if I want chopsticks, which is a very normal question for every customer who buys a meal.  However, some people will clearly ask me if I can use chopsticks.  And sometimes, when people see me use chopsticks, they are amazed.  Why?  I have fingers and hands just like other humans, including Japanese people.  They’re easy to use.  Stop being surprised.

Can you eat raw fish?

First of all, the question is wrong.  It should be “Do you like raw fish?”  Asking my ability to eat something should get this answer:  “Yes, I can put the raw fish in my mouth and I’ll chew it, then swallow it.  See?  I can eat it!”  But I’m polite, and say that I can.  I go further and say that sushi and sashimi are quite popular in Canada, so many, many people eat it.  One time about a year ago, I bought some sashimi in a supermarket, and the cashier looked at me in surprise and asked me in Japanese if I like sashimi (at least it’s better than if I can eat it), and I told her I love it.  She seemed happy with that answer.

You must be very good at Japanese!

I get this a lot when I tell people I’ve lived in Japan for 6 years.  There’s an understandable expectation that I can speak Japanese well.  I always answer that I’m not good.  I can get by with basic everyday things, but my ability to speak is quite bad.  I’m far better at listening.  I can understand the general topic of conversations, and get some details, but if I’m asked to join the conversation, I freeze.  I have little experience with general conversations outside of shopping.  I guess this comment that I receive isn’t so annoying, but I get it several times a week.  It should be motivation for me to study, shouldn’t it?

Wow!  You can read hiragana?

On the other hand, people are surprised that I can read the basic phonetic written characters of Japanese.  I learned them in 1 week in university several years ago.  It’s easy!  Hiragana is not difficult.  But many Japanese people seem to think that it must be difficult for foreigners, because it isn’t the Roman alphabet.  It’s just a few extra letters for me to learn.  After 6 years in Japan, I most definitely should be able to read hiragana, especially if I’ve passed the JLPT 3rd grade test.  That test required 300 kanji, too.  My students study English.  I don’t go to the lessons and say “Wow!  You can read the alphabet!!!” So, why is it so surprising that I can read hiragana after several years of somewhat inconsistent Japanese language study?

Why did you come to Japan?

This is just curiosity, I’m sure.  My simple answer is that there are too many reasons.  I find it hard to answer this question every time when the answer is quite complicated.


I often want to say 2 things:  “It’s gaikokujin, and you’re rude” or the even better “Nihonjin!”  I think I’ll try the second one next time.

And finally, while there are no words exchanged, there is some nonverbal communication with this one.  Occasionally, I’ll get stared at on the train.  It’s not so often, but when it happens, it’s almost always an elderly man.  My response is to stare back at him.

One thing that many Japanese people don’t realise is that many foreigners in Japan have been here a long time.  Globalization is a fact in Japan, but many people are very slow to accept that fact.  Japanese culture and pop culture is spreading around the world, as well.  Japanese food is popular, especially sushi.  It’s not a surprise to me, but it is a surprise to many students that I teach.

Comments?  Have any questions for me?  Fire away.


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Japanese study online resources

Since I live in Japan, I’m studying Japanese.  As I’m not taking Japanese lessons, I study on my own.  It’s not the easiest thing to do.  But I have found 4 resources online that have helped me study.  Please take a look at them if you’re also studying Japanese.

Lang-8 – This is a very useful website.  This is where you can find many other people studying languages.  All you have to do is write a journal in the language you’re studying.  Native speakers will then correct any mistakes you’ve made.  You can also help people who are studying your language.  It’s a very active community of language learners, and there are many languages being learned.  Highly recommended.

Smart.fm – If you want to improve your vocabulary, this is the place to do it.  The iKnow application is an excellent and enjoyable online flash card system.  It frequently reviews words you’ve studied before, so you don’t forget.  It also helps you with kanji, but the focus is on vocabulary.  You can also study dictation, which will help you improve your listening skills.  Definitely give this a try.  This supports many languages, so you can study most major languages.

KanjiBox – This website is specifically for kanji and vocabulary.  It helps you remember the kanji, the kanji readings, and vocabulary.  You can study based on the JLPT levels, or even the kanji that are studied in each grade in school.  This is also a flash card style system.  You’ll need Facebook for this one.

Rikaichan – This is a Firefox add-on that is great for reading Japanese websites.  When it’s turned on, you just move your mouse over kanji or words you don’t know, and it’ll tell you the reading, as well as what the word means.  It even works with colloquial language, which is great for natural, casual Japanese.

Do you know any other resources?

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