Thursday, December 3, 2009

Accents and Dialects

Even among speakers of the same language, regional and cultural differences affect the way we communicate. Every language contains several dialacts, each with its own accent and set of slang words. Within the USA alone, you can hear very pronounced regional differences by traveling short distances. The people in my hometown of D.C. speak a lot faster and use more slang than most of the people I meet in North Carolina, however in N.C. they tend to put more vowels in to words than were originally intended.

Being in a homogenous society like Japan, I expected the regional differences to be less pronounced. Instead I encountered Osaka-ben, which often differs from Kanto-ben (Tokyo talk) and even the dialect of Kyoto. It is interesting to me how native Japanese speakers can just as easily pinpoint where a person grew up based on the way they talk as other English speakers can.

Some interesting links:

Monday, November 30, 2009


I have now been in Japan for over 3 months. Since my goal in coming here was primarily to learn a foreign language, I will try and give my superficial assessment of the language so far as an outsider and examine what exactly makes Japanese such a difficult language to learn.

For those who have no experience with the Japanese language other than the words konnichiwa, sushi, and karate, I will give a brief layout of its structure. The spoken language is relatively easy to speak phonetically as it has only about 28 distinct sounds (whereas english has around 56). Grammatically, however, the language is backwards from a native English speaker's perspective. The verb invariably comes at the end so that you know location, time, and people before you find out whats happening.

i.e. Instead of Tom ate a hamburger with friends at McDonalds, the direct equivalent would be more like As for Tom, at Mcdonalds, with friends, hamburger was eaten. Not necessarily bad, but its hard to transition to speaking like that smoothly after 21 years of just speaking english.

The written script is considerably more complicated than the spoken language. It consists of 3 (possibly 4 if you count romanji) alphabets/syllabaries; hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Hiragana, my favorite of the 3, is the alphabet used for original japanese words. Katakana, which has different symbols for the exact same sounds, is used for foreign words in order to distinguish them from Japanese. i.e. my name is written in katakana, whereas Takeshi's name would be written in hiragana, silly right.. The third writing system is kanji, which was adopted from China a loong time ago. It consists of thousands of different ideographs or symbols, the catch being as there is no phonetic guide you can only read kanji through rote memorization. This jumble of hiragana, katakana, kanji, and sometimes romanji (romanized japanese words) makes reading a Japanese newspaper no easy task.

There are several other barriers that makes learning Japanese challenging. As a deeply hierarchal society, there are entirely different ways of speaking to someone that has a higher social status. This difference is exaggerated to the point that businessmen have to exchange meishi (business cards) before they know how to address each other. Another considerable obstacle is the indirect way in which Japanese communicate. While Westerners like to put everything out on the table, Japanese are more prone to be afraid of saying the wrong thing. Our communication style is more like ping pong, where there's is more like pool. There is also the tendency in polite conversation for Japanese to avoid saying the word no. There are many expressions like chotto (a little), which mean essentially the same thing if you can read between the lines.

Things you should know about intercultural communication in Japan before coming here:
  • Just because English is abundant on shop signs and t-shirts does not mean people are able to speak it.

  • People don't actually speak like they do in the textbooks

  • There are regional dialects here just like in the states, each with their own slang

  • If you want to be polite make sure to throw in a "gozaimasu" or "onegaishimasu"

  • Attempting to speak the Japanese language will go a long way.. knowing a 2 word phrase might even get you a compliment

  • Generally speaking, gaijin (outsiders) are not held to the same standards as the Japanese, its not a learn our language or get out of here kind of environment

  • You will bow a lot, get used to it.

  • You will also communicate a lot non verbally, keep in mind that there non verbal signals are different (ex they refer to themselves by pointing at their nose)

  • Japanese people like to avoid confrontation at all costs

  • People that would never saying anything bad in Japanese are a lot more likely to cuss/be rude in limited english

  • Japanese people often try to gauge other peoples reactions before answering, in this case it helps to put your cards on the table

nihongo wa metcha muzukashi desu yo.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Exploring Emics

One of the great benefits of studying abroad is that it provides a more enlightened perspective on which to view the world. Etics, such as the need to eat, drink, and sleep certainly happen in every culture, but it may be naive to think that any activities beyond that aren't influenced by culture. My experience studying in Japan this semester is constantly challenging that which I once held to be universal truths.

Only now am I realizing how much my outlook on life is truly shaped by American culture. One interesting example of this is the "animal noises" in Japan. Previously, I assumed that all frogs went ribbit, all cats went meow, and all sheeps went baah, etc. Little did I know, that intercultural communication in Japan extends to animals as well.

Dogs say "wan wan"
Horses say "hihiin"
Pigs say "buu buu"?

And perhaps the funniest one, frogs say "gero gero"

The following link has a list of some other Japanese sounds..

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Strange Things Seen in Japan

These are just a few photos taken from my phone that give an idea of the strange things a visitor to Japan will encounter on a daily basis. I would love to have been in the corporate boardroom when some of these ideas were being pitched..

This a notebook I bought from the bookstore on campus. In case you can't read the type it says, "College Plus for all sensuous people line :B. Authentic Necessaries for official and personal life scene."

Believe it or not, this is a package for condoms. Apparently this has helped sales..

This was on sale at the 7-11. "Excuse me, can you tell me where the bathroom is?" "Ya, just go past the malicious weaponry isle and turn left.."

Mm.. American cola, wish we had this back home

Monday, October 5, 2009

Devin's Osusume (Recommendations for places to go in Japan)

Even though I have only been on this island for a month I have already amassed a fair bit of travel under my belt. The following pictures were taken at some of my favorite touristy and not-so-touristy places in Japan. So if you are brainstorming for travel destinations in Nihon, you might want to check some of these places out..

Round 1 Entertainment Center- Hirakata, Osaka, Japan
This place had literally every form of cheap amusement that you could fit under one roof, including; video games, billiards, ping pong, fishing (yes, fishing), shooting range, basketball, batting cage, tennis court, soccer court, badminton, roller skating, karoake, massage chairs, and my personal favorite.. mini-motorcycle races..

The Kamo River area is one of the most popular nightlife spots in Kyoto. On one side you have Pontocho Street, which is bar after bar after over looking the river and on the other side is the infamous Gion which is famous for nightlife in its own right..

Another obvious but necessary tourist destination is the infamous Kinkakuji, aka the Golden Pavilion.

Beautiful yes, a little wasteful.. maybe.

If you can successfully make it past the thresholds of hungry deer in Nara, you might find yourself at one of the largest wooden buildings in the world, which also happens to be home to one of the biggest Bhuddas..

Koshien Stadium, Japan's most historic ballpark and home to the Hanshin Tigers, is a great place to watch baseball, down a few asahis, and let loose for a while.

Although a sobering experience, I highly recommend visiting Hiroshima to see the Peace Memorial Museum and the A-bomb Dome.
"Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it."
-George Santayana
This link connects to the album I made of my first week traveling around Japan.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Nonverbal Communication in Japan

In the Western World, we rely heavily on the actual words said in a conversation to decipher the meaning. This is due largely to a direct style of communication. In Japan, however it is important to preserve wa (group harmony) and ensure that everyone saves face. The meaning of the word yes can range from yes, no, to absolutely not. Meanings are often implied rather than directly stated. In order for a foreigner (like me) to communicate effectively here, it becomes important to be very observant of body language and cultural norms.

Some forms of non-verbal communication are exceedingly obvious. When a foreigner makes a cultural foux paus, the nihonjin in charge will likely respond with their arms raised in a big X. Other non-verbal signals are not always easy to spot. In my experience so far, people in the U.S. seem much more willing to express their discomfort openly than people in Japan. Whereas a customer service rep at a 7-11 in the U.S. might be openly grumpy to customers, a similar employee here will always put on a smile and force out an irrasshaimase. The separation of honne and tatemae helps to explain this phenomenon. In Japan, due to social obligations and a group mentality, it is common for Japanese people to suppress their true feelings (honne) and instead act according to social expectations.

The following video, although intended to be humorous, gives an interesting look into other nonverbal communication that is present in Japan. Enjoy..

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Camping at Lake Biwa!

Welcome to my blog..
Throughout the course of this semester I will document my travels, trials, and tribulations in Japan. As one of the few people studying at Kansai Gaidai who are visiting a foreign country for the first time, I am seeing everything through fresh lenses. I am a newbie to both Japanese language and culture, which should make for some blogworthy experiences.

This past weekend I traveled with international students (2 Columbians, 2 Germans, an Australian, a Swedish-Brit, a Ukranian, and 3 other Americans) to Lake Biwa, the biggest lake in Japan. This was about as intercultural as it gets. The campsite we stayed at was one of the most aesthetically pleasing places I have ever been too. It felt almost as if we were on the set of Lost. For 3 nights we camped out, bbq`d, swam, explored, danced, and even tried to start conversations with the local Nihonjin.
There were some pretty big differences I noticed between us and our campsite neighbors. Other than a random guy that windsurfed past us on the first day, we were the only foreigners in site. Most campers stayed for only one night, whereas we decided to make the most out of Silver Week and rough it in the wild (no showers, etc) for 3 days. Despite this, we still had the shoddiest tents on the beach. This was evident when one of them snapped halfway through the trip and we had to duct tape it back to stay under cover.

One thing I noticed about Japanese culture thus far is that they take everything seriously. They even relax seriously. Their tents looked like they could have had a basement dug underneath with possibly a kitchen. Their also seemed more organized in planning their meals. Although our bbq ended up being delicious, our inability to read japanese food labels left us with cow intestines and 64 hotdogs on a stick. All in all, it was an amazing trip and I am looking forward to experiencing whatelse Japan has to offer outside the city of Hirakata..