Looking back, there have been more misunderstandings between Japanese people and me than I would like to count. Language and cultural barriers are a hurdle that anyone from another country has to deal with when you travel, emigrate, or even encounter foreigners in your home country. For me, though I could often clear the muddied waters before things got too messed up, it became very evident to me that there are some things that English-speakers and Japanese-speakers may never completely understand in one another.
The good news is that you don’t have to worry. Learn from my mistakes and be a bit more conscious about your wording, and you should be fine. As for my mistakes? There have been plenty!
Also read: This article on Toptal goes in-depth about different frameworks and approaches on effective communication to overcome cross-cultural communication barriers.
Various Misunderstandings in Japan
To enlighten you about what kind of miscommunications happen in Japan, I thought it would be interesting to include some anecdotes about the encounters that have stuck with me and became lessons ingrained in my memory.
Keigo Sentence Structure
One of the things that I find foreigners and myself mess up on is keigo, or the highly formal way of speaking in Japan that shows respect and humility towards someone more superior and older than you. Keigo does get easier the more you use and hear it, but when I first heard it being spoken to me directly, I was more than confused.
The person whom I contacted sent an email saying, “ご連絡させていただきます (go-renraku sasete itadakimasu)。” Now, some might know this means “Please allow me to contact you.” However, when I first read it, I thought the person was asking for me to contact them, for I focused instantly on the “itadakimasu” or “to receive.”
I didn’t have the confidence to speak on the phone in Japanese back then, and so I got nervous about calling this person. Fortunately, they called me, as they said they would. I can’t tell you how many times I have confused polite Japanese and the usage “~sasete itadakimasu” or other phrases, like ご案内致します (go-annai itashimasu).
A coffee shop waiter said that line to a friend and me the other day. Though we had already placed our order and were quite comfy, another bigger booth across the way had opened up. I immediately knew that he was asking us to relocate, despite a lack of real direction; but my friend who knows very little Japanese gave me a confused look as I started packing up my things. She thought he had announced the arrival of our coffee, which was to be elaborately poured at the table. When I explained he would be guiding us to a new table instead, she said, “Oh, that kind of guidance.”
Cultural Phrasing and Word Usage
One of my favorite misunderstandings of all time wasn’t a big deal, but it does show how various languages and cultures perceive and explain things differently. Back when I had first come to Japan, I my cell phone’s battery cut out right when I was in the middle of texting a friend. Later, when I had it charged up, I sent the message, “Sorry for making you wait. My cell phone’s battery died (返事お待たせ。携帯の電池が死んだ).”
To an English speaker, saying “the battery died” is natural and understood. In Japanese, however, you don’t say something that was never alive to begin with has “died.” It doesn’t make sense; and so my friend had no idea what I was trying to say. It also made me aware that I didn’t know how to describe the phenomena of a battery running out of life. Do the Japanese even call the energy in a battery “life”? It was an existential crisis, of sorts.
Another phrase that makes sense to both Koreans and English-speakers is “I have no future.” When I was in a Japanese language school, one of the Korean girls I was practicing interviews with messed up on a response and cried, “先生、未来がないよ (Sensei, mirai ga nai yo).” Our teacher made a face and said, “That’s weird Japanese. We don’t say that.”
The Korean girl’s face fell, and I could tell she was thinking, “How else can I describe this?”
Strangely, at that moment, we both agreed that saying “We have no future” fit our emotions. Unfortunately, it is something that goes misunderstood in Japanese.
One of my all time favorites is not something I said but another Korean friend. He wrote, “I am on the train,” as “電車を乗ってる.” The Japanese picture this as something actually riding on top of the train. Boy, was he the butt of jokes for a long time.
Overcoming Misunderstandings and Language Barriers
Everyone fears being misunderstood from time-to-time, even in our mother language. Every culture has different ways of describing occurrences or showing respect, words that sound alike but have similar meanings, as well as proverbs and slang. Fortunately, there are ways to overcome these misunderstandings.
Every single time I had a misunderstanding, large or minuscule, I was able to diffuse it using at least one of the following methods:
The biggest misunderstandings are often caused by mispronunciation and grammatical fallacies. For example, you could say “kirai (dislike)” instead of “kirei (pretty, clean)” and create a world of problems that could have been avoided completely. Yes, enunciating well and thinking through everything is draining; but extricating yourself from a misunderstanding is definitely more frustrating.
Also, avoid using words that you aren’t comfortable with. There have been times where I wanted to use that new JLPT N2 vocabulary word in conversation but didn’t know the meaning 100%. To avoid using the word incorrectly and confusing the listener, I switch it in for a simpler version. Once they understand, you can then say, “By the way, can I use [the word] in this situation?”
If you’re not sure about something, ask to have it repeated or spoken in a more simple manner. Likewise, if you are trying to explain or describe something, it’s okay to ask if the listener is following or if they need clarification.
One way of doing this is to hold up your hand and say, “I just want to check to be sure I’m understanding this. You were saying~” and go on to repeat them. It’s okay to ask for slower speech, too.
Idioms & Jargon
Language is very contextual given the situation. English-speakers rely heavily on context and built-in clues. The Japanese do not. Therefore, there are no direct translations for sayings like, “my battery died,” “right off the bat,” “touch base,” “strike a deal,” “elephant in the room,” and other idioms. The same goes for jargon or special vocabulary associated with various industries. If you don’t know the word in Japanese, you should be prepared to explain or define the meaning in terms that both parties understand.
Use Basics & Specifics
This is true for interviews and the like. You might want to whip out impressive keigo, but chances are you’re going to be too nervous and wind up stammering or experiencing a level drop in Japanese. So, stick to polite phrases that you are comfortable with and be a specific as possible. For example, instead of saying, “I will get back to you soon,” say, “I will call you later at [such and such at time].”
Cross-cultural communication takes time. You need to have patience in both speaking a foreign language and listening to it. Keep your mind and ears open. Be willing to ask for repeats or clarification.
Lastly, one thing I noticed that helps is having some knowledge of Japanese culture. People tend to more accepting of your mistakes if you are aware of how Japanese people tend to behave in certain situations or phrasing that is used. For example, when opening a door to an office or when answering a phone and giving a set greeting. Know how to politely ask questions or pause someone respectfully. The right nod, bow, and smile will help—that much I assure you.
It doesn’t matter where you go—language is different throughout the world. Every culture has unique characteristics that add meaning and depth to the language; but these differences are not always easy to navigate when you are attempting to communicate. While language barriers and misunderstandings are unavoidable, using these tips and keeping Japanese culture in mind, you should be able to overcome any miscommunication with ease.
By Valerie Taylor
東京都在住。太陽光発電に関する企業で通訳・翻訳、 国際関係業務を勤めている。 また、ダンスと忍術を訓練している。
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