Writing in Japanese was never my strong suit. Honestly, it still isn’t and probably won’t be something I will ever become proficient at. Sure, I know how to read and write Japanese words, but the phrasing, and beyond that, the formality of written Japanese just escapes me.
I never concertedly studied formal writing because I was always learning through recordings. Even when cramming for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test I didn’t practice writing. Why bother; there’s no writing portion of that test.
Now, you might be thinking “why not just write as if you were speaking? Spending over two years in Japan must build up a repertoire of useful phrases that can transfer to the written word.” The truth is, that doesn’t work as well as one might think.
Spoken and written Japanese, in a professional environment, are quite different. In particular, emails tend to be tricky. Let me lay down some ground rules and elaborate on the differences. Hopefully this will help in your endeavors to eloquently elaborate your voice in written Japanese.
The Power of the Pen (or the Keyboard)
We live in a great time for being bilingual. With technology like the Internet and auto-complete we can fill out important digital forms with a few taps on our smartphones or laptop keyboards. Unfortunately, this does have drawbacks. My drawback comes in the form of my laughable excuse for Japanese penmanship. Seriously. It’s bad… and probably exacerbated by the fact that I don’t draw my characters in stroke order (yes, you read correctly, kanji and kana have stroke orders).
Fortunately, technology opens up a new way of communication – through email. Emails play an important part in the Japanese business culture. May it be a new job opportunity or going out for drinks with coworkers, Japanese do most of their communication via email. Regardless of the finer details, most Japanese emails follow a specific pattern. Here is a little mock-up that will hopefully get some points across.
To the readers,
It is a pleasure working with you.
This is TalentHub writer J.J.
I’ve run out of ideas for the blog.
It would be most appreciated if you could comment with suggestions.
One thing you might have picked up, without even reading the mock email but just by looking at it, is the brevity; each sentence is short and avoids any kind of conjunctions. While Japan is a country that prides itself by being polite through ambiguous phrasing, writing an email is best kept to short bitesize phrases.
Speaking of politeness, it is always best to start the email with a greeting. “Good morning” (おはようございます, ohayou gozaimasu) or “It’s always a pleasure working with you” (お世話になっています, osewa ni natte imasu) are just two ways to start an email.
Along the same lines it is also wise to end an email with a closing such as “Kind regards”(宜しくお願いします, yoroshiku onegaishimasu). Once you get the hang of this set style, writing inter-company emails will be a breeze.
Kill Them with Kindness
As with any topic concerning Japanese, politeness always plays a factor. For those not familiar, there are three main levels of politeness: familiar Japanese spoken with friends and family (タメ口, tameguchi), polite Japanese spoken with strangers and co-workers (丁寧語, teineigo), professional Japanese spoken to customers and bosses (尊敬語・謙譲語, sonkeigo/kenjougo).
When writing to someone you know personally it is fine to write in the same level you speak in, but I always prefer to go a little formal. In professional environments with people you have never met face-to-face it would behoove you to be extra polite. If you are asking someone to do you a favor (which is one of the most common reasons to write an email) elevate the receiver’s status to one higher than yours.
As English has evolved, much of its colloquialisms have wiggled their way into our everyday writings. While the Oxford English Dictionary added “hangry”, “mansplain”, and “mommy blogger” to its list of words (2018) Japan isn’t that quick to adopt new words into the written language. Actually, Japanese is most grammatically sound and straightforward when in written form. Adding colloquialisms sometimes muddles a point and goes against the convention of brevity. Keep to the nuts and bolts!
If you are writing an email in Japanese remember these three points: brief, polite, and straightforward. Being able to write emails in Japanese is an important tool in the beginning of your move to Japan. Working with various people in different countries to get your visa, confirming living accommodations, setting up a bank account, and general day-to-day work can all be established with a well-written email. Good luck. I hope you can use some of these guidelines to be more accomplished than I am with the written monster.
Software Engineer and Blogger at TalentHub
Usually coding, writing, or exploring Japan.
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