West Meets East: An American in Japan

From Buddhas to ice cream, a Colorado native living in Japan explores the sights and culture of the land of the rising sun.

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Japanese Essentials Part 2

By Josiah Lebowitz
Thursday, January 20, 2011

I've got one last language post for you.  After this, I'll be focusing entirely on things like the Japanese culture, food, cool places to visit, strange stuff, and the like.  Unless I get requests for more language based posts, of course.  Anyway, here’s a few useful words to know when in Japan, followed by their English friendly pronunciation (in parenthesis) for anyone who missed the pronunciation guide I posted a little while back.

Yes = hai (high)
No = iie (eee-eh
Excuse me / I’m sorry = sumimasen (sue-me-mah-sen)
I’ve very sorry = gomen nasai (go-men-nah-sigh)
I’m ok = daijoubu (die-joe-boo)
Thank you = arigatou gozaimasu (ah-re-gah-toe go-za-ee-mah-su)
Bathroom = toire (toy-reh)
What = Nani / nan (nah-knee / nah-nn)
? = ka (kah; add to the end of a sentence)

Where = doko (doe-koh)
Here = koko (koh-koh)
There = soko / asoko (soh-koh / ah-soh-koh)
Right = migi (me-gee)
Left = hidari (he-dar-ee)

Train = densha (den-shah)
Bus = basu (bah-sue)
Taxi = takushi (tah-kew-she)
Plane = hikooki (he-coh-key)
Station = eki (eh-key)

Super Market = suupaa (sue-pah)
Restaurant = resutoran (reh-sue-toe-rahn)
Price = ikura (ee-kew-rah)
Yen = yen / en (yeh-nn / eh-nn)

1 = ichi (ee-chee)
2 = ni (knee)
3 = san (sahn)
4 = yon (yohn)
5 = go (go)
6 = roku (row-kew)
7 = nana (nah-nah)
8 = hachi (ha-chee)
9 = kyuu (Q)
10 = jyuu (jew)
100 = hyaku (hyah-kew)
1,000 = sen (senn)
10,000 = ichi man (ee-chee-mahn)

For denominations of 10,000, 1,000, 100, and 10, add the appropriate number as a prefix. For example, 30 is san-jyuu and 400 is yon-hyaku.

While you won’t be carrying on any real conversations, these words should help you get by if you visit Japan for a week or two.


Common Beliefs About Japan

By Josiah Lebowitz
Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Americans in general have a set of beliefs or assumptions about Japan and the Japanese people. Some are pretty much spot on but others, not so much.. Here’s a quick look at some of the more common ones and how accurate (or inaccurate) they are.

1. Most Japanese People Speak English
Not at all. Some places in Japan (major tourist spots, mostly) have English signs, menus, and the like even that is often questionable. Despite years of English in school, your average Japanese person can’t say much beyond a few stock phrases.

Japanese English

2. Japanese People Love / Hate Americans
In general, Japanese people like foreigners and find them very interesting. Since, unlike the US, almost everyone in Japan is the same race and has lived in Japan their whole lives, foreigners are something very different and unique. That said, Japan has its own set of stereotypes about people from various countries, most of which aren’t particularly accurate or flattering, which can lead them to be rather wary of foreigners at times.

3. Japan is a Very Expensive Country
Not true. While there are plenty of expensive stores, hotels, and restaurants to be found, you can easily find hotels for around $50 a night (or less if you’re willing to make some big tradeoffs), filling meals for $5, and all manner of items for sale at perfectly reasonable prices. Naturally though, some things which are cheap in the US are a little expensive in Japan (many type of fruit, for example) and vice-versa.

4. Japan is Nothing but Big Cities / Japan is Nothing but Little Villages
Japan provides a rather fascinating mix of old and modern and you can find both sprawling high-tech cities like Tokyo and old fashioned little villages like Magome.

5. Japan is a Very Safe Country
Yes it is. Violent crime is extremely rare, theft (even of lost or misplaced items) is uncommon, and you can safely walk through big cities in the dead of night without having to worry.

6. Japan is a Very Small Country
When compared to the US, yes it is. But even a quick look through a tour book will show you that Japan is still relatively large, with many distinct regions and climates.

Mt Fuji

7. Japan has a Perfect Society
The lack of crime and emphasis on politeness and respect can make it easy to think that Japan has the perfect society, at least at first glance. But if you spend a while here you’ll soon realize that it has its fair share of problems as well, they’re just different from many of the ones we face in the US.

Ueno Park

9. Japan has Ninja, Samurai, etc
Japan DID have ninja, samurai, and the like but that was a long time ago. These days, all you’ll find is actors and cosplayers (costume enthusiasts). And, for those of you who have been watching too much anime, there’s no giant robots, cat girls, or anything like that either.

Samurai Armor

10. Everyone in Japan Plays Video Games, Watches Anime, and the Like
Also not true. While video games, anime, and manga have a much higher penetration in Japan than they do in the US, there are plenty of people who simply have other interests.

Pokemon Center

I hope that helped clear some things up for you. If you’d like to know more about some of the subjects I just touched on (such as where to find cheap food or the common stereotypes Japanese people have about Americans), rest assured that I’ll be covering many of them in-depth in future posts.


Japanese Essentials

By Josiah Lebowitz
Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Before I start talking a whole lot about Japan itself, here’s a quick primer on the Japanese language. While I won’t be using this blog to try and teach anyone Japanese, you’ll find some elements of Japan easier to understand if you have a basic grasp of how the language is formed. Plus, knowing proper pronunciation and a few basic words and phrases will make things much easier if you ever visit Japan.

Spoken Japanese
While those without any knowledge of Asian languages tend to think that they all sound the same, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and the like all have very different and unique sounds to them. Unfortunately, Japanese is usually spoken quickly and fairly quietly (which can make it hard for non-native speakers to follow). It’s a very polite language with hardly any swear words, an emphasis on indirect non-confrontational speech, many different levels of respect (depending on the relationship between the speaker and person being spoken to), and a rather poetic feel it.

Written Japanese
Japanese has three separate written languages. The first is hiragana, which is used when writing words of Japanese origin. Unlike English, each letter represents an entire syllable rather than a single sound. There are 46 basic hiragana characters plus some minor variations formed by adding small marks to some of them. The second written language is katakana, which is an alternate version of hiragana. It represents the same syllables but uses a different set of characters and is primarily used when writing words of foreign origin. Finally, there’s kanji. Kanji are Chinese characters that can be used in place of anywhere from one to several hiragana. There are around 2000 officially recognized kanji characters in Japanese and a number of unofficial ones as well. To make things even more complicated, every kanji can have anywhere from two to ten or so different meanings and pronunciations. Unsurprisingly, kanji are considered the bane of Japanese language students everywhere (myself included) and even Japanese school children require years of study to master them all.
It should also be noted that written Japanese doesn’t put spaces between words (just between sentences and sections of certain sentences).

Japanese Pronunciation
Thanks to the versatility of the English language, it’s actually very easy for English speakers to learn proper Japanese pronunciation. Much easier, in fact, than it is for Japanese speakers, whose native language is much more limited, to learn proper English pronunciation. As a rule, all Japanese letters (except for the double n) are followed by a vowel (or occasionally a y then a vowel). Japanese letters are almost always pronounced in the same way each time (though the inflection might change) and there’s no such thing as silent letters. Other than that, the main things to remember are as follows:
1. a = ah (as in mah)
2. i = ee (as in meek)
3. u = ew (as in sue)
4. e = eh (as in meh)
5. o = oh (as in so)
6. Double vowels (aa, ii, ee, uu, oo, ou) indicate that the vowel sound should be held longer.
7. Double consonants (except for n) indicate an emphasis on that sound
8. Double nn or an n not followed by a vowel indicates an nnnnn sound.
9. tsu = t’sue
10. The Japanese r sound is half r and half l. Try touching the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth (as if you were making an l sound) when you say the Japanese r.

See, it’s not that hard. With a little practice you shouldn’t have to worry about Japanese people misunderstanding you, at least as long as you’re saying the correct word to begin with.


West Meets East

By Josiah Lebowitz
Monday, January 17, 2011

As the train pulled away from the station I watched the Japanese countryside pass by, marveling at the different shape of the buildings, the fields of rice paddies, the bright flashing signs, and all the little things which indicated that I was most definitely not in the US anymore.

My first view of Japan

Soon my excitement at being in Japan, a country I’d longed to visit for years, was replaced by a growing sense of panic. What exactly had I gotten myself into? This wasn’t some two week vacation to see the sights. I was here to teach elementary school English, a job I’d never before done, in a country I’d never before visited, for eight whole months. What had seemed like a relatively short length of time back in the US was now starting to feel like an eternity and my several semesters of college Japanese seemed horribly inadequate.

Rice Paddies

But that was back in August of 2007. Fast forward to the present and here I am back in Japan for a several month stint teaching English at a jr. high school. And, while I’m currently planning to return to the US once I finish, there’s a chance that I’ll stay on or find a new job here and remain in Japan for another year or more. Because, as strange and different as Japan is, and despite the tiny apartments, language difficulties, and lack of good pizza, there’s a whole lot to love about it.

This seems like a good time to introduce myself. My name is Josiah Lebowitz and I’m a 26 year old writer and video game designer who has lived in Western Colorado on and off for the past 19 years. My interest in Japan began around 13 years ago when I become hooked on Japanese video games, anime (cartoons), manga (comics), and karate. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before I wanted to know more about the country that produced so much of my favorite media.

Josiah in Magome

I studied Japanese on and off on my own for several years but it wasn’t until the middle of college that I started taking formal classes. My teacher often talked about the time he spent teaching English in Japan. Listening to him, I began to wonder if maybe I should give it a try as well. Before settling down and seriously working on my career, I could take a year off and work in Japan. It sounded like an adventure and a good way to improve my Japanese so, in August of 2007, off I went.

Though I returned to the US in April of 2008, instead of renewing my teaching contract for another year, I enjoyed my time in Japan immensely and have been wanting to return (at least for a short time) ever since. And that brings me to 2009. With the economy making it difficult to find a good job in my field, I started thinking about taking another teaching position in Japan. If nothing else, it would be a fun way to spend time while waiting for the release of my latest book and game. So, when I was offered a position to teach at a jr. high school in Chiba from January through March, I jumped on it and now here I am.

During my first stay in Japan, I kept a photo filled travelogue where I talked about my job, the places I went on my days off, and all sorts of things about Japan and how it differed from the US. I’ve been doing the same since returning to Japan two weeks back and you can read all about my latest adventures at www.pebbleversion.com  And now, thanks to the fine folks at The Daily Sentinel, I’ve got this blog as well. Unlike my travelogues, which act more or less as a daily record of my activities in and comments on Japan, the purpose of this blog is to introduce people to Japan and what makes it such a different and fascinating place. I’ll also be including some travel advice (where to find hotels, what to see, how to get around, etc) and tips for those who are interested in visiting or even working in Japan. I’ll be making new posts every day or two Monday – Friday for the next few months so be sure to check back often.

Be it in the crowded streets of Tokyo or the quiet of a small mountain village, there’s always something new and different to be found in Japan. I hope you find this blog interesting and entertaining and that it inspires you to plan your own visit to the land of the rising sun.


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