Japanese thoughts

Clean lines and perfect angles in Japan

The Japanese seem to love them as is clear from the curve that they draw on the road to indicate the angle at which you make a turn to the right or left. Most roads are narrow and you can rest assured that by taking the turn exactly at that angle you will stay within your lane no matter how big your vehicle.

Even the randomly placed rocks at a zen garden have a certain aesthetic appeal to it. Apparently, the rocks at Ryoanji have been so arranged that viewed from any angle only 14 out of the 15 rocks are visible at a time.

The Japanese tea ceremony is another instance where you turn your tea cup at a particular angle, lift it and transfer it to another hand in a particular way. There is a certain way the teapot is held and tea is poured. So Zen..so neat!

The traditional Japanese bow is made at different angles depending upon the person you are bowing to. You’d bend 45° (Keirei) to show respect and 70° (Saikeirei) to show respect to the point of reverence:-). You would probably just mildly nod your head for someone who is junior to you.

Even Japan’s funkiest architecture seem well thought out – with clean lines and angles. Nothing ever seems out of place in Japan to the point where you begin to think the Japanese have some kind of “obsessive compulsive disorder” :-).


(picture source- wiki and trendir)
Japanese thoughts

How proficient are you in your mother tongue?


This does not simply refer to the ability to make yourself understood. How many of us can give a decent speech in our own mother tongue – a speech that is not laced with too many foreign words, a speech without grammar mistakes?

In India especially, mother tongue is spoken at home with a heavy mix of English words. Most of us go to English-medium schools and pick up a bit of spoken English along the way. While at school, English, for most of us works just as a medium to understand other subjects like Science and Math. We don’t stop to enjoy the beauty of English poetry and English grammar is something we worry about only the day before the exam.

If this is the case with English, the way we treat our mother tongue is infinitely worse.Some of us finish schooling without learning to read or write in our mother tongue. Some of us barely learn to read and write and quickly shift to learning French or Spanish in middle school. We do this under the false assumption that these languages are easier to learn and therefore easier to score marks in. At the end of 16 years of schooling,  we find that although we have “learnt” around 3 languages, we are fully conversant with none.

Later, depending on where life takes us, some of us are forced pick up a new language. This is when all those schooling years that we spent relegating “language” to the bottom of our priority list comes back to haunt us:-).

Those who have a sound grammar base in their mother tongue invariably find it easier to learn a new language. The others struggle and imagine that the language they are trying to learn is “tough”. But as far as grammar is concerned there is no tough or easy language. If you already have a fairly good hold over one language, the journey to learning another new one can actually be fun…you compare the sentence structure of the new language with your own and try to relate to a new system of thinking and communicating. It’s almost as if you’ve found the keys to a whole new world.

But when your grasp over your own language is weak, it becomes that much more difficult to pick up a new language. Add a tough script like Japanese or a tricky pronunciation system like Chinese to this mix and learning a new language can seem tortuous.

I would think that the first step to learning any new language is to love, enjoy and appreciate one’s own language first.



Japanese thoughts, JLPT

Voluntary translation and interpretation for my ward

Foreigners staying in Japan who can speak and understand Japanese can register themselves at their respective ward offices for voluntary translation and interpretation assignments. None of the assignments will require you to travel outside that particular ward area. Translation assignments might include medical forms, vaccination reminders, kindergarten application forms, school rules and so on to be translated into English from Japanese. Interpretation assignments could involve going to a neighborhood Japanese school to help a “gaikokujin” (foreigner) mom with her child’s PTA or to interpret a teacher’s instructions about an upcoming exam or field trip.

These voluntary assignments can give you the confidence to take up paid assignments later on. They can give you  a lot of satisfaction too – of having helped someone not comfortable with the Japanese language – all of us started there, right?

Each time you are required to interpret at a Japanese school, you will be sent a list of instructions – Ring a bell (I honestly didn’t know schools could have a calling bell until then), introduce yourself in Japanese, change to the slippers that you are provided with and so on.

Although I had already lived and worked in Japan for many years, I was surprised at how many things I still didn’t know about Japan. Working for my ward was a truly memorable experience for me. Highly recommend this for Japanese learners living in Japan.


Japanese thoughts, JLPT

Book review: Nihongo Chuukyuu Dokkai Nyuumon (Intermediate level reading comprehension)

  • This is a good book for some fun “n4 level” reading practice.
  • The passages are all medium- big in size.
  • The topics covered are fun and give glimpses into life in Japan  (hanami, hanabi, arubaito etc.) and most are written from the point of view of a foreigner living in Japan. Those who have never visited Japan will definitely find these passages interesting.
  • The vocab and grammar covered in the passage have been listed at the end of the lesson. You have to look them up in another textbook though as there are no meanings or explanations provided here.
  • There is a small exercise too at the end of every passage where you answer questions based on the passage or try to make sentences with new words or grammar points.

Not sure if this book is easily available outside Japan though.

Nihongo Chukyu Dokkai Nyumon - Introduction To Japanese Reading Skills

Japanese thoughts

Making friends in Japan

The Japanese are quiet and reserved by nature. It is not easy to make friends with them. The Japanese who go out of their way to help a foreigner who has lost his way are just being good  “hosts” – to them you are just a temporary visitor. Foreigners who’ve stayed in Japan for over a year realize that the neighbor who greets them everyday is not really open to “friendship”.  Foreigners too sometimes make the mistake of trying to make friends with colleagues and neighbors for free “Japanese conversation practice”. The Japanese are pretty conscious of this and certainly don’t like it. Again, there are some Japanese too who will act friendly but will reply in halting English to whatever you say in Japanese:-).

The first step to making local friends in Japan is learning Japanese. Show genuine appreciation of their culture. No need to be overly critical of anything and controversial topics are best avoided. Remember that Japan encourages the dyadic concept of “Honne and Tatemae “. This is true of any country though – you might have thousands of complaints about your country and you might animatedly discuss them with your fellow compatriots. But you wouldn’t want to hear bad comments about your country from a foreigner- right?

When you have local friends, you don’t just have to keep watching local matsuris (festivals) from your veranda – you can actually participate in the matsuris and soak in some Japanese culture. They will introduce you to “okonomiyaki” (a popular dish), “kakigoori” (shaved ice) and “kingyo sukui” ( goldgish scooping). They will teach you the local ways – the best places to buy “fukubukuro” (new year luck bag), best places for hanami (cherry blossom viewing), the best summer hangouts.

Sounds like a lot of fun, right? You have to earn it by learning to speak decent Japanese:-)japanese-text-2-1564620-639x294

Japanese thoughts

Lone diners of Japan


Many restaurants in Japan are designed to put the lone diner at ease. The tiny ramen shops where you are seated on a bar stool close to an open kitchen is one such. You find an empty seat and place your order. You’ll be handed your hot bowl of ramen soon enough. You slurp it down, pay, and leave. There’s no need and  there’s no time to pretend to be busy with your cell phone.

And then there’s the restaurant where plates of sushi come to you on a conveyor belt. You just have to grab the plate that looks most appetizing to you. Again here, you don’t need company to enjoy yourself.

You walk past any office complex you’re sure to spot OLs (office ladies) seated by themselves on a bench munching into “convenience store bought” onigiris.

Even in family restaurants you will find people seated by themselves at a table meant for four downing cup after cup of “nomihoudai coohii” (“drink all you want” coffee). I’ve even seen college students working on an assignment at family restaurants and coffee shops with sharpener, eraser and pencils scattered on their table.

No one bothers you and no one rushes you to finish and leave and more importantly no one cares that you are by yourself.

Japanese thoughts

Ijime or Bullying in Japan


“Bullying” or “ragging” as it is referred to in India is not something unique only to Japan – am sure countries all over the world deal with this. But, it certainly seems pretty common in Japan. I can not fathom how the normally polite, reserved, law abiding Japanese, can resort to such mean methods of bullying (physical as well as emotional) and worse still how the people around choose to look the other way.

I’ve heard horror stories about kids from other countries getting ragged in Japanese schools for looking different. Even “hoikuen” or three to four year old pre-school kids are known to gang up on a meek or different looking child. Refusing to sit next to the child, making fun of the child’s snack, refusing to include the child in any game during playtime, saying stuff like “iya da, kitanai” (hate it, dirty) to the face – all this is fairly common.

“Bullying”or “Ijime”as it is called in Japan is not restricted to schools but extends to workplace as well. One common method of bullying a foreigner at workplace is talking in real fast Japanese. And then saying something like “arrey, nihongo shitteirutte iwanakattakke” (oh..thought you said you knew Japanese) to the zapped foreigner. Sarcastic comments and dumping work are all par for the course.

Though foreigners tend to become easy targets, Japanese targeting other Japanese for no particular reason is quite common too. The more “meek” a person is perceived to be, the greater the chances of the person getting bullied.

“Ijime” in my view should be addressed at the “hoikuen” level itself. Beyond that stage kids have already formed their firm opinions on everything and it becomes that much more difficult to correct them. Nip the bullying tendency at the bud. Both the “victim” and the “bully” should be given counselling along with their respective parents.

All that said, I still don’t know how “Ijime” has become so prevalent in a country like Japan where the crime rate otherwise is so low?