Category Archives: Japanese Language

Coming to Japan on a Working Holiday Visa

Category : Japanese Language



“I came to Japan on a working holiday scheme and I’m enjoying working and traveling,” says English language teacher Ada TSO. “I’d recommend working holidays to people who’ve just graduated from college and to those who want to start a completely new life. I myself quit a job to come to Japan because I wanted to live and work here while I was still young.”

Ada was born in Hong Kong and grew up in New Zealand. “Every day I communicated in Cantonese and Mandarin with my family and Chinese immigrant neighbors, while speaking English at school,” she recalls. “When I was a child, my older brother often watched Japanese cartoons translated into Cantonese and I enjoyed ‘Doraemon’ and other programs with him. That’s how I came to be interested in Japanese anime and manga. I love ‘One Piece,’” she says with a smile.

Ada took Japanese language courses in high school and university. While still in university, she came to Japan on an exchange program and studied at Sophia University for half a year. “It was a marvelous experience,” she says nostalgically. “So many Japanese students wanted to be friends with foreigners. We traveled a lot together. Some of them came all the way to New Zealand to visit after I returned home.”

After graduating from university, Ada worked for a radio station in Auckland. “I worked as a news reporter and also as a moderator in public debates before elections.” She left that job after two years and returned to Japan for a year.

“It’s a pity that because I teach English, I don’t have much opportunity to speak Japanese,” she says with a wry smile. She doesn’t attend a Japanese language school. “That’s why, when I get the chance to speak Japanese, I try practice my conversation as much as possible. On my days off, I memorize grammar and words with study-aid books. Unlike my student days, I now work full-time and it’s hard to maintain my motivation for studying. To spur myself on, I’ve made a goal of passing the N2 grade (of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test) before the end of this stay in Japan.”

Ada sometimes works as a narrator in English and Cantonese. Most companies, however, don’t want to hire foreigners with a working holiday visa. “That’s why the majority of people here on a working visa have no choice but to become English teachers,” Ada says regretfully. “People who want to improve their career prospects, would do better to obtain a working visa by finding a Japanese employer before entering Japan,” she says.

“Prices are high in Japan, but there are ways to save money. I found this site called and discovered there were cheap shops like 100-yen shops and Matsuya,” says Ada. She now lives in a shared house to save on her rent. “The lower cost isn’t the only benefit of a shared house. You also get to know people from different countries, so you can make friends to go sightseeing with around Japan.”

Ada visits cafes in her free time. “For me, the ideal confectionary does not only taste good, but looks good and also smells good. I’m researching exceptional confectionary by taking photographs. After returning to New Zealand, I want to work and save money in order to have a cafe of my own one day. I think the experience of tasting sweets and green tea in Japan will be useful then,” she says.

Text: SAZAKI Ryo

[From Novemberber Issue 2014]

Japanese Maps and the Meaning of Place-Names

Category : Japanese Language


Do you know that the kanji “日本” and “日” (ni / nichi / hi) means “day” and/or “sunshine”? Do you also know that “本” (hon / moto) means “book,” but also “origin,” and/or “home”? In brief, together “日本” means “the origin of sunshine.” This is why Japan is often referred to, in English, as “the land of the rising Sun.”

On a map you can see that Japan is mainly made up of four big islands, the largest one being “本州”/Honshu(u). “州”/shu(u) usually means “state,” but on some occasions it may also mean country. “本州”/Honshu(u) means “home state,” and can generally be translated as “mainland.”

The smallest of the four islands is “四国”/Shikoku. Previously it was made up of four independent States (countries), which have now become four distinct prefectures. Originally in the southern islands of “九州”/Kyushu(u) there were nine States. Now, they have become a group of seven prefectures. The northernmost island is “北海道”/Hokkaido(u) which literally means “North Sea Road.” The kanji “道”/do(u) road is said to have been used because there were already main arteries such as “Tokaido(u)” and “Tohokudo(u)” in the area.

Japan is divided into eight regions; Hokkaido(u), Shikoku and Kyushu(u) form one region, while Honshu(u) is subdivided into 5 regions that include Tohoku, Kanto(u), Chu(u)bu, Kinki and Chu(u)goku. The kanji “東北”/To(u)hoku exactly fits the English word “northeast.” Kanto(u) is considered to be the center of Japan’s economy and culture and also where To(u)kyo(u), Japan’s present capital, is located. Chu(u)bu is physically located in the middle of the country, while the Kinki region is commonly referred to as “Kansai.” Chu(u)goku is often confused with the neighboring country of China as it is also written and pronunced “中国”/Chu(u)goku, and is therefore often referred as the Chu(u)goku region.

In Japan’s 8 regions there are 47 ken/prefectures, but in To(u)kyo, O(o)saka, Kyo(u)to and Hokkaido(u), the word “ken” is replaced with other names. Instead, they are called To(u)kyo(u)-to, O(o)saka-fu, Kyo(u)to-fu and Hokkaido(u). Since “do(u)” is already part of its name, no additional ending is required. This is somewhat similar to the capital of the U.S.A., Washington, which is commonly referred to as Washington D.C.

The region’s largest cities are (from north to south): Sapporo, Sendai, To(u)kyo(u), Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyo(u)to, O(o)saka, Ko(u)be, Hiroshima and Fukuoka. Central To(u)kyo(u), where many non-Japanese live and work, is divided into 23 wards.

Kyo(u)to had been the capital of Japan for more than 1,000 years. “都” (to / miyako) means “capital,” so Kyoto means the “Capital of Kyo(u).” “東京”/To(u)kyo(u), is located to the east “東” (tou / higashi) of “京” /Kyo(u), and therefore means, “To(u)kyo(u),” the capital east of Kyo(u). Located within To(u)kyo(u), a big town “新宿” /Shinjuku means “new inn.” “新” (shin / atarashii) means “new” and “宿” (juku / yado) means “inn.” This name was derived from the new inns that were being built in that area. Thus, each place has its own name-history.

What are Common Names for Japanese?

Category : Japanese Language


In Japanese, “namae” usually means a person’s “full name” (given & surname), however, it can also refer to just your given name, a similar concept to English. Generally, Japanese call one another by their surnames, although among close friends they may use given names.

In Japan, it is said there are about 300,000 different surnames, of which 7,000 comprise 96%. It was only in 1875, after the beginning of the Meiji Restoration, that ordinary Japanese people were permitted to use their surnames. Everyone could freely have a surname, in order to distinguish themselves from other families, and as a result, many people used names derived from where they lived, such as near a mountain, valley, tree, river, rice field, field, hill or the sea.

The top 10 surnames in Japan are: 1. Satou, 2. Suzuki, 3. Takahashi, 4. Tanaka, 5. Watanabe, 6. Itou, 7. Yamamoto, 8. Nakamura, 9. Kobayashi, and 10. Saitou. The most common, Satou, is used by nearly 2 million Japanese, while the 10th most frequent, Saitou, is used by nearly 1 million.

Children’s names also reflect the times. In the year the present Emperor married, many girls were named “Michiko,” after the new princess. Then, when MATSUZAKA Daisuke set great high school baseball records, many boys were given his name.

Until roughly the 1970s, kanji symbols for male names included男, 夫, 雄 (these are read as “o”) as 秀男 (Hideo), while for girls in kanji symbols such as 子 (ko) as in 秀子(Hideko) were generally added to the end. This is similar to English names ending in “o” like Antonio and “a” like Antonia.

In the 80s and after, the number of parents giving their children unique names increased. According to the Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance Company, which conducts yearly name surveys, 2009’s most popular name for boys was Haruto, while for girls it was Yuna.

Since 2000, the three most popular boy’s names have been: Haruto, Yuuto and Yuuki. while popular girls names included: Ayaka, Yui and Yuna. However, many different kanji are used for those names. They use various uncommon Japanese kanji characters, making them very difficult to read even for Japanese.

大翔 (Taiga / Hiroto and other readings), was the most widely used kanji for boys, embodying the image of flying high. For girls it was陽菜 (Hina / Haruna and other readings), which embodies the image of flowers and the grass gleaming in the sunshine. These names seemingly imply the Japanese wish for optimism and a bright future for their children.

Previously, traditional Japanese boy’s names included Kiyoshi and Makoto, while traditional girl’s names included Kazuko and Ai.

Few Restaurants in Japan Provide English Menus

Category : Japanese Language


Something that non-Japanese must find inconvenient is restaurant menus. Called “oshinagaki” in Japanese, the term “menu” is now also casually used. Nevertheless, most restaurants still only provide ones written in Japanese.

What many restaurants in Japan do provide are menus with photos so that customers can see what food is available, however, it is still difficult to know what ingredients make up each dish.

On most menus you will often see the following kanji: “肉” (niku) or meat, “魚” (sakana) or fish and “野菜” (yasai) or vegetable. Meat dishes usually include these kanji: “牛” (gyuu) or beef, “豚” (ton / buta) or pork and “鶏” (tori) or chicken. Most Japanese know these English words, so you can use them when ordering from the waiter/waitress, just in case you forgot the kanji.

However, most Japanese do not know the English names of specific fish or vegetables, for instance, maguro (tuna), katsuo (bonito), negi (leek) and nasu (eggplant).

Other important kanji to know are “ご飯” (gohan) or rice and “麺” (men) or noodles, as they are Japan’s staple foods. Also cooking terms such as “~焼” (yaki) or grilled/baked, “~炒め” (itame) or fried, “~揚げ” (age) or deep fried and “~煮” (ni / niru) or boiled are also essential. “甘” (ama / amai / kan) or sweet, “辛” (kara / karai / sin) or hot and “酢” (su / suppai) or sour are also often used.

Regarding drinks, sake is usually written in kanji as “酒.” Sake traditionally means Japanese rice wine, but it can also refer to any alcohol, including beer, wine, whisky, shochuu, and so on.

“O.cha” is generally translated as “tea” in Japanese. Usually in Japan, restaurants serve free drinks such as water “水” (mizu) and Japanese tea “お茶” (o.cha). But if you ask a waiter/waitress for “tea,” he/she will probably bring you red tea, for which you have to pay, just like coffee. So if you want free Japanese tea, please ask for “o.cha” or “green tea.”

Most restaurant signboards written in Japanese read like “日本料理” (Japanese cuisine), “居酒屋” (izakaya) or pub and “寿司” (sushi). Inside some izakaya that many non-Japanese enjoy, there are more menu items written in Japanese on the walls. So, in order to truly enjoy Japanese food, it is necessary to learn a minimum amount of kanji.

While katakana is generally used for the names of animals and plants, so can both kanji and hiragana.

Finding Your Way Around

Category : Japanese Language


While most Japanese do not speak English, they do know some basic English words. When you ask them the way to a station, they will only understand if you use the English word “station.” However, when you lose your way and try asking “Where am I?” few Japanese will understand what you are saying. Instead, you should ask in Japanese, “Koko wa doko desuka?” Furthermore, big city streets in Japan are very complicated, so it is recommended that you bring a map whenever you visit a new place.

Even if you fortunately encounter an English speaking person, they may not be a local. They still may not be able to help you. On such occasions, it may be best to ask someone in a local shop. If you can not communicate in English, try asking “Eigo o hanasu hito imasu ka.” (Is there anyone here who speaks English?) If you can not find anyone who does, then ask “Kouban wa dokodesu ka.” (Where is the police box?)

Japan is said to be one of the world’s safest countries, partly because of the system of neighborhood police boxes. In Japan there are more than 6,000 police boxes, each responsible for overseeing a particular area. Therefore, policemen know their local geography well. Even many Japanese ask for directions at the police box.

“Koko kara donokurai kakarimasu ka” (How long does it take?) is also an useful question. People may reply, “Aruite / kuruma de go-fun” (five minute on foot / by car.” The words “fun / pun” (minute) and “jikan” (hour) are must-learn words.

When people wait for someone at a train station, they usually meet them at the ticket gate. But there are many ticket gates in big stations like Shinjuku and Shibuya. Each one is usually named “East entrance/exit” and/or “South entrance/exit.” Subway stations generally have exit names like “A1” and/or “B2.” Still, even Japanese can sometimes have trouble finding the right gate.

Therefore, many people meet at landmarks in front of stations, such as “Studio Alta” at Shinjuku station and “Hachiko” at Shibuya station. These landmarks are very well known. So, for instance if you lose your way at Shinjuku station, just ask someone, “Aruta sutajio wa doko desu ka,” (Where is Studio Alta?) and they will help you easily find it.

Words and phrases often used when asking for directions include: “~ dori” (~ street), “shingou” (signal), “kado” (corner), “juujiro” (intersection), “T-jiro” (T-junction), “ikidomari” (dead end), “massugu” (go straight), “migi ni magaru” (turn right) and “hidari ni magaru” (turn left). When you go to an unfamiliar place you should learn about some of the area’s landmarks beforehand, such as department stores and public facilities. Those who you ask for directions may say: “xx depa-to no chikaku” (near xx department store), “~ no sangen saki” (three buildings past ~), “~ no mukai gawa / hantai gawa” (the opposite side of ~) and “~ no naname mae” (diagonally across from ~).

Shopping Wisely in Japan

Category : Japanese Language


It was once said that Tokyo is the most expensive city to live in, but that has drastically changed. Since Japan is now in the middle of a recession, inexpensive commodities are not only being sold in Tokyo, but across the nation. Depending on how you shop, it’s very easy to buy inexpensive merchandise. The best way is to visit discount stores and specialty shops.

Many people buy electrical appliances at big discount stores including “Yamada Denki,” “Edion,” “Bic Camera,” “Yodobashi Camera” and “K’s Denki,” which are scattered across the nation. Some places, like Tokyo’s Akihabara and Shinjuku areas, have lots of big discount stores. Although most of their merchandise is inexpensive, it is always better to check the prices at several stores before you buy, as prices can vary from place to place.

In the clothing market “Uniqlo” remains the most popular because of its durability, nice design and reasonable pricing. However, to compete with Uniqlo, famous overseas brands such as Sweden’s “H&M” and “Forever 21” from the USA, have started doing business in Japan and are becoming popular with young women.

“Tokyu Hands” stores are very popular. They are one-stop shops where well-designed, do-it-yourself, home and lifestyle products are available. “Loft,” which sells mostly sundries, is also another popular, variety goods store. “Don Quijote” is the most famous of the discount shops. They are filled to the rafters with items, some even hanging from the ceiling, making the stores resemble a jungle.

Furthermore, 100 Yen shops are also very popular. You can buy items ranging from stationary to the household goods and even watches for only 100 yen. For the price, the quality of the items is good, with almost no difference compared with regular-priced items. And because everything is so affordable, it makes purchasing easier, even for those who have no intention to shop to begin with.

While most English product-words are now understood by store staff, some exceptions – refrigerator (reizouko), washing machine (sentakuki), vacuum cleaner (soujiki) and rice cooker (suihanki) – still exist. It is also recommended that you learn the word “hoshousho,” or guarantee, which usually comes with most items. Recently, as the number of foreign customers is increasing, many big discount shops now also employ English and Chinese speaking staff.

Color is always an important element in clothing, and most Japanese understand the common English words for white (shiro), black (kuro), red (aka), blue (ao), yellow (kiiro), green (midori) and purple (murasaki). Traditional Japanese words such as “haiiro,” “daidai,” and “momoiro” are not used much anymore, having been replaced by “gurei,” “orengi,” and “pinku.” With sizes, you can say “ookii” for large, “motto ookii” for larger, “chiisai” for small and “motto chiisai” for smaller.

Some Simple Japanese Foods

Category : Japanese Language


There are a variety of different foods available in Japan, including Chinese, Korean and Western cuisines, and among them is the Japanese light meal, or fast food. “Yoshinoya,” “Matsuya” and “Sukiya” are well-known gyu-don (beaf bowl) chain restaurants where you can have a regular-sized bowl for less than 300 yen. “Tenya” is another well-known chain restaurant that specializes in ten-don (tempura bowl).

“Don” means bowl, and “gyu” mean “cow” or “beef,” so together it’s a bowl of beef, with gravy, on rice. “Ten-don” is a tempura rice bowl, and “una-don” is unagi (eel) rice bowl. “Katsu-don” is made with a batter-coated and deep fried pork cutlet, while “oyako-don” is mixed chicken with eggs, on rice. In Japanese, “oyako” means parent and child, and since a chicken and an egg are similar, that’s how it got it’s name.

Ramen (noodles) is the most widely eaten food in Japan, with more than 25,000 ramen restaurants across the country, and about 3,000 in Tokyo alone. Though ramen came from China, its cooking has been developed in Japan to meet Japanese taste for so long that it is considered to be Japanese food. Originally, it was cooked with a soy sauce broth, but nowadays there are many varieties, including miso-based and salt-based flavors. In Japanese, “men” means “noodle.” Other noodles like soba and udon are also included in “men.”

Traditionally, sushi was considered a luxury food. However, now that kaitenzusi has spread across Japan, inexpensive sushi is now readily available at kaitenzushi restaurant chains such as Sushiro, Kura-zushi and Kappa Zushi. In kanji, sushi is written commonly as “寿司,” but it is originally written as “鮨.” The kanji is a combination of “魚” (fish) and “旨い” (tasty), and means “tasty fish.” This kanji is also used now.

Many so-called “famiresu” or “family restaurants” such as “Gusto,” “Denny’s,” “Saizeriya” and “Jonathon’s” are often frequented by non-Japanese, especially tourists. There, you can enjoy meals in a relaxed atmosphere, with different dishes to choose from, all at reasonable prices.

Upon entering, restaurant staff members will usually greet you with “irasshaimase” (welcome, or come in), but you don’t have to reply as it is just a customary greeting. And don’t forget that in Japan tipping does not exist.

At some restaurants you may come across these signs: “本日休業” (closed today), “臨時休業” (temporarily closed),“営業中” (now open), or “準備中” (under preparation).

The following Japanese words are often used at the table.

Mizu (water), o-cha (tea), biiru (beer), koppu (glass), hashi (chopsticks), satou (sugar), shio (salt), koshou (pepper), wasabi (horse radish), shouyu (soy sauce), sousu (sauce), su (vinegar), kaikei (bill), otsuri (change), and ryoushuusho (receipt). Often used phrases include “mada desuka” (Not ready yet?), “okawari” (another one), “xx arimasuka” (Do you have xx?) and “ikuradesuka?” (How much is it?).

Convenience Stores – Indispensable for Daily Life

Category : Japanese Language


“Konbini” or “convini” is the Japanese short form for convenience stores, the system of which was imported from the USA. They open from early morning to late at night, some remaining open for 24 hours. Japanese convenience stores do more than just sell daily items – they also provide a variety of other services.

One of them is an Automatic Teller Machine (ATM). Besides making deposits, withdrawals or bank transfers, you can also use them to pay your monthly gas, water and electricity bills. A photocopy machine is usually available, and you can also purchase movie and special event tickets there.

The peculiarity of Japanese convenience stores is the high volume of lunch box (bento) purchases, which can account for 40% of a store’s total sales. The lunch boxes range from sushi to noodles to sandwiches, but among all edible items, onigiri is number one. However, you can not see an onigiri’s ingredients, and there is no written English description.

If you want your lunch box or onigiri warmed up, at the counter just say, “Atatamete kudasai,” and the staff will heat your food into their microwave. There is also a large, hot and cold beverage selection, offering colas, teas, coffees, Japanese tea, alcohol and drinks made with nutritional supplements.

In Japan there are some convenience stores that do not sell alcohol or cigarettes, outside of which there is usually a sign reading “酒、たばこ.” And, while the Japanese are fond of beer, the newest trend is for both low-malt and dai-san beers (beers made without highly-taxed barley). Furthermore, with more restaurants turning non-smoking, convenience stores have set up ashtrays for smokers next to their outdoor trash containers.

Other store amenities include a magazine corner, personal hygiene items such as tooth brushes and health masks, and umbrellas for sudden downpours. Thus, convenience stores provide all kinds of goods and services necessary for daily life.

A Basic Guide to Using Japan’s Banking Services

Category : Japanese Language


While living in Japan it is important to learn how to use the various banking services. The Japanese word for “bank” is ginkou, however, most Japanese understand the term “bank.” There are three major banks in Japan: “Tokyo-Mitsubishi-UFJ,” “Sumitomo-Mitsui” and “Mizuho.”

To convert foreign currency to yen, follow the signs to a kawase or gaika ryougae (money exchange counter), and take a number from the automated dispenser. When it is your turn, your number will be displayed on an electronic signboard, and called out loud.

The word for bank note, or bill, is shihei or satsu. Japan uses four different bank notes: sen en (one thousand yen), ni-sen en (two-thousand yen, which is rarely used nowadays), go-sen en (five thousand yen) and ichi-man en (ten thousand yen). Japan also uses six different coins: they are ichi en (one yen), go en (five yen), juu en (ten yen), go-juu en (fifty yen), hyaku en (one hundred yen) and go-hyaku en (five hundred yen).

Learning how to count money properly is also important – 1, 000 yen is not issen en, but sen en, 10,000 yen is not pronounced juu sen en, but ichi-man en.

The method of opening a kouza (your account) differs from bank to bank. The kouza-mei (the account holder’s name) is usually registered in kanji, but for non-Japanese it can be in either katakana or English. In Japan a hanko, or inkan (personal seal/stamp) is generally necessary, but for non-Japanese people many banks will accept your signature instead.

Katakana is Japanese script based on foreign word sounds, and does have its limitations. For instance, in Japan there is no such word as “victor,” because there is no ‘v’ sound in Japanese, so it may be written as “ヴィクター,” or “ビクター.” There are no official katakana rules, so you can choose your own spelling.

You can access your account in person, or more likely by using your bank card at an ATM. If you want to withdraw money from your overseas account, or get a cash advance on your credit card, places are usually limited to post offices and 7-ELEVEN convenience store ATMs. Also, some overseas credit cards are not accepted in Japan, so remember to check beforehand.

When receiving money from overseas in the form of a money-order, expect banks to charge a fee of roughly 5,000 yen per transaction. For instance, if you have a money-order valued at 10,000 yen, after paying the fee, you will only receive 5,000 yen, so it is best to get money sent from overseas in a lump sum, or check Japan’s post offices, where the fees tend to be less.

The Convenience of Train Station Facilities

Category : Japanese Language


Japan’s train stations offer commuters many different conveniences, including public toilets. The word “toilet” has been adopted in Japanese, but the final “t” is silent. It is pronounced “toire.” In Japanese (romaji) “l” is generally replaced with “r.” You won’t find the signs of “男 men” or “女women,” at the entrance of most of toilets, however “men” and “women” pictographs are displayed. Some toilets have a Japanese sign written as “お手洗” (otearai: literally translated meaning “washing hands”).

In Japan there are two kinds of toilets which are quite different from one another; youshiki, which is shortened word for seiyou-shiki (洋式western-style) and washiki (和式Japanese-style). “Wa” (和) was the old name for Japan and is often used in comparison to western items such as “washoku” (和食Japanese food) “washitsu” (和室Japanese room) and “washi” (和紙 Japanese paper). Instead of “washiki,” you can say “nihonshiki” (日本式Japanese style).

Another convenient station facility is the “coin-locker,” in which for 300 yen (in the case of standard size) per day, you can store your luggage. In Japanese (romaji) “Koin-rockaa” is written with a “K” instead of a “C.”

If you’ve lost or forgotten something in a train, you can report it to “Lost and Found.” But, while most large stations do have one, some of the smaller stations don’t. In that case, you must say to the station clerk, “densha no naka ni wasuremono o shimasita” (I left something in the train). The clerk will then ask you the station you were at, what time you were on the train, and what item(s) you left behind. And while it may take some time to find your items, there is a good chance that you will get your lost property back.

Due to the popularity of cellular phones, public phones have recently started disappearing. However, station phones remain extremely convenient especially when you’ve forgotten your cellular phone, or if its battery runs out. Some public phones even let you make international calls. “Telephone” is commonly pronounced as “terehon” in Japanese. To make a phone call you need coins or a telephone card (available at most station kiosks).

At most stations you can find kiosks, where beverages, snacks, masks as well as newspapers and magazines (mostly in Japanese) are sold. Furthermore, plastic umbrellas are also available, usually costing only 500 yen. Some bigger stations also offer coffee shops and standing noodle shops for a quick bite. And these days, some stations even offer bakeries, bookstores, flower shops and full convenience stores.

Some station entrances and exits are named for directions, such as “East,” “West,” “South” and “North,” while other are named “Central Gate” and “Yaesu Gate” indicating locations. Subways usually have simpler names such as “Al” or “A2”.


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