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JapanEASY: Learning Japanese in a week


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(Hello, my name is Daniel and here’s some Japanese!)

Pretty impressive, right? Am I right? I’m right.

Well here we are again: JAPAN. Except this time I’m taking Japanese lessons. That’s right! LESSONS, courtesy of the jolly good people at ESL - Language Travel (thanks, guys.) 

I came from Seoul to begin my stay in Japan – Kobe, specifically, where I am staying with a lovely host family. I made the mistake early on of thinking Kobe is pronounced ‘Kobe’, as in Kobe Bryant. It’s actually pronounced ‘Kobeh’, as in the way people from Manchester say Kobe.

Kobe is a bloody huge place, but it became apparent early on that there wasn’t a great deal going on. Every local suggested I go and look at Kobe Port Tower, so I went and did that and it took about an hour. After that, I sat down with a lager and looked at the water in various spots around the harbour.

Even my host family, who have lived in Kobe their whole lives, couldn’t think of anything else to see in the city. This is the sixth-largest city in Japan but apparently just has one landmark. Although the sixth largest city in the UK is Bradford, which doesn’t fare much better.

But Kobe is on the coast and has famous beef, so surely there must be something else – or was this just Kobe’s citizens being famously modest? Do they play some kind of game where you have to find the landmarks for yourself? I went and looked at the beef for a while and that turned out to be even less exciting that it sounds.

I decided I’d have a look around. I immediately found the ‘Anpanman museum’, which is a museum dedicated to Anpanman; one of Japan’s most beloved children’s characters. Anpan is a bean-jam filled pastry. So Anpanman is pretty much just a piece of bread.

In most episodes, he fights with the bad guy and generally has a good patrol around the area surrounding Uncle Jam’s house. He really runs a tight ship – and it’s just as well because the crime levels in the area Uncle Jam lives are far above those for other areas of Japan. Anyway, he seems to generally save the day and if anything goes wrong, Uncle Jam bakes him a new head. There’s also a dog called Cheese who Anpanman once fed part of his head to and now they’re best mates. Not quite Spiderman, but it seems to work.

I wouldn’t say I’d rush back to the museum, but I think I figured out why he’s so popular. Maybe... I couldn’t understand a lot of what was going on and not much is translated to English.

It’s estimated that there are around 15,000 British people in the world who speak Japanese. There are about 66 million British people so, realistically, you’re more likely to become a professional athlete than a Japanese speaker. Also, that means that over 65 million of us are missing out on Anpanman.

There are nearly 100,000 Japanese people living in the UK, so odds are you know one! Also, least-Japanese-looking-man-ever Iain Duncan Smith’s great-grandmother was Japanese. I know, I’m as shocked as you are.

I know quite a few Britons and Americans living in Japan and their proficiency with Japanese is varied. Some have been here for three years and are fluent (nerds); some have been here for twenty years and can barely get through an interaction with a cashier.

Apparently, it usually takes about six years to become completely fluent in Japanese, which is longer than an elephant’s gestation period, the time it takes to become a doctor, shoot half of Boyhood, grow a lemon tree, and other stuff.

One of the things I learnt with Japanese is that sometimes it’s quicker to just draw the word you’re trying to get at, rather than actually write it. For example, here is a picture of a car I drew. Just above it is how you write ‘car’ in Japanese. The drawing took about a tenth of the time. And I must admit it’s a bloody good car.

The thing with being in Japan is, nearly everything is translated into English so perfectly that you don’t really have to learn Japanese. I noticed this early on and wondered whether I really needed to even go to lessons.

Turns out, though, not all translations are 100% fool-proof.

Ok this is where it starts to get a little odd. Is the poster-maker taking credit for the dish? And does it actually contain cheese? Or are these stage directions informing us the cheese is about to enter? How does that happen?

Apparently it can get stranger. As far as I can tell, Dr. Kiss Fish is the bear. I’ve checked with the JMA (Japan Medical Association), and you know what? There is no ‘Dr. Kiss Fish' on their books. Not a good start.

Next, the ‘doctor’ says ‘I will kiss you with sweet lips’, so already I’m a bit confused – is it a bear or fish kissing my feet? Because that changes things drastically. I wasn’t really that keen on some fish kissing me, let alone a bear. Also, ‘The fish kiss me’... Alright?! Are you bragging or does this have something to do with the process?

This was in the little mountain town of Yufuin – an area famous for its onsens, which are hot springs you can bathe in. They’re a nice treat, but be warned: if you have tattoos, you’re going to have to sneak in at 1am if you want to use them.

It’s a tough call, but I think that this may be the best one. The kind of specification everyone deserves. Apparently when Boris Johnson visited Tokyo a few years ago, he loved the huge ‘X-crossing’ (otherwise known as a ‘Pedestrian Scramble’, which is a much more appropriate name) in Shibuya so much that he decided it should be implemented in Oxford Circus.

His international trip was a success, but he’s still let us down. The big ‘free-for-all’ crossings are fun but signs that say how long it takes to get somewhere if you ‘run a little’ are the future.

Boris claims to be environmentally conscious, but obviously he isn’t. Cars and buses would be instantly abandoned if it was pointed out that the 25 minute walk from London Bridge to Waterloo could be cut down to 12 minutes if you ‘ran a little.’ Businessmen around the city are all happy looking like fools, wearing a trainers/suits combo – they’re already all set to just ‘run a little.’ Don’t just do it for you, do it for your grandchildren who are going to be born with black lung.

Also, imagine what it would do for our growing obesity crisis – people would lose weight due to exercising. Also, eating six creme eggs whilst running is difficult, so diabetes numbers would be down too.

Did Boris ignore the ‘run a little’ signs on purpose? Did he knowingly expose us to a life of epi-pens and beards (to cover up our double chins)? If this is true, this is unacceptable. It’s worse than careless. Should he be reported to the ICC? It’s not for me to say...

Anyway, those are the best of the translations I’ve encountered so far. I know what you’re thinking: with translations like that, I didn’t even really need to go to the lessons. They definitely made interpreting everything a lot easier, but I decided I should still attend.

I’ve spent a lot of time attempting to learn languages in the past and all I’ve really managed to achieve is the ability to say ‘Hello love’ and ‘Beer, please’ eleven different ways. I was as shocked as anyone when I picked up basic Japanese sort of sharpish. I’ve obviously already forgotten it all but at the time, I was absorbing it QUITE well.

Most language courses have a ‘No English’ rule, which is a little tricky on the first day but you get used to it. On other courses I’ve taken, they would write out the words and sounds phonetically. This is fine in Spanish but when it’s Russian or Korean, it’s not much help. But in the Japanese lessons, they would write it in phonetic English.

‘Konnichiwa, nama futatsu onegaishimasu’ looks a lot less intimidating than ‘こんにちは =つのビールお願い愛

That looks like I’ve really got the hang of it but I’m only about 5% sure that’s right.

So, how do Japan end up with so many bad translations? It’s the same all over Asia, but the translations here are nowhere near as outrageous as they are in Thailand. There’s not a lot of money in Thailand, and there are a lot of tourists who like buying a load of nonsense, so they probably just want to make things as quickly and cheaply as possible. But there’s a lot of money in Japan too, and not really that many tourists; so WHY the bad translations?

I spoke to an English friend who has lived in Hiroshima for 16 years and works as a teacher and translator. He said that generally, whoever is designing the sign, leaflet, or menu will hire a native English speaker to translate. But when they do it and send it back, the customer tends to double-check with a Japanese English-speaker, who then changes it to one of the above examples. Is it a distrust-of-foreigners thing? Maybe; but in the end, it works for us, because we end up with things like this (NSFW).

Ok maybe Japan gets it wrong a bit more often than Thailand, but it’s wrong in all the right ways.

Daniel is travelling in Japan with ESL - Language Travel

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