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How To Address Someone in Japanese

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The Japanese language has a number of ways to show the relationship between speakers. There are are diffierent words used in different situations depending on whether the person you are speaking to is considered to be inferior, equal, or superior. While this may sound a bit harsh, it is used as a way to show respect to another person.  The most basic way to show the relationship between speakers is with the Japanese suffixes used after someone’s name.

I have listed the four most common Japanese suffixes and the situations in which to use them. Like everything it can be confusing at first, but gets easier after practice.

  • さん (san)- San is the most common used Japanese suffix. It shows politeness, and can be used in just about any situation. If you are unsure what suffix to use then stick with san.
  • さま(sama)- Sama is used when speaking to someone who you view as having a much higher position than yourself. It could also be someone who has much more knowledge than yourself. In most cases sama is a bit overkill and you are better off sticking with san.
  • くん (kun)- Kun is generally used to address younger boys, but can also be used to younger men. Kun is more casual than san and only used for males.
  • ちゃん (chan)- Chan is a prefix used in very casual situations, and therefore only used by friends. You should start off addressing someone as  ~san and as you become closer you can start addressing them as ~chan. Chan is quite commonly used to address children and for superiors to address inferiors.

In any case, if you arent sure which word suffix to use stick with san. San shows enough politeness to be used in polite situations, and is still friendly enough to be used if you are unsure where you stand in the relationship.

Is It Hard To Learn Japanese?

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It depends. Probably not the answer that you were hoping for, but bare with me for a second. It depends on whether you want to learn to speak Japanese or if you also want to learn to read and write. If you want to speak Japanese (which is the case for most people) then it is actually much easier than most people think.

The reason for this is that there are fewer possible sounds and more “solid” rules than English. Japan has a total of 5 vowels and 13 consonants, compared to English’s 12 vowels and 24 consonants. It’s true that some of the Japanese sounds are not in the English language and and can be difficult for native English speakers to pronounce. Compared to English however, pronunciations of consonants in Japanese don’t change. So while some of the sounds in the Japanese language might be difficult to pronounce, they never change.

Compared to English where there are many exceptions to grammatical rules,  Japanese grammar has very few exceptions. Verb conjugations are also very structured with few exceptions. So basically, Japanese is pretty straight forward once you learn the rules.

The one place where Japanese is more difficult than English is in the number of words used. According to a recent article in the Japan Times Online, it takes about 10,000 Japanese words to comprise 90% of all sentences in modern Japanese magazines. This is quite a bit higher compared to English which requires about 3,000 words.

But don’t panic quite yet, these statistics are a little bit misleading. First, many of the the words in modern day Japanese magazines are actually foreign words, with the biggest chunk of those coming from the English language. So with out learning any words at all you already have a decent Japanese vocabulary. Second, there are far fewer words used in common everyday speech. So if your goal is to to speak Japanese fluently, you are looking at a much smaller list of words.

If you want to read and write Japanese then the slope is a little steeper. Japanese has three distinct alphabets with the largest containing over 2,000 complex characters used in common writing. There are also various readings of the character depending on whether the word origin is Japanese or Chinese.

By now you are probably thinking that you will stick with speaking. And I will openly admit that learning to read and write Japanese does take quite a bit of time and some hard work. On the plus side, the Japanese writing system is also very structured. While some of the characters can be complex, they are also very logical.

For those who are interested in working or living in Japan, the ability to read and write in Japanese is crucial. There are a fair number of bilingual foreigners in Japan that speak Japanese. There are far fewer who can also read and write. Adding this additional skill opens up far more opportunities in Japan.

There are also far better study tools then there were a few years ago. Having spent countless hours writing characters over and over again, I can definitely say there are also far more effective methods.

Over the next few weeks I will be sharing some of these methods and discussing what I think are some great materials for learning to read and write Japanese. Japanese Words Newsletter subscribers will also receive an exclusive deal on some great products designed specifically to teach you to read Japanese. If you aren’t already a Japanese Words Newsletter subscriber, you can sign up for free here. As a member you also gain access to the members page containing additional Japanese resources and links.

The Art of Imitation And How It Can Improve Your Japanese


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Imitation may not be the first method that pops to mind when you think of learning Japanese, but I have found it quite effective in improving my Japanese.

At first, I didn’t actually realize that I did it. I was just trying to speak Japanese the best that I could. It wasn’t until after I got a few compliments that I actually thought about it and realized it was probably due to imitation.

As a child I used to love to copy lines from movies and TV. I was a huge Jim Carrey fan and would go around imitating just about every line I could remember. Somehow, this transferred over into learning Japanese. When I speak with Native Japanese speakers I don’t just listen to their pronunciation, but try to copy exactly what they say and the way they say it. The reason this works well is that I am basically just copying, rather than trying to convert certain parts of speech to fit my own. It also allows me to practice Japanese even if I don’t know the meaning. I can imitate the sounds of the words and learn the words later. Children use this method to learn just about everything.

So the next time that you are studying Japanese words, watching a Japanese movie, or are conversing with a Japanese friend, try to imitate them. It will help your pronunciation and help you connect words and phrases much more smoothly.

Keeping Yourself Motivated to Study Japanese

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Regardless of whether you are just starting or have been studying for quite some time there are always stumbling points. Times when you feel you will not attain the level of fluency you had hoped, that your progress is going to slowly, or that the immediate benefits you are receiving just aren’t worth the amount of time you are spending studying Japanese. I have certainly gone through these times myself. It’s pushing through them that will keep you on the right track to become a great Japanese speaker. So here are some simple motivation tips I have used to keep myself excited about learning Japanese.

Focus on why you started Learning Japanese

With all the studying, the flash cards, the kanji, and the speaking drills it can be easy to lose track of why you started learning Japanese. Since that reason also probably gave you quite a bit of motivation, take some time to think about it. I recommend writing it down so you can look at it again later. If the reason you started studying Japanese doesn’t get you excited, I recommend that you choose better one. You will be putting a lot of time into becoming fluent in Japanese. You will be much more likely to get there if you have a good reason for learning.

Speak Japanese with a native speaker

All that practice is important, but it’s actually speaking in Japanese that’s the fun part. If you are not able to find a native speaker, then at least try to find someone who you can converse with in Japanese. I used to sign up for tutoring when I was a student so I could practice speaking with Japanese exchange students. Even a fellow student studying Japanese is better than nothing. Just be sure to only speak Japanese.

Look at your overall progress

Language progression is accomplished in a lot of small steps. Each new word or grammatical structure you learn helps you understand and communicate just a little bit better. You may have learned 10 new words today, but compared to yesterday you still don’t feel you’ve made much progress. This can be a little bit depressing. Progress can be much easier to spot if you look at it overall. Look at your progress from the time you started until now. An easy way to do this is to go back and look at the material you started with. You will be surprised how easy it seems compared to when you first started learning . It’s much easier to see the distance you covered if you look at all the stairs you have climbed, rather than just the last step.

Break your Japanese study goals into smaller parts

Setting goals is a good thing. But what if you goal is really big? Maybe your goal is to speak business level Japanese so you can eventually work in Japan. If you are just starting out, it may seem if you will never get to that point. In this case, it can be very helpful to set a number of goals in between. Maybe set goals for learning 100 kanji by a certain date, speaking for 10 minutes in Japanese, passing the JLPT 4 this year and 3 next year. With each goal you acheive you give yourself a small reward. This will not only help you stay motivated, but also keep you working towards your goal.

Getting Sick in Japan

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Having spent the last few days in bed with a high temperature due to a cold, I figured now would be a good time to talk about getting sick in Japan. The one topic I want to talk about in particular is medicine.

I have found cold medicine in Japan to be almost useless. Even when it is “prescription medicine”. The first time I ever had to go to the doctors in Japan was as a study abroad student. About two months after starting school I ended up with a pretty sever cold. Not something I would usually see a doctor for, but my throat hurt so bad I thought it was something else. After examining me the doctor prescribed a number of medications for me. I found the pharmacy, picked up my medications, and downed them as quickly as I could. Even though I had to take two types of pills and a packet of powder, there was almost no improvement in my condition. My throat still hurt and I felt miserable.

To look on the bright side, I ended up learning a few medical related Japanese words while I went through the process. I can even remember my Japanese teacher skipping ahead to the chapter on medical and body parts as the cold season started coming around (which turned out to be quite helpful). Still, not a very fun experience.

While Japan has a pretty good, and rather inexpensive health care system, it is still different from what you may be used to. Many of the common off the shelf medications you may be used to are not available here in Japan. Which is a bummer since I have found that “off the shelf” cold medicines in the US are much more effective than prescription cold medicine here in Japan.

So does this mean that if you catch a cold in Japan you just have to wait it out?

Nope, just that you need to plan ahead. Each time that I visit the US I pick up a few boxes of my favorite medicines and bring them back with me. This is a pretty common practice with a lot of the foreigners here in Japan. Do make sure to check with immigration regulations before bringing any medications into the Japan though.

If you will be in Japan for an extended amount of time you should also check on any prescription medicines you may need to take. A quick call to your nearest Japanese consulate to make sure you can either fill the prescription in Japan or bring enough for the time you are there should take care of that problem.

This may not be something you immediately think about when planning your trip to Japan, but making this preparation can make a big difference should you get sick while you are here.