Communicating in Japan

Coming to Japan for the first time can be a thrilling and exciting journey; but, like any new experience it can present numerous new – and sometimes unexpected – challenges. Whether you have studied Japanese for years, in your home country, or you’ve only recently started, mastering communication will likely be one of your most difficult tasks. As with any language, Japanese has an almost limitless number of ways in which one can express him or herself, and considering the sheer number of words and phrases in Japanese, having gaps in one’s knowledge of vocabulary or phrases that pertain to new experiences can be common, making even something like ordering food, for the first time, a bit of a challenge.

Only eight months ago, having just arrived in Japan – despite studying at my university in the US for roughly three years – this was my experience. Being at an upper-intermediate/lower advanced level, I could easily hold conversation with friends and discuss what I needed to in my classes. Because of that, something as simple as ordering take-out, paying bills, or even going to the doctor’s seemed like an easy task – one that I didn’t need to think about or prepare for. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Like many students who are traveling abroad for their first time, I never actually learned the vocabulary that was necessary to deal with these everyday situations, and having a gap in knowledge of vocabulary, I found myself constantly needing to consult my dictionary and even rehearsing what I was going to say, in order to avoid the confusion and frustration that I was afraid would occur if I didn’t.

The first time I came to understand this was going to McDonald’s and having the sudden realization that I could talk about history, culture, or even basic psychology, but had no idea how to say that I wanted to order my meal as carry-out. Having just been asked “店内で召し上がりますか (Will you be dining in?)?” Being my first time ordering take-out in Japan, I had no idea what the common word for take-out was in Japanese, and being afraid that she would just assume that I didn’t actually know the language, I quickly blundered, “いいえ、外で食べます (No, I’ll be eating outside.).” Had it not been early September, this may have been sufficient; however, likely assuming I was planning on sitting at one of the tables which was out front of the store to enjoy my meal in the warm summer sun, she promptly grabbed a tray out for me and handed me my receipt. Noticing that she misunderstood what I was trying to say, I quickly apologized and explained that I was planning on eating at my dormitory. Thankfully, there was nobody waiting behind me, and listening patiently, she asked something along the lines of “あっ、持ち帰りですね (Ah, take-out, right?)?” and everything worked out pretty well. A bit embarrassed by the whole experience, however, I avoided going back for more than a month (which wasn’t difficult, considering how many amazing restaurants there are nearby).

Looking back, that was probably one of the most educational experiences I’ve had, since I began studying Japanese. It taught me that as important as it is to be able to engage in fun, interesting conversation with a wide variety of people, it’s also important to prepare yourself for the less frequent, but equally important interactions which will occur during your time in Japan. Whether it’s memorizing something as simple as the word 持ち帰りmochikaeri (take-out) or something more difficult, like 糖尿病tounyoubyou (diabetes), be sure to prepare for your trip abroad, by studying vocabulary related to things like paying bills, getting a cellphone contract, talking to the doctor about health problems or concerns, or even words that are necessary in case of a natural disaster. You might not use them very frequently, but they”ll be worth it, in the few cases where you’ll need to use them in daily life.

Daily practice is key, when learning a new language.

Daily practice is key, when learning a new language.

Most importantly, however, just be sure to have fun! Although there’s going to be a lot of things you don’t know, and there will be the occasional difficult moment, you’ll make great friends and create memories which will last you a life time!

"Friendship has no boarders."

“Friendship has no boarders.”


Empress Michiko delights Japanese internet users

Japan boasts having the longest existing monarchy in the world. Even though both the Emperor and Empress are very-well respected and they are kind of a taboo topic for the media if they get too critical, the Imperial Family only plays a ceremonial role in Japan. That is, they do not make any government-related decisions. People’s opinion on both the Emperor and Empress are very positive and pretty much whatever they say or do will be spread and commented by the media or forum users. This time, Empress Michiko became a trendy topic in Japan after showing she’s well updated on Japanese pop culture, particularly about the “digital idol” Hatsune Miku.

The beloved Emperor and Empress of Japan

The beloved Emperor and Empress of Japan

While visiting an exhibition called “LOVE exhibition” at the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills, Empress Michiko surprised everyone when she immediately seemed to recognize who Hatsune Miku was. 「これがミクちゃんですか」 Is this Hatsune Miku?, was what the Empress said, as the Asahi Newspaper reports, generating a lot of positive impressions and thoughts on Twitter.

You might be wonder how come this is a big deal, so first let’s talk more about who Hatsune Miku is. Hatsune Miku is a fictional character created for a music synthesizer program (Vocaloid) first released in 2007. She is 16 year old and cute. Youth + kawaiiness is a WIN combination in Japan. What Hatsune Miku’s program does, basically, is have a synthesized robot-like voice sing any song you write or want. Many users of this program started uploading their own Hatsune Miku’s songs to the very popular Japanese video website, ニコニコ動画 Nico Nico Douga, where she quickly became popular. Later, Sega and Crypton Future Media (the creators of Hatsune Miku) would release “Project DIVA”, a music videogame in which players must “support” Hatsune Miku in her singing pressing a sequence of buttons while she dances in beautifully animated videos on the background. This game has been so successful it is a staple of most game centers with a music games area. It also boosted the creation of hundreds of different Hatsune Miku’s merchandise. Hatsune Miku was well received by the Otaku (anime, manga, game lovers culture in Japan) community and she’s the image of many Family Mart products and Domino’s Pizza, for instance. Just google her name and you’ll find thousands of videos, fan art and more.

Copyright of Crypton Future Media Inc.

Copyright of Crypton Future Media Inc.

But it doesn’t stop there, as the number of fans kept exponentially increasing, the Project DIVA series was taken to the next level through all-digital, animated live concerts. That’s right, no actual live singing, just an amazing display of holograms, animations and lights. Believe it or not, the concerts were such a big success, they even toured cities outside Japan. By the way, this summer (Aug 30th) she will perform in a concert to be broadcasted simultaneously in many venues worldwide.

Hatsune Miku's concert. No copyright infringement intended.

Hatsune Miku’s concert. No copyright infringement intended.

Naturally, there is basically no connection between Hatsune Miku and Empress Michiko, right? I mean, Empress Michiko also has an unusual background for an Empress in Japan; she came from a non-royal family, decided to breastfeed her children (something considered too mundane for the Imperial Family to do), visited several countries together with her husband Emperor Akihito and more, while symbolizing 大和撫子Yamato nadeshiko, a woman with the traditional feminine virtues of old Japan. But now, otakus too will remember her, especially because of the way she referred to Hatsune Miku, using the-ちゃん –chan suffix, which pretty much makes everyone think she is treating her as if she were an actual person. Whatever was going through Her Majesty mind, her knowing who Hatsune Miku knows proves that she really does her best to stay updated on Japanese Culture. Hooray for her!

Eduardo H.
Netizens Impressed that Japanese Empress Michiko Knowleadgeable about Pop Culture – Japan Daily Press

皇后さま「初音ミクご存知だったのか」 ネットユーザー「お言葉」に感動、歓喜

ANIME NEWS: Hatsune Miku to perform in theaters worldwide Aug. 30 – Asahi Shinbun

Chain Stores employees have gone crazy in Japan

Good afternoon! As I write this article, a thunderstorm has just started not so long ago here in Tokyo. Hopefully it will end quickly so I can go home without getting extremely wet!

However, this is not today’s topic. This time I would like to tell you about a recent “trend”? that has taken many fast food restaurants and convenience store by surprise and owing apologies to their customers; clerks have started to take pictures of themselves in inappropriate poses or situations inside the store, in most cases even still wearing their uniforms. What’s going on? Here’s the timeline.

1. The first freezer incident

Last July, a picture of a store clerk resting carelessly INSIDE a freezer in a Lawson store went viral all over the Japanese internet, before gaining popularity worldwide as well. Of course the picture caused plenty of negative reactions, with many people stating they would never buy ice cream in Lawson from that moment on. Of course, Lawson investigated where the incident happened and decided to close the store since the guy in the pic happened to be the franchise owner’s son. This happened in Kochi prefecture.

Trapped? I don't think so...

Trapped? I don’t think so…


2. The second freezer incident

Days after the incident in Kochi, a copycat appeared and published his pics as well. The style was exactly the same: Just laying down on top of the ice cream.


3. The freezing trend goes global

And as the freezer cases became known worldwide, some people in neighbor countries started imitating them. Well, it has been a scorching hot summer, so this is understandable, right?


4. The Burger King buns incident

Does it make a very comfortable cushion?

Does it make a very comfortable cushion?

Then, not so long ago a new case was reported in Burger King! An employee took a picture of himself on top of a big plastic bag full of buns. Many internet users seemed to care more about what that suspicious substance in the basket next to him was, though. Burger King stated that the buns in that bag were about to be disposed of, so customers never ate them. Some news reported that he was not fired, whereas other sources say he was fired right away.


5. Taco Bell incident outside of Japan

About the same time of the Lawson incident, a Taco Bell worker took a pic of himself licking many taco shells for an internal contest. He didn’t submit the picture, but a friend of his uploaded it to Facebook and eventually it spread all over the web. Gotta be careful about the pictures your friends upload!


6. The recent Pizza Hut dough incident

And finally, last Monday another person decided to make a contribution to the trend, by wearing a mask made of dough. But of course he didn’t do it home, he used Pizza Hut dough and had the pic taken while still wearing his uniform!

You'd better do it home next time

You’d better do it home next time


So, although I believe this is just a series of silly, immature jokes that won’t last for too long, many people in Japan are wondering, what’s going on among the Japanese youth?? Are they just bored? Are they looking for opportunities to be fired?

Eduardo H.

The end of fast lanes in train stations in Tokyo

People in Tokyo stand on the left side of escalators leaving a passing lane on the right for those in a rush. People in Osaka do the opposite, they stand on the right side and let people rush on the left side. It’s been this way for a few decades, so pretty much everyone is familiar with this practice. When I first arrived in Japan, I was surprised in a very nice way because I thought this habit showed a high level of organization or order that characterizes the Japanese people. This custom also applies to walking on the street, but to a slightly lesser degree. However, JR East has recently placed stickers in every station asking commuters not to walk on the escalators, just stand. Have people changed this habit already?

So, what triggered this sudden change? People are so used to the current system that it doesn’t make sense to alter it, right? Nevertheless, a steady increase of accidents (on average, there was one accident each working day) in recent years and a further analysis led to one conclusion: many accidents happened because of people rushing like crazy on the escalators not to miss the next train.

I am a bit skeptical about their theory, since I was quite sure that most accidents occurred because of people talking/checking their phones or being drunk, but I do remember accidents such as this one, last April, in which a 60 year old woman died after being hit by a man falling down the stairs. It wasn’t a escalator that time, but a a normal staircase.

Although I can understand where JR East stands, what they are requesting will take too long to be accomplished. It’s basically an everyday habit what they’re trying to change. I haven’t seen any differences as of now.

Source: Wanted: better escalator manners (The Japan Times 2013)

Eduardo H.

Suicides and Japan

Today, one of the writers here at Ryugakusei Town was a few minutes late to the office because of a depressingly-common Japanese problem: suicide. His morning train was delayed since someone jumped in front of it. I suppose that person simply couldn’t face another day at work; that, or he decided to take a final snub at society by making everyone late for work.

Unfortunately, Japan has historically been very tolerant of suicide, so much so that it has become a cultural issue. Back in the days of the samurai, suicide was seen as an honorable way out. As recently as WW2, soldiers were expected to commit suicide rather than surrender; and let’s not forget the organization of kamikaze plane raids, where the pilots were expected to die from the very beginning. Even relatively famous public figures commit suicide: following a financial scandal, cabinet minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka did just that; later, the then Tokyo mayor Shintaro Ishihara lauded him as a “true samurai” for “preserving his honour” in such a manner. Suicide is also a major theme in various anime and movies (e.g. Evangelion).

NGE - Death and Rebirth
Sadly, it isn’t uncommon for there to be instances of suicide around your everyday life in Japan. For example, Japanese trains are known for exceptional punctuality; if they are late it’s usually because of a jumper. Japanese friends and acquaintances usually know of at least one person who has committed suicide. As a co-worker explained, pressure to get into a good university, near-constant (unpaid) overtime, financial problems (loan sharks are another big issue here), bullying—Japanese people that suffer from these problems usually repress their anger and stress, leading what seem to be normal lives, until it is too late.
Still, Japan is a wonderful place to live in. Like any other place, it has positives and negatives. If you wish to live here, you’ll just have to learn to deal with both!

Softbank curry, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony, The Return of Summer Heat and more

Good afternoon! Eduardo here!

There were a few happenings the past week in Japan that got international attention, but also a few things that called my attention. This time I would like to sum them up in a single post in a mix of both cute and serious news.


1. Softbank Curry

Recently, Softbank was on the news since they beat NTT DoCoMo as the Mobile Phone company with the highest profit. Even though it is unlikely there is any connection with their last campaign, I am absolutely in love with it and maybe I won’t be able to eat it since it’s too cute. Just by going to any Softbank store, showing your cellphone and answering a simple questionnaire (took me 1 minute), you’ll get one box of this limited edition curry. I saw many people getting it. You know, Japanese curry is one of the most beloved dishes here. Some articles report that an average person eats it 68 times a year. 2 months of curry everyday if you wanna see it that way!

Cutest curry ever

Cutest curry ever


2. Successful fireworks, at last

After many days of sudden, strong rainstorms that even cancelled some firework festivals, as I wrote in a previous post (The worst fireworks season in years?), firework festivals scheduled for last weekend could be held without any drawbacks since there was no rain. Itabashi, Edogawa and Tachikawa fireworks in the Tokyo metropolis area gathered lots, lots of people. If you tried to take a train that day I’m sure you noticed many children, men and women wearing yukatas.

I saw the Tachikawa fireworks and they were amazingly good. Never had I seen fireworks from that close! As I was paying attention to them, I didn’t really take any good pics.

Tachikawa fireworks

Tachikawa fireworks


3. Scorching hot summer is back

So now that the rain and very cloudy days are gone, intense heat has spread all over Japan again. Temperatures of over 32 degrees are expected everywhere in Tokyo and similar and even higher ones elsewhere in the country. Be sure to drink plenty of water, avoid going outside for long period between 10 am and 3 pm and all the usual advice.

Weather forecast for Setagaya, Tokyo

Weather forecast for the upcoming days in Setagaya, Tokyo



4. 68th anniversary of the first Atomic bombing in world history

If you are reading this blog, I am absolutely sure you are familiar with the Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only two cases of nuclear weapons in war. The Atomic bombing of Hiroshima occurred on August 6th, 1945, followed by the Atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9th the same year. This bombings marked the end of WWII and the start of a new, “peaceful” era in Japan.

Every year, a ceremony takes place in Hiroshima. White doves are released into the air, float paper lanterns are floated down the river and many survivors (currently most of them were children or teenagers at the time of the bombing) talk about what their saw, leaders ask for an end to nuclear weapons and nuclear energy, the latter because of the still recent Fukushima nuclear plants issues and more. It is a very touching moment for people everywhere in Japan.



5. The largest Japanese warship since WWII

Very ironic and contradictory for most foreign press, Japan’s largest warship was unveiled the same week of the Atomic bombing anniversary. While I understand that due to the recent territorial and basically military tensions with China and Korea the unveiling of strong self-defense ways is important, they could have waited a couple weeks, right?



That’s it for this week!


Eduardo H.

Fake HUGE earthquake alarm freaks people out

Today, at about 5 pm earthquake alarms alerted people from Hiroshima to Tokyo about an incoming earthquake with epicenter in Nara prefecture, very close to the huge Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe metropolis (the second largest in Japan). The alert had it that a huge 5+ in the Japanese scale, whereas others report receiving an alert for a 7 in the Japanese scale (the Tohoku earthquake was a 6+; 7 is the highest possible magnitude), so many people, including people in Tokyo, got out of the buildings they were in just in case. A few minutes later, it was reported that apparently it was an error from the Japan Meteorological Agency and that its system had collapsed.


Apparent epicenter of the earthquake

Apparent epicenter of the earthquake



We’re still waiting for an official announcement about why this error occurred.


Eduardo H.