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Foreign English teachers in Japan pick their favorite Japanese-language phrases

By Casey Baseel, SoraNews24

A lot of people who move to Japan to teach English also end up becoming students of the Japanese language as part of the process. That’s because while it’s possible to teach at Japan’s English conversation schools without high-level Japanese language skills (due to foreigner-taught classes, by design, generally being conducted in English only), when it comes time to communicate with coworkers, or with anyone outside of the workplace, even a little bit of Japanese language proficiency goes a long way.

But what Japanese language phrases are foreign English teachers’ favorites? To investigate, Nova Language Company, which manages the Nova and Gaba English conversation school groups, conducted a survey, asking that question to 287 of its foreign teaching staff.

The third-most common response, with 12 votes, was “Daijobu desu.” On the surface, this doesn’t seem a phrase that’s particularly unique to Japanese, since daijobu just means “OK” or “all right,” and desu, within this context, works like the verb “to be.” But daijobu desu won votes because of how flexible it is, thanks to a quirk of the Japanese language that allows you to omit saying the subject of a sentence. Because of that, daijobu desu can mean “I’m OK,” if someone just asked if you’re struggling with some sort of dilemma. It can mean “It’s OK” (as in “don’t worry about it”) if someone just apologized for enlisting you to help them with a problem of their own, and it can mean “That’s OK” (i.e. “no thank you”) if you’re politely turning down someone’s offer, whether it’s someone offering to help you with a work project or a convenience store clerk checking if you need a pair of disposable chopsticks with your bento boxed lunch.

Coming in at number two, with 13 votes, was “Otsukaresama desu,” which is a phrase we’ve been recommending for years. Unlike daijobu desu, otsukaresama desu does reflect a unique Japanese cultural attitude. Translated directly, it means “You’re honorably tired,” and it’s used to recognize and show appreciation for the efforts someone has made in some sort of unselfish, admirable endeavor. It’s especially common in Japanese offices, where you’ll hear otsukare-sama desu when someone wraps up a project or submits their finished portion of the work to the next person down the line in the process. Otsukaresama desu is also the customary way to say goodbye to coworkers as you clock out at the end of the day, as a way to say “Thanks for working so hard today.”

And at the top of the list, with 22 votes, was shoganai, which translates to “It can’t be helped” or “There’s nothing we can do about it.” The survey participants who picked shoganai see it as a useful phrase, and an occasionally worthwhile way of thinking. “It’s a lovely phrase that lets you express that the situation isn’t something you can remedy with your capabilities,” said one shoganai fan, while another went so far as to say “Once you learn the philosophy of shoganai, you’ll feel a weight lifted from your shoulders.”

Ironically, shoganai also frequently shows up on lists of phrases that aggravate newcomers to Japan, who sometimes don’t think a situation is really as beyond altering as the person saying this fatalistic expression presents it as. But as anyone who’s a veteran of teaching English in Japan can tell you, no matter how blessed you are with understanding managers, helpful coworkers, or earnest students, you’ll eventually have to deal with at least one illogical assignment, flaky colleague, or lazy pupil, so, provided the stakes aren’t so high, shrugging your shoulders and murmuring “Shoganai” in Japanese is probably a better reaction than screaming profanities in English.

Source: PR Times via Yorozoo via Livedoor News via Otakomu

Read more stories from SoraNews24.

-- Eight Japanese words we’d love to import into English

-- The three ways to say “love” in Japanese, and when to use them

-- Seven mistakes foreigners make when speaking Japanese—and how to fix them

© SoraNews24

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

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“Bimbou hima nashi” may be appropriate.

-9 ( +4 / -13 )

The third-most common response, with 12 votes, was “Daijobu desu.”


Better off investigating this massively exploitative pseudo-industry and its ties especially the above mentioned institutions.

-9 ( +6 / -15 )

> dagonToday  08:31 am JST

The third-most common response, with 12 votes, was “Daijobu desu.”


Better off investigating this massively exploitative pseudo-industry and its ties especially the above mentioned institutions.

Agree it's an exploitative industry of workers and clients.

It does very little to improve most people's English skills.

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

Looks like they were given a list of a few phrases and asked to pick one.

A long time ago, I was asked the same question in front of a class of junior high students. Without thinking, I proudly said a really obscene one. Still cringe about it!

2 ( +3 / -1 )

When I used to teach English at Nova many moons ago the popular and favored Japanese expressions to hear were "Hana ga takai" "Kowaii sensei" and "Henna gaijin" Good to see things have changed from the late 80s.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

The real favorite should be "kanpai"!

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Surely 'chuto hanpa'.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Okane ga nai desu

-5 ( +1 / -6 )

Okane ga nai desu


-6 ( +0 / -6 )

Shoganai for the poor Japanese staff who work for nova! 12-13 hour days, unachievable sales targets, crap salaries all the wile having to smile and try to sell more lessons by unscrupulous means…I thought the owner of Nova went to jail for taX evasion

-3 ( +3 / -6 )

The problem with "shoganai" is they use it wayyyy too much. They say it w/out even trying to fix or alleviate the problem.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I was expecting more witty choices, but at least for the 3 examples here the "phrases" are just common things repeatedly heard during the day, maybe people studying Japanese would have more interesting examples to vote for.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

He’d make 20 bucks an hour at McDonalds in California and get a free happy meal to boot.

-4 ( +0 / -4 )


-3 ( +0 / -3 )

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