Language fail: 22 embarrassing tales of Japanese language missteps

By Philip Kendall, RocketNews24

They say that one of the main reasons so few Japanese people master the English language is because they’re worried about making mistakes or embarrassing themselves. While we do wish more Japanese would break out their English a little more often (get a couple of drinks into your coworkers and you’ll be amazed at how much English they actually know), at the same time we can’t really blame them for being reluctant to speak, because learning a second language as an adult can be tough.

After all, when our words fail us, it can not only result in confusion, but very often shock, laughter, and even anger. Just ask the kind folks who were good enough to share with us their most awkward and memorable mistakes made when speaking – or rather trying to speak – Japanese.

Join us after the jump for 22 tales of language mishaps. Oh, and maybe make some notes while you do so that none of these ever happen to you!

We asked our friends, family and coworkers to tell us their most awkward and embarrassing tales of “nihongo-faux pas.” We’ve removed names and any incriminating details wherever possible for the sake of saving our storytellers any additional embarrassment, but here’s what they had to say.

Be warned: some of these stories are a little bit spicy.

What’s that sound I hear?

“As a non-native Japanese speaker, I particularly pride myself on my pronunciation, but every now and then I slip up when it comes to long vowel sounds. Case in point: on [the JET Programme] at my junior high, some topic in the textbook led to a discussion about wind chimes, or fuurin. Unfortunately, I then announced to the class that I was a big fan of furin (adultery) instead…” (Female, U.S.)

One little letter

“I once insulted a coworker by addressing him directly as ‘Mr Baldy’. His last name was Haga, which I now know is a pretty common Japanese surname, but it just so happened that he was almost completely bald on top and had this terribly obvious comb-over. I’d overheard some of the school kids casually referring to him as ‘Hage-sensei‘ and thought this was his name because the two words sounded so similar and I couldn’t read the kanji characters on the teachers’ room seating plan to check. When I called him Hage-sensei in the staffroom one day, the normally very pleasant teacher in question locked eyes with me and said in this stern voice: ‘My name is Ha-ga. Not ha-ge,’ before turning on his heel and striding out of the room. What a difference a single vowel makes!” (Male, UK)

Help yourself, good sir!

“I once offered my seat to an elderly gentleman on the train with a confident ‘Dozo sawatte kudasai!’ (‘Go ahead, touch [me]!’). [Suwaru = sit; sawaru = touch] (Female, U.S.)

Tell me everything!

“I was in a lift at work once when this Japanese guy got in. Instead of asking him ‘Nan gai desuka?’ (‘What floor?) I said: ‘Nan sai desuka?’ (‘How old are you?’).” (Male, UK

He’s right, you know

“I don’t remember the exact announcement, but I remember being really confused when taking the bus after I first moved to Kyoto. It was actually something ‘Unkochu no ido ha kiken desu…’ (‘It’s dangerous to move around while the bus is in motion…’), because all I could hear was “unkochu no ido ha kiken desu‘ (‘It’s dangerous to move around while pooping…’)…” (Female, U.S.) A spicy lover

“I started seeing a girl a few months after I moved to Japan. She was really sweet and despite us not really speaking each others’ languages, we had a lot of fun together. During our first weekend away together, though, I found myself terribly confused when, in bed, she used the word kimochii (‘feels nice’). The only Japanese word I knew at that point that sounded anything like kimochii was kimuchi (kimchi). To say that hearing my girlfriend moan the name of a spicy vegetable dish in bed was off-putting would be an understatement…” (Male, UK)

While we’re on the subject

“I got into a huge argument with my Japanese girlfriend once because I suggested ‘doing it from behind’ while we were making love. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite have the vocab at the time, so instead of saying ‘ushiro‘ (behind), I just kept saying ‘oshiri‘ (butt) while gesturing that I wanted her to turn around. She got super angry and immediately told me to leave. We got to the bottom of it in the end, but she had me thinking Japanese people only did it missionary style for a while there.” (Male, UK)

Wise words indeed

“One of my most embarrassing Japanese language mishaps from way back involves mixing up ningen (human) and ninjin (carrot). I can remember giving a talk to a group of school kids once and saying: ‘No matter what country you’re from, carrots are all the same, deep down.'” (Female, Australia)

Dirty chicken

“When I first came to Japan, I had to introduce myself to all my coworkers – in Japanese – at this big welcome party they held for me. By the time I was called on to stand up and do my thing, I was pretty drunk, so not only did I manage to say I was from ‘Oosutoria‘ (Austria) instead of Oosutoraria (Australia), but my little list of ‘things about me’ I’d prepared to say ended up going something like: ‘I love movies, sushi and molesters.’ Chikin (chicken) and chikan (molester) are way too similar!” (Male, Australia)

Allow me to introduce… this mean old bastard

“During a study abroad trip in Japan, we had this cantankerous dorm custodian whom everyone hated. I heard one of the residents refer to him as ‘kusojiji’ (kuso means ‘shit’, whereas ‘jiji‘ is a rough-sounding way of referring to a middle-aged man). Later, in conversation with some new Japanese friends, I happened to mention that the ‘kusojiji‘ at my dorm was very strict. I thought it just meant custodian…” (Female, U.S.)

Kanji fail

“Many moons ago, I stood up a date because I brain-farted and read 本日 (honjitsu/today) as 木曜日 (Mokuyobi/Thursday). I got a nasty text and tried to apologize but the damage was done…” (Male, U.S.)

Thanks, kids; this really sucks

“Once when I was working at a junior high, I got a handmade birthday card from a group of students. Even before I opened it, I could see how much time and effort they’d put in because the envelope had all these amazing, cute drawings and stickers on it. I’d recently learned that adding ‘sou‘ to adjectives allows you to describe appearances, so I tried saying ‘kawaii so,’ thinking it meant ‘This looks so cute!’ The kids looked really crestfallen and confused when I said it but I had no idea why, so I later told my coworker about the conversation. Turns out ‘sou‘ isn’t added to ‘kawaii‘ since the word already describes something’s outward appearance, and that the kids most likely thought I was saying ‘kawaiso‘ – a totally different word which means ‘pathetic’ or ‘inspiring pity’.” (Female, UK)

What am I doing wrong here?

“I know I’ve said ‘kowai desu ne‘ (‘You’re scary, aren’t you?’) plenty of times instead of ‘kawaii desu ne‘ (‘You’re cute.’) before now. I think all beginner Japanese learners fall for that one…” (Male, U.S.)

Boobs. As far as the eye can see.

“I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve accidentally said ‘oppai‘ (breasts) instead of ‘ippai‘ (‘lots of ~’) at work. Talk about awkward…” (Female, Australia)

With friends like these…

“I got a paper cut on my thumb during my first week teaching English in Japan and wanted to know the word for plaster/band-aid, so I sent my fellow gaijin coworker a text message to ask him. He replied with ‘Just ask for “onara“‘ and added a smiley emoticon. Apparently I’d forgotten about the conversation we’d had about this word just the day before because I mistook his joke as advice and, marching into the teacher’s room, asked my timid young Japanese coworker whether she ‘had any farts.’ I must have said it three or four times before I realised something was amiss.”

Sorry, but that’s not on the menu.

“I always thought I was saying ‘Okanjo onegaishimasu‘ (‘The bill/check please!’) when out drinking at izakayas (Japanese-style pubs), but it turned out I was actually saying ‘Okancho onegaishimasu!‘ (‘kancho‘ is a prank with involves jabbing someone in the anus with one’s index fingers). I didn’t even know what kancho was back then!” (Female, UK)

Seriously, don’t let me fall asleep

“I once mixed up okosu (to rape/violate) and okasu (to wake [a person] up) and asked my friend to ‘violate me if I fall asleep, yeah?’ while we were on a train. He looked very, very confused before he realised I’d been trying to ask him to wake me if I dozed off. (Female, UK)

The office bicycle

“One time, I was talking to my Japanese friend about a friend from the U.S. who was going to start working at a big Japanese company notorious for working their staff really hard. I wanted to say that she was planning to travel for a month before giving up her freedom and becoming the company’s ‘yes-man’ and have zero social life. I don’t know what happened, but I think my brain merged the English ‘yes-man’ with the Japanese equivalent (iinari), so somehow I ended up saying that my friend ‘wants to take some time off to travel before she becomes the office yariman (slut)…'” (Female, U.S.)

Those poor children

I used to work at a nursery in Japan, and my fellow American coworker and I were really shocked once when a couple of the Japanese teachers were talking casually about how one of the kids had terrible ‘herupesu‘ (herpes). I know cold sores are caused by a type of the herpes virus, but I’ve never heard the word herpes used in reference to the non-genital type before. We were both really relieved to find out that the teachers were actually only talking about cold sores! (Female, U.S.)

Stay in school, kids…

“On my last day of teaching at a junior high school, I was asked to go up on stage during morning assembly and address the 500 or so students I’d taught over the years. Using my best Japanese, I told them how I was sad to be leaving but that it would be good to see my friends and family again after so long. ‘A lot has changed back home in the four years I’ve been away,’ I said to the sea of young faces. ‘My parents have retired; some of my friends got married; heck, one of them even got knocked up and will be a mother soon…’

It was only when I saw the principal’s look of shock and panic that I realised I’d picked up a rather rough term from ‘become pregnant’ from my drinking buddies and that maybe it wasn’t the best choice of words for a PG13 audience…” (Male, Australia)

Okay, they really need to warn us about this word

“A friend of mine once had a young Japanese lady from out of town staying with him for a few days. Since they weren’t officially dating, he decided to be chivalrous and give her his bed for the couple of days she was staying while he slept on the couch. She must have forgotten her phone charger or something, because she was worried about oversleeping the next morning. My friend, though, thought of a simple solution, so he cheerfully told her: ‘Don’t worry; I have to get up in the morning to go to work anyway, so I’d be happy to okasu (violate) you about 30 minutes before I leave.’ You can imagine her expression.” (Male, U.S.) Dish of despair

“When I came to Japan, my successor told me that one day at school they were talking about "chanko nabe" (a huge, incredibly filling stew eaten by sumo wrestlers), but he accidentally expressed an interest in trying "chinko nabe" (“penis stew”) for himself. Fortunately, everyone including the teacher almost died laughing.” (Female, U.S.)

Read more stories from RocketNews24. -- Nine reasons why Japanese men hesitate to say “I love you” -- “I think I love you…”: Romantic confessions from around the world -- 65-year-old arrested for theft: “I never worked”

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Whoa! I laughed so hard I cried!!! I can relate to some of them... One letter or vowel make can make all the difference! Like, "Hage-sesei," or "Chikan," versus "Chikin." Somebody hand me a tissue!

Others I don't know if it is appropriate without a warning. Hello JT! Minors might be reading this!! (ROFL) "Chinko Nabe!!""

Thanks JT! Next time I get a chance, I am going to use some of these! (still laughing)

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Fortunately, in most of these kinds of cases, people around me have been able to use context to guess at my meaning... most of the time. MOST of the time...

I find fascinating that typically native English speakers seem to be able to deal with mispronunciations very easily. Perhaps because a big variety of pronunciation in the New England version "car" (""Kaa") vs. a Los Angeles "car" (rhymes with "far") or even Australian vs US English.

I was once asking Adults about words children use in Japan (like wan-wan). They asked which I thought was the cutest and I replied "Sha-sha-po-po". For a few minutes they looked at me dazed and wasn't until I used body language that they got it ("Shu-shu-po-po"). For me that was a confusing the topic was child-vocabulary..and there are not many words that even remotely sound like that.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

The story about falling asleep is extra funny. The writer still, on the excerpt, confused okosu (起こす) which means to wake up, and okasu (おかす), rape.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

When I first came to Japan and was home-staying in Tsukuba I used to go to Tokyo by bus. When I got back home from my first ride I asked my J. friend: "today I heard on the bus the driver saying "orinasai wa ashimoto gotsui kudasai" (get off the bus and watch your step). Why the attitude and what's with the grammar?" She explained that it's "orinosai wa" (when you get off...) but to my defense bus drivers always garble their words with the mic stuck next to their mouth.

In my J. language school I once said that I love J. food, especially "tonkachi" (hammer), instead of "tonkatsu" (deep-fried pork cutlet). My J. teacher didn't notice but a Korean classmate asked me later if I eat nails and screws too. Never made that mistake again.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

I confused ireru ('put in') and hairu ('be/get in'), which are both written with the same kanji, and told a young arubaito at McDonald's to 'get in a paper bag'.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

This is probably the funniest article I've ever read on JT. I had a good laugh with (not at) the people in this article.

I made the okosus/okasu mistake one time myself. I was telling my friend that I was raped by mormons that morning.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

While we’re on the subject

This one was very amusing. But I don't get why his girlfriend needed to get "super angry" about that particular scenario.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

I had a similar situation when I lived with a host family during college. I was speaking with Okaasan and kept saying "kaizoku." I said it again like 5 times before she corrected me. I meant to say "kazoku" family. I was saying pirates. In my defense, I was reading my host brother's One Piece manga

0 ( +2 / -2 )

I was telling my friend that I was raped by mormons that morning.

Falling off my seat with laughter here!

2 ( +5 / -3 )

Kaynide, I completely agree with your premise that logical deduction is of great importance in English due to its wide variations of pronunciation; that's why I always urge my students to emphasize syntax rather than "correct" pronunciation. Remember when I was fresh off the boat (literally - from Taiwan) back in '92 without a kana to my cognition and stopped by a coffee shop in Osaka between interviews. I figured, hey, "coffee" is pronounced pretty much the same way globally, but the way the waitress was spilling water from the glass as she approached me provided a negative prognosis of what would unfold. "Coffee?" I suggested, and she sucked her teeth and said, "Hei?" Okay, maybe like the Chinese: "Kafei?" Nope. Okay, so the first syllable has got to be a "k" sound and the second somewhat softer, so I went rapidly through a series of possibilities until my desire finally dawned on her: "Ah, KOO-HI desuka?" she exclaimed, like she'd just deciphered the Rosetta Stone.

Let me be clear: This happened in a COFFEE shop.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

When you say 'okasu' instead of 'okosu' (that's easy to do, I guess!) or 'kaizoku' instead of 'kazoku' (I love that one, Sam!) completely different kanji combinations pop into their heads. it's not the matter of a letter, like it is with people leaning Japanese in Romaji.

Doing an English song I once told a group of yochien students to 'pat their farts' (onaka vs. onara), they howled. Couldn't get anything done for a good 15 minutes :-)

"so I sent my fellow gaijin coworker a text message to ask him. He replied with ‘Just ask for “onara“‘ and added a smiley emoticon. "

Oooh, your friend's a bit of a prat, he is!

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

The looks I got from people, on my first trip to Osaka , I didn't realise I was asking for a 'finger jab in the arse" - line, instead of the Kanjyo Sen (loop line).

Yeah, guess how I was pronouncing it ?

0 ( +2 / -2 )


1 ( +2 / -1 )

I told a guy on the train that my shoulder was not a bag (fukuro) and that he should go to bed earlier. I kept my face straight. I intended to say makuro (pillow). All these salarymen hanging on the straps put their hands behind their head and sucked in a bit of air.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Maybe it was ok...maybe they thought you were trying to say you were not his mother (ofukuro) :-)

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Hi, JapanGal.

I don't think you meant to say "makuro" either, because that also doesn't mean pillow. Makura is pillow, makuro is macro.

But, hey, I know what you mean.

1 ( +1 / -1 )

these are pretty funny :)

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I once asked for ketsu-don, instead of katsu-don, much to the proprietors amusement. Then once I said, o mochi de kaeri, instead of, o mochi kaeri.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I do get strange glares at times or snickers after I mispronounce 'pachinko'.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I like the story I read years ago about the foreign guy who was shopping for a kotatsu but kept saying "tonkatsu."

Foreign guy: Tonkatsu utte masuka?

Salesman: Uttenai.

Foreign guy: Koko wa denkiya deshou.

Salesman: Hai.

Foreign guy: Tonkatsu uttenai?

Salesman: ( more loudly ) Uttenai.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Let me add an entry; While a student in France, I was chatting in French with a bunch of French students. One of the girls (Marie) wanted to talk to one of the guys (Paul), so I said to Paul, 'Marie wants you.' (in French), at which time everyone started laughing very hard. I think everyone can guess what they understood from the expression translated into French of Marie wants you. I was so embarrassed, but I never made that mistake again. From then on it would be X wants to talk to Y.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

The one about the love making and position/body part confusion comes pretty close to a few of my worst blunders/misunderstandings, and some of these really made me laugh (I love the 'crest-fallen kids' and the 'violate me on the train'!), but a few of the mistakes I made could easily have made this list. Haha. I did have a very similar experience with the "suwaru"/"sawaru" mistake but unlike asking someone to touch me, as the woman did on the train in the above example, I nearly got thrown out of an izakaya for asking to touch a young woman who had the only empty seat beside her (obviously messed up the verbs). In fact, I was being being approached by the master and told to leave (mostly everyone heard me, evidently, or had stopped to see why the woman and her friend were so upset), when someone, seeing the look of shock on my face since I knew I did something wrong, saw my finger pointing at the seat and it clicked (and he saved my butt). It was pretty humiliating, though the master apologized and others chuckled and encouraged me to stay (and I got a beer out of it), and as it turns out it was quite the 'in' and I ended up dating the woman for a while.

Thanks for the funny anecdotes!

0 ( +4 / -4 )

This is all horribly familiar! I have many experiences from the past (and probably some from the present that no one has been so impolite as to point out to me).

One that sticks in my mind is from sometime in the mid-1970s, when I was first in Japan as a language student. I went with my girlfriend (now wife of almost 40 years) to a hole in the wall place in Nagoya that served simple Chukka dishes. After briefly scanning the signs on the wall, I ordered the chahan setto (the friend rice set), with a side order of haramaki. The tiny restaurant went dead silent! I wanted to order "spring rolls" (harumaki), but had instead ordered "haramaki" (the belly wrap for Japanese construction workers and other laborers.)

Even today I pause to think before ordering either of these delicacies!

Male, US

0 ( +2 / -2 )

I once called a couple wearing the same outfit "osoroshii." My wife laughed so hard. I asked why and she finally got the composure to say, "osoroshii is terrifying, osoroi is matching." :3

2 ( +2 / -0 )

There's always the flip side: a Japanese student of mine at the Uni wrote me a memo about a new law in Japan and told me,"Now I can be counted on during erections, even though I am only 18!" Needless to say, I told her the second letter in "that word" is an "L" ... I told her, no need to look the word without the "L" up now, but trust me and also NEVER forget the "L" in the word "public"! Can't say I'll miss all this...

0 ( +1 / -1 )

One of those articles where the comments are just as great! When I was first in Japan and visiting my boyfriends friend whose son had a rabbit, another guest asked me how long rabbits live in England. I said "Oh, about 10 to 12 minutes...."

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Not me but a friend's friend introduced his family members to Japanese people he met by showing a family photo, saying "this is my father. He's an engineer. This is my mother is a whore." shufu (housewife)-> shoufu 主婦→娼婦

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I have had my share. I have caused endless laughter from my Japanese teacher here in Los Angeles. She gets the most fun out of my use of female only phrases. Nearly everyone I speak too in Japanese at work is female. So naturally I am going to pick up on phrases.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Great article and comments.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Funny stuff here!

Friend and I joined a Japanese class a few years ago used for training teachers. We were going through items in the home, and the student teacher pointed to the wardrobe in the tatami room (oshire 押入), and asked my friend for the Japanese word. He spat out "oshiri-ire (お尻入れ - put it in the bum) and had the room roaring with laughter.

I got a chuckle from the Japanese office staff one when asking for a "ketsu gomi" (lit. anus rubbish) when I meant keshi gomu (消しゴム) - eraser.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

"osoroshii is terrifying, osoroi is matching."

I thought matching outfits was "pair look"...

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

Nearly everyone I speak too in Japanese at work is female. So naturally I am going to pick up on phrases.

That's pretty common - I'd say about 90% of foreign guys who come to Japan go through this (myself included). Watching TV and/or talking to more guys can help with this. I used to just copy what I heard the men on TV saying, to practice intonation and get words etc.

I got a chuckle from the Japanese office staff one when asking for a "ketsu gomi" (lit. anus rubbish) when I meant keshi gomu (消しゴム) - eraser.

Hehehe, that's a good one!

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I was on an elevator holding my 1 year old baby and two nice ladies got on and said "kawaii desu" about my son, then I said "urusai desu" as a joke that the baby is urusai/noisy, but they took it the wrong way as if I meant shut up.

Other than that to this day after nearly 15 years in Japan I still mix up pimple and nipple (nikubi/chikubi).

1 ( +1 / -0 )

This is always the kind of stuff I told my students when I taught English.

You're gonna mistakes, sometimes cringe worthy bad ones, horrible ones, but as long as you can laugh at yourself and soldier on, don't worry! I make mistakes in Japanese everyday, heck, even in my native English, it's okay!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I still mix up pimple and nipple (nikubi/chikubi).

Actually some Japanese speakers of English do that too. I was startled when my co-worker told me she was wearing a mask to hide the nipples on her face.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Thumbed down for a compliment? Really?

I see.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

This article had me laughing a lot. If any one I know tells me they are having a bad day I'll send them this article for a pick me up.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I still mix up pimple and nipple (nikubi/chikubi).

BTW, pimple is nikibi にきび 、 にくび nikubi, would be 肉日 or meat day.

I told a guy on the train that my shoulder was not a bag (fukuro) and that he should go to bed earlier. I kept my face straight. I intended to say makuro (pillow). All these salarymen hanging on the straps put their hands behind their head and sucked in a bit of air.

Remember that お袋 ofukuro, means mother too, and it's possible they heard the "O".

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

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