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)
“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.)
“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.)
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