A Practical Guide to Working as a Scientist in Japan

Robert W. Ridge


Much of the culture is wrapped up in the language, and understanding this is the key to understanding the real complexities of the Japanese community. I strongly recommend that you try to learn some Japanese, even just simple expressions. Not only is it greatly appreciated (and you will be highly praised for it) but you will find that outside your laboratory very few people can speak any English at all.

Getting to grips with the basics

There are many books available to help you. Japanese is totally phonetic, and pronunciation is very simple indeed. There is only one way to say the vowel sounds. A as in rather, i as in hit, u as the o in move, e as in met, and o as in hot. There is no other way to say them. I thoroughly recommend you purchase a book to help you learn the two Japanese syllabaries Hiragana and Katakana (the Kana's). All words can be written in Kana, and children and students of Japanese will use Kana when they don't know the Kanji (Chinese character). Often signs have little Hiragana (called furigana) over the top of unusual pronunciations of Kanji, so knowing Kana is very useful.

Learning to read and write is much harder than learning to speak, because it is difficult to practice the language by reading; you must first learn many Kana and Kanji. The Japanese have the opposite problems in learning English, it is easy to read and write, but pronunciation is hell.

One more difficulty is the way Japanese reply to negative questions, and this unfortunately pervades their English and can lead to misunderstanding. In answering a negative question in Japanese, you must reply according to your agreement with the statement of the sentence, rather than the idea of the sentence. In English, if you ask someone "Are you going?" they will say yes when they are going and no when they aren't. The Japanese would give the same answers in Japanese. However, to "Aren't you going?" a Japanese would reply yes when they aren't going and no when they are, thus agreeing with the statement. Exactly the opposite to English. Thus I entreat you to ask Japanese people positive questions only, or at least make every effort to be certain their intentions are clear, or you may end up waiting at the restaurant for no-one.

Understanding Japanese pronunciation of English

The Japanese language has no `th' sound and Japanese people cannot distinguish between l's and r's or b's and v's. For example, they cannot hear the difference between rubber and lover, and when I once asked a student to say "the earth" he said "za arse"! When I wrote his answer on the board the students realised it was very funny indeed. Most people have trouble saying si because it isn't used in Japanese, and tend to say shi instead. My colleague Prof. Inouye used to say to overseas guests "please shit here" when asking them to make themselves comfortable (!) and I eventually persuaded him to say "please take a chair" instead, because he could never quite get si. Many Japanese forget the correct use of he or she in English, and it can be confusing for a foreigner as to what gender they are trying to talk about. Such people are jokingly called Edo'ko (literally child of Edo) by their fellow Japanese because people from the Edo area often say shi instead of hi when speaking in Japanese. Edo is a part of Tokyo, which itself used to be called Edo.

When you write Japanese words in Roman form, they tend to go consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel etc such as in "Ohayo gozaimasu" (good morning) or "Hajime-mashite" (pleased to meet you) although this isn't a hard and fast rule. Of course, Japanese people don't see it this way because they don't write in Roman form. Perhaps the worst thing to the foreigner's ear is the Katakana pronunciation of non-Japanese words, in which the consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel of Japanese is maintained. Arbeite becomes arubaito, curry rice becomes kare raisu, ballroom becomes boru rumu, and so on. It grates on the ears at times but there is little you can do about it.

Finally, some young people may try using rude words that they have heard in foreign movies. This can be very embarrassing of course, but please realise that 99% of the time these youngsters don't realise the significance of the words they are uttering, especially as Japanese has few rude words. I entreat you to forgive them, and if possible explain that these are very naughty words (sore wa totemo warui kotoba desu).

Teaching English

Many foreigners teach English for extra income and to meet people. It is very popular for spouses of visiting academics to do so. If you haven't taught English as a foreign language before, believe me it is difficult. However, many potential customers may be interested just to practice conversation. It is always better to have some kind of lesson though, and there are books to help you. As to rates per hour I suggest you ask around for the local rate, but it will be good I'm sure.

University-related words

(apostrophes denote missing sounds that aren't pronounced, for example, de-su-ka is said des'ka, the su sound is blended to plain s).

University			Daigaku
President			Gaku-cho
Vice-President			Fuku gaku-cho
Head of department		Gakka-cho (or Gakubu-cho)
Dean of postgraduates		Gakkei-cho
Professor			Kyoju
Associate professor		Jokyoju
Assistant professor		Junkyoju 
Lecturer			Koshi
Assistant (post-doc)		Joshu
Postgraduate student		Insei (or Daigaku insei)
Undergraduate student		Gakusei (or Daigakusei)
Ministry of Education		Monbusho
Administration			Jimu
Library				Toshokan
Toilet				O-te-arai (or toire)
Meal Hall			Shoku-do
Research Institute		Kenkyu-jo
Laboratory			Jiken-shitsu (or Kenkyu-shitsu)

Words for hello, goodbye etc at work

Pleased to meet you 					Hajime mash'te
Hello (eg meet acquaintance in the corridor)		Konnichiwa
Good morning (every day at work)			O-hayo gozaimas
'How are you?						O genki des'ka?
Haven't seen you for a long time			O-hisashiburi des'
Thank you						Arigato (or domo)
Thank you very much					Domo arigato
Thank you (for something done for you)			Arigato gozaimash'ta
Please wait for a minute				Chotto matte kudasai
Let's go to lunch					O-hiru gohan ni iki masho?
Please speak slowly					Yukkuri hanash'te kudasai
Please speak in English					Eigo de hanash'te kudasai
Take care (eg to someone who is sick)			O dai ji ni
Take care (eg to someone going away)			Ki o tsukete
Do the best you can (eg to students)			Dekiru dake de ii des'
I understood						Wakarimash'ta
Yes, I understand					Hai, wakarimash'ta
I don't understand					Wakarimasen
Please help me (eg to move a heavy item)		Chotto tetsudatte kudasai
Please help me (eg to explain something)		Chotto onegaishimas'
Excuse me (eg if you trod on someone's toes)		Sumi masen desh'ta or shitsurei
Excuse me (eg to attract someone's attention)		Sumi masen
Congratulations						O medeto gozaimas'
I'm tired						Tsukareta
Goodbye							Sayonara