PhD Candidate in Japan, researching Narrative in Games. Responds favorably to Thrash Metal, Karaoke, and Dungeons & Dragons.
Extra Credit Japan #2: It's all about context
July 17, 2014
Greetings everyone, I'm here today with some extra things that you can do to 1) live more comfortably in Japan, and/or 2) learn a little bit more Japanese faster.
Today's tip is about context. You can use the context of related-words and situations to get yourself out of linguistic trouble.
We've all had times where we just can't explain things in the target language. While gestures and drawings definitely go a long way, oftentimes the human mind is always still seeking out that one perfect word that is a 1:1 translation of exactly what we mean.
Sadly, between English and Japanese at least, there are a ton of cases where this just isn't possible.
Case in point: the phrase よろしくお願いします means a lot of different-but-related things which all sort of cluster around a general concept of Japanese formality and politeness. It's a wonderful phrase, and I will try to write a more detailed article on this expression in the future, but for now, suffice it to say that there is no equivalent expression in English.
I'm not here today to lament these mismatches of meaning or the frequent lack of analogous words, but instead, I wish to talk on the importance of using context in order to get by (in really effective ways) in Japan.
Some of you out there might not yet own an electric dictionary, which is completely fine. I existed very effectively in Japan without one for the first 7 years of my 9 years in Japan using this simple trick with context.
Basically, if you're explaining something in Japanese and you just don't know how to say (for example) "chopsticks," the best thing to do is to explain the context around that mystery word.
Instead of freaking out or giving up because you just can't find THAT word in Japanese, you can explain what you mean (very simply) by saying something like "I don't know what it's called in Japanese, but that thing you use when you eat..."(「日本語でわからないけど、食べるために使うやつ」). The people you are speaking with will likely then begin to fill in the gap and emphatically furnish you with the word you are looking for (as if they are answering on a TV quiz show).
Give them hints using the simple Japanese words that you already know to paint a picture of the thing you mean. Usually, the person you're talking to will get it.
Other examples (of non-perfect Japanese, written in the way that I would usually verbally ask):
"Excuse me, I'm looking for that soap-like thing you need for doing laundry..." 「すみません、洗濯するために、ソープみたいなやつが必要ですが。」
"What is the Japanese word for that animal in the movie Jaws?" 「ジョーズの映画で出た動物、なんていう、日本語で？」
"It's like a bicycle, but it only has one wheel. What's that called?" 「自転車みたいけど、ホイールが一つだけ。日本語でなんていうんですか？」
This little tactic has worked wonders for me, personally. Sure, you might not know EXACTLY the word you are looking for or trying to say, but that is no obstacle. As long as you know a little Japanese, you'll be able to explain far more than you know you are capable.
I encourage everyone to try it out.
Leave your dictionaries at home!
Resist the urge to whip out your smartphone and look it up!
Also resist the urge to look up a photo on google images of the thing you are talking about (also a valid tactic, I might add).
The next time you find yourself stuck for a Japanese word, try your best to explain the context around it. Then, whoever you're talking to will fill in the blanks and you will learn a new word.
Plus, it's far more fun, meaningful, and memorable to learn a new vocabulary word this way with real (human) Japanese friends than it is to simply drill it in a textbook (though that definitely has huge benefits as well).
In terms of survival Japanese, this skill is one of my top-ranked indispensable tricks to getting by and enjoying Japan.