The cashier at the Japanese 7-11 puts a little lottery box on the counter because I bought over 500 yen worth of soda and potato chips. Now, I’m supposed to stick my hand inside and pull out two tickets to maybe win something. He tells me how many tickets to take, but he’s mumbling, so I don’t quite catch what he said.
“Ikura da-ta?” How many was it, I ask.
He stares at me like a stunned fish. Fair enough. Saying ikura was quite vague.
“Nanmai deshtaka?” How many was it, I repeat, this time using a more specific word for how many, and more polite Japanese.
He cocks his head like a puppy that just heard you fart for the first time.
I try English. “How many tickets, kid?”
“Sumimasen. Eigo wo wakarimasen.” I’m sorry, I don’t understand English.
“Or Japanese either, apparently,” I say, scratching my head.
In this case, the lack of communication wasn’t my Japanese, it was just a dumb kid. When you live in Japan, very rarely Japanese people just freeze up if you speak to them and happen not to be Japanese. It’s a fact of life when living here, and you just have to deal with it and move on. 99% of the time, you’ll be just fine, but if you do run into someone whose brain runs in NO JAPANESE=NO UNDERSTAND mode, just find someone else to direct your question to.
But most of the time, the bad communication comes from our side, the nonnative speaker. It takes time to master a language, and sometimes even if we are saying the right word, our pronunciation is so mangled no one can understand. So here’s a few quick tips to improve your Japanese pronunciation.
First, try saying this popular anime name: Arietti.
Now, did you say A-ri-e-ti? Or did you say Air-ri-e-di?
You might not have realized it, but your kindergarten teacher lied to you. English has many a sounds, not only just long and short. For example: father, cat, away, call, and say are all different a sounds.
But the a in Japanese is always the a in father.
Now try saying this familiar word: anime. It’s a-ni-me, like the a in “Ah! You shot me, right in the leg!” Not the a in “ant,” which we often say in English. You also might of noticed it’s a-ni-me, not a-ni-mi, but we’ll return to that later.
Also in English, though this one can depend on your nationality, two consecutive t‘s make a d sound. Try saying the words butter or little and you’ll likely see what I mean. Some styles of English will also replace d’s for t’s in other words as well. Take water, for instance. Americans will likely say wa-der while British will more likely say wau-ter. But in Japanese, t really is t. So Arietti’s name is really Ah-ri-e-ti.
Now try this word: Karate. I’m sure you’re paying attention now, but when most people say it, it sounds like ka-RA-di. Not right.
Now, let’s try something different. Say this word: karaoke.
Did you say Ka-ra-o-ke, or did you say care-RI-o-kI? Because the ke sound does not naturally occur at the end of English words (like the me in anime,) we naturally change it to ki. And you have to be aware of that, or you end up saying the wrong word. One syllable is the difference between butter and batter.
“I want some butter.”
“Okay, here’s your batter.”
“I said butter.”
“I know, here. Batter.”
“That’s not what I wanted.”
“That’s what you said.”
Let’s try again. Say this word: sake. If you said sake, with the long a and silent e, there’s no hope for you. But this time you probably said it correctly. Sa-ke, not sa-ki.
Okay, now stressing syllables.
A few people have told me that Japanese words are pronounced without any stress on syllables. That is absolute steaming horse crap. Japanese do stress syllables, just differently than English. Take this word: Hamachi. (It is a type of sushi, yellow tail in English. It’s delicious, try it.) Also try saying it.
Likely, you said ha-MA-chi, with the ma stressed. That’s wrong. It’s actually ha-ma-CHI, with the stress on the chi. And just like in English, this will change the meaning of the word. Produce. Am I talking about making something, or fruits and vegetables? Kumo. Say it. You either just said cloud or spider in Japanese, depending on which syllable you stressed.
Now, I’ve got some bad news for you. Japan might be the size of California, but it has a lot of different dialects. Now, this isn’t the difference between, say, that charming Texan twang and Fuggedaboudit New Yorker. This is a difference of stress, pronunciation, and words–so different that local dialects often can’t be understood by nonlocals.
There’s a story where a Tokyo-born student took a driving test in Yamanashi and misunderstood the local way to say “hit the breaks” and did the opposite. Yeah, Japanese dialects are that different.
But the good news is, when Japanese speak to you, they will probably use standard Japanese. But there are always exceptions–and you’re on your own there.
So keep practicing that Japanese, because it is important. And once you can speak at conversation level, I guarantee your stay in Japan will be much more enjoyable, and much, much smoother. Good luck!