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Speaking the Language

Tokyo - Speaking the Language


There is only one official language in Japan – Japanese (nihongo). Japan is the only country in the world to have Japanese as its official working language for its Japanese companies. As expatriates are usually hired by non-Japanese companies, it is not mandatory to speak Japanese at work. Many Japanese are able to understand English, as English is taught in schools as part of Japan's compulsory education. Despite this, many expatriates will discover that the Japanese are seldom motivated to speak English outside the business context.

Expatriates intending to stay in Japan will find it useful to learn simple Japanese phases for everyday use. One of the key differences in the Japanese language as compared to western languages to note is the extensive grammatical system to express politeness and formality. Learning how and when to include suffixes such as –san when addressing business associates and colleagues will be useful for expatriates, even when communicating in English. Note that many Japanese will use polite / formal forms to speak to indicate unfamiliarity.

Expatriates living in Japan will inevitably come across Japanese English. Japanese English is English used by non-native speakers of English in Japan, and it can be quirky and humorous. Japanese English features mainly in Japanese pop culture, fashion, and in advertisements. Many new Japanese coined terms are borrowed from the English language, for examples, McDonald's (Makudonarudo/ Makudo / Makku) and fork (forku). www.engrish.com is a website dedicated to the lighter side of Japanese English.

Standard Japanese that is used in document and writings and taught in schools is called "Hyojungo", while the commonly spoken language by the public is known as "Kyotsugo". Literary / Legal Japanese is called "bongo" and is used by historians, lawyers and literary scholars. The predominant method of speaking and writing Japanese today is called "kygo".

For learners of the Japanese language, you can take standard tests and receive certifications provided by the Japan Educational Exchanges and Services (Tel: 03-5454-5215). The most common test is the Japanese Language Proficiency Test.

English-language newspapers, books and magazines

The Japan Times (Japan Times Bldg., 4-5-4 Shibaura, Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0023; Tel: 03-3453-5311/9) is the most commonly read English-language newspaper in Japan. For news specific to Tokyo, the Yomiuri Shimbun (1-7-1 Ohte-machi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-0004; Tel: 03-3242-1111) has an English section. The Asahi Evening News (5-3-2 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0045; Tel: 03-3543-0131) is in English, and is a joint news website by the International Herald Tribune and Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

The Tokyo Notice Board is a weekly classifieds published in English that features advertisements and listings for events, Japanese festivals and the like. It is distributed free around Central Tokyo. Metropolis is a weekly English magazine on the latest happenings and events in Japan. There is a useful classifieds and visitors guide section for expatriates looking for an interesting weekend break. Metropolitana is a compact English magazine that targets female readers. It is distributed free at monthly intervals, available at rail and subway lines.

For English books, there is a good range of bookstores to choose from. Books Kinokuniya (Main Store 3-17-7 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 163-8636 (03)3354-0131) is one of the more popular bookstores for a variety of English books. The address of all 21 Kinokuniya stores in Tokyo can be found at their website. There is a thorough and updated listing of bookstores in Tokyo maintained by Evelyn C Leeper available at her personal website.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Library consists of three libraries; the Central Library (5-7-13 Minami-Azabu Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-8575), the Hibiya Library (1-4 Hibiya Koen, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-0012)and the Tama Library (6-3-1 Nishiki-cho, Tachikawa-shi, Tokyo 190-0022). At the time of writing, the Central Library is closed for renovations and is scheduled to open in December 2008. The Hibiya Library has a good selection of English books and newspapers. Newspapers cannot be taken out of the library. To loan books, expatriates living in Tokyo will need to bring their certificate of alien registration and another form of personal identification for proof of residence address.


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