It’s not really necessary for expats living in Japan to learn Japanese. This is especially true in cities like Tokyo or Osaka. But many who make the country their home prefer learning at least some basic Japanese so they can communicate better with their Japanese friends and integrate into the lifestyle and culture.
Some knowledge of the Katakana script of the Japanese language usually comes in handy when reading menu and shopping signs.
A few basics
If you would like to learn Japanese, begin with the basic words and phrases. For instance, Eigo o hanasemasu ka, translates to Do you speak English? Or if someone asks you Nihongo o hanashimasu ka?, they are asking you if you speak Japanese.You can reply with either a hai (yes) or iie (no).
Some helpful useful phrases, especially for someone who has just begun learning the language are, Mou ichido itte kudasai – please say it again or motto yukkuri itte kudasai – please say it slowly. A few more useful phrases as you live and move around in Japan include Kore wa ikura desuka (how much is this?), Tetsudatte kuremasuka (can you help me) and Hajimemashite (nice to meet you).
It is important to be polite when communicating with locals in Japan, just like anywhere else in the world. Around elderly people or authority figures, a politer or formal way of saying thank you is arigatou gozaimasu. To politely decline, you say iie, kekko desu, which means ‘no, thanks’. And if someone else thanks you, you respond with Dou itashimashite (‘you are welcome’ or ‘don’t mention it’.)
Japanese people usually begin conversations in a general introductory manner. But many times, this can continue for so long that the main subject is not touched upon until the very end! A good way to ease into conversation with a local is to begin by talking about the weather, food or Japanese customs. There’s considerable regional diversity in Japan and this makes for interesting conversation. The locals are also likely to enjoy talking about family. In general, topics that are light, maybe even slightly humorous, non-personal and non-political are the best way to start.
Much of what people think and feel is expressed through non-verbal communication. Also, if there is ambiguity regarding verbal communication due to lingual or other differences, there is a tendency to read non-verbal signals to get a better understanding of the other person. One of the significant ways in which people communicate non-verbally in Japan is through bowing. When someone bows during an introduction, it indicates status. In business too, people bow to their superiors.
It is important to nod while someone is speaking, especially if the conversation is in English, as it lets the person known you can understand him or her. It is not necessary to fill up spaces in the conversation with chatter since silence is very much part of non-verbal communication. It’s a good idea to keep a keep adequate distance from a person and avoid standing too close or touching them. Eye contact is important, but holding it for a prolonged period of time may be considered rude. Japanese people do not display affection in public and it may make them uncomfortable if you hug them or squeeze their shoulder affectionately in public. They also extend their entire right arm out, drop the wrist and wave their fingers when beckoning someone; doing so with just the forefinger may be met with disapproval. Elderly people should never be beckoned.
It is appreciated when expats have some knowledge of Japanese culture in business meetings. Be punctual for such meetings and don’t be surprised if the exchange of business cards occurs even before people shake hands. In Japan, business and personal relationships follow a hierarchy and the older people and superiors have a higher status. Teamwork is a significant aspect of business culture and decision-making is done as a group, even it slows down the process. ‘Saving face’ is a key part of Japanese culture, therefore avoid causing someone to ‘lose face’ by criticizing or embarrassing them in public. Japanese people prefer to avoid confrontation and always refrain from directly saying ‘no’ to anyone. The preferable way is to say ‘this could be difficult’ instead.