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Turning Japanese

Word is that virtually all Japanese study English for several years when they are in elementary and middle school, and that is true. It is also true that hundreds of thousands of Japanese study English in private language academies after they finish their formal education.
But that does not mean that the average Japanese speaks and understands English, even with a modest degree of fluency. Much like the United States, public school instruction in foreign languages in Japan has traditionally emphasized grammar and reading, rather than speaking.
Dramatic improvements have been made in teaching English and other foreign languages in Japan in recent years, but this still doesn’t mean that English speaking foreign residents and visitors no longer have to be concerned about being able to communicate with Japanese.
Of course, most Japanese who work in front-line positions in the travel industry, where their job requires them to interact with foreigners, generally speak enough English to communicate on a basic level. That is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Once visitors get off the tourist track it can be very much like suddenly becoming tongue-tied, if not deaf and dumb.
Fortunately, it is not difficult to learn enough Japanese in a very short period of time to significantly improve the quality of a Japan experience, not to mention the personal pleasure it provides once you are beyond basic needs.
Unlike English words, which are spelled with individual letters that represent hundreds of sounds, Japanese words are made up of precise syllables that are based on only six sounds. These six sounds are represented in Roman letters as a, i, u, e, o and n, which are pronounced as ah, ee, uu, eh, oh and unn (more or less like the n in bond).
The Japanese language is made up of several sets of syllables. The first set is the above ah, ee, uu, eh, oh.. The second set is ka, ki, ku, ke, ko (pronounced kah, kee, kuu, kay, koh). The third set is sa, shi, su, se, so (pronounced sah, she, sue, say, soh).
Then there is ta, chi, tsu, te, to (pronounced tah, chee, t’sue, tay, toe); next comes na, ni, nu, ne, no (nah, nee, nuu, nay, no); ha, hi, fu, he, ho (hah, hee, fuu, hey, hoh); ma, mi, mu, me, mo (mah, mee, muu, may, moh); ya, i, yu, e, yo (yah, ee, yuu, eh, yoh); ra. ri, ru, re, ro (rah, ree, rue, ray, roh); wa, i, u, e, wo (wah, ee, uu, eh, woh); and finally n (unn) all by itself.  
All the other syllables that make up the Japanese language are euphonic variations of some of the above (pah, pee, puu, pay  poh),  and combinations of two syllables (pya, pyu, pyo), etc.
These syllables never change, and with some exceptions, their pronunciation is constant. The exceptions are when vowels are pronounced “long,”and when there is a consonant at the end and beginning of two syllables that are joined (nikko / neek-koh).  This means you don’t have weird spellings or unfathomable pronunciations to deal with.
As may have been noticed, the pronunciation of Japanese is virtually the same as that of Hawaiian, and practically the same as Spanish. If you can say ah, ee, uu, eh, oh and unn you can learn to pronounce Japanese in just a few minutes.
The famous Japanese farewell, sayonara, is therefore pronounced sah-yoh-nah-rah. And that weird word karaoke (which literally means empty orchestra) is pronounced kah-rah-oh-kay, not kerry-oh-kee!
Knowing just a few Japanese expressions can make a visit to Japan a lot more pleasant. Here are some examples (if you want to learn more, Japanese phrase books are available in leading bookstores and from online book dealers):

Good morning
Ohayo gozaimasu (Oh-hah-yoh go-zigh-mahss) / until about 10:30 or 11 a.m.

Good day or good afternoon
Konnichi wa (Kone-nee-chee wah) / from about 11 a.m. to around dusk

Good evening
Komban wa (Kome-bahn wah) / from nightfall on

Thank you very much
Domo arigato gozaimasu (Doh-moe ah-ree-gah-toe go-zigh-mahss)

Don’t mention it
Doitashimashite (Doe-ee-tah-she-mahssh-tay)

How are you?
O’genki desu ka? (Oh-gane-kee dess kah?)

I’m fine
Genki desu (Gane-kee dess)

How much is it?
Ikura desu ka? (Ee-kuu-rah dess kah?)

What time is it?
Nanji desu ka? (Nahn-jee dess kah?)

Let’s eat!

Tabemasho! (Tah-bay-mah-shoh!)

Let’s go!
Ikimashio! (Ee-kee-mah-shoh!)

John Erskine Banta is General Manager and Director of Radisson Miyako Hotel Tokyo

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