In Japan, be careful what you wish for

Because you might not get what you had in mind

Jonelle Patrick making an "oh no!" face after hearing about a Japanese school test change

These characters read “ganbaru,” which is usually translated as “good luck.” What they literally mean? “Try hard.” Which explains Japanese culture better than almost anything I know.

You think you’re saying one thing, but what someone hears in Japanese can be quite different.

Japanese kanji flash cards and grammar textbook

For example, when I was in Japanese school, we had kanji tests every Friday. Reading and writing, thirty-five characters a week. Several weeks into the term, we were dismayed to hear the teacher announce that the midterm grammar test would also be given on the following Friday. A whole morning of testing! A crazy amount of cramming! We pleaded with her not to make us take both on the same day.

She conferred with the head of school, and came back the next morning to tell us our request had been granted.

We’d have the midterm grammar test on Friday, as scheduled, and the kanji test on…Thursday.


But it’s not the words that were mis-translated. It’s the culture. How the Japanese see their relationship to each other, their society and the rest of the world can be profoundly different from the West.

Here are a few other things that are nearly impossible to say in Japanese:

“I hope you get well soon.” What they say instead: “O-daiji ni,” which literally means “Take care of your honorable self.”

“I’m sorry that happened to you.” What they say instead: “Taihen, desu ne?” which means “It’s hard, isn’t it?”

And if you want to encourage someone to be patient? You look it up in your handy electronic dictionary and confidently use the only Japanese word offered: “gaman.” It’s only later you discover that you just did the opposite of what you intended, because what gaman really means is to grit your teeth and bear something painful, without complaining.


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Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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