Notes on Now How to Japan

This “English version” of Shin Nippon Shakai Nyūmon isn’t as “English” as it might be. Japanese words, concepts and, indeed, whole sentences of Japanese are thrown in. Apologies to anyone who found the book difficult to follow as a result. These notes are for you.


shōtengai A neighbourhood shopping street. Usually, there’s one by every train station in Japanese cities.
shitamachi Translates literally as “down town” but meaning the older traditional districts of Tokyo, centring on Asakusa.

Chapter 1

gyūnyū means milk. But the “miruku” which comes with coffee and tea in Japan is often an artificial-tasting type of cream.
hatachi means twenty (years of age). It is irregular because the usual word for 20 is ni-jū. Similarly, the 20th of the month is hatsuka, rather than ni-jū-nichi.
mizu, yu Mizu means water and yu means hot water, so the noun actually changes despite it clearly still being water. This is different from English where we just add an adjective. (Until you get to frozen water, which we call ice, or water falling from the sky which we call rain, or frozen water which we call snow, or half-melted water on the ground which we call slush etc.)
kome, gohan Uncooked rice is kome, boiled rice is gohan. (Fried rice is raisu.) Comparable to bread and toast.
yaki imo Baked sweet potato, sold from vans that circulate neighbourhoods when the weather is cold. (Rather like ice cream vans in summer.)
cake viking is a cake buffet, the word “baikingu” (viking) being widely used to mean an all-you-can-eat buffet.
shikata ga nai “It can’t be helped” or “there’s nothing that can be done”... Possibly the most overused expression in the Japanese language. The opposite shikata ga aru doesn’t exist, apparently.
chotto soko made “Just over there” is the standard, evasive, answer to “Where are you off to?” The English equivalent of, “Just popping out for a bit”.
Winnie the Pooh is Kuma no Pooh-san (“the bear Pooh”), Shaun the Sheep is Hitsuji no Shaun (“the sheep Shaun”) but Mickey Mouse is, basically, the same in Japanese (because “nezumi” would draw attention to the fact that he is a “rodent”).

Chapter 2

Waka-Taka boom A golden period for sumo, in the early 1990s, when the Japanese economy was still relatively good and the young brother wrestlers Wakanohana and Takanohana inspired interest in the sport.
toki Also called the Japanese Crested Ibis. A symbol of Japan, though the last “native” toki died in 2003. The bird has since been reintroduced to Japan from China. It remains an endangered species.
furusato “Hometown”, though it may mean the place where one’s family is from and where ancestral graves are, rather than where one was born.
Seto Ōhashi bridge Hashi means bridge, so it is a sort of redundancy to call it the Seto Ōhashi bridge (the “Seto Great Bridge bridge”) but we did so for clarity.
dōtaku Decorated bronze bells which were produced in large quantities for ritual purposes in the Yayoi Period in Japan.
Izu no Odoriko A popular fictional story by Yasunari Kawabata, also called “The Dancing Girl of Izu”.
Botchan The classic novel by Sōseki Natsume. The word is difficult to translate, implying “a boy from a privileged background” (though one early translation of the book was titled Boy). It can be used to refer politely to someone else’s son, as in “Otaku no botchan wa ogenki?” (“How is your botchan doing?”)
Akō Rōshi The (true) story of the 47 rōnin.
bunsuirei Watershed. I always assumed that Mr Doi meant that his getting into Waseda represented a watershed moment.
fureai Approximately means “making an emotional connection” though this makes the term sound clumsy. Used quite widely in Japanese. Going for a walk in the countryside? A fureai with nature. Going to the theatre? A fureai with culture etc.

Chapter 3

honne-tatemae A key concept in Japanese culture, in which true feelings (honne) are dissembled by a public facade (tatemae). In doing this, of course, Japanese are not unique or even unusual. They are just a bit more aware of doing it.
ginjō-shu, daiginjō Sake is graded, with daiginjō being the highest grade produced from highly polished rice. This makes it more refined but, according to one theory, strips it of some of its flavour. Ginjō-shu is one grade below.
geiko Kyoto geisha insist they are called geiko. Arthur Golden’s novel Memoirs of a Geisha enraged Kyoto geisha (or geiko, I should say) by referring to them geisha instead of geiko. Also, he wrote about how they sell their virginity for money.
ee janaika ”It’s good isn’t it?”
Tongue twisters:
Tokyo tokkyo kyokakyoku Sadly, the “Tokyo Patent Office Permission Department” doesn’t actually exist.
basu gasu bakuhatsu “Bus gas explosion”
Incidentally, the cruellest English language tongue twister for Japanese is ”red lorry, yellow lorry”.
hitotsu no seki de futatsu no tori The correct version is isseki nichō (“to kill two birds with one stone” or “one stone, two birds” as the more economical Japanese version has it).
hatarakanai saru wa mono taberarenai hazu My badly mangled version of hatarakazaru mono kūbekarazu, meaning “he who doesn’t work shouldn’t eat”. (My version translates as “the monkey that doesn’t work shouldn’t eat stuff”.)
Edokko et al. means “child of Edo”, Edo being the old name for Tokyo (pre-Meiji Restoration), so Kobekko is child of Kobe. Naniwakko is child of Naniwa (an old name for Osaka; there is still a Naniwa Ward in Osaka).
Dosanko A native of Hokkaido, the word forming from the characters “do” (the last part of Hokkaido), “san” (born) and “ko” (child).
Incidentally, it is quite fun to quiz Japanese who are learning English on what people from various places in Britain are called. Start with London, before moving on to Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and Birmingham. Most people will be stunned into despair at the absence of any regular pattern.

Chapter 4

For the record, the “unruly daughter” is now a very well-behaved five-year-old. Proof that the behaviour of two and three-year-olds is not indicative of their eventual characters. (Or that the “witches threat” is very effective.)
gogatsu-byō The main symptom of “May Disease” is lethargy, but of a particularly worrying, soul-numbing kind. Apparently, the main trigger is that people have had time off over Golden Week and, rather than returning to work refreshed, feel depressed at the long slog ahead of them.
...wake ni ikanai A useful and easy-to-grasp construction to mean “can’t very well”. e.g. “I can’t very well go on a stag weekend while my girlfriend is recovering from surgery” or “We can’t very well ask to borrow money of him since we didn’t pay him back the last time” or (a Japanese version) “I can’t very well take a day off work just because I have influenza, can’t hold down breakfast and can barely stand up.”
inaka Often translated as “countryside” but not necessarily green rolling fields and frequently used in a negative way. “Bedtowns” such as Urawa and even provincial industrial cities can be called “inaka”. Might be better to think of it as meaning “not the big city”.

Chapter 5

Shinagawa 2-chōme For the avoidance of doubt, there is no Shinagawa 2-chōme and the “park” there is a composite of several rubbish little speck-of-dirt spaces that pass for parks all over Tokyo.
haisha-san, yaoya-san Japanese do indeed attach -san to dentists and greengrocers...
gyūdonya-san ... but not gyūdon shops.
o-mizu, o-kutsushita, go-shinbun In Japan, water is “honourable” but not socks and newspapers.
Massan A hugely popular NHK television drama (or “serialised TV novel” as it is called) from 2014-15, based on the story of Rita Cowan (“Ellie” in the programme) and her husband Masataka Taketsuru (“Massan”), who pioneered making whisky in Japan.

Chapter 6

watashi no kara kimashita wa Brazil desu Comprehensible but incorrect Japanese for “I come from Brazil”. “watashi wa Brazil kara kimashita” would be grammatical.
daijōbu / zenzen / ichiban Okay / not at all (or “absolutely” depending on context) / Number One. But you probably knew that...
niteiru / sukoshi niteiru / niteinai Alike / a bit alike / not alike.
dochira demo ii desu / doko demo ii desu / nan demo ii desu Either is okay / wherever is fine / whatever will be alright
komatteimasu “I’m in trouble” or “I need help”. (A slightly over-dramatic opening gambit.)
okanemochi no aji Aji is “flavour” but okanemochi is only “rich” in the pecuniary sense.
buatsui “Dense” rather than “thick”, hence not applicable to soup. I used this incorrectly several times over several years before realising, which inspired the title of my blog on this website (https://www.sankenbook.co.jp/blog)
furui means “old” but more like “long ago”. Hence you can have a “furui hanashi” (an old story) but a “furui hito” would not mean an elderly person but an old-fashioned or outmoded person.
oyaji gag Oyaji is a pejorative term for middle-aged man. An “oyaji gag” is therefore the type of joke your embarrassing uncle would make; or the Japanese term for a pun.
yōfuku “Western clothes”
Igirisu no kimono This is a contradiction in terms. Although the Japanese word “kimono” literally means “things to wear”, in usage it means “Japanese traditional clothing”. So “English kimono” makes no sense.
amaeru, amae Another key Japanese concept. Although Westerners tend to see Japan’s “strict hierarchy” as objectionable, it is also possible for underlings to take advantage of this by acting helpless and presuming on the protection and help of a superior. I have never worked out how to say this in English without invoking a description involving children trying to get out of trouble with their parents.
bujoku Insult
honto da to ii no ni naa If only that were true...
Clive James, who once said in a radio interview that this was his killer sentence, is famous for introducing the TV show Za Gaman to a British audience in the 1980s (he showed clips from Endurance, as he called it, on his weekly programme). To this day, many British people of a certain age think that Japanese humour consists of people being subjected to various forms of mild torture.
kō itten “A splash of red” to mean a lone woman in the company of several men. A party where the balance hasn’t quite worked...
kimodameshi Kimo means “guts” and tameshi (dameshi) means “test”. A game in which Japanese children might have to negotiate an “abandoned” house in the dark or other such scary situations.
o-na The standard Japanese word for vegetables is yasai. I still don’t know for sure if o-na is an old word, a rare word or a word that only scholars know.
uten Literally, rainy weather. But not used in normal conversation.
ryūchō ni hanaseru yō ni naritai I want to be able to speak fluently.
pera pera ni naritai / jōzu ni naritai More natural ways to say the above phrase.
hijiri Like o-na above, it’s in the dictionary but few Japanese seem to know the word. The normal word for saint is seijin.
suigara-ire Please don’t bother to learn this word. It’s “cigarette butt receptacle”. Learn “ashtray” (haizara) instead.
asadachi Morning glory (in the vernacular, not the flower)
ashi ga hayai / te ga hayai “Fast legs” means someone is a fast runner but “fast hands” means someone is a pick-up artist.
saki ni dōzo / dōzo, saki ni Both mean “after you”. (Equally clear, equally valid.)
todoite morau / todokete morau I meant to ask “do you get it delivered?” but used the transitive instead of the intransitive. She gently corrected me.

Chapter 7

he / ne-he Breaking wind / breaking wind while asleep
maemuki ni kentō shimasu “We will consider it in a positive manner” but in fact a polite way to say that “we” don’t intend to go ahead with this.
kūki yomenai “Can’t read the air” or can’t pick up the vibes.
chanpon Mixing drinks
happōshu A beer that doesn’t meet the strict definition of beer according to Japanese brewing law and is also taxed at a lower rate.
onzarokku On the rocks, as in “whisky with ice”.
kui-nige “A diner dash” in American English.
gari-ben A swot
de-modori A child who has left the family home but returned. Typically, a daughter who has divorced. Literally a “left and returned”.
poi-sute Chucked away.
gyaku-gire “Reverse anger”, used when the person in the wrong feigns indignation.
zuru-yasumi A “crafty day off”. A “sickie” in English.
“Could have boiled tea in my belly button”
A translation of the Japanese “heso de cha o wakasu”, meaning to laugh really hard.

Chapter 8

go-jōsha arigatō gozaimasu Thank you for riding the train.
It is used specifically for journeys. The Japanese for “thank you for coming to our shop” would be go-raiten arigatō gozaimasu. The closest to “thank you for your custom” would be go-riyō arigatō gozaimasu (literally, thanks for making use of us).
Hankyū Rokkō degozaimasu This is Hankyu Rokko station. (In Kobe, the nearest station to where I lived and studied.)
higaeri “Day trip” or in this case “non-staying customers”.
ryokan Japanese-style inn
sentō Public bath facility
Dōzo, shower gurai nara “Go ahead, as long as it’s just a shower.” (After all that effort...)
tanuki A raccoon dog. Not to be confused with a raccoon. Or a dog. It’s neither. Ceramic tanuki are often placed outside shops as a kind of good luck charm. They smile, wear hats, carry bottles of booze, have pot bellies and (usually) massive testicles. The ceramic ones, that is.
amido A net frame attached to a window to prevent mosquitoes and other insects from coming in when the window is open. Not to be confused with amado (“rain doors”) which may also be in window frames and can be shut when the rain is very heavy or to prevent the blazing sun from waking you at 4.32 am in mid-summer.

Chapter 9

No Pan No Pan means “no pants”; an expression made famous in the late 1990s when Ministry of Finance officials were found to have used expenses to visit “No Pan shabu shabu” restaurants (where waitresses wore short skirts and no underwear). It is not recorded whether the shabu shabu was any good there.
yuru-kyara “Loose characters” to mean weak, half-baked or weird mascots. (This phenomenon does not seem to be exclusive to Japan. There is a South Park episode in which failed campaign mascots live in retirement at a “misfit mascot commune”.)

Chapter 11

Banpaku stadium Banpaku (or bampaku) means Expo. The stadium was built following the (hugely popular) 1970 Expo in Osaka as part of the Expo Memorial Park. Gamba Osaka no longer play at Banpaku, starting with the 2015-16 season. But the stadium still hosts athletics and football (Gamba U-23) and is still terraced behind the goals.

Chapter 12


Saiyūki The Japanese title of the Chinese classic Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en. The television programme has the same title but was only loosely based on the story.
Gatchaman Broadcast as G-Force in England in the 1970s and 80s.

Chapter 13

ki / dōjō Ask a martial arts enthusiast (at your own risk)...
gomi Rubbish put out for collection. “Gomi hunters” will know that piles of magazines will be neatly bundled and put out ready for pilfering the evening before “recyclables collection day”.
Kochikame The abbreviated name of the manga series Kochira Katsushika-ku Kameari Kōen Mae Hashutsujo (“This is the Police Station in Front of Kameari Park in Katsushika Ward”); possibly the least snappy title ever invented for anything ever.
ittekimasu Literally “I will go and come back” or, more naturally, “see you later”. The ritual Japanese expression when you leave your house.

Chapter 14

kowaremono Broken stuff. Or “It’s wrapped up in newspaper because it’s jagged shards of glass, you idiot, not because there’s a present in there.”

Chapter 15

nigori-zake A cloudy, unfiltered sake.
ame otoko “A rain-bringing man”. If you look this word up in the dictionary, there will be a small picture of me beside the definition because of my unerring ability to land in Tokyo an hour before the arrival of the “biggest typhoon in 17 years” or the start of the “earliest rainy season since records began” etc.
betsu bara “Other stomach”, i.e. the one into which people who have just declared themselves full can always manage to fit ice cream.
ippiki, nihiki / ichiwa, niwa Small animals are usually counted with ippiki, nihiki and birds as ichiwa, niwa but rabbits are counted the same as birds.

Chapter 16

saodake A pole which fits into brackets on the balcony of Japanese apartments and from which you can then hang clothes or drape your bedding to air. Vans drive around Japanese neighbourhoods offering these for sale. This is a mystery, as the poles can easily last five years so how can people be buying them so often that it makes sense for someone to circle the streets offering them for sale?
20 nen mae to onaji... The vans all have the same recording, which says that the price is “the same as 20 years ago”. This must have been quite an amazing claim once, but since Japan has now been in deflation for 20 years it is today rather disappointing.
“cool biz” A government campaign which pressured companies to permit workers to wear light jackets and short sleeves to work and for offices to use less air-conditioning, thereby reducing energy use. A classic example of the government having to get involved in something that workers and employers ought to have been able to arrange themselves.
Amerika-jin da / gaijin ga iru / YOU ga iru It’s an American / There’s a foreigner / There’s a YOU
Very roughly speaking, white people in Japan were assumed to be American from the time of the Occupation until the late 1990s. A friend has a theory that Japan’s participation in the 1998 World Cup and co-hosting of the 2002 World Cup made Japanese more aware that not all foreigners were American. In the last couple of years, a popular TV programme has rechristened foreigners who visit Japan as “you”.

Chapter 17

nyūshashiki / setsumeikai a company induction ceremony / an explanatory meeting (for job applicants)
Black suits are universal now, though apparently this was not always the case. It has been said that the ubiquitousness is a symbol of the straightened circumstances of post-bubble Japan. i.e. Black suits can be used for weddings, funerals and parties as well as job-hunting activities, thus enabling thrift-conscious students to make do with only one suit.
sakura In addition to the regular meaning (cherry trees), sakura can mean “people who are paid to queue up in front of a shop to make the place seem popular and in-demand” (sometimes used by new establishments as a relatively cheap form of advertising.) The nearest English equivalent is “shill”, though that word has very negative connotations and is associated with fraud.
hanami Cherry blossom viewing. Though “rowdy picnics with lots of booze, held under blossoming trees” might be more accurate.

Chapter 18

kogomi / komatsuna My research indicates that kogomi is “fiddleheads” (of the ostrich fern, not to be confused with fiddleheads of the Japanese flowering fern) and komatsuna is “Japanese mustard spinach”. Probably just easier to call them kogomi and komatsuna.
omiyage a souvenir / present from a trip
kitsune / tanuki / yamazaru fox / raccoon dog / mountain monkey
zaru soba zaru is the bamboo draining board on which cold soba noodles are served. (Apparently a law full of loopholes is called a zaru-hō, after this item.)
Kawa no nagare no yō ni Like the flowing waters of a river (approximately). The popularity of this song is partly explained by the fact that it was Misora’s swan song. She died in 1989, the year of its release.
gorintō A tower or stele of five parts (“rings”) representing the five elements according to Buddhism (earth, water, fire, air and the ether).
Somei Yoshino the most common type of cherry tree, planted all over Japan. This is the type used when forecasters predict the blossom and explains why it is possible to see beautiful cherry blossoms weeks before and weeks after the “official” hanami period; other types may blossom earlier and later.
p. 154
In the Japanese version of the book, I erroneously wrote that Somei Yoshino cherry trees are in Windsor royal park (as well as Washington DC). I misremembered a news report I had once seen. The cherry trees in Windsor Great Park are from Japan but are, in fact, types of yae-zakura (notable for their dense petals). I am embarrassed by the error, which we have removed from the English version, but was pleased to hear that the domination of the Somei Yoshino is not as extensive as I thought.
michi no eki A “roadside station”, which is much more than a service area. It will have rest areas but also tourist information and an excellent range of local produce.
dogū Humanoid figurines from the Jōmon Period, of unclear purpose but presumably made for some magical purpose. They range from cute to scarily alien and can be fairly simple or very intricate but show remarkable craftsmanship.
musha-gaeshi Literally, warrior-repeller, to mean castle walls.


Probably no one is interested but the hospital where I was born was in a suburb of Romford but under the administration of the Barking and Dagenham Health District. When I got my first passport I had to submit my birth certificate, from which my “place of birth” was taken to be Dagenham. I tried to get this corrected a few years ago when my old passport expired but was told I would have to resubmit all the paperwork and wait several weeks. But of course, I needed the passport soon because of a planned trip overseas. Or I could just stick with Dagenham and they would send me a “reissued” passport in a matter of days... Bloody red tape eh?
Notes on Now How to Japan | Colin Joyce