University of Wisconsin–Madison

Bless You

You know that communication will be difficult when going to a different country, but it is a whole new dimension of difficulty that I found myself in after moving to Japan. You think everyone will be able to understand your English? Wrong. You think enough research beforehand will prepare you not to make any cultural mistakes? Think again. Simply speaking, after arriving I probably made as many errors as most other westerners in Asia who just showed up with little to no research ahead of time, despite believing I was fully prepared for my new life. Sadly, the internet cannot teach you everything.

Communication is the cornerstone to making it in any society, and I quickly had to learn what was acceptable and what was unspoken yet forbidden. Before coming to Japan, I did learn some generalizations about Japanese culture such as to bow over shake hands and it is a more nonverbal culture than America. However, even though Google may tell you to bow lower to those of higher superiority, it is only by repeated practice, and much error, that you gain the skills for measuring how low to bow or when it is alright to ask questions or laugh with friends. One of the most obscure lessons of communication I have noticed is the fact no one says “bless you” or “excuse me” after sneezing. I suppose this does make sense because saying “bless you” after someone sneezes comes from the old Christian belief that sneezing allows the devil to enter unless you are blessed first. However, without noticing, I say it to people after they sneeze and they return a baffled look. It is also rude not to say certain phrases at specific times throughout the day, such as “Ohio Goziamas” for goodmorning or “Otsukaresama-desu” for goodbye from work, literally translating to as “thank you for your hard work”. This may seem minor, but it is how you can make or break relationships in Japan, just by one slight miscommunication.

While on the topic of communication, I have also made countless miscommunication blunders. I have mispronounced dozens of names or Japanese words. One of the worst mispronunciations I have committed in Japan is thinking Japanese for good evening was “bonbanwa” instead of “konwanwa”, and walking around saying this for multiple weeks to coworkers and other dormitory women while they stared back in utter confusement. Or perhaps even worse was my first time meeting the members of my laboratory and I said the casual version of good morning only meant for close friends, “Ohio”, instead of the correct form of “Ohio Goziamas”. Fortunately, my team just laughed it off, but I was frightfully embarrassed and even thinking about it again makes me go bright red.

A lot of other miscommunication has occurred, especially when it comes to understanding some of the English spoken by Japanese people. I forget how many pronouns the English language employs or words we assume in normal conversation, but it becomes extremely apparent when talking to someone whose second language is English. For example, someone may ask me one question but use English pronouns and so I misunderstand the question and answer a different question. To minimize miscommunication, after someone asks me a question that could have any other meaning, I first repeat it back so I’m not answering the wrong question, and it helps so much especially in my lab when we are talking about technical terms!

All in all, communication has been the biggest struggle while being in Japan, but once I started learning the normalities it is slowly becoming easier.