Before I moved to Japan, I had a lot of preconceptions about what life would be like here, based on watching Japanese animation and dramas. But when I arrived here back in 1991, I was actually surprised at some of the things I didn’t find, starting with the near total lack of anything bearing the name teriyaki — the flavoring is used but is never referred to with that name, except the McDonald’s Teriyaki McBurger. I’d read a few James Clavell novels, and subliminally expected the Asian idea of “face” to be at least a small part of Japanese life — yet the concept is so rarely mentioned here, it took me several years to learn how to express it in Japanese. I thought of Japan as being an ultra-modern country, yet when I got here, my life resembled the year I spent in New Zealand back in the 1970s — things that most Americans take for granted like dishwashers and electric dryers were extremely rare in Japan. There were plenty of things I didn’t expect to see, too, like Jehovah’s Witnesses (yes, they have them here), grown-up women who act kawaii (cute) like silly anime characters, whole city grids without a single named street, Japanese translations of Harlequin Romance novels, and more vending machines within walking distance of my house than on the entire SDSU campus.
One unique aspect of the Japanese language is the high number of foreign-loan words used in daily life. The Japanese even have a writing system that’s used exclusively for writing foreign words, katakana. Like its sister hiragana, katakana lets you express sounds as syllables, like ka-ki-ku-ke-ko, but never the consonant “k” by itself. Modern written Japanese is a constantly churning mix of kanji (for core meaning), hiragana (for grammatical particles) and katakana (for expressing words from other languages). Certain categories of words tend to be borrowed from English — anything having to do with cars or technology, and many occupation titles (engineer, illustrator, programmer). Often foreign words are imported with slightly altered meanings — for example, the Japanese use a Japanese word for a street address (juusho), but use the English word adoresu for referring to an email address. The problem is that more and more words are written in katakana these days, which creates a “comprehension gap” between young and old Japanese, with people over 40 understanding less and less. The problem is so bad that there are actually “katakana dictionaries” you can buy in stores, which help explain what these strange foreign words mean. (The Wordtank electronic dictionaries that J-List sells also include katakana dictionaries.) Just as some English speakers throw a dash of French into their writing to show off their intelligence, Japanese businessmen and news commentators love to pepper their speech with English words like “consensus” and “manifesto” and “initiative” which can cause plenty of confusion.