A Japanese Person Told me this so it Must be Right?
When you are learning Japanese, the number one source you should be able to trust is a native Japanese speaker. Not a textbook. Not a fluent foreigner. But a native. It’s their language, after all. They’ve used it their whole life. If they don’t know what’s right and wrong, who does?
This thought causes a lot of problems for Japanese learners. Natives become the go to, #1 trustworthy source. While this is often true, it can bring sometimes misinformation and confusion. Because natives:
- Are human.
- Make mistakes.
- Are allowed to be wrong
- Don’t always know best
So when you hear one of the following three statements from a native, you need to take heed.
“Japanese people don’t know or use this kanji”
The more educated the person, the more likely they are to say this. It’s true there are kanji so rare that you’d only see them on the highest level of the national Japan kanji exam, or in some explanation introducing rare kanji. But then there are the “uncommon” kanji that “become common” depending on what your reading life looks like. Your genres of choice will ultimately dictate the depth of your kanji knowledge.
You might think that a heavy news reader would be towards the top of having a deep pool of kanji. But the news, while difficult, pulls from most of the common kanji out there. However, when you delve into science fiction, fantasy, medicine, history or something else very specialized, that kanji you never see is everywhere.
Wikipedia is a major example of this. People that write on Wikipedia love to use complex kanji – because why not? Wikipedia is one of the largest websites in the world. If you want to make full use of it you have to know complex kanji.
Just because one person doesn’t use it or has never seen it doesn’t change its significance.
“Japanese people don’t say that”
I’ve heard it all:
No real person would ever say that.– Your Japanese friend with good intentions
That’s only in books.
That’s too old.
That’s too new.
A person’s language develops around the social groups they grew up with and continue to use (plus the entertainment they watch). This creates a normal that is different from someone else’s normal.
Even if it isn’t “Japanese used in real life” and you’d only hear it in a movie or anime, then what? If you don’t learn it, you won’t understand those types of mediums. And even though it may start as fiction, life imitates art. People see and copy what they see from TV all the time.
Sometimes it can be hard to imagine that just because you don’t say it, doesn’t mean others don’t. A Japanese person once told me that no one actually uses おら – ora (the heavy dialect of 俺 – ore), and the way Goku from Dragonball says “I.” おら was originally a country dialect and is still in real use. But more importantly, the impact of Dragonball had a generation of kids using it (whether earnestly or in joke).
I was also guilty of doing the exact same thing in reverse when I was teaching English in Japan. For example, people used to ask me about the phrase “oh my god” that they always heard on American TV. I mistakenly told everyone no one actually uses that, so they shouldn’t say it.
I never used the phrase.
My family didn’t use the phrase.
My circle of friends never used the phrase.
I only saw the phrase on TV and thought that was just an exaggeration. But when I came back from Japan and had a much wider range of interactions with different groups of people, I was shocked to find out that people actually do use the phrase. Or maybe I had heard it all along but in my mind it wasn’t real. People create language realities without realizing it. You may be reading this example and wonder how I could not think this was not used. But I guarantee the same type of example happens to you without you noticing it.
“This is how Japanese people say it”
When you introduce yourself in Japanese, you say 私の名前は (Last name + First name)です.– Every helpful Japanese person
In the beginning I used to think this was the right way, until I later found out that almost all Japanese people only actually say (Last name – First name)です。It’s like when a Japanese person finds out that every English conversation doesn’t involve:
How are you?– Mandatory Greeting made by all native English speakers.
I’m fine thank you. And you?
Why does this native confusion happen?
Japanese natives are usually super kind to Japanese learners and want to help out. They are an invaluable source of information, will become your friends and family, and know more about Japanese than you ever will. This post is not meant to undermine the tremendous help they will provide or act as a cocky “Oh I know better than Japanese people!”
But they are human.
Humans make mistakes. Humans have varying levels of education. Humans grew up in different environments with different experiences. Humans are wrong a lot.
I’m pretty good with English. I was an English Major, taught English in Japan, went on to higher education and love to read and write. But I still make plenty of mistakes in spelling, grammar, word choice and more. There are words and spellings that I have been mistaking since I was a child.
What to do about it?
Take the advice of native Japanese whenever you can. You won’t regret it. But don’t always blindly follow “we don’t do this” when you are being corrected or given advice, if you think there is a chance that you might be right from all your other experience. It’s always good to double check when this situation comes up. Just make sure you don’t go back to that person and brag how they were wrong and you were right. Otherwise you’ll lose friends very quickly!
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.
I use Lang-8 a lot to have my writing corrected and there is a wide range of opinions on what constitutes correct Japanese. I like to wait for about 3 corrections and then choose the consensus. Since Lang-8 is all, more or less, anonymous you don’t know if your writing is being corrected by a 12 year old or a university professor of classic Japanese.
I saw someone telling a Japanese person that “hot” doesn’t mean “spicey” (they were Philippino) and someone asked what does “swing round about” mean and all sorts of Americans having guesses but since they were neither from the UK or the antipodes, not one realised she meant “swings and round-a-bouts”, so the regional differences are pretty big in English and I think they must be even broader in Japanese.
Some people on Lang-8 re-write instead of correct; i.e. they make it sound like they would say it, rather than correcting the grammar, so now I like to put a line of text copied from a textbook or other reliable source, and if someone corrects that line then I know they are on qn ego trip.
So…age, region, ego….all come into the equation.
I like this strategy. Sounds like a good way to double (or even triple check) things that you want answers on.
Ego wasn’t even something I had thought of, but that’s also a good point :)
My Japanese companion is a writer, very literate, perhaps much more than the average Japanese person, and frequently corrects my Japanese. They’re always telling me “we don’t say that” “we don’t use that” which I ignore and invariably find that sometimes they’re wrong and sometimes they’re right.
To separate the right from wrong correction, a good double check on the internet never hurts :)