You can learn all the words and practice all the kanji, but there’s one little Japanese language quirk that will almost certainly trip you up when you first encounter it.
An enormous number of westerners who come to Japan on a work visa do so to teach English. Often, speaking Japanese is not a prerequisite for being a native English teacher or teaching assistant in Japan (in fact, many language schools would rather you didn’t, so that you’re not tempted to use Japanese in the classroom), but this very often means that how well you and your coworkers communicate will depend entirely on their English-speaking ability, at least to begin with.
In most cases, with the help of a few gestures and repetition, everything goes relatively smoothly. But even when your Japanese coworker speaks close to perfect English, there’s one major difference between English and Japanese (and Korean, and a number of other languages, for that matter) that causes sometimes comical levels of confusion between the two parties involved: answering a negative statement.
Anyone who has worked in Japan as an English teacher will undoubtedly have had at least one conversation that went like this:
Regardless of whether it’s a lack of classes, hair on your head or money in your wallet, when a Japanese person responds to a native English-speaker’s negative question, or vice-versa, there’s almost always a moment or of confusion before they’re both on the same page.
You see, in Japanese, the following exchange would make perfect sense.
Ara! Gyuunyuu nai! Kai ni ikanakya.
Ah, there’s no milk! I’d better go and buy some.
Gyuunyuu nai tte?
We don’t have any milk?
Of course, in English, the last utterance here would usually be “No (there isn’t any milk),” but in Japanese, the speaker, rather than affirming the presence or absence of said delicious cow-juice, either confirms or denies the statement that the other person just made. Rather than meaning “Yes (there’s no milk)”, this final “うん/un” actually means “Yes, what you’ve just said is true.”
Still confused? A few more examples:
Question: You aren’t going to the party?
Japanese response: Yes (that’s right; I’m not going).
English response: No (I’m not going).
Question: Oh, so you don’t like dogs?
Japanese response: Yes (that’s right; I don’t like dogs).
English response: No (I don’t like dogs).
Question: There aren’t any trains after 1am?
Japanese response: Yes, there aren’t any.
English response: No, there aren’t any.
I suppose the key thing for English speakers to remember is that Japanese yes/no responses to negative questions are intended to tell the questioner that whatever they’ve just said either is or isn’t the case. When you think about it, in a funny way it’s English, rather than Japanese, that’s the quirky one…