The Japanese language’s lack of a definite article was definitely the cause of this cross-cultural convenience store misunderstanding.
As we’ve mentioned before, Japanese isn’t quite as difficult as some people who gave up after half a semester of language class would have you believe. That said, it does have its tricky points, just like any language does, and one of the trickiest is that Japanese doesn’t have a definite or indefinite article.
In simpler terms, this means that Japanese doesn’t have equivalents for the English words “a,” “an,” or “the.” So, for example, the sentences “I drank a beer” and “I drank the beer” are both said exactly the same way in Japanese: Watashi ha biru wo nonda.
▼ Is this just any old beer, or the beer? If you’re speaking Japanese, sometimes it’s hard to tell.
But as crazy as it may seem, usually the lack of distinction between “a” and “the” isn’t such a big barrier to communication in Japanese. For example, if you’ve just started a conversation with a friend about what he did last weekend, and he says “Eiga wo mita,” you can be pretty sure he means “I saw a movie,” and not “the movie,” since there isn’t enough context yet for him to assume you’d know which movie he’s talking about. Likewise, when he follows up with “Eiga ha omoshirokatta,” it’s safe to assume he’s still talking about the same movie and means “The movie was interesting,” since it wouldn’t make any sense to suddenly start talking about some “a movie”/some other movie without giving any kind of verbal cue that he’s switching conversational gears.
However, the lack of “a” and “the” in Japanese can really cause problems in the uncommon yet not unthinkable case where either one is a logical interpretation. Japanese Twitter user @omisi034 recently ran into such a situation when he popped into a convenience store to buy a single-serving paper carton of café au lait (yep such things are regularly available in Japan’s awesome convenience stores).
おみし (@omisi034) January 30, 2017
When the clerk, who was a foreigner, was ringing him up and politely asked “Sutoro irimasuka?”, he took it to mean “Do you need a straw?” The question struck @omisi034 as odd, since there was already a collapsible plastic straw attached to the carton, but he figured the clerk wasn’t aware of it, which is a definite possibility considering how many different items convenience stores stock.
So in response, @omisi034 told the clerk “No, I don’t.” The clerk reacted by immediately plucking the straw from the carton and throwing it in the trash, since what he’d really been asking is “Do you need the straw?”, referring to the one attached to the container.
“I was like, ‘Jesus,’” tweeted @omisi034, literally invoking the name of Christ and ironically employing profanity in a way that’d be somewhat unnatural for a native speaker.
おみし (@omisi034) January 30, 2017
“I let the clerk know ‘You’re not supposed to remove that straw,’” @omisi034 continues, “and he made a face like ‘What!?’ I think he’s probably done this to a lot of people in the past..”
While linguistically you could call it an honest misunderstanding, culturally, at least as far as basic customer service and retail transactions in Japan go, we’ve got to side with @omisi034 here. While convenience store clerks will generally ask before they toss any extras into the bag with your purchases, such as disposable chopsticks, plastic forks, or drinking straws, whatever is already attached to the packaging is more or less universally understood to be the customer’s responsibility to take care of. So if there’s already a straw stuck to the carton, it’s up to the customer to toss it in the trash if he or she doesn’t need it , especially since the straws are attached at the manufacturing plant and thus aren’t going to be reused by the convenience store.
Still, @omisi034 seemed to at least have some appreciation for the difficulties of dealing with customers in a language other than your native tongue, and ended his tweeted recount of the story by indirectly telling the clerk “Well, hang in there,” and it’ a sentiment we second. Keep working on your Japanese, anonymous foreign convenience store clerk, and you’ll be using your linguistic smarts and savvy to foil armed robberies in no time.
Follow Casey on Twitter, and he promises that even if he drinks a beer, he’ll make sure to save THE beer for you.