What are your best “Japanese mistake” stories? I’ll start

In a couple weeks I am supposed to give a presentation (in Japanese) for my company’s family day. The topic is “common English mistakes by Japanese people.” I didn’t decide the theme, but I am hoping to use the opportunity to spread the message that speaking “wrong” English should be welcomed as long as you are at least communicating and using what you know.

And since I don’t think it’s fair to focus only on Japanese people’s English mistakes, to help make my point I am including the following anecdote about my own linguistic history:

About a month into my time as an exchange student in high school (my first-ever visit to Japan), I started staying with host parents who loved to feed me. Very, very nice and welcoming people. One time they served me hot cocoa, and I told them I liked it. Big mistake, because for the next two weeks they gave me the same hot cocoa with dinner every single night.

I was starting to get pretty sick of it, but I wanted to be polite and as such didn’t want to say no without doing so properly in Japanese. So I looked up how to say “I am getting tired of X” in the dictionary and went to my host mother and told her:

ココア、飽きたです (broken Japanese for, “I sick of cocoa”)

Her reaction? She looked shocked, started to cry, and asked why I would say such a thing. She then got her husband, and he demanded an explanation. I was starting to get nervous at this point, so I just repeated ココア、飽きたです thinking they’d get it this time. They didn’t and just seemed to get even angrier and more hurt…

Sweating now, I tried a few more times with different, untested sentence structures, mustering all my training from stateside Japanese classes. (ココアおいしいけど飽きたです?). With each utterance, they would look at me curiously and then start talking among themselves in words I couldn’t understand.

Finally, it dawned on me – ココア、飽きたです sounds a lot like ここは、飽きたです (I sick of this place). So I finally found the bag of cocoa and started pointing to it, saying  ココア ココア!!

Once they finally got it everything settled down. But for a moment I thought I might be in some serious trouble for making a cultural faux pas. I had heard how much Japanese value social protocol, so until I realized the mistake it seemed like saying no to cocoa was a really big deal. I still feel bad about making my host mother cry.


Have any of you had similar linguistic misadventures? Please let me know in the comments section. Note that if your story is really good I might have to steal it for my presentation!


40 thoughts on “What are your best “Japanese mistake” stories? I’ll start”

  1. I worked as a book-keeper for a while, and when people asked me what I did for a living, I would reply “boki.” I always assumed that the slightly blank stares that people would give me until I explained “you know, like accounting..?” were because boki must be a relatively obscure loanword, and I looked for ages to find a Japanese equivalent, without success.

    I’d been doing the job for 6 months or so before I realised that the half-syllable pause I had been inadvertently putting in the word “boki” was the source of the misunderstanding, “Boki” is a fairly standard Japanese term, but “bokki” is a slang term for an erection. “What do you do for a living?” “Hard-on!”

  2. My junior year of college I did a home stay in Kyoto. The very first day They gathered us in a large room. Theny family the sweetest elderly couple brought me home.

    They drove all the way up to Northern Kyoto and lived in this beautiful country house. Kyoto streets can get very narrow and the streets in their neighborhood were no exception. For them to get into their house they had to reverse backward down one street and turn unto another still backwards pass their house then drive into their driveway.

    I to this day am still amazed at this feat. But this first day my host dad screwed it up and hit their dog. The dog was practically a family member and was fairly old in age. The family ran into a panic. The daughter and grandchild who came to welcome me also witnessed it.

    I wanted to help but didnt know Japanese well At the time. So I ran inside grabbed my dictionary and looked up the word help. I then came out screaming 助けて‼ 助けて‼ repetedly my host mom looked flustered and instructed my host sister to take me to my room. What I meant to say was 手伝えますか?- can I help you, but what I was screaming was help me or more precisely save me.

    The dog died from its injuries and they had an elaborate wake and funeral for it. Lots of tears flowing. By then, I was so embarrassed that i never brought it up. It took several years till I brought it up. They all laughed saying I was always very funny. Despite the incident I had a very good stay with them and consider them my Japanese family.

  3. I grew up to Japanese parent in Canada. So while I spoke Japanese at home, English was my stronger language. When I was stuck trying to express myself in Japanese, I often just directly translated from what I wanted to say in English.

    When I was in high school my friend invited me to go to a pro-wrestling show. I was explaining to my mother what I was going to watch, and I wanted to explain how pro-wrestling was fake. Not knowing the best way to explain in Japanese, I figured saying “it’s all an act” would get the point across. In my mind I translated “pro-wrestling is all an act” to “プロレスは全部芸” which my mother naturally heard as “プロレスは全部ゲイ.” It took a minute for my mother to realize I was not talking about the sexuality of the wrestlers.

  4. I once wrote ヒツジ instead of ヒミツ as part of a test answer at school.

    Also at one point early in my studies, I went to get my hair cut at a crowded barber shop and wanted to ask how long the wait would be. I wasn’t sure exactly how to say this so I guessed a phrase into existence: “お待ちは?” To which the clerk blinked for a couple of seconds and responded, in English, “Uhhhh, can I help you?”

  5. For a time, I repeatedly confused the words “chikuwa” (a food with no real English translation) and “chikubi” (nipple). Thankfully this never happened in polite company or tense bedroom situations.

  6. Four yours after starting living in Japan, I’m working as a sales rep in Japanese. I would be quite proud having honed my speaking skills so far… if it wasn’t for the little mistakes, as in:
    As one customer was saying “忙しくてくたびれました”, I heard “忙しくてくたばりました”. (I didn’t know the verb くたびれる, but a bit too much Shonen Jump reading made me know quite well くたばる)
    I was quite surprised at this but fortunately didn’t rise it up until after during debriefing with my Japanese boss. He was quite relieved I didn’t ask this important customer about his choice of words !
    Bad part is, my boss and other people in the office started to wonder whether it was safe to let me alone with customers…

  7. For me it is mostly screwing up long and short vowels and being weirdly incomprehensible:

    世辞 VS 政治
    旅行 VS 良好
    女将 VS 狼
    組織 VS 葬式
    捕虜 VS 豊漁

    When I was first in Japan my kanji knowledge far outstripped my sensible everyday vocabulary and I would end up using things like 翁 when I really just meant お年寄り. Or history stuff like using 代官 when I was trying to say “local bureaucrat” (地方公務員). Luckily most of this is just bizarre rather than offensive.

  8. I have a couple.

    Once we (my girlfriend and I) were with some older friends of ours and were talking about our upcoming trip to Kansai. We were planning to go to Kyoto, Nara and Ise. When we mentioned Ise, our friends said “真珠” ‘shinju’ or pearls, but being more book smart than anything else, I assumed they meant 心中 ‘shinjuu’ or double-suicide. I replied, 心中しないよ! This happened about 8 years ago, and they still rib me about it.

    The other misunderstanding happened in the US. A Japanese friend was staying at my house for a night before we returned to our university. She was experiencing some serious jet lag, so I suggested that she take a nap. I wanted to tell her, in Japanese, that I would wake her up in an hour or so, but what I said was 一時間後に犯すから。。。 I’ll come and molest you in about an hour. We both had a big laugh, and she slept undisturbed.

  9. I spent 4 years in Japan with the Army and was learning Japanese by listening to Pimsleur’s CDs. I had been learning how to accept and reject times offered to do activities. As in “what time do you want to eat?”, “how about 5 pm?”, “sorry, but 5 is not good for me.” etc.

    After ordering a number one from the set menu at a McDonald’s the girl who took my order gave me my food. I said, “Sumimasen, ketchupu onegaishimasu” she handed me one small ketchup packet. I replied, “Sumimasen, ikko wa chotto.” She gave me more. My Japanese wife thinks this story is hilarious. I did not continue my Japanese studies, but my wife has explained to me that my attempt at “I’m sorry, but one is not good for me” probably came off more like, “Excuse me, but do you really think that one is enough?”

  10. When I was first in Japan on exchange I “taught” English to a group of kids, friends of my host family. One warm spring day the kids wanted nothing to do with me, preferring to run to the balcony and yell down to their friends playing outside. Getting annoyed when they wouldn’t listen to my repeated requests to come and sit down and play bingo, Ing annoydto use the oravmmarstructuresI had bearnitin Japanese,class=that ay. T Snce Iur otach r hap told hu the rewasn’t fuch Spportunity to sse me,ireikei I was sery gxchied to be pble po bpt my wnewknowledge fo the best ao mson. FI sai up usrainht&,bpt mackwmy seould es and well d at thi kids w#8220;おわれ! sO coluse bwat I meant to say was 。れbut dn my sxchiedent ei upsng a nuewkravmmarsorma (o my rcredi I did fs comrectly !)I migxd up the werb s 座る (o mit and &触る (o mtoch )

    Auckily mhi kids widn’t asturlly heardwhat I said ,only ohe bene isnwhich t said wt. TThe dsa down and p mianagd to get ehe liessongoing ta I cbyturn s giggld and ibluhed uith mmbarrassedent !/p>

  11. WLng thme deader-,first iime clmment-r haer. Theught I #8217;d bhare_one af my hmbarrasseng mostakes bn Japanese,ctoo I thught&English to the UJET Pog.avmm isnwAomriefor mne aear ond when p nuewkchool mringcipe po ok ovr at sm junior yigh school m was sken to mse mome skeigodn my sintroducion. I was stonervous ameetng the bringcipe poat i stead of introducng my elf ias: 「初めした。イドリ〃と申たす぀I fumbld my sords !nd siid む初めした。イドリ〃と思けす぀ stead !/p>

  12. ITis is jovr aen tears ild so I shink tIcan Iell ht. TTBckwmhen I was torking as a sJET ot dn mhe comutry ide. I asccmpanyed fome ol the wourger ltach r assthey wcmpaletd the wtsk tl triveng asrund th cohek tre waddess esol the wtudent in their nlass=s. A Mst of thieltach r aap tards and sh with mwo wr thereeto a gard,thieltach r apent 4re water non catnvsseng mhe dictripct I wan in theimackwmf oue curdwhale Ii Ipul d ao a gaoss.rads/;also woming tr the baoss.rads/was a rue cKaas imas-ensie. WKaas imas-ensie.#8217;s turdwade maturn uono our urads,end ng up ln trogn of tus antwhich toint I aaid, “S川島先生をアビあうぜぇ!#8221;

    p>The ourdw wan in tame to wascrewecing setop and sTezuks-ensie.,who tan iriveng , urned tsrund ,laugh,ng : “プーター、アビ(交尾)じゃいて尾〧すあう” /p>

    And she next tay the ytold themshinr gran es A d then sm lisf was eovr

  13. I was alta family -un tryokn ins Miyajmas nd, an a laud hvice , ead the mord “b満潮#8221; (nullyiimde)as “満湖#8221; #8230;

    Shey aere pery golite anout it.

  14. I wsked mi a tdsh tad heumn ins it:said 𔄨ing e’tintad of #82216;ingji’t(crrowt).br /> I wsked mi a tbn tad hfecs bn Jit:said 𔄨unko#8217;tintad of #82216;anko#8217;t(redbesn ipaste).br /> I wold tm then,-irlfriend aoat ihr ltacbodwl smll d af ipple)/ilyk:said 𔄨cich i#8217;tinstad of #82216;tsuh i#8217;t(arsth/soil).br /> IYt my hriend abet me cbyasccdent lly thll ng a nirl what she tas a r#82216;pretty virgi’t:said 𔄨shojjo#8217;tinstad of #82216;shojo#8217;tirl

  15. Ifter o faewmonths on Japan oahriend aame ofvr for a wviit dnd I wo were pet ng dainnr whth m family m was acloe,cto.We bid fs m isntroducion.sdnd I wid fy bost atointarpretinto eapanese wiat I sculd They alked mhimhow tmny oiblengs le han and ih is en on y caild I warcket fy borin ior the lord &一人子but d sculd on y creember ahi kinji knd siid “Sイチゴす。#8221; Tois buought iut anlau of tlughter arom the samily mnd consfusio to my rriend

    TAother sunny.story :I went tnto a ponsen enciestoryeand theyr tas a n Americn with tahearvysourhern Kccepn dn mhe ctoryearying tis beat atorder gs m iood wrom the sht coabinetto the Uomutrer He was qsarscing sn hig tryvelole’s Cictionary and lsudenty in mahearvysccepn de dsad “SCichkn, idozo”< Obvous.y healooked up the word h#8220;prleas” pnd intsaid “dozo#8221;. /p> <

  16. I@ho imkagi Hahah!My J2year ofd oaughter au eso#8220;dozo#8221;.ior t#8220;hoyr tou rre-#8221; pnd ,wrotngly,as “ive me #8221; pften jmixng Japanese bnd inglish tor texapale “SWaer duozo” /p>

    I’dmsure e have atn.sdf thies, but dIcan #8217;t ahink tf a tood fue cnow /p> <

  17. Ihen I was ftking sapanese bn high school mn the US.,m farst -ear olass=mte wf myin precseted narepert vo Kyoto a(n English,). Unortunately dhe taeught Ihat s#8220;Syoto #8221; whs praonmutcedlike u#8220;chooto.” eTieltach r looked ut ihr lith tahonfused tfacefor a couple of sinute sbefore wfinlly tetoppng tir and geoultng “THIS IS WHY YOU ALL NEED TO LEARN HIRAGANA!#8221; /p> <

  18. I wave a couple.< Lke uSmedaysS arah<,e have asccdent lly taid /p>


    Ihen I weant/p>


    IDepnd ng uonwiat Iour#8217;tr point ng at that Icn we quite pmbarrasseng

    The other mtory is hrom tmyvery furst day learning Japanese I had bust btarted toing tut aith my Jhen,-irlfriend ,cnow-ife and she sas ftach ng myefome ol the wsipalet wards : めtor tey aみみtor terd,tはior theeh mmtc.and plint ng ar the bel=evnt tody -art s I would bhen say thiemmackwmnd plint ar the bart of aheimady -o comnursmthat I wgo it urght=. Tying to sreember ahi kord hor theeh ,e hlint d to tee incide gf my hmurheknd siid tへ (frt )instead of チ My Jife htill rcrcke le relf ip lough,ng ahink ng about thet Iepisod.

  19. IWen sm lhusbnd #8217;s Cicsant cel=aiviesaere peiit ng arom tapan, Iw po ok ig treat saun iut aor tainnr . Becase me lhusbnd doe not gpeakiJapanese, tis chopsngdnd I wranslated &ackwmnd portuhwe twen tnglish tnd papanese frr yigssaun . fter ow baridior the lmal Eigssaun we gn ipote sing anndtrying to spr camh tnto ay haind. In mapanese f wanted to explain hhat my aother tn hlawwas tryet ng In tead ,e hold ter to rake ay aother tn hlawwut aor tainnr . seimadwd uith m bit tf a turprised al ok onter tface

  20. I once wold t nollegagueusing thi company osal br /> I「おもあけあすすね」/p>

  21. IEen dater aen tears ilflearning Japanese ,e htill ret eあanndtらmigxd up . Hve asso womfused the wslght=y mose_onbscre e#82171;but dnoliesshmbarrasseng m#82171;bそばめanndtそっめ

    The e-#8227;s Cuite pasunny.sb ok onthis stopicwhich ti torkh m bead tiftou ret ehe lhange w(han kullyy it#8227;s Cinboth hnglish tnd papanese !)

    a href="http://wb oks.googlecomjp/'b oks?d="NCTKZ4JbpF8C#038;rpg=PP10#038;rlpg=PP10#038;rdq=%E5%A4%96%E5%9B%BD%E4%BA%BA%E8%A8%80%E3%81%84%E9%96%93%E9%81%95%E3%81%84#038;rsur-ce=bl#038;rots=QVSa0LXq0t#038;rsig=Z2fD8UQbB95obSdLR6pnuNjV6ws#038;rhl=e͆rsa=X#838;rei=x-MYUNOqLYfsmAWqs4D4DA#038;r=edir_esc=y#v=onepage#038;rq=%E5%A4%96%E5%9B%BD%E4%BA%BA%E8%A8%80%E3%81%84%E9%96%93%E9%81%95%E3%81%84#038;rf=fssoe"rel='"ofollow'">ttp://wb oks.googlecomjp/'b oks?d="NCTKZ4JbpF8C#038;rpg=PP10#038;rlpg=PP10#038;rdq=%E5%A4%96%E5%9B%BD%E4%BA%BA%E8%A8%80%E3%81%84%E9%96%93%E9%81%95%E3%81%84#038;rsur-ce=bl#038;rots=QVSa0LXq0t#038;rsig=Z2fD8UQbB95obSdLR6pnuNjV6ws#038;rhl=e͆rsa=X#838;rei=x-MYUNOqLYfsmAWqs4D4DA#038;r=edir_esc=y#v=onepage#038;rq=%E5%A4%96%E5%9B%BD%E4%BA%BA%E8%A8%80%E3%81%84%E9%96%93%E9%81%95%E3%81%84#038;rf=fssoe/a>

  22. W once wigxd up to im-iyeand to imri Theyal ok onty aother -in-law#8227;s Cfacefhen I wold ter twoyr tIbpt my wjcket.whs praiceiess

  23. TOce wn Japanese,class=to were phaeng asCicscussio /debtet,dnd I wos trying to say t widsagred uith msoetaing seoetne smad &私は反対す,but dn tead o said w私は変態す。/p>

    I&widn’t afigre eut aiat I wad baid wrotng unti m wnoiclt fy briend anndtrach r lough,ng at me

  24. TIwos txplain ng to sy host fother tIwos toing tut ao a pmatchmking sart yuith mer tnephew,dhe taen saent 4re wext t5sinute sbxplain ng toe dicffre ce we twen thi kord hgokont#82216;matchmking #8217;tnndtgoukn i#82216;rap-#8227;s

  25. ISsm sears iagodn mn oadvatcedlapanese,class=to were pead-ng asCshrt vtory ibout tvmp;ir sb(eoetne sfamus awote t dnd Irater to ry hidsmy t wan #8217;t areember aho to sayvesm lisf ).We bere ptking surn s ead-ng asaud ,dnd Ine spoorwtudent me ssd up the wonyom knd skunyom kof 血、mnd conssquesn=y mwund tp tead-ng a#8220;ketsumwu suu#8221; einstad of #8220;chhimwu suu#8221; e(#8220;csukwmnss#8221; eoat i s,einstad of #8220;csukwmblood#8221; ).WOur kind,mwunderful,dnd Igenerlly tpatint 4rach r looked uike ue sas foing to doi gf mmbarrasseent-,pnd ,wtrustng thentwh all gkuewkhe lmal ng tf ヂツ, eainuoydts aow tVERY IMPORTANT t ds stoskenptoe dicffre cttead-ng ilflinji ksrainht&

    TA Cfaras &m lwn aostakes bo, Ingave a cdead-fuliime ckenpng t恐竜dnd I給料ksrainht& (kour-yuu/kyuurour, easy enughtto raanslpoe the ovowels).W #8217;d brater tave a c給料ko be pure but dIckindilfleke uee indeatf a t恐竜日

  26. IGeat sne

    TEdogawa Ranpotavsanlaung-sh tnovelwanl d a#8220;Syouketsuki#8221; e#82171;bmnht& ave aben p nseegtivonwrom thea.

  27. IOce wIwold t nriend a sculd oot ggouith mer tor tainnr sice wIwave atnggouo tee i差別会mf oue cf my heat ariend swho tan ileaeng aapane. Se taeught I was al KKK ember aormsoetaing sunti mse belalizedI meant t送別会

  28. IJut atoda m was apeaking sith m birl winoue cf my hlass=esdnd Ilked , 今朝おらっな? fter osoetconsfusio tweeven tully tundertorod ach other ,ond when pse blef 4re wpeole o was toth mbrae uee inewsthat I #8217;d bsccdent lly taid 毛剃らっな?/p> <

  29. II the Uurst dsvenrl nonths olflekvng ahr e,the Uatentdnt ta 4re wガソリンスタンドnotd the wstchknrmn the Uard doorwnd siid the Uard an iruefor a noui mhangg I hanted to eay t#8220;S #8217;dll domi.wext tweek#8221; but daid “ hall rpraciclt” eTiell ok ontei Cface#8230;<

  30. TNo me but d nol-worke‒

    SSoo dater ae Uurst dame oo eapane i korded ut iatpmll geikawa chool mrunbuya pmariesdcouple.< Apparsn=y ,the Uife han anhanit tf a lwy lsing tkigho,which tent trght=ofvr fhi com-worke’s Chad-. Wen sh wfinlly tdecden to eaeakiJupibout tit,einstad of sying o#8220;丁寧な日本語が分らぁん#8221; bwat Icnm eut ais “たえな日本語が分らぁん#8221; /p> <

  31. I oeould t dd: luckly mrr yigm,ondther trach r lfvr hadr mhimhnd sjumpt finto explain hwat ihraelaly moant ,as &he wowne’s Cife hos troowtudnnn to ereply

  32. ITwomose_oo a ddto ry haungand geourtovowel listthat I #8217;dvesmde mrecsn=y e#82171;b運航and g思考

  33. sCmment-"rre- cloe,d

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