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!

  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, I decided to use the grammar structure I had learnt in Japanese class that day. Since our teacher had told us there wasn’t much opportunity to use meireikei, I was very excited to be able to put my new knowledge to the test so soon. I sat up straight, put back my shoulders and yelled at the kids “さわれ!” Of course what I meant to say was すわれ but in my excitement at using a new grammar form (to my credit I did so correctly!) I mixed up the verbs 座る (to sit) and 触る (to touch).

    Luckily the kids didn’t actually hear what I said, only the tone in which I said it. The sat down and I managed to get the lesson going as I by turns giggled and blushed with embarrassement!

  11. Long time reader, first time commenter here. Thought I’d share one of my embarrassing mistakes in Japanese too. I taught English on the JET Programme in Aomori for one year and when a new school principle took over at my junior high school I was keen to use some keigo in my introduction. I was so nervous meeting the principle that instead of introducing myself as: 「初めまして。エイドリアンと申します」I fumbled my words and said 「初めまして。エイドリアンと思います」instead!

  12. This is over ten years old, so I think I can tell it. Back when I was working as a JET out in the countryside, I accompanied some of the younger teachers as they completed the task of driving around to check the addresses of the students in their classes. Most of the teachers had cars, and so with two or three to a car, the teachers spent the afternoon canvassing the district. I was in the back of one car while it pulled to a crossroads; also coming to the crossroads was a one Kawashima-sensei. Kawashima-sensei’s car made a turn onto our road, ending up in front of us, at which point I said, “川島先生をコウビしようぜぇ!”

    The car I was in came to a screeching stop, and Tezuka-sensei, who was driving, turned around, laughing: “ピーター、コウビ(交尾)じゃなくて尾行でしょう?”

    And the next day they told the third graders. And then my life was over.

  13. I was at a family-run ryokan in Miyajima and, in a loud voice, read the word “満潮” (full tide) as “満湖”...

    They were very polite about it.

  14. I asked if a dish had human in it: said ‘ningen’ intead of ‘ninjin’ (carrot).
    I asked if a bun had feces in it: said ‘unko’ intead of ‘anko’ (red-bean paste).
    I told my then-girlfriend that her tea-bowl smelled of nipple/milk: said ‘chichi’ instead of ‘tsuchi’ (earth/soil).
    Yet my friend beat me by accidentally telling a girl that she was a ‘pretty virgin’: said ‘shojjo’ instead of ‘shojo’ girl.

  15. After a few months in Japan a friend came over for a visit and I we were eating dinner with a family I was close to. We did some introductions and I did my best to interpret into Japanese what I could. They asked him how many siblings he had and he is an only child. I wracked my brain for the word 一人子 but I could only remember the kanji and said, “イチゴです。” This brought out a lot of laughter from the family and confusion to my friend.

    Another funny story: I went into a convenience store and there was an American with a heavy southern accent in the store trying his best to order some food from the hot cabinet on the counter. He was searching in his traveller’s dictionary and suddenly in a heavy accent he said, “Chicken, dozo!” Obviously he looked up the word “please” and it said “dozo”.

  16. @hoshikagi Hahah! My 2 year old daughter uses “dozo” for “here you are” and, wrongly, as “give me” often mixing Japanese and English for example, “Water dozo.”

    I’m sure I have tons of these, but I can’t think of a good one now.

  17. When I was taking Japanese in high school in the US, a first-year classmate of mine presented a report on Kyoto (in English). Unfortunately she thought that “Kyoto” was pronounced like “coyote.” The teacher looked at her with a confused face for a couple of minutes before finally stopping her and shouting “THIS IS WHY YOU ALL NEED TO LEARN HIRAGANA!”

  18. I have a couple. Like Somedays Sarah, I have accidentally said

    どうぞ、触ってください

    when I mean

    どうぞ、座ってください

    Depending on what you’re pointing at, that can be quite embarrassing.

    The other story is from my very first days learning Japanese. I had just started going out with my then-girlfriend, now-wife, and she was teaching me some of the simplest words: め for eye, みみ for ear, は for teeth etc. and pointing to the relevant body parts. I would then say them back and point to the part of the body to confirm that I got it right. Trying to remember the word for teeth, I pointed to the inside of my mouth and said へ (fart) instead of は. My wife still cracks herself up laughing thinking about that episode.

  19. When my husband’s distant relatives were visiting from Japan, we took his great aunt out for dinner. Because my husband does not speak Japanese, his cousin and I translated back and forth between English and Japanese for his aunt. After we paid for the meal his aunt began protesting and trying to pry cash into my hands. In Japanese I wanted to explain that my mother in law was treating. Instead, I told her to take my mother in law out for dinner. she bowed with a bit of a surprised look on her face.

  20. I once told a colleague using the company seal
    「おもしろいまんこですね」

  21. Even after ten years of learning Japanese, I still get こわい and かわいい mixed up. Have also confused the slightly more obscure – but no less embarrassing – そばかす and みそっかす.

    There’s quite a funny book on this topic which is worth a read if you get the chance (thankfully it’s in both English and Japanese!):

    http://books.google.co.jp/books?id=NCTKZ4JbpF8C&pg=PP10&lpg=PP10&dq=%E5%A4%96%E5%9B%BD%E4%BA%BA%E8%A8%80%E3%81%84%E9%96%93%E9%81%95%E3%81%84&source=bl&ots=QVSa0LXq0t&sig=Z2fD8UQbB95obSdLR6pnuNjV6ws&hl=en&sa=X&ei=x-MYUNOqLYfsmAWqs4D4DA&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=%E5%A4%96%E5%9B%BD%E4%BA%BA%E8%A8%80%E3%81%84%E9%96%93%E9%81%95%E3%81%84&f=false

  22. I once mixed up oshi-ire and oshiri. The look on my mother-in-law’s face when I told her where I put my jacket was priceless.

  23. Once in Japanese class we were having a discussion/debate, and I was trying to say I disagreed with something someone said, 私は反対です, but instead I said 私は変態です。

    I didn’t figure out what I had said wrong until I noticed my friend and teacher laughing at me.

  24. I was explaining to my host mother I was going out to a matchmaking party with her nephew, she then spent the next 5 minutes explaining the difference between the word gokon ‘matchmaking’ and goukan ‘rape’ .

  25. Some years ago in an advanced Japanese class we were reading a short story about vampires (someone famous wrote it and rather to my dismay I can’t remember who to save my life). We were taking turns reading aloud, and one poor student messed up the onyomi and kunyomi of 血、 and consequently wound up reading “ketsu wo suu” instead of “chi wo suu” (“suck ass” that is, instead of “suck blood”). Our kind, wonderful, and generally patient teacher looked like he was going to die of embarrassment, and, trusting that we all knew the meaning of ケツ, reminded us how VERY IMPORTANT it is to keep the different readings of kanji straight.

    As far as my own mistakes go, I have a dreadful time keeping 恐竜 and 給料 straight (kyouryuu/kyuuryou, easy enough to transpose the vowels). I’d rather have a 給料 to be sure, but I kind of like the idea of a 恐竜日.

  26. Great one.

    Edogawa Ranpo has a long-ish novel called “Kyuketsuki” – might have been a selection from that.

  27. Once I told a friend I could not go with her for dinner since I have to go to the 差別会 of one of my best friends who was leaving Japan. She thought I was a KKK member or something until she realized I meant 送別会.

  28. Just today I was speaking with a girl in one of my classes and asked, 今朝おらんかったよな? After some confusion we eventually understood each other, and when she left the people I was with broke the news that I’d accidentally said 毛剃らんかったよな?

  29. I made a speech at Japanese university… I was supposed to talk about what I learned and how they helped me. But instead of telling them I was sad to leave because it was so much fun, I told them it was fun but I was lonely. I didn’t realize until two days later on the plane coming back to the U.S!

  30. In the first several months of living here, the attendant at the ガソリンスタンドnoted the sticker in the car door and said the car was due for an oil change. I wanted to say “I’ll do it next week”, but said “I will practice.” The look on his face….

  31. Not me, but a co-worker…

    Soon after he first came to Japan he worked at a small eikawa school run by a married couple. Apparently, the wife had a habit of always using keigo, which went right over the co-worker’s head. When he finally decided to speak up about it, instead of saying “丁寧な日本語が分かりません”, what came out was “てめえな日本語が分かりません”

  32. I should add: luckily for him, another teacher overheard him and jumped in to explain what he really meant, as the owner’s wife was too stunned to reply.

  33. Two more to add to my long and short vowel list that I’ve made recently – 運航 and 思考.