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Polite but Direct Refusal in Japanese

Japan is a culture of indirect communication. When I first started learning Japanese, my teachers never failed to stress this. The language has countless examples of indirect communication via subtle queues that you just have to discern and somehow figure out. Japanese culture values politeness in speech, so indirect is always considered far more polite than direct, especially when it comes to something like refusal.

For example...

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JapanesePod101 - The Good and Not-So-Good

I'm a major slacker when it comes to studying Japanese, so my New Year's resolution was to seriously up my game when it came to my language studies.  I waded through a lengthy internal debate--should I go with an online language learning service or traditional classroom study?  Online is generally considered more cost-effective, but classroom can boost motivation with its consistent face-to-face human interaction (aka social pressure, aka a kick in the rear-end).  My fear with the online thing was like that of a gym membership.  Would I sign up and never go?  That would be a damn shame...

A long-time free member of, I decided to pull the trigger and try their premium plus subscription.  Why did I go with this?  Because it seemed to offer a bit of the best of both worlds--their entire online learning library along with access to a real Japanese teacher.  My hope was that the human teacher would give me a solid kick in the pants once in a while to keep me on a righteous academic path.

In true "Mondaiji" style, I summarize the good and not-so-good of my experience below.

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Spelling-Out English Words For Japanese People

At yesterday's office drinking party, some Japanese coworkers told me they were amused as they overheard me on the phone struggling to spell-out my email address to an older Japanese woman.  My mind flashed back to earlier that day: Wiping beads of sweat from my brow, it felt like 30 minutes passed as I grudgingly navigated shaky communication waters.  In the end I was successful, but I vowed to drastically improve my workflow.

Indeed--I often grapple with spelling-out English words or names for Japanese people.  The most common example is when I have to provide my email address or the romaji spelling of my name to a Japanese person over the phone.  My long foreign name combined with my company's longer foreign name make this an (unwelcome) Japanese communication challenge.  I wondered how Japanese people deal with this situation, and I discovered that they rely upon place names to clarify the letter they're spelling.  For example, they'll say something like 「アメリカのA」.

Unfortunately since we Americans use uncommon words like "bravo" and "foxtrot," or person names like "Alex" or "Mike," the American approach doesn't function well in Japan.  Therefore, working with some native Japanese speakers, I developed the following phonetic alphabet for spelling-out English words.  This list is now posted next to my office phone, and I eagerly await the next time I have to spell-out my email address.  がんばります!

I welcome feedback and suggestions.  Enjoy!

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Contemplating Japanese Language School

Do you want to improve your Japanese level? Maybe you have just moved to Japan and want to get a leg-up on your language studies? Maybe you have been in Japan for years and would finally like to learn to speak fluently? Maybe you want to move to Japan, but are afraid you won’t be able to understand anything around you?

Using the Japanese language everyday is one of the most challenging things foreigners to Japan encounter when facing life in this country. As an expat you must command more than just the basics; living here requires an entirely new vocabulary, alphabet, and way of speaking. Like most foreigners who end up in Japan, I had a dream of living here for a long time. As an English speaker, I always thought the best way to try out life in Japan would be to teach English for a year, but a full-time job gives most teachers little time to study the language, which can lead to missing out on myriad rewarding experiences. While searching for other options, I discovered language school. It was a perfect plan to catch a glimpse of life in Japan while learning the language. After graduating from the program, I had basic Japanese under my belt and enough knowledge about Japan to get started in the workforce.

Everyone learns differently, but when you are in an environment where you are using Japanese everyday, you are almost guaranteed to see your skills improve. Like any language learner will tell you—immersion is key.

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Tips For Learning a Second Language

Learning a new language, whether you are looking at adding English or Japanese to your list, is difficult for many individuals. Something that often times makes the process less frustrating and much, much easier is to simply keep an open mind and make sure the attitude stays in check. Maintaining a positive outlook during the learning stage and keeping a zealous attitude about the process can go a long way in making it easier and more enjoyable to learn a new language. So whether you have a trip planned, are looking to make future education plans easier, are seeking an enchantingly attractive foreigner mate, or simply want the ability to speak another language, get ready to learn with these important yet fairly simple tips:

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The Best iPhone Apps for Studying Japanese - Part 2

NOTE: I now document my favorite iOS apps for studying Japanese in the directory:

Human Japanese
Brak Software, Inc.
The author of this app is a saint.  He has an uncanny gift for explaining the language in a transparent and comprehensible way, and has graced us learners of Japanese with this diamond of an app.  Points that I've struggled with for years and years have been melting away in flames of coherence.  "OMG!  So that's how that works!"  I wish I had this app when I first started studying Japanese.  It would've rescued me from countless nights crying myself to sleep.

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