Mt Fuji & Chureito Peace Pagoda - Sengen Park

162679 ©Fujiyoshida City/ ©JNTO

Mt Fuji & Chureito Peace Pagoda - Sengen Park

Am I Speaking Japanese? Cultural Implications in Language Learning

by Dana Batho

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Living or working in a foreign nation is a challenge for most, especially when the culture that one is immersed in is very different from their own. For the CF, the requirement for personnel to be culturally aware of the environment they are working or fighting in is essential to mission success. Whether on deployment to a combat zone or in an overseas staff position, cultural awareness training is a necessary component to allow CF members to succeed in their tasks and in their daily lives. Although language training is included in CF cultural awareness training, there is a common misperception that this is less important than training about how the enemy and friendly forces think and operate.1 However, “language and culture are intertwined,”2 and as such, language training is essential in understanding a culture, whether that be of the local population, the enemy, or the multinational forces that one may work alongside. As CF members can be called upon to work anywhere in the world, the cultural awareness that can be obtained by learning a foreign language is an issue whose importance needs to be understood by all CF members.

As an example of this, the process of learning Japanese will be used to demonstrate how much cultural awareness is automatically gained through foreign language acquisition. Any two foreign languages are going to have differences with each other, especially those that originate from very different cultures. The distinctions between English and Japanese are very noticeable, possibly because Japan’s culture is rooted very deeply in strong traditions, whereas Western culture is based on influences from all around the world and is quite fluid. Communication issues that are common when trying to communicate result from how Japanese is structured and cultural norms reflected in the language. This means that simply learning Japanese, a massive feat in itself, is not enough to be able to communicate effectively; cultural impediments must also be navigated.

Nagashi-bina – Tottori City

162663 ©JNTO

Nagashi-bina – Tottori City

Linguistic Issues

Written Japanese

For learners of Japanese, written communication is often one of the hardest parts of learning the language. They first must master hiragana, which is the Japanese phonetic script used to write words of Japanese origin. Then comes katakana, which is similar to hiragana but is used to write words of foreign origin, often English. There are 46 hiragana and 46 katakana characters, representing the Japanese ‘alphabet.’ In addition, kanji, or Chinese characters, are also extensively used in writing. There are approximately 10,000 kanji, but the average fluent adult only uses about 2000 of them.

The first obstacle usually encountered in written Japanese is that there are no spaces between words. This makes deciphering where one word starts and another stops very difficult, and it makes using a dictionary frustrating. In addition, because katakana is used for foreign words (usually of English origin), the tendency is to sound out the word to discover the meaning. However, the pronunciation has usually changed dramatically.

An example is the katakana word マクドナルド (ma-ku-do-na-ru-do). Only when you read the characters very fast does the English word become apparent – McDonald’s. Furthermore, kanji have their own complications. The sheer number of kanji can prove daunting to anyone, but kanji’s complexity mostly lies in the fact that each character has multiple pronunciations, which are not logical, and are dependent upon which word and where in the word the kanji is placed. For example, 一番上 (ichi-ban-ue) means ‘the top …’ (cadet, floor, etc.), and 上級 (jou-kyuu) means ‘advanced level.’ The character 上 is the same, but the pronunciation is different in each word.

Despite these difficulties, kanji does have some advantages. As each individual kanji has a meaning attached to it, new words that are encountered in a written text can often be deciphered if the individual kanji are known. An example of this is 縞馬 (shima-uma), translating to ‘striped horse,’ which is a zebra. A written word that tends to make Western women cringe when reading it is 家内 (ka-nai), which means ‘inside house,’ or ‘wife.’ This combination of meaning-based and visual encoding can make remembering some kanji easier than others.3 Of course, if the various pronunciations for each kanji are unknown, the reader will not be able to say them, but at least the meaning is understood.
Mukaitaki Ryokan in snow

109001 ©Japan Ryokan Association/ ©JNTO

Mukaitaki Ryokan in snow

Spoken Japanese

One barrier to spoken communication in Japanese is the varying levels of politeness that must be used. There is common language, polite language, honorific language, and humble language. Common language is used for close friends and family, whereas polite language is for more formal situations. In addition, honorific language is used when speaking to or about someone’s actions that is higher in status than you, for example a teacher or a boss. Humble language is used when speaking to someone superior to you, but about your own actions. Each politeness level has a different form, and usually the verb is completely different for the honorific and humble versions. For instance, the verb “to say” in the common form is iu, in the polite form, it is mousu, in the honorific form, it is ossharu, and in the humble form, it is moushiageru. This creates difficulties, not only in learning how to use the different forms properly, but in the fact that almost any interaction with a Japanese person in a formal setting, such as in a retail shop or on the telephone to a company, will be conducted using the honorific and humble forms. If they are in a professional setting, Japanese people are unable to switch to less formal language forms, even if asked to speak more simply; they consider it too impolite.

Minato Mirai District 21

161231 ©Yasufumi Nishi/ ©JNTO

Minato Mirai District 21

Also, Japanese has words that are used exclusively or predominantly by one gender or the other. Words such as ne and deshou, or ‘isn’t it?’, tend to be used mostly by women. Men who learn Japanese from their girlfriend or wife use these words frequently, which make other Japanese speakers smile, as it is obvious how they learned the language. Another example of this gender differentiation is the word for ‘I.’ Men would use ore or boku, and women could use atashi. Gender-neutral forms are watashi and watakushi, which is more formal. If a woman was to use men’s forms, she would come across as being harsh and rough.4 Similarly, men using women’s language sound effeminate. Thus, for a Westerner, learning to use these gender-specific words can become a minefield of (often humorous) miscommunication.

Cultural Issues


In addition to the structure, there are cultural hurdles implicit in how Japanese is actually used. Emily Spencer and Tony Balasevicius illustrate the military implications of the interplay between culture and language in communication:

Understanding the elements of culture at play … will allow security forces to pick up nuances in speech and gestures that can provide valuable clues as to the possible location or intentions of belligerents. To this end, experience has shown that good interpreters can do far more than just relay verbatim translations to security forces … seasoned interpreters in Afghanistan are able to explain nuances that are missed by those with only a basic understanding of the language. Moreover, they are able to translate these nuances into more meaningful messages … [A message] might have less to do with what is being said and more to do with how it is being said.5

If one is unaware of the effect that culture has on language, mission success could be seriously jeopardized.

Maiko – Kyoto

101231 ©City of Kyoto/©JNTO

Maiko – Kyoto


Compared to English, Japanese is a very vague and indirect language; this means that even if one understands the words, the meaning of the communication may still be unclear. A reason for this is that “… the Japanese … have developed abundant non-linguistic codes.”6 This is called ishin-denshin, or “traditional mental telepathy.”7 Related is the cultural concept of enryo, which means ‘reserve’ or ‘constraint.’ It is not uncommon for a Westerner to unknowingly place their Japanese counterpart in an awkward situation: “… because Japanese culture places a taboo on direct expression of one’s wishes, it is culturally inappropriate to ask other people directly what they want. ‘Brutal’ direct questions, such as, ‘… Do you want X or Y?’ force the addressee to violate enryo.”8 Further, “plain speaking … tends to commit the speaker to a hard-and-fast position, and thus can easily provoke direct confrontation – which all Japanese dread.”9 This can be easily seen in a common response to a question – ‘Sore wa chotto…,’ which translates to ‘That’s a little….’ In English, not fully answering a question can be seen as being deceptive or sneaky. But for a Japanese person, that is the only way that they know how to decline an invitation or request politely; to directly decline is unthinkable. In fact, because of enryo, the word ‘no’ is almost never used in Japanese. One exception is if a Japanese person is complimented. For example, if you compliment a concert pianist on her skill, she will invariably respond with “No, no, no, I only play piano a little.”

Akagi Shrine

163115 ©JNTO

Akagi Shrine

Even for those who are fluent in Japanese, understanding enryo can ‘make or break’ a business relationship: “… to Americans, the Japanese style of negotiation can be confusing and even maddening, just as our style can seem blunt and threatening to them.”10 This is why many companies hire consultants, such as People Going Global,11to culturally train their employees; it is easier to build a good relationship than it is to try to repair one due to cultural misunderstandings. In a military setting where lives can be on the line, cultural understanding is even more critical.

Enryo is also a part of the actual structure of Japanese. An illustration of this is the lack of use of pronouns and subjects; conversations tend to be heavily based upon contextual clues for comprehension. For instance, in English, a telephone conversation might go, “Hi boss, I’m coming in to work today, I’m feeling better.” The same conversation in Japanese might be “Boss, today’s okay.” Implied is the fact that the boss knows the employee has been sick, and if today is okay to work, then he must be feeling better. However, if the listener is an outsider to the conversation and is unaware of the surrounding context, it would be nearly impossible to understand what had just been said.

Tea Picking – Plantation Apron

120057 ©JNTO

Tea Picking – Plantation Apron


Similarly, social influences also play a role in communication. Conformity is an obvious issue in Japan. In general, Japanese people are seen as models of conformity.12 For the Japanese, there are set rules of behaviour and speech for any possible interaction; however, as foreigners usually are not aware of these rules, interactions with foreigners are not as straightforward. As a consequence, in an interaction between a foreigner and a Japanese person, the Japanese person may freeze due to uncertainty, and thus be unable to react appropriately to what the Westerner is saying.13

Conformity also allows some Japanese to discriminate against foreigners. Takeyuki Tsuda refers to an example of cross-cultural friction in the rental housing market: “… there are landlords who refuse to rent to Nikkeijin [Japanese emigrants], usually citing differences in ‘customs’ and communication.”14 From personal experience, even foreigners who are completely fluent in Japanese and are married to a Japanese national are often discriminated against when renting or buying housing. Even though problems such as these are unlikely to affect CF members directly, it is very important for them to be aware of the impact that language and culture can have on their daily lives as foreigners in an overseas posting.


Intent is also an issue in any communication. An illustration of this is in Joy Hendry’s article, in which she refers to a discussion between herself (a Western anthropologist) and an eminent Japanese linguist. After discussing whether she could understand the linguist’s ‘Japanese English,’ he states: “I’m afraid I find it a kind of psychological torture to speak to foreigners in Japanese. However good their language, however perfect their grammar, I find it very difficult to understand their ‘real intent.’”15


Similarly, the concepts of tatemae and honne show the use of intent in Japanese. Tatemae is the socially acceptable view you project to the outside world, and honne is what you truly think or feel about a given situation. 16 Because of these distinctions, communications with Japanese people sometimes cannot be taken at face value, because of the “… dual nature of the Japanese self in which cultural norms discourage the direct expression of socially inappropriate inner feelings in public behaviour.”17


Thus, overcoming the intricacies of written and spoken Japanese are merely the beginning of a long road of learning to communicate with Japanese people. Cultural barriers, such as enryo, conformity, intent, tatemae, and honne must also be clearly understood for effective communication. As these elements are based upon centuries of communication amongst only themselves, a form of ‘Japanese telepathy’ exists. Simply knowing the vocabulary and grammar is not enough to be able to communicate in Japanese; the cultural elements are equally important.

For military personnel, the implications of not being aware of cultural and linguistic issues are even greater: “Failure to understand [the populations’] beliefs, values, and attitudes, and how they view the world, is tantamount to mission failure.”18 It is sometimes difficult to see the cultural component in Euro-centric languages that share a base common culture with English and French, but the cultural component of language becomes very clear when learning languages that do not share the same linguistic genealogy. Therefore, an analysis of the cultural component of Japanese structure and usage provides a good illustration of the issues that may be faced by those who are deployed overseas. Even if CF members never become fluent in the local language where they are posted, an emphasis upon learning as much as possible is vital. Not only will this help them to ‘win the hearts and minds’ of the local population, it will give them indispensible insights into the culture and minds of all those who occupy their operational space, leading to an increased likelihood of mission success.

Second Lieutenant Dana Batho is a 2011 graduate of the Royal Military College of Canada in Military and Strategic Studies. Eagerly anticipating commencement of her career as an RCAF Intelligence Officer, she is currently pursuing an MA in International Affairs (Intelligence and National Security) at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. She has also studied and lived in New Zealand and Japan.

Tsuruoaka Park

105411 ©Yamagata Prefecture/©JNTO

Tsuruoaka Park


  1. Emily Spencer and Tony Balasevicius, “Crucible of Success: Cultural Intelligence and the Modern Battlespace,” in Canadian Military Journal , Vol. 9, No. 3 (2009), p. 45.
  2. Ibid.
  3. David G. Myers, Psychology, 1st Edition. (New York: Worth Publishers, 2007), p.356.
  4. Anna Wierzbicka, "Japanese Key Words and Core Cultural Values," in Language in Society, Vol. 20, No. 3 (September 1991, p. 341.
  5. Emily Spencer and Tony Balasevicius, “Crucible of Success: Cultural Intelligence and the Modern Battlespace,” in Canadian Military Journal, Vol. 9, No. 3 (2009), p. 46.
  6. Ofer Feldman, "Culture, Society, and the Individual: Cross-Cultural Political Psychology in Japan," in Political Psychology, Vol. 18, No. 2 (June 1997), p. 331
  7. Ibid.
  8. Wierzbicka, p. 349.
  9. R.C. Christopher, as cited by Patricia J. Wetzel, "Are ‘Powerless’ Communication Strategies the Japanese Norm?," in Language in Society, Vol. 17, No. 4 (December 1988), p. 557.
  10. Wierzbicka, p. 347.
  11. Accessed 13 November 2008.
  12. Feldman, p. 328, and Myers, p.731.
  13. For an example of this from the author’s personal experience, see
  14. Takeyuki Tsuda, "The Stigma of Ethnic Difference: The Structure of Prejudice and ‘Discrimination’ Toward Japan's New Immigrant Minority," in Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Summer 1998), p. 349.
  15. Joy Hendry, "To Wrap or Not to Wrap: Politeness and Penetration in Ethnographic Inquiry," in Man, Vol. 24, No. 4 (December 1989), p. 624.
  16. Ibid., p. 627.
  17. Tsuda, p. 320.
  18. Emily Spencer, “Brains and Brawn: Cultural Intelligence (CQ) as the ‘Tool of Choice’ in the Contemporary Operating Environment,” in Canadian Military Journal, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Winter 2010), p. 16.