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Journal: The Fine Art of Conversation

Note: This Journal entry was written on September 22, 2001, as I walked on the Old Tokaido. Take a look at that day's Logbook for more.


It's a standard joke here. The beginner speaks broken Japanese, a word here, a grunt there. As he learns more, he begins to develop good, subject-object-verb sentences, with all the particles in the right places. Then, as he reaches near-native fluency, he discovers that all the Japanese people are speaking broken Japanese!

Japanese is a highly contextual language. Conversation often consists of no more than an adjective with a question mark, and an affirmative.

Lesson 1: Small Talk

(NB: In English, Small Talk is often considered a way to "break the ice." In Japanese, Small Talk is the ice.)

Here's your first lesson.

Learn a handful of adjectives to describe the weather and other conditions. Try hot, cold, dark, quiet, and hard (as in "hard work").

Add these terms:
ne=a question mark, like "isn't it?"
so=thus, I agree
Here's a complete conversation that will get you out of almost any social fix:
A: (Adjective), ne?
B: So.
That's it. A hot day? You start.
A: Atsui, ne?
B: So.
You've climbed a slope and are starting down the other side. Some people are coming toward you up the slope. You start:
A: Taihen (hard), ne?
B: So.
(Note: If they're really chatty, they might say "So, ne?" or "So desu, ne?"--which adds the verb "to be"--or even repeat your sentence: "Taihen, ne?")

That's it for Lesson 1.

Lesson 2: International Relations

Sometimes people are startled to see I'm a foreigner. (Maybe it's the hat.) If this happens to you, try this:
A: Eh? Gaijin!
B: Eh? Nihonjin!
A: What? A foreigner!
B: What? A Japanese person!
Works every time.

Lesson 3: Dealing with Cabbies, Old People, and Other Incessant Talkers

Learn these three phrases:
1. Hai.
2. So (or So desu ne?)
3. Eh, eh, eh.
All of these mean "uh-huh" and should be used interchangeably and non-stop as the other person speaks.

For variety, you may choose to say number 2 with a rising inflection to indicate surprise or admiration. Thus:
Cabbie: babble, babble, babble...
You: Hai, hai. So, so, so. Eh, eh, eh. So desu ne.
Cabbie: [pauses as though something important were said.]
You: SO??!!
Cabbie: babble, babble, babble...
That's all there is to speaking Japanese... like a native.

Any suggestions for Lesson 4?

Posted September 30, 2019

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