Photo: すしぱく on Pakutaso

It Could Only Happen in Japan – My Accidental Language Mishaps

Earlier, I wrote about the rather embarrassing situation I found myself in whilst living in rural Okayama. Unfortunately for me, though hopefully fortunate for you, dear readers, this is not the only amusing mishap that has befallen me during my time in Japan. In the nine years since I first moved to Japan back in the autumn of 2006, I’ve had plenty of other mishaps, misunderstandings and moments where my own sheer stupidity and naivety has got the better of me. 

My first story takes us back to the scene of my previous misdemeanour, Mabi-Cho, in Okayama.

Photo by Topher McCulloch on Flickr.

I had just been introduced to one of the elementary schools where I was to teach that year. It was the spring vacation so the students, and indeed some of the staff, were noticeable by their absence. I was trying in my admittedly still very basic Japanese to make conversation with my new colleagues, none of whom spoke any English.

One of them, an elder teacher, asked me in Japanese “Do you like horses?”

Photo by The people from the Tango! project on Wikimedia Commons.

Now, having been to more than my fair share of banquets during my time in Japan, my reflex response was "Hai, Oishii Desu!" Which translates as "Yes, they are delicious".

At this point, he recoiled in horror, as did the vice principal and the principal of the school. It turns out, not only was this particular teacher an avid equestrian, complete with all manner of horsey pictures and stationery on his desk, but so too were the principal and his deputy. Needless to say, I wasn’t invited on their annual trek through the nearby forests that year!

Photo by すしぱく on Pakutaso.

Of course linguistic faux pas are the most common mishap to befall newbies to Japan, especially when one makes the transition from the largely foreigner-centric Eikaiwa (English Conversation School) industry, to the rather more formal, sedate, and distinctly more Japanese realm of the public school system. 

But then again, it’s not always your spoken Japanese that can get someone in trouble in those early years. Being unable to read and write in the local characters can also have its fair share of issues. 

For my next story, let me take you all the way back to my very first night in Chiba, after arriving in Japan to work for the first time. It was September 25th 2006. Having transited from Glasgow through London, then finally onto Narita Airport, coupled with the obvious excitement and anxiety leading up to the trip, I was, at that moment, looking at about 30 hours since I had been to sleep. It’s fair to say that my cognitive functions, my reactions and most of all, my common sense, were not running at full capacity.

Photo by Nick Youngson on

Of course when one lands in a new apartment, the first thing one must do is stock up on the essentials. 

So after I’d been to the convenience store and had a good feed, it was time to get down to the more important things, like toiletries, cleaning products and so on.

One thing I have noticed down the years, intercontinental flying plays havoc with my throat. Upon arriving in Tokyo, my throat was rougher than a Glasgow nightclub, and probably just as fresh-smelling too! So, mouthwash was, naturally, top of my list of requirements. 

In the local supermarket I found what I was looking for. The bottle was the same colour, shape and approximate size as a bottle of cool mint Listerine back in Scotland. The packaging, although almost entirely emblazoned in Japanese, had the words "menthol minty fresh!!" scrawled across the front in an almost comic book type font. With the numerous other essential accoutrements acquired, it was time to go home. 

By this point it was almost 10pm, I’d been on the go for about 34 hours, I was tired and I was dirty. My work didn’t start until lunchtime the following day so I had some time to sleep and catch up. But I was acutely aware that I looked, and more importantly smelled, pretty unpleasant. A shower and a clean-up was necessary before bed. 

Photo by すしぱく on Pakutaso.

By the time I showered and approached the wash basin to brush my teeth before finally going to sleep. Teeth brushed successfully, I reached for my newly-purchased "menthol, minty fresh".

All I can say is, when you’ve been flying around the world all day, you’re tired, you’re sleepy and your body just wants to go into full shut down for the next 9 or 10 hours, nothing wakes you up faster than accidentally pouring a large cup of shampoo in your mouth!

Still on the plus side, my “minty fresh” breath lasted about 2 weeks! Let’s see Tic Tacs beat that! Such mishaps have, thankfully, become decidedly less common for me, as the years pass and I become more accustomed to Japan, both the culture and the language. 

Nevertheless, there are still some times when I do make the occasional mistake, with embarrassing, but also usually quite funny, consequences. 

So, what advice would I give to those of you considering coming to live in Japan, who may be worried about the possibility of getting into a similar tricky situation? My advice would be, go for it! It would also help to learn as much Japanese as you can before moving including words that sound similar.

Making a fool of ourselves, especially if we live in a foreign country is something that is to be expected. 

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