There is much to admire about Japan. It has unique traditions and culture, amazing food, wonderful architecture and breathtaking scenery. Japanese people are famous for their politeness, commitment to quality, punctuality and superb customer service. But one of the things that intrigue me most about this country is its fascinating language.
It is undoubtedly a very hard language to learn and while spoken Japanese is, in my view, slightly easier for a westerner to master than Chinese, its complicated scripts undoubtedly present a real challenge for even the most experienced and gifted language learners. The great thing about Japanese is the richness of its vocabulary. The Japanese, it seems, have a word or an expression for just about anything and they have a unique linguistic ability to describe feelings, social trends and moods in a very concise and precise manner non-Japanese speakers can only dream of.
Some years ago when I was living in Barcelona I shared a flat with a lovely Japanese lady for a few months. She did not speak a word of English and only a smattering of Spanish at the time, so I tried my best to learn some basic conversational Japanese in order to be able to communicate with her. As it turned out, Japanese people have myriad ways of saying the most basic things. Take greetings for example. As I soon found out, there are many greetings in Japanese language and you pick the most appropriate one depending not only on the time of the day, but also on the situation and the person you are talking to. There is a specific expression to use when you are leaving home, ittekimasu, and the person you are saying goodbye to would normally use a specific word, itterasshai, meaning something like "Please go and come back" in return.
In a very interesting article posted on RocketNews24 Casey Baseel explains the meaning of 8 Japanese words and expressions that have no equivalent in English, but are used in a wide range of social situations in Japan. We would certainly do well to borrow and adapt some of those. I particularly like chu to hampa, which loosely translates as "not quite one thing, but not quite the other either". In English we most likely need at least one full sentence to describe something like that. Otsukaresama desu, or "You must be tired" is a wonderful expression too and I imagine it goes a long way towards building collaborative relationships at work. Something as simple as telling a coworker or a business partner that we know they are tired because they have been working hard and we appreciate that can make a difference. As anyone who has ever worked in Japan or had Japanese colleagues knows, this common courtesy and appreciation for hard work are inherent to Japanese business culture.
Language learning does not only give us the ability to communicate with people from other countries. Language skills serve as a gateway into other cultures, they broaden our horizons and open us up to new ideas and ways of thinking. Learning Japanese may well be difficult, but what a rewarding experience it must be.