One sure way to build your Japanese vocabulary


I’ll never forget the first time I went to city hall in Japan to talk about the national health insurance plan. The man behind the desk explained the whole scheme in perfect Japanese, which at that time was perfectly unintelligible to me.

As a matter of fact, when you don’t understand any Japanese, it’s similar to listening to a dog barking. I knew he was trying to tell me something, I just couldn’t quite figure out what.

“Woof, woof, woof,” said the nice man at the city hall. He went on for several minutes like this before saying, “Wakarimasu ka?”

“No, I don’t understand.”

And the man started over again. “Wakarimasu ka?”

“Meow?” I offered.

My Japanese is much better now, but I still experience the occasional “woof” in Japanese conversation.

I wouldn’t describe myself as linguistically disabled, as that is a politically incorrect term, but I could definitely be classified as a person with special needs: simple vocabulary, alternative explanations and unfamiliar words explained in kanji so I can see their roots.

But since that first experience at the city hall, I have learned how to deal with government people. First of all, I train one person in each office to deal with me. This person is usually a kind-hearted soul who doesn’t speak any English but knows how to talk to Japanese kindergarteners.

If I walk into the city hall, as soon as Mr. Okada sees me, he jumps up from his chair and, as if I had just arrived on the volleyball court, yells to his colleagues, “I got it!”

And when I go to the tax office once a year, Mr. Tanaka rushes over and greets me with “Amy-san, o-hisashiburi desu.”

I have aligned my troops.

I prepare for these meetings by studying the specialized vocabulary I think I’ll need. Unfortunately, this preparation doesn’t usually happen until the day before the meeting, and I am soon overwhelmed with all the terms.

So I take the vocabulary and load it into my pickup truck so I can take it with me. Pickup trucks are great for large volumes of vocabulary that you use only occasionally.

When I arrive at the designated office, I park my truck in the parking lot so it is close by should I need to refer to the items inside it.

So, when I go to the Japan Small Boat Association office to pay for my boat inspection, and am talking to Mr. Mihara and I can’t remember the word for “a boat only used in calm waters,” I say to him, “Chotto matte,” which means I need a moment to think.

But what I am really doing is rummaging through all the vocabulary items in my pickup truck parked outside. Once I find the term I am looking for, I say, “Ah! heisuiku iki.”

When I go to the tax office, I take a slightly bigger truck because the words I need at the tax office are larger words. I find that a dump truck is perfect to carry all those words around that you only use once a year. So once inside the tax office talking to Mr. Tanaka about my taxes for the year, if I cannot recall the term for “a deduction” I just say, “Chotto matte,” and go out to my dump truck to find the term. Then, I come back and say, “Ah! Genkashokyaku.”

When I go to the city hall to talk about real estate, property taxes and rental contracts, I need a very large truck that can accommodate big, heavy words. For this, I use a crane truck that can lift out those big long words like koteishi-sanzei (assets tax). After all, there is a reason they call it vocabulary building.

For years I have used this method of kind, patient souls nurturing me along in my journey to conquer the Japanese language. And just when I thought I was almost there, I walked into the tax office the other day and found that Mr. Tanaka was no longer there.

Another man approached me whom I had never seen before. “Woof, woof,” he said.

“Chotto matte,” I said. I’m going to need a convoy for this one.