Last in a two-part series
While writing 手紙 (tegami, letters) in Japanese may be intimidating, メール (mēru, emails) give nonnative speakers very few excuses for not keeping up our correspondence with Japanese friends.
Not only do you not have to go to the 郵便局 (yūbinkyoku, post office) and not spend money on 封筒 (fūtō, envelopes) and 切手 (kitte, stamps), you also don’t have to remember how to write the kanji: Just let the パソコン (pasokon, computer) or 携帯 (keitai, mobile phone) take care of it for you.
漢字変換 (kanji henkan, kanji conversion) is a gift from the gods that automatically converts 仮名 (kana, hiragana and katakana characters) into kanji. Just type input the kana, hit the space bar and voila! There’s no need to dig through a 漢字辞典 (kanji jiten, kanji dictionary) and squint at the 部首 (bushu, radicals); it does all the work for you.
If you’re writing to a friend, you can be quite casual. Feel free to fire off your deepest, darkest secrets: 今夜ジンギスカンどう？生ラムめちゃ食べたくなったけど (Konya jingisukan dō? Nama ramu mecha tabetaku-natta kedo, “How about some ‘Genghis Khan’ [grilled mutton] tonight? I’m super-hungry for lamb”).
There are a few things, however, that are worth paying attention to in more formal situations. First, it’s critical to ensure that your mēru gets properly delivered and not filtered into 迷惑メール (meiwaku mēru, “bothersome email,” i.e., spam) either by an email program or the recipient. One way to ensure this is to make your 件名 (kenmei, subject) line very clear.
One of my college language teachers warned my class that she would not read emails whose kenmei were not clearly marked with ～の件 (~no ken, literally “On the topic of ~” i.e., regarding ~). 真面目 (majime, serious/Type A) student that I was, this warning stuck with me and I’ve continued to use the technique. Another simple phrase that can be used in place of ~no ken is ～について (~ni tsuite, about ~). Thus, 論文の締め切りの件 (Ronbun no shimekiri no ken, “Re: The essay deadline”) or 提出の締め切りについて (Teishutsu no shimekiri ni tsuite, “About the submission deadline”) are great ways to start an email to a professor if you’re struggling to finish up an essay and would like to ask for more time.
Now we’re into the body of the email. Your message should be bookended with the 宛名 (atena, recipient’s name) and your 署名 (shomei, signature). Unlike salutations in English, do not use a comma after the atena but do add some sort of 敬称 (keishō, honorific suffix), whether it’s さん (san, Mr./Ms.), 様 (sama, a more formal Mr./Ms.) or 先生 (sensei, a polite suffix for teachers, doctors and members of the Diet).
Your own shomei should not include any suffixes: Never san or sama yourself, whether introducing yourself in person or signing your email. Just place your 名字 (myōji, surname) at the bottom of the email. It’s also fairly standard practice for foreigners to use their 名前 (namae, first name(s)), which is more casual when done by Japanese people. This is the reason that you’ll see many Japanese end their English-language emails simply with their surname. It might be a bit strange to see “Best regards, Yamakawa” at the bottom of the message, but this reflects how normal it is in Japanese.
Within these bookends are another set of parenthetical remarks: the 自己紹介 (jikoshōkai, self-introduction) and the 結び (musubi, conclusion).
Introduce yourself straightaway with the pattern XのYです (X no Y desu), where X is your group (company or school/class) and Y is your surname. Thus, Mr. Yamakawa from Happy Co., Ltd., would write ハッピー株式会社の山川です (Happii kabushiki-gaisha no Yamakawa desu, “It’s/I’m Yamakawa from Happy Co., Ltd.”). Please note that you should use this introduction even when you are contacting someone at another company or your professor for the second, fifth or 50th time. Japanese has a high tolerance for repetition, and this is just how emails work in Japan. Get used to it.
This is followed immediately by お世話になっています (O-sewa ni natte-imasu, “I am much obliged for your assistance”). Swap out the imasu for おります (orimasu) in more formal situations. After contacting the person several times, add an いつも (itsumo, always) to the front to express continual indebtedness.
These feelings are mirrored at the end by the musubi よろしくお願いします (Yoroshiku onegai shimasu, literally, “Please treat me well”), which many of you will be familiar with from ordinary self-introductions. Replace shimasu with いたします (itashimasu) in more formal situations.
Once you’ve established these two sets of parenthetical remarks, you have something that will look and feel like a Japanese email. Your job is just to fill it with meaning.
You will likely benefit from adding other phraseology of supplication at the beginning, such as お忙しいところ申し訳 ありません (O-isogashii tokoro mōshiwake arimasen, Apologies for contacting you at such a busy time). Or if you haven’t been in touch with someone for a while, start your message with ご無沙汰してい ます (Go-busata shite-imasu, “I have neglected to stay in touch”).
But other than that, you do you! Try to be clear and concise and have a goal for your message, even if that goal is just catching up with someone. Make generous use of 改行 (kaigyō, line breaks); paragraphs are often much shorter in Japanese emails, just a sentence or two each in many cases.
And finally, remember that it is possible to write too much and too often. Err on the side of brevity and regularly paced messages. With email, you’re able to literally jump right out of someone’s pocket into the middle of their life at any moment. Yet it can be difficult to tell exactly how they are, and whether they’re prepared for what you have to say. Predicting how you will be read is a key part of the act of writing, and emails are no different. Good luck!
Part 1: Tips for writing letters