[From December Issue 2010]
When you have the opportunity to speak with a Japanese person, you will usually be asked where you are originally from. You can reply in English as Japanese people generally understand the pronunciation of foreign country names. However, there are some countries whose names in Japanese are different from their English ones, such as Chuugoku for China, Kankoku for Korea, and Igirisu for Britain. Other country names also expressed a bit differently, include Suisu for Switzerland, Oranda for the Netherlands and Amerika for the USA.
You will most likely also be asked what it is that you do. And while westerners generally answer with their job title, such as “engineer” or “sales clerk,” most Japanese simply say “company staff,” unless they are professionals, such as a “doctor” or “lawyer.” Those who work at leading companies may also inform you of their company’s name.
You may also discuss your family. In doing so, you should clearly distinguish between your brothers (kyoudai) and sisters (shimai), older or younger. When Japanese refer to them, generally they say “ani” for an elder brother and “otouto” for a younger one, or “ane” for an elder sister and “imouto” for a younger one. “Kyoudai” means also “siblings,” but it is written in hiragana when it refers to “siblings.”
The English words “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” are also usually well understood. However, in the case of a steady boy/girlfriend, while using the term “koibito” in conversation is a little bit old fashioned, nowadays, “kareshi” or “kare” for a boyfriend and “kanojo” for a girlfriend are more common. “Kare” also means “he” while “kanojo” means “she.”
Expressions describing a person’s appearance may also be used in conversation. A beautiful woman is “bijin” while an ugly woman is “busu,” which, in Japan, is considered an extremely rude word, so don’t use it. A handsome man is “ikemen.” But the word “hansamu,” adopted from English, is also commonly used.
“Shumi” (hobbies) are also good conversation topics. Those who are obsessed with anime and manga are called “otaku,” and have been regarded as being hesitant to communicate with people, preferring to escape into virtual worlds, with Akihabara, Tokyo as their headquarters. But nowadays, they are no longer considered odd, while Akihabara has become a well-known tourist attraction.