Who doesn’t love food? We all love food — whether it’s a specific type of cuisine or you just love to eat. The Japanese cuisine has boomed internationally and is now one of the most popular types in the world! Ramen and sushi, anyone?
Washoku (Japanese cuisine) is not just the noodles and seaweed rolls that we all know — there are principles that make them what they are. And if you don’t already know, there are various traditional Japanese cuisine that uphold these principles strongly to this very day.
So what are these principles and traditional washoku types? Read on to find out!
What is “washoku”?
So, what exactly is washoku (和食)? Well, let’s break down the kanji, shall we? The “wa” (和) has the meaning of “harmony” and also “Japan” — you would already know this if you have read our article “The Various Names of Japan”. The “shoku” (食) refers to “food”. So, both kanjis combined literally means “Japanese food”.
A brief background on how the word came about: Japanese cuisine wasn’t always called “washoku”, as the term only came about in the Meiji Period (1868-1912). Before the time, there wasn’t any other types of cuisine, so Japanese cuisine was the norm. The Meiji Period was the time the Westernisation happened, so the introduction to Western cuisines (洋食, youshoku) required the people to identify their own local cuisine — and thus washoku was born.
Principles of Washoku
Washoku isn’t just a classification for any food that is created in Japan — although, most of them are. There are a few fundamentals that a washoku meal has to abide by. These principles are constant throughout them all, just like how rice is basically the heart of any washoku (or Japanese) meal — it’s a staple piece.
The four main principles of washoku are seasonality, regionality, balance and aesthetics. Let’s take a look at each of them individually.
The Japanese are very particular about seasons. They pay attention to the changing weather and nature — I mean, they even have holidays based on the mountain and sea (read our Japanese Holidays write-up about them!).
With four very distinct seasons in Japan, they are clearly reflected in the washoku dishes that are served during the time. You’ll generally get root veggies in winter and wild plants in spring. Summer sees the pickled veggies and autumn calls for chestnuts.
Special washoku dishes like osechi ryori (おせち料理) greets a coming new year and is the special New Year’s meal, complete with various symbolised ingredients.
Japan is huge. There are a few islands that make up the mainland, and a few thousands of other islands surrounding it! If you’re curious about all the various types of islands, give our Nihongo Master Podcast a listen — one of the episodes cover the Island Life of Japan!
Anyway, with so many various parts, they each have their own unique way of making a specific dish or using specific ingredients that you can only get from there. So, on top of a general washoku of the nation’s cuisine, regionality plays quite a role.
You’ll get wonderful crab dishes up north in Hokkaido, because the seafood there is nothing but the best or go down south to the subtropical Okinawa to get your fair share of umibudo (海ぶど), seagrapes that the Okinawa prefecture is known for. And because of that, the ingredient is included in quite a number of other dishes to make their own regional washoku.
Another important principle of washoku is balance. Some cuisines rely on enhancing flavours using tons and tons of ingredients. For washoku, it’s all about not overdoing it, but not under-doing it either. It focuses quite a bit on natural flavours and how every dish complements the others.
It’s also not just about flavour, it’s also about the nutrition. There’s a saying of “ichi ju san sai” (一汁三菜), referring to “one soup and three side dishes” — they not only accompany a bowl of rice, but also provide a well-balanced meal with the nutrition we need.
Last but not least is the aesthetics. Have you ever noticed how every Japanese meal is served so presentably? If you’ve ever spent some time in Japan, you’ll realise that whenever a waiter serves you your food, every ingredient is displayed in a way that not only grabs your attention but also complements the rest of the stuff on the plate.
Not only that, the Japanese especially pay attention to the tableware they use — and for washoku, more often than not, lacquerware is often the go-to choice. If you want to know more about lacquerware, a traditional Japanese craft with quite a history, give our Nihongo Master Podcast a listen — specifically the episode “The Art Culture of Japan”.
Traditional Japanese Cuisine
Ramen and sushi aside, does everyone know the traditional kinds of washoku — the ones that date back centuries and with a purpose? If you have, that’s wonderful. If not, this section will be extremely informative and educational to you!
Even though this traditional washoku originated in the early days of Japan, they are still alive to this very day — there are more kaiseki (解析) restaurants than one can count. And let’s not get started on shojin ryori (精進料理) — with such a strong religious hold, there’s no way it’ll go anywhere.
To talk about them is a whole new article on its own — which is exactly what is going to happen. Keep a look out in the next few weeks for an article all about the traditional Japanese cuisine, including the two mentioned earlier!
Who would have thought that a whole nation’s cuisine has a couple of rules that they abide by? I guess every country has some sort of guideline, but most of them are more about what ingredients used rather than what they symbolise. Japan is all about symbolism, aren’t they? Even the food they create means one thing or the other!
Yes, I’m a coffee freak. I need my dose of espresso in the morning to set my mood for the day — whether it’s a shot on its own or mixed with a fresh cup of milk, it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is what kind of roast it’s made from; dark or light?
If you’re a coffee enthusiast like me, you probably get what I mean. The first sip of that freshly brewed coffee just hits you.
Wherever I go, I’m always on the hunt for exquisite coffee places for me to indulge in — so, of course, I found that Japan has one of the best coffee markets in the world! What a treat for me! In fact, Japan’s history with coffee goes deep and far back, with their very own version of the French cafe.
From that, the coffee hype expanded to so much more — canned and instant coffee are just the tip of the iceberg. Let’s take a trip down memory lane of Japanese coffee as well as what and where you can get these exceptional coffee products!
Japan’s Coffee History
Japan didn’t invent coffee, of course. How it did come to Japan is all thanks to the trade the Japanese have with the Dutch and Portuguese, and it was around the late 17th and early 18th centuries that coffee was introduced. However, the Japanese had long been a tea-drinking society, and coffee didn’t change that at all — in the beginning, at least.
You see, Japan’s relationship with coffee didn’t start off so well; the people didn’t like the “burnt” taste of coffee as much, and only the Dutch traders were drinking it. There was even a ban on coffee imports at one point!
The turning point was when the first-ever coffee shop opened during the late 18th century — to provide a space for the younger generation to exchange knowledge, relax and enjoy a good ol’ cup of coffee. Many followed suit, complete with European-styled decor and furniture. This was also the beginning of the very complicated affair between drinking coffee and smoking tobacco.
World War II really affected the rise of coffee in Japan as it interrupted various trades and imports into Japan. It was quite dire — Japan’s coffee culture could’ve ended right there and there in the 1940s! But thankfully, the coffee boom did come after in the 1970s, where the demand for coffee was at its highest.
The term “Jun-kissa” and “Kissaten”
There is a very specific term in Japanese to refer to a coffee shop: kissaten (喫茶店). It was during the Taisho Period (1912 – 1926) where cafes became the go-to spots for good fun and lively atmosphere — sprinkled with coffee, smoke and alcohol. An opposite scene emerged: the laid-back, relaxed ambiance of the kissaten where the creatives like poets, writers and artists went to for a space to exchange ideas and sometimes even have an intellectual debate (I know for a fact I won’t be able to join in).
In the Showa Era (1926 – 1989), the term “jun-kissa” (純喫茶) was coined, and it referred to the genuine kind of chilled coffee places. The term “jun” means “pure” while “kissa” comes from “kissaten”. As the Japanese economy boomed to include Western influences, these kissaten and jun-kissa became even more influenced by the Western aesthetics of velvet seats and stained glass for interior decor.
With more and more of these coffee shops popping up around the country, mainly the capital city Tokyo, it just goes to show that the preference for coffee by the time was obvious — bye-bye to the tea leaves, hello to roasted beans.
Japanese Coffee Products
Since then, Japan has imported and invented coffee products for the masses. I, myself, have noticed how easy and convenient it is to grab a coffee fix around Japan — because it’s everywhere, in all forms!
Let’s look at the top three kinds of coffee products that are the most popular in Japan.
I’m a cafe-hopper, but more specifically I’m a coffee shop-hopper. So I personally know that Japan has quite an extensive range of specialty coffee shops. At these places, coffee is made from the highest grade of beans, grounded with the best machines.
Coffee beans in Japan are usually imported from the best coffee-growing countries in the world including Kenya, Rwanda, Guatemala and Indonesia.
Best of all, these specialty coffee shops in Japan offer various preparation methods like AeroPress, French press and pour over — some shops are so exclusive to a specific preparation method that they only offer that kind of coffee! Mad, right?
If you haven’t read the article about Japan’s vending machine craze, go check it out. As I’ve mentioned there, everything you can ever think of can be found in a vending machine — why not coffee?
For this very purpose, canned coffee is invented, in Japan itself! An innovative man called Ueshima Tadao birthed the wonderful product that is canned coffee in 1968, and now it’s distributed in not only Japan but international countries as well!
While the Japanese didn’t invent instant coffee like they did canned coffee, it is still one of the most consumed coffee products in the country! I mean, it’s quite convenient for the fast-paced, busy lifestyles of salarymen who spend all their daylight and most of their nighttime in the office — a quick coffee fix using instant coffee is the way to go.
One of the most common types of instant coffee comes in those convenient individually packed ones where a sachet is a serving — I don’t know about you, but I’m guilty as charged for having some of those at home for when I need a quick coffee fix but too lazy to brew one myself.
Top Japanese Cities For Coffee
So, where are the best places to go to get the best coffee Japan has to offer? I believe that the low-key, underground ones are the hidden gems — especially the local stand around the corner where you walked down randomly and discovered.
But for those who are actively seeking, there are two top cities that are perfect for your coffee adventures!
Of course, the capital city of Japan has got to be the number one city to get the best coffee the country has to offer. No matter how many coffee shops I go to in Tokyo, I feel like there’s at least 20 more that I’ve yet to discover.
One of the most famous coffee shops in Tokyo is The Roastery by Nozy Coffee in Harajuku. When I first went to this coffee shop, it only sold drip coffee — but I’ve heard it has expanded to include latte, americano and espresso. One thing’s for sure is that The Roastery has one of the best dark roast selection in the city, hands down.
Another good coffee place in Tokyo is Naka Meguro’s Onibus — a local favourite. This coffee shop has a more traditional vibe to it, and you can trust that the coffee is excellent — the owner himself was trained in Australia and put in a Japanese twist into what he learned.
The other great city to explore Japanese coffee is Japan’s ancient capital city, Kyoto. My experience with Kyoto’s coffee scene is that a lot of the best ones are the ones you stumble upon, and most of the time it’s the old-school kissaten. You have to experience that at least once during your time in Japan!
But if you need a name to go to, % Arabica has been making waves in the scene. It attracted a huge crowd when it first opened in 2014 — so much that the owner had to open another branch in the same city the next year! Now, % Arabica has expanded to other countries, but try it in the city it originated at.
Basic Coffee-Related Words & Phrases
What’s a coffee guide without a few Japanese words and phrases to help you out on your coffee adventures? Here are some of the most commonly used ones, and a simple phrase you can use with it.
Trust me, ordering a cup of coffee isn’t that difficult!
コーヒー (kohi) — coffee (usually referring to drip coffee)
ラテ(rate) — latte
店内で (tennaide) — eat-in (literally translates to in-store)
持ち帰り / テイクアウト (mochikaeri/teikuauto) — takeout
砂糖 (satou) — sugar
シロップ (shiroppu) — syrup
ホット(hotto) — hot
アイス (aisu) — iced
少ない~ (sukunai ~) — less ~
もっと~ (motto ~) — more ~
The simplest phrase to order something is: 〜お願いします (~onegaishimasu). For example, to order a hot latte, say “ホットラテお願いします” (ホットラテお願いします).
To ask for more or less sugar in your drink, just use the words for “more” and “less”: “もっと / 少ない砂糖、お願いします” (motto/sukunai satou onegaishimasu).
Head over to our Nihongo Master Podcast to learn more about how you can use this phrase!
And that sums up all you need to know about Japanese coffee origins, the types of coffee products Japan offers and where you can find all these excellent cups of coffee. Look out for a detailed list of best coffee shops in Tokyo and Kyoto respectively — coming soon to our Nihongo Master blog! See you then!
Don’t lie — you love drama (ドラマ). I mean, everyone loves one specific drama at some point in their lives. For me personally, I’m into every kind of drama, so best believe that Japanese drama is one of them. In fact, Japanese drama was the reason I got into learning Japanese in the first place!
When I was starting out, there were a few Japanese words that struck out — especially the ones that you don’t really learn from the textbooks. These keywords stuck with me, because not only are they repetitive but they are also used pretty often in casual, daily conversations.
Which brings me to writing this very article: to spread the love of these essential Japanese drama keywords — you can thank me later.
1. Mattaku (まったく)
The first one is something you’ll hear being said both on its own or in a sentence. Those two cases have different meanings.
If “mattaku” (まったく) is being used as an exclamation or reaction, it has the nuance of a mild curse — kind of like when you say “jeez” under your breath at something your friend said. It’s used the exact same way; let’s say your friend and you agreed to meet at a certain time but she ended up being late, with a load of excuses to boot. Of course, your natural reaction would be shaking your head and letting out a small sigh — “mattaku” fits perfectly with all of that.
Another way of using “mattaku” is to emphasize something. If you want to say someone is not only wrong, but they’re completely wrong, then add “mattaku” before the verb: “mattaku machigatte iru yo!” (まったく間違っているよ！)
2. Mou ii (もういい)
This one also has two ways of using it — one a positive way, the other a negative or neutral way. The first way of using “mou ii” (もういい) is when you’re telling or describing something that is of sufficient level or suitable. For example, if your friend is pouring a cup of water for you and it’s about to reach the level you prefer, simply say “mou ii yo” (もういいよ) to her.
Another way to use this phrase is when you’ve had enough of something — kind of like saying “that’s enough” or “forget it”. Say your sister is annoying you with her whining and you just want to be done with it; use this remark “mou ii” to shut her up. I would do it to my sister, if only she speaks Japanese too.
3. Bikkurishita (びっくりした)
There’s no direct comparison to an English phrase for this one, but “bikkuri shita” (びっくりした) is used when you’re surprised or shocked by something. I guess in English we would have a reaction phrase like “oh my god!” or something of the like — maybe in Japanese, one would scream too.
But the difference lies after the reaction; in English, it’s not really that common to say out the obvious like, “you scared me” or “I was surprised”, but in Japanese, it’s almost always natural to say “bikkuri shita” right after. While it does translate to “I was surprised”, it’s more of a matter-of-fact saying rather than letting the other person know what has happened.
4. Jaa ne / mata ne (じゃあね / またね)
There’s more than one way to say goodbye in English — bye, see you, later, etc. So, it’s only fair that there’s also more than one way to say goodbye in Japanese. Two of the most common ones you’ll hear in Japanese drama are “jaa ne” (じゃあね) and “mata ne” (またね).
I mean, you could say “bai bai” (バイバイ) like the katakana version of a “bye bye”, but “jaa ne” and “mata ne” is kind of cooler, I’d say. It’s like “see you later!” — more casual and natural, less…structured?
5. Dame (ダメ)
One word you’ll hear quite often in dramas is “dame” (ダメ). The translation’s pretty simple: no. Well, it doesn’t exactly translate to “no” but it gives off a similar nuance. It’s kind of like saying something’s a no-go, or it’s not good, or you can’t do that.
If you’re trying to walk down a prohibited path, expect a “dame dame!” from people around you. In my personal opinion, “dame” carries such a strict vibe that if I hear it, I feel like I’m being reprimanded — but it’s just my sensitive self talking, it’s not really like that!
6. Yabai (やばい)
This one is where it can get quite confusing — the older generation has a different definition from the youngins, but both are correct.
See, yabai (やばい) actually means “horrible” or “bad”, so the expression “yabai” implies that the thing you’re referring to is not good at all. That is how the older generation looks at this word — they’re not wrong, in fact, they’re technically right.
In the modern generation however, and also when used in dramas, the meaning is completely opposite. When someone exclaims “yabai”, more often than not, it implies that something is so cool! Kind of like when we say something is “the shit” — it’s not shit, it’s so good that it’s the shit.
7. Urusai (うるさい)
Need a phrase that can be a direct or indirect way to tell someone to shut up? “Urusai” (うるさい) is your guy — it translates to “noisy”, but you can use it to tell someone that they’re too noisy they need to tone it down.
If your friend is shouting too loudly in an izakaya while you’re having a few drinks, just say to him “urusai!” to be extremely direct that he needs to be quieter. If a group of people next to you is making a huge ruckus and you just want to say “they’re noisy”, “urusai” also works for that without actually telling them they are.
8. Ossu (オッス)
You know how you can say bye a few different ways? You can say hello a few different ways too — in fact, if you want to know more ways of saying hello and bye, there are other articles where I’ve listed down the top ways to do so!
Anyway, the one you’ll hear among friends in dramas is “ossu” (オッス). It’s basically “hey” in the most casual way possible. Keep in mind that it’s actually a greeting used by the guys due to its more masculine tone. I’ve never used it myself, but I’ve heard my male friends using them — it sounds cool.
9. Saitei (最低)
Some Japanese dramas are a little more dramatic than others, so you’ll hear them saying “you’re the best” and “you’re the worst” quite often. Even though in English it has quite a heavy tone to it, I guess it’s as bad in Japanese. “Saitei” (最低), which means “the worst” is mentioned quite a few times in the dramas I’ve watched.
So if someone did something horrible to you and it made you upset, I guess you could throw out “saitei” to them — I personally don’t recommend doing it, but it’s great to know especially when it’s always in the dramas.
10. Mukatsuku (ムカつく)
Our last drama keyword is another slang word, and it’s more often used among the younger generation and adults — not so much the oldies. While “mukatsuku” (ムカつく) has the meaning of “irritating” or “annoyed”, when someone tells you this, it’s basically implying that you’re annoying to that person — so I hope no one has said this to you before!
From the dramas that I’ve watched, “mukatsuku” is usually said under the breath, not so much face-to-face. I reckon you could still tell someone they’re irritating you with this phrase — just make sure it’s not your superior!
And that concludes the top 10 essential Japanese drama keywords that I personally have noticed popping up more than a few times in all of the dramas I’ve watched. All of them are extremely casual and sometimes some of them can be considered rude, so use it sparingly — or not at all if you’re too afraid to offend anyone. Regardless, it’s great to know them and make your drama time a lot more meaningful, literally!
Most of us have that image of Japan as funky, out-of-the-ordinary and flat out wacky. Fair enough, the country has its fair share of unique subcultures, bizarre trends and unusually eccentric music.
But if you dig deeper, the Japanese music scene — while those standing-out-of-the-crowd ones dominating the media — is pretty diverse. There is something for everyone — from the popular J-pop and loud metalheads to the ones that are peaceful and calming for the soul.
Japan’s music industry is huge, and having to shortlist to the top 10 was quite a painful process — picking from lists of popular as well as influential, new and old. Regardless, these Japanese musical artists are definitely ones you have to know, both familiar names and new ones.
Let’s get right into it!
1. Utada Hikaru
First on the list is one that every Japanese person will know: Utada Hikaru. She has been on the Japanese music charts since 1997 — that’s over two decades! She’s not just on it; she basically rules it.
This half-Japanese half-American artist’s music is on the slower-paced side that’ll tug on your heartstrings, but her music can be classified under a few categories — J-pop and R&B are just to name a few, so there’s a song for everyone
Utada Hikaru is a perfect artist for those looking to train their Japanese listening skills using music as she pronounces her lyrics clearly and slowly. Give First Love and Heart Station a listen — you’ll definitely be hooked…and maybe even in tears.
2. Shiina Ringo
This is one of the Japanese artists you don’t want to miss out on. In fact, the West has already caught on to her musical talents. Shiina Ringo is an avant-pop queen — everything from her music and performance to her style and personality screams unusualness. You might think, “is her last name really ‘apple’ (りんご)?” Her real name is actually Shiina Yumiko but took on the stage name, Shiina Ringo, from a childhood nickname.
Anyway, her music is not the usual ones you’d expect — there are influences from J-pop, enka (演歌) which is a genre of traditional Japanese music, jazz, rock…you name it, there’s probably a song with it. They all combine seamlessly together, though. That’s the best part.
That’s not all — Shiina Ringo’s performance hints at the traditional Japanese style. What a way to represent your own culture even after going international!
If you’re looking for an artist that offers amazing techno-pop, Perfume is your girl — or girls. This girl group made waves in the Japanese music industry as soon as they first got onto the scene in 2008, and their popularity hasn’t wavered since. If you watch more than a few Japanese dramas and movies, chances are you’ve probably heard their music before.
Perfume is not only a big hit in Japan but also overseas — I mean, it’s quite obvious, what with their numerous international all-English fanbases. Even famous EDM DJs like Zedd and Madeon have acknowledged the group.
While their sound is nostalgic and refreshing at the same time, Perfume’s performances are definitely ones to keep an eye out for. There’s always something new in them, whether it’s an unconventional choreography or using new technology.
4. ONE OK ROCK
Anyone who’s into rock and has looked into the rock scene in Japan definitely has heard of ONE OK ROCK. They’re kind of like the most essential Japanese rock artist. Influenced by bands like Nirvana and Good Charlotte, this high school-formed band entered the industry in 2005, and has continued creating milestones after milestones for the Japanese rock scene.
Since their exposure and opportunities to go international, ONE OK ROCK has been including more and more English lyrics to cater to their expanding audience — but don’t worry for those Japanese language enthusiasts, if you listen to their earlier ones, you’ll still get them in full Japanese.
But hey, music has no boundaries — not even language, I dare say.
A list of Japanese musical artists is not complete without one of the most famous and influential Japanese groups, AKB48. This group is not your average one where there’s only a handful of people — it actually has over a hundred people!
You heard me; as of this day of writing, AKB48 has 135 members — don’t let the number 48 in the group name fool you. It did start off with 48 members and expanded to include more, but their front members are ever-changing, joining in and coming out of the groups as fast as one could blink.
Those who have left actually become stars on their own, but not without grabbing a few loyal followers from being in the group. AKB48 is also great for anyone who’s looking to learn Japanese through music, as their song lyrics are repetitive and catchy.
Of course, I have to include a Johnny’s group, and what better group than Arashi? We have an all-female group AKB48, so it’s only fair to have an all-male group on the list. This charming five-member collective has been around since 1999, and every generation in Japan would either be swooning over them or at least know of them. While they do fall under the category of J-pop, Arashi has a softer, slower tune. From upbeat to ballads, they have it all.
If you haven’t heard of the group, you must have at least heard of their members — they are all very active. Hana Yori Dango is a perfect example of Arashi’s exposure through the form of one of their members.
7. Keiji Haino
As I’ve mentioned before, Japanese music is more than just J-pop, and Keiji Haino is the definition of that — in fact, he’s the extreme other end with his avant-garde music genre, combining minimalism with power.
This is not your average music — think of normal, everyday noise with rock and percussion. It’s kind of hard to really put a pin on Keiji’s music, and any description doesn’t really do them justice. It’s the kind where you have to hear it to understand it.
Oh, and of course, some people would even argue that Keiji Haino is a fashion icon — the hair, ‘nuff said.
8. X Japan
One of the oldest on the list, X Japan was formed in 1982. You can’t miss them — you literally can’t overlook them. Not only does their music stand out but also visuals; they are kind of the pioneers — some would say they are the leaders and creators — of the Visual Kei subculture.
If I had to describe their sound, X Japan has put quite an emphasis on ballads, focusing strongly on theatricality — as you can tell by their dressing. Watch their videos and live performances and it’ll be very obvious of the passion they have for their band concept.
Recently, X Japan has been leaning towards the metal genre but without sacrificing up fully their original tunes.
9. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu
While her original name is Kiriko Takemura, she goes by her stage name, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Extremely famous and influential, I bet everyone in Japan knows of her. Some of you might already know her as her fame is not limited to just domestic fans — the West has grown a liking to her music and performance, with videos going viral and raking high view numbers.
It’s very obvious that her music genre is J-pop — the fast and upbeat tune is hard to miss. They make excellent karaoke songs, if I do say so myself. Some argue that Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is kind of like the Japanese version of Lady Gaga when it comes to her fashion style.
Last on the list is Nujabes — this one is pretty underground compared to the rest on the list. It’s the classic case of idolisation after the artist’s passing. Nujabes is without a doubt one of the pioneers of instrumental hip hop as well as a legend of bridging various music genres through his creations.
This artist has influenced many other artists, during his life and even after. His beatmaking has been an inspiration to not only local artists but Western ones as well, including Pete Rock and A Tribe Called Quest, both of who are American jazz rap artists.
And that sums up the top 10 Japanese musical artists who you have to know — everyone from the mainstream J-pop and sensational pop stars to pioneers of subcultures and music genre legends alike. If you’re a music enthusiast like me, you’d want to check every single one of the artists on this list out, and even do a little bit more digging on the ones I left out (because I had to). I bet your playlist is hours long now — you’re welcome!
Let’s just get it off our chest — we all are very aware that Japan is one of the richest countries in the world, and we have the extremely developed economy to thank for that. In fact, Japan holds the title of the second most developed economy in the whole world; if that’s not impressive, I don’t know what is!
This success didn’t just happen overnight. Being the market-oriented country that it is, there are a few industries on the list that has significantly boosted the country’s economy all the way to the top (well, almost). While agriculture used to be Japan’s top industry — what with a good percentage of this island nation’s land being fit for farming — The Land of The Rising Sun has since evolved to include other businesses.
Let’s take a look at the top five largest industries in Japan that has quite a hand in raising the country up to where it is today!
It’s no secret that Japan is one of the world’s leading manufacturers, so it’s only natural that it’s the country’s top industry. We see “Made in Japan” on a product and we jump right on it — those three words assure reliability and the finest quality.
Japan is without a doubt one of the leaders of various manufacturing sectors, including but not limited to automobile and electronics. All of us are more than familiar with motor vehicle companies like Honda, Subaru, Toyota and Nissan — and these are just to name a few. Of course, let’s not forget motorcycle companies like Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha.
Japan’s manufacturing industry also has its hands into other areas like fashion and food. Anything that comes from Japan and exported to the rest of the world is treated as “luxury” because of the high standards Japan has for all of their manufacturing. Safe to say, you’ll never go wrong with a Japan-made product — whatever it is, from the above average-priced apple to your next brand new car.
With the manufacturing industry churning out products from left and right at a high pace, the people followed suit. With action comes a reaction, they say. It’s only fair to say that, because the high-quality products in the country are regarded as the standard and most minimal the people ask for, the people of Japan are arguably the most quality-conscious consumers ever. I mean, I definitely can confirm that based on personal experience.
My definition of cheap or affordable is closer to ten bucks for a shirt, but the Japanese people won’t even bat an eyelid coming out a hundred bucks — that’s their idea of affordable. Mad, right? But that’s just how it is here.
It’s not just with regards to clothes and anything else fashion-related, it’s pretty much for everything. For one, fruits are off the scale here — but of course, quality over quantity is the case in Japan, so five bucks for a carton of milk is kind of like nothing.
People are willing to spend in Japan — and I mean really spend — contributing to the economy drastically. No complaints, though. You’re always guaranteed to get quality with what you pay for…unlike some other places.
I don’t think it’s only me that thinks of fancy gadgets and high-tech everything when it comes to Japan. The island nation basically led the way for the rest of the world into this industry. Japan is one of the leading countries when it comes to technology — all sorts of technology.
We’ll start off with entertainment; I mean, video games, enough said. Without a doubt, Japan is the leading country for video game technology — Sony and Nintendo are just scratching the surface of this sector. Almost every gaming enthusiast would have owned a gaming product from Japanese companies — whether it is a game or the game console. Other types of entertainment like TV and various related electronics are just as significant.
Japan’s technology also includes communication and services, figuring out ways to boost efficiency to provide for the people. When you think about it, technology comes hand in hand with the consumer and manufacturing industry; an increase in demand in one affects the other two.
Okay…service comes hand in hand with the other industries as well. I mean, how can it not? A rise in demand from the consumers equals a rise in technology to accommodate them and manufacturing, and then equals a rise in people selling these products and goods. How else can these products be sold, especially when Japan is quite a “physical” shopping destination?
By that, I mean that the people in Japan are keener on going to the store itself to buy their products than shopping online. If there’s no one manning a store, then no products can be on showcased to sell, and no customers would come. Simple logic.
Because of this situation, the service industry significantly impacts the economy with 75% of employment contributing to the gross domestic product (GDP). Because this is such an important industry in Japan, the employees are paid well, treated well and given opportunities to advance. Give to the economy and the economy gives back, I’d say.
Last but not least, the tourism industry. No doubt that this has boosted Japan’s economy in recent years — and has definitely been affected due to the coronavirus. Japan is ranked Number 4 in the world of the most visited countries, with an approximate of 30 million people each year — making it the top-visited country in Asia.
The country’s capital city Tokyo is the most visited city in the country — who could resist the neon lights of bustling Shinjuku and Shibuya, the luxury ambiance of Ginza and the traditions in Asakusa — but the former capital city Kyoto and the neighboring Osaka are not so far behind. Nature and food are almost a complete opposite of Kanto’s Tokyo, and refreshing to say the least.
The Summer Olympics 2020 that was supposed to take place in Tokyo was expected to boost the country’s economy even more, but unfortunately, plans changed.
And that sums up the top industries of Japan that play big parts in making up the country’s economy. The best part is that most of them are interlinked with one another — one goes up, so do the rest. These large industries in The Land of The Rising Sun seem like they are not going away anytime soon, still being one of the leading countries in the world. And we can all expect this island nation to continue rising and rising to the top, just like how the sun always rises first here.
Who doesn’t love going shopping? I know I do! I especially love shopping when travelling because it’s like discovering a whole other universe full of never-before-seen shops and designs. What you can find in one country, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to find them in another. It’s kind of like getting a one-of-a-kind piece that no one else back home will have — only you.
Japan is one of the best countries to shop in, with various unique styles that originated from the country itself and thousands of local shops selling at affordable prices. In fact, it’s those underground, low-key ones that have the best bargains and stuff. But of course, not all good things are easy — don’t expect all the shopowners to be able to speak English.
So why not pick up some Japanese phrases to help you snag that cute, one-of-a-kind coat? I’ve compiled a list of them along with essential words that’ll definitely help you get around Japan’s shopping universe!
~ wa arimasu ka? (〜はありますか？)
If you’ve read a couple of the other posts on the blog, you’d probably have come across this phrase before. That’s because “~wa arimasu ka?” (〜ありますか？) is extremely useful in every situation. This phrase translates to “Do you have …?” How many times have you asked a staff lady if they have something in a specific colour or size, or if they sell a specific product? I lost count for myself.
It cuts down a whole lot of time searching around by myself — I’ll just approach someone who knows the store better than I do. Don’t panic; this phrase is a yes or no question, so the replies could only be one of two ways: yes (はい) or no (いいえ).
If you want to know if they sell hats, simply add the word for “hat” at the front of the phrase: “boushi wa arimasu ka?” (帽子はありますか？). Same goes for asking for a different colour or size — just add the word for the colour or the size at the front: “aka wa arimasuka?” (赤はありますか？) means “Do you have it in red?” and “eru saizu arimasu ka?” (エルサイズありますか？) means “Do you have L size?”
Here are some words that you can use with this phrase:
Red — Aka (赤)
Blue — Ao (青)
Green — Midori (緑)
Yellow — kiiro (黄色)
Orange — orenji (オレンジ)
Purple — Murasaki (紫)
White — Howaito (ホワイト)
Black — Kuro (黒)
Pink — pinku (ピンク)
Dress — Wanpisu (ワンピス)
Fancy dress — Doresu (ドレス)
Watch — Tokei (時計)
Scarf — Sukaafu (スカーフ)
Shirt — Shatsu (シャツ)
Shoes — Kutsu (靴)
Pants — Zubon (ズボン)
Jacket — Jaketto (ジャケット)
S — esu (エス)
M — emu (エム)
L — eru (エル)
Big — ookii (大きい)
Small— chiisai (小さい)
Kono hen ni ~ arimasu ka? (この辺に〜ありますか？)
Japan has a lot of stores lined up on a single street — it can get overwhelming and confusing. Where’s the nearest shopping mall? Where can I find the drugstore? I swear Google Maps said the bookstore is here…
All these questions, who to ask, and how? Easy, with this phrase: “kono hen ni … arimasu ka?” (この辺に〜ありますか？). This translates to “Is there a … around here?” I bet you noticed the phrase we used earlier — yup, I told you, it’s extremely flexible.
If you’re looking for a supermarket, simply add that in the gap: “kono hen ni suupaamaaketto arimasu ka?” (この辺にスーパーマーケットありますか？). Similarly, it’s a yes or no question, so expect a yes or no reply — with a twist; there will be directions given most of the time, but that’s a whole other article on its own.
Here are some words of places to help you with your direction-asking:
Shop — mise (店)
Bookstore — honya (本屋)
Drug store — doraggusutoa (ドラッグストア)
Convenience store — konbini (コンビニ)
Department store — depaato (デパート)
~ sagashite imasu (〜探しています)
If you want a level up from asking if they have something or not, why not tell them what you’re looking for instead? To say “I’m looking for …”, say “~ sagashite imasu” (〜探しています).
For example, if you’re looking for a black shirt, combine the word for black and shirt with this phrase: “kuroi shatsu wo sagashite imasu” (黒いシャツ探しています). You can basically switch out anything you’re looking for and it’ll work just the same. You can even add “arimasu ka?” at the end to ask if they have what you’re looking for.
Shichaku shitemo ii desu ka? (試着してもいいですか？)
When you’re in a store, it’s only natural to want to try something on to see if it’s your size and if it suits you. I mean, that’s the only difference between shopping in-store and online. So how do you ask the staff person if you can try it on? With this phrase: “shichaku shitemo ii desu ka?” (試着してもいいですか？)
Unlike the others, this is a phrase on its on without the need to add any other words to it. It’s pretty straightforward — say it a few times and you’ll have it permanently locked in your brain.
~ sugimasu (〜すぎます)
So, after you’ve tried it on, it’s just not the right size. It may have been too big or too small — either way, you have no idea how to tell the staff person because you don’t know the words for it!
Don’t fret, this phrase is exactly that. “~ sugimasu” (〜すぎます) is like saying “it’s too…”, so to say something is too big, add the word for big before it: “ookisugimasu” (大きすぎます). If something is too small, add the word for small instead: “chisasugimasu” (小さすぎます).
And that’s all there is to it!
Nanji ~ aitemasu ka? (何時〜空いてますか？ )
When you’re travelling, opening hours seem to be extra important — that extra hour in the morning or an extra half hour of nighttime shopping is the game we all play. Most of the time, the opening hours reflected on Google Maps are up-to-date, but some local shops won’t even be listed on Google Maps. How does one figure out the opening times then?Ask, of course. This phrase gets you the opening and closing times depending on what word you use in the gap: “Nanji ~ aitemasu ka?” (何時〜空いてますか？). This phrase basically translates to “ … what time does it open?”
To ask what time does it close, add the word “made” (まで) to mean “until” in the gap: “Nanji made aitemasu ka?” (何時まで空いてますか？) This translates to “until what time do you open?”
To ask what time does it open, use “kara” (から) to mean “from” instead: “Nanji kara aitemasu ka?” (何時から空いてますか？). This means “from what time do you open?”
Ikura desu ka? (いくらですか？)
Most of the time, the price tags are plastered on each garment and accessory, but on the off chance it’s not, you need to be able to ask, “How much is it?” This phrase is exactly that. Approach the staff lady, point to the item and ask, “ikura desu ka?” (いくらですか？)
Be sure to practice your numbers in Japanese! It can get quite confusing — hyaku (百), sen (千) and man (万) do not exactly work the same way as hundreds and thousands.
~ onegaishimasu (〜お願いします )
So you figured out the price, found your size and colour, and you’re at the cash register. How are you going to pay? Cash or card? Do you want a bag? How are you going to convey all of that?
With “~ onegaishimasu” (〜お願いします) — duh! It’s like our first phrase where it’s pretty flexible and extremely useful. Want to pay by cash? Add the word for cash (現金, genkin) before that: “genkin onegaishimasu” (現金お願いします). How about card (クレジットカード, kurejitto kaado): “kurejitto kaado onegaishimasu” (クレジットカードカードお願いします).
Want a bag to put it all in? “Kaban onegaishimasu” (カバンお願いします) does the trick!
And you’re all set for your shopping trip in Japan! You’re able to find your stuff, ask for the right colour and size, get the location and opening hours of the store you’re looking for, figure out the price and pay for it — that’s all the steps! Now get your shopping shoes on and grab that credit card, and get shopping!
You know how when you travel, you’d spend hours and hours in souvenir shops, picking out the best takeaway for yourself as well as your friend and family back home? I know I’m guilty of that. The souvenir culture is huuuuge everywhere in the world — that explains the streets of souvenir shops full of city landscapes printed on shirts, magnets and keychains.
In Japan, even if you go to a different prefecture in the same country, it’s kind of obligatory to bring back a souvenir — or in this case, omiyage (お土産). Omiyage is actually so much more than just a souvenir; we’ll talk about that in detail later on in the article.
This omiyage culture can be extremely foreign to…well, foreigners. So much that it can take quite a bit of getting used to. Don’t get scared off just yet — here’s a breakdown of what it is, where the culture came from and a simple guide on how to pick the perfect omiyage.
What is “omiyage”?
First off, what is omiyage actually? To know what it actually means, we’ll have to break down the kanji of the word: 土 means “earth/ground” and 産 means “product”. Combine the two, the word “omiyage” can translate to being a “local product”, given as a gift when returning from a trip.
Usually, omiyage comes in boxes that are brightly coloured, with individually wrapped snacks that are perfect for sharing amongst people at work, school and even at home. In some cultures, mine included, bringing back a piece of the place you visited isn’t really that big of a deal, but in Japan, it’s customary — it’s like a social taboo if you don’t do it!
The significance of omiyage
Why the strong emphasis on omiyage? It’s basically the idea of sharing your experience, to explain it briefly. Oftentimes, omiyage is something that’s specific to the region you visited. Whether it’s sweets or other types of food, as long as the area is known for that, it’ll make an ideal omiyage.
For example, Okinawa is known for goya and sweet potato — so pick your omiyage based on that. By bringing back the region’s specialty, you’re giving the people a chance to try a regional product that you possibly can’t get outside of the area — although nowadays, you probably can, but that doesn’t matter!
So, where did this omiyage culture come from? To be very honest, no one really knows. But it all started from sacred pilgrimages. People who visited Shinto shrines were to bring back some sort of evidence of their pilgrimage. Back then, omiyage comes in the form of charms and rice wine cups. They believed that people who have these items would be blessed just like the pilgrims themselves.
In those days, food preservation wasn’t that common. It was pretty limited and people were traveling on foot, so baggage was kept at a minimum to keep it light. When the railway system was built, it made transporting food so much easier. I guess that’s how omiyage transitioned to mostly be food — even though it’s not limited to that.
Omiyage vs souvenir
So the question remains: what’s the difference between omiyage and souvenir? Omiyage is usually translated to “souvenir” in English, but there’s a slight difference.
Souvenir is more often than not used to refer to takeaways from a country that you buy for yourself, and maybe a lucky few friends and family. Omiyage refers to things that you buy solely for others. You’re thinking about them when you buy it — that’s what makes it extra special. While souvenirs are what you keep for yourself, omiyage is not consumed or kept by the traveller.
What’s more, souvenirs don’t have to be a specialised item from the area, but for omiyage, it has to be. It’s like bringing back matcha (抹茶) from Japan and not a bag of chips — bad comparison, but hopefully you get the idea.
How to pick the perfect omiyage?
It sounds like a lot of work, picking out the perfect omiyage. But there’s a simple solution to the ideal omiyage anywhere you go: food. Anything edible makes the perfect omiyage for your coworkers, friends and family.
If you’re choosing omiyage in Japan, you’ll soon realise you’ll have quite a hard time picking just one because souvenir shops in the country are full of them! I know I have a hard time every time — which do I buy for myself and which do I give out to others?
Definitely choose something that has a nice packaging — ideally with something that represents the region you went to. You might want to consider the cost as well; keep it between 500 to 1500 yen, but I’d recommend getting one with a nice label on it.
A lot of omiyage products in Japan are individually packed for this very convenience of sharing with others. They come in 6, 10, 12 and 18 most of the time. Calculate how many people are there in your workplace or family — and buy accordingly. The more food there is, the merrier, I’d say.
If you’re travelling during a special time like Christmas or Valentine’s Day, get those limited edition ones! It gives the extra umph to your omiyage cred!
Also, buy it on the last day of your trip! Even though a lot of omiyage can last quite a while, now with the modern technology of food preservation, I would advise keeping the omiyage picking activity as the last event so that the food would be fresher — and also not have to go through all the bumpy train and car rides.
And there you have it — the omiyage culture is actually not that scary. It’s pretty simple once you’ve gotten the basics down. And don’t worry, we usually get the “gaijin pass”, as I’d like to call it — which is when the Japanese people understand that us foreigners aren’t used to their ways. But it’s always best to know all of the ins and outs, right? Like they say, “when in Japan, do what the Japanese do” — or did I not get that right?
Ask any of my friends — they’re at the point where they’re sick of hearing me talk about the moon. I’m obsessed with it, so imagine my excitement when I found out that the moon has quite the significance in Japanese culture.
And when I say significant, I mean significant. They have a whole festival just for moon viewing — which I’ll talk about more at a later part.
Along with that, we’ll take a look at the various representations the moon has, as well as the rare and beautiful blood moon — quite an untapped topic when talking about the moon and Japan. So stick around to fill yourself with all of these exciting info and more!
The Moon in Japanese Culture
Japan is famously called “The Land of the Rising Sun”, but this island nation has a long association with the moon, it becoming an important part of their culture and beliefs. Religion in Japan is a mixture of traditional Shinto as well as Zen Buddhism — both having a strong appreciation for the beauty of earthly creations. Shinto centers on the spirit of nature while Zen Buddhism concentrates on selflessness and enlightenment.
The Japanese mood god is called Tsukuyomi in Shinto and the sun goddess is Amaterasu. The moon god’s sister takes the stage most of the time, but at night, Tsukuyomi embodies all the positive things of the dark sky — spirituality, dreams and energy balance. In Zen Buddhism, the moon symbolises enlightenment.
Regardless of which religion one is in, the Japanese people collectively look up to the moon as a positive force in their beliefs.
Japanese Moon Festival
The moon is so greatly respected that there is even a holiday in Japan for moon-viewing: Tsukimi (月見). This traditional ceremony takes place in autumn to honor the autumn moon, also known as the harvest moon (名月, meigetsu), expressing gratitude and pray for a successful seasonal harvest.
There isn’t a fixed date each year — it greatly depends on the lunar calendar. It falls on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month, so it’s usually between mid-September and the beginning of October.
Tsukimi goes way back to the Nara period of 710AD to 794AD. It originally was just a basic moon-viewing party for the upper class, the elite, who have boat gatherings and listen to music under the stars and the moon’s reflection. It caught on in the 1600s when even the commoners celebrate it — maybe not on boats as such.
How is it celebrated?
Nowadays, the practice and customs of Tsukimi are practiced even a few days leading up to the full moon instead of just on the day itself — regardless of whether or not the moon is visible. Some Japanese people will burn incense, visit shrines and offer the food of their harvest to the Shinto gods.
Decorations are somewhat huge when it comes to Tsukimi. You’ll often see susuki (ススキ, pampas grass) — since it’s the tallest in the autumn season — and other autumn flowers placed at home or around the area for the moon-viewing party. Of course, they’re arranged in the traditional Japanese flower arrangement, ikebana (生け花). Suzuki is used in a bunch of five to ten plumes to resemble rice plants, and believed to prevent any evil from entering the area. Arranging them on the roof is offering it to the moon god.
If you see stacked dango (団子) as decorations, that’s pretty normal. It’s chosen as offerings as it represents the beauty of the moon — round and pure white. These white dumplings made of rice are often presented in 15 to represent the fifteenth of the month, or sometimes 12 to represent the number of months in the year.
Don’t worry, you can also eat these dango. Actually, eating them is part of the customs fo the festival — believed to bring happiness and good health. Unlike the other times of the year, dango during this festival aren’t skewered or seasoned; only plain, and they’re known as the tsukimi dango (月見団子).
“Rabbit In The Moon”
Have you ever heard of the “Rabbit In the Moon”? I bet you’ve heard of the “Man on the Moon” — but the Japanese have their own beliefs. See the pattern on the moon? The Japanese people believe that the moon’s craters resemble an image of a rabbit pounding mochi (もち, rice cake) with a mallet.
See, there’s a backstory to that. In Japanese folklore, a rabbit didn’t get its ticket to the moon by hitchhiking on Apollo 11, but rather he was brought to the moon by a mythical man. It’s all because this special rabbit was willing to throw himself into a fire and roast himself alive when the moon man, disguised as a beggar, asked the animals for food. As a reward, the rabbit got a one-way ticket to the moon!
The Rare Blood Moon
If you look up tales about the moon in Japanese culture, you’re probably going to get Sailor Moon-related articles as well as everything else I’ve mentioned above. But what you won’t usually get is the tea on the rare blood moon. Our world is full of magical happenings waiting to be discovered — the blood moon that graces us with its appearance once ever so often is definitely one of them.
In our day and age of modern technology and science, we’re just a click of a button away from feeding our curiosity about the world, but the people in the olden days weren’t as lucky. If we want to know why Earth’s natural satellite turns red every few years or so, we just go on the Internet. Imagine what the ancient people were thinking when the only natural light of the night sky turned red all of a sudden? If it were me, I bet I would freak out! So rest assured some of them did.
So of course, since the Japanese have been around for so long, they have their own superstitions and mythology about this beautiful — at the time, scary — crimson light.
Why does the moon turn red?
Our moon as we know it is either white or yellow — sometimes orange. We all want to know why it turns red. Well, a blood moon is only possible during a full moon — when the moon is on the other side of Earth, making our lovely planet in between the sun and moon. Another factor that is required for a blood moon to happen is that it also has to be during a lunar eclipse.
See, a full moon happens every lunar month, but a lunar eclipse happens less often; about two to four times a year. The moon doesn’t orbit the Earth in the same position each time — it’s tilted following how the Earth is as it orbits around the sun. The blood moon doesn’t always appear every lunar eclipse, because there are three types of lunar eclipse: total lunar eclipse, partial lunar eclipse and penumbral lunar eclipse. Each of them refers to the different ways the moon passes through the Earth’s shadow.
The total lunar eclipse is when the moon is fully covered by the Earth’s shadow — but this total block doesn’t hide the moon, but it causes the moon to take on the reflection of the Earth’s light (this is also when the blood moon can possibly happen). The partial lunar eclipse is when the sun, moon and Earth aren’t that aligned, so the moon would be partially blocked, resulting in the moon looking like it’s been bitten off. The penumbral lunar eclipse can’t be seen as much, because it’s when the moon goes out of the Earth’s main shadow area — it’ll be lightly shaded, but nothing so visible to the naked eye.
When the Earth, sun and moon are in perfect alignment (the total lunar eclipse), the Earth casts a shadow onto the moon, partially or fully blocking the sun’s light. The moon gets its light from the Earth’s reflection through the planet’s atmosphere. Our beautiful planet gives out blue and red light the strongest since it’s the least altered during the filtration process. That’s when you’ll be lucky enough to witness the red moon.
Sometimes you won’t get a full-on red colour — depending on the dust, pollution and clouds in the atmosphere, it can come off orange. The more particles there are, the darker the colour red would be. And the same for the opposite — the fewer particles there are, the lighter the colour is.
Myths on the blood moon
There have been tons of mythology of the blood moon throughout history and in various cultures, and of course, the Japanese have their own. Usually, it’s linked to something bad — I mean, it is lit up in blood red…who wouldn’t think it’s the sign of evil?
In Japan, there isn’t one myth, because in the ancient days, Japan wasn’t just one single country but consisted of multiple civilisations that could’ve been considered their own individual countries.
At the end of the Heian period and the beginning of the Mamkura period, the Japanese people then considered the blood moon as a sign that something bad would happen. Historical names such as Kujo Kanemi and Minamoto no Yoritomo have written about the blood moon. Kujo did a specific type of Buddhist practice to prevent bad occurrences during a blood moon; the first shogun of the Kamakura Shogunate stayed inside to avoid the blood moon lunar eclipse. There was also a famous poet during the Heian period, Saigyo, who mentioned in one of his poems about the lunar eclipse when the blood moon happens — and naturally, it had a bad outlook on the blood moon.
Another one of the Japanese myths about the blood moon is connected to the ancient Japanese mythology about Amaterasu, the sun goddess. In the Kokiji, the oldest and most ancient Japanese books in history, Amaterasu entered a cave because of a blood moon and only came out when she was lured out by a mirror.
Superstitions of the blood moon
Even in this modern day, there are still superstitions around. Of course, back then, coincidences become superstitions. Bad happenings on a blood moon may be a coincidence, but the ancient people definitely didn’t think so. People believe that the blood moon alters the Earth and human behavior negatively.
I bet you’ve heard that a full moon can affect tides and currents — so naturally, people believe a blood moon can significantly affect them and ultimately cause tsunamis. A lunar eclipse does mean that the moon is closer to the Earth, affecting the tides due to gravitational forces, but studies proved that tsunamis are caused by geographical events on Earth rather than tidal effect – canceling out the superstition on the blood moon’s effects.
Even till now, many still believe that a blood moon causes earthquakes. There have been studies that show an earthquake on a blood moon to be stronger than normal, but other studies concluded that there is no apparent connection between the two.
Another superstition is that the blood moon can affect one’s behaviour — to the extremes of acting crazy and reacting violently. That’s where the word “lunatic” and “lunacy” comes from as well — the Latin word for moon is “luna”. Luckily for us, there’s no scientific evidence for those.
Regardless of the negative associations of the blood moon, I still love the moon. It is Earth’s natural satellite, greeting us every night. Whatever colour it is — white, yellow or red — it still has a great impact in Japanese culture. Positive or negative influence, the moon is a beautiful part of nature that creates natural phenomena from time to time, and we’re all just lucky to be able to see some of them from the comfort of our planet.
So we know that there’s more than one way to say hello and thank you, so what about saying sorry? That’s no different — of course, in Japanese, there are a few paths you can take to apologise.
In any language, seeking someone’s forgiveness is not easy. An apology has to be genuine, sincere and convey the full emotion you’re giving. There’s also the part of the culture — the social norm back home that calls for an apology might not be the case somewhere else in the world. And Japan is more than known to be the country that is different in every and all aspects.
If you’ve read the article on the various ways to say thank you, you’d know that in some cases, an apology is more accepted than thanks. That’s just one example of how saying sorry is used only in Japan and not anywhere else in the world.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at the several forms of apology — from casual to formal and everything in between.
The first on our list of apologies is definitely every foreigner’s first apology word: gomennasai (ごめんなさい). Let’s admit it — we know about this even before stepping into our first Japanese lesson. We hear it in anime and Japanese movies or dramas. For some of us, we hear it on the streets of Japan itself.
Gomennasai isn’t considered too formal nor too casual. It’s pretty much the neutral apology. You can use it for people who are older than you, your friends, or even people on the lower social status as you — flexible, right?
If you do want to make it even less formal, cut it short to gomen (ごめん). This one, however, can be perceived as too casual in some cases. For example, if you’re apologising to your parents, the polite version of gomennasai is much more acceptable than gomen. Gomen can be used to people of the same age or lower. Add a “ne” at the end to make gomenne (ごめんね) for a softer, cuter tone — I advise girls to do it when apologising to your boyfriend; I bet their hearts will go soft and forgive you instantly.
If you want to bump it up a notch to show your deepest sincerity, add hontoni (本当に) before the apology form: hontoni gomennasai (本当にごめんなさい) or hontoni gomen (本当にごめん). You could also use sugoku (すごく) instead of hontoni — they both mean the same thing, more or less.
Our second form of apology is another common one — in fact, one might argue it’s the most commonly used one of them all. I’ve introduced this phrase as one of the ways to say thank you, but it actually holds the meaning of an apology. Some may say it’s more of a lax apology than anything…which is somewhat true.
If you accidentally bump into someone on the street or commit a social faux pas, go in with a sumimasen (すみません) and that will suffice. It’s a laidback and casual apology without really losing its politeness.
Sumimasen can also be used like “excuse me” — as in, “excuse me, can you get out of my way?” If someone is blocking your way out the train door at your stop, a simple “sumimasen” to the crowd would do just the trick. Another situation is when you’re trying to get the waiter’s attention at a restaurant — raise your hand ever so slightly and semi-shout “sumimasen”.
Sumimasen can also hold a sense of thankfulness and gratitude — that’s why, in some situations, the Japanese people would use it instead of saying arigatou (ありがとう) to thank someone. I guess that’s because the word “sumimasen” has the literal meaning of “it cannot be completed or settled”. So when one uses “sumimasen” as a thank you, it’s as if they’re saying “I cannot thank you enough for going out of your way just for me” or “I cannot fully express to you my remorse, so I apologise.”
Anyway, aside from using it as a thank you, a daily example to use sumimasen to apogise is when you’re late to something — do note that in Japanese culture, being late is an extreme no-no. Even being on time is considered late; being early is being on time.
So when you’re past the time to meet, add the conjugated form of “okureru” (遅れる), to mean late, with sumimasen: “okurete sumimasen” (遅れてすみません).
I often hear this in a Japanese drama when someone is interrupting something — that is one of the ways to use this form of apology. Shitsureishimasu (失礼します) comes from the word shitsurei (失礼), which means “impoliteness” — so the phrase can roughly translate to “oh, I’m being impolite” or “oh, my mistake.”
Most of the time, this expression is used in business situations due to its semi-formal tone. When you have troubled another person or, say, walk into your boss’ office and interrupt his daily work, before anything else, you can say “shitsureishimasu”.
If you watch the local news, you probably would hear this quite often. When the newscaster mispronounces something or delivered the wrong information, they would use this form of apology instead of the others. You would even hear some people say the expression before hanging up the phone.
For an even more polite and sincere version, add “taihen” (大変) before it as it translates to “greatly” in English: “taihen shitsureishimashita” (大変失礼しました).
Similar to shitsureishimasu, this form of apology is used when interrupting someone. Ojamashimasu (お邪魔します) comes from the word ojama (お邪魔) which means “intrusion”. Oftentimes, this expression is used when you’re visiting someone’s house — so before you enter, you usually say this.
You can also use it in business situations when you’re walking into a meeting or someone’s office. The difference between “shitsureishimasu” and “ojamashimasu” is that the latter can only be used when interrupting something, whereas the former is more flexible and multi-purpose.
I personally only ever use it when entering someone’s house or room. There is a sense of politeness to it rather than apologising, though.
Moushi wake arimasen (申し訳ありません)
Onto our next one — a very formal one, actually. We always need a way to apologise to our higher-ups at the office, especially the big boss. I mean, we don’t mean to do anything wrong, but it’ll definitely come one day, wouldn’t it?
So, prepare yourself with moushi wake arimasen (申し訳ありません). This is the ultimate apology to use in business situations that show extreme sincerity. It’s kind of like the humble form of “sumimasen” — expressing how apologetic you are indirectly. Because of the humbleness factor, it’s the perfect one to use in business as it increases the respect clothes have for you.
One phrase you’ll hear with this form of apology is “gomeiwaku o okakeshite, moushi wake arimasen” (ご迷惑をおかけして申し訳ありません). This translates to “I sincerely apologise for the inconvenience caused.” The Japanese people don’t like causing inconvenience to others — it’s just in their culture to have everything run as smoothly as possible. Everyone’s kind of careful to not trouble others with their actions and words. If and when a situation comes up where they have accidentally inconvenienced someone else, you’ll definitely hear this phrase being used.
I’ll also give an example of how you can use it in a business setting. Say you were on a holiday and didn’t check your emails or pick up any of your calls, and when you go to the office on the first working day back, you realised you’ve missed out on tons of emails. Use this phrase: “gorenraku ga osokunarimashite taihen moushi wake gozaimasen” (ご連絡は遅くなりまして大変申し訳ございません). You probably realised I used “moushi wake gozaimasen” instead of “arimasen”, but that’s because the former is even more polite. This phrase translates to “I’m terribly sorry for the late response.” Use this in your email or when you call back the client.
Kanben shite (勘弁して)
This form of apology has a double meaning, one of it being an apology — but more of like an intense, “have mercy on me!” kind of way. Actually, that’s exactly what kanben shite (勘弁して) means. If you really screwed up, say “kanben shite kudasai” (勘弁してください). It expresses that you’re completely wrecked with guilt and in desperate need of forgiveness.
The other meaning, which is the one I use for more often than as an apology, is like “oh for goodness’ sake!” I hear — and learned — it in dramas and anime, where if your friend is being ridiculous and you kind of want to say to him “oh, please!”, they would use “kanben shite kure yo!” (勘弁してくれよ！). It’s like “give me a break, will ya?”
Onto our last one, sumanai (すまない). If you haven’t caught onto it just yet, it’s the slang form of sumimasen. More often than not, the guys would use this form of apology — not so much the girls — and they use it to replace “gomennasai”.
Even though sumimasen has a polite and formal tone, sumanai is quite the opposite. I’d say it’s the most casual form of apology on the whole list. With that being said, don’t use it to your superiors or anyone above your social status rank — only use it with close friends, maybe good colleagues and workers below you.
And that wraps up the various forms of apology — some with more subtle nuances for specific situations, others extremely general and multi-purpose. Saying sorry can be quite a nerve-wracking thing, especially in a culture like the Japanese where there’s more than one way to express your deepest regret. However, I’m confident that these seven ways cover most situations when it comes to saying sorry in Japanese.