The Pain of Buying

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Living in a country where the people don’t speak your language is a very isolating experience. Suddenly simple everyday tasks such as ordering food at a counter become nerve wracking ordeals fraught with social peril. This is especially the case in a country such as Japan, where social customs are so important. There are patterns of behavior which are expected in so many situations, and deviating from these paths caused lots of trouble for the many flustered, inflexible Japanese people we met working in shops, restaurants, banks and post offices. Did you know that the Japanese language has an entirely different vocabulary in situations such as dealing with a fast-food register operator, because of the social hierarchy of the customer being “above” the employee? This is called “keigo”. The Japanese language has many honorifics, parts of speech which show respect, and their use is mandatory in many social situations. So not only is it difficult for foreigners such as myself to navigate their way through this seemingly endless minefield of faux pas due to their ignorance of the expected modes of behavior in a situation, even for those visitors who speak some Japanese they can still be screwed because customer service employees often seem to be speaking another language. They worked so hard to efface themselves in my presence and what they actually ended up doing was making it much harder for me not to cause them embarrassment when it was obvious I had no idea what they just said.

Ok, so this is a problem. But it isn’t an insurmountable one. Just pick up the vocab they are using, go away and study it, right? Then find out what the correct response is. Well…

Knowing the correct response doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, and in fact can fool the clerk into thinking that you can actually speak Japanese, eliciting another language puzzle. It’s like an onion: there are layers, and peeling each one back makes you cry.



  1. Shaun Said:

    loving the comics.

    • thatgaijinguy Said:

      Awesome! Keep reading ’em!

  2. Gareth Said:

    Reading this entry made me empathise with Ingrid, because now I want a donut but it would be a pain to get one.

  3. Marco Milone Said:

    I am studying keigo 😦
    I shared your post on fb, I hope that some could understand me!

    • thatgaijinguy Said:

      Awesome! Thanks for spreading the word of keigo pain

  4. Rob Morris Said:

    Alan, this is exactly my experience in Estonia speaking Estonian, as well. I feel Ingrid’s pain. Thanks to (a lot of) practice, I can now navigate my way through most commercial transactions without too much of a hitch, now.

    But even with something as simple as ordering a coffee, there are a surprisingly large number of ways that a question like “here or take away” can be asked – often that don’t use any of the key words an amateur is expecting (e.g. “On the table or in the hand?”)

    Another difficulty of living in a foreign country while learning the language is when everyone at parties switches to English when you’re involved in that specific conversation, then back to their own language as soon as you’re not. There’s a certain weight of responsibility felt, that they’re all speaking in a less comfortable language JUST FOR YOU – particularly if you’re not that interested in the subject. 🙂

  5. Paula V Said:

    I enjoy these comics/entries so much- and it has been ages. Please continue them when you go back to Japan 🙂

  6. Kim Said:

    Wow, I’m so not looking forward to navigating such transactions with *zero Japanese*. Trent says we will be fine, though.


    (*hyperventilates into a paper bag*)

    • Ingrid Said:

      Yeah, you’ll be fine. Sometimes it’s better to know nothing than something. Japan will be one of those times for you. Just look as perplexed as you feel, and I’m sure it’ll be OK. But if you have any special requests (like “Can I try this on?”), I can ask for you 🙂

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