Or: Don’t make the same mistakes I did.
I work in a large IT company with offices in Japan, among other places, and so in my efforts to learn Japanese, I have tried to use it when communicating with Japanese staff. Unfortunately, as I am quickly realizing, formal Business Japanese is quite different than regular Japanese, even the stuff you study for the JLPT exam. At least the Level 3 JLPT exam.1 While it’s still the same language, there are important differences to be aware of if you really want to do it right.
So, a Japanese co-worker, has been giving me some helpful tips that I wanted to pass on:
- When speaking with clients or vendors (i.e. people outside your company), you should always begin an email with itsumo osewa ni narimasu (いつもお世話になります).
- When speaking with someone within the company, you should begin the email instead with otsukaresama desu (お疲れ様です).
- Word choice matters a lot. The regular, more “native” words are often too informal or conversational, while the imported “Chinese-style” words, or kango (漢語) are more formal. For example, the word oshieru (教える) can mean “to tell”, but if writing an email, a more appropriate term might be kisai suru (記載する) meaning “to describe, to state”.2 Another example is rikai suru (理解する) instead of wakaru (分かる).
- Also, when addressing an external client or vendor you can add “go” or “o” to verbs and nouns. So, using the example above, kisai suru (記載する) would become go-kisai suru (ご記載する). However, never never never use the polite “go” or “o” to refer to yourself, your company, or anyone in your “group“.
- Also, when stating intention, don’t use volitional Japanese like shimashō (しましょう) as it can sound too assertive. Instead water it down and use the more neutral, more bland shimasu (します) or something along those lines.
- Also, like formal business emails in general, keep the tone bland as much as possible. American-style friendliness just won’t work.
- Indirect, passive language is preferred in formal situations as opposed to direct language. Make good use of the passive-case of verbs where feasible. They are used in keigo (honorific) language quite a bit too!
Of course, Japanese are patient and understanding if you make mistakes. After all, people are people,3 and learning any business language is always hard, but if you really screw up, and a sincere apology works too. Of course, to make a cake you have to break a few eggs. It’s just that it’s good to avoid mistakes where possible.
I’ll pass along more tips as I learn them. Good luck in your efforts!
Namu Amida Butsu
Update: Added more tips, updated the footnotes to new format.
1 – Actually, basic keigo (respectful language) and kenjōgo (humble language) are included in the JLPT 3 exam. Westerners who study Japanese tend to rely too much on textbook formal Japanese, and don’t make use of keigo and kenjogo enough. In social situations where someone is older than you, you can really communicate better when you master some basic keigo and kenjogo. They will understand you either way, but using respectful language will show that you appreciate the culture better, with its emphasis on hierarchy. It’s hard to get used to this since we don’t use it much in English, but “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
2 Thanks to reader “Maxx” for pointing out that kisai suru is used in a written context only.