Numbers in Japan

AbacusIn my experience the Japanese are better at maths than us Brits. Whereas for years we have been taught “new Maths” where calculators are an integral part of the process, Japanese children are still taught by rote, in a similar way that people of my age in the UK were made to recite times tables. The Japanese however have an easier time remembering as most Japanese numbers can be pronounced as words or part of words. For example a friend uses his name as his ATM pin number. Not probably the most secure approach, but easy to remember when he needs emergency cash during a night out.

In the classroom young kids learn from reciting songs like the cuckoo one word for which “juichi” can be read as eleven and “kukuu” can mean 99.

The other major difference is the use of the “soroban” or abacus. This plus the fact that Japanese numbers have always been given in multiples of ten and are expressed as ten one, ten two, two ten one etcetera without the need for the incongruous eleven, twelve and twenty one.

It is truly impressive to watch a competent abacus user rattle through the sums. The accounts clerk in my office in Osaka could click her way through the monthly sales ledger at 10 times the speed I would manage on my then state-of-the-art analogue adding machine and probably if we made the comparison today, 100 times faster than my amateurish attempts on an Excel spread sheet.

In Japan, China and Korea, use of the abacus is the cornerstone of arithmetic and has become a competitive activity in Japan where annual national abacus tournaments are held. The highest level of these competitions gives way to “empty abacus” contests where sums are done” in the head” using abacus techniques. The leading exponents of this art can manage multi digit, multi layered equations in fractions of seconds.

There may however be some hope for us. My grandson who is seven can comfortably recite the results of the times tables such as 12, 24, 36 etc. whereas the old lady and I need to start with once twelve is twelve, two twelves are twenty four and on. Unlike me he can do this without tapping his feet.

Guilty Pleasures – Enka

I am slightly embarrassed to say that I enjoy enka. Enka is a Japanese ballad form, popular from the sixties to the eighties and now somewhat in decline.

Enka songs are invariably sad and sentimental; an ideal background to what a cockney friend called “a good drink and a cry”. They usually describe relationships between men and women, often set in the “mizu shobai” world of bars and karaoke clubs, where they are frequently sung. Enka still have a general appeal to older people in Japan and feature on NHK’s New Year Kōhaku Uta Gassen, “red and white song competition”.

My favourites include work by the female singer Yashiro Aki. She sings about lost love and a woman’s modest hopes of happiness, in songs such as “mo ichido aitai” and “onna no yume”. In my humble opinion the daddy of them all was Kobayashi Akira who in his song “mukashi no namae de deteimasu”, tells the story of a lonely drinker’s ongoing desire for a nightclub hostess who leaves town and changes her name. Another song that captures this mood is “sake to namida to otoko to onna”, “booze and tears and men and women”, but I am not sure if it is enka or early J-pop.

It is worth bearing in mind that Japan invented karaoke. Whilst the private karaoke room is a newish phenomenon, most entertainment districts have for years had a plethora of karaoke establishments ranging from several hundred seat hostess clubs, to rooms with space for two or three customers, run by a hobby “mama san”; who will pour your drinks and join you in a duet.

I am an unlikely karaoke performer; being both tone deaf and unable to read Japanese. It is however difficult to refuse to sing when you are with colleagues or clients who have all taken their turn on the mike. In the early days, in some establishments, the choice was either sing enka, or a western song without the benefit of a backing track, so I went for the former. This was often done with the help of a friend reading the lyrics aloud a line ahead of me singing them. Even with the significant echo and reverb on these professional machines, I still sounded rubbish, but if everyone had drunk enough, it didn’t matter.

The only time I have felt particularly self conscious was in a karaoke club in Osaka, where after I completely murdered a song, it became apparent that the owner was a professional enka singer, and outside of my group, the guests were her semi-professional students.

By far my preference is to listen rather than sing. I imagine that I am probably the only Surrey resident with Yashiro Aki on his I-pod.


An Irish friend took over as teacher of an English language class in Kobe and was immediately accused by of “talking funny” by a student. This in itself would be unusually impolite, but as it was delivered in  broad West Midlands dialect was hilarious. It is not unusual to pick up the accent of your language teacher or of the area that you studied in. A Japanese acquaintance, who studied in Bristol or Brissle as he calls it, has a great West Country accent.

Japan has a rich variety of dialects and whilst everyone understands standard Japanese, the variation in local language between Tohoku and Kyushu is enormous. I learned Japanese in Osaka and Kobe and the local “hogen” made an obvious mark on the way I speak the language.

The major difference between Osakaben and standard Japanese is that the intonation is more up and down. Also most verb endings are different. Wakarimasen becomes wakarahen, shimaimashita is shimota and the long wided shinakereba narimasen meaning must do becomes a compact sen akan. Contractions are common chigau or different becomes chau, omoshiroi (interesting) is omoroi  There are also a whole list of vocabulary that is uniquely Kansai; an idiot is aho, tired is shindoi, so-so is bochi-bochi and lots more.

Some of the phrases for which Osaka is famous have fallen out of use. The tourist guides tell you that all Osakans greet each other with mokarimakka to enquire about the state of business.I have never actually heard this expression outside of self deprecating jokes. Maido, a sort of all round greeting, like the standard domo-domo is still around, but not used as frequently as the pundits would have you believe. Ookini for thank you can still be heard, but much less frequently than in Kyoto, where you can’t escape it. In Kyoto you will also often be welcomed into drinking establishments with the very feminine greeting of oide yasu. Call me a cynic, but this and other pretty Kyoto expressions seem to have made a revival after the success of the film Memoirs of a Geisha, or Saiyuri as it was titled locally.

Gaijin who learn Japanese in Osaka.face a potential linguistic minefield. Foreigners speaking with a kansai accent and using local expressions are typically considered cute in Kansai, but raise eyebrows in Tokyo, where Osakaben is viewed as the language of small traders and manzai comedy. If Rodney and Delboy from Only Fools and Horses spoke Japanese, they would use Osakaben.

Local slang fits the culture it belongs to. It is easy to ask for a discount in Osakaben, but not in standard Japanese. This is simply because you don’t ask for discounts in Tokyo, whereas it is considered sensible to try your luck in Osaka.

Slang also dates you, as younger friends and the children of older friends regularly point out. Gotsu as an expression of magnitude, gave way to mecha a long time ago and mecha has probably since been replaced by something more edgy. 

For foreigners in Japan, the golden rule is to keep to polite speech in standard Japanese, unless you are with people whom you know really well. Phrases which would earn a drink on the house in Dotonbori or Namba, may lead to scratched heads and wry smiles in Shinjuku.

Weekends in the country

If you were brought up on a diet of British films and soaps, a weekend in the country conjures up ideas of stately homes; dressing for dinner and days spent on grouse moors. For most of us, this hunting, shooting and fishing idyll is a long way from reality and the weekend away is more likely to be spent in a country pub with a nice walk or two thrown in. Nevertheless we were in no way prepared for the experience of our first stay in the Japanese countryside.

Having got used to the endless urban sprawl that extends the length of the Japan Sea coast, we were amazed at what was in store when a friend invited us to stay at his mother’s home in the rural south of Kyushu. After an eventful boat trip from Osaka where we found ourselves sharing a “private cabin” with an unknown couple, we set off on a seemingly endless car journey from Kagoshima that skirted the still smoking Sakurajima volcano. Finally the car stopped in the emptiest space I had seen in Japan; an open vista of terraced paddy fields with two houses in the centre.

One house was a fairly modern construction with a metal roof and sidings; the other was a traditional straw and wood warabuki house. The latter belonged to my friends mum. We were welcomed in and given tea while we watched a huge stag beetle circumnavigate the centre light. On looking around the house, it was obvious that everything about the place was original. Shoji screens separated the tatami rooms from a corridor and kitchen where a cooking pot hung over an open irori fire. The small amount of smoke that came from the charcoal fire escaped freely upwards towards the thatched roof.

My wife at this stage asked directions to the lavatory and was handed a torch and a pair of very tall geta clogs and pointed towards a shack at the end of one of the fields. On asking why the geta were so high, she received the simple explanation – “snakes”. A while after she set off, I heard a scream and teetered down on another set of geta to investigate. I found my wife looking at the open toilet door with the biggest, blackest spider we had ever seen suspended from the centre. I am ashamed to say that using the space behind the lavatory seemed an easier option.

At bath time we were again handed the torch and shown to a lean-to at the side of the house, this contained an iron goemon-buro looking like a cartoon cannibal cooking pot set over an open wood fire. The washing area was a large flat stone level with the top of the pot. We took turns on this and in the bath whilst my friend’s mum made favourable comments about western body shapes.

Nervous exhaustion gave way to sleep and we woke up to the increasingly frenzied clucking of chickens, culminating in what sounded suspiciously like a death rattle. We sat down to a breakfast of rice, satsuma-jiru soup and a plate of raw chicken meat, all washed down by imo shochu, (distilled potato spirit). This was just part of the preparation for the day’s fishing trip which I will tell you about another time.

Onsen etiquette

I enjoy soaking in hot water and have tried the spa experience in several countries. I particularly liked the old-world charm of the Gellert baths in Budapest, although I had mixed feelings about being hosed down and slapped around in the massage room.  We of course have our share of spas in the UK but these seem to concentrate more on offering face packs and bikini waxes; neither of which much appeal to me.

For me the Mecca of hot water is Japan. Even the old local sento baths had their charm, but these have been mostly replaced by neighbourhood saunas. The pinnacle of relaxation however is to be found at the many hot spring resorts. These are normally built around natural hot water sources and range from completely man-made structures to natural rock pools.

As someone who feels relatively at home in Japan, I am of course familiar with the basic bathing rules – wash, shampoo, rinse, rinse and replace stool and bowl and then soak. I have though managed to get other elements of onsen bathing wrong on a number of occasions.

The first time was quite a few years ago when I and a group of friends from Osaka visited Ibusuki Onsen in Kyushu. We arrived, paid and separated into male and female groups, went into our respective changing rooms to emerge naked with several hundred other people in the same mixed sex space. My then redheaded wife (still the same model, but don’t ask) was a little concerned as to where to place the small tenugui towel which she had been issued at reception. My best suggestion was “over your face”.

More recently when visiting friends in Yoshino we decided to stay in a nearby hot spring hotel.  I had arranged to practice kendo in the early evening just after checking in, so declined to eat at the set dinner time. On the way out we learned that there was no food available outside of the fixed mealtime. So when the other guests were digesting their 11 course meal, we sat in out room with a mixed sandwich and a cup noodle each, purchased just in time from the only shop in the village.

On the second night of our stay we made sure that we were in for dinner. This time we ignored the yukata that had been provided in our room and turned up in street clothes – the only people in the room not wearing yukata. The following morning we were among the first in for breakfast, this time wearing yukata. Of course all the other guests were in their street clothes in preparation for check-out.

I have never used my local spa at Pennyhill Park, but at least I know the dress code – bath robe for the pool, jacket and tie for the restaurant and oh yes, bathing costumes to be worn at all times.


I have always been impressed by the punctuality of formal parties in Japan. They start on time, open with a toast and accelerate into a mingling session whilst people circulate with bottles, pouring for each other. Politeness dictates that you take a drink from anyone who offers to pour for you, which invariably means that you consume beer, wine, sake and sometimes whisky in the same session. The saving grace is that there is normally a plentiful supply of food on the table or the side buffet to soak up the alcohol.

Japanese drinking parties end with the same attention to the clock with which they begin and are normally scheduled to run for a set time, often just one hour. The chalenge therefore is to find time to meet everyone, make the rounds with your own bottle and to do justice to the delicious food provided.

At some events, participants are expected to make speeches or take a turn at providing entertainment, performing karaoke, or worse, singing unaccompanied. For the British who are typically slow starters, this can be a daunting task, particularly as the need to switch from serious to fun mode is almost instant. For the busy Japanese, these parties are packed into tight work schedules, and the ability to step from a businesslike to a “let your hair down” personae in seconds, is part of the expected package of social skills.

In the UK our approach to social gatherings is very different. We thrive on the concept of being “fashionably late” and drift in and out of parties at will. We tend to start slowly, and only the most polished partygoers are up to “working the room” shortly after arrival. Instead we tend to stick with our close friends and only branch out after being suitably softened up with alchohol. For some, anticipation is the most important part of the occasion, and I know a number of young ladies who will spend two or three hours getting ready for the event with friends and a bottle of wine. In this case there is no guarantee that they will arrive before the others leave.

Our approach to timekeeping can be trying for party organisers who sit anxiously with a kitchen full of cooling food waiting for guests to arrive. It can be even more annoying when you are sitting in your pyjamas at three in the morning waiting for the last departures.

For Brits in Japan, the key is to programme your own on/off switch which instantly takes you from serious mode to fun mode.