Opinion: For whose sake? My encounters with Japanese language and culture

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, my father was posted in the Indian embassy in Tokyo. When my elder daughter was born in Delhi in September 1980, he flew down to see his first grandchild and named her Deepika.

He returned to Japan after his leave and invited me, my wife Sangeeta and the newborn to Tokyo. “Just get on the plane, I will take care of everything,” he said. But we did not have the courage to travel that far with a small child. The trip was planned for later, postponed, planned again and postponed again. Thus more than 40 years passed before it finally happened.

I had had a taste of Japan in 1975, after my graduation in electrical engineering, when I was working in London at the Data Systems Division, a company that was part of the conglomerate ITT. My father was then posted in India House, the High Commission of India in London.

After working in London for more than a year, I thought it was time for a trip home. I went to the office of Japan Airlines in the West End and was welcomed with utmost courtesy; it was the only time when a lady had pulled out a chair and requested me to please be seated. Without much ado, I purchased a return ticket to Delhi and flew home a few days later.

The cabin staff of the aircraft were as courteous as the office people and those at the check-in counter at Heathrow. Shortly after takeoff, I was offered a choice of beverages. I chose sake, the famous Japanese liquor made from rice. It was in an egg-shaped, flat-bottomed green bottle with a cup on top like the one seen on Optrex, the eye solution. Along with it came a packet of savouries, otsumami. Those were perhaps the first two words I learnt in Japanese.

I did learn a few other words, like ohayo and mushi-mushi for hello, from a programme on TV; shmaataa for ‘sorry / I have made a mistake’ from a book; and haiku for a style of poetry with three lines and 17 syllables and in the pattern 5-7-5, from the James Bond novel You Only Live Twice. Ian Fleming in this novel quotes a poem by Basho:

“You only live twice, Once when you are born,

And once when you look death in the face.”

The great poet and philosopher Thiruvalluvar wrote Tamil couplets of only seven words in which a wealth of wisdom is concentrated.

For example, he wrote about gratitude:

Seyyaamal seydha udhavikku vaiyakamum vaanakamum aatral aridhu 
(Neither earth nor heaven can truly repay spontaneous aid.)

I went back to England after my holiday, but soon decided to return to India for good. I secured a job in ONGC and was posted in the Bombay Offshore Project (BOP for short) in the engineering & construction division in December 1976. After a few weeks in the office, I was deputed offshore to a derrick barge (large ship fitted with cranes), the DB-14 (DB to DB!). Later I was sent for a few shifts of 14 days each to a jack-up rig, the W.T. Adams.

I learnt that ONGC owned and was operating since 1975 another jack-up rig, the Sagar Samrat, which had been built at the Hiroshima shipyard in Japan. In 1980, ONGC acquired a second jack-up rig, the Sagar Vikas, and I was posted on it as the electrical shift-in-charge. I had the opportunity to meet some members of the Japanese crew who had sailed aboard to hand over the rig to ONGC.

The Japanese crew, true to their reputation, were courteous, disciplined, dedicated, hardworking, helpful and more! But they left after a few days, with the ONGC operational crew, to look after the rig – to operate, maintain, repair and do everything else to be done, including cleaning!

The shipyard had supplied enough spare parts for an estimated two years. Everything was beautifully segregated, packed, listed with all details for items of each equipment, and neatly stored in light green metal boxes or polished brown wooden boxes.

ONGC ordered one more jack-up rig from Japan, the Sagar Jyoti; another from France, the Sagar Pragati; and two more from Singapore, the Sagar Shakti and Sagar Gaurav. ONGC personnel who had worked offshore were deputed to the three foreign shipyards for familiarisation during construction. Much as I would have preferred, I was not posted to Japan, but to Singapore.

Later ONGC also ordered a drillship, the Sagar Vijay, built at Tokyo Shipyard, and I was fortunate to work on it for some time. I could sail aboard the vessel to Cochin from Bombay High when it was taken to the Cochin Shipyard for its first dry-docking.

In 1989, I was transferred to Madras, which was later renamed Chennai. By then Deepika had a sister, Malvika, born in Bombay in 1986, and the two of them had their school and college education in Chennai. Deepika had diverse interests besides studies, and joined French language classes and later Japanese classes also, at the consulate general of Japan.

Sangeeta and I finally made it to Japan in March 2024. We landed at Narita airport in Tokyo from where our tour started. Like most places in the northern hemisphere, Japan also has four seasons – spring, summer, autumn and winter –  following the Gregorian calendar of 12 months from January to December. Winter can be quite severe, with rain, snow and wind which can be quite strong at times. Spring follows to give respite and brings out the famous cherry blossom flowers which cover the trees from a few to many thousands, depending on the area and the location.


The Cherry blossoms

The best place for viewing cherry blossom flowers blooming in spring is said to be Mount Yoshiko in Nara. However, this was not included in the itinerary of our cherry blossom group tour for senior citizens conducted by an internationally well-known travel agent. The locations included were Ueno Park in Tokyo and some others. To our great misfortune (rather like the opposite of serendipity!) spring was delayed by the prolonged winter, and few trees bloomed as forecast; the tour turned out to be a misnomer!

Before we flew to Japan, I had searched for maps and books and travel guides in Chennai. I found a book in our local lending library, titled The Devotion of Suspect X. This was set in Tokyo of a bygone era, but gave a good idea of the lifestyle of the Japanese proletariat. (Incidentally, this novel by Keigo Higashino has been adapted into a Hindi movie, Jaane Jaan.)

Both Sangeeta and I became members of the Public Library in Gandhi Nagar, Adyar. The only source of information I could find there was The Times World Atlas with very large maps. I took photographs of the relevant portions of maps about Japan, made photocopies in A3 size and stuck them on chart papers to learn about the country. Japan consists of nine states and 47 prefectures. From a stationery shop I purchased some old blank outline maps of Japan, and on these I marked the names of states and the main towns and cities of Japan.

I turned to Google Uncle in whom I have unshakable faith. (BTW, my wife doesn’t need Google; she knows everything!) I tried to translate English words and phrases of common usage into Japanese and quickly realised that learning to read and write Japanese was probably beyond me!

However, during the tour, I did manage to learn to write my name in Japanese by copying the handwriting of our tour guide, Ms Aki-san (san in Japanese is ji in

On the penultimate day of the tour, we were given time to shop at Dotonbori in Osaka. We peeked into a few shops and finally made our way to Daison – the Life Coordinate Shop.

We purchased some items, like different flavoured Kit-Kat chocolates (supposedly available only in Japan), a giant shuttlecock for our grandson, and a yukata for our granddaughter. A yukata is a lightweight robe, made from cotton fabric, suitable as summer wear, as compared with the kimono, which is heavier, made from silk and suitable for wearing in cold weather.

But how could I return home without sake? I asked Aki-san to recommend a good brand, and she readily obliged. Next day at the Itami airport in Osaka, I showed the page in my pocket notebook to the salespersons at the Japan duty-free shop. After some discussion amongst themselves, they pointed out a bottle of the specific brand but recommended a 3-in-one pack which would be easier to carry. I readily accepted their suggestion.


The plaque at the Hiroshima Memorial

The pack of three is lying intact, awaiting the arrival of a connoisseur or a special occasion.

The Japanese language has three types of characters: hiragana, katakana and kanji. Hiragana and katakana are phonetic symbols, each representing one syllable, while kanji is an ideogram, each standing for a certain meaning.

The modern Japanese writing system uses a combination of logographic kanji, which are adopted Chinese characters, and syllabic kana. Kana itself consists of a pair of syllabaries: hiragana, used primarily for native or naturalised Japanese words and grammatical elements; and katakana, used primarily for foreign words and names, loanwords, onomatopoeia, scientific names, and sometimes for emphasis. Almost all written Japanese sentences contain a mixture of kanji and kana. Because of this mixture of scripts, in addition to a large inventory of kanji characters, the Japanese writing system is considered to be one of the most complicated currently in use.

In modern Japanese, the hiragana and katakana syllabaries each contain 46 basic characters, or 71 including diacritics. With one or two minor exceptions, each different sound in the Japanese language (that is, each different syllable, strictly each mora) corresponds to one character in each syllabary. Unlike kanji, these characters intrinsically represent sounds only; they convey meaning only as part of words. Hiragana and katakana characters also originally derive from Chinese characters, but they have been simplified and modified to such an extent that their origins are no longer visually obvious.

Some basic formal greetings that one would use on a regular day

Hello/good day – konnichiwa

Good morning – ohayō gozaimasu

Good evening – konbanwa

Good night – shitsurei shimasu

Goodbye – sayōnara

If one stays in Japan for a time and makes friends, it may be appropriate for one to incorporate informal greetings into one’s vocabulary:

Hi – yā

Hey – yō

What’s Up? – saikin dō?

Bye – Jā / jā ne  

See you soon – mata ne

See you again – jā mata  

See you tomorrow – mata ashita  

Be well – genki de

Here are some phrases that one should learn before visiting Japan:

Yes – hai

No – iie

Thank you – arigatō

Excuse me – sumimasen. (This phrase is important when trying to get the attention of your waiter in restaurants, and when passing people in tight quarters.)

Please – o-negai shimasu 

You’re welcome – dōitashimashite

I’m sorry – gomennasai

Do you speak English? – eigo o hanasemasu ka

I only speak a little Japanese – watashi wa nihongo ga sukoshi shika hanasemasen.

What is your name? – o-namae wa nan desu ka.

My name is… – watashi no namae wa … desu.  

How are you? – o-genki desu ka.

I’m fine, thanks – genki desu.

I’m very glad to meet you – oaidekite ureshī desu.

I don’t understand – wakarimasen  

What did you say? – nante iimashita ka

Can you speak more slowly? – motto yukkuri hanashite kudasai

I understand you perfectly – yoku wakarimasu

How much is it? – ikura desu ka?

Do you have…? – …wa arimasu ka?

Help! – tasukete

I don’t need it – iranai

Great! / I’m glad! – yokatta

Are you okay? – daijoubu desu ka

What happened? – doushitanda

Welcome – irasshaimase

How much does it cost? – ikura kakarimasu ka?

It costs… – hiyō ga kakarimasu

Japanese people often say ittekimasu (I’ll go and come back) before leaving their home, which is a polite way of saying they are heading out. Similarly, upon returning, they say tadaima (I’m back) to announce their arrival.

The Japanese word for travel is tabi.

Some must-know phrases for Japanese travel

Doko desu ka? (Where is it?)

Ikura desu ka? (How much does it cost?)

Eki wa doko desu ka? (Where is the train station?)

Kudasai (Please/give me)

Osusume no o-sake wa arimasu ka? (Do you have any recommended sake?)

Some cool Japanese phrases are:

Yoroshiku onegaishimasu (Please take care of it / Thank you in advance)

Kawaii (cute)

Oishii (delicious)

Ganbatte (Good luck / Do your best)

Natsukashii (nostalgic)

Some common words for daily use

I – watashi

we, us – watashitachi (ha)

You (singular) – anata or an’ta or kanjj (Caution:  an’ta or kanji means darling in the context of a couple)

You (plural) – anatatachi (polite or formal); kimitachi / kimi (casual)

He – kare-ra

She – kanojo-ra

Tachi – is a suffix for plural nouns

Airport – kuko

Aeroplane – hikoki

Flight  – furaito

Bus – basu    

Car  –  kuruma

Coach  –  koch    

Taxi – takushi

Lobby / lounge  –  labe

Restaurant  – resotoran

Food  –  tabemono

Water –  mizu        

Tea  – ocha    

Coffee – kohi

Milk – miruku

Sugar – sato

Bathroom / toilet – toire

Tour  –  ryoko

Go – iku  

Come  – kuru  

Halt / stop – teishi

Arrive  – tochaku  

Depart  – shuppatsu

Cold  – samui  

Hot   – atsui  

Rain  – ame  

Snow  –  yuki

Earth  –  chikyu  

Ground  –   jimen

Sea  –  umi  

Sky –  sora 

Depachika – markets; basement floors of department stores

Kiritanpo nabe  – processed rice; hot pot dish, speciality

Okonomiyoki  – Hiroshima style (chopped cabbage + noodles) flour based crepe roasted on a hot iron plate

Sashimi   – pierced (sashi) body / meat (mi)

Sushi   – sour rice

Sushi-meshi –  vinegared rice  

Wagashi – sweets / confectionery

Hanami  – cherry blossom viewing in spring

Onsen  –  hot springs

Tsutenkaku – tower

Yumeno-tsurihashi   –  dream suspension bridge

Budo / kendo  – martial arts  

bunraku – puppet theatre

Ikebana / kado  – flower arrangement

Kabuki (odori) – dance created by Ms Izumono Okuni in the 16th century, now performed by all-male cast

Noh   –  masked musical theatre (singing & dancing)

Sado  –  tea ceremony            

Sumo  –   wrestling

Ryokan – high class inns

Gassho zukuri  – distinctive architectural style

Shukubo  – temple lodging facilities

Benten-tie  – name of food supplier

Kotatsu –  foot warmer  stool

Shiatsu  – finger pressure; shiatsu massage – using palpation and pulse diagnosis

Shogi  – Japanese chess (meaning, general’s board game)

Fun factoids

*Camry in Toyota Camry, meaning crown, is pronounced as kanmuri.

*Another Toyota car model, Corolla, is derived from Latin corona parva, meaning small crown.

*In Japan, military rulers were formerly known as shogun, who were collectively referred to as bakufu.

*There is an Oyama restaurant in Adyar, near my residence. Oyama means small mountain in Japanese. It is also the name of a town in Japan.