Miss Pronunciation

By on December 25, 2008

Yes, I’m on the lookout for a new hairdresser in Tokyo. This newest mission has nothing to do with my hair. It has absolutely everything to do with my pronunciation (mispronunciation) of Japanese words.

I admit it. I am vexed by the vowel. I can’t make sense of the short and long sounds.

When we first moved to Tokyo, I would carry around a book of essential Japanese phrases that included such handy gems as:

Sumimasen (Excuse me. Sorry.)
Eigo ga wakarimasu ka? (Do you understand English?)
Fohku o kudasai (Can I have a fork?)
Watashi wa Karen desu. Toilet wa doko desu ka? (My name is Karen. Where is your toilet?)
Otearai ga ugoki masen (The toilet does not work.)

Pen ga irimasu (I need a pen.)But, now I’ve started carrying another book. A much more essential book. This one includes all the Japanese words that I’ve managed to mispronounce and should never, ever attempt to say again.

I have introduced my shujin (husband) as a shuujin (prisoner).
I have accidentally explained that head of the government is a sori (sleigh) instead of a souri (prime minister).
I have described my ani (big brother) as ani (simplistic).
And then of course there was that embarrassing moment during a holiday meal with my sensei and her friends when I toasted with a phrase that I honestly thought I had pronounced correctly. Their horrified expressions said otherwise. Let’s just say that I am still apologizing.

“Smooth, Mom, real smooth,” my son whispered to me the other day, as he shook his head. “You just told that mother that her baby was scary.”

And, I have become notorious for complimenting mothers on their frightful-looking infants. My kawaii (cute) always sounds like kowai (scary), not matter how high pitched and enthusiastically I say it.

And, now, the newest nemesis to add to list:
Byoin,” my sensei patiently repeated. “This is the word for hospital.”
Beyooeen?” I said.
“You just said biyooin, the word for hair dresser,” my sensei explained. “Try again. Byoin.”

“Bee yooo en. Bee you in. Bee yon. Beyonce,” I said to my husband later that evening.

“Let’s just face facts. It’s no use. It doesn’t matter how much I try. I can’t master the pronunciation.” And, I know it is bound to happen. Someday I will end up taking a taxi to a stylist to perm a broken ankle or, perhaps much worse, I will show up in the emergency room for a case of the bad hair day.

So, in order to avoid being crowned Miss Pronunciation of Tokyo, I have decided to take some precautionary steps to limit my mistakes:

1. The one and only time I will say kawaii is during Halloween.
2. At my next formal dinner with my sensei and friends, I will wear a medical mask to prevent any embarrassing gaffes.
3. I’m on the lookout for a new hairdresser. I don’t care how much the stylist costs, how far away the shop is, or even if the stylist can speak English. I don’t even care if the shop has a working toilet. My only requirement is that it’s located next to a hospital.Of course, I have to say, being misunderstood sometimes has its surprise advantages. One day I went to visit my husband Bill’s office. I asked for Bill (Biru) and a coworker thought I was asking for a beer (biiru).

About Karen Pond

Karen Pond is mother to 3 boys and author of Getting Genki In Japan: The Adventures and Misadventures of an American Family in Tokyo