Monthly Archives: May 2011

Barbershop Barriers: Tales of tiny men and sharp blades

I was sat in an armchair, a very sharp blade pressed to my face. Wielding the blade in question was a tiny Japanese man. Between us we had little means of communication (this being very early in my time in Japan… during my rather less studious period) and I was not entirely sure what he was asking me. He was polite enough to ask it with a smile. Though when coupled with a tiny razor blade… it was, well, more ominous than reassuring.

This was my first trip to the barber in Japan.

Specifically, the barber, not the hairdressers. Japanese men take their coif rather seriously indeed, whereas the sole instructions I have offered at a hair dresser’s or barber’s, whether English or Japanese, for many years now has been nothing more than a, ‘little trim, please.’ Fortunately it was all I needed the first time I visited my local barber in Nagano-Ken. More recent trips have required, “wait, have we met before?” “How do you know my name?” and, “ohhh, I teach your kid.”

A language barrier can be many things, frustrating, funny, confusing and occasionally, well a bit scary. In most day-to-day situations you can rely on folks being patient and understanding of a faltering grasp of their language. The adult population of Japan being generally quite embarrassed by their standard of spoken English (not entirely their fault… but that’s another blog), and being a phenomenally polite people, will generally praise any effort one makes (deserving or otherwise).

However, when talking to children that gap can seem like a chasm. Think of the meandering sentence path of the average five to seven year old and then remove your ability to understand a good chunk of the vocabulary and you’ll be a smidge closer to my position.  The subject of a conversation can burst from absolutely nowhere, they can be incredibly convoluted and just as often as not utterly identical to the conversation you would have in your own native tongue.

In the case of two high school girls this might mean approximately five minutes of back and forth as to how beautiful each other’s hair is, “You think my hair is cute? No not at all, your new haircut is so much cuter…really? No… really, really? No…” Frankly, now that I think about it, this could be two high school boys.

Kindergarten kids can be a joy for this kind of conversation. They will have just learned a new mildly insulting word and simply spend the next ten minutes calling it each other then promptly collapsing in a fit of giggles.

What always amazes me though is the speed at which some kids can ask me questions. One young kid, only five years old burst through the door of the classroom and immediately blurted out,


“Huh? (In Japanese) Say it again but more slowly please.”

Deep breath

“kujyakuwaeigodenandesuka” (twice as fast)

“Write it for me please”

I check the dictionary

“ah! Peacock!”


Proceeds to do a peacock dance that would have been more helpful at the start of the conversation.

However, from time to time, it’s not just a language barrier, rather a pronunciation issue. The double ‘oo’ sound we have in English can initially be quite difficult for kids on first hearing it. They have a tendency just to make a louder ‘o’ noise and as is natural for them add a vowel to the last letter of the word as 99% of Japanese characters have such an ending.

So, there I am teaching some very young kids different jobs/roles; teacher, student, firefighter…cook.

Me: Who’s this? You don’t know. He’s a cook.

Students: Kok!

Awww crap. 

In these situations it’s an easy fix (so long as I don’t laugh) and within a few attempts they pronounce it correctly and significantly less like a Premier League footballer. However, sometimes the situation is reversed.

Me: Who’s this? He’s a barber.

Students collapse in laughter

Students: BABA!

Me: Barber!

Students collapse again

Students: BABA!

I check my dictionary. Possible meanings, Grandmother…horse riding ground…shit.

Oh shit.