Walking back from the supermarket today, I took photos of some of the signs I saw. Everywhere I look there are street signs, signs on businesses and buildings, advertisements, notices, and announcements… All written in Japanese.

We have been learning and studying Japanese since we arrived in Tokyo 20 months ago, but still… we are baffled by most of the signs we see, unable to read the characters well enough to understand the message. Pictures help, but a lot of the signs have no pictures. We have learned the katakana, the hiragana, and really… quite a few kanji, but with more than 2000 commonly used kanji (and about 8000 total kanji), it will be awhile before we can read it effectively. And in written Japanese, they mix all three character systems, so it becomes even more of a challenge for us. We try to read the kana, and then there are kanji characters mixed in. Lol… frustrating. Here are some examples:

A sign from the supermarket. I can only guess what it means from the pictures. As you can see, they do use regular numbers a lot of the time, but there can also be numbers written in kanji.
I walk by this sign everyday… A business. I can read some of the kanji. The red kanji characters say “Shibaura” which is where we live in Tokyo. The big kanji characters may say “Migiyama.” 

As text is in English, Japanese characters can be highly stylized — essentially with different “fonts.” We often use Google Translate to help decipher text here, but the more stylized it is, the less likely that Google Translate can read it. Pretty hit and miss, actually…

Along the sidewalk near our apartment. the first three characters are katakana: “ba-i-ku” (bike), followed by the three kanji for jitensha (bicycle.) The last four kanji, according to Google Translate, say “no entry.” Yeah… I figured that is what it meant.
This is a notice posted at our apartment building… Yes I probably know a few of the kanji, but not enough to read it. My only clue here is the graphic. “Please be considerate of your neighbors, and be quiet!” Lol… 


Just a couple more… These are both posted in the elevators at our building, and I know that they have something to do with elevator safety during an earthquake or fire disaster. In the second sign, the first two red kanji represent “fire,” and the second two, are for “earthquake.” This one says not to use the elevator to evacuate during a fire or earthquake. Ok… that makes sense.

Despite the fact that we are still pretty much “Japanese illiterates”, we get along here just fine. We want to continue learning this language, and certainly we wish we could read and understand Japanese better, but we are doing alright without the language proficiency. So, if you ever have the chance to visit Japan… don’t let the language stop you! It is an amazing place.

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My husband and I were both born and raised in Kansas, but for the past 20+ years we have been living in Atlanta, Georgia. Now, with our children grown and out of the house, we have the opportunity to spend two years living in Tokyo. My husband will be working with the Japanese counterpart to his American company. UPDATE 2023... After 4-1/2 years in Tokyo, we returned to Atlanta. Now we are heading to London for a three year job assignment!

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