Funny errors in Japanese

I recently bought the book いいまちがい (Japanese Made Funny), a bilingual collection of funny errors made by foreigners speaking Japanese.

One of my favorites was a guy who wanted a hamburger with no ketchup or other condiments. He calls up his Japanese friend, and asks him how to say "plain" in Japanese. The friend tells him it's 飛行機 (hikoki; "airplane"), and the guy proceeds to go to McDonald's and ask for a 飛行機のハンバーガー ("airplane" burger).

In this spirit, I'll share what I think is my funniest Japanese blunder. I had just come to Japan for the first time, as an exchange student. I had also just been married about four months before that.

I went to the neighborhood drug store to buy some condoms. I looked all over the store, but couldn't find them. Finally, I saw the store owner watching me, so I asked him. I didn't know the word for "condom" in Japanese, but I knew that in Spanish it's "condón," so I guessed and asked for コンドン (kondon — where the right word was コンドーム; kondoomu).

For some reason, the store owner thought I must be looking for cold medicine. He started going around and asking the customers, "Have you ever heard of a cold medicine called 'kondon'? This man is looking for 'kondon'." As a crowd started to gather round, I found it harder and harder to let the store owner know what I was really looking for; especially since it would probably have involved some rather expressive gestures.

Instead, I told him that I'd go home and look up the word I wanted in the dictionary, and high-tailed it out of there, leaving a bemused crowd of Japanese people behind me. After that, I avoided the store, but some time later I went in with my wife and bought some condoms — and saw the owner have an "aha" moment.

2 comments to Funny errors in Japanese

  • Very funny!
    I had a similar embarrassing experience when, exhausted from a festival, I wanted to sit down on a bench and tried to ask the man already sitting there: 座っても宜しいですか。 Instead, I mispronounced the first す and said さ instead.
    About three hours later I finally understood why the man didn’t answer and only stared at me speechlessly.

  • Judy

    Okay, here’s mine. I went to Higashiyama Zoo, and was enjoying some tasty mitarashi dango. As usual, I dribbled a bit of sauce onto myself, so went back to the counter to ask for a napkin.

    The nice lady handed me a napkin, then reconsidered, told me to wait a moment, and ran for her purse. She then handed me a feminine hygiene product, along with a sympathetic smile.

    I didn’t have the heart to tell her she was right the first time. What a country!

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