By Greenose Zazaki
I am a Hong Kong Chinese who loves to travel to Japan a lot. Even though my wife is a native Japanese, and I have learnt Japanese for years, when I’m traveling alone there are times when I find it difficult to communicate with the local Japanese people.
It is well known that Japanese mostly don’t speak English. In fact, many feel nervous when you try to talk to them in English. With my still rudimentary Japanese (four years of study has only taken me so far), I thought that I could get by speaking Japanese about tourist-related topics. But the difficulty started when they heard me speaking in Japanese, and they assumed that I would be able to understand conversational Japanese well enough. What usually followed was a stream of Japanese responses, likely in the polite form, which is difficult and mostly an unknown territory to me.
Now that I have an iPhone, however, besides using it as a “phone” for roaming in Japan, I actually have a pocket-size computer that I can download tons of apps for. There are several useful apps that I have downloaded and used that I would like to introduce here, as well as another app that I wrote myself after observing the shortcomings of these apps.
The straight forward choice is to download a Japanese Dictionary app to my iPhone. There are plenty and many are free. I have been using “Kotoba!” for a while now. It’s free, and it’s based on the JMDict Project. The download is hefty (123 MB), so you may want to connect to WiFi when downloading. Besides English to Japanese, and Japanese to English, it also supports French, German and Russian (activated by going into the Settings). Search is fast and it comes with examples. The nice touch is that all result text can be copied to the clipboard for further usage, such as Google searches or emailing. The biggest drawback is that it doesn’t have any voice features.
But a Japanese dictionary won’t offer enough help if you want to express yourself during your travels. A phrasebook app will come in handy, especially when you’re doing a specific activity and you’re hunting for a specific sentence to say (like asking for directions). Talking Japanese Phrasebook is an inexpensive choice with an easy-to-use interface. Dialogues are divided into categories like accommodation, food and drink, shopping etc., and are narrated by a pre-recorded voice in Japanese. The main shortcoming of this app is that dialogues are a bit limited and Westerner biased (for example, there are only three entries for Japanese Food Dialogues, for sushi, Kobe beef and sake).
The Yubisashi series offers well-known travel handbooks in Japan that show dialogues in bubbles with cute illustrations, which is pretty handy for the purposes of pointing and speaking. The design is clean and it’s usually easy to hunt for the sentence or words to say. This iPhone app is a faithful migration of the book contents, with one strong function: now the dialogues are spoken for you by a synthesized Japanese voice.
The trade-off for faithful migration is that a full page doesn’t fit quite well on the small iPhone screen. Zooming and scrolling is a bit cumbersome, especially when you are in the street with people waiting to see what you want to say.
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There are several drawbacks on the Japanese phrase book apps: Dialogues are not customizable (e.g. you can’t ask for the directions to a place directly), the dialogue selections are Westerner oriented and inappropriate to use sometimes (e.g. you shouldn’t ask for a cheaper price in a shop or ask for the bill in most restaurants). But the biggest problem is that you can’t easily understand the response from the locals even though you manage to say what you want to say!
With the objective to solve these limitations in mind, I have written my own iPhone app called “Decent” Japanese Travelling Communicator. Conversations in the app are categorized into places like train, traditional Japanese
hotel, ramen shop, etc. Within each place, the possible dialogues and the corresponding responses are listed with recorded voice narration (done by my Japanese wife). Some dialogues contain blanks for customization purpose, where the user can sketch the words (e.g. name of place, product, etc.) on the interactive notepad. The interactive notepad can also serve as a place for sketching their answers, too. Culture-related reminders that foreigners may worth noting are included for each situation. The app is also fully illustrated by me (I am also a moonlighting children book illustrator!).
I hope that you will enjoy traveling around Japan more easily with these handy apps!
Greenose Zazaki is a childrens book illustrator/author, a university lecturer of multimedia and interactive design, and a husband in a Chinese and Japanese multicultural family. Formerly a software developer in the Bay Area, United States, he now resides in Hong Kong but travels to Japan frequently. He is the author of the iPhone app: “Decent” Japanese Travelling Communicator. His Chinese illustrated blog can be found at http://hk.myblog.yahoo.com/fu-fu.