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  • Christina Theodorakis

"My dog just died." "That's too bad."



In Japan, English is taught in a very textbook way for the purpose of passing school exams rather than everyday communication.


One of my Japanese friends, who went through English education in Japan, learned the phrase "That's too bad," which is the closest English equivalent to the Japanese word used to express sympathy: "残念 (pronounced zahn-nehn)." One day, when we were walking to lunch together, I told him that I wasn't feeling well. His response to me in English was "That's too bad" in a very casual, carefree way. As soon as I heard that, in my mind, I was thinking, Whoa, what?


For starters, the reason why he replied with "That's too bad" is because the Japanese "equivalent" (kind of, but not really) of 残念 is perfectly okay to use in that situation in Japanese, and Japanese people are only taught what the direct translation of Japanese expressions are in English during their formal education from teachers and textbooks. That's why even after studying English for many years in a Japanese school, most people still can't speak English very well — if at all.


残念 can be translated along the lines of "That's too bad," "That's a shame," or "Tough luck" in English (which are relatively light-hearted and are also often used sarcastically), but Japanese only really know "That's too bad" as the textbook translation. What they don't learn in school is the context in which "That's too bad" and "残念" can be used are very different, for the most part. 残念 can be used in lighter situations — e.g., "I have a lot of work left to do, so I'll have to miss out on the party." "残念." — and in more earnest and weighty situations — e.g., "My dog just died." "残念."* Obviously, if you substitute "That's too bad" for 残念 in the more serious situation, it comes off as heartless, cold, and even borderline psychotic.


* This actually happened at a company where one of my friends was working. The reactions from the native English speakers were incredulous, to put it concisely.


Another reason I had that reaction is that Japanese people don't add emotion to Japanese in the same way we do in English. They say Japanese in a very matter-of-fact tone, and they do the same when they're speaking in English. Emotions and the tone don't change the meaning of Japanese words and sentences like they do in English. My friend on that day didn't tell me "That's too bad" in a sorrowful or sympathetic way; it sounded like the way you would simply accept something, as if you were just saying "Okay." To add insult to injury, most Japanese people don't add a comment to properly communicate the sympathy that they're feeling, along the lines of "Oh, man. That's too bad."


In English, "That's too bad" is used in less serious situations to brush something off, so if you use that phrase in a serious situation, it just sounds like you're making light of it sarcastically. That's what many Japanese people don't understand because, as I said, it's not the same in Japanese.


In fact, in my experience learning Japanese, I've found that the casual way that Japanese people say 残念 sounds too cold and light-hearted in some situations where I would expect the emotion and heart behind their words in English. For Japanese learners, it's equally important for us to understand that Japanese is not a language that ties emotion to words as much as other languages to express how much you really care — a word is a word. There are dramatic ways of speaking in Japanese, but they don't change words like 残念 tonally as we would do with phrases like "That's too bad" or "I'm sorry" in English. More on that in a blog coming soon.


If you don't understand the Japanese word that a Japanese person is trying to use when they say something off-kilter in English, then you won't know that they're actually trying to be sympathetic. A lot of Japanese people use the phrase "That's too bad" even when they're outside of Japan. If you know a Japanese person and hear them tell you "That's too bad," they don't know that it can sound uncaring and even sarcastic in English, so try to understand that they're trying to sympathize in a way that failed to translate for the situation.


Our team understands how English and Japanese speakers interpret and react to words in their native language from a linguistic and cultural standpoint. We build bridges between cultures and markets to help people and companies succeed internationally. Not interested in Japan? We can help you with other markets too. Contact our team at christina@globalizeconsulting.page to get the ball rolling on whatever your struggle or goal is.

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