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Cooking Without Kanji

Living abroad and learning to cook with local ingredients.

By 1 min read 7

It’s foolish to try to live in a country without speaking the official language, right? But Japan, with English scrawled beneath most signs, English announcements on trains and in department stores, and “English menus” at restaurants, tricks you into believing you can live here without speaking Japanese.

In fact, I have some expat friends who have lived in this country for an upwards of fifteen years who don’t speak Japanese. Instead, they have a repertoire of phrases memorized for most occasions.

But when it comes to living, really living in Japan, memorized phrases just aren’t going to cut it. Especially when it comes to cooking.


I often run errands when we visit our in-laws out in Ibaraki. It’s part of the whole “being a good daughter-in-law” thing, along with weekly phone calls and biweekly text messages to okaasan. Simply put, okassan is the kind of person who writes out the kanji for oishii. Every time she sends me to the store for shopping, there are at least two or three unknown kanji on her list.

I’ve gotten really good at tracking down a sales associate and asking for help. Embarrassing, yes, but really, you can’t cook in Japan if you don’t know your kanji.

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