When I lived in Kanazawa on the JET Programme, there was an apocryphal story going around about a (conveniently) unnamed person who was traveling on a train down country. Exhausted from the previous night out, he found himself nodding off. Worried about missing his stop and wanting the train conductor to wake him up, he politely asked him: “おかしてください.”
Immediately, the train conductor — in tellings of the story, usually a stony-faced older guy — started roaring in laughter.
This illustrates the ease of confusing Japanese words. The word that the hapless Japanese speaker had wanted was 起こして which means “wake me up.” The word he used, 犯して, means “to violate.” In this case, the person he wanted to be violated was himself — politely! There are also similar stories with 座ってください (“sit down, please”) and 触ってください (“touch, please”).
While this is an extreme example, most foreigners have encountered the only slightly less offensive ばっか and 馬鹿 problem. The word ばっか is a contraction of ばっかり meaning “only,” however it’s easily mispronounced as 馬鹿 (fool or idiot) before learners get used to pronouncing Japanese double syllables (hint: make a bridge with the front part of your tongue). Therefore, many people have unwittingly called their friends idiots when trying to get their tongues around phrases like 来たばっか (“I just arrived”) and 入ったばっか (“I just entered”).
Of course, offending your coworkers is nothing compared to offending your partner — which is surprisingly easy with the relatively simple sentence 今日は美容院行った. Most guys were probably shocked when they first heard this, since 美容院 (beautician) sounds really close to 病院 (hospital). On top of that shock, you then have to explain to your significant other why you didn’t notice that they’d obviously been to the salon because they look radiant and are the most beautiful person in the history of the world ever, of course.
After struggling to get your tongue around these ones, you will soon find that not all problems are phonetic — some are grammatical.
When people take the next step, of course, there is plenty of room for error as an 奥さん is a wife whereas an お母さん is a mother. Similar examples include 叔父さん (uncle), 王子さん (prince) and お爺さん (grandfather or old man) to say nothing of お兄さん (big brother) and 鬼 (demonic ogre).
After struggling to get your tongue around these ones, you will soon find that not all problems are phonetic — some are grammatical. A very common source of confusion for beginner/intermediate learners is combining the word かわいい (cute) and the grammar ～そう (looks like).
It’s only natural to want to combine these two to make かわいそう, expecting your Frankenstein creation to mean something “looks cute.” In fact かわいそう means “pitiful” — pretty much the exact opposite of what you intended! Instead, the correct grammar for “looks cute” is かわいらしい.
Of course, this is just an introduction to the topic. If we included homophones such as 地震 (earthquake) and 自身 (oneself); 雨 (rain) and 飴 (candy) as well as 橋 (bridge) and 箸 (chopsticks), we could easily write a book!
So we want to ask readers: have you ever encountered any of these problems? Which words tripped you up at first? Let us know in the comments!