Help! I can’t read!

As a foreigner living in Japan, I’ve had to learn to do many things all over again. Very basic things. Like using a toilet. Taking a bath. I’m not joking.

One challenge I still face every day may surprise you.

In Japan, I can’t read. I’ve learned two phonetic alphabets and hundreds of kanji (the Chinese characters used in written Japanese), but until I’ve mastered the estimated 2,000 kanji needed for daily life (in all of their various combinations), real reading is not going to happen. It is my opinion that this aspect of learning Japanese rivals the worldwide complaints about the difficulties of English. Give me rough, cough, through, bough and dough any day!

As you might imagine, my reading problem has caused a few bumps along the way. Such as the day soon after our arrival when I accidentally made the kids’ chocolate milk with liquid cherry yogurt. I know this mistake is difficult to comprehend, but believe me—there was a distinct lack of cherries anywhere on that carton!

And then there was the sunny, Saturday morning when I bought my 2nd grade son a jumbo-sized can of guava BEER at our neighborhood convenience shop. (Ok, ok, that was pretty bad, but in my defense, who knew beer could even come in fruit flavors!?)

Having lived in Hawaii for several years, my son and I were so happy to see those tall, shiny cans adorned with tropical fruit in the refrigerated case. “Look, honey!” I called, knowing it was my son’s favorite, “look what they have—guava juice!”

I bought each of us an extra large can.

What happened next was another aspect of Japanese culture I had yet to learn about. The young woman behind the counter wasn’t about to point out my error. No way. We obviously didn’t speak her language and the very idea of trying to explain that I was buying an alcoholic beverage for my seven-year-old was probably akin to ritual disembowelment. I mean, as far as she knew, mothers in America might be serving up guava beer to their children with every meal.

Her face registered the subtlest expression of surprise—which I noted but didn’t really question—until a few minutes later when I popped the top of my ice cold guava beer and took a GREAT BIG SIP. Ahhhh. It was just as awful as you might imagine. All because, yep, I can’t read.

Please closely examine the two photos below.




not juice

not juice

Say this with me:   JUICE.   NOT JUICE.  See the difference?

The second photo is an assortment of fruity alcoholic beverages. To the LITERATE consumer (or at the least, to those with a more discerning eye than mine at the time) their labels practically scream with this information:


As in, do not give to children.

Sigh. Yes, that was a long time ago. But despite the occasional (er, frequent) opportunities I still have for embarrassing myself, I wouldn’t trade my little mishaps for the greater adventure of living in this amazing country. But the next time you’re reaching for that unfamiliar beverage at a 7-11, absently scanning through the information on the label with ease, please think of me. Smile quietly as you do, and say to yourself, “I’m not going to accidentally buy my child a can of beer today because—*wistful sigh*—I can READ.”


  1. Maria, so glad you have started a blog. It was great reading. How is your book doing. My blog is http://thornton1953 My Healing Story. I am looking forward to reading more of your blog. Darlene

  2. Carolina Ramirez

    October 29, 2016 at 12:26 pm

    I gave up studying kanjis at some point, with lot of combinations every kanji has, but now I love of them, hehe.

  3. Chris Worthington

    October 29, 2016 at 11:03 am

    Hey Maria, don’t feel bad – they actually had something similar on Crayon Shin-chan. He reached into the fridge and the label said in Japanese “juice-like sake” but he couldn’t read the Kanji for “sake”, so he thought it was juice.

    I’m sure there will be many changes in Japan as they prepare for the Olympics, but yeah, not reading Kanji is an impediment for a foreigner living here!

  4. Loved this! :o)

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