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Goin’ Japanesque!

Basics of Japanese: Avoiding Common Mistakes

Making mistakes is a normal part to learning a language and it’s actually good to make them. After all, we tend to remember when we mess up and are more careful to avoid doing the same thing in the future! However, you can only learn from your mistakes if you have someone willing to tell you you’ve done them. As such, below is a list of common mistakes every beginner seems to make with explanations on why they’re wrong and examples on how to say what you want to say correctly.


Aru vs Iru

Aru and iru are both verbs. If you look them up in a dictionary, you’ll also see they have practically the same definition too. However, mixing them up will sound very strange to a Japanese speaker!

Aru: (verb) to be / to have

  • Pen ga arimasu – I have a pen
  • Niwa ni hana ga arimasen – There aren’t flowers in the garden

Aru is used when referring to inanimate or non-living things. Some textbooks might say “non-living” things, but this is a little misleading because plants are living, but they’re still “aru”. Similarly, zombies are non-living but they’re “iru”!

Iru: (verb) to be / to have

Iru, on the other hand, refers to animate or living things.

  • Ane ga imasu – I have an older sister
  • Sensei ga gakkou ni imasu – The teacher is at the school



Kawaisou is a very deceptive adjective. It looks like the adjective “kawaii” (cute) + the suffix ~sou meaning “looks like ~”. When I say “oishisou” (oishii + sou) I’m saying “it looks delicious” and when I say “takasou” (takai + sou) I’m saying “it looks expensive”. Yet when I say “kawaisou” I’m saying… “it looks pitiable” or simply “poor thing”!

So how do I say “it looks cute”?

Answer: Kawairashii.

The ~rashii suffix isn’t exactly the same as ~sou, but it’s the closest contender and most Japanese will agree it’s the best choice.


Calling yourself -san

In Japanese, you use honorifics like “san” or “sama” or “chan” after someone’s name to show your respect toward them. It’s pretty easy to make this association in your mind when learning Japanese and, after all, you’re most likely to say “watashi” or another “I” pronoun when talking about yourself anyway. But one really common mistake that ends of happening (especially during self-introductions) is while saying your own name, you’ll include an honorific with it!

Instead of introducing yourself with “Watashi wa Jon-san desu” be sure to say “Watashi wa Jon desu”. Save the honorifics for other people.


Tricky Words

There are also some words that sound very similar to each other and are easy to mix-up! Often, Japanese people will understand what you meant to say and will usually be quick to correct you with these faux-pas. If someone suddenly reacts in a way you weren’t expecting from your comment, repeat what you said in your mind and check if you might’ve made a mix-up with a word! Here are some possible culprits:

  • Oshiri (butt) / Oshiire (closet)
  • Suwaru (to sit) / Sawaru (to touch)
  • Hantai (disagree) / Hentai (pervert)
  • Kowai (scary) / Kawaii (cute)
  • Anko (sweet red bean paste) / Unko (poo)
  • Byouin (hospital) / Biyouin (hair salon)
  • Ninjin (carrots) / Ninshin (pregnant)
  • Soujiki (vacuum) / Soushiki (funeral)


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About the author

Katrina has worked as a Japanese language teacher and freelance translator for several years. She loves traveling and has been all over Japan. Click here --> Free Japanese Lessons Practical Japanese Lessons

View all articles by Katrina