Teaching English in Japan: Community Building

This is the third in a series of posts on classroom techniques and perspectives that served me well as a new English teacher at a Japanese university. If you haven’t read part 1 yet, you can find it here.

My graduate school studies not only exposed me to new ideas and practices, they  also made me more aware of things I had been doing all along in the classroom.

Through this, I was able to see how my inclinations were a reflection of the values that I naturally placed importance on in my teaching. One of these was community building.

Helping to foster a supportive, secure, warm environment has always been central to my teaching, and to the extent that it reflects who I am as a person, it hadn’t always been something I’d consciously thought about.

But from the moment I started student orientation at the beginning of my first summer as a student at grad school, I was struck by how much effort my teachers made to give us a chance to forge relationships and build familiarity with our new classmates.

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Cooperative assignments like going out into the local community to gather information to put on a board about local events and facilities, and simpler tasks like standing and lining up according to some criteria like height, hair length, etc. without speaking stand out in my memory.

Working as a member of a group in my own student life gave me concrete experience to draw on as a teacher at university in Japan, and reaffirmed the importance that I’ve always placed on this facet of teaching.

Until my year teaching at university, my eikaiwa conversation school classes in Japan had been the extent of my teaching experience with group dynamics and community building. In that context, small groups of four to six or so motivated adults who see their weekly hour of English as a refreshing shift in their routines are often eager to talk with one another. And the small class size makes changing partners in the course of a single hour an easy thing to do logistically as well. Students sometimes extend these relationships outside of class, and even go overseas together on occasion when they hit it off with someone, though feeling a sense of community and shared experience in the classroom is enough for many.


In his classic 1993 book What Matters in College, Alexander Astin reviewed the literature on college teaching and found that two things make the biggest difference in getting students involved and instilling a sense of community. They are, greater teacher-student interaction and greater student-student interaction. Though Japanese students weren’t the focus of the research that this work is based on and the book is a bit outdated in places, I’d venture to say that these two aspects of the learning environment are still universally significant, and teachers who start from this macro level are way ahead of the game from the very start.

Learning names may at first sound trivial and unworthy of special thought, but it is a powerful way to nurture both of these important interactions.

With small conversation school classes, learning students’ names and giving students a chance to learn the names of classmates almost takes care of itself. It’s a matter of introducing a new classmate, and in my teaching I used students’ names often, so there was ample chance for students to hear them again and again if they didn’t get the name the first time. Few names to memorize means that teacher and students need put little effort into it. Beyond this though, I liked to create an opportunity in my conversation school classes for students to actually use each others’ names.

When I asked conversation school students to discuss something in pairs and then switch pairs and repeat to their new partner what their previous partner said, they started by using the person’s name, as in ‘Tomoko said…..’ This helps the listener to keep the image of the person in mind as they listen, and it also happens that in such a small space, the classmate, Tomoko in this example, can hear her name being uttered.

In a separate post about rituals in the language classroom in this series, the mind map activity that asks students to look at a classmates’ map after I’ve handed them out randomly gives such a chance to put name recall into practice. When students stood to go and ask the person additional questions that they had based on their map, they had to match a face in the room filled with 25 or so scurrying young people with the name on the paper, and go up to them!

If they hadn’t known names at this point in the semester, this simply can’t have worked. So it served to show me that they knew names, and gave them a chance to confirm this to themselves. This activity can also build community in giving students a reason to approach a particular classmate, who might be someone they don’t know well or even feel hesitant or shy about talking to.

Then the question becomes how to get students to this point, where they have a basic handle on names? I think this is important, because in my experience, teachers put more focus on finding ways for themselves to learn their students’ names than on giving students ample opportunity to do this with each other.

I should add though, that I actually heard through the grapevine about a teacher who didn’t focus on either aspect of this issue. He said bluntly to a classroom full of university students that he simply didn’t have time to learn so many names and so wasn’t going to try. This could be one of those ‘I heard about a guy who….’ stories that ultimately is just a product of someone’s imagination. But in any case, I think most teachers would agree that it wouldn’t do much in the way of community building, unless it were to unite the students in their disrespect for the teacher!

It’s much more common, though, for a teacher to take the step of learning student names but stop there, not devoting enough conscious effort to allow for the students to learn the names of their peers.

Let’s look first at some possibilities for helping the teacher to learn names. I chose to ask students for an ID sized picture that I glued to a piece of paper and wrote names underneath. I had a sheet for each class that I could keep on my desk and quickly glance at if I wanted to ask something of someone whose name hadn’t stuck yet.  This seemed to work well enough for me.

A friend who seemed to foster a strong sense of community in his classes made more of an activity out of this process. He put students together in groups of 5-8 or so, and had them pose for a picture together in the classroom in their first meeting, holding name cards in front of them. Then he printed these group shots out and put them on his desk for easy reference during future class sessions. University students routinely take pictures on the last day of class, and this is a nice twist on that. And to level the playing field and give students the same chance to use pictures to learn names, of course students can take photos of the groups holding their name cards as well.

Another friend used some class time early on in the semester as students were working quietly on a reading passage to walk around and focus on connecting names with faces, and I happened to be observing her class on a day she did this. When they were done reading, she challenged herself by spontaneously calling out names as she looked at  students.

The point was not necessarily to be perfect. In fact she couldn’t quite remember a name or two, but the students saw clearly that she was willing to put in the time to do it and that she considered it important.  And it also showed them that there was nothing to be embarrassed about should they forget someone’s name themselves. Seeing a teacher willing to put herself in a position like that fostered respect and a desire to live up to her example. I could see in that moment how her students admired her for taking such a risk and for the sentiment behind it all.

One of the first activities I did with students was in the spirit of the ‘lining up without words’ games from my first summer at grad school that I mentioned above. In our first class, I asked my students to line up alphabetically according to first name, without speaking. Since most of them knew at most only a couple of their classmates at that point, this required lots of sign language. After they lined up, we checked accuracy by reciting our names and greeting that person in unison, with a ‘Hi, Yuki!’ etc. I had no expectations about students remembering names yet, but wanted to put the names ‘in circulation’ as my own teachers were fond of saying.

Another early activity was ‘find someone who…..’.  I’ve used this standard icebreaker before with groups, preparing a sheet with instructions geared toward specific age levels, interest, etc. So in this context, I included such things as ‘find someone who works part time at a restaurant’ etc.

Students were asked to walk around the classroom and approach classmates, first introducing themselves and then asking a question. Students could ask up to three questions of a particular classmate, hoping to find a match to one of the directives. This exercise gives students a chance to make associations between names, faces and traits or experiences, so there’s a greater chance that they’ll remember them.

Later in the semester I found myself with some spare time before class ended one day, and got the circle together to try a memorization chain with names. The first person said their name, and added something they like, as in ‘I’m Yasuhiro and I like fishing.’ The next student repeated that and then added his own information, and this grew and grew. The concentration on students’ faces was obvious as they prepared for their turn by listening and trying to remember the information in sequence.

As a teacher, I wanted to learn students’ names, but invariably some came more easily than others. As the semester went on, I found it harder to admit to individual students that I didn’t know their names yet, and I felt embarrassed about this. I imagine that students shared these feelings at times, and I wanted to make it easier, acceptable, for them to openly acknowledge they didn’t remember a classmate’s name, in order to learn it and feel more comfortable.

This also involved a language component, and I wrote on the board the phrase ‘Excuse me, can I have your name again?’ Having armed students with this, along with the permission to use it, I asked them to circulate around the room and approach classmates whose names they weren’t yet sure of. They were additionally motivated to do this by the knowledge that afterwards, we were to get back in our circle and they’d be asked to show how many names they knew.

After a burst of commotion, everyone seemed satisfied that they had it. Then, with the person sitting down next to them in the circle, they went about looking around them and starting at a certain point in the circle and working clockwise, one by one wrote the names of their classmates as they conferred together about it.

I walked around, amused by the discussions and speculations and occasional head scratching, and when a pair seemed stumped, I let them know it was alright for one of them to get up and walk over to that person and ask, using our magic question. This chance came as a relief to some, and I hoped it would instill in them the idea that it was OK to ask.


Another community building activity that we did together was a poster project. Students were asked in the first class to make a poster at home to bring in the next week. I supplied the paper to give them some parameters as far as size went and therefore, the amount of information to include. I showed them a poster I’d made to introduce myself that included things I consider important in my life that are central to who I am.

My name was written prominently at the top, going back to the idea that it would be useful for them to learn names early on and to be able to connect them with something about that person.  My poster featured pictures of family, friends, and pets, and under each picture there was a short description with my comments.

The next week, all of the students present had done a poster. We had a ‘poster session’ with students taking turns manning their posters as classmates circulated, looked at the posters and asked questions.  Often things in common were discovered, like hometowns, hobbies or pets.

As an exercise in getting to know each other and as an outlet for them to creatively express themselves, the exercise seemed to work. If I were to do it again, though, I would add a task, such as I did with mind maps, when they were asked to make three questions for someone, or to find things that they had in common with a certain number of people and then write about those things at home, etc. This would have added a gamelike element and greater sense of purpose to it, and it would have given students who didn’t put as much energy into visiting their classmates at their stations and engaging in conversation another reason to participate.

I also wonder if I could have gotten more mileage out of this exercise by bringing the posters back in some way later in the semester, or even at the end.  From my own experience walking around the room and looking at the posters while chatting with their creators, there was a lot of information to absorb, and since the students were still new to me, as they were to each other, I had very little context to go on, and many of the details of individual posters ran together in my mind.

I could have, for example, covered the authors’ names, and put the posters on the walls at the end of the term, for students to look at again and to identify the owners. And going back to what I’ve written about names, this would have been a way for them to use that knowledge, and also to realize how much more familiar they’d become with each other over the term, and how the information on the posters had come to take on a deeper meaning now that they’d formed relationships.

A ‘surprise’ activity like this would be in a sense a walk down memory lane, bringing back memories of the beginning of our time together, and could give a feeling of having come full circle.


Helping students make groups in the university classroom required appreciably more thought and effort than at the conversation school, and therefore was probably the thing about university teaching that required the most conscious thought. This sounds strange to me, in that making groups with small groups of adults has always been so straightforward. In a class of four people for example, I’d start by making pairs of people sit next to each other, and switched at least once during an hour class to lend more variety and to give students a chance to communicate with their classmates.

Simple logistics when dealing with 25 or so students complicates this task. Add to this a shyness among some university students, and throw in gender dynamics in a co-ed group, and the situation calls out for firm, clear directions from the teacher in order for students to interact over a semester with different classmates, and to do it without wasting precious class time that could be better spent.

The concept of ‘control and initiative’ was something that made a strong impact on me in my grad school studies. The idea that a teacher must provide enough structure to give students a basis for action, while giving enough space for them to have the freedom to express themselves and creatively use language was something that I wanted to develop at university. I considered this valuable especially since most students, even at that late point in their schooling, were still given precious little initiative in classes and had gotten used to a passive style of learning.

I soon discovered that having students stand and announcing ‘OK, make a pair with someone you don’t know well’ was just asking for hesitation and blank stares. From the beginning, it was clear that if left to their own devices, boys would generally sit with boys, and girls with girls, and that this would carry over to their choice of partners. I learned, though, that this didn’t mean that they didn’t want to cross gender lines and get to know those of the opposite sex.

In fact one boy wrote that very thing to me in his feedback, saying that although they wanted to, it was difficult for them to take that initiative and that they would be glad if I did it for them. This was an important realization for me.  It showed me that there are times when students are uncomfortable initiating things that they in fact would welcome doing if told to do so!

I experimented with making choosing partners a sort of game at times. I’d write names of fruits and vegetables on slips of paper and students would circulate, calling out what was on the slip, so the room was filled with shouts of ‘banana’!  ‘broccoli!’

When they found the student with the same word, they sat down together ready to begin whatever activity was in store. I tried this with various things, including matching a celebrity’s first name with their last one. The more background knowledge necessary to find a partner though, the more potential for snags, and the purpose of this after all, was to set up an activity rather than become a full fledged activity in itself, as far as time and energy were concerned.

Another tactic that I sometimes tried was looking at the attendance sheet and calling out names in a straightforward way, based on pairings I thought would be suitable as far as level went, or in terms of getting two students together who rarely talked, etc.

As well as deciding who talks with whom, there’s also the matter of how often in a given class groups are changed. One student wrote in feedback that she felt less of a need to change partners multiple times in a class during our second semester together, because thanks to such frequent switches in the first term, she’d already become acquainted with everyone to one degree or another. While most students seemed to enjoy the chance to change partners, it does deserve some thought, and the comment I just mentioned also made me aware that partnering is something that can and should evolve as students’ needs do.

More Posts in this Series:

How I Survived Teaching English at a Japanese University Part 1: Expectations

How I Survived Teaching English at a Japanese University Part 2: Classroom Rituals and Activities

Originally posted 2019-04-17 07:04:17.

Teaching English in Japan: Classroom Expectations

Welcome to part 1! In this and the posts to follow in this series about teaching English in Japan, I’ll go into detail about the challenges I faced as a neophyte university teacher in Kyoto, fresh out of grad school.

I was already a veteran conversation school teacher at the time, and needed to quickly make various adjustments in order to succeed in this challenging new environment.

I’ll give concrete examples of strategies and activities that served me and my students well, and also look back on what I could have done differently.

I hope you’ll enjoy reading along, whether you’re already in Japan, are considering taking the plunge, or are just interested in getting a bird’s eye view of what it’s like to teach large classes of Japanese university students.

Teaching English at a Japanese university, like anything else worthwhile, requires patience, humility, flexibility and hard work. Even as I struggled to adapt at times, I pushed myself to get through the rough patches.  And now I can see how that process served my own learning in lasting and significant ways.

I’ve lived in Kyoto since 1998 and it’s truly my home. My experiences teaching English at conversation schools as well as university have given me lots of wonderful memories, insights into the culture and people, and some good friendships, too.

Teaching is learning, and teaching in a foreign country where there is already so much to absorb can be incredibly stimulating, but also overwhelming at times. I hope that the following reflections will prove helpful on a practical level, and maybe even inspire you to meet your own challenges head on.

Here’s to not just surviving in the classroom, but thriving!

Societal Expectations of University Students

One common expectation of teachers everywhere is for students to study.  This is a laudable and understandable goal. But keeping in mind that one of the Japanese university’s main functions is to provide a place and time to mature will help in making a teacher’s expectations more realistic.

It can also help motivate students to strive to make their best effort. Students also have various other demands on their time, and it’s all to easy for a teacher to overlook this when assigning work. Reacting reflexively and angrily when students fail to live up to a certain standard tends to just make things worse.

A pillar of the business world, Toshihiko Yamashita, once said that university graduates are all but useless when they’re hired, being no better educated than when they left high school.

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Accordingly, the expectation of business when hiring university graduates has been that they have already proven their ability to withstand the rigor and discipline of high school life and thereby shown that they will be able to withstand the demands of the workplace, by passing what is known as ‘exam hell’ and gaining admittance to a prestigious university. The actual grades that are received at university have often had little or no bearing on hiring practices.

Students are aware of this, and after three years a heavy high school homework load plus added hours of instruction at cram schools for many, it’s easy to understand why some students come to feel like they’re entitled to a break before putting their noses to the company grindstone.

The Growing Necessity of Part Time Work for Japanese Students

In recent years, this scenario has been further complicated by the breakdown of traditional employment norms, with more and more workers working for fewer benefits and under temporary contracts that deprive them of the sense of security that past generations felt upon landing their first job.

And in fact, nowadays fewer and fewer students have the luxury of focusing fully on their university studies, with more of them working while they are in school at part-time jobs, often in the service sector at casual restaurants, etc. And It’s not just about the sheer number of students that work, it’s also about their motivation for doing so.

In the past, those who worked often did so primarily in order to refresh themselves and make new friends. Because working part time while in high school is rare, most young people have never experienced being part of the labor force before. Places like restaurants that traditionally rely on part time student labor have often highlighted this aspect of the work in their hiring posters.

These days, it seems that students themselves are bearing more and more of the financial burden that their education creates, and in such cases working is an imperative. Seen through this lens, such students being less willing and/or able to keep up with a given teacher’s demands on their time can be viewed more sympathetically.

What do Students Want Out of University Life?

But wanting a break doesn’t necessarily mean that students are content to come out of university with nothing tangible besides a diploma to show for their time. The rigidity and intense focus on memorization and tests that often characterizes high school here leaves many students hungry to develop themselves in other areas such as forging friendships, devoting time to hobbies, and experiencing romance.

They also often yearn for experiences outside their own culture and the rules that they associate with it, and foreign languages, specifically those from western countries like English that are so obviously outside the bounds of the system they grew up in, can offer a window onto this.  To the extent that a teacher can tap into some of these expectations and adjust their own accordingly, student motivation can be cultivated.

Identify and Examine Your Own Expectations as a Teacher

In identifying my own expectations, it was useful to reflect on the teaching I had done to that point.  Before my stint at university, I had been teaching in Japan for four years in various contexts, including a year at a large conversation school chain, and another year as an assistant teacher working with Japanese English teachers at public elementary and junior high schools in a small town.

Being that the bulk of my teaching experience had been with small classes of motivated adults at conversation schools(eikaiwa) who chose to be there, I immediately had to adjust to larger classes, which in my case meant about 20-25 students.

Until that time, I’d only taught 50 minute to hour long lessons, and so it was also important to develop activities to keep the flow going over 90 minutes lessons at university.  And because I had never given grades before, I had to form clear guidelines and convey them early on to the students so that they would be clear about what I expected of them in return for various grades.

Another difference was that my conversation school classes were ongoing, and students could join and quit at anytime.  In that university classes have a finite beginning and ending and are filled with students of more or less the same age, there is a greater potential and also perhaps a greater demand for fostering a sense of community that in many cases results in students striking up relationships that extend beyond the classroom.

Ask Your Students for Feedback Along the Way

Knowing where the students are coming from scholastically and culturally is a good start. Otherwise, teachers can be prone to take things personally and react in unproductive, reflexive ways that can exacerbate problems.

Getting structured feedback from students as the term goes on is another valuable way to assess what they expect and respond to, as well as what doesn’t work or could work better.  The issue of eliciting feedback will be discussed more in my post on student motivation strategies.

Originally posted 2019-04-17 06:57:48.

Moving to Japan: An Assistant English Teacher’s Life In a Small Town

If you want to teach English in Japan, I wholeheartedly encourage you to take the plunge. That’s just what I did back in ’97 and I’m still here, with no plans to go back to Los Angeles.

I can personally attest that Japan offers many opportunities to native English speakers to live in the countryside as well as cities of various sizes and teach English, whether it’s at private English language schools or as an Assistant English Teacher (AET) on the state-sponsored JET program or similar private programs.

And if you have an advanced university degree and want to stay awhile, it’s always possible that you’ll be able to make the jump to university teaching if that’s something that appeals to you.

There are also jobs in Japan for English speakers besides teaching, but they are obviously less plentiful, and it often takes an entrepreneurial spirit to create work for yourself. This website is in fact one such example-I retired from teaching almost ten years ago, and I now make my living dealing in new and vintage Japanese textiles, indulging my interest in traditional culture.

This post is a general primer on what life can be like in small town Japan, with some basic tips on how to get the most out of your experience. In future pieces I’ll write about specific experiences that I’ve had in different locales and at different types of schools, as I’ve sampled various teaching and living scenarios in my decades here.

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Before you actually visit the country your image of Japan may be influenced by popular media, which tends to focus on such aspects of Japanese culture as Lolita girls, surprising vending machines, manga and animé, pop stars and game shows. The more traditional side of Japan, such as its temples, its geisha, and its Shinto shrines tend to be portrayed in the west as somehow otherworldly and static, as if they belong to a different time.

Real Japan

The real Japan defies these stereotypes, especially in small towns and rural areas. Like any other country, Japan mixes its traditional culture with modern life and its alternative scenes with mainstream pop culture. It is also surprisingly cosmopolitan in terms of food, music and entertainment.

You don’t need to be in the big cities to find excellent quality Italian food alongside the regular restaurants and ramen diners, and small towns will often have interesting venues for small bands and performers as well as traditional festivals and craft fairs. Small-town Japan is a vibrant place to live if you’re open-minded and willing to spend a little time getting to know it.

The Japanese countryside is strikingly beautiful. Forests cover about 67% of the land in Japan, so the mountains spend most of the year looking lush and green. Roads wind through the valleys beside rocky rivers of beautifully clear water.

This is the kind of countryside in which you may well find yourself as an AET in a Japanese school or district. It can be tough to find your bearings if you don’t read Japanese, since English is used less outside of the cities. It’s far from impossible, though, and in fact, with the right approach, small-town Japanese life is very rewarding.

Life in Japan for Foreigners

The first thing you’ll realize is that, if you don’t look Japanese, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb. Don’t be surprised if neighbors and co-workers seem to know more about you than you might expect.

Looking different means that people notice you, and naturally people like to talk about the new person in town. This can seem invasive to non-Japanese people, so it’s important to bear in mind that talking to you about things you’ve been doing is often a Japanese person’s way of striking up a conversation and being friendly. Bear in mind that you’re noticeable, avoid doing anything you don’t want to be seen doing, and you’ll find in time that no one cares what you bought at the supermarket anymore.

Because Japan is often affected by earthquakes, its buildings must be earthquake proof. That means that Japanese houses and apartments tend not to have central heating systems to avoid the danger of fire in the case of earthquake damage. Of course the cities feel the cold, but in rural areas and small towns it will be colder.

Electric or paraffin heaters are usually used to heat apartments and houses. You will probably also use a kotatsu, which is a wonderful Japanese solution to cold weather. A kotatsu is a low table with a heater. Under the top of the table, you lay a quilt, so you have formed a quilted tent over the heater for your feet and legs. With a kotatsu to keep you warm, the winter may seem too hot instead of too cold.

It may also be necessary to have an all-night electric blanket to keep you warm at night, especially higher in the mountains. There are stories of AETs in particularly mountainous areas who have to keep their toothpaste from freezing overnight by putting it in the fridge. With those kind of temperatures inside, you need a little extra help to keep you warm at night.

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Curiously, Japanese toilets seem to vary from the very high-tech, with rows of buttons and a multitude of functions, to the very low-tech, being little more than a pit in the ground. Rural Japan still has a significant proportion of pit toilets. If you find yourself living in a house with such a toilet, you may have to get used to treating it with certain chemicals and scheduling a waste removal service.

If you’re living in a small town or a rural area, owning a car is pretty much essential. Even simple things like shopping for groceries or meeting up with friends will be a challenge without a car.

The good news is, used cars are very affordable in Japan. Your co-workers can advise you on where to find a good deal and the dealership will help you with tax and insurance.

One major advantage of living in or near the mountains is that you’re never far from a hike in the summer or a ski-slope in the winter.

Japan has been host to the Winter Olympics, which took place in Nagano-ken in 1998.Winter sports are very popular and snowfall is usually heavy enough to allow a reasonably long skiing season.

The season is longer in Hokkaido, where snowfall is usually significantly heavier than on the other islands.

Make the Most of Your Time in Japan: It Starts Before You Go!

As soon as you can after you’ve moved to Japan—or even before you’ve arrived, if possible—join any online groups that will keep you informed of events and activities in your area. AET networks are very helpful both for sharing professional resources and introducing newcomers  to a ready-made social circle. It often takes some time to make Japanese friends, since Japanese people are typically reserved at first. In the meantime, other AET’s or English teachers will provide a good support network while you settle in and will be able to give you any advice you need.

The stereotype of westerners making noisy neighbors is one that endures in Japan, so if you’re living in an apartment or if your house is close to others, be aware of the noise you make during the day and even more so in the evenings. Walls can be thin! And many Japanese people in rural areas go to sleep early and get up early. This is especially true of farming families. Being a thoughtful and considerate neighbor is the very best way of fitting in with your Japanese community.

Above all, learn Japanese. Even if you never hope to be capable of reading the newspaper or a Japanese novel, a little conversational Japanese will go a long way. Not only is it extremely useful, since most Japanese people outside of the large urban centers don’t speak English, but it’s also a sign to the people around you that you want to become part of the community.

Getting familiar with katakana is a great place to start, and you can make considerable headway with this in a matter of a couple weeks. Start before you go and you’ll hit the ground running! Katakana is used for foreign words, including names, so it’s incredibly useful.

You can learn to write your name in katakana with very little effort, and you’ll get a great feeling from being able this.  I wish I had done it before I arrived here, it’s incredibly motivating to have this basic system down, or at least be familiar with it. This self-study workbook is an engaging and efficient way to begin your journey.

Go With the Flow and Embrace the Challenges

Japan has a reputation for being alien and bizarre, and some aspects of its culture seem so to outsiders. Those things make up only a fraction of Japan’s culture, however, as you will find when you live in the country day to day.

There are challenges to life in Japan—as a gaijin, you will never entirely fit in—but it’s perfectly possible to find your own niche, even in the smallest of towns. Take things as they come, be open to new experiences, ask for help when you need it, and soon you’ll be right at home.

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Originally posted 2018-12-17 23:15:28.

Japanese Cat Names List, Tips and Culture Notes!

Popular pet names in Japan in general are an interesting window onto the culture, and Japanese cat names are certainly no exception!

Are you looking for a cute Japanese cat name for your kitten?(kitten in Japanese is koneko, literally ‘child cat’).  Or maybe you’ve seen a famous cat or two in manga or anime and are curious about what sort of names Japanese people choose for their feline friends.

Whatever the basis for your curiosity, I’ll do my best to share what I’ve learned as an animal lover living in Japan since 1997. I’ve enlisted the help of Japanese friends in this pursuit, to be sure that my understanding squares with theirs, and ended up learning a lot about what great cat names are made of in the process!

Let’s look at some Japanese pet names for cats, both male and female. More than just giving a name with a translation,  I want to pass along some related information that will give you a better idea of naming conventions in Japan so that if you’re looking for a name, you’ll have more confidence in going with your inspiration and choosing something whether it’s on a list or not.  We’ll look at some of the most popular cat names in Japan as well as creative choices that follow certain tried and true principles.

I also want to introduce you to katakana, the relatively simple Japanese syllabary that’s most often used to write pet names.  And I’ll mention a point that’s often overlooked, natural intonation. With some points in mind about this,  you’ll feel confident that when you call to your cat, it sounds pretty much the same as it would if the owner were a native Japanese speaker. We’ll also take a look at an important aspect of names in general in Japan, suffixes that add warmth and familiarity when used.

Foreign pet names-It goes both ways

So let’s dive into our search for some great cat names in Japanese. First off, it’s worth noting that In Japan, pet owners sometimes choose a western name over a Japanese one for the same reason you might be considering something Japanese-it’s a novel way to express your interest in a culture outside your own and to be a bit different.

And when Japanese people choose a western name for a pet, it’s often a person’s name.  A Japanese friend once had a dog named John, for example.  I never asked her why she it, but I’d bet she liked an actor or singer by that name.  The most famous Japanese cat with a western name is probably Michael of ‘What’s Michael?‘ fame. The manga was such a hit that it spawned a long running animated TV series in the 80’s.

Japanese people sometimes choose the names of Japanese celebrities for their pets as well.  So if there’s a Japanese actor or musician you like, you might consider using a version of their name.  Ichiro isn’t likely to be offended if you’re a baseball fan and name your cat after him!
Speaking of stars, Leo the Lion isn’t just a constellation, he’s also one one reason why there are so many cats in Japan with the name, pronounced ‘Lay-Oh.’

In similar fashion, the Japanese word for tiger, Tora, works quite well as a name because it’s short and it’s no stretch to imagine most cats as mini tigers, especially if they have stripes. Most cat names in Japan seem to be two syllables, with some three-syllable monikers in the mix.  Keeping it short and sweet is a good angle to approach things from, it seems.

Cute Japanese girl cat names from flowers and plants

Flowers and plants are another source of inspiration. Japanese girls are often named after flowers and cats are, too. The Japanese word for flower is hana, and Hana is a very popular girl cat name.

You might well already know some Japanese plant names like Sakura (cherry) and Ume(plum).  Momo(peach) and Sakura are also among the most popular female cat names in Japan.  But don’t stop there-other flowers such as Kiku(chrysanthemum) are also prime candidates! Mums have a rich, regal history in Japan and are associated with the Imperial family. Good girl cat names abound.

Don’t forget to play with fruit names for cats. I thought up some names of fruits in Japanese and ran them by some Japanese friends, wondering if they would work as cat names. These are the ones that passed muster as cute, easy to say possibilities for female cats-Ichigo(strawberry), Suika(watermelon), Anzu(apricot), and Mikan(mandarin orange.)

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Think of various aspects of these names and others. If for example, you got your cat in summer or she was born then or just strikes you as having a summery personality, referring to her as the Japanese word for watermelon might hit just the right note.

Another fruit name that got the thumb’s up from Japanese friends was Ringo(apple), but I nixed it because though it’s indeed catchy, a die-hard Beatles fan might mistakenly assume they’ve found kindred spirits in you and your cat. And while this is certainly not a bad thing, you might soon get fed up with explaining the real meaning behind the choice.

On the other hand, if you are a Beatles fan with an interest in Japan, perhaps you could name your cat Yoko, which is in fact a very common name for Japanese ladies of a certain age, as it was once near the top of popular names for girls in Japan. Then again, if you blame Yoko for the band’s breakup, just keep on reading.

Great names for cats in Japanese: Use your kitty’s appearance as inspiration

When it comes to considering what makes for a good cat name in Japanese, another fertile field to plow when it comes to names is your cat’s coloring.  Not a big surprise, really, as this is a universally popular source of inspiration when it comes to this pleasant but often perplexing task!

In Japan, the words for black(kuro) and white(shiro) are both standard choices for cats and dogs of both sexes.

Neko is the Japanese word for cat. So black cat in Japanese is kuro neko.  These two words are uttered together countless times across Japan each and every day, because they also happen to be the name of one of the country’s top two parcel delivery companies!

black cat silhouette return address label

And if you’re on the prowl for a Japanese white cat name, Shiro is a safe bet and a good name to start your list of possibilities with.

If you happen to have a calico cat, you might consider the name Mi-ke. I added the hyphen to try and differentiate it from the common western name Mike, as it’s pronounced Mee-kay.  It literally means ‘three-hair’ and refers to the three colors of fur that calicoes sport.

Japanese calicoes are usually predominantly white along with two other colors, and are a very popular breed in Japan and abroad. Many Japanese cat owners in fact name their calico Mi-ke, just as countless western dog lovers over the decades have named their pooches Spot.

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Is your cat small?  Then maybe something like ‘Mame (Mah-may) would be just right.  Mame means bean in Japanese, and has a cute, diminutive sound to it.  You might know this word already, as it’s part of the word for soy beans, edamame(literally, branch bean). In a similar way, the name Mikan mentioned above has an endearing connotation, as it brings to mind something small and round.
Speaking of beans, the most popular female cat name in Japan taken from something edible might be ‘Azuki.’  Azuki is a type of bean that’s often used in Japanese cuisine, especially in making traditional sweets.  The notion of eating beans in sweets seems odd to many westerners, but take my word for it, bean based sweets are delicious and you shouldn’t come to Japan without trying some!

So naming your female cat Azuki, pronounced ‘Ah-zu-key, would be a great choice if you’re looking for a name that is ‘authentic’ in the sense that Japanese cat owners favor it.  And as with Mame, being a type of bean it carries with it the same cute, petite connotation, which makes these top choices for the most adorable cat names in Japan. Since azuki beans are reddish brown, this name would work especially well if your cat has similar coloring. Do a net search for ‘azuki’ and you’ll find photos of this culinary staple.

Traditional seafood and sweet names add a wealth of possibilities!

All this talk about food is getting me hungry, so let’s brainstorm with some words from Japanese cuisine that might strike your fancy.  Japanese food names for cats are fun to brainstorm.

Wasabi anyone?  How about Matcha(green tea)? Or Toro(fatty tuna, a delicacy)?  Then there’s Wakame(a variety of seaweed), Ikura(salmon eggs), Saba(mackerel), Awabi(abalone), and the list goes on. In a similar way, many Japanese dog and cat owners choose names like ‘Latte’ and Mocha’ these days. I think that names taken from seafood cuisine can be especially good fits with cat names, since they seem to enjoy such delicacies at least as much as we do!

A case in point is this extra large bag of dried bonito flakes. The word for bonito in Japanese is Katsuo, and so these flakes are known as katsuobushi in Japanese. They are addictive, and people like them at least as much as their feline friends, which is really saying something, because I’ve seen friends’ cats here in Japan devour them. I’ve had bonito flakes many times myself, as they’re served with takoyaki octopus dumplings and as a key ingredient in many Japanese soup stocks and a staple in Japanese cuisine.

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Whether you choose a Japanese name or not, if your cat is at all typical, she will love these. They keep for a long time are are very lightweight, with a smokey scent that will always be connected to Japan in my mind and palate. Though they are referred to as bonito flakes in English, they are thinner and wispier than cereal flakes, more like shavings. Are they as addictive as Cat Crack Catnip!? I dare say they are, but having never tried the latter, I can’t honestly venture an opinion.  Maybe your cat would be willing to do a taste test and enlighten us.

Let’s shift from savory to sweet. I have a sweet tooth, so I’m partial to Mochi(pounded rice cake) sweets of all kinds. I also have a weakness for Dango(usually 3-4 small balls of mochi pounded rice on a stick).  We could go on and on brainstorming with foods, and I encourage you to have some fun with this. But with foods and with this process in general, take care not to get too esoteric, because you might well come to regret choosing a name that only you and a friend or two can remember and understand.

Japanese culture is finely tuned to the seasons and the natural world, and the cuisine reflects that.  You’ll see ample evidence of this focus on nature in names like Sora, the word for sky. It’s a staple on recent ranking lists for popular Japanese cat names and can be used for both males and females.  Note that the ‘r’ in sora is pronounced a bit differently than in English.

Famous Japanese cats

I’ve already mentioned a famous cat, Michael, though he only exists in the world of comics and animation.  Ask about the most famous Japanese cat who’s ever lived, and the name Tama is bound to come up. Perhaps because she gained fame so recently. In any case, she was certainly a phenomenon!

Tama was a female calico who died in 2015 after going viral as the station master at Kishi Station in western Japan.  She gained an international following and was responsible for a huge surge in tourism to the area.  The name Tama is a cat name with a long history in Japan, much as the name Socks is thought of as a traditional cat name in some English speaking countries.  As a name it doesn’t carry any special meaning, its popularity is mainly due to the way it sounds-short, easy to say and somehow endearing.

Sometimes a good name for a cat can boil down simply that.  And having such a common name certainly never held Tama back!  If anything, it made her even more memorable.  Of course the little station master’s cap she wore at a jaunty angle also made her hard to forget!

If you happen to be a fan of the perennially popular manga Sazae-san about a family and their foibles that was first published in the 40’s, you’ll also know that the family’s male cat was called Tama.

japanese cat namesAnd more recently, a traditional Kyoto furoshiki wrapping cloth company named Maeda created a series of furoshiki showing a cat named Tama strolling through various seasonal scenes.

The sakura cherry blossom furoshiki depicting Tama walking up a long flight of stone steps that’s part of that selection is shown on the left.  Click on the photo to see it and other cat furoshiki on amazon.

Japanese Anime cat names

When new pet owners wonder about anime names for cats, they’re almost inevitably hoping for something Japanese.  And though Michael might well be the most well known anime cat, calling your own cat Michael clearly won’t fill the bill.

Another very famous feline with a long history in Japan does have such a name, and it is none other than………Tama. Yes, this name is that popular. It seems to turn up again and again when cats of note are mentioned among Japanese people, attesting to just how well loved this moniker is.

The Tama in question this time is the star of a classic anime called Sanchome no Tama, also sometimes known as Tama and Friends or Uchi no Tama Shirimasenka?(Do you know my cat Tama?) Sanchome is a well known area in Tokyo in Shinjuku that the Tama in question calls home.  My Tokyoite wife knows that area well and though she didn’t watch the show much growing up in the 80’s, she spent a good portion of her allowance on Tama stationary goods.

So it seems that if you call your cat Tama, you can reference the name in various ways depending on who you’re talking to and what they’re interested in, which could well lead to some interesting conversations.
Another Japanese anime cat name possibility lies in referencing a naughty yellow feline called Oyo Neko Bunyan, who also has quite a track record in Japan.  But it seems to me that the name doesn’t really roll off the tongue, at least not this western one. And Bunyan is not exactly a term of endearment, so it might be best to look elsewhere when shopping for a name for your kitty.

Other key cultural notes-pronunciation and suffixes

Now let’s move to some general points about Japanese cat names.

First, intonation for names is basically flat. So all syllables get similar stress. It’s common for native English speakers to pronounce the names of Japanese people as well as pets as they would in English, which often results in unnatural pronunciation. This often happens with three syllable words, as the middle syllable often gets stressed when it shouldn’t get such special attention.  I have a Japanese friend named Yumiko who lives in the states, for example, who is often called ‘Yu-MI-ko with the middle part stressed.  Similarly, Yukiko is known as ‘Yu-KI-ko.’

This tendency doesn’t manifest much in two syllable words, and since most common pet names are short, like Tama, they end up being pronounced pretty much as they should be, with equal stress given to both syllables. But others, like Azuki that we looked at above, can become ‘Ah-ZU-ki’ if you’re not aware of this aspect of Japanese language.

Then there’s the custom of adding suffixes to names.  This is a key point to keep in mind, as it might steer you toward choosing one cat name over another, depending on how the name sounds in this form.
If you’re an anime or manga fan, you’re probably already well aware of the propensity to add ‘chan’ and ‘kun’ to the end of names.  Kun is basically used for boys and men, and like chan, conveys a familiarity and warmth.  Chan can be used for young boys as well as for girls and women. Adults can use these honorific suffixes with friends to show affection, though it’s rude to use these suffixes to address a superior.  The first three letters of ‘chan’ are pronounced as in the name of the Cuban dance known as the Cha-Cha.

When we consider pet names, chan is the one to focus on, because it covers both sexes when it comes to animals. And since pets are more often than not seen as cute and endearing, it’s very natural to add chan to the end of their names. So, Sora becomes Sora-chan.  Tama is Tama-chan.  Presto! What was a standout among cute cat names to start with gets even more so.

Some Japanese names for cats lend themselves better to the ‘chan’ treatment, in terms of how easily it all rolls off your tongue. Take for instance the sweets mochi and dango I mentioned above as possibilities.  ‘Mochi-chan’  is a bit harder to say than ‘dango-chan’ so based strictly on that, the latter would win out.

One thing to keep in mind with this-chan is usually something you use to refer to someone else’s child or pet, not your own.  It’s not rude or inappropriate to use it for your own pet, but it’s most often a way for others to express a sense of affection and closeness for someone outside their own immediate family. So if you choose a Japanese name for your cat, informing those around you of this ‘chan’ add-on will pay dividends!

Japanese cat names list

Finally, I’d like to make a list of all the names we’ve covered here, it includes my brainstorms and some names that are among the most popular Japanese cat names.

Some work best as female cat names, and others work well as male cat names as well. Just one on the list below is best as a male cat name, and that’s Ichiro. This name is not only the name of a famous baseball player, but Ichiro is a name in Japan that’s almost always reserved for a first born son.

When there’s a meaning, I’ll include that, and I’ll also add the name as it’s written in the katakana alphabet.  Often there is a kanji character for a name, but even then, the katakana is preferred when its used as a pet’s name. I’ve included the kanji characters mainly to illustrate just how simple the katakana is by comparison!
So if you have an interest in what a name looks like when written, don’t make it unnecessarily hard by considering kanji characters.  Katakana characters are not only simple in their minimal number of angular strokes, but they’re also preferred according to convention in this context. Knowing a bit more about Japanese cat names, including not only their meanings but how they’re used can be a great way to delve more deeply into the culture in general. If you’re interested in learning katakana and hiragana quickly and efficiently, I recommend this self-study workbook.

Baseball player
トラ          虎
ハナ          花
サクラ      桜
cherry, cherry blossom
ウメ          梅
plum, plum blossom
モモ     桃
peach, peach blossom
イチゴ       苺
スイカ     西瓜
mandarin orange
クロ         黒
シロ         白
ミケ        三毛
マメ        豆
Japanese horseradish
マッチャ 抹茶
Japanese green tea
high grade cut of tuna
salmon eggs
サバ       鯖
ワカメ    若布
モチ          餅
pounded rice cakes
ダンゴ    団子
skewered pounded rice cakes
ソラ         空
キク         菊

Main photo of cat with bamboo by Manja Vitolic on Unsplash

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Originally posted 2017-05-31 14:26:25.