Things Japanese do not / cannot understand
1. Catch a cold / have a cold
This really bugs me because every time I have a cold Japanese teachers ask me “Did you catch a cold?” Well, since I obviously have a cold then equally obviously I caught it, didn’t I? My problem with the “catch a cold” thing is that it is an unnecessary question that is both inaccurate and a waste of energy. I mean, if I have a cold then I obviously caught it. But I have caught hundreds of colds in the course of life, so I can answer yes to the question “Did you catch a cold” without actually saying anything about my current condition. I mean, saying “Yes, I caught a cold” does not mean that I currently have a cold. So, first people should ask if I have a cold, and if I say “yes” then the other question is unnecessary. But the expression “catch a cold” was/is taught in Ministry of Education English textbooks, so the problem is cemented in their minds. Can’t change it and can’t teach them otherwise.
2. John Lennon / Jean Reno
English rock musician versus French actor. This is a simple pronunciation thing. Because of the “r” / “l” pronunciation problem most Japanese can neither hear nor enunciate “Lennon” distinctly from “Reno.”
3. Salary / wage
I know that Japanese has different words for “salary” and “wage,” but in practical applications in daily speech most Japanese don’t understand the difference between an hourly calculation of pay and a guaranteed monthly income. Maybe the culture’s history of lifetime employment with a single employer (although that situation is extinct now) has cemented a work/money model in their collective imagination that is just proving difficult to change.
4. Holiday / vacation
When I am not working I say that I am on a “holiday.” Not a “vacation.” To me a “vacation” means going somewhere, taking a trip during my non-work time. My work schedule is irregular and I have about four months a year of unemployment. Japanese call this “holiday” or “vacation” time and they congratulate me on how lucky I am to have such a long holiday. I’m always ready to scream and beat them about the head and neck with a baseball bat on the grounds that I was not on holiday but unemployed and that it’s not a good thing. But they don’t get it.
The verb “Fax” is derived from the noun “facsimile.” But most people don’t know that. One of my hobbies is reading and colleting books - hardcover books (I have over ten thousand in my library). Some of my proudest items are facsimile copies of famous and important books: Shakespeare’s First Folio; the 1611 King James Authorized Bible; the Tyndale New Testament; Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language; the Codex Sinaiticus; Katsushika Hokusai’s Manga Encyclopedia, and more. Sometimes, in passing, I have mentioned to adult Japanese that I proudly possess a facsimile of, say, the AV Bible. What is that? It’s a copy of the original Bible as it appeared in 1611. Isn’t that a crime, to make a copy? No, it’s a facsimile. That’s like a photographed copy of the original book. Can I see the facsimile on the internet? NO! A facsimile is a physical, printed book with a digital reproduction of the original appearance of the book. Do you mean a fax? No!! “Fax” is a verb. “Facsimile” is a noun. Then on the next occasion I bring my facsimile copy of some book to show them. But even when they are holding it in their hands and looking at it they don’t get it.
6. Season / weather
It’s a common feature among Japanese to associate the season with the weather rather than with the position of the sun and stars in the sky. If it’s cold then it must be winter, no matter what the date is. “Japan has four seasons” is still commonly heard. When I point out that the North Pole also has four seasons - it’s just that the weather is always cold - people don’t get it.
7. Could / did
I think this is somewhat related to a confusion or misunderstanding of Active Voice and Passive Voice verbs. Inappropriate use of “could” and “couldn’t” also has the effect of distancing Japanese from responsibility for their actions. For example, someone might say “I couldn’t see the movie.” What they mean is that they didn’t watch it. “Could” usually has nothing to do with it in the sense that there was nothing impinging upon them to deny them the ability to watch the movie. They just didn’t watch it, despite having the ability to do so. But the error persists even among Japanese English teachers because it is a grammatical construction that everyone learned in high school and it’s fixed in their imagination.