How Grocery Shopping Can Improve Your Japanese Ability!

Published September 22nd, 2020

When people ask about culture shock when I move to Japan, I talk about grocery shopping. I don’t know about you but I’m a very committed grocery shopper. I take my grocery shopping very seriously. I have very specific products or brands that I want to use for my cooking or baking. If there are a few different options for one type of product, I’ll make sure to do my research before deciding on one. I can’t speak for all of you but I bet there are some out there who are the same as me. And when you move to another country — especially one that speaks a foreign language like Japan — your whole routine falls apart. How does one even get the appropriate ingredients when your Japanese language ability is not even up there? Well, why not use it as an opportunity to improve it? It might sound insane but it is actually possible if you do it the right way. Find out how grocery shopping can improve your Japanese ability — tried and tested myself!

Is It Difficult To Grocery Shop in Japan?

From my personal experience, it wasn’t that easy adjusting from my home country to Japan when it comes to grocery shopping. The language barrier was the initial problem — every sign, sticker and label is in Japanese! For someone who, at that point in time, was only at a beginner level, my grocery shopping experiences weren’t all that smooth sailing. Another key problem that I faced was that a lot of the time, especially in local supermarkets, you won’t really find international brands. Even if you do, they cost two or three times more than a locally branded one. I initially forked out a couple of extra yen just to get the exact brand that I want, but in the end, I caved into buying the Japanese branded ones because of the price. True, the flavours may be different, but at least I saved a few yen, right? Long story short, you do get used to the changes in grocery shopping in Japan. I wouldn’t say it’s the most difficult thing in the world, but it wasn’t the easiest. If I knew the challenges I faced, I would’ve done some stuff differently. One thing’s for sure though: grocery shopping did and is still helping me improve my Japanese ability!

How Can Grocery Shopping Improve My Japanese?

You might think that it’s silly how a normal activity such as grocery shopping can improve Japanese language ability, but it’s not at all! It’s because of the very fact that it’s a common routine you have to go through once every few days that help it. You’ll be facing the ultimate key to learning a new language: repetition. Let’s take a look at the other ways grocery shopping can help improve your Japanese language ability!

Kanji Recognition

As I’ve mentioned before, everything in a local Japanese supermarket is in Japanese. You’ll be lucky to see any sign, label, or sticker in English. Because you’re kind of forced into reading the Japanese language, you will likely be picking up the kanji characters that you see around all the time. It doesn’t even matter if you look up the kanji or not. After being faced with the same kanji over and over again, and based on context, you’ll end up recognising the kanji and linking it to the product or pick up the meaning. Till this day, I’ll always forget the pronunciation of the Japanese word for “protein” (タンパク質), but I can recognise the combination of characters all too well to figure out how much protein one product has.

Bump Up In Vocabulary

Because of all the repetition of the same products that you are buying — onion, garlic, milk, juice, etc — you’re more likely to remember the words for them in Japanese. The other situation is where you’ll end up having to search up a couple of words, especially when looking at the list of ingredients in a certain product. You’ll come across a few new words as well as ones that are already familiar to you. Even though you’re not consciously aware that you’re drilling the words in your brain, you actually are — meaning and pronunciation both. That’s the beauty of having only the Japanese language at supermarkets.

Confidence Boost

This one is entirely up to the individual when it comes to progress. At the start of my time here in Japan, I would never dare to go up to a Japanese staff and ask them anything in Japanese — I was too afraid and insecure about my language ability that I didn’t even bother trying. After a couple of setbacks finding products that I want and wasting time walking around the supermarket countless of times, I picked up the courage to go up and enquire about what I wanted to ask. This could be anything from “where is this product?” or “do you have this?” Even though I was using basic Japanese phrases, it did build up my confidence when the staff could understand me and that I could understand what they were saying back to me. I bet your experience will be the same — if not better — as mine when it comes to grocery shopping being a confidence booster.

Key Words And Phrases To Get You By Grocery Shopping

Of course, what’s an article about grocery shopping and improving Japanese without a brief list of words and phrases to help you get started with your grocery shopping adventures in Japan? Here are the common words you’ll likely to need while grocery shopping:

Beef — gyuuniku 牛肉

Chicken — toriniku 鳥肉

Fish — sakana

Pork — butaniku 豚肉 Dairy products — nyuuseihin 乳製品

Milk — gyuunyuu 牛乳

Egg — tamago

Gluten — fushitsu 麩質

Oil — abura

Onion — tamanegi 玉葱

Garlic — ninniku にんにく

Vinegar — su

Sugar — satou 砂糖

Salt — shio

Soy sauce — shoyu 醤油

Wheat — komugi 小麦

Here are some Japanese phrases that will definitely cut some time down your hunt down the aisles of the Japanese supermarkets: Where is _____? ______どこですか? ( _____ doko desuka?) Do you have _____? ______ありますか? ( _____ arimasuka?


Don’t knock it until you try it — grocery shopping can definitely help with your Japanese ability! If not, at least you’ll memorise the words that are sufficient to keep you going steadily during your grocery shopping adventures. Whichever the case, you’re bound to learn some new Japanese words or phrases!