Assistant Language Teacher quickly learns that Japanese doesn’t always translate properly into English.

If you’ve ever learnt another language, you’ll know the road to fluency isn’t an easy one — it’s a bumpy path scattered with roadblocks that threaten to trip you up if you’re not careful. Still, the only way to get to your end goal is by making mistakes and learning from them, and sometimes those mistakes are so memorable you’ll never make the same ones again.

That’s certainly what Japanese Twitter user Seaside (@seaside_rs) found when they started out learning English many years ago. Proving how easily language errors can be made, Seaside shared a funny anecdote from English class at junior high school, which befuddled the foreign ALT at the time (ALTs are “Assistant Language Teachers” who come from abroad to help teach English in Japanese schools).

▼ Seaside’s tweet (translation follows) recently went viral as other English-language learners easily related to the story.

“When I was in junior high school, during English time, I was asked to make a presentation about famous things from Toyama in English. I thought I would make a presentation about druggists so I said, ‘Toyama has long been known as a drug district; Toyama’s drug dealers are especially famous.’ Because I’m a genius. I’ll never forget the ALT at the time giving me a smile so forced it looked like they were going to die.”

Seaside’s story is especially amusing as these “introduction to the prefecture” lessons often take place when the ALT has just arrived at the school, to help them get to know their new surroundings better. This ALT, who probably just started living in Toyama, was likely reconsidering their life choices after hearing about Toyama’s fame as a drug-dealing precinct.

However, the ALT’s polite smile would’ve been the result of some confusion, considering the gusto and pride with which the student was praising the prefecture’s drug dealers. Thankfully, Seaside says the Japanese teacher of English was there to clear up the misunderstanding immediately, explaining to the ALT that the student wasn’t talking about illegal drugs.

So what exactly went wrong here? Well, there’s a bit to unpack behind the language hiccup, including the history of Toyama, the use of the word “drug” in Japan, and a few cultural and linguistic factors along the way.

Of course, as you’ve probably guessed, Seaside wasn’t talking about those types of drug dealers — they were simply introducing the ALT to the prefecture’s famous history of 薬種商 (yakushushou), which literally translates into English as “drug dealers” (even with Google Translate) but really refers to “medicinal dealers”.

▼ This Toyama museum preserves old pharmaceutical materials inside the former residence of Kanaoka Matazaemon, who made a fortune as a “drug dealer” in the late Edo period (1603-1868).

Seaside says the English gaffe occurred about 15 years ago, back when “medicinal dealers” differed slightly from pharmacists as they were able to sell slightly less powerful medicines. So while “drug dealers” wasn’t technically wrong, the meaning definitely got lost in translation.

Seaside wan’t technically wrong in saying that “Toyama has long been known as a drug district” either, as the prefecture really does have a long and proud history of pharmaceutical production that stretches back over 300 years. Toyama’s medicines first became famous throughout the country when Masatoshi Maeda, the second feudal lord of the domain of Toyama began a drug delivery business catering to people around Japan in the late 1600s.

Back then, “drug deliverers” would travel to customers’ houses and leave a year’s supply of traditional medicines in a box at their home, returning the following year for payment on used medicines. Today, Toyama’s traditional medicine practitioners are still active in the area, and pharmaceutical production remains the key industry in the prefecture, so if you think about it, Toyama really is a famous “drug district”, but it’s not those kinds of drugs they specialise in.

▼ Local pharmaceutical company Kokando was founded in Toyama in 1876.

Another reason why Seaside chose to use the word “drug” instead of a word like “pharmaceuticals” or “medicine” is due to the fact that “drug” is often understood as referring to medicines in Japan, as it’s the shortened form of “drugstore“, which is also commonly used here in the same way as it’s used in the U.S.

While medicines are known as “kusuri” (薬) in Japanese, the fact that “drug” is written in katakana — as ドラッグ (“doraggu”) — suggests it’s a loan word that comes from abroad and therefore is commonly used to refer to the “drug” in “drugstore”, and not illegal substances.

▼ This drugstore chain is called “Drug Seims”.

So when speaking to a foreigner, a Japanese person would naturally be inclined to use the katakana word for “drug” instead of the Japanese word “kusuri” to say “medicine”. From this point of view, it’s easy to see why many Japanese learners of English would think that the word “drug” simply means “medicine” in English and has no relation to illicit substances.

Oh, and if you’re wondering what the word for illicit drugs is in Japanese, it’s “ihou yakubutsu” (literally “illegal drugs”). However, it’s possible for Japanese learners to trip up on the word for drugs in Japanese too, as the 薬 kanji can be read in two ways: as “kusuri” to mean “medicine” and as “yaku” when it’s being used as a slang term for illegal drugs.

It just goes to show how difficult language-learning can be, no matter what language you’re learning. However, as long as you’re able to laugh at yourself and have a sense of humour about it all, like Seaside, the journey can end up being a fun and memorable one along the way — even if you’re tasked with having to learn the kanji with the longest readings and the top five most difficult kanji ever.

Oh, and if the ALT in this story was you or someone you know, we’d love to hear from you so we can reconnect the teacher with their former student. Seaside would be happy to provide you with an update on the famous drugs and drug dealers in Toyama today!

Source: Twitter/@seaside_rs via Hachima Kikou
Featured image: Pakutaso
Insert images: Wikipedia/Louveteau sfm, Wikipedia/ネプチューン, Flickr/S Higashi (edited by SoraNews24)
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