“… I think that your Japanese is good enough to understand how you should address a professor. Please reword this email before I forward it to the department head.”
This is the last sentence of an email I received after pitching my proposal to a professor at the university where I wanted to do research, and my ego still hurts a little bit when I look at it.
My Japanese wasn’t the best, but I was by no means a beginner, either. I’d already spent two years in Japan and felt I should’ve been capable of stringing a few sentences together.
My Japanese was good enough to make a few friends, trek 東北 (とうほく) — Tohoku or North-Eastern Region in the search of delicious regional food and even audit a linguistics class.
How could I fail sending a simple email after these experiences?
A few distressed Line messages later, I discovered that the problem wasn’t due to my knowledge of the Japanese language: The issue was my understanding of Japanese culture.
There’s an entire culture and etiquette surrounding digital correspondences in Japanese, especially when it concerns emailing those who are of a higher status than you.
You can’t separate the language from the culture, so if you plan to live, study or even just make some acquaintances in Japan, you’ll need to know the basic Japanese email format.
In this post, I’ll discuss the cultural aspects of the Japanese email, then introduce you to a basic email format you can follow so you never have to experience a crushing response like the one I received from my professor.
Cultural Fluency: Why It’s Important to Use the Correct Japanese Email Format
Imagine that you’re standing in line to buy lunch when, reaching into your pocket, you discover that you forgot your wallet. Furthermore, for the sake of argument, you have to ask the person behind you for money.
How would you phrase that request if the person behind you was…
- …your mom?
- …your best friend?
- …your professor?
- …an acquaintance?
- …a complete stranger?
Although we’re essentially saying the same thing in each of these cases—”I need money”—the way you’d phrase this message differs in each scenario. In other words, the language you choose to use depends on the situation you happen to be in.
This is a really key idea: Just because you can express a given idea in a certain way doesn’t mean that it’s the best option for every scenario.
That’s where having an understanding of the culture of your target language becomes important. Being linguistically capable of expressing an idea (say, knowing the necessary vocabulary and grammar to do so) is one thing, but understanding when you should (or shouldn’t) express it in a certain way is another.
Culture is connected to basically everything, including seemingly mundane tasks like sending an email. I won’t pretend to be able to offer a detailed analysis explaining why any culture works the way it does, but I do hope to get you thinking about it.
To do that, we need to talk about scripts.
What Are Scripts and How Do They Affect Sending Japanese Emails?
Life’s really complicated; we have tons of social interactions every day and process an incredible amount of information.
That being said, very few of these interactions are novel and very little of that information is being processed for the first time. A lot of it is basically copy-pasted from a sort of invisible rule-book, and thanks to this rule-book we can generally know what to expect when we go to the post office or invite a friend to the movies.
This metaphorical rule-book is full of what are called behavioral scripts: Each party involved in a given situation has a few standard lines or actions, and if everyone follows the script, the encounter goes smoothly.
For example, let’s say that you’re eating at a restaurant. You’re expecting a wonderful meal and you’ve got a handful of money from the person behind you… but what do you do with this money? Should you pay before or after you eat? Do you give it to the waiter/waitress, leave it on the table or take it to a register?
If you take it to a register, should you put it in a little tray, directly into the cashier’s hand or set it on the counter between you two? Should you hold the money out right away or wait to be acknowledged by the cashier, first? Should you leave a tip or not?
The way you interact with a cashier is an example of a script and different scripts exist both within a culture (say, at a fast food restaurant vs. a fancy restaurant) and between cultures (say, in your country vs. your target country). It’s important to follow the correct script for a given situation or your behavior will seem off.
In other words, if you follow an English script to organize an email to a Japanese person, it’s going to seem strange even if your Japanese itself is perfect. Your problem in this case isn’t linguistic but cultural.
One way to learn the proper script to use in any given situation is by watching other people do it, first. Sitting in the restaurant, you might watch how other patrons pay for their food and follow their example.
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The other way to learn a script for a situation is by, well, literally learning the script. Prepare beforehand by studying the right words to use and the right way to behave.
That’s exactly what this post plans to do for you: Below, you’ll find the proper Japanese email format (aka script) to use when sending out a formal email. Study it and you’ll have no trouble!
The Proper Japanese Email Format and Structure to Avoid a Digital Faux Pas
The good news and bad news is that there’s definitely a script to Japanese emails, and if you’re a native English speaker, it’s probably a bit different than what you’re used to.
The bad news is that you have to learn it or you’ll probably do it wrong; the good news is that it’s quite straightforward and a lot of it is just putting the right phrases in the right places.
A proper email looks something like this:
- 件名 (けんめい) — Subject
- 宛名 (あてな) — Recipient
- 送信者 (そうしんしゃ) — Sender
- 本文 (ほんぶん) — Body
- 結び (むすび) — Concluding words
- 署名 (しょめい) — Signature
What these different terms amount to might differ slightly from your expectations, so let’s take a closer look.
件名 (けんめい): The subject line of your email
Japanese subject lines carry a lot more oomph than their English equivalents. They should be very specific and tend to be quite long, sufficient that the person you’re contacting will know exactly what’s in your email before they open it.
For instance, if you’re emailing a professor, here’s what two subject lines might look like:
言語社会学 ３月１７日の講義について (質問)
げんご しゃかいがく さんがつ じゅうしちにち の こうぎに ついて (しつもん)
A question about March 17th’s Linguistic Sociology lecture
古典文学 期末レポート課題 (＿名前＿)
こてんぶんがく きまつ れぽーと かだい (＿なまえ＿)
Classical Literature Theme of (my) final paper (your name here)
宛名 (あてな): The recipient of your email
If I were to contact my colleagues, bosses or professors in the US by email, I’d definitely begin “dear so-and-so,” or at the very least include a salutation. Not doing so could be considered rude.
This isn’t the case in Japan, though: It’s enough to simply state the person’s last name and title. It isn’t even necessary to add an honorific suffix like -san (さん) or -sama (様／さま).
田中先生 (たなか せんせい) — Mr. Tanaka
石川教授 (いしかわ きょうじゅ) — Professor Ishikawa
送信者 (そうしんしゃ): The sender of your email (in other words, you)
Here we include a detailed explanation of exactly who we are in relation to the recipient.
I’ll include one example suitable for full-time students and another for exchange students. That being said, the basic structure is something like this:
Faculty — Department — Year of study — Name
(ぶんがくぶ げんごがっか にねんの やまだ はなこ です。)
Hanako Yamada, Faculty of Literature, Department of Linguistics, Sophomore
(きんだい にほんぶんがくを りしゅうしている たんき りゅうがくせい の にこらす・さみです。)
Sami Nicholas, a short term international student taking a course in modern Japanese Literature
If you aren’t a student, you should still include sender information, along with any other relevant information about your position or company, so the recipient will know who you are. For instance:
Company — Position — Full name
本文 (ほんぶん): The body of your email
This part is more familiar. Explain why you’re contacting the recipient in a concise manner, but make sure to write it in a respectful, formal fashion.
結び (むすび): A few concluding words
Just like in English, there are a number of fixed phrases that get mixed, matched and attached to the end of a Japanese email to signal that the letter has come to a close.
These typically make use of 謙譲語 (けんじょうご), humble language. If you’re not sure what exactly that means, be sure to read up a bit about 敬語 (けいご) — keigo, polite language.
(おいそがしいところ おてすうをおかけして もうしわけありませんが、 よろしくおねがいいたします。)
I sincerely apologize to cause you trouble at such a time, Best regards,
(おいそがしいところ きょうしゅくですが、 ごへんしんを いただけますとさいわいです。)
I understand that you’re very busy, but I would be very grateful if you could find the time to send me a response.
署名: (しょめい) Wrap things up with your signature
Rest assured, there isn’t a cultural hoop to jump through here. Simply list your full name.
山田 花子 (やまだ はなこ) — Hanako Yamada
サミ・ニコラス — Sami Nicholas
Although it might sound frightening, especially if you haven’t done a lot of formal writing in Japanese, sending an email basically amounts to six very formulaic steps.
Even if you make a few mistakes here and there with the Japanese itself, your recipient will still appreciate the email’s overall concise structure!
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