Can’t read, still need to buy shit.

Posted on 17.06.2014


It feels odd and funny to tell people ‘I still can’t read’ when speaking about Japanese. I can’t speak it very well, either, but saying I can’t read sounds kind of hysterical.

That being said, it does make for some REALLY interesting shopping experiences. The first thing I’ll say is that I appreciate how much Japan relies on images in packaging design, as it has made it a bit easier to know what the hell I’m buying. Second, knowing the general layout of a grocery store doesn’t hurt. Neither does knowing that the sesame oil ALWAYS comes in a special-shaped glass container.

Here are a few bits and pieces on my experiences so far:
photo 11. Thank goodness they have a western fetish!
Even if the English is spelled wrong and makes NO sense at all, the fact that some packages tell me which is shampoo and which is conditioner will make me buy them before anything else.

The photos I took of these two also stay on my phone, in case I end up in a situation where I NEED something NOW and can only find bottles in ALL Japanese.

Sadly, I still don’t know what ‘whale blubber’ looks like, so I may have inadvertently bought some hair products that had some in it.

As a side note, the refill bags are always cheaper than the plastic containers, and you can buy refillable plastic containers from MUJI for dirt cheap. It’s a good way to save money and buy less harmful stuff.

Another way to solve the ‘can’t read’ issue is to shop for products you already know and love. Thankfully, V05 is sold here (at prices that are higher, but still make it the cheapest option) so I know I can always buy them and trust no animals were harmed. Hooray for V05 exporting to Japan!

photo 4There are actually a TON of western products that are imported and you can buy, but the issue is you end up spending a TON on them due to the import tax.

I’m personally a HUGE fan of Dr Bronner’s products, but the big bottle of peppermint soap is something like $33 here, so I just have to ask my friends to bring it when they come over, or bite it and buy it once in a while.

Same goes for my excellent Lavera face powder: $32 for that here, and it was only 12-E in Germany. Nope.

I mentioned above, but I’ll say it again: I don’t want to buy cruel products here. So I’m doing my best to buy stuff that seems ‘natural’ when I can, or what I already know to be cruelty-free.

I’m thankfully solving the make-up and cosmetics issue with the help of Sephora: they now ship overseas, and my purchase of $100 or more qualifies for $15 international shipping: which is way better than the import tax markup I see over here and lack of selection it comes with. So I’m going to continue to buy my cosmetics from them until I can find some decent ones over here.

2. Again: the photos
Thanks to the visual culture here (not always a good thing), just about everything we buy has an image on it of either what it is used for, what it has in it, or how to use it. On the label, as the selling image. It’s amazing. It doesn’t help if I have no idea what that is on the image, but in most cases, this has served me well.

3. The three questions I’m able to ask in Japanese
‘Is this…?’, ‘Do you have..?’ and ‘Where is…?’ have all been VERY helpful. Even if I can’t say the correct word in Japanese, I can say ‘Shampoo wa desuka?’ to someone (is this shampoo) and they will be able to give me a yes or no answer. I can also point at a photo on my phone and ask ‘do you have this?’ and get a yes or no in response, so that’s  helpful.

it was bleach, not detergent

it was bleach, not detergent

4. As my boyfriend says, ‘Suck it and see
Sometimes, I’m on my own shopping and can’t get into a debate about whether this is normal mayo or hollandaise sauce with my better half, so I have to use my skills of deduction to choose what I think is what I need, take it home, and try it out. This has worked 75% of the time.

Most of the times I’ve failed have been food-related, and something had meat in it when I had hoped it didn’t. The other time it failed was recently, when I accidentally bought bleach, thinking it was laundry detergent. Thankfully, only the sheets and one of the boyfriend’s work shirts were harmed, and we went out and bought something that was CLEARLY detergent instead.

So that’s how I’m surviving on the shopping front at the moment. I know that once my Japanese gets better, this will definitely be my best outlet for practice, as customer service is SO important here, but for now, it’s still good practice in asking the big three questions and learning what to look for, without being able to read.