I Heard That – 別件


The new guy at work is a loud talker, and he often powwows with the guy in the office next to mine, which has been a huge boon for my I Heard That strategy. It’s difficult to tell exactly what they’re talking about, but I do get the drift of some conversations, and it’s impossible not to take in (at least subconsciously) the rhythm of the language.

I caught a great piece of language the other day. The two of them had been talking about something and then the loud talker said 全然別件なんですが to change the subject.

This is a great little phrase, one that I would categorize as a type of Airbag Phrase. The original Airbag Phrases help cushion requests, but on their most basic level they act as preparatory transitions that help the listener understand what is going to happen next in the conversation. I always feel like a Jedi when I use them: These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.

別件 (べっけん) is a nice compound that follows the Na-nominal + Noun pattern: 別 a separate 件 topic.

Readers should recognize 全然 (ぜんぜん) as an adverb that usually precedes negative adjectives and verbs and implies “not ____ at all” or “completely not ____”: 全然おもしろくない (not interesting at all), 全然おいしくない (not delicious at all), etc.

In casual situations, 全然 gets attached to positive adjectives and verbs to express a good totality: 全然大丈夫 (totally okay), 全然平気 (completely fine), etc. When I was studying abroad, one of my Japanese friends told me that she knew my Japanese was getting good because I used 全然 in this context. It sounds very natural but is relatively casual, so I’d recommend not using it with superiors. Loud talker happens to be the superior to the guy in the office next to mine, so it works out okay, but I doubt that he would use it with his own boss.

In this case 全然 gets attached to 別件 to imply how drastically different the next conversation topic is. I think this is an especially useful phrase for Japanese as a Second Language students; phrases like this will make your speaking seem more natural and less like surrealist poetry, jumping willy nilly from one topic to the next.

2nd JLPP Translation Competition English Quotes

Just a quick post to share some knowledge. I’m working on my translations for the 2nd JLPP Translation Competition. It’s a little late to get started if you haven’t already, but if you’re working on 「昭和が発見したもの」, then this might be useful.

In the essay, there are several quotes from foreign scholars given in Japanese. I think it’s a mistake to try and translate these yourself. The translations really should be provided by the JLPP, in my opinion, because not including them tests your Google skills rather than your translation ability.

At any rate, I believe I’ve managed to track them all down (so far), and I thought I’d share them. Here they are:

Isaiah Berlin: “I have lived through most of the twentieth century without, I must add, suffering personal hardship. I remember it only as the most terrible century in Western history.”

René Dumont: “I see it (the twentieth century) only as a century of massacres and wars.”

William Golding: “the most violent century in human history”

Peter Gay: “It remains one of the achievements of which the dismal twentieth century can rightfully boast: it has raised Mozart’s music—all of it—to the eminence it deserves.”

Hope that helps.

I Heard That – よく出る

yoku deru

Despite the fact that I work at a Japanese office, I use English most of the time. I do the occasional translation, have the occasional conversation in Japanese, and read the occasional Japanese email, but Japanese language ability was not a requirement for my position. That said, I’m being exposed to much more Japanese than I was when I was in New Orleans, and for this I am thankful.

As a Japanese language student not in Japan, you have to be a collector of sorts, and the less frequent your encounters with Japanese are, the more you have to hoard and delight in those encounters. This can be true even if you’re immersed: It’s easy to turn off your Japanese ears if you’re bored or tired or surrounded by people who are insufferable. Maintain vigilance.

On this note, I’ve been trying to do a better job of collecting these little bits of conversation and force them to roll around in my head a bit. I thought I’d try to post some of those here and give the stories behind them in a new series…I need something to get me going, and sadly my next Japan Times piece won’t be online until the first week of August.

The phrase today is よく出る.

Chicago has been great for Japanese encounters outside of work as well. I recently discovered Conversation Exchange and met up with one language partner already and have another in the works. I’ve also volunteered with JETAA at an old folks home with a sizable Japanese-American population.

We read out the bingo numbers (in English—there are non-Japanese as well), and that’s about it, but they appreciate it and are a lot of fun to see every month. We also have very brief conversations in Japanese with some of the folks. For the first half of the year I was going three times a month to help out a volunteer who couldn’t make it, so they really got to know me.

Because they’re all a bit hard of hearing, we use a big speaker and microphone to do the calling, but even then they have trouble. One woman, who goes by Lillian I think, often double checks the numbers with the others at her table, which includes some younger non-Japanese folks.

One week, I called out a number, and she turned to her tablemates and said セブンティ・フォー? They corrected her to 75, and she said, オー、セブンティ・ファイブ。よく出る—Oh, seventy-five. That one comes up a lot.

The phrase made me smile because it perfectly represents how all the residents think about bingo. Some will come exchange their bingo cards between games because they got an unlucky card. Others grumble conspiracy when a certain number happens to pop up multiple times in a single night.

Volunteering has helped me understand the meditative, hypnotic appeal of bingo, but this is the benefit I get. It’s an hour where I can turn off my phone and call numbers, focus on being in the moment, but I’m not sure if it’s the same for the old folks—they are pretty competitive about it. I guess the thrill of winning is also appealing, as is the benefit of community.

It doesn’t feel like any numbers get drawn more frequently than the others, but you never know: We use a tumbler that spins bingo balls, and none of them are perfectly spherical, so in theory some could be shaped in a way that would make them よく出る.

Pre-JET Japanese Triage

I gave a short crash course on Japanese for departing JETs at the Consulate-General of Japan at Chicago yesterday, and I thought I would post the handout I gave everyone and add a few links and explanations. The goal of the presentation was to prepare the JETs for schools and classrooms, give them some ideas about how to make requests and say no (two notoriously difficult and delicate things), and to put them in the right mindset to study Japanese.

Pre-JET Japanese Triage Notes.docx

(I can’t get the embedder to work, so here’s a link to the file for now.)

A couple of notes:

I was asked after the presentation whether お+stem+になります is still viable keigo. It absolutely is. The only reason I didn’t include it in the presentation was to simplify things. I think one of the reason keigo seems so difficult at first is because noobs (including myself, long ago) sometimes have difficulty remembering whether to use お+stem+します or お+stem+になります at the moment when you are finally asked to use your keigo. Knowing that passive is an alternative is an easy way to not mess it up. But obviously お+stem+になります is also handy and should eventually be incorporated into your repertoire.

I also shared a few thoughts on teaching at elementary school, so I wanted to be sure to include the link to my videos over at danierusensei on YouTube. 33 different videos for activities you can use in the classroom. Hopefully this allows you to go into the elementary school classroom more prepared than I was.

Karaoke Kotoba – あなた

I’m in the Japan Times this week: “Keep pounding away and eventually Japanese will reveal its secrets.”

It’s just a little piece about how I finally figured out 使役 (しえき, causative). I mention the Yoshi Ikuzo karaoke song と・も・子, which I learned thanks to one of my host families in Fukushima. My host dad used to sing this song all the time, and he was great at imitating Yoshi’s Tohoku accent.

I mention in the article that the narrator is singing the song for his lost love, but I didn’t have space to introduce what makes this song so special. It starts with a slow, spoken rap about Tomoko, a woman the narrator loves until she goes shopping one day and never returns.

The rap is given in Tohoku-ben as the narrator chases her through the region only to find her pregnant in Hakodate. Somehow she dies between that point and time when he when he pens the song. After the rap, he sings the song, which he terms 遅かったラブソング – Too-late Love Song. The song itself is pretty standard and culminates in a The Boxer-like repetition of ラーララ. The narrator addresses Tomoko directly using あなた, which reminded me of this tweet:

Conveniently it links to my previous Japan Times article about dropping subjects. Beginner students often have trouble understanding why あなた shouldn’t be used (or at least I did), but karaoke is one of the few places where it’s acceptable to use the word because the love songs are often dialogues between two people who are intimate. If you have that intimacy, you can use あなた. Otherwise, stick to surnameさん or nameさん when you want to say “you.”

It’s worth checking out the long rap. There aren’t many good versions on YouTube (check this link as a permasearch for the song), but this one has an imperfect subtitling of the rap:

I haven’t mastered it yet, but on a good day I can make it through the rap without embarrassing myself too much, and then the rest of the song is pretty easy. I do think there is something to be said for memorizing long stretches of spoken Japanese this way. In my experience, it kind of imprints your brain in a way that comes in handy in the future.

This live version has a great example of the causative keigo right at the beginning:

今日は私の好きな曲を歌わせていただきます。Go ahead, Yoshi, sing whatever song you want.

Cool Word – 場合


I’m on the Japan Times Bilingual page this week: “In Japanese, mastery of the space-time continuum is just a few words away.”

The intro is inspired by my first ever trip to Japan—an internship with a propeller company. I was taken along on a visit to Misawa Homes, one of the big prefab housing companies in Japan. (Of course the propeller company did business with a modular homes company.) I also got to see model homes in a yet-to-be-populated subdivision. It’s impressive stuff.

The article is a bit heavy on the timing words, so I feel like I gave 場合 short shrift. It is the ultimate hypothetical word, one that can sit in for conditional verbs ending with たら or ば and one that doesn’t require you to perform any mental gymnastics with the verbs. Not that it’s all that difficult to construct the たら or ば forms, but 場合 only really needs the past or present tense.

The easiest way to think of it in English is “In the case of X,” where 場合 means “case.” This also works with constructions (suggested by this site) such as 外国人の場合. (The only proper response to which is “break glass,” I assume?)

I feel like I’ve tweeted out this Chiebukuro link before, but the pronunciation of 場合 is one of those few Japanese words that can vary a little. My first sensei pronounced it ばわい, which always stuck with me. I’ll use it every now and then.


After an extended break for ten days of travel through Bavaria and Bohemia (it was excellent; see Twitter/Instagram for details), I’m back at Hard-boiled Wonderland. In Chapter 24 “Shadow Grounds,” Boku visits the Gatekeeper and then has a catch-up with his shadow.

Most of the translation changes in this chapter feel relatively standard for Birnbaum’s style, but they are still evident even from the first few sentences. Here is the official translation:

Three days of clear weather have come to an end. I know it as soon as I awaken. I open my eyes with no discomfort.

The sun is stripped of light and warmth, the sky is cloaked in heavy clouds. (242)

Here is the Japanese with my translation following:


Three days of perfect weather are over when I wake up. The sky is covered with a thick, faultless layer of darkly colored clouds, and the light that manages to make its way through that covering has been robbed of most of its original warmth and brightness.

As you can see, the official translation is much more minimal than the original Japanese, yet Birnbaum (or his editor) adds a few details to help re-establish the scene (Boku and his eyes) in the End of the World. Maybe this is for the best after the lengthy Hard-boiled Wonderland chapters. I immediately looked at the paperback version of the book to see whether Murakami might have cut the sentences from the Complete Works edition, but the two are the same.

I did spot one cut by Murakami later in the chapter. Boku and his shadow sit under an elm tree, kicking their heels in the frozen ground. The shadow draws a circle in the ground to represent the perfection of the Town in the End of the World. They discuss plans for escape and the difficulties of living in the End of the World:

“My confidence is going, it’s true,” I say, dropping my eyes to the circle on the ground. “How can I be strong when I do not know my own mind? I am lost.”

“That’s not true,” corrects my shadow. “You are not lost. It’s just that your own thoughts are being kept from you, or hidden away. But the mind is strong. It survives, even without thought. Even with everything taken away, it holds a seed—your self. You must believe in your own powers.”

“I will try,” I say. (248-249)

And here is the original paperback version:




“I definitely feel confused,” I say as I lower my eyes to the circle drawn in the ground. “It is as you say. I’m unsure of where I should be heading. Or of what kind of person I was in the past. How strong can a mind without a self actually be in the end? Especially in a town with such power and strong standards of value. Ever since winter arrived, I just keep losing confidence in my mind little by little.”

“No, you’re wrong,” my shadow says. “You haven’t lost your self. They’ve just hidden your memories. Which is why you feel confused. However, you’re not totally off. Even if you lose your memories, your mind will continue on in its original direction. A mind has inherent principles of movement. And that is, in other words, your self. Believe in your own strength. If you don’t, you’ll be thrown off course by powers outside of yourself.”

“I’ll try,” I say.

As you can see, it’s still quite different from Birnbaum’s translation. Lengthier, to be sure, but Birnbaum keeps many of the elements from the paperback. In the Collected Works edition, Murakami edits the shadow’s response:


“No, you’re wrong,” my shadow says. “You haven’t lost your self. They’ve just hidden your memories. Which is why you feel confused. However, you’re not totally off. Believe in your own strength. If you don’t, you’ll be thrown off course by powers outside of yourself.”

Gone is the section about the mind and its “principles of movement.” It’s an interesting idea, but perhaps felt a little unwieldy when Murakami looked it over again? That’s the only thought I have now.

As I mentioned at the top, no major adjustment changes, but now that I’ve written this post, the English version does seem more intrusive than I initially thought. The compressions illustrated in the passages above are uniform throughout the chapter. But I guess this isn’t a big surprise: This is how Murakami was initially translated, and it’s not like the final product is a disaster. On the contrary, it’s pretty strong. Just a translation, innit?

In terms of language notes, I struggled with 間違っちゃいない and eventually resorted to help on Facebook after doing some googling and still not being totally sure about the meaning. The word is a contraction, of course, for 間違ってはいない, and I think it gave me fits because it seems to contradict with the 違う at the beginning of the passage. There is also a kind of “set phrase” feel/tone to the word and certain circumstances in which it gets used. As a native speaker Facebook friend noted, it means “you’re not (entirely) wrong (either)”

Now it’s on to the next 30-page Hard-boiled Wonderland behemoth. I’ll try to get through it quickly.

Karaoke Kotoba – 別れ


My column is in the Japan Times Bilingual page this week: “Submitting yourself to the 50 shades of arigatō gozaimasu.”

I take a look at ways to diversify your phrases of appreciation: ありがとう is great, but there are other ways you can thank people. Why not add a few to your repertoire?

There’s nothing really wrong with ありがとう, of course, and I mention a couple karaoke songs there at the end that use ありがとう, notably 夜霧よ今夜も有り難う, one of Yūjiro Ishihara’s legendary songs:

I love this song for several reasons: 1) There are few songs that fit within my vocal range (deep), but this is one of them, 2) Yūjiro is boss — as my college graduate advisor put it, he’s basically the Japanese Elvis — and 3) in the video above (if the link isn’t broken) he doesn’t bat much of an eye even though some jackass comes on stage in the middle of the song to pelt him with confetti:


I was going to write something snarky about how the real つらさ is having to share the stage with the confetti pelters, but apparently they are celebrating Ishihara’s first television performance after recovering from an aortic aneurysm:


The real pain, though, is 別れのつらさ – the pain of parting/breaking up. Because of the nature of music (especially pop music), 別れ (わかれ) is a word you can expect to encounter frequently in the karaoke box. It’s just a noun from the verb 別れる.

I went hunting for other examples of 別れ and I found a great example: 別れても好きな人.

It’s a duet, one that was originally released in 1969 but got covered in 1979 and became a million-seller for “Los Indios and Sylvia” (ロス・インディオス&シルヴィア). The song gives you a great tour of famous parts of Tokyo, and duets are fun as hell. It’s always good to have a well-known duet up your karaoke sleeve, in your karaoke quiver, etc.

The grammar pattern the song highlights is one of the most basic: Gerund X + も = Despite X/even though X. In this case, “people you love/like/crush on even though you broke up.”

On a side note, the video I found above has a solid example of 壁ドン, a word which drew attention in 2014 when it was a runner up for word of the year. As you can see from this video, it has a pretty long history as a visual trope (although I have no idea what year the karaoke video was produced, could be later than 1979 I assume, but judging from the way the Scramble Crossing looks, it’s a while back):


文末 Nuggets

My March Japan Times Bilingual piece is up: “Avoiding the subject isn’t such a bad idea in Japanese.”

Inspired by a question on Twitter, I take a look at how to avoid using subjects in Japanese. (Hint: Just ignore them mostly.) Besides just leaving them out, there are a ton of phrases in the language that promote concision, notably a few handy 文末 phrases. I address そうだ and ようだ in the piece, but らしい and みたい are also very effective in similar roles.

They all have subtly different usages, so it can be helpful to look at Japanese definitions. These are all from the wonderful 日本語文型辞典.

2015-03-03 09.44.21

Do your best to ignore my awful translation.


…ようだ 〈推量〉




Expresses a speaker’s impression or estimation-like judgment about something. Presents the impression or external appearance (of something) according to the external appearance (of the thing) or the speaker’s senses and suggests “It kind of seems that way/It looks that way.” Used when a speaker gives an impression or condition (of something) taken from the speaker’s sense of touch, sight, hearing, smell, etc. and when making other observations like that to give the speaker’s general, estimation-like judgment.

The following patterns are used when responding to things that have already been mentioned: 「そのようだ」 and 「そんなようだ」



文末に付いて、話し手がその内容をかなり確実度の高いことがらであると思っていることを表す。その判断の根拠は外部からの情報や観察可能なことがらなど客観的なものであり、単なる想像ではない。 (632)


Appended to the end of sentences to express that the speaker believes the content has a very high level of certainty. The basis for that judgment is objective, such as outside information or something that is observable, not simply imagination.





Added on to 普通体 (direct style) clauses to express that (the clause) is not something you received directly but reported information that came from somewhere else. Does not form negative or past tense constructions.


…みたいだ 〈推量〉


これに対して、他の人から聞いた話など間接的な情報にもとづいた話し手の推量を表すときには「らしい」が使われ、聞いたことをそのまま報告する場合には「そうだ」が使われる。 (562)


Expresses a speaker’s estimation. Means “I can’t tell for certain, but that’s what I believe.” An expression used to give an estimation based on something the speaker directly experienced, such as they saw something, heard something, or smelled something.

Conversely, 「らしい」 is used when expressing the speaker’s estimation based on indirect information, such as something heard from another person. 「そうだ」 is used when reporting something exactly as it was heard.

I’ve been wanting to post something like this for a while. I actually drafted it way back in 2009 (typed out the sections from the 文型辞典) but lost the post to a hard-drive crash and have been too lazy to get it together since.

I think it’s helpful to look at things like this explained in Japanese. The book also has a ton of great example sentences. Definitely a must-own for any students of Japanese who make it beyond the intermediate level.

Still, it’s one thing to know the dictionary definition of these patterns and another thing entirely to put them into practice. The occasional reminder from texts like the 文型辞典 can help us be mindful of the usages. Now get out there and get reporting indirectly and judging subjectively!

Karaoke Kotoba – いとし

Back in the ‘90s and the early ‘00s when I first played through (parts of) FFVI, I had no idea how much the opera scene owed to karaoke culture, but now it’s totally clear. I mean, there’s a syllable for syllable midi voice of the Japanese lyrics.



Now I’m seriously surprised that I didn’t hear someone sing this at a karaoke box. Maybe I just didn’t karaoke with the right people.

At any rate, the first word of the song, いとし, is one of those classic karaoke words that you hear in countless songs. I’m never sure sure how reliable Chiebukuro is, but this post seems to suggest an evolution of the word.

Currently it means “beloved,” or something of that ilk, and it often gets attached to people’s names or pronouns. The Southern All-Stars have the best translation in their song いとしのエリー, which doesn’t even use the word いとし in the lyrics: Instead, the chorus is “Eri, my love, so sweet.” “X, my love” is a pretty nice rendering.

On a side note, after watching this video of サザン lead singer Keisuke Kuwata belt out the song, I can’t help but think he’s had a huge influence on Japanese rock vocals (even though I know next to nothing about Japanese rock).

His weird growl sounds similar to some imitations of “foreigner Japanese.” It also seems extremely ripe for parody…which I may have to attempt at karaoke soon.