遠慮:Prometheus:: 怠る:Epimetheus

遠慮, as mentioned previously, means to actively refrain from doing something. This is a nifty way around negative imperatives or having to reply with a very blunt negative refusal.

怠る (おこたる) is another wicked cool Japanese verb that means, fundamentally, not doing something. Unlike 遠慮, which has a relatively positive meaning, 怠る has a negative connotation – it means to inadvertently fail to do something.

The usage pattern is Nを怠る, N being any noun or nouned verb such as 〜するの or 〜すること. (“Nouned,” by the way, is a verbed noun.) I’ve run into it recently while looking at manuals for arcade games. One sentence that comes to mind is 定期的な掃除を怠ると、X – “Failure to undertake periodic cleaning will result in bad consequence X.” I can’t remember what bad consequence X was, but I think it was something along the lines of electrocution…or maybe just malfunction?

定期的な掃除をしないと、is a perfectly valid alternative except for that pesky ない hanging around near the end of the clause. The company providing the manual wouldn’t ever want to imply that the game center purchasing the game, the お客様 as it were, might not do something, so they instead suggest that they might fail to do something.

Japanese is awesome.

遠慮 and 怠る correlate nicely with Prometheus and Epimetheus, as suggested in the title to this post. For those of you unfamiliar with the myth, 1) your parents deserve a smack on the head – what were they making you read when you were a kid? – and 2) this is a good place to start.

Prometheus (literally “forethought”) and Epimetheus (“afterthought”) were given the job of divvying up cool traits to all the animals. Epimetheus went about the task with Japanese efficiency, giving elephants really long trunks, making giraffes super tall, allowing cheetahs to run really fast, and neglecting to save anything for humans. To help his brother, Prometheus made man in the shape and image of the Gods. This angered Zeus, so he denied humans fire. Prometheus stole it anyway.

怠る is perfectly Epimethean. I guess Prometheus didn’t really 遠慮 all that much, but 遠慮 definitely involves forethought, so perhaps this is still a useful analogy.  

Cool Compound – 死角


Learned this one at work the other day. “Death” and “angle,” pronounced しかく. It means “blind spot.” I thought it was pretty cool.

I wrote it down so I wouldn’t forget it. I didn’t forget it, but mostly because I was surprised at how shockingly bad my kanji have become in the past year or two. Very little balance going on up there.

Underrated Japan Vol. 3 – Tonkatsu

How to Japanese: Underrated Japan Vol. 3 – Tonkatsu from Daniel Morales on Vimeo.

I can pinpoint the exact moment I fell in love with tonkatsu: tired and probably slightly hungover, early afternoon on a clear, cold Saturday in February 2006, Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture. My friend said we should go to this restaurant near his apartment, but I was skeptical. I’m not sure if I’d ever had tonkatsu before that. I must’ve had katsu curry (rice and tonkatsu ladled with curry) at some point, but it didn’t leave much of an impression on me. We went, stood in line for an hour, and then sat around a table listening to oldies, eating the best food I’ve ever had.

From that day on, tonkatsu were a landmark on my Japanese culinary map. Growing up vegetarian (until I was 12 or so) and in a city with little other than sushi, there’s no reason I would’ve known about tonkatsu before coming to Japan. The yoshoku phenomenon (must read Norimitsu Onishi article on yosohoku) on the whole doesn’t really make it out of Japan. And I guess that’s not really a strange thing: why would an imported food concept be exported back to the area of origin? (I’m sure this happens all the time, to be honest, but…) It’d be like translating English into Japanese on Babelfish and then taking that translation and plugging it into the Japanese to English Babelfish translator. The result would only confuse the natives.

But what if it was an incredibly tasty confusion?

That’s exactly what tonkatsu is. To be more accurate, tonkatsu is pork cutlet battered in egg, covered with panko, and then deep fried. It’s served with white rice, red miso soup, cabbage salad, and some pickled vegetables. The cutlets are covered in sauce and dipped in karashi, a spicy horseradish mustard. The result is almost sinfully delicious. For anyone who thinks Japan is a tofu nation perfect for vegetarians, tonkatsu are one of many dishes that will prove that you are seriously misinformed – the Japanese are, in fact, carnivorous, deep-frying motherfuckers.

Rather than have you all risk clogging your veins with less than the absolute highest quality tonkatsu, I have sought it out for you:


とんき (Tonki)  目黒区下目黒1-1-2

Tonki is supposedly the most famous tonkatsu-ya in Tokyo. The main store is just a quick walk from Meguro Station. They open at 4pm everyday, and generally the seats are full by 4:15. I went on Sunday, January 4th for 初カツ, the first tonkatsu of the New Year, and was the second person in line. There was only one guy behind me, but somehow the place still filled up by 4:15.

The store is lit by an array of clean, white lights that hang from the ceiling. The staff all wear crisp white uniforms and keep a careful watch on all of the customers seated at the smooth, wooden counter – the only seating in the store. Tonki easily had the best service of these three restaurants; I was offered refills on rice and salad almost immediately after I finished eating them.

As in most tonkatsu-ya, there are really only two things to order – ロース or ヒレ. ロース comes from the word “roast,” and ヒレ from “fillet.” The former is a fatty cut, the latter a lean cut. Teishoku of either cut at Tonki cost 1800 yen.

Tonki batter their katsu pretty good and fry it up nice and crispy – the fried edge was falling off of the pork. Interestingly, they also serve their teishoku with 豚汁, a miso-based pork soup, rather than the standard red (dark) miso soup with clams.

Tonki is legendary for a good reason: the place is an experience. The katsu themselves might not have been my favorite, but this will probably be the first of these three that I revisit. The decor and service are amazing, presentation is exquisite, and all the little things are taken care of; the toothpicks are covered with a small, glass beer cup and they serve you a small dish of peanuts with beer – details like that.


まい泉 (Maisen) 渋谷区神宮前4-8-5

Maisen is the second most famous tonkatsu-ya, according to bento.com. The main restaurant is in Aoyama, not far from Omotesando Station. The building is huge; there’s a counter on the first floor and tables on the second floor.

The service is not quite as top notch as Tonki, but Maisen has a menu with more options, including a gluttonous cut of 黒豚 – black pork. For whatever reason, black pork is popular in Japan at the moment. It will run you nearly 3000 yen for a teishoku, but it’s a thick, juicy cut, and probably the one that impressed me the most. (Their normal teishoku are more fairly priced but don’t include the mikan-flavored ice cream you get at the end.) They also bring out a special sauce jar just for the black pork, which has, I think, grated daikon in it.

They didn’t provide any karashi on the plate, although it might have been in a jar on the counter – I was so hungry that I didn’t notice. It was so delicious that it was almost unnecessary, but I love karashi, so I imagine it could have been even better. Oh well, I guess I’ll have to go back some time and find out.


勝烈庵 (Katsuretsu-an) 横浜市中区常盤町5-58-2

Katsuretsu-an (it almost looks Chinese if you write it Katsuretsuan) is, according to Japanese Wikipedia (which cites an interesting-sounding book on tonkatsu), one of the restaurants that is often associated with the invention of the term “tonkatsu.” There are two other restaurants that also seem to claim the term as their own, but Katsuretsu-an is the oldest – the Bashamichi location opened in 1924.

Compared to Maisen and Tonki, Kasturetsu-an was relatively quiet when I went on a Saturday for lunch. The place is very nice on both the outside and the inside; it is equipped with a similar wooden counter as in Tonki.

It also shares a relatively limited menu with Tonki. The special named after the restaurant is really a ヒレ cut, but ロース is also an option. The katsu were thinner than the ones at Tonki and Maisen. Karashi was serve yourself, which made me very happy. Overall, they were nice and light and didn’t sit heavy afterwards at all. Perhaps not katsu with much impact, but definitely worthy of a pilgrimage at some point.

号外 – Yeast

Was out at Popeye tonight, sitting at the counter and talking with the guy next to me. He mentioned that he made some beer at one of the craft breweries near Tokyo. I thought that was pretty cool until he told me that he was only allowed to participate until the yeast were added – everything after that had to be done by a professional with a special license. Boo for Japanese alcohol laws.

Read more about the asinine Japanese beer tax laws over at Mutantfrog Travelogue.

Underrated Japan Vol. 2 – Mikan

The idea of doing a homestay during a study abroad program is appealing to me now that I’m past my college years. Back when I actually studied here, I was far more interested in running around Tokyo than sitting around talking with old people who probably would have lived really far from campus. I’m happy with the experience I had, but I was forced to discover a lot of things on my own. Host parents would have been the most effective way to improve my Japanese while also learning a lot about Japanese customs.

I lived in a dorm out in Edogawa-ku on the Tozai Line. The dorm provided breakfast and dinner, but I would occasionally get tired of Japanese style food every morning, so every now and then I’d buy yogurt, granola, and some fruit at the supermarket and eat in my tiny room. I remember eating bananas a lot and maybe some other fruit. I also have my first memories of mikan. I was hesitant to buy them at first, not really knowing what they were, and while I remember enjoying them, I never really understood their place in Japanese culture.

Mikan are often translated as “mandarin orange” or “tangerine,” but they’re actually the fruit called satsuma. They get that name because they were first exported to the US from Satsuma Province, which is the old name for part of Kagoshima Prefecture. Ehime, Wakayama, Nagasaki, and Shizuoka are all famous for mikan, which thrive in cold weather like other citrus fruit, but most areas in southern Japan are rife with the fruit between November and February. Along the southwestern coast of Kyushu there’s a private train line called the Hisatsu Orange Line, in part because you can see groves from the windows of the train.

They are sold in sizes ranging from SS, S, and M up through LL. I am of the opinion that mikan, when eaten, should be consumed in tremendous quantities, so I invariably buy S. The smaller ones also seem to be sweeter and tangier. For a bag of eight to ten, you should expect to pay between 200 to 600 yen depending on the quality. I err on the cheap side for the same reason I buy small. Recently I discovered that an anonymous, home-run convenience store near my apartment sells eight for 180 yen. If you’re really lucky, you can buy a 5kg box for 1000-1500 yen.

In terms of a cultural symbol, mikan are a winter comfort food and strongly associated with kotatsu, the short Japanese table equipped with a heater and a heavy quilt to keep the heat trapped underneath. In the winter, people sit on the floor with the lower half of their body tucked into the warm space under the kotatsu and snack on mikan and other winter foods like nabe, Japanese hotpot. I eat about four to five a day on average, sometimes more. I’m naturally nice and brown, but Japanese who eat too many take on a orange tint.

Mikan are Japan, but unfortunately they don’t penetrate the filter to foreign countries. (Not cute or cool enough?) They are highly underrated abroad and are therefore Volume 2 in the Underrated Japan video series. (You can see Vol. 1 here.) Enjoy:

How to Japanese: Underrated Japan Vol. 2 – Mikan from Daniel Morales on Vimeo.

More Negative Thoughts

Thinking about 遠慮 and かもしれない has also made me wonder recently whether or not the へん from the Kansai dialect plays a similar role.

For those who don’t know, the Kansai dialect is prevalent in and around Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe. One of the major features of the dialect is changing negative ending from ない to へん like this:

できない     →   できへん
わからない  →   わからへん

There’s more detailed information here, but the site makes no mention of why exactly they do this or how it came about. I’m sure there are longer, more extensive reasons it developed that way, but it’s interesting that the dialect has what is essentially a ない-replacer.

号外 – How to Basketball in Japan – International League Pass

I should have mentioned it when I first ordered it a month or so ago, but the NBA now offers International League Pass. It enables you to stream games live or watch them on replay for up to 24 hours. At $99, only about 9200 yen these days, it’s still worth it to watch the second half of the season. There will be a separate playoff package if you, like the San Antonio Spurs, wait to turn it on in the post-season.

Avoiding the ない

I’ve got a short piece on 遠慮 over at Néojaponisme. It’s a rewritten version of one of my first posts  – “How to Say No by Saying Yes”. Don’t forget that you can also make use of お断り as a “Hell no” for comedic purposes.

遠慮 is a useful phrase for avoiding ない, but かねます is a far more blatant dodge. It is a verb ending that attaches to the stem (most often to the verbs できる, する, 致す, and 負う) and means “can’t” or, more appropriately in this case, “unable to”.

So rather than use できない or できません, you can say できかねます which has the same fundamental meaning. This is, as you can probably imagine, an incredibly polite, serious way to say something. Personally I find it hilarious that you can just replace the unpleasant negative ending with one that isn’t negative and make it all better. I’d like to meet the first guy who did that.

(Oda Nobunaga: おい、お前。パイ作ってきてくれ。
Advisor: えっと、あのぅ。パイ、作れなーあっ。作ることができなーあっ。作り...かねます。
Nobunaga: かねますって、一体何なんだ?
Advisor: はっきり言えば、できないということ。
Sound of head falling on tatami.)

In every case, the speaker finds him/herself unable to do something that puts him/her in an unfortunate position. かねます almost has a built in “unfortunately” along the same lines as 〜てしまった as well as a “we ask for your understanding” as in ご了承ください.

An extremely useful set phrase I learned in college is わたくしどもでは決めかねます, which can be used if you’re ever put on the spot to make a decision that is outside of your immediate jurisdiction; it literally means “I alone am unable to make that decision”, but it also sort of implies that you will consult your superiors.

する, 致す, and できる are generally attached to other verbs. For example, 賛成 (さんせい) – そういう考えもあるかもしれませんが、賛成できかねます。 “You may think that, but I (unfortunately) am unable to agree.”  

負う, as ALC tells us, is often used to duck responsibility – 責任を負いかねます.

Very much like 遠慮, かねます is one of those secret code words/patterns that is able to convey a lot of meaning efficiently because everyone knows what it really means. You, too, can tap into all the trappings of かねます, as long as you know when you need to use them.