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.

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.

Underrated Phrase – そうですね

I have to thank my senior year Japanese teacher for this one. I can’t remember exactly what lesson she was teaching when she mentioned this phenomenon (perhaps it was job-hunting related since several of us were going to graduate soon), but I remember being very surprised at the way そうですね is used to respond to questions – even questions that don’t have a definitely yes or no answer. She said that whenever you are asked a question, the first thing out of your mouth should almost always be そうですね, with a slightly extended そう and ね, to imply that you are in deep thought and considering the question. It’s just the way they do things in Japan, so get used to it and start using it to your advantage. I love using it as a moment to gather my thoughts before I give an answer in Japanese. You can read more in the article I wrote for the Japan Times Bilingual Page earlier this week.

Regular readers may recognize 〜なんですが、 as a very basic エアバッグ表現, one of the most helpful ideas I ever learned in class. This そうですね thing may be the second most helpful.

Airbag Expressions 3

I’ve talked about how Airbag Expressions can be used to ask for something and also how they can be used to breach a topic. I also wrote about emailing with Japanese people and how stating your name is almost like an Airbag Expression. Here are a few more Airbag Expressions.

The following three Airbag Expressions are stronger that the rest I’ve introduced: 正直(しょうじき)に言うと, はっきり言えば, and 強いて(しいて)言えば. These all warn that you are about to state a frank and honest opinion, which is often frowned upon in Japan. You have been warned.

正直に is an adverb meaning “honestly,” and 言う is “to say,” so in English this is something like, “To be (perfectly) honest, ~ .” You might say something like 「正直に言うと、東京より田舎のほうが住みやすいと思います。」 “To be honest, I think it’s easier to live in the countryside than in Tokyo.”

はっきり means “clear” and 言えば is a conjugation of 言う, which you could translate as “If I were to say” or “When I say it.” If we make that into more Englishy English, we might use “To put it clearly” or “To say it straight.” I always remember this line from the movie Tampopo. The two drivers try Tampopo’s ramen at the beginning of the movie, and when she asks them what they think, the cowboy hems and haws, but Ken Watanabe comes straight out and says 「はっきり言えば、まずいです。」

The final phrase is the strongest of all. I’m sure many of you recognize the character 強 from the adjective つよい. Well, it’s also used in the verb しいる. This verb is used in its gerund form to modify 言う, just like はっきり and 正直に. To be honest, I’m not quite sure what the verb 強いる means on its own, but it’s always perfectly clear what 強いて言えば means from context – 「強いて言えば、日本の英語教育が冗談(じょうだん)みたいです。」A quick Google search reveals this blog entry with the title 「強いて言えばココがヘンだよ!」

All of these phrases function grammatically in a very similar way to the previous Airbag Expressions, but they are warning people of something different and, depending on what kind of opinions you have, perhaps more shocking. Careful about which opinions you are revealing, but if you are going to reveal them, use one of these.

More Warning Signs

I spent the last couple of months apartment hunting in Tokyo. At first I hoped to get my own apartment, but after realizing that would require an initial payment of $3000 plus to an agency, I started to look for a roomshare.

Fortunately, there are some nice websites out there. I replied to several ads and even put up one of my own. I ended up exchanging a lot of emails with Japanese people, and the thing that surprised me was that in nearly all cases, they began mails with 「last nameです」 or 「first nameです」, so 「田中です」 or 「洋平です」 This continued no matter how many emails we exchanged, which I thought was weird at first. Of course I knew who the person was. Did they really think I had forgotten?

I eventually started thinking of it in terms of airbag phrases; it’s just a polite way to begin a Japanese email, a warning sign of sorts, one that’s used on the phone as well. Does it require a translation or easily identifiable English equivalent? Hell no. Get used to it.

Airbag Expressions 2

While I only remember two from the class, I’ve been collecting my own エアバッグ表現 ever since I learned the term.

I would put the following two terms in the same category: 〜ですが and 〜の件ですが. Both serve as a warning that you are about to address a certain subject, and with the right intonation and a slight pause after the が, you can convey the idea that you are about to raise a touchy subject. 件 literally means subject. For example, an interviewer might say:

事務所費問題ですが、」 or 「少子化問題の件ですが、」

Both serve as a warning that the administrative office fees or declining birth rate will be the topic, giving the interviewee a small amount of extra time to organize his thoughts.

悪い(わるい)ですが is kind of the Japanese way of saying, “My bad” preemptively. 悪かったです is the way you would do a true “My bad.” I believe I used it successfully the other day in Himeji Station – 「悪いですが、両替(りょうがえ)もらえますか。」I was trying to store some luggage in a locker, but, as is often the case, there was no change machine. I approached a bento lady and said, “Sorry to ask, but could you change this bill?” She gave me a kind of reproachful grin but then handed me the coins anyway. Robin told me that he was yellow carded for inappropriate usage of 悪いですが. Apparently, it is used for people beneath you in the Japanese social hierarchy, so perhaps the lady was just pissed off that I was talking to her as though I were her boss. It does smack of someone in an authority position would use to explain slacking or some other mistake, so use with caution.

Airbag Expressions

It’s easy to lose focus during language classes, especially once you’ve reached that level where the class is conducted exclusively in the target language. If you don’t maintain your concentration consistently, you’ll start to miss words here and there, the meaning of what the teacher is saying will start to fray, and eventually you’ll find yourself gazing out the window, wondering exactly why it is that airplanes don’t sink like stones.

My senior year Japanese professor was great at keeping everyone’s attention. She rotated between a variety of topics, even literature, and knew that to keep everyone’s attention it helps to be silly. I’ll never forget the way she played up her love for Yon-sama or the way she used to laugh whenever we said something silly. (On a quick, somewhat-related side note, nothing more effectively disarms and simultaneously entrances Japanese elementary school students than an English teacher who doesn’t care about looking or sounding like an idiot.)

One of the topics that she taught was “Airbag Expressions” (エアバッグ表現). This may be the single most useful thing I ever learned in a Japanese class.

Let me let that sink in…


She had a theory that requesting something of a Japanese person was the equivalent of a head-on collision; without deploying a proper linguistic buffer – the airbag – the Japanese person may be shocked beyond recovery, and it is unlikely you will ever get what you want.

She taught us a number of incredibly useful phrases that help warn Japanese people that you are about to ask for something and other ways to lighten the actual request itself. The two that I use most frequently are: 恐縮(きょうしゅく)ですが and (もし)ご迷惑(めいわく)でなければ、

恐縮 is a difficult word to translate into one word in English, so let’s look at the kanji themselves. 恐 means fear or awe, and 縮 means shrink, so when the speaker uses it, imagine him literally afraid of what he is going to ask for, shrinking away from the requestee. One of the nicest translation in English is “It’s terrible of me, but…” or “It’s terribly selfish of me, but…”

(There’s definitely an element of brushing away selfishness with the term; it’s often used as a response to heaps of praise: 「おめでとう!大変上手にできました」“Congratulations! You did a fantastic job” 「恐縮です」 “It was nothing.”)

So you could use it like so:



(Although, maybe borrowing a stapler is not exactly weighty enough to call for a 恐縮.)

(もし)ご迷惑でなければ is a conditional clause. もし is not necessary, but it does help emphasize the fact that what you are about to say is conditional, and it reinforces the –ば. なければ seems confusing at first, but it’s just like あれば, really.

あれば = if something is/does X
なければ = if something is not/does not X

So, ご迷惑でなければ means, “If it isn’t a bother/trouble/problem…”

You can use this in almost identical situations as 恐縮, and you can even use them alongside each other:

“It’s terribly selfish of me to ask, but if it isn’t too much trouble, do you think you could write a recommendation for me?”

These are powerful expressions and should only be used for the most noble of purposes. Save them for a time when you need to make an extremely difficult request, one that might otherwise be denied. I am guilty of throwing these around too freely and have been trying to expand my set of エアバッグ表現 so that I have a larger selection to choose from. (「悪いですが、」, I choose you!)