The “No Boku” Challenge!

I’ve wanted to do this for a while now. Starting today, I will attempt to go for as long as possible speaking Japanese without using a personal pronoun to refer to myself! No 私, no 僕, no 俺, no 自分, and definitely no あたし or おいら. I might make an exception for 家. Nah, none of that either.

I’ll call it the “No Boku” Challenge because boku is my current personal pronoun of choice, and it sounds better than the “No Personal Pronoun” Challenge. Feel free to join in and see how long you can hold out!

I think the three keys to this challenge will be:

1) constant vigilance

2) passive tense

3) giving and receiving verbs

I think this will be a great exercise, especially for students of the language in the intermediate / advanced-intermediate levels; that’s when you start to break free from the English grammar patterns that bar you from true Japanese phraseology.

I’ll do my best to log my progress. Boku will soon be my pink elephant, so I’m sure there will be many harrowing and hilarious tales of near self-referral. Ha ha. (Joke.)

Cool Custom – 差し入れ

Anyone who has worked in Japan in some capacity knows that there are a lot of social functions outside of work that actually semi-count as work. Welcome parties, end of year parties, new year parties, farewell parties. They serve to confirm that you are part of the group, and the free-flowing booze loosens lips, allowing sensitive topics to be discussed in a relaxed atmosphere.

The one problem with these parties is that they are expensive. In the small town where I worked, they cost at least 3000 yen (roughly $30) but were usually 5000 yen ($50). You get a nice dinner and as much beer as you are comfortable with. I went with the junior high school, sometimes the elementary schools, the people at the apartment building where I lived, and the Board of Education. As you can imagine, the cost adds up, especially around the end of the calendar and academic year.

I rarely refused for financial reasons, but I know other teachers who did. I was sometimes unable to go due to scheduling conflicts, but I felt really bad when I couldn’t attend – the parties were fun, and I was in a small enough town (8000 people) that finding a way to socialize was difficult. During the farewell party for the junior high school in my third year, I noticed that the young computer tech guy was carrying a giant bottle of nihonshu. At some point he stood up and announced that the head tech guy, who was not present, had given it as a 差し入れ. That was when it clicked. He couldn’t make it to the party for whatever reason, so he left a present instead. If only I had known that throughout my time in the town.

差し入れ (さしいれ), which literally means “insert,” can be considered a kind of preemptive omiyage of sorts. Often it’s given when you can’t attend an event, and in those cases it’s usually liquor. It’s a fantastic custom! It shows that you really wanted to participate, it probably costs less than the meal, and your coworkers will gush over you once they’re nice and boozed up and finally make it to your bottle.

Nihonshu and shochu are both appropriate 差し入れ for parties, but I recommend shochu since it can be split between more drinks and watered down for people who don’t drink that much. It will also increase your 渋い factor.

差し入れ are appropriate in other situations, too. If you know someone is studying or working overtime, bring them some coffee. It looks like people also give it to contractors doing work on their house, in which case nikuman, warm oshibori, or coffee are all winners.

Everyone knows about omiyage, but I feel like 差し入れ are somewhat uncharted. Hugely useful. Win friends and influence people with this cool custom.

Embracing Japanese Expression – Get Used to It 1

This goes without saying, but Japanese is not English. The way people express things in Japanese is not the same way that people express them in English. Part of learning to speak Japanese is learning how to abandon your English and swim in the deep end without relying on direct translation.

In my experience, there have been certain patterns that took me a while to master, but once mastered, I felt as though I took a palpable step forwards – something clicked. Here they are from easiest to most difficult:

1)    Japanese Patterns of Giving and Receiving

2)    Passive Tense

3)    Causative

Now that I took the time to write out that impressive three-step list, I’ve realized that it looks exactly like an intermediate textbook, which many of you are familiar with. I, too, put in my time with the same textbooks, but it wasn’t until years later when something finally clicked for most of these patterns. Studying kanji, memorizing grammar patterns and vocab – none of it is going to help you figure out what these patterns mean.

The best way to learn them is by learning contextual phrases, memorizing them, and then forcing yourself to use them. Eventually you’ll be able to triangulate a meaning for yourself. I want to give you some examples and explanations of the contexts. Hopefully they’ll help your Japanese become slightly more intricate and subtle.

1. Patterns of Giving and Receiving

I brought in a pumpkin to my elementary school for Halloween. Initially I was going to buy it myself, but a junior high school teacher helped get the BOE to purchase it for me. One of the elementary school teachers asked me if I bought it myself:

Ano kabocha, jibun de katta no?

And I replied that I hadn’t, that I got the BOE to buy it for me:

I could have just as easily said, いいえ、教育委員会が買った。(Iie, kyouikuiinkai ga katta.) but that is a little simple. Sure, the BOE bought it…but then why the hell do I have it? By using one of these 買ってくれた or 買ってもらった, I make my answer a little more specific – they bought it for me.

The trickiest part of もらう and くれる is keeping track of the subject. In the above example, if you simplify it, this is what happens:

僕がもらう        I receive.
教育委員会がくれる      The BOE gives.

が marks the subject and に will mark the other person involved in the exchange:

Now what exactly are they giving? They are giving a gerund, actually:

僕が教育委員会に買ってもらった。 I received the buying (of something) from the BOE.
教育委員会が僕に買ってくれた。 The BOE gave the buying (of something) to me.

Now, change that from dumb-dumb English into normal English and you get:

I got the BOE to buy (something) for me.
The BOE bought (something) for me.

And if you change it from dumb-dumb Japanese (dumb-dumb Japanese being Japanese where you include all of the subjects, objects and indirect objects – the Japanese are very efficient and use as few words as possible, that is unless they are being polite, which is an entirely different post) into normal Japanese you get:


Either one will answer the lady’s question – all she wants to know is who the hell bought the thing. It wasn’t me, so I’d better emphasize who did the buying, although with subtle Japanese I can explain that they bought that shit for me.