Cool Kanji – 国字

After taking a extended vacation late last year (I was a little burned out from translation), I’m back in the Japan Times with an article about some of my favorite Japanese phrases: “Japanese that’s so beautiful it belongs in a museum.”

The museum conceit was sparked by an email I received with an excellent phrase—お手すきの際で構いません—and the other examples popped into my head as I started to write.

I’ve written previously about 国字 (kokuji, kanji created in Japan) very briefly, highlighting the kanji 峠 (tōge, mountain pass). Sadly, it looks like ホテル峠 has closed; the grounds are so overgrown you can’t even see the building from the highway anymore:

It’s even on a registry of 廃墟 (haikyo, abandoned buildings). The haikyo registry makes me think, さすが日本.

You can find a complete list of 国字 here and detailed listings of 和製漢字 (waseikanji, Japanese invented kanji) here. Pretty interesting details, although at times difficult to read since many of the entries are long lists of reference material where the kanji came from.

And I’d totally forgotten about 幽霊漢字 (yūrei kanji, ghost kanji) until re-reading that blog post. There’s a really great write-up about what happened over at Dampfkraft. Short and worth a read! Language, indeed, finds a way.

And on a brief side note, it’s worth taking a look at the Japan Times Facebook post where they got a few good suggestions about beautiful Japanese. This is my favorite:

Into the benkyō-ness: Let us now praise difficult kanji

kanji practice

I have an article in the Japan Times today: “Complicated characters: Let us now praise difficult kanji.”

This column was inspired by two of my biggest Japanese-related realizations of all time:

1. Katakana are not inherently more difficult than hiragana.

2. Kanji are not more difficult than English words.

I think everyone comes to understand these at some point, if they study long enough, but it’s always useful to review them.

I wrote more in depth about the first a few years ago (jeez, five years ago). Students of Japanese usually start with hiragana, then go on to katakana and kanji. They learn the pronunciation of all the individual katakana, but because there are comparatively fewer katakana words, they don’t get enough reps with any to really let them sink in. Whenever they do encounter them, they end up sounding out the syllables one at a time, wondering why the script is so difficult.

By contrast, they see 勉強 so much in the first few months, that it turns into what it should be: A gestalt larger than the individual parts. The kanji are still there, if you look closely enough (and within the kanji, the strokes), but dial back your focus, and they disappear into the benkyō-ness.

My recommendation to new students of the language: Don’t learn the hiragana or katakana individually. Just start memorizing whole words. I mean, I guess you need to do them individually at some point in order to learn how to write them, but I would recommend adding large katakana words to your flashcards or SRS software immediately. カレー, ラーメン, パソコン, all of these will be far more useful than the individual katakana.

The second realization may still be up for debate. I think Japanese and foreigners who study the language both enjoy contributing to the myth that Japanese is “the most difficult language in the world.” A good portion of this myth is supported by the sheer numbers: Japanese has THREE written “languages” and there are TWO THOUSAND kanji. Saying something like English has TWENTY-SIX letters just doesn’t feel as hefty in comparison. The fact that kanji are pictographs also contributes: My god, man, they look so damn complicated! How do you even deal with a language that isn’t phonetic?

But this assumes two things:

1. Two thousand characters allow for more combinations (and more difficult combinations) than twenty-six letters.

2. Being able to pronounce a word is equivalent to knowing what it means.

1 may seem true at first, but when you consider the fact that most kanji compounds only have two characters (and the longer ones can be broken down into sets of two), whereas the average English word is 5.1 letters, the playing field levels a bit. (Based on this website which gives Japanese an average word length of over 34…clearly mistaken since it acknowledges at the top that its calculation is based on languages with spaces.)

Japanese words look like this: __ __, with roughly two thousand possibilities for each space.

English words look like this: __ __ __ __ __, with twenty-six possibilities for each space.

2000 x 2000 = 2,000,000

26 to the power of 5 = 11,881,376

Obviously, there aren’t that many words in either language, but this is just a quick calculation that can hopefully put things in perspective: English words are equally complex as kanji.

And they are also equally simple. Take, for example, antidisestablishmentarianism. When I was in 3rd Grade, this was the word to know, for whatever reason. I guess when you’re ten years old, it’s really cool to know long words that seem complicated.

At the time, it seemed like one massive thing, but when I look at it now, it looks like kanji to me. Rather than being a gestalt or a string of individual letters, I see little packets of information: anti-, dis-, establishment, -arian, -ism.

Theoretically, you don’t even need to know how to pronounce these to know their meaning. They provide a visual way to break down the word, to a certain extent (if you are familiar with them). Which is another advantage to kanji: Because the pieces contain more information in and of themselves—is it safe to say that 義 holds more information on its own than -ism?—you have an additional method to gain information from the pieces, independent of their pronunciation.

Just because we English speakers don’t spend time in school learning these packets in the same way that Japanese students tackle kanji (lots of repetition required to master the ability to write the individual units) doesn’t mean that English is easier. They just require different strategies.

That’s all well and good, you might say, but give us something prescriptive, Morales! Well, the best I can do is these two pieces of advice:

1. Start reading in context as soon as you can. This will force you to look at kanji as compounds rather than individual characters.

2. When you are practicing your kanji composition, practice writing compounds or short phrases rather than individual kanji. This will hopefully serve to embed the idea that the whole is more important than the parts. For an example of this, see the image at the top of the post: These are my notebooks from study for the JLPT Level 1 test.

And if you haven’t yet, you must read “Kanji as Argo,” over at No-Sword, an amazing take on studying kanji that emphasizes number 1. The money quote:

…if you were learning French, you wouldn’t refuse to look at a French book at all until you’d memorized all possible verb conjugation patterns. (If that was the standard approach, no-one would ever read any French books at all—not even the French.)

Cool Word – やけ酒


I have another column in the Japan Times today: “Drinking in Japan: Sober words to help you socialize.” It’s a fun column with some of the words you might encounter at a drinking party with coworkers…and an equally useful set that might help you avoid such a drinking party – not exactly an easy thing to do in Japan.

Sadly I don’t have the artwork I wanted to include with this post. When I was studying abroad, I had a crush on this girl in the international exchange club. I never had much of a chance to get to know her or even interact with her all that much, but there was one time when we talked and she drew me a very simple cartoon vocab lesson. She drew two people drinking together and labeled it サシ飲み and a sad person drinking alone and labeled it やけ酒.

やけ酒 is one of those words that has such a specific usage that it generally draws laughs when used as hyperbole. I haven’t ever really had much of an occasion to drink away my sorrows, to be honest, but it’s fun to pretend sometimes. Two Saturdays ago, my San Antonio Spurs lost Game 3 of their series against the Dallas Mavericks in devastating fashion: 37-year-old Vince Carter hit a last-second corner three to end the game. My Japanese coworker texted me: “I’m sorry. Vince made a miracle shot!”

I texted back: “今夜はやけ酒です(ㄒ.ㄒ)”

His response was, “「やけ酒」is good word (笑)”

So, yes, use it for laughs, use it for real. Hopefully the former and not the latter.

As I was getting ready to write this post, I looked for that cartoon that the girl had drawn for me ten years ago, but I wasn’t able to track it down. I have two file folders of loose photos and letters, and I was hoping it was tucked away in there. Alas. It still might be in a book somewhere, but it’s likely I threw it away.

Which turns out to be appropriate…somewhat. Apparently there are kanji for やけ酒, and they look like this:


I’m not exactly a kanji master, but those look like ateji to me. Literally you have self (自) + throw away () + liquor (酒). The first two are a compound where 自 is the direct object and 棄 is the verb: “throw away/abandon yourself.”

The real pronunciation looks more evident from this compound: 自暴自棄 (じぼうじき). Very cool stuff – check out the Japanese definition here to see if you can understand it, and then take a look at the English here if it’s difficult.

The Spurs lost again tonight (Friday, 5/2), and I can’t sleep so I wrote this post. I’ll save the self-destructive drinking for tomorrow night.

Cool Kanji – 楼

Pages 15-35 accounted for. I finished Chapter 2 a couple days ago and was amazed at how much of a pleasure it was to be in the End of the World. Murakami provides so much specific detail for the world, specifically for the beasts but also for characters like the Gatekeeper, and he really takes his time with that first chapter and uses the beasts to introduce the world.

It was easy to understand what 望楼 (ぼうろう) meant from context, but I had to look up the pronunciation. 望 was familiar from compounds such as 展望台 (てんぼうだい) and 願望 (がんぼう), but I didn’t know 楼, which on its own is pronounced just ろう.

It’s made up of the 木 radical on the left, which makes sense since watchtowers are wooden, and then on the right there is 米 above 女, which points to the other meaning of the character suggested by the third definition in Yahoo – a restaurant (?) where johns retreat with a prostitute. That makes it easier to remember the radicals involved – food and ladies in a wooden building…up high.
Update: NOTE: This is just my personal mnemonic and is not based on any actual etymological history. Check out the comments for the actual 字源. Neat stuff.

A couple of notes about the chapter:

– Birnbaum translates the End of the World section in present tense, which works so nicely. The Japanese, although told in past tense, does seem to fit to present tense somewhat naturally since Murakami is describing the unending repetition in the town as it goes through the seasons. The last sentence in the chapter is このようにして街の一日は終わる。

– Only two minor cuts and an adjustment or two. One sentence details the three small watchtowers along the wall, and the other provides more specific details about the violence of the beasts when they fight. When Boku asks the Gatekeeper why he uses the knives, Birnbaum has him answer “I’ll show you” when the winter comes, but the Japanese is closer to “You’ll see” when winter comes. Nothing major beyond that.

Cool Compound – 静物画

Pages 15-22 are in the bag. This was my first time reading Japanese for about 4-5 months, and there has been noticeable deterioration in my kanji recognition skills. I noticed this at Japan Fest the other day when I wrote ヨ and thought to myself, hey, that looks like a backwards E. This is not a good sign.

When I was reading through these pages, 静物画 (せいぶつが) really stood out to me. I had to stare at 静 for a while to remember what it meant and how to pronounce it, but I knew from context and memory what it meant in Japanese – it’s hard to forget the initial elevator scene in Hard-Boiled Wonderland. Long, wind-up opening chapters became Murakami’s trademark with this novel, and nowhere is it more fun to read than here. We’re locked in boku’s Watashi’s consciousness and humor: he sees himself as a still life portrait in this strange elevator.

The compound 静物, a very cool homophone with 生物, follows the pattern ADJECTIVE + NOUN (still/quiet + thing) and is then attached to 画.

The good news is that I did not have to look this one up and was still able to rustle up the meaning and pronunciation. I wasn’t so lucky with 歩幅 (ほはば), a NOUN + NOUN compound. I blame this on the stupid compound 几帳面 (きちょうめん), which came a few sentences before and primed my brain to read any 巾 kanji as ちょう.

Cool Kanji – 爺 – Updated

I think I probably knew this kanji before, but in its grandfatherly お爺さん form; on its own, the pronunciation is じじい (which I discovered thanks to furigana in the book I was reading), and it means dirty old man. For whatever reason, when I was reading I found it very cool that a single character had three syllables in the pronunciation.

It’s a cool kanji in its own right – the character for father (父) right above the verb “to take” (取) the somewhat rare character that means question or father, making the easy mnemonic “Take this, old dad guy man! *heaves rotten tomato*” “Dad?”

But the kanji led me into the rabbit hole that is the おじいさん entry on Wikipedia. Did you know that おじいさん can refer to twelve distinct individuals? These are:

1. 父の父
2. 母の父
3. 夫の父の父
4. 夫の母の父
5. 夫の父の祖父
6. 夫の母の祖父
7. 妻の父の父
8. 妻の母の父
9. 妻の父の祖父
10. 妻の母の祖父
11. 1~2と同年代以上の高齢の男性
12. 1.や2.や11.などに相当する男性が使う自称

In translation:

1. One’s father’s father
2. One’s mother’s father
3. One’s husband’s father’s father
4. One’s husband’s mother’s father
5. One’s husband’s father’s grandfather
6. One’s husband’s mother’s grandfather
7. One’s wife’s father’s father
8. One’s wife’s mother’s father
9. One’s wife’s father’s grandfather
10. One’s wife’s mother’s grandfather
11. An elderly man of equal age or older than 1-2
12. A self-applied name used by a man who fits 1, 2, or 11

Whew…deep breath. The article goes on to explain some of the nuances of the word, comparisons with Chinese, and the fact that it can be used as a first person pronoun by old dudes when talking to young kids like their grandchildren. I can’t wait to be that crazy older uncle type and get all 爺d up.

Update: Fixed teh character issues with teh kanjiz. Also fixed the errors in 2 and 6 as pointed out by Arline. And I totally forgot to mention that the Wikipedia article also mentions that when おじいさん refers to family members, the kanji are お祖父さん.

Cool Compound – 復習

This one is pretty easy to break down. 復 means “multiple” and can be seen in such useful compounds as 複数 (ふくすう, “multiple numbers” → plural) and 複雑 (ふくざつ, “multiple miscellaneous” → difficult, complicated).

習 you should recognize from your basic set of verbs – 習う (ならう, to learn).

Put them together and you get 復習 (ふくしゅう) which means “to learn multiple times” or “to learn again” – to review.

Yes, it’s that time of year again – finals time. I’ve got several meaty projects I have to finish up before the second week in December, so How to Japonese will be taking a little break. I finish my last presentation on December 9, and I’m flying out to Japan for two weeks on December 10. Regular posting will resume at some point over the holidays, most likely at some point during my visit to Japan.

Until then, go ahead and “review” some of the old material from the site. I recommend:

– the three original posts.
– my definition of かわいそう
– proof that laughter is the best study partner
– my guide to kanji compounds
– any of the posts about “airbag expressions”

See y’all again in December!

Cool Kanji – 微

Some guys wish they were taller. Others wish they had more money or were better looking. I wish I could drink more coffee. I have written about the reasoning previously – drinking coffee makes you cool, duh.

When I went out to coffee with a Japanese friend last Friday, I was trying to explain my caffeine deficiencies. I get a massive initial rush and then crash hard not long after, often requiring a nap. (Although I do feel like a genius during the rush.) I opt instead for tea, and I dole it out in small amounts from a thermos so that I can have lots of little doses to sustain me through the day.

I was having a hell of a time explaining this. I went round and round, dodging the potholes that have worked their way into my vocabulary over the past five months, trying to get my point across. Finally she figured it out and said, ああ、微調整. And I was like, なるほど!

I won’t go into 調整 (ちょうせい) all that much – it means to adjust/to make adjustments. The real point of the post is to take a closer look at the prefix 微 (び). You’ve probably already gathered this from my story, but 微 in this case means “small” or “slight” – I make small or slight adjustments in my caffeine level to prevent any highs and lows.

If you are a fan of Japanese canned coffee, you might have recognized this character from 微糖 (びとう), which means a small amount of sugar. This is less sugar than 低糖 (ていとう), which means low sugar. But these are two-character compounds, and 微 isn’t as clearly a prefix. A quick perusal of ALC reveals that 微気候 (びきこう, microclimate), 微欠点 (びけってん, minor defect), and 微生物 (びせいぶつ, microorganism) are other examples of 微 in action as a prefix. So a good English equivalent is “micro,” but it doesn’t always work – “microdefect” doesn’t sound quite right.

The moral of the story is know your prefixes and know their pronunciations; they’ll make it much easier to parse long kanji compounds and will make your Japanese much more efficient.

Project Management Lingo – 請求書

The massive amounts of English required for grad school are slowly wearing down my Japanese ability, but I’ve found a couple of conversation partners (one who just returned to New Orleans) and I still get translation work every now and then (and some of those times I can actually fit it in my schedule). I recently did a little work for a company, and just this past Monday a check finally came through for some work I did over the summer. Both of these events reminded me of a critical translation/project management vocab word – 請求書 (せいきゅうしょ).

To break this fool down literally, first we have to chop off the suffix – 書. You probably recognize this as the character that means “write”; it gets tacked on to the end of almost any document. 身分証明書 (ID). 説明書 (instructions). 契約書 (contract). 計画書 (plan). I could go on for a while. So we have a document of a 請求. If we look at the different types of kanji compounds, I believe this is a combination of two different synonyms. Both 請 and 求 mean, loosely, “to ask for, to request,” so the combination together means the same thing – to request. What are we requesting? Payment, of course! We’ve done all the hard work. We’ve looked up words (not too many). We’ve Googled mercilessly and left comments where we couldn’t find an answer about something in the text (not too many). We’ve revised (quite a bit to smooth out our awkward translationing). And now we’ve finally sent the work in. Time to get paid. 請求書, in more familiar English, means “invoice.”

First I’ll address this from a translator’s perspective. Most companies want invoices by the end of the month, so you can save it until then or you can submit the invoice along with the finished translation. I always take the latter course so I don’t forget. If you get a lot of work from a company, then you can save all your invoices and send them together at the end of the month. Companies may charge a transfer fee of $10 or so, and if you are a yen pincher, then you could try and combine several months’ worth of invoices into a single month. Be careful, though – some companies ask that invoices be submitted within a certain amount of time after the translation is completed.

You want to make sure you have all your bank info on the invoice along with contact info and the job number (if you were given one). As a translator, you should expect to get paid a month or two after you submit your invoice. If you finish your work early in the month, then you may end up waiting as many as three months.

As a project manager, when you receive an invoice, the first thing you should do is print it out. At least that’s how we handled it where I worked. Whether or not you print it may be up to the company policy, but you should immediately take the first step toward processing the invoice. Forgetting to file a translator’s invoice properly is one of the most embarrassing things you can do – trust me. Translators help you look good (or at least try to help you look good), and it pays to take care of them. Once I printed and filed the invoice, I always confirmed this fact with the translator so they could have peace of mind.


Cool Kanji – 末

Hooray for the weekend! This semester I don’t have any class or work on Friday, so I automatically get 三連休, and this particular weekend expands to 四 thanks to Labor Day. (HOLY SHIT IT’S GOOD TO BE A STUDENT!)

The Japanese for weekend is 週末 (しゅうまつ). The kanji 末 is a handy one to recognize. It often gets used as a suffix to mean the end of something. For example, 年末, 期末, 月末, and 世紀末 among others. Once you recognize it, you’ll be able to parse it as a suffix in unknown vocab much more easily.

(Note: Never confuse 期末 [きまつ, end of school term] with 末期 [まつご, end of life, terminal]. Damn you, Japonese and your flipable compounds.)

It also gets pronounced すえ and used in the construction “X〜た末、Y.” It still means an “end” of sorts in this case, just an end of the verb that comes before it, implying the English tone of “after much ~ing, Y occurred/I managed to Y/I did Y.”


いろいろ考えた末、日本で留学することにした。 After thinking about it quite a bit/After much consideration, I decided to study abroad in Japan.

長い間がんばった末、やっと翻訳の仕事を見つけた。 After a lot of hard work, I finally found a translation job. (Weird translation – ignore it, remember the Japonese, please.)