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.

Passive HUH?

When I wrote my last post, I never imagined that I would have an opportunity to use やられた so soon. Well, here it goes: 英語の文法用語にやられた!

As I’m sure many of you have noticed, someone rightfully called me out for mistakenly saying “passive tense” instead of “passive voice” in my Japan Times article “Stop worrying and embrace the passive tense.” (Judging from my stats, more of you followed the link to the letter to the editor than the actual article!)

In my defense, I do use “passive voice” at times in the article, so I knew there was some sort of difference between voice and tense, but the letter to the editor certaintly cleared it up. I guess before I thought that “tense” meant “verb conjugation,” which the Japanese passive is, but apparently this is not what tense is.

The main point of my article is not diminished by this (minor?) semantics issue: the Japanese passive is awesome, and you best get used to it, son. The sooner you can take off the floaties (it’s been years since I’ve used the floaties metaphor, apparently) and swim in the deep end without any subjects or objects, the sooner you will be doing real, live Japonese.

So please do continue to call me out for my inadequacies…especially if they are English inadequacies. That I can handle. I only take offense when my Japanese is corrected. NOT!

Cool Passive Phrase – やられた!

I have an article in The Japan Times today, this time about the passive tense in Japanese. After introducing a couple of phrases that helped me understand how the passive tense works in Japanese, I discuss Murakami’s amazing sentence from his Mediterranean travel diary, which I examined during Murakami-palooza 2008. My translations then and now are slightly different. What do you think? The new one is a bit smoother.

I also talk about the awesome phrase やられた! as an example. I highly recommend using this exclamatory phrase as frequently as possible. It will earn laughs, especially in situations where you aren’t really that やられたd.

If, however, this happens:

Then you have truly been やられたd. That image is one of the results of a Google Images search for やられた.

That’s What All the Ladies Say

My understanding of だろう and でしょう are tenuous at best. I remember being puzzled by these when I took my first Japanese class – an intensive summer class, which I would not recommend (slow down, everyone, you’re moving too fast).

Two encounters have shaped my understanding of these phrases. Today, encounter one.

I was up in Fukushima, I think during my first year as a JET, watching TV. There was a small variety show where a host was interviewing different celebrities who came out one by one. After the host asked a few questions about the kind of work they did, the audience had to guess the celebrity’s annual income. One of the people on the show was パックン – Patrick Harlan, a Harvard grad who parlayed English teaching into Japanese study into fame as a manzai comedian. I don’t remember exactly what the host said to Pakkun, but he responded with a highly suggestive でしょう, which got a lot of laughs. I immediately noted the tone of his phrasing and added it to my mental catalog of funny phrases to use.

It felt like he was confirming something, just as you would with ですね, but this something was overly obvious and a little silly. A phrase you could substitute it with is the equally laugh-inducing よく言われます – literally, and extremely awkwardly, “That is often said about me.” I guess the English equivalent would be, “That’s what they all say.”

The tone on でしょう here is important – it’s slightly inquisitive with the hint of a smile. Amirite? でしょう?

Underrated Phrase – 助かりました


While Japanese does have a high tolerance for repetition and redundancy, it’s important to expand your vocabulary. Throwing in a 大好物 instead of 好き (for food only!), knowing how to vary your いい, using some onomatopoeia instead of regular adjectives  – they’re all part of the don’t-sound-like-a-dope game we non-native speakers play.

Arguably the single most repeated phrase is the simple ありがとうございます (which I have a lot of trouble pronouncing – I hate that friggin り!). Sure, this is relatively easy to mix up with ありがとう, どうも, or even あざーす (for comedic effect), but these still lie within the sphere of the basic term for “Thank you.”

So how do you express your gratitude in a different way? The word you are looking for is 助かる. I’m sure you’re more familiar/comfortable with its transitive cousin 助ける, which means to help/save.

(Quick sidenote: if you’re trying to say help as in “help someone do relatively simple thing X,” then you’re probably looking for the verb 手伝う. 助ける is closer to “save someone’s life” than “help erase the chalkboard.”)

Don’t even think about what 助かる means – that’s not the goal here. The goal is to figure out the usage. I don’t remember a specific incident when I learned this, but I do remember the fact that people often said 助かった or 助かりました after I’d done something nice/helpful. I started throwing it around with decent results.

It doesn’t substitute for ありがとうございます in all cases, but if someone has done you a favor then 助かりました is a really nice way to say that you appreciated what they did for you, especially if the favor was unexpected. I should probably note that even the distal form of this pattern is a slightly casual – don’t go using it on the emperor.

And just for fun let’s look at it literally. I mentioned transitive up there somewhere, but I think 助かる is best considered a passive tense verb. When you say it with the zero pronoun, you become the subject of 助かりました. (私が)助かりました is what you should be thinking to yourself when you say it. Literally, (bear with me here) “I was helped.” And there’s more invisible people involved in this one word sentence, of course. The complete sentence with all invisible individuals accounted for looks like this: (私が君に)助かりました, or “I was helped by you.” In normal English, “What you did for me was a big help.” Maybe even more naturally, “I really appreciate what you did for me.”

But you don’t need to think about it too much. Just throw it out there when somebody does something nice for you. Get used to it, yo.

On Flogging (Updated)

Also took the parents to the Yokohama Archives of History. Great exhibits, and I’m hopeless at history, so a refresher is always appreciated. In addition to the regular exhibits, they also had a special exhibit on missionaries. Samuel Robbins Brown, one of the missionaries, also wrote his own Japanese textbook titled:


The title went on for two whole pages, and I didn’t bother copying the rest, but it

equally disjointed

Several example pages were also displayed, one of which included this gem:

247. He deserves a flogging.
Ano okata wa tatakare nasarete mo yoroshiu gozarimasu.
アノ オカタ ハ タタカレ ナ井レテ モ ヨロシウ ゴザリマス。

You’ll have to ask Matt about the accuracy of the Japanese phrase (that seems to be the standard thing to do these days – in the comments), but to me it sounds more like the standard phrase ~てもいいです, where the ~ happens to be a passive keigo verb. For example, 電気を消されてもいいです。Or “I don’t mind if you turn off the lights." In the case of flogging, the sentence would be “I don’t mind if you flog that fellow.” I could see either of these phrases making the translational jump to "Go ahead and flog that fellow/turn off that light," but can it take that last step to “deserve”? This could be some Meiji Era madness I’m totally unprepared to understand. I mean, is 井 really supposed to be floating around in there? If so, cool. If not, Nelson laugh. (My initial theory was that this was some aggressive passive tense action. Like, 電気消されてもいいです. Literally "I don’t mind if the lights are turned off." But that would be just wrong…right?)

247 was followed in short order by these:

252. He is drunk every day.
253. His opinion and yours are the same.

What was going on in Yokohama in the Meiji Era?

Update: Adam found a link to the actual book on archive.orghere. You can get a PDF or text version or just flip through pages. Awesome. Check out Adam’s comment to see the ridiculous full title.

Man, I’ve looked through it just a little bit and found this great explanation: "Hashi, a bridge, is distinguished from hashi, chopsticks, by the suppression of the final i in the last, thus hash’, signifies chopsticks." That’s a really nice explanation. This book is going to be awesome.

More awesomeness as I discover it (page numbers refer to PDF):

Pg 18: "The oral language delights in courteous expressions, and one of the most remarkable features of the polished style of speech is the use of long words, and circumlocutions."

Pg 49-50: "The difference between wa and nga is scarcely translateable, but is to be expressed by the tone of the speaker’s voice, rather than by any corresponding words in English. The native ear at once perceives the difference, and a foreigner can acquire the use of these particles, only by practice and much familiarity with the Japanese usage."

Pg 81: After an extensive introduction, the first sentence in the book? "A bow-knot is easy to untie. Hi-za o-ri ni mu-sz-bu to to-ke ya-sz-u go za-ri-ma-s’." The only reason it’s here is because all the phrases are in alphabetical order, which explains 252 and 253 above. 

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.)


One of the elementary schools I taught at for three years was deep in the mountains. Every Thursday I’d drive the beat-up red town car from the junior high school west along the river and then turn right, head into the mountains. The school only had about 30 kids total from 1st to 6th grade, so I taught sets of two grade years: 1st and 2nd, 3rd and 4th, 5th and 6th.

I thought it would be difficult at first, and it was a little when the kids rose a year and got matched with a different set of students, but the older kids always helped the younger ones along. I found that I could get the older kids to provide examples of different patterns and games.

Once I was teaching the 5th and 6th graders vowels. In Japanese the word for vowel is 母音 (ぼいん). [On an interesting side note, the word for consonant is 子音 (しいん)]. 母音 has an unusual pronunciation, so I wrote it on the board for the kids, but for some reason when I said it, the kids started laughing hysterically. I said it again, and they laughed even harder! One kid added, ダニエル先生、すごい! At one point the assistant principal, who was overseeing the class, had to tell kids to stop laughing. I still had no idea what was so funny. I could tell something I said was strange, but I just moved on with the lesson.

A couple weeks later I was teaching the same material to 3rd and 4th graders, and 母音 elicited the same response. This time, however, one of the little boys mimed a giant set of breasts. Ah ha! I thought, ボイン is the noise that boobs make when they move up and down! No wonder they were laughing so much. I had been standing up in front of the class saying, "Okay, guys, there are two types of boobs – long boobs and short boobs, and they make different sounds for each letter."

Laughter is an amazing warning sign. I love it when people laugh at my Japanese. It lets me know that my joke has worked or that I’ve said something incredibly incorrect and strange. Either way, it’s an easy way for people to reinforce better speaking without having to say, “Hey asshole, you messed up.”

If I get laughed at for a mistake, I don’t usually make that mistake again. On the internship I wrote about previously, I once brought omiyage for the group, announcing them by saying このお土産を京都から連れてきました。They all laughed, and the division head let me know that 連れる is only used for people; basically, I had just said, “I have accompanied this omiyage from Kyoto. Please enjoy.” 持ってきた is the correct pattern. Needless to say, I haven’t made that mistake again.

The point? Try not to take it personally if someone laughs at your Japanese, and feel free to laugh at strange English. You’re doing them a favor.

This isn’t really a puzzle, but I will beer the first person to explain the pun from and relevance of the title.

(I also wrote about laughter when I nearly killed a tanuki.)

Take it (for me)


I steadfastly refused to believe that phrase existed for a long time. I’m not sure why. I think there was a barrier somewhere in my head blocking the logic connection. Getting used to it helped remove that barrier, and now I’m cool.

取る (とる) is often used with “take” verb patterns. Take vacation, take time, etc. So I think that prevented me from realizing that while it does mean take something (in this case, whatever object you are pointing at / put before it with を), but it also means “and give it to me.” Altogether it means “pass.” It’s one of those patterns you learn your first year in class, but for some reason I never got used to it until now. Maybe it has something to do with sharing a small apartment between a large number of people – it’s easier to pass things than to forever shuffle around すみませんing.

With friends you can say the casual 〜を取って, but make sure to add the ください at the office or with people significantly older than you.

I logged this entry under passive. Get it?


With the goal of stirring up even more interest in Murakami between now and mid-October, when the Nobel Prizes are announced, I will post a small piece of unpublished Murakami translation once a week from now until the announcement.


Murakami (Do I even need to tell you which one?) lived in Europe for three years between 1986 and 1989. In addition to novels and short stories, he also wrote a lengthy set of travel writings called Tōi taiko (遠い太鼓, A Distant Drum).

During his travels he spent some time on a small Greek island, and the tourists there often sunbathed nude. Apparently only the local Greek men (he calls them "Zorba Greeks") went to the trouble of checking out the boobs. This resulted in a three-page discussion of nude sunbathing and the following moment of complete linguistic genius:


(I was going to write the page number at the end of that line, but when I realized it was page 69, I thought I’d better explain what I was doing.)

The Japanese is so economical that translating it won’t be as great, but here it goes:

If it’s a person’s prerogative to reveal her boobs, then it’s also a person’s prerogative to look at revealed boobs

That kind of expresses what’s going on with the verb. 出す literally means “take out,” but I translated it as “reveal” in order to maintain the verb tenses and still have the sentence sound okay, although, now that I think about it, “taken-out boobs” is a pretty funny phrase.

The major difference between the English and the Japanese is that no people are explicitly involved in the Japanese sentence; all of the subjects are implied, and he uses the loaded word 勝手 (かって). "Prerogative" feels a little complicated, but I guess it does the job. 勝手 is often used as an adverb (勝手に〜) to mean "do ~ however I want" or "do ~ even though I’m thinking only of myself and not the Japanese collective spirit." One word that pops up in the dictionary is "arbitrary." So does "one’s own way" and "selfishness."

So yes, long story short, if you reveal your boobs, do not be surprised when people look at them.