Serenity Nowish

I was in the Japan Times twice late last month, and it’s taken me a little while to get around to posting the links here.

The first is a Bilingual piece: “Getting a party rolling in Japan.”

The origin of this piece is a little depressing…and may have caused the pandemic. I was preparing an MC script for an event in Japan in May. I wanted plenty of time to really familiarize myself with the pronunciation, so I had a full event planned out, and then *gestures vaguely at the universe*

The content actually came from the same place as my article in early March about “emergency Japanese.” Back in February I had already started planning the agenda for the May event and decided to just script out the whole thing and a bunch of emergency language to boot.

So of course the whole thing has been canceled.

I couldn’t fit all of the parenthetical language I was planning to use. In addition to the strict open and closing phrases I introduce in the piece, these are good to gather the troops before you get started and signal that the event is coming to an end:

まもなく、10時半より始まりますので、皆様お席でお待ちいただきますようお願い申し上げます (Mamonaku, jūji-han yori hajimarimasu no de, minasama oseki de omachi itadakimasu yō onegai mōshiagemasu,We will begin the program at 10:30, so we’d like to ask everyone to take their seats.)

そろそろお時間となりました。皆様、本日のコンフェレンス楽しんでいただけましたでしょうか? (Sorosoro ojikan to narimashita. Minasama, honjitsu no konferensu tanoshinde itadakemashita deshō ka? We will momentarily be at the end of our time. Did everyone enjoy today’s conference?)

Very useful phrases, and you can Frankenstein little bits of them to use in all sorts of other ways.

My other article is a review of Automatic Eve by Rokuro Inui: “‘Automatic Eve’ review: Familiar tropes reimagined with brilliant sci-fi originality.”

If you haven’t picked it up yet, this is a great time. I’ve devoured it twice now, and I’m sure I’ll read it again. It’s such a fun world to inhabit. I want to go there.

I was working on the sequel in Japanese but got sidetracked by some other books. The sequel is set in a fictional Chicago just before an exposition modeled on the Columbian Exposition. He’s clearly taken some inspiration from Devil in the White City (which I still haven’t read—I’m a lousy Chicagoan). The sequel is interesting, although maybe not quite as successful as the first book, both structurally, plot-wise, and writing wise. The first book works so well because structure as a set of short stories provides succinct, contained plots with a quick payoff, getting readers into the novel. Inui was able to kind of embed a larger plot within all of this. With the second book, he’s clearly building toward something, but I’ve found it more of a slog…and not just entirely because it’s in Japanese.

But I will admit that’s probably one of the reasons I haven’t picked it up during the pandemic. I just need easy right now. I’m moving some Murakami to the top of my to-read list because that feels accessible, do-able for me. And it doesn’t hurt that it’s his travel journal. Take me away. Serenity now!

Fun Times

The last two weeks have been…interesting. I had been following the coronavirus developments in China through work and then in Japan through work, friends, and acquaintances. But it did seem like it might be contained to Asia for a minute.

It’s such a blur now—everything: the day job which has been busy and challenging and fulfilling, the writing I’ve been doing for the Japan Times, the hustle to stock up my apartment, trying to exercise and sleep and relax—that I can’t even remember when I started to sense the “cone of uncertainty,” as we say in New Orleans.

The cone is the graphic that meteorologists deploy when hurricanes start to approach the Gulf coast. They use a number of different storm models to create a wide path where the hurricane is likely to hit. Once that cone starts to point at New Orleans, you either get out or you prepare to hunker down and shelter in place.

My mom is a legendary evacuator, and my dad is a legendary hunker-downer/waiter-outer. So I am kind of wired for prep. Once I felt the cone, from news reports, from articles, I made a plan.

I think I’m in a good place. I can work from home for as long as I need to, and I don’t really need to leave my apartment if I don’t want to. (Obviously that much care is probably not required – I’m in a Chicago neighborhood, so the density is probably enough to take walks and get some air on the lake or in parks nearby, maybe even do some shopping if necessary.)

This is my monthly update to plug my Japan Times work, so it feels bizarre to me to line these two headlines up next to each other:

’Emergency’ Japanese can help build fluency
Your Japanese vocabulary can expand as the new coronavirus spreads

I didn’t mean “emergency” in that sense of the word. But that would make a good article, too. One that I’m not sure I feel comfortable writing without doing some research — I haven’t been in a Japanese clinic for a while.

The emergency article is a strategy that I thought up to develop more familiarity with complex phrases. I specifically wanted to prepare for a May conference that now may not end up happening. Or at the very least, I may not end up attending. The strategy itself feels sound, although the results will vary based on the repetitions you do with your document. (I just did a lap through right now after feeling bad for neglecting it over the past couple weeks.)

The coronavirus article came together quickly with some research, and I was a little surprised by what I found. The emphasis on 肺炎 (haien, pneumonia) is interesting and notable in Japanese. In English it’s just this vague virus, and lots of association with the flu, which feels like fever, chills, and a kind of generic run-down illness. Pneumonia, on the other hand, is much more specific, especially to someone like me who has had it before.

I got bacterial pneumonia during my first year on the JET Program. I remember it pretty vividly. It hit late on a Friday night, which was about the worst time for it to hit, especially since the following Tuesday was a holiday. I had a couple beers, watched “The Godfather” on NHK, and went to bed. I woke up drenched in sweat and feverish. I spent the weekend going in and out of fever as I went through my ibuprofen and tried to negotiate some sort of balance of warmth in my apartment using the kerosene heater. I drove into Aizu-Wakamatsu and had McDonalds, did some shopping in the city, and called in sick on Monday.

By Tuesday I still hadn’t slept off whatever it was I had, and I was alternating between burning up and terrible chills, so I got in touch with my supervisor to ask about how to go to the town clinic. The doctor there was a young guy with a full beard, and he was only able to diagnose the pneumonia with an x-ray. It was a mild enough case that he had trouble detecting it with a stethoscope.

This is all to say that pneumonia is terrible, and I can’t even imagine what an acute case would feel like. Stay indoors. Isolate yourself. Work from home. If you start to feel like your workplace is putting you in a dangerous position, make an executive decision and stand up for yourself. Sometimes all you have to do is ask—it doesn’t have to be confrontational or personal. You can be calm and professional and assertive at the same time.

Ugh. Fun times!


On a separate note, I have two pieces in the new print edition of Neojaponisme.

The first is an excerpt from the massive look at the Top 50 Enka songs I did back in 2017. (19 of the 50 videos are still up on YouTube, which is a higher percentage than I expected! You can find the others [hopefully] with the PERMASEARCH links I cleverly left. Thank you, past Daniel!) I highly recommend listening through these songs. You’ll learn a TON of useful Japanese and perhaps even find a few tunes that you can use to impress the locals.

They also asked me to translate a conversation between Jacques Derrida and Japanese scholars Karatani Kōjin and Asada Akira about deconstruction. To be perfectly honest, I’m not even sure I understand what the English means, but I am confident that David and Matt helped me smooth over the language so that it is a decent representation of the Japanese.

I’m still digging through this volume, but Ian’s design is incredible, I’m hungry for the 洋食 (yōshoku, Japanese take on Western food) described within, and I can’t wait to check out Matt’s translations, including one from Tanizaki. Highly recommend picking up a copy.

The おじさんing

I’m in the Japan Times Bilingual page this week with a look at “words of personal reference”: “How to address the ‘sisters’ we’ve never met.”

This article starts with a story that happened to me shortly after I moved to Tokyo in 2008. I wish I’d written down the details at the time! Especially what the women said when they replied to my friend. Their tone (the laughter, the appreciation, how easily we all had such a nice time) is still so clear in my mind, but the words have gone.

It was such a great party with fun people and really interesting conversation. The Japanese guy who used お姉さん went on to try his hand at stand-up comedy. Not sure how that worked out.

The bar was Yokohama Cheers, if anyone wants to check it out.

I ran out of space in the article but wanted to look at where the division line is between お姉さん and おばさん and between お兄さん and おじさん.

I found this really interesting discussion site.

Here’s a key quote that backs up what I remember from the conversation:


The women we spoke with laughed when my friend used お姉さん, but it was a friendly laugh, one that recognized the difficulty of the situation.

Another commenter provides this loose breakdown in the terminology, although clearly the cutoff for お姉さん is a little young:

60代超えだしたらお婆ちゃん かな~

I also found a personal blog with an interesting discussion of what the writer’s niece and nephew’s children call her. Here’s an interesting line:

かといって 呼ばれ慣れない「おばさん」や まして「おばあちゃん」もなんか私じゃないみたい。

And I also found some surveys. I can’t vouch for their methodology, but they suggest that one becomes either おじさん or おばさん around 41-45 years old…which is approaching way too quickly in my case ^^;

Cool Word – 幸い

Japanese, like all languages, is all about figuring out secret codes. How to use language to communicate information, effect change, and create action.

One of the pieces of code that has been useful for me recently is 幸いです (saiwai desu).

This phrase is used when making requests, a particularly fraught moment for Japanese.

It is most commonly preceded by いただければ (itadakereba), いただけましたら (itadakemashitara), or いただけますと (itadakemasu to) – a veritable catalog of conditional potential forms of いただきます (itadakimasu, to receive, humbly). So, in effect, it means “If I can have you do X, I will be 幸い.”

The best and simplest definition of 幸い I’ve seen online is from Yahoo Chiebukuro (surprise!):


It literally means, “If you could do that for me, I would be happy.” It also has elements of “desirable,” “grateful,” and “convenient” wrapped up it in.

So it means “I would appreciate it if you could X.”

The reason I call it “secret code” is that there’s a sense wrapped up in the language itself that, yes, what I’m asking is reasonable and you will undertake it for me. It’s making a request without making a command, without even asking a question. Just by stating that one would be pleased. This is an especially potent combination with an airbag phrase.

I guess this is true with English as well, come to think of it. You can even flower up the English to something like “It would please me greatly if you could X” to match 幸いに存じます (saiwai ni zonjimasu), a keigo alternative, although the Japanese lacks any sarcasm.

It’s difficult to find any raw examples with a web search because there are so many Japanese websites explaining grammatical usage these days, so I recommend checking out a Twitter search to see how the term is being used. A bunch of them out there.

Cool Word – オブラート

I’m in the Japan Times this week with a look at a couple of websites that I’ve noticed popping up whenever I search for a polite way to phrase something: “When stumped in Japanese, go where the stumped Japanese go.”

The websites are Mayonez and Tap-biz. Mayonez seems like a more fleshed-out, coherent project, but they’re clearly very similar. I wondered how they were funded, but further investigation has shown that the articles are really just cover for the job hunting websites that likely fund the whole shebang.

Still, the articles are pretty interesting, and I think they offer pretty effective language tips.

In the course of reading through the Mayonez article about 希望しない alternatives, I saw the phrase オブラート包んでお断りすることがマナーです (Oburaato tsutsunde okotowari suru koto ga manaa desu, Saying no in a roundabout way).

オブラート (oburaato, oblaat) is a very interesting word I hadn’t heard before. Oblaat are those thin, transparent layers of rice starch that are used to wrap things like dagashi.

So the phrase オブラートに包む, then, means to kind of mediate a phrase in a way that makes it more palatable/handleable. Pretty cool.

And of course there’s a ridiculous Yahoo Chiebukuro site involving オブラート: “「死ね」 をオブラートに包んでください(“Shineo oburaato ni tsutsunde kudasai, Say “Go kill yourself” in a polite way). Some pretty funny answers.

And on a side note, next month is the four year anniversary (FORTY EIGHT consecutive months!) of the Japanese Reading Group that I’ve been running through the JET Alumni Association Chicago Chapter. We’ve been meeting on Google Hangouts for the past year or so, and it would be great if you’d join us! Check out the event details here.

Cool Compound – 出欠

I was in the Japan Times this week with a tutorial on how to teach yourself Japanese that you’ve never learned before (a task that perhaps sounds easy until you think about it for a second…): “OK Google, auto-fill the gaps in my Japanese.”

I changed jobs recently, and I’ve been using more Japanese in my day-to-day thanks to this (somewhat ironically, given the last place where I worked…I’ll leave you to Google this).

I’ve been writing a lot of emails, and I’m often forced to fend for myself as the only Japanese speaker in the office. I’ve gotten fairly adept at using Google to piece together different fragments into what are (hopefully) near-native sentences.

One example that I didn’t have space for in the article was the excellent kanji compound 出欠 (shukketsu, presence or absence), which is a compound made up of opposite words.

I located this compound by searching for 参加するかどうか (sanka suru ka dō ka, be able to attend or not) plus 敬語 (keigo, polite speech). I was eventually able to track down a useful sentence with this phrase after some Google sleuthing and then isolating the phrase “出欠のご返事を” (shukketsu no gohenji o, a reply with your RSVP).

That led me to this sentence, which I used in an email: 出欠のご返事をいただけると幸いです (Shukketsu no gohenji o itadakeru to saiwai desu, We would appreciate it if you could reply with your attendance).

Pretty useful technique. This is the website I found, by the way. It has some excellent examples that are very useful in business emails.

I noticed on Twitter that Tomo brought up some other interesting Google autofill examples, including a way to explore Japanese curiosities about foreigners. The thread is worth checking out.

差し入れ Redux

Merry Christmas! I’m home in New Orleans and not scheduled to be back in the Japan Times until early in the New Year, so I wanted to be sure to get a December post in. I may be able to get to another chapter of Hard-boiled Wonderland during my New Year’s break, but I’m not sure, so…

There was a work holiday party that I was unfortunately unable to attend because I was flying out right after work on December 20. The really unfortunate part is that we sat on the tarmac on the plane, fully boarded, for 2.5 hours before leaving, so I probably would have been able to have a quick drink at least.

I was reminded, however, of the lesser-known Japanese tradition of 差し入れ (sashi-ire), which I wrote about over nine years ago now. Fortunately I was reminded of this tradition with enough foresight that I was able to put together a 差し入れ of my own:

I brewed a Dark Mild for my homebrew club’s advent calendar and had plenty to share with coworkers. I’ve heard that it went over well, which is nice. It’s one of the better brews I’ve been able to put together.

I’ve updated one of the links from the earlier post that had died and I also looked through Yahoo Chiebukuro for some more examples. I found this post about someone who was scolded (?) for bringing a 差し入れ. Sounds like it was a kind of bizarre situation, although the best answer does note that bringing them too frequently could be pooh-poohed and that they generally only use them in the case of travel (which is good for me this time).

However, this post shows an example of someone bringing them to バイト coworkers when they have tests and other obligations. The best answer provides an EXCELLENT example of text you can use when providing a 差し入れ. It’s so good I’m going to blockquote it here:


You’ll probably want to adjust the punctuation here slightly, adding a few commas and periods, but the language is solid and very polite. Lemme break down how the language works: Apology (申し訳ありません) for being unable to go in for reasons (私用) —> Expression of appreciation for coworkers (大変お世話になっています) —> Expression of humility for gift being brought (気持ちだけですが) —> Performative statement expressing action of bringing a gift (差し入れを持って参りました) —> Expression asking coworkers to enjoy gift (召し上がって下さい).

13/10 would use myself.

The real goal of 差し入れ is to provide consideration coverage. They are a way to demonstrate that you’re tuned in and considerate of your surroundings. They show you’re a part of a group, that you can participate. In 2018, we should all endeavor to bring a little more consideration and participation into the world.

Except for Donald Trump and the Republicans. Seriously, fuck those guys and anyone who stands with them because they are petty racists and we’re going to unseat them all in 2018. They deserve no consideration because they give none.


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.

Cool Kanji – 語幹・語尾

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My latest column is in the Japan Times Bilingual page today: “Discovering verb stems: A gokan oasis in the desert of gobi

I address what was for me one of the most difficult adjustments to make during my first year of study: learning the ます形 form first only to have to get used to the 普通形 later. I distinctly remember wondering why they couldn’t just put the ます形 words in the dictionary.

I also remember the teachers mentioning things like あ行 and い行 when the consonant-stem verbs came up, but it was just too much information at the time, and the textbook we used—the infamous Jorden-Noda Japanese the Spoken Language—was dense as a motherfucker.

I wonder now if a focus on the difference between 語幹(ごかん) and 語尾 (ごび) earlier on, before students really even have the ability to understand them, would benefit students. As I mention in the article, I think it might be beneficial for students to learn this:


Rather than this:

Just repeat this out for all the different verb stems, and you’d have every kana covered, and the 行s might make more sense/feel more tangible to students.

Just a thought. I almost wish I had a masters in Japanese pedagogy and a class full of first-year students to experiment on…

おかげで vs. せいで

After the last posts, I got an email from a friend reminding me that there was one more element of おかげ(さま)で that I needed to discuss before I could run it into the ground. Here’s the email:

E-mail from a colleague I’m in contact with made me think of your post recently. (Context: discussing her school closure due to SNOWMAGEDDON up in Seattle):


Sounds like she is have a pretty sweet snowcation. So, yes, おかげで has another usage, which is closer to the ので and で that I wrote about in the past – it’s explaining causality, in particular beneficial causality. Because of/“thanks to” the snow and the school closure, she’s been able to read and study French and do yoga and damn you for living in a cold climate! I want a snow day! In the sentence above, おかげで is used at the beginning of a sentence, but you could easily use it as a conjunction and mash the clauses together: 休校になったおかげで、久しぶりに読書した。

This is the way that I first learned おかげで, which is partially why I was confused when I heard it as an idiomatic greeting. I knew that someone was being thanked, and I may even have had a sense that the someone had been dropped (pronoun drop yo) and was an implied “you.” But “you” hadn’t done anything for me! So why was I supposed to be saying お陰様で元気です? Because that’s what they say. When used as an idiomatic greeting phrase, you don’t have to consider the “beneficial causality” as much.

There is an equal and opposite conjunction せいで which is used to explain negative causality. For example, 雪が降ったせいで、自動車事故が増えた。

Personally, I loved watching all the videos the last few days of Seattle drivers running into each other in the snow because that’s exactly what would happen in New Orleans. I, however, mastered snow driving in Fukushima. The best policy is just not to drive (as long as you have sufficient supplies of chocolate and beer).