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).

More on お陰様で

Durf sent along an interesting post about お陰様で on Japan Echo by a Japanese columnist. He notes that お陰様で has been used frequently in the areas affected by the earthquake and tsunami. The examples show how it’s really just an idiomatic greeting that can be used to acknowledge someone’s concern for your person. Most excellent. Start using it…now.

I was curious to see that the writer’s wife, a Kansai native, was unfamiliar with the term. My friend who just had a baby is from Sendai, but I can’t remember where my Japanese teacher is from. For the most part they tried to teach us 標準語 (ひょうじゅんご), so I’m tempted to say that お陰様で works in the capital as well.

Getting used to お陰様

One of the best parts about my return to New Orleans is that I have not been sick as much as I was in Japan. My first winter in Fukushima I caught pneumonia. The second year I had the flu or something similar. The third year my nose completely closed up and I went on nasal steroids (which became an annual thing). I loved the healthcare system in Japan – the doctors were friendly and everything was really affordable – but it’s better not to get sick. I say this on a day in early January in New Orleans where it was overcast and rainy but still in the upper 70s: I had the air conditioner on. Two days ago I went for a jog along my normal jogging route in a sleeveless T. Life is good. I occasionally get a bit sickish, but my body has had fewer catastrophic failures than it did in Japan.

Part of this could be that I’m exercising more. My normal jogging route takes me along the Mississippi River, but back in November I was blocked by the train and ran back to Magazine Street rather than along “the Fly” (the park area in a batture along the river). This resulted in one of those 何かの縁 moments that life surprises you with every now and then. My Japanese conversation partner happened to be walking in the park with her mother and newborn son. I hadn’t seen her for about a month since she gave birth.

She said, おお、偶然だね。何している?ジョギング? I replied, お久しぶりです。はい、ジョギング。おめでとうございます。 無事に生まれた? (Or something like that. I was a little winded and surprised, so I’m sure my Japanese was crap.) Then she said one of the best get-used to it phrases in Japanese: お陰様で無事に生まれた。

I’m not sure if that’s the exact verb/verb form she used, but I want to focus on the お陰様で (おかげさまで). This is a great phrase. Forget about what it means. Let’s focus on some context.

My first encounter with this phrase was on the very first day of the second semester of my third year – so the first day of class after the New Year holiday. The teacher said, お元気ですか? We began to reply 元気です and the teacher tilted her head to the side like we were making a mistake. No one could figure out what the mistake was was until she fed us the answer – お陰様で元気です。 I remember being baffled. I had no idea what it meant. I wish I could go back and shake myself and say, “It doesn’t matter what it means! It’s just what they say! Just say it! Say it all the time!”

Now the question becomes when do they say it. These two examples have at least one thing in common: a certain length of time has passed since the speakers last met. It had been a few weeks since I’d seen my teacher and about a month since I’d seen my friend. Things happened since the speakers met.

Now is there any similarity between these things? And here is where I give some background context: I’d given my friend a baby gift before she gave birth. And then she gave birth. So yes, some things happened. In the case of my teacher, not much happened. We had a week of vacation between exams and the start of the new semester. I’m going to say no, the things that happened are not similar. This is good. This shows us two different uses of the phrase.

In my teacher’s case, the お陰様で is used almost exclusively as a set 挨拶 (あいさつ). Get used to it, use お陰様で元気です all the time, especially after using しばらく or 久しぶり.

In my friend’s case, it’s used as a way to express thanks. Not that the baby blanket I gave her helped her give birth at all (at least I hope not…the hospital should have enough blankets), but I’d done something nice, and then she’d gone and done something successfully. お陰様で is a useful way to report an accomplishment and indirectly express thanks for the accomplishment. It’s also a very polite phrase. Simply say お陰様で and add whatever you accomplished. You passed a test? お陰様で合格 (ごうかく)しました! You were accepted into the JET Program or some other job? お陰様で就職(しゅうしょく)しました! Your friend fed you ramen when you were wasted and you didn’t get a hangover? お陰様で二日酔い(ふつかよい)になりませんでした! This phrase has all sorts of great usages.

There are places on teh Internetz where you can read about the origin of the phrase, but it’s advisable to just get used to it. Or Google it and then get used to it.

Cool Kanji – 堅

堅い (かたい) is a word I had a basic feel for long before I knew the actual English equivalent. I took an intensive summer class after my first year in university, and I have memories of the sensei using it all the time and me not exactly understanding what it meant when they used it to describe different words and phrases. I probably looked it up once and then just let it sink in. Unfortunately I can’t think up any specific examples of what was and wasn’t 堅い. It might have just been keigo variants.

Needless to say, having an understanding of 堅い is immensely important in Japan. The rigidity of your speech, your body language, your overall interactions with other people – these are all very important in Japan. Arguably more important than elsewhere. This isn’t to say that you should tense up like a plank when you talk with your 社長 (all 社長 should be lovingly referred to, behind their backs, as “the Shach” – let’s make it happen, y’all!). The most respected ability in Japan is being comfortable with your situation and knowing when and when not to dial up the intensity/formality/rigidity/堅さ.

Because this is such an important idea, it can be abused for humorous reasons, as I’ve mentioned a number of different times – most recently in my article in the Japan Times today about universal humor. Check it out!

Uncool 相槌 – はいはい

If there were a God, I would ask it to bless the Internet. The Internet is the reason I haven’t lost as much Japanese as I could have over the past six months. When I got back to New Orleans in June, I went on Mixi, the Japanese social networking site, and put up self-introductions on the forum for every Community that was vaguely New Orleans-related. Saints communities, college communities, Jazz communities – if you look closely, you’ll probably find me there.

This effort has yielded results! In July I heard from a Japanese college student who is crazy about the Saints. He was visiting New Orleans to go see training camp. Would I want to meet up? Hell yeah! Thus, I found myself driving out to the Saints practice facility in Metairie at 6AM, speaking Japanese with Shohei. We watched practice, basked in the Yat-ness of the proceedings, and Reggie Bush walked straight up to where we were standing during the autograph session. It was most excellent.

Later, I heard from Aki who was moving to town with her husband, a French public servant who got transferred to the consulate in New Orleans. Would I want to meet up for coffee? Of course! So we started meeting for coffee every few weeks. The luckiest part is that she is the most talkative Japanese person I’ve ever met. She’s constantly losing track of the conversation topic and saying things like, “This is totally unrelated, but…” or “I forgot what I was saying, but…” Not that she’s ditzy; she just has a lot to say. I don’t mind at all. Just keep the Japanese coming.

We met up in November before I took my trip to Japan, and she was telling me a story about a Chinese woman who worked in her office in Japan. The woman’s Japanese was good, but she had a few quirks, one of which was the phrase はいはい, which she used indiscriminately as an 相槌 (あいづち) whether it was with the company president or with Aki. Not only did she double the standard phrase はい, she also added a slightly flippant-sounding tone (which I can’t find an example of online). “HAIhai” is how I would try to express the tone. Aki was telling me the president would get annoyed with the usage but never corrected the woman. Aki was thrown into the role of caretaker and tried to correct the usage, but it never took.

At the time I thought this was nothing more than a funny story, but when I went to Japan a few weeks later, I was having dinner and drinks with a friend –an older businessman, so I was on my best です/ます behavior – and I caught myself はいはいing! Dammit! My tone wasn’t as dismissive as the way Aki was producing, but I think it was still a little casual. Immediately I shifted back to a single はい and kept a close watch on my usage the rest of the trip.

The realization reminded me of this sign I often see in New Orleans:

The goal of learning a foreign language is to be able to use it naturally and smoothly, which means not having to consciously watch yourself all the time. At the same time, if you internalize mistakes, you’ll end up using them without realizing it, and in Japan it often goes uncorrected. Thanks to Aki I caught myself. (Also, I did have one friend correct me on my trip when I was saying 計算する instead of 量る for my weight, so there will be times when they will correct you.)

The moral of the story? Maintain vigilance. And ask folks to correct you. They’ll still hesitate to do so, but every now and then you’ll get a nice bit of help.

The second moral of the story? 敬語 isn’t just being able to say the right honorific or humble words. Sometimes it’s not saying certain words that are casual. Refrain from はいはい, ちょっと, and ハァ? sez the Japanese Internets. Also, as long as you use です/ます consistently and avoid too many んでs, そうやでs, and other contractions, you’ll be able to schmooze your way into the confidence of most folks in Japan.

(In other news, while writing this post I learned that はいはいする means to crawl from a YouTube search.)

Power Up Your そう – さようでございます

I haven’t done a pyramid style list for a Japanese word in a while (not since “Power Up Your ちょっと” to be specific), so I thought that I’d do one for the word そう. I’m referring to the そう used to confirm a question from someone else.

A quick example for those unfamiliar with the term:


And now the pyramid:

そうよ。 *for women and womanly types only
そうでござる。 *for people acting in 時代劇 only

The real point of this post is to introduce that last phrase – さようでございます. In very polite situations, そう turns into the slightly longer and more polite さよう. You can follow it with です for a standard keigo phrase.

さようでございます is up for debate on Goo in this post. The spirited first responder claims that it may be grammatically correct, but that he/she did not use it in interactions with customers because そう is so much clearer and less formal. He/she notes that keigo was initially used to distinguish between different class levels, and that overly polite keigo could be viewed as condescending or even insulting.

The second commenter comes to the same conclusion as the others and says that 1) grammatically it’s not a problem, 2) さようです is keigo enough on its own, and 3) just like many bits of language, it comes down to personal preference.

One interesting distinction made by commenter four via a link is that さようでございます is natural when used as emphatic agreement with someone, but very unnatural when used as an 相づち as そうですね so often is. The same link claims that さようでございます has come into more frequent usage because it makes old people feel special, and given the increasing increase in old people, this phrase only becomes more useful.

The first time I remember hearing it was over the phone when I was booking JAL tickets. The phone lady was so nice and patient with me and answered all my worrisome little questions with cheerful versions of さようでございます. At first I wasn’t sure what they were saying, but then it set off bells in some deep memory from a Japanese class and I vaguely remembered learning it.

That said, because of its high level of inherent hoity-toity-ness, さようでございます can also be used in an ironic way in much the same way that 遠慮します can. Steve Martin knew how to take advantage of this kind of humor, and in Japan, the manzai group Hibiki has made a career out of どうもすいませんでした (the line comes at 3:07). In all honesty, and I believe my teacher mentioned this, it’s a phrase that you should recognize but never feel obligated to use. A bit of keigo here and there is fine, but don’t be a keigo otaku.

Cool Phrase – いいぞ (Update)

I’ve got another article on the Japan Times Bilingual Page. Longtime readers will recognize the topic, as well as the little girl who hates bugs, from the contest I ran back in April 2008.

So, yes, いい is often used to say “no, thank you” and imply that something is not fine and not good, but it does also get used in the standard definition of good, fine, great. One way to differentiate between the meanings is applying a particle to the end. よ will grant permission to someone else, ね will express your pleasure with something and/or seek confirmation, よね seeks to confirm okay-ness, and ぞ is a useful way to cheer someone on.

When I was on JET, we coached the speech contest kids, and I have vivid memories of one of the Japanese English teachers saying いいぞ、いいぞ in a slightly gruff voice when the kids did a particularly good job. It was kind of like “attaboy, attaboy” or “now you’re cookin’ with gas” – that type of thing. Definitely a nice little phrase to keep in your wallet for the right situation.

Quick TOP SECRET breakdown of possible English tone equivalents (as usual, getting used to it is far superior to translation):

いいよ – “Sure, go ahead”
いいね – “That’s nice!” “That sounds good!”
いいよね – “Not a problem, right?”
いいぞ – “That’s the stuff!”


Dammit, I missed a bunch of particles, as noted in the comments by Leonardo. They are:

いいな – “Lucky! (a la Napoleon Dynamite)” “That’s nice!”
いいわ – “Sure thing.”
いいわよ – “Sure thing, hot stuff.”
いいけど – “I guess…”
いいけどね – “T’were it only true…”

Power Up Your ちょっと

Previously I discussed how to power up your いい and make it more polite by extending the number of syllables. Well, I just remembered another useful power-up – 少々. While it may look a little short, spell it out in kana and you get しょうしょう. Here’s the chart:


The length factor becomes even more obvious when you attach it to a normal sentence:


You can also add a syllable if you’re trying to emphasize the slightness of something: ちょこっと is a fun way to ask for a very small amount. Interestingly, ちょこっと and ちょっと are casual in part because of an additional syllable – the , which I wrote about earlier. While it adds emphasis, it also detracts from the level of politeness. So not cool to get all emphatic up in this black tie affair.