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.

Unbreakable Rules – Never 様 Yourself

Quick, what’s the first thing you hear when you go into a restaurant in Japan?


I was taught to always respond with 一人, 二人, 三人, etc. My sensei told us to never say 一名様, 二名様, 三名様, etc., but she never told us why. I only learned why a few years back when I went to the Shibuya TGI Fridays with my friend Yoichi.

When greeted with the question above, Yoichi answered, 二名. Awesome, I thought, Yoichi’s badass enough to answer with the stuff the sensei told us not to use! Then I realized he had dropped the 様. なるほど. 様 is what makes the phrase honorific-polite and therefore strange if you use it on yourself – you’re only supposed to honor others higher than yourself. Get rid of the 様, however, and 一名, 二名, 三名, etc. becomes just another way to count people.

Which leads to the unbreakable rule: Never 様 yourself.

That is unless you have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!

号外 – もうちょっと聞かせてって言ったでしょう?

Matt added a couple of great comments to Wednesday’s post that are worthy of their own post.

Dude, I totally got dinged for calling -te the imperative form the other week. You’d better watch your back.

I just want to summarize the “miru 見る is controversial” thing for non-reading linguists: “miru” does indeed become “misaseru” if you add the “-saseru” ending according to modern rules. The controversy is whether it is acceptable to use this form instead of “miseru”, which is a separate verb meaning “show”. As far as I can tell there are two prongs to the controversy: (1) “misaseru” and “miseru” are equivalent, therefore the former is redundant, therefore it should not be used (you wouldn’t say “shisaseru” either, just “saseru”), and (2) “miseru” itself can be analyzed as “miru” + OJ causative suffix, therefore, “misaseru” is an ugly, modern usurper, functionally and semantically identical but aesthetically and morally inferior, and should be avoided. I’ve seen similar complaints about 着せる vs 着させる.

The counterarguments to the above include (1) to some speakers at least, they aren’t equivalent; everyone has “miseru” in their vocabulary, and the fact that some people also use “misaseru” indicates that for them it performs a function that “miseru” can’t, and (2) whatever, dude, living Japanese isn’t bound by your rules and regulations, and these forms sound fine to me.

Nice. I see how they are semi-redundant, but I also see the logic behind having them both – one is “you show it to me” and the other is “please allow me to see it.” Even in English the latter feels more かたい, which is why I think all three of the links bring up television “announcers”: people on television, especially the MCs for game shows, speak in keigo constantly. They are a dirty petri dish for the evolution of polite new linguistic terms (or at least terms that sound new/strange to everyday folk). Japanese people love arguing about this stuff. I heard lectures about 不思議な日本語 or whatever at three different midyear conferences during my stint as a JET, and at each one the speaker debunked some sort of new keigo usage.

さ、参りましょう. Matt then provided this great parallel which shows that these must be separate terms:

Incidentally the case for non-equivalence is more obvious with “kiseru” vs “kisaseru”. The former means “put clothing on someone” (e.g. a child) and the latter means “cause/allow someone to put clothing on”. Because there is an indirect object the difference is more stark, but then compare to “miseru” vs “misaseru” using a fanciful but parallel definition: “put something into someone’s visual cortex” vs “cause/allow someone to put something into their visual cortex”. The difference, or at least the possibility of some speakers keeping the two conceptually separate, becomes a little clearer.

Future Help

A short follow up to last week’s post on 助かりました. The present tense of this verb is also incredibly useful. The key is to remember that the present tense (助かる or 助かります) is the same thing as the future tense. That let’s you form patterns like this: 〜していただければ、助かります.

~ is any verb (not necessarily a する verb; the して just stands in for all verbs in the example) that you are having done for you. The subject of the ~ is another person. You, the speaker, are the subject of いただければ, which is the conditional tense (?) of いただく.

Looking at it literally we have, “If I could receive you doing ~, I will be helped (in the future).” In normal English, “I would really appreciate it if you could ~.”

A couple examples:

I would really appreciate it if you could wake me up at 8.

It would be great if you could turn it in at some point today.

It would help everyone if you could read in a loud voice. (Threw a 皆 up there to vary the subject a bit.)

You can even use an energetic 助かります! right after you’ve made a request to soften said request. (Effective when combined with a frowny face.) Kind of a reverse airbag expression.

In the future once you’ve been assisted, you can then say 助かりました!

すごい <--> 非常に

Speaking politely in Japanese isn’t just about being deft with keigo. Keigo, which you use constantly and just don’t realize it, is just a small part; basic word choice is also important, as it is in English. There are several different ways to say the same word, and generally the longer the phrase is, the more polite it is. One of the best examples of this is the many different versions of いい. You can power up your いい, but you can also power it down to ええ depending on who you’re with.

Sometimes you need to use an entirely different word rather than a variation of the same word. This is especially true of English. I vividly remember the moment when I learned the definition of the word “asinine.” I was a freshman on the debate team and heard a senior member use it in a speech. When I asked him the definition he said, “It’s a nice way to called someone or something stupid.”

Unfortunately I don’t know how to say asinine in Japanese. I do know, however, that すごい is not going to cut it in important business meetings (just like “stupid”), which is why you should swap it out for it’s more polite cousin 非常(ひじょう)に. すごい, however, can be both adjective and adverb, while 非常に is only an adverb.

When you’re swapping for the adverbial すごい or すごく, you can do a straight-up replacement.    So you can do this swap:

すごく危ない –> 非常に危ない –> 非常に危険

(You might want also consider powering up that 危ない to the compound noun form 危険(きけん), which is the third option up there. I guess this really belongs in another post, but 非常に危険 felt more natural to me, so I went ahead and added it.)

The adjective version of すごい requires you to be more specific with your description; this is a good thing to practice, even in English. So rather than something being “awesome” or “great,” you can say something like 非常に質がいい (it’s of incredibly high quality), 非常にきれいな (it’s incredibly beautiful), or just 非常にいい (it’s incredibly good).

I have to credit my senior year Japanese professor here. Until she noted this easy switch in class, I don’t think I had a grasp of the meaning of 非常に.

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.