PDF Quote-a-palooza

Greetings from Kumamoto! I’m here for work for the rest of this week and then I’ll have a few meetings in Tokyo. I’ll have a few days free at the end of the second week, so if you’re in Tokyo and are interested in getting a beer, get in touch and I’ll let you know what I’m up to.

I was in the Japan Times last week with some tips on deciphering dialogue in Japanese fiction. Big props to the editors for this headline: “Whose line is it anyway? Tips for deciphering dialogue in Japanese fiction.”

Thanks to the JT, this tweet got a bump:

Seems like it’s a topic of interest for many. It sparked a conversation about dialogue in light novels between a few folks on Twitter, which I have to admit I couldn’t really follow.

I’ve been reading a detective novel recently and had forgotten how difficult it can be to follow dialogue in Japanese fiction sometimes. I guess I’m so used to reading Murakami, who makes a point of marking his dialogue well…and, now that I think about it, rarely has more than two people talking on their own.

I don’t have too much to add other than what I wrote in the article, but I did find two interesting links worth looking at. The first is a paper on an Ekuni Kaori short story collection by Michiyo Goda: 江國香織『きらきらひかる』における会話の提示――英訳版と比較して (An Analysis of Speech Presentation in Kaori Ekuni’s Twinkle Twinkle: In Comparison with the English Translation).

Her statement at the top of the paper is similar to the point I make at the beginning of the Japan Times piece:

小説の会話の分析というと、キャラクター 造型との関わりから、発話「内容」に注目が 集まる傾向がある。もちろんこのこと自体に問題はないのだが、文体という観点から会話を扱うならば、その提示「方法」にも注視してしかるべきであろう。
In analysis of dialogue in fiction, there’s a tendency to focus on the “content” of speech in relation to the construction of character. Of course, there’s no problem with this in and of itself, but if we take dialogue as an aspect of literary style, it seems appropriate to place more emphasis on the “methods” of its presentation as well.

I haven’t finished reading this article thoroughly, but there are some really interesting examples, and some excellent points made. She notes for example that in Japanese 伝達部の省略は当たり前になされる (It’s natural to eliminate the communication tags), and then she goes on to explain why:

When communication tags are repeated for each element of speech as in English, Japanese can quickly give a monotonous impression, and this can be considered a mechanism to avoid that.

I need to read this more fully. It has some really interesting thoughts for translators to consider as they work with Japanese. Any translators out there have strong feelings about dialogue work?

The other link is by Kazumi Tachikawa: 日本語教育における引用表現 (On Quotation in Teaching Japanese as a Second Language).

Another super interesting article. I need to read it more in depth, but I fast forwarded to the conclusion (as you do), and found myself nodding:

Even when comprehension of quotations is sufficient, it is apparent that their level of verbal expression hasn’t developed. On the other hand, diverse methods of quotation are used in written expression.

Very interesting indeed. Especially in light of this observation:

First, in classroom (spoken language) quotation expressions, student speech was mostly made up of fragmentary utterances and quoted expressions were not observed. On the other hand, instructors made use of a wide variety of quotations, in terms of phrases and speech content, and they also made use of many different sentence-ending speech constructions, not only using “と (to) + quotation verb” but also “と(って) [to (tte).”

I wonder if there’s a hesitation to drill casual forms of the language such as って. My own experience in the classroom was definitely a です・ます experience, and I can understand why, but I feel like this can be a disservice at times.

Adding these articles to the reading pile, and I hope you do too.

文末 Nuggets

My March Japan Times Bilingual piece is up: “Avoiding the subject isn’t such a bad idea in Japanese.”

Inspired by a question on Twitter, I take a look at how to avoid using subjects in Japanese. (Hint: Just ignore them mostly.) Besides just leaving them out, there are a ton of phrases in the language that promote concision, notably a few handy 文末 phrases. I address そうだ and ようだ in the piece, but らしい and みたい are also very effective in similar roles.

They all have subtly different usages, so it can be helpful to look at Japanese definitions. These are all from the wonderful 日本語文型辞典.

2015-03-03 09.44.21

Do your best to ignore my awful translation.


…ようだ 〈推量〉




Expresses a speaker’s impression or estimation-like judgment about something. Presents the impression or external appearance (of something) according to the external appearance (of the thing) or the speaker’s senses and suggests “It kind of seems that way/It looks that way.” Used when a speaker gives an impression or condition (of something) taken from the speaker’s sense of touch, sight, hearing, smell, etc. and when making other observations like that to give the speaker’s general, estimation-like judgment.

The following patterns are used when responding to things that have already been mentioned: 「そのようだ」 and 「そんなようだ」



文末に付いて、話し手がその内容をかなり確実度の高いことがらであると思っていることを表す。その判断の根拠は外部からの情報や観察可能なことがらなど客観的なものであり、単なる想像ではない。 (632)


Appended to the end of sentences to express that the speaker believes the content has a very high level of certainty. The basis for that judgment is objective, such as outside information or something that is observable, not simply imagination.





Added on to 普通体 (direct style) clauses to express that (the clause) is not something you received directly but reported information that came from somewhere else. Does not form negative or past tense constructions.


…みたいだ 〈推量〉


これに対して、他の人から聞いた話など間接的な情報にもとづいた話し手の推量を表すときには「らしい」が使われ、聞いたことをそのまま報告する場合には「そうだ」が使われる。 (562)


Expresses a speaker’s estimation. Means “I can’t tell for certain, but that’s what I believe.” An expression used to give an estimation based on something the speaker directly experienced, such as they saw something, heard something, or smelled something.

Conversely, 「らしい」 is used when expressing the speaker’s estimation based on indirect information, such as something heard from another person. 「そうだ」 is used when reporting something exactly as it was heard.

I’ve been wanting to post something like this for a while. I actually drafted it way back in 2009 (typed out the sections from the 文型辞典) but lost the post to a hard-drive crash and have been too lazy to get it together since.

I think it’s helpful to look at things like this explained in Japanese. The book also has a ton of great example sentences. Definitely a must-own for any students of Japanese who make it beyond the intermediate level.

Still, it’s one thing to know the dictionary definition of these patterns and another thing entirely to put them into practice. The occasional reminder from texts like the 文型辞典 can help us be mindful of the usages. Now get out there and get reporting indirectly and judging subjectively!

Embracing Japanese Expression 2

This month I want to talk about one of the simplest,  most underutilized phrases in Japanese – ~そうです。~sou desu. I am not referring to the “Oh really?” (あそうですか。) or the “Yes, that’s what I mean.” (そうです。) I’m talking about the sou desu attached to the end of an informal Japanese clause used to report what you have heard/learned from another person/source of information.

As I mentioned last month, Japanese has a distinct lack of subjects, which causes any un-subject-ed sentence to be understood to be first person. うん、行きました。
“Yeah, I went.”

However, you can very easily turn this into a third-person sentence by adding sou desu:

“Yeah, she (said she) went.”

JSL (Japanese as a Second Language) speakers, especially those from English-speaking countries, probably tend to translate the above English phrase as,


but this is just wordy and unnecessary in Japanese. In fact, you’re emphasizing the wrong information. Here’s a comparison of how these two sentences work in English.

She said she went.

She said she went.

By providing the subject, which is probably clear in context, and marking it with a が you are actually emphasizing that this woman and not some other untrustworthy individual is the one that did the saying. 誰が?彼女が。Who said it? She said it, you big fat idiot, SHE!

Weather report – 天気予報

According to the weather report, tomorrow will be sunny.

Newspaper – 新聞

According to an Asahi Newspaper report, taxes will rise next year, too.


A vicious rumor – ひどい噂(うわさ – The kanji for this word is sweet; learn it.)

According to a vicious rumor, Daniel bought tofu at Lion D’or yesterday.


You’ll see the source marked with either によると or で.

Starting from this issue, I’m going to give everyone a little homework. I’m going to give you a Japanese phrase that I found interesting. I won’t provide any context or explanation. Your job is to figure out what the speaker meant. One can of Japanese 100% malt beer (your choice between Yebisu and Suntory) goes to a correct explanation of the meaning and possible context. Contest is only valid for non-Billy-McMichaels in the audience. If there is more than one correct answer, I will randomly select the winner. Here is this issue’s phrase:「 殺しそうになった。」    One of my teachers taught me this phrase when they corrected a mistake. This sentence will lead into my next column’s topic. Good hunting.