Cool Kanji – 爺 – Updated

I think I probably knew this kanji before, but in its grandfatherly お爺さん form; on its own, the pronunciation is じじい (which I discovered thanks to furigana in the book I was reading), and it means dirty old man. For whatever reason, when I was reading I found it very cool that a single character had three syllables in the pronunciation.

It’s a cool kanji in its own right – the character for father (父) right above the verb “to take” (取) the somewhat rare character that means question or father, making the easy mnemonic “Take this, old dad guy man! *heaves rotten tomato*” “Dad?”

But the kanji led me into the rabbit hole that is the おじいさん entry on Wikipedia. Did you know that おじいさん can refer to twelve distinct individuals? These are:

1. 父の父
2. 母の父
3. 夫の父の父
4. 夫の母の父
5. 夫の父の祖父
6. 夫の母の祖父
7. 妻の父の父
8. 妻の母の父
9. 妻の父の祖父
10. 妻の母の祖父
11. 1~2と同年代以上の高齢の男性
12. 1.や2.や11.などに相当する男性が使う自称

In translation:

1. One’s father’s father
2. One’s mother’s father
3. One’s husband’s father’s father
4. One’s husband’s mother’s father
5. One’s husband’s father’s grandfather
6. One’s husband’s mother’s grandfather
7. One’s wife’s father’s father
8. One’s wife’s mother’s father
9. One’s wife’s father’s grandfather
10. One’s wife’s mother’s grandfather
11. An elderly man of equal age or older than 1-2
12. A self-applied name used by a man who fits 1, 2, or 11

Whew…deep breath. The article goes on to explain some of the nuances of the word, comparisons with Chinese, and the fact that it can be used as a first person pronoun by old dudes when talking to young kids like their grandchildren. I can’t wait to be that crazy older uncle type and get all 爺d up.

Update: Fixed teh character issues with teh kanjiz. Also fixed the errors in 2 and 6 as pointed out by Arline. And I totally forgot to mention that the Wikipedia article also mentions that when おじいさん refers to family members, the kanji are お祖父さん.

Cool Word – まったり

I’ve got an article on the Japan Times Bilingual page today about the Japanese translation of Facebook. I highly recommend switching your language over to Japanese to improve your recognition of the various loanwords and compounds that get used on the site. And definitely make sure to go in and add your 姓 and 名 into the settings so that your Japanese friends and coworkers can track you down.

Ideally, though, you have loads of Japanese friends who are also using Facebook – this is by far the best use of the site. These Japanese friends should be updating their statuses and commenting on things at a regular pace. I have a few who do so, but even with the small number, I’ve learned a couple of awesome words. Notably, まったり. The best part about Facebook is that you are learning in context: words get defined by pictures and comments.

For example, a friend posted this picture:

With the following comment: 今日は天気悪いから好きなカフェでまったり。

I could immediately approximate the meaning of まったり – what else are you going to do on a rainy day at a cafe with nothing but a cup of coffee? – but a week or so later, another friend posted this status update:


The status went on, but you get the idea from the first sentence where まったり is used to modify the verb 鑑賞 (かんしょう, view) – it means to chill the fuck out. You can either just chill the fuck out at a café because the weather is bad or you can chill the fuck out and watch TV. In the first case, the する after まったり is dropped, and in the second case it’s used as an adverb to modify 鑑賞.

The third syntax you can use is まったりした to modify a noun such as まったりした人, which reminds me of one of my favorite phrases from Cowboy Bebop: のんきなやつだな – that’s one chilled out bastard.

(And on a Facebook sidenote, I hope that the translation of “Like” to いいね! effectively communicates to beginning students of the language that いい doesn’t simply mean good and that 好き doesn’t really mean “like.”)

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!

white ≠ ワイト

My first winter vacation living in Fukushima, I spent a week in Tokyo staying with my friend Thomas. He had come to Tokyo with his girlfriend shortly after graduating, and not long before I visited they split up, forcing him to move out into a guest house in Kanda. He was incredibly generous with his space (of which he had very little), and I spent the week shopping, drinking, and dancing.

When we were out one night, I helped a guy order a White Russian. When I walked up to the bar, I was standing behind the guy, and I noticed that he was having trouble communicating with the Japanese bartender. He kept on repeating “White Russian” over and over in a vaguely Japanese accent – ワイトロシアン, ワイトロシアン, ワイトロシアン.

Having been in his position before, I knew exactly what he was doing wrong. I leaned over, offered to help, and had the bartender reaching for the Stoli and Kahlua with a single extra syllable – ホ. The guy clearly expected the Japanese pronunciation of “white” to be ワイト, when it is actually ホワイト.

There are a couple Yahoo Chiebukuro pages that try to answer the question, but there doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer other than ホワイト more accurately captures the pronunciation, which suggests that it may be an English pronunciation error on my part – maybe I’m not pronouncing “white” snootily enough? What’s certain is that the ホ-spelling is so natural and widespread – used in everything from white collar and white chocolate to Pokemon White – that the locals don’t think twice about it. Which means you shouldn’t either. Get used to it and you’ll save yourself time next time you’re at the bar.

Sandra Japandra‘s recent encounter with vermouth and its unexpected (from an English point of view) pronunciation ベルモット reminded me of this ホワイト incident. These are two good examples of another way that foreign loan words can be tricky: even when the Japanese word does equate to the object in the foreign language and not some other thing entirely, the pronunciation is not always exactly the same as in the English (unless it is…in which case I’m just a linguistically evolved youth and have shed this silly ホ in English). You can try to use the trick that some of my middle school Spanish classmates used when they “need-o to use-o el bano” and Japanify all the words you don’t know, but this is not recommended. Pay attention to yer katakanas and read all those syllables.

サークル ≠ circle (Join my 会話サークル!)

Well, I’ve been on Google+ now for a week or so, and it’s pretty cool. You can find me here, and my Public posts will probably be along the same lines as my Twitter feed.

I still haven’t made any major adjustments to my Circles just yet, but I’m about to start sorting them into Input and Output Circles, interest group Circles, ridiculous GIF poster Circles, et ceteraz.

I imagine that in the near future there will be public Circles or at least publicly visible Circles, so I’d like to create some useful ones for students of Japanese that I plan to open up publicly when/if that feature becomes available. One of the biggest problems for me back in New Orleans is that there are only just over 100 Japanese folks in the whole state of Louisiana, and only one of these 100 is willing to speak with me on a regular basis: I need Japanese speaking partners. The Google+ “Hangout” feature is a perfect way for groups to get together and practice speaking Japanese.

I plan on having three Circles at first – 日本語サークル初級, 日本語サークル中級, and 日本語サークル上級. I’m thinking this all up on the spot, so I’m not sure exactly how it will work, but the basic idea is to get a group of folks together who are at a similar ability level to speak Japanese. For the beginners, I’ll try and give explanations and keep things simple. Intermediate folks I think should focus on speaking more accurately and increasing the sentence patterns they can use actively. And the advanced folks can chat about whatever they want.

Maybe I’ll have set times during the week to host hangouts. Maybe I’ll just do it randomly (more likely). Who knows. So let me know if you want in to one of these speaking Circles, and if so, which Circle you would like to be placed in. You can either DM me on Twitter, email me, or leave a comment on my Google+ feed and I’ll sort you out. Ideally you’ll be able to add yourself to these Circles in the future.

I don’t plan on spamming any of these circles with anything except the actual Hangouts themselves, so you can join with the assurance that I won’t be overfilling your G+ streams.

And a wee Japanese lesson for you today as well. Did you notice the pun above? In Japanese サークル is based on the English word “circle,” but サークル ≠ circle. The Google images evidence is overwhelming: サークル, circle. サークル in fact means “club.” Schools, particularly universities, use the term to refer to student-run interest groups. When I studied abroad, I helped teach an 英会話サークル. Basically, I’ve made サークル Circles.

So, once again, mind yer inequalities.

Game Lingo – クリア ( = clear?)

My handy set of inequalities doesn’t always hold true when it comes to video game terminology. I realized this last Friday when I was checking the translation of a video game manual. The word クリア is always used to mean “complete (a goal, level, task),” and the translator had left it “clear” (e.g. “when you have cleared easy mode”).

I’m always torn with this one. I often change it to something a little more natural (in my opinion) like “complete,” but in this case I left it “clear” and made a note to reconsider my decision after I’d finished looking through the entire manual. Then I could go back through and see how many times it was used throughout the whole manual. If it was used just once, then I’d feel comfortable making the change. If it gets used repeatedly as a sort of set term, then it should probably stay as is.

I am realizing now the decision might already be made for me – we have the in-game text and if I go in on Monday and find an instance of クリア = clear in the text, then I have to 統一.

This game has already had one frustrating example of 統一. The Japanese ミス has been rendered “miss,” which just feels dirty and wrong. Initially I was surprised that the translator made the decision to translate it that way because he is one of our more reliable translators, but then I found an instance of ミス = miss in the in-game text and quickly realized that he had done a thorough job of checking back and forth between manual terminology and in-game terminology. Which leaves some terrible sentences like “You completed Level 1 without a miss!” Ugg. Time for a shower.

ミス is closer to “mistake,” as noted by スペルミス – spelling mistake – and depending on the circumstances it could be anything from a mistake to a failure to an error and should be translated in context.

Game Lingo – 鎧

I’m realizing now that it’s been more than a full year since I’ve posted anything about video games. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I haven’t worked at a video game translation company for more than a full year as well. I’ve been away from the material. I’ve lost my game, man.

No longer. I’ve spent the last two days with my eyeballs frozen on LCD screens full of Japanese game text and passable English translations. It’s been incredibly tiring. Tiring in a completely different way from the satisfying physical exhaustion of digging ditches and shoveling mud. Good in its own way, though.

I’ve learned/refreshed a good bit of Japonese, and one of the coolest words I’ve come across is 鎧 (よろい) – armor. I have no idea where it derives from, but the clear mnemonic for this character is “a metal bean that holds up a mountain can armor you against ANYTHING!”

I don’t think the kanji gets used all that often unfortunately. I’ve seen it as both よろい and ヨロイ, although the latter seems to refer to attributes of certain characters rather than armor itself. So keep your eyes open for this one. It should come in handy when they start releasing the next set of Final Fantasy remakes for the Nintendo 3DS or Wii U.

Cool 擬態語 – べたべた

I work at a university writing center helping students (mostly first years) with their essays, and back in February a Japanese couple came on a grant to study writing centers in the U.S. Apparently they run the writing center for exchange students studying Japanese at a university in Shizuoka. The writing center is young, so they were looking for ways to improve their tutoring approaches. (They have some of the same problems – the same kids come in, they make the same mistakes – but I feel like Japanese composition is in a very different place, so I don’t think all of our suggestions made sense to them. Anyone have any thoughts?)

I reported for work earlier than normal so I could interpret if need be, but she was actually quite proficient in English. She also seemed to be ハーフ, but I never asked, so I’m not certain. They brought their kids with them (all four of them, two of them toddlers and one an infant), and the husband took them off for a walk in the morning, but they came back for lunch. My boss had the tutors who were free sit in her office and answer the couple’s questions while we snacked on pasta and king cake, the seasonal New Orleans cake that is served from Twelfth Night to Mardi Gras Day.

King cake is short, ring-shaped cinnamon cake that is covered with sticky icing and sugar. The kids ate some, too, and when one of the toddlers finished, she started smacking her fingers together and saying べたべた. I laughed; the kid was so damn cute, and even though I hadn’t heard the word for a while, I knew exactly what she was saying – the King Cake was sticky.

That’s all I’ve got today. I’ve been meaning to write up this story because I don’t think I’ll ever forget べたべた again. Blue Shoe’s post about じょりじょり reminded me that I’d been meaning to write about べたべた. He wrote that じょりじょり is the sound of “a scratchy surface.” The word was vaguely familiar, and I had to really work my memory banks to figure out where I’d heard it. I realized that I was shaving my head when I studied abroad in Tokyo. Once, shortly after I shaved my head, I went to teach an English class, and my students were all like ああ、ダニエル、じょりじょり!

I wanted to know where it came from, so I plugged it into Yahoo Dictionary, which gives this definition:


So Blue Shoe is close – it’s actually the sound of shaving (or perhaps cutting) hair or facial hair. Kind of like “buzz” in English. My students were saying “Daniel, you buzzed your head!” じょりじょり, most excellent.

(The Yahoo example sentence uses a cool word I was unfamiliar with: 襟足 (えりあし), the nape of the neck.)

Cool Compound – 復習

This one is pretty easy to break down. 復 means “multiple” and can be seen in such useful compounds as 複数 (ふくすう, “multiple numbers” → plural) and 複雑 (ふくざつ, “multiple miscellaneous” → difficult, complicated).

習 you should recognize from your basic set of verbs – 習う (ならう, to learn).

Put them together and you get 復習 (ふくしゅう) which means “to learn multiple times” or “to learn again” – to review.

Yes, it’s that time of year again – finals time. I’ve got several meaty projects I have to finish up before the second week in December, so How to Japonese will be taking a little break. I finish my last presentation on December 9, and I’m flying out to Japan for two weeks on December 10. Regular posting will resume at some point over the holidays, most likely at some point during my visit to Japan.

Until then, go ahead and “review” some of the old material from the site. I recommend:

– the three original posts.
– my definition of かわいそう
– proof that laughter is the best study partner
– my guide to kanji compounds
– any of the posts about “airbag expressions”

See y’all again in December!

Cool Kanji – 微

Some guys wish they were taller. Others wish they had more money or were better looking. I wish I could drink more coffee. I have written about the reasoning previously – drinking coffee makes you cool, duh.

When I went out to coffee with a Japanese friend last Friday, I was trying to explain my caffeine deficiencies. I get a massive initial rush and then crash hard not long after, often requiring a nap. (Although I do feel like a genius during the rush.) I opt instead for tea, and I dole it out in small amounts from a thermos so that I can have lots of little doses to sustain me through the day.

I was having a hell of a time explaining this. I went round and round, dodging the potholes that have worked their way into my vocabulary over the past five months, trying to get my point across. Finally she figured it out and said, ああ、微調整. And I was like, なるほど!

I won’t go into 調整 (ちょうせい) all that much – it means to adjust/to make adjustments. The real point of the post is to take a closer look at the prefix 微 (び). You’ve probably already gathered this from my story, but 微 in this case means “small” or “slight” – I make small or slight adjustments in my caffeine level to prevent any highs and lows.

If you are a fan of Japanese canned coffee, you might have recognized this character from 微糖 (びとう), which means a small amount of sugar. This is less sugar than 低糖 (ていとう), which means low sugar. But these are two-character compounds, and 微 isn’t as clearly a prefix. A quick perusal of ALC reveals that 微気候 (びきこう, microclimate), 微欠点 (びけってん, minor defect), and 微生物 (びせいぶつ, microorganism) are other examples of 微 in action as a prefix. So a good English equivalent is “micro,” but it doesn’t always work – “microdefect” doesn’t sound quite right.

The moral of the story is know your prefixes and know their pronunciations; they’ll make it much easier to parse long kanji compounds and will make your Japanese much more efficient.