Cool Phrase – ご無沙汰

ご無沙汰しています! I was in the Japan Times last week and this week looking at correspondence, letters and emails respectively:

‘Tis the season for ‘tegami’ — and for facing your Japanese letter-writing fears


To email in Japanese, take a layer cake of etiquette and stuff it with meaning.”

There is so much more I have to say about both of these topics that I couldn’t squeeze into the articles and unfortunately I don’t have time to write at greater length at the moment, but I do want to point out (sadly) how useful ご無沙汰 (gobusata) is as a potential correspondent.

I’ve known how to use this phrase for a while but was not familiar with the origin, so I looked for Yahoo Chiebukuro (of course), and it has a straightforward post that seems to make sense with some of the Japanese dictionaries that I’ve checked against – 沙汰 became news, notification, report, and 無 reflected a lack of such reportage, thus, “I apologize for not being in touch.” This post has a useful explanation of the difference with 久しぶり and also introduces the cool word 音沙汰 (otosata) as well as a few set ways to use ご無沙汰.

I hate to post and run, but I’ll have to get into further details in the future.

取り急ぎ (Another phrase I wanted to introduce!)

Yahoo Chiebukuro Deep Cuts – わいせつ


This post is belated, but I was in the Japan Times last week with an article about the kind of language used to translate Trump into Japanese: “Japanese translators forced to grab the Trump bull by the horns.”

I feel like this piece could have been stronger if I had been paying closer attention the whole way through, but unfortunately I hadn’t. I spend most of my time at work reading about politics and didn’t have the energy to do more in Japanese when I got home. So I was forced to upload as many Japanese sources as I could in a single weekend after I pitched the column to my editor.

Fortunately I’d had the insight to listen to that first NHK Radio podcast which, combined with the email, from my host mom gave me the introduction I needed to carry me through an article that makes sense, hopefully. Got some good comments, which is always nice!

A couple notes:

1. わいせつ (waisetsu, obscene/obscenity) is an interesting word that was combined not only with 発言 (hatsugen, remark) as mentioned in my article, but also 行為 (kōi, act), as Toranpu went on to be accused by several women. A quick search on Twitter for トランプ and わいせつ gives you a pretty interesting play-by-play of how it all went down. (On a side note, I really wish Twitter searches had Google-like controls, such as specifying date ranges.) Here are a few interesting tweets I came across:トランプ%E3%80%80わいせつ&src=typd

Looking at the translation of “pussy”:

Random Twitter punditry:

An alternative for ロッカールームトーク:

How one website translated “totally made up nonsense”:

Japanese are amused by strange English:

2. わいせつ is also notable for being used exclusively in hiragana. This seems related to the definition of the jōyō kanji, which is connected to Japanese legal language. There’s a closer look at the kanji themselves at this link.

I knew there would be a Yahoo Chiebukuro entry related to this word, but I had no idea that it would be as epic as this page.

The questioner asks how to write ワイセツ in kanji and what it means. The best (and only) answer does provide the requested information (猥褻, vulgar/obscene), but then goes on to be kind of a dick and ask why the person couldn’t find the information on their own: これは、携帯で変換したらでてきませんか? (Couldn’t you convert [these kana] with your cell phone?) And then…これも、ググれば、辞典で出てきませんか? (If you had googled this, wouldn’t it come up in a dictionary?)

(Deep aside: Note the most excellent ググれば [If you googled] above!)

The answerer goes on to give a lengthy supplement about what exactly consists of a わいせつ act and what the punishments are under the law.

But the crowning jewel of this crazy post is the questioner’s follow up:


Translation: “My reply is late. I’m sorry. I’d gotten wrapped up in the categories for figurines. Thank you.”

Translation implication: This guy was trying to categorize his anime figures, wanted to know how to write “obscene” in kanji so he could properly categorize his dirty figures, gave up when he realized it was a difficult task, and opted to crowdsource on Yahoo?

The world may never know.

あかん and 中

I’m in The Japan Times again this week: “‘Thursday Night Football’ NFL draws Friday morning tweeters in Japan.”

I can’t recommend Thursday Night Football on Twitter highly enough. The Japanese tweets are hilarious, and watching them reload beneath the live feed of the game is like mainlining casual, native Japanese. Get some this week and seven other times this year. Check out the schedule. I’m looking forward to the November 17 game because it features my hometown Saints against division rivals the Carolina Panthers.

Two additional points from the article:


1. Origin of あかん

While researching the piece, I started looking into the 語源 (gogen, etymology) of あかん. Like Roy from Mutantfrong Travelogue, I always thought it was a 行かない—>行かん—>あかん progression:

But all the dictionaries point to the phrase 埒が明かぬ (rachi ga akanu, make no progress, not settle). Roy was not convinced and suggested this was a false etymology. He also dug up this great blog post, which is recommended reading:

2. 中 verbs

I wanted to add a little section to the article about additional verbs that work well with 中, but I didn’t have the time or wordspace left. The tweet in the article uses 観戦中, but I can think up the following off the top of my head (with native Japanese examples found in the links):

作成中 (sakusei chū, creating, Tweet)
執筆中 (shippitsu chū, writing, Tweet; this one also seems to get used frequently in Twitter usernames as a way to say what someone is working on)
鑑賞中 (kanshō chū, watching/enjoying, Tweet)
昼寝中 (hirune chū, napping, Tweet)
勉強中 (benkyō chū, studying, Tweet)
検討中 (kentō chū, looking into/considering, Tweet; Be sure to read through the entirety of the epic three-day Twitter conversation between those two friends…very funny with lots of tangents involving Doraemon, dorayaki, and 顔文字)

Got any to add? Put them in the comments (with a link to a tweet or the usage online somewhere) and I’ll add them above!

Deep Dives

I’m in the Japan Times this week with a look at using Wikipedia for anguish practice…er, reading practice: “Wikipedia ‘deep dives’ can help recreate the joys and pains of Japanese-language immersion.”

This is an exercise I’ve done in the past, but I think playing the game for the JT resulted in some pretty nice material to look at.

The textbook thing, of course, pops up in the news every now and then, but it was very funny to read about the Textbook Bribery Incident and how it was uncovered.

And I was thrilled to have an excuse to revisit Adam’s amazing trek of abandoned rail lines in Hokkaido. It makes me want to do a similar trip of my own, but I’m still lame from my surgery. It will be another 6-8 weeks before I’m back to normal, but I at least don’t have to wear my brace 24/7 anymore.

This gives me a good excuse to embed all the videos here. I’m always so impressed with his video editing skills. Crack open some beers and kick your feet up; these are longwatches:

And apropos of nothing, this week’s piece is my 32nd Bilingual column for the JT! I missed the even, diez-divisible anniversary two articles ago, so I thought I’d take a quick moment to pause and say…damn, I can’t believe I put out that many articles! Thanks as always for reading and commenting. If you have any questions or suggestions for topics, I’d be glad to hear them.

I missed the Murakami Fest post last week due to being busy with freelance work, but I have a big post that I should be able to put up later this week before we hit October, so keep an eye out for that.

Into the benkyō-ness: Let us now praise difficult kanji

kanji practice

I have an article in the Japan Times today: “Complicated characters: Let us now praise difficult kanji.”

This column was inspired by two of my biggest Japanese-related realizations of all time:

1. Katakana are not inherently more difficult than hiragana.

2. Kanji are not more difficult than English words.

I think everyone comes to understand these at some point, if they study long enough, but it’s always useful to review them.

I wrote more in depth about the first a few years ago (jeez, five years ago). Students of Japanese usually start with hiragana, then go on to katakana and kanji. They learn the pronunciation of all the individual katakana, but because there are comparatively fewer katakana words, they don’t get enough reps with any to really let them sink in. Whenever they do encounter them, they end up sounding out the syllables one at a time, wondering why the script is so difficult.

By contrast, they see 勉強 so much in the first few months, that it turns into what it should be: A gestalt larger than the individual parts. The kanji are still there, if you look closely enough (and within the kanji, the strokes), but dial back your focus, and they disappear into the benkyō-ness.

My recommendation to new students of the language: Don’t learn the hiragana or katakana individually. Just start memorizing whole words. I mean, I guess you need to do them individually at some point in order to learn how to write them, but I would recommend adding large katakana words to your flashcards or SRS software immediately. カレー, ラーメン, パソコン, all of these will be far more useful than the individual katakana.

The second realization may still be up for debate. I think Japanese and foreigners who study the language both enjoy contributing to the myth that Japanese is “the most difficult language in the world.” A good portion of this myth is supported by the sheer numbers: Japanese has THREE written “languages” and there are TWO THOUSAND kanji. Saying something like English has TWENTY-SIX letters just doesn’t feel as hefty in comparison. The fact that kanji are pictographs also contributes: My god, man, they look so damn complicated! How do you even deal with a language that isn’t phonetic?

But this assumes two things:

1. Two thousand characters allow for more combinations (and more difficult combinations) than twenty-six letters.

2. Being able to pronounce a word is equivalent to knowing what it means.

1 may seem true at first, but when you consider the fact that most kanji compounds only have two characters (and the longer ones can be broken down into sets of two), whereas the average English word is 5.1 letters, the playing field levels a bit. (Based on this website which gives Japanese an average word length of over 34…clearly mistaken since it acknowledges at the top that its calculation is based on languages with spaces.)

Japanese words look like this: __ __, with roughly two thousand possibilities for each space.

English words look like this: __ __ __ __ __, with twenty-six possibilities for each space.

2000 x 2000 = 2,000,000

26 to the power of 5 = 11,881,376

Obviously, there aren’t that many words in either language, but this is just a quick calculation that can hopefully put things in perspective: English words are equally complex as kanji.

And they are also equally simple. Take, for example, antidisestablishmentarianism. When I was in 3rd Grade, this was the word to know, for whatever reason. I guess when you’re ten years old, it’s really cool to know long words that seem complicated.

At the time, it seemed like one massive thing, but when I look at it now, it looks like kanji to me. Rather than being a gestalt or a string of individual letters, I see little packets of information: anti-, dis-, establishment, -arian, -ism.

Theoretically, you don’t even need to know how to pronounce these to know their meaning. They provide a visual way to break down the word, to a certain extent (if you are familiar with them). Which is another advantage to kanji: Because the pieces contain more information in and of themselves—is it safe to say that 義 holds more information on its own than -ism?—you have an additional method to gain information from the pieces, independent of their pronunciation.

Just because we English speakers don’t spend time in school learning these packets in the same way that Japanese students tackle kanji (lots of repetition required to master the ability to write the individual units) doesn’t mean that English is easier. They just require different strategies.

That’s all well and good, you might say, but give us something prescriptive, Morales! Well, the best I can do is these two pieces of advice:

1. Start reading in context as soon as you can. This will force you to look at kanji as compounds rather than individual characters.

2. When you are practicing your kanji composition, practice writing compounds or short phrases rather than individual kanji. This will hopefully serve to embed the idea that the whole is more important than the parts. For an example of this, see the image at the top of the post: These are my notebooks from study for the JLPT Level 1 test.

And if you haven’t yet, you must read “Kanji as Argo,” over at No-Sword, an amazing take on studying kanji that emphasizes number 1. The money quote:

…if you were learning French, you wouldn’t refuse to look at a French book at all until you’d memorized all possible verb conjugation patterns. (If that was the standard approach, no-one would ever read any French books at all—not even the French.)

Japanese Adverb POWER RANKINGS


I have a new column up on the Japan Times: “Particles create the chemistry of adjectives and adverbs.”

I actually drafted a blog post along these lines (with the whole chemistry analogy) way, way, waaay back in the day (when I was posting thrice weekly) but lost it to a hard drive crash. I remembered it recently because I was thinking about おいしく.

I loved the way that my roommate used the word—I don’t think I’d ever heard it used that way before. A quick Google search shows 4 million plus hits for おいしそうに and only 618,000 for おいしく, so it is somewhat odd/infrequently used. Each of those could technically be translated as “deliciously,” depending on the context.

This all inspired me to put together a quick power rankings of Japanese adverbs. Here you have it:

5. 悔しく
4. 適当に
3. 早く
2. おいしく
1. ちょっと

I assume that 悔しく gets used? It’s one of my favorite adjectives, so I put it on the list. 適当に is another fave, and I’ve written about it in the past. 早く takes third mostly because I was imagining a whiny kid saying 母ーさん、早く〜(HAyaKUUUU). おいしく is wonderful, as I previously mentioned.

I think the reason why おいしく and perhaps 悔しく are so interesting as adverbs is that as adjectives they are more “performative” rather than “descriptive.” 悔しい is what someone says when something sucked. おいしい is what someone says when something is delicious. They are connected equally (if not more so) with the state of the partaker as with that of which is partaken; in other words, how the partaker feels having partaken (in something delicious or a shitty experience).

Other adjectives such as 暑い, 遅い, 静か, etc. are more objective and relate to the object only. Adjectives don’t always work this way in English: Saying “that was delicious,” while equally subjective, feels closer to my bowl of ramen than うまい or おいしい does. …if that makes any sense.

Of course, only ちょっと can be the number one. I love it because of its frequency and variety of use and because it is one exception to the beautiful uniformity of く and に adverbs.

Are there any others that I’m missing?