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.

Embracing Japanese Expression – Get Used to It 3

3. Causative Tense

This is one crazy-ass tense. Not only is it hard to figure out the meaning, it can even be hard to conjugate the verb. I find myself struggling with the Causative tense the most out of all of the ones listed in this article. One of the ways that I learned the meaning, though, is the following set phrase my teachers made us use in Japanese class:


We’ll break this one down slowly. Forget the と思います for now.

日本の経済について = about the Japanese economy

(If you haven’t learned the phrase について yet, congratulations, you just did. It means about. For example, ビールについての本 = a book about beer. )

発表する = to give a presentation

日本の経済について発表する = give a presentation about the Japanese economy

Now, let’s change that into the causative form:


This person is clearly very excited. He really wants someone to make him give a presentation about the Japanese economy. The other possible topics must be incredibly boring. The important thing to remember here is that the causative form does not only mean “make someone X.” It can also be “allow someone to X” or “let someone X.”

Add the いただきたい (I want to receive):
日本の経済について発表させていただきたい。 I want to receive someone allowing me to give a presentation about the Japanese economy.

Now let’s put that into normal English:

I’d like to give a presentation on the Japanese economy.

Yeah, a silly English phrase, and not one that we would use in English, but this is how Japanese people begin their presentations. Get used to it. The と思います can be considered an extension of いただきたい. You should really think of いただきたいと思います as nothing more than “I want to receive.” Sure, 思う means think sometimes, but it can also mean feel, which it does in this case. How does he feel? He feels as though he’d like to give a presentation about the Japanese economy. Again, this is the way they say things, get used to it.

Other phrases you’ll hear:

I will now introduce myself. / Please allow me to introduce myself.

And a useful way to call in sick:

I’m not feeling so hot today, please let me skip today.

Or if you wanted to include that lovely word 病休:

Please let me take byokyuu today.

Embracing Japanese Expression – Get Used to It 2

2. Passive Tense

Arguably, there is nothing more foreign to English speakers than the Japanese passive tense, but the sooner you learn to understand it and use it, the sooner you learn to take off your active tense floaties, the more comfortable you will be with the language. If you grew up as I did, you learned the iron-clad rule “AVOID THE PASSIVE TENSE!” It’s weak. It’s not strong. It’s passive. Well, forget that rule, because there is no rule against using the passive tense in Japanese.

Let’s start with a useful example: そう言われると、そうだよね。

This is the Japanese way of saying, “Now that you mention it…(you’re right! / that is true).”

Let’s look at what’s happening in the Japanese. Here’s the ugly (but occasionally useful) direct translation:

When such( I) am told, it is that way.

I have put the “I” in parenthesis because there is no pronoun in the Japanese. But this leaves someone missing – the person who is doing the telling. The most accurate way to direct translate this is: When such (I) am told (by you). But would anyone ever say anything like that in English? Absolutely not. If you tried to do a literal translation from English to Japanese of “Now that you mention it…” (Something along the lines of, “今あなたがそれを言うと、”), you’ll end up with something just as silly.

The other way you may hear this pattern is, そう言われてみれば、.

The other usage of the passive tense is to describe adverse circumstances – when shit goes wrong. Here’s an example that should be familiar to all elementary school teachers:

What’s wrong, Daniel?

A first-grader just kanchoed me!

Passive tense is very frequently used when something bad or unfortunate happens to you. If we add in all the people to the second sentence above, you get:

I was kanchoed by a first-grader unfortunately.

I’ve added the “unfortunately” to help express the adverse nature of the circumstance.

Now let’s make it even stronger. I mean, come on, a kid just stuck his fingers up your butt! You don’t want to just said, “First grader put fingers in my butt,” you want to be able to say, “Goddammit, that little fuck just stuck his fingers up my hairy asshole!”


しまった is the relatively mild exclamatory phrase which means something like, “Darn.” But change that to カンチョウされちゃった! , add a little grunt, and then you’ll be expressing some of that fervor! されちゃった is just the contracted form of されてしまう。

Embracing Japanese Expression – Get Used to It 1

This goes without saying, but Japanese is not English. The way people express things in Japanese is not the same way that people express them in English. Part of learning to speak Japanese is learning how to abandon your English and swim in the deep end without relying on direct translation.

In my experience, there have been certain patterns that took me a while to master, but once mastered, I felt as though I took a palpable step forwards – something clicked. Here they are from easiest to most difficult:

1)    Japanese Patterns of Giving and Receiving

2)    Passive Tense

3)    Causative

Now that I took the time to write out that impressive three-step list, I’ve realized that it looks exactly like an intermediate textbook, which many of you are familiar with. I, too, put in my time with the same textbooks, but it wasn’t until years later when something finally clicked for most of these patterns. Studying kanji, memorizing grammar patterns and vocab – none of it is going to help you figure out what these patterns mean.

The best way to learn them is by learning contextual phrases, memorizing them, and then forcing yourself to use them. Eventually you’ll be able to triangulate a meaning for yourself. I want to give you some examples and explanations of the contexts. Hopefully they’ll help your Japanese become slightly more intricate and subtle.

1. Patterns of Giving and Receiving

I brought in a pumpkin to my elementary school for Halloween. Initially I was going to buy it myself, but a junior high school teacher helped get the BOE to purchase it for me. One of the elementary school teachers asked me if I bought it myself:

Ano kabocha, jibun de katta no?

And I replied that I hadn’t, that I got the BOE to buy it for me:

I could have just as easily said, いいえ、教育委員会が買った。(Iie, kyouikuiinkai ga katta.) but that is a little simple. Sure, the BOE bought it…but then why the hell do I have it? By using one of these 買ってくれた or 買ってもらった, I make my answer a little more specific – they bought it for me.

The trickiest part of もらう and くれる is keeping track of the subject. In the above example, if you simplify it, this is what happens:

僕がもらう        I receive.
教育委員会がくれる      The BOE gives.

が marks the subject and に will mark the other person involved in the exchange:

Now what exactly are they giving? They are giving a gerund, actually:

僕が教育委員会に買ってもらった。 I received the buying (of something) from the BOE.
教育委員会が僕に買ってくれた。 The BOE gave the buying (of something) to me.

Now, change that from dumb-dumb English into normal English and you get:

I got the BOE to buy (something) for me.
The BOE bought (something) for me.

And if you change it from dumb-dumb Japanese (dumb-dumb Japanese being Japanese where you include all of the subjects, objects and indirect objects – the Japanese are very efficient and use as few words as possible, that is unless they are being polite, which is an entirely different post) into normal Japanese you get:


Either one will answer the lady’s question – all she wants to know is who the hell bought the thing. It wasn’t me, so I’d better emphasize who did the buying, although with subtle Japanese I can explain that they bought that shit for me.