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.

2 thoughts on “Embracing Japanese Expression 2

  1. Some comments from facebook:

    Ingve said:

    「But what about 行ったって ? That should make it clear that “she said she went”, whereas 行ったそうです is closer to “I heard that she went” or “apparently she went”.」

    And I replied:

    「This is definitely true. って is far more commonly used to express the fact that someone said something, but I’m not sure if there’s a polite alternative to it besides 〜そうです, so in some cases, the polite cases, it could be translated either way perhaps?

    行ったって is sooo nice and efficient, by the way.」

  2. More from facebook.

    Chris commented:

    “Wouldn’t 行ったみたい rank somewhere between 行ったって and 行ったそうですin terms of politeness?”

    And I replied:

    “I don’t want to write too much about this here because I’ve been planning on writing a big post about らしい, みたい, よう and そう – these are hard to get sorted, and I’ve decided to take care of it once and for all.

    みたい implies more of a guess on the speaker’s part and less direct reporting. It’s definitely somewhere between the two in terms of politeness.”

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