Cool Kanji – 縁


I learned this kanji in Tokushima at a jazz bar. It was a bar in one of those buildings with several different bars packed onto each floor. A man got on the elevator just before I did and held the door for me. Turns out he was going to the same bar I was. There was hardly anyone in the bar – only a few others who turned out to be the band that was playing that night – so we talked for a while, and he told me how surprised he was that I ended up going into the same bar he did. It also happened that he owned a bar himself, so he invited me to stop by and booze a bit the next night. He said that the random chance that we went into the same bar was 何かの縁, which I like to translate as “some kind of connection/fate.” The usage is with 〜ある, so 何かの縁がある.

It has a host of other meanings – relation, connection, ties, fate, destiny, marriage, conjugal relations, chance. A very multifaceted kanji. It has the thread thingy on the left and reminds me of 緑(みどり) and 豚(ぶた).

One of the simplest usages is 縁を結ぶ (えんをむすぶ) – to form a connection with.

The 新明解 (しんめいかい), a famous Japanese dictionary, lists the fate definition as the first one and also notes that it comes from Buddhist philosophy. It gives two examples:

前世の縁(ぜんせのえん)- a connection with/to a past life

妙な縁で彼に会う(みょうなえんでかれにあう)-  (I/he/she/they/we) meet him by a strange turn of fate

Friday Puzzle – Bugs are Fantastic

This is a phrase that a sixth grader said to me once:


Your mission, should you choose to accept it:

– explain the meaning of this phrase
– attempt to guess the context in which it was said

The prize if you win? One can of 100% barley malt beer – e.g. Ebisu, Suntory Malts, Asahi Premium.

Please do not post your answer in the comments. Send it to me via email or facebook. My email address is るぱんさんせい (romanized) at-mark gmail dot com.

More Notes on the Appear-ative Tense

The last post was a bit long, so I split it into two. I want to talk about more about the use of this tense in verbs.

My instinct tells me that it is used more often with the potential form of verbs than with the dictionary form.

(Quick potential review:

食べる        食べられる        can/is able to eat
行く            行ける            can/is able to go
する            できる            can/is able to do

Here is a comparison:

食べそう        appear to eat
行きそう        appear to go
しそう          appear to do

食べられそう    appear to be able to eat
行けそう        appear to be able to go
できそう        appear to be able to do

With the dictionary forms, it’s difficult (for me at least) to think up examples. I mean, either the person is or isn’t eating or doing whatever it is they are eating or doing. It’s a very objective judgment.

With the potential, on the other hand, you are making a subjective judgment about what someone (either yourself or someone else) appears able to do. I mean, sure, you’ve eaten twenty hot dogs before in an eating contest, and now, looking at the plate of twenty-five in front of you, it doesn’t look so bad, right? You could probably eat twenty-five. While you think you can eat twenty-five, you want to express a bit of that doubt and subjective judgment:


In English, I might be comfortable translating this to the Thomas the Train Engine “I think I can.” In English “I think…” is often used to express the fact that you subjectively believe something to be true but are slightly unsure. It’s used this way in Japanese too, but perhaps not as often. And this tense is less hefty than attaching a big fat 〜と思います to the end of whatever it is you are out there thinking subjectively.

The Appear-ative Tense

Big-balled Japanese Mammal

Here’s a funny story. On the night of the Shiokawa Fireworks Festival, I was driving from Shiokawa to Nishiaizu through Yamato and Takasato. For those who don’t know, the roads that go through Yamato and Takasato are mostly unlit mountain roads. As I came over one hill, a bigass tanuki appeared in the road. I was going reasonably fast for the road – 60 or 70 km/h – but I figured I was still far enough from the animal for him to move out of the way. He took his sweet time, however, and I realized I was going to hit the fucker! I slammed on the brakes and swerved, just barely missing him…I think. I didn’t hear any strange noises, so I don’t think I killed him. But it was really closed. I almost killed him.

The next day at school I was drinking tea with the office ladies and told them this story using the Japanese phrase 「ほとんど殺した。」, a direct translation of the English, which induced laughter in all Japanese present. I quickly realized the mistake but also realized that I didn’t know how to say what I wanted to say – I didn’t kill the tanuki but it was goddamn close. The phrase 「ほとんど殺した。」implies that I beat the tanuki to a bloody pulp but spared the poor, big-balled mammal’s life at the last moment. (If you think about it, this is true of the English, too: “I almost killed him.”)

Apparently, the way to express this is 殺しそうになった。

This is the other usage of そう, which describes the way something looks or appears. It’s often used with adjectives. You’re all probably familiar with these two:

うまい        うまそう        Looks/appears tasty.
おいしい     おいしそう      Looks/appears delicious.

So you can probably figure out what these mean:

危ない        危なそう
難しい        難しそう
暑い           暑そう

This pattern can be difficult to remember and difficult to say. I think the best way to think about it is to consider it an actual conjugation of the adjective, the Appear-ative tense if you will. If, for example, you learned this conjugation from the very beginning along with something like the past tense, wouldn’t it be easier to remember?

That would give us a small list like this:

Present             おいしい
Past                 おいしかった
Negative           おいしくない
Negative Past     おいしくなかった
Appear-ative      おいしそう

There would then be two things you need to remember about this conjugation. It differs from other conjugations in that to make it past tense, you must attach a copula – でしたor だった. The other is that it is a な-nominal – when you modify a noun with it, you must connect it to the noun with な, just as you would with words like 有名, 静か and 貧乏 (Look ‘em up!).

Consider the following:

うまそうなラーメン        tasty-looking ramen

暑そうな砂漠                hot-looking desert

難しそうな試験             difficult-looking test

When you have these in a sentence, you’ll find you won’t need hyphenated adjectives as much:

あのラーメン、うまそうだろう!    Damn that ramen looks tasty!

やばい。この試験、難しそう。        Crap. This test looks hard.

Okay, so that’s how adjectives work, but you can also use this tense with verbs:

食べる    食べそう     appear to eat
行く        行きそう    appear to go

Let’s check ALC and see if it has any example sentences for us:

Whoa, she looks like she’s going to a party or something.

This is clearly a spoken sentence, and that’s important in this case, because it’s clear that the speaker is actually looking at this woman who is all hooched up – she is in a figure/appearance (格好、かっこう) that looks like she is going somewhere, specifically a “party or something” – and decided to vocalize surprise at the woman’s hooched-up-edness to the person standing next to her.

Back to the homework sentence. Let’s look at a verb chart for 殺す which means to kill.

Present                        殺す                Kill
Past                            殺した              Killed
Present Progressive        殺している        Is killing
Past Progressive            殺していた        Was killing
Desire                         殺したい           Want to kill
Potential                       殺せる             Can kill

Appear-ative                殺しそう            Looks like x is going to kill


So, now we understand the first part of the sentence. It’s un-subjected in the Japanese, so it’s clearly “I.” But we also have ~になる, to become, in past tense form, so the sentence literally  means: “(I) became so that I looked like I was going to kill (the tanuki) (with my brand new car) (in the mountains between Nishiaizu and Kitakata).”

Not exactly the way we say things in English, but a very economical and accurate way of expressing the fact that I almost ran over (almost killed) a tanuki.

Robin was the closest with his guess, ‘A kid was being a little shit and you were "this close to killing him",’ as it correctly expressed the fact that I was close to killing something. So the beer goes to Robin.

Many people incorrectly answered using the Desire conjugation. Let it be known that I had no desire to kill the poor tanuki.

Cool Kanji – 号

This kanji has to be high on the list of most underrated kanji. This is one of the ones that you learn early on (due to the fact that it’s in the word for number – 番号) but never fully appreciate until you get to the intermediate/advanced stages of study. That’s the point where you start to hear ごう interspersed throughout all different sorts of conversations.

For example, I have very vivid memories of the feeling I had when someone first said to me, 「よんじゅうきゅうごうせんにのって、ひがしへいって...」I give it to you in hiragana so that you can experience it as I did. “ごう?” I remember thinking to myself and then it came to me, 「49号線に乗って、東へ行って...」It was marking the road number.

Being able to use this kanji appropriately will make you sound much more natural in Japanese. People would understand you if you said just 49, the number of the highway that runs East to West from Iwaki to Niigata, but it’s far more natural to add 号線.

Here are some more useful compounds:

〜(番)号室    Room number (I believe the 番 is optional)

〜号棟        Building number (one of several buildings)

〜号車    Car number (of a train – check your next shinkansen ticket and you’ll see this)

〜号        Used for names of ships (e.g. the Titanic – タイタニック号 – or the Colombia space shuttle – コロンビア号)

007号        Special Agent double oh seven

号外    Special edition of a newspaper (literally “outside the standard count”)

称号(しょうごう)degree, as in BA (文学士の) or BS (理学士の), which seem to be shortened to 学士号 frequently

This is also one of the very first kanji I made a mental image for to help me remember it. Allow me to show off my Photoshop skills:

Here’s the kanji alone.

Give it a hat.

Then a jaw.

A crazy eyeball.

Flappy tongue.

And some flecks of spit and, voila, you have yourself a drill sergeant.


And now you will never forget that this kanji is pronounced ごう.

小学校卒業式 Bonus Post – かわいそう

Today was the graduation / term end ceremony at elementary schools across Japan. A class of fourth graders who I’ve taught for the past three years made me a book of notes. My favorite comment so far is the following, from one of my favorite little kids who is a legendary banana thief:


かわいそう is a phrase that I remember hearing for a long, long time before I ever really got a sense of what it meant. I remember thinking, Is this person really saying that person is cute? Well, clearly that’s not what it means.  (For any kanji students taking notes: かわいい = 可愛い ; かわいそう = 可哀想 or 可哀相; and, yes, you actually see shit like that in shosetsu).

It’s a difficult phrase to translate into English, and it often ends up as words like pathetic, piteous, miserable, or wretched, all of which seem far to harsh. This is a situation where it’s useful to consult a Japanese dictionary and check the definition in Japanese.
That gives us:


I’ll tell you right away, I have no idea what 逆境 means (although I did know the pronunciation – ぎゃっきょう), but it doesn’t really matter – the basic meaning comes through. It is being in the state of feeling as though you want to help someone in a weak or 逆境 position if possible.

Now, rather than finding a specific word to translate it into, what would you say in English if you were feeling like that and decided to vocalize these feelings? I can think of at least one:

“Aww…that poor little puppy.”

“Poor” would be listed as one of the possible translations, but I think the tone of the sentence would better express the meaning of かわいそう – a tone that would express sympathy and an honest desire to help the puppy. And I’m not referring to the tone of this sentence if it were being said by a person in the military about to throw the puppy off a cliff. That would most definitely not be かわいそう. That would be pathetic and miserable.

So this sentence really means something like this:

“It’s great that Daniel-sensei is tall, but it’s too bad he can’t fit into small places.”

かわいそう is a great way to express true sympathy for something you feel for. It definitely has a bit of wabi-sabi wrapped up into it, which makes it even more expressive. Plus, it’s hilarious that I can’t fit into small spaces.

Doubtful Heart, Dark Demons

One of the most difficult things about learning another language can be finding an easy way to express ideas that seem simple in your mother tongue. It can be frustrating to learn that there isn’t a one-to-one ratio for every English adjective and verb.

One of the parts of Japanese that seems especially complicated is the four-character compound (四字熟語、よじじゅくご). This is because they are often idiomatic (一石二鳥、いっせきにちょう), and many idioms don’t translate as neatly as those poor dead birds.

I just learned one recently that’s very easy to remember and expresses what seems like a comparatively simple concept in English. 疑心暗鬼(ぎしんあんき)means paranoid. It’s often used like an adjective (彼は疑心暗鬼だ。) or in combination with ~になる(疑心暗鬼になる。).

Here’s the character by character breakdown:

疑 – suspicious, doubtful
心 – heart
暗 – dark
鬼 – monster

It isn’t the official way to say paranoia (which is 被害妄想、ひがいもうそう), so it can also be translated as “suspicious,” “wary,” or “fearful,” but it’s by far the coolest way to express this idea.

Kenkyusha’s New Japanese-English Dictionary (“The Green Goddess”) provides a most excellent translation – “Fear peoples the darkness with monsters.”

An Experience with Maybe

The first time I came to Japan I did a summer internship at a propeller company. That’s right, a company that makes propellers of varying sizes for boats. Small ones, medium ones, and giant fuck-all ones.

Fortunately they also had a medical division that made artificial joints and a design division that made ceramic lights. I worked with the latter, helping to make English pamphlets, teaching English after work, doing a small amount of “market research,” and trying as hard as possible not to get in the way.

At the end of my two months I had to give a final report. I talked about all the possibilities of ceramic lights in the US. Maybe they could do this, maybe they could do that. Maybe you could try and sell through this magazine. Maybe you could sell through that website.

Afterwards I spoke with the youngest of the group, the person I was closest with, and asked her how it sounded. “Really negative,” she told me bluntly. I was shocked. These were the eight people I knew the best in all of Japan, and I had just told them, take your ceramic lights and shove them! Not so explicitly of course.

The pattern I was using – have you guessed it yet? – is ~かもしれない. This, I had been taught, is a way to express something that might occur. And it is, most definitely, but it has a very distinguishable negative tinge to it that I didn’t fully comprehend until that moment.

Try a quick search of かもしれない on Here are the first ten results:

– teenage years might be bad
– people might not sign up for something
– conventional wisdom may not apply
– someone might fucking disappear
– something might be indiscrete
– someone might have seen two cars but isn’t sure because there was crazy shit happening
– something might help in the fight against metastasis
– a store might lose a customer
– some country might attack Iraq (guess that isn’t so maybe anymore, right?)
– smoking could cause fatal illness

Not a single happy thing in the top ten. No maybe getting laid. No maybe finding 100 dollars on the ground. And sure as hell no maybe selling millions of ceramic lights in America.

Probability is still something that gives me fits in Japanese, but I know exactly when to use ~かもしれない.

A couple of good examples:

事故があったかもしれません。    Maybe there was an accident.

A: 来ないかもしれない               He might not come.
B:残念!来てほしかったな。    Damn! I was hoping he’d come.

And here’s one I think I used in my introduction speech on the very first day of classes at the junior high school in town:


I may look a little scary, but I’m actually a very nice person, so please say hello.

Quick Notes

A few quick notes:

– Barring grievous bodily injury, this blog will be a 月火水 affair.

– I’m importing this blog into facebook, so I may take the freedom to cross-post comments that are helpful. The url if you’re interested and reading on facebook is .

– This blog grew out of two articles I wrote for the FUJET newsletter. I re-published these articles as the first four entries, hence all the mentioning of "monthly" and homework and whatnot.

– Let me know if there’s anything you’d like to read about. 

Cool Kanji – 鰐




This is one of my all time favorite kanji. I first learned it in Beppu where they have these things they call “hells.” They are like onsen but much hotter and are different colors. There’s a dozen or so of them and they vary in terms of respectability. The worst one houses something like 100 alligators. They’re all cooped up, piled on top of each other and forced to swim in their own shit all day long. There’s a sign that says something stupid like, “Hot springs provide a tropical atmosphere perfect for raising crocodiles!” Boo.


The kanji itself, though, is great. It’s fish on the left and then that thingy on the right, which I always recognize from the word for jaw – 顎. So, you can remember it as a fish with a big-ass jaw – alligator. It almost looks like the part on the right is trying to eat the fish part…as a crocodile would.