More Thoughts on Chinese Compounds

Another cool compound that I saw in China was 超市. Any idea what it means?


Yup…it means supermarket. It’s a literal translation from the English – 超, literally meaning super or very; and 市, which means market. Not only did this remind me of what a marketing knock-out the term supermarket is in English, it also reminded me a lot of old timey kanji compounds in Japan.

For example:



Can you read them? The first is pronounced コーヒー and the second is pronounced タバコ. That’s right, they are the kanji for coffee and cigarettes. The first has kanji that were chosen to fit the sounds コーヒー, and the second literally means "smoking grass." There are a bunch of these katakana words that have kanji which are no longer used very often. You’ll occasionlly see coffee kanji on the signs of coffee shops because it looks cool, and actually, now that I think about it, the kanji for cigarettes is used quite frequently, but many aren’t used that much.

I found a few others I didn’t know about here (under section 5.2.5 and again under section 7), which is actually a pretty interesting site. Funny enough, one of the words listed is クラブ, which uses the kanji 倶楽部. I’d seen that compound around pretty frequently over the last few months, and even once while I was in China (although the middle character was simplified), but I couldn’t figure out the pronunciation. I had approximated the meaning, but didn’t know that it meant club. Pretty cool stuff.

A couple more cool compounds…I’ll give the answers in the comments:




Dragonwell Tea

Hi, I‘m was in China still.

I have a small confession to make. I prefer Chinese tea to Japanese tea. I like the fact that they use whole leaves, whereas in Japan the leaves are often cut, giving the tea that cloudy coloring.

One of my favorite kinds of tea is Dragonwell, a high quality green tea. The name in kanji is 龍井 – literally dragon-well. I wondered for a long time what the Japanese pronunciation was, but didn’t find out until I went to Chinatown one time. The Japanese reading is ロンジン. Anyone know how close that is to the original Chinese? It’s actually a fairly accurate representation of the Chinese word.

(Side note: this week is a small ode to China. Actual Japanese language stuff should restart on Friday. I have a cool puzzle I got while I was in China.) 

Pub Hotel?

I went to China with my girlfriend to attend a wedding and brought a set of wine glasses for the bride and groom. We also wanted to get them a bottle of booze but failed to plan ahead. The champagne at duty free was too expensive, so we looked for a bottle once we got to China. We got in late on Friday and didn’t have a chance to look around, so Saturday morning we were pleasantly surprised to see a building right next to us with a big name in kanji on the top; it ended with the two-character word 酒店. Nice, we thought, and headed over to see what the selection was like, but when we went into the building all we found was a lobby and reception.

Turns out, 酒店 is Chinese for hotel (loosely pronounced jo-dien). I thought that was interesting. Kind of the opposite of the Aussie "hotel pub," which confused the hell out of me when I went to Sydney. 

Cool Kanji – 中


I’m in was in China for a week. Hopefully I’ll be able to publish these prewritten posts in a timely manner.

As a dedication to the Middle Kingdom, this week’s kanji is 中, pronounced ちゅう or なか.

A couple of very useful phrases with 中 are:

Xの中(なか)では、〜 Within/Among the category X,

Of all the countries I’ve been to, I have the most interest in Japan.

X中(ちゅう) where X can be nearly any two-character compound that can act as a verb. For example:

実施中 (じっしちゅう) something is underway (e.g. a sale, campaign, experiment)
勉強中 (べんきょうちゅう) someone is studying
就職活動中 (しゅうしょくかつどうちゅう) someone is looking for a job
募集中 (ぼしゅうちゅう) someone is looking for something
受付中 (うけつけちゅう) reception is open for something (e.g. applications, orders)

This is a quick way to describe what state something or someone is in (“amidst” if you want to try and associate it with the 中). Another example: I am currently was 旅行中 and you are were 仕事中 (although this last one sounds slightly fishy to me).

Sincere Apologies

While I managed to hike 10 kilometers of the actual Great Wall, I was unable to overcome the Great Firewall of China, and therefore unable to update How to Japanese over the past week. As an apology, I’ll try to do a post a day for this week starting shortly after this post.

Friday Puzzle – Momentarily HUH? Again!

Due to the paucity of puzzle submissions (I only received one) and due to the fact that I can’t be asked to write a puzzle on the day that I’m leaving for China, I’m going to extend last week’s puzzle for another week. Get back to work, ya phargin bastiges!

For those who can’t be asked to scroll down, the puzzle is here.

Also, I plan on posting the answer to this puzzle on April 26, a Saturday, so you have another full week to think about it. 

Reading a Japanese Dictionary – A Fist Not Full of Donuts

One way to make the huge jump between being an intermediate and an advanced student of Japanese is to try to rely less and less on English. This is not going to help your ability to translate into English, but that’s not the goal. The goal is to jettison English all together and become able to communicate in Japanese alone, and if you can start defining new words in terms of things you already know, using a Japanese dictionary, you will rapidly be able to increase your comprehension.

I’m going to give you an example. Here is a four-character compound: 慇懃無礼. I can’t remember where I first learned it. I have a feeling I read it in a story somewhere.

When I read it, I looked it up in a Japanese dictionary, thought the definition would prove an interesting example to dissect, so I pasted the definition in my “to write about” list.

At this point in time, I don’t know the pronunciation of the whole thing, nor do I know the meanings of the first two characters. The last two characters are pronounced ぶれい and mean “rude” or something like that. Now, here’s what the dictionary told me:

慇懃無礼 〔名・形動〕表面はきわめて丁寧だが、実は横柄であること。「−な態度」

As in English, the first thing the dictionary is going to tell you is the part of speech. Here is a list of Japanese parts of speech:

名詞(めいし)– noun

動詞(どうし)– verb

形容詞(けいようし)– adjective

副詞(ふくし)– adverb

接続詞(せつぞくし)– conjunction

前置詞(ぜんちし)– preposition

助詞(じょし)– particle

So, 〔名・形動〕shows us that this compound can either be a noun or an adjective…I think. To be completely honest, I’m not sure what 形動 means at the time of writing, but it looks like adjective to me.

Now, let’s skip to the end for a minute. 「−な態度」shows us exactly what kind of noun/adjective it will be. It is showing us that it modifies another word via 〜な, just as 静か、貧乏、and 有名  (look ‘em up!) do.

One more step back and we see that the actual definition itself ends in こと. This, simply, is a word used to nominalize (turn into a nominal/noun) whatever comes before it. It’s basically an ~ing, but you need to get comfortable thinking of it separate from English. It is a こと, that’s it.

Now for the meat of the definition: 表面はきわめて丁寧だが、実は横柄である.

Let’s space it out a bit for beginners: 表面 は きわめて 丁寧 だが、実は 横柄 である.

I knew the meaning of all but one of the words, so it wasn’t too difficult for me to understand, but I’ll give you a moment to look up all those words.


表面 means surface, 丁寧 means polite, and きわめて modifies polite. Perhaps you’ll recognize きわめて if I give it to you in kanji? 極めて. Ring any bells? That’s correct – it means “extremely,” so the first clause of our definition means, “The surface is extremely polite.” (I know I’m being a bit hypocritical here by actually translating it for you when I previously said that you shouldn’t be translating, but for the purposes of showing you how I utilized this dictionary, I think it’s okay, and it would be rude for me to say, yup, there it is, go look it up, dumbass.)

だが is the connection between the two clauses and it means but or however. 実は means actually, and I’m honestly not sure what 横柄 means, but I do recognize the kanji. The first, pronounced よこ, you may recognize from the city Yokohama. It means side. The second is pronounced がら, and I recognize it from the word 人柄, which, I think, means personality or something like “type of person.”

So let’s think about what we do know: we know that this phrase so far means, “on the surface level very polite, but actually ____.” Because the way this sentence is structured, the number of words that fit in the blank are very limited. We can automatically cross “friendly,” “about to share a bounty of donuts,” “naked,” “holding two guns in the air,” and “sleeping” off the list. In reality we’re limited to opposites of polite, and, as I mentioned before, I did recognize that 無礼 means something like rude. 横 means side, so we can take that into account and assume that 横柄 must mean something similar to the opposite of polite and almost backstab-by/devious in nature.

Take into account the こと and our final definition looks like “being polite on the surface but actual disliking.”

I’ve just checked the definition in and it gives “feigned politeness” as the much more economical answer. Well, I was close, and if I could remember the context of the story, it might have helped me narrow the definition even further.

Here’s the moral of the last 1000 words you just read: use a Japanese dictionary, rely on contextual clues, readreadreadread, and don’t be fussed if you can’t understand every coddamn word.

Cool Kanji – 峠


As you all probably know, kanji were imported from China. At some point in time, Japan decided to organize some study abroad courses over in the Zhongguo, so scholarly type dudes, monks and shit, would go over and bring back cool stuff – tea, Buddhism, bureaucracy. Gradually through religious study and stuff, I think, kanji came into use by educated, political types (all men).

Hiragana and katakana developed later as abbreviated forms of kanji, although according to myth Kobo Daishi invented the former. (If there was ever a Chuck Norris figure in Japanese history, wouldn’t it have to be Kobo Daishi? We could say hilarious stuff like: Kobo Daishi pissed into the Lake of Japan and turned it into the Sea of Japan. Kobo Daishi sneezed and the Mongolians’ boats all capsized. Shikoku used to be the other way around until Kobo Daishi walked around that motherfucker so much that it did a 180.)

Japanese were not content to create only two other sets of characters. They also created a bunch of kanji that don’t exist in Chinese. These are collectively referred to as 国字(こくじ), and this week’s kanji is one of those – 峠(とうげ). It means mountain pass, I think. It’s definitely some feature of mountainous terrain but probably has a few translations in English.

It always makes me think of Aizu-Bange because that last little hill between Yanaizu and Aizu-Bange, that stretch with several sad little inaka love hotels, is called 七折峠(ななおりとうげ)- Seven Folds Pass. Yesterday I drove by Bandai-Atami and on the outskirts between Atami and Inawashiro there was a love hotel named ホテル峠, so perhaps the word 峠 is associated with a hidden space created by mountains, an area perfect for devious activities.

(In addition to 国字, there are 国訓(こっくん), characters where the meaning in Japanese differs from the original Chinese, and 幽霊文字(ゆうれいもじ), “ghost” characters that have no pronunciation or meaning at all. Mistakes will be made. In many languages.)

Friday Puzzle – Momentarily HUH?

This is a fantastic expression I heard used by a teacher at the welcome party for new teachers a week ago:


I have endeavored to present this phrase as accurately as possible, but there was booze involved at this welcome party, so you’ll have to forgive me some minor editing. I have also provided ONLY HIRAGANA this week in order to reduplicate it as I heard it. (Does one hear kanji? Methinks not.)

Your mission, should you choose to accept it:

– explain the meaning of this phrase
– attempt to guess the context in which it was said (in addition to the welcome party, duh)

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.

Friday Puzzle – Make Me Answer

The goal this past week was to show you the flexibility of the verb する. It’s always introduced as “to do,” but there are plenty of cases where it acts as something other than do. The initial phrase I was thinking of was 〜顔をする. “Make an X face,” where X could be nearly anything – silly, stupid, funny, strange, mysterious. I eliminated food examples because we so automatically associate the English “make” with food, thus the Japanese 料理する, which would have been far too easy.

There were four correct answers:

友達と約束をしました。 – I made a promise with a friend.

私は学校をきれいにする。 – I make the school clean.

きみはいつも僕を幸せにする。 – You always make me happy.

これをもう少し安くしてくださいませんか。 – Could you make it cheaper for me please? (An exceptionally useful phrase, especially to cheapos like JETs.)

The final three all use the same pattern: X + を + 副詞 (adverb) + する → make x more adverb.

Here is how you form the adverb:

The one small gripe I have is that for sentence three I would say 幸せにしてくれる to emphasize the fact that it is something that きみ is doing to/for 僕.

One submission I got suggested that that セックスをしました could be used for “made love,” but セックスをしました is a bit too straightforward to be translated to something as idiomatic as “making love.” You could probably translate that する into something interesting like “perform” or “undergo,” especially if “coitus” followed either of those words.

The winner this week by random selection (you can confirm the randomness with the other teacher in my town) is Robin – he’s now halfway to a six-pack.