Cool Kanji – 語幹・語尾

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My latest column is in the Japan Times Bilingual page today: “Discovering verb stems: A gokan oasis in the desert of gobi

I address what was for me one of the most difficult adjustments to make during my first year of study: learning the ます形 form first only to have to get used to the 普通形 later. I distinctly remember wondering why they couldn’t just put the ます形 words in the dictionary.

I also remember the teachers mentioning things like あ行 and い行 when the consonant-stem verbs came up, but it was just too much information at the time, and the textbook we used—the infamous Jorden-Noda Japanese the Spoken Language—was dense as a motherfucker.

I wonder now if a focus on the difference between 語幹(ごかん) and 語尾 (ごび) earlier on, before students really even have the ability to understand them, would benefit students. As I mention in the article, I think it might be beneficial for students to learn this:


Rather than this:

Just repeat this out for all the different verb stems, and you’d have every kana covered, and the 行s might make more sense/feel more tangible to students.

Just a thought. I almost wish I had a masters in Japanese pedagogy and a class full of first-year students to experiment on…


Welcome to the Seventh Annual How to Japanese Murakami Fest!

With the goal of stirring up even more interest in Murakami between now and October, when the Nobel Prizes are announced, I will post a small piece of Murakami translation/analysis/revelation once a week from now until the announcement. You can see past entries in the series here:

Year One: BoobsThe WindBaseballLederhosenEels, Monkeys, and Doves
Year Two: Hotel Lobby OystersCondomsSpinning Around and Around街・町The Town and Its Uncertain WallA Short Piece on the Elephant that Crushes Heineken Cans
Year Three: “The Town and Its Uncertain Wall” – Words and WeirsThe LibraryOld DreamsSaying GoodbyeLastly
Year Four: More DrawersPhone CallsMetaphorsEight-year-olds, dudeUshikawaLast Line
Year Five: Jurassic SapporoGerry MulliganAll Growns UpDanceMountain Climbing
Year Six: Sex With Fat WomenCoffee With the ColonelThe LibrarianOld ManWatermelons
Year Seven: WarmthRebirthWasteland, Hard-ons, Seventeen


Chapter 21 “Bracelets, Ben Johnson, Devil,” part three. Watashi and the Girl in Pink head into the hatch in the laboratory and continue on their way to the INKling sanctuary. Watashi thinks a bit more about feeling detached from his body in the darkness. Then, in the Birnbaum translation, we have this passage:

The path wormed left and right but kept going further and further down. There were no steep inclines, only a steady, even descent. Five minutes later, we came to a large chamber. We knew this from the change in the air and the sound of our footsteps. (212)

There’s nothing in particular about the passage that stands out as strange on its own (other than the further-farther mistake?), but there is a massive cut hidden between the second and third sentences. As we’ve seen in the past few posts, Birnbaum made cuts that eliminated some of the more overtly sexual banter between the two and also Watashi’s warm reaction to a peck on the cheek. The reason for those cuts ultimately might have been because he chose to cut this scene here. The Complete Works edition followed by my translation:
















The path snaked left and right, branched off on numerous occasions, and continued down, down into the ground. The grade wasn’t all that steep, but the path descended incessantly. It felt as though the bright surface world was being torn from my back step by step as we went.

Along the way we hugged just once. She stopped suddenly, turned around, turned off her light, and put her arms around me. Then she searched for my lips with her fingers and pressed her lips against them. I put my arms around her as well and gently pulled her closer. It was strange to hug her in the pitch dark. Stendhal wrote something about hugging in the dark, I thought to myself. I’d forgotten the title of the book. I tried to remember it but could not. I wonder if Stendhal ever hugged a woman in the dark. If I managed to get out of here alive, and if the world hadn’t already ended, I resolved to find the title of that Stendhal book.

The melon scent of her eau de cologne had already disappeared from the nape of her neck. In its place was the smell of a seventeen-year-old girl. And beneath her smell was my own smell. The smell of my life was ingrained in my Army surplus jacket. The food I’d made, coffee I’d spilled, and sweat I’d sweated. All of it had just fixed itself there and was ingrained. As I stood there in the darkness underground in an embrace with a seventeen-year-old girl, that life felt like an illusion I’d never return to. I could remember that it had existed once upon a time, but I couldn’t imagine myself ever returning to those circumstances.

For a long time we just stood there hugging. Time ticked away, but it didn’t feel like a serious problem to me. By embracing we were able to share how scared we were with each other, and that was most important right now.

Finally she pressed her breasts firmly against my chest, opened her lips, and slipped her soft tongue and warm breath into my mouth. The tip of her tongue flicked against my tongue, and she ran her fingers through my hair. But after ten seconds or so, she stopped and suddenly separated herself. I was overcome with the bottomless despair of an astronaut abandoned in outer space.

When I turned on my light, she was standing there. She turned on her light.

“Let’s go,” she said. She did an about face and began walking at the same pace as before. The sensation of her lips remained on my own. I could still feel her heartbeat on my chest.

“I was pretty good, wasn’t I?” she said without turning around.

“Not bad at all,” I said.

“But something was missing, right?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Something was missing.”

“I wonder what’s missing.”

“I don’t know,” I said.


After five minutes we had descended the slope and came to a large, empty room.

Makeout scene! I can’t believe this was hidden in the original version. It seems much more natural to leave the relationship completely unconsummated: It’s satisfyingly unsatisfying. Kind of tantalizing in a sexy way. It’s more satisfying to linger in the possibilities. She’s also half his age.

Not that the kiss is much of anything, and I do think it’s well written—probably better than some of Murakami’s more recent sexy writing, which has earned him the infamy of an award nomination.

This passage felt very typically Murakami. Experience and interiority overlap. Unlike the previous reaction to the peck on the cheek, Watashi is sent into his associations: by the darkness and embrace into Stendhal and by the smell into his everyday life. Then she leaves him floating in the darkness alone. The astronaut metaphor is nice.

Not much else to say about this one. Hugging and embracing both felt like pretty awkward renderings of 抱きあう, but I left it hugging for the most part.

This is probably the last official Murakami Fest post, but there will be two more posts about Chapter 21. That may seem like overkill, but there’s one more section that gets cut related to this post’s passage and another section that’s just kind of curious and has differences between the Complete Works and paperback versions.

That’s all for this year. Best of luck with the Nobel, Murakami!