Seeing the Future in Japanese

I was in The Japan Times with one of my favorite Bilingual page articles I’ve ever written: “Focus on sentence endings to ‘see the future’ in Japanese.”

This is another product of my now daily NHK habit. I’ve been thinking a lot about listening, which is one of the most tenuous of all language skills. Sometimes the words just slip right through my ears like sand through fingers, and other times I’m able to clearly understand every sentence. It takes a certain level of attention—you can’t zone out—but try too hard and you’ll get caught up on each individual word and start to miss the overall sense of things.

I started to notice that I could anticipate sentence endings and that if I could kind of channel my attention to the content in the core of the sentence, it was easier for me to understand what was being said.

There are a couple of types of sentences that I wasn’t able to cover in the article. The first is the Xです (X desu) sentences, where X is a noun that helps convey expectations or beliefs. The two that are coming to mind now are 見通し (mitooshi, forecast/outlook) and 考え (kangae, belief).

Here’s an example that I have noted:

政府は、 感染を抑え込みたい考えです (Seifu wa kansen o osaekomitai kangae desu, The government would like to suppress the spread [of COVID-19]).

I have to believe that the core part of this sentence (感染を抑え込みたい) was longer in the actual example and that I simplified it as I prepared to write about it. You could use this construction to do a lot of additional work, specifically by noting how the government plans to prevent the spread. It would be easy enough to do this by adding a clause to the front of this “X.” It could get as long and detailed as you need it to be.

The other expression that I wasn’t able to mention was what I’ve previously called “appear-ative.” (Please forgive me for calling it a “tense” in the past; I will always carry this shame, lol.)

You can take these phrases I mentioned:

Xが焦点となります (shōten to narimasu, will be a focus)
Xが課題となります (kadai to narimasu, will be a topic)

And easily create a slightly different impression by turning them into this:

Xが焦点となりそうです (shōten to narisō desu, appears likely to be a focus)
Xが課題となりそうです (kadai to narisō desu, appears likely to be a topic)

Once you start listening for some of these frequently encountered sentence-ending phrases, you’ll find them everywhere. They can be as simple as a single noun and as complex as longer phrases like these:

影響を与える (eikyō o ataeru, will influence/effect)
影響を与えそうです (eikyō o ataesō desu, appears likely to influence/effect)

Have you noticed any others?

文末 Nuggets

My March Japan Times Bilingual piece is up: “Avoiding the subject isn’t such a bad idea in Japanese.”

Inspired by a question on Twitter, I take a look at how to avoid using subjects in Japanese. (Hint: Just ignore them mostly.) Besides just leaving them out, there are a ton of phrases in the language that promote concision, notably a few handy 文末 phrases. I address そうだ and ようだ in the piece, but らしい and みたい are also very effective in similar roles.

They all have subtly different usages, so it can be helpful to look at Japanese definitions. These are all from the wonderful 日本語文型辞典.

2015-03-03 09.44.21

Do your best to ignore my awful translation.


…ようだ 〈推量〉




Expresses a speaker’s impression or estimation-like judgment about something. Presents the impression or external appearance (of something) according to the external appearance (of the thing) or the speaker’s senses and suggests “It kind of seems that way/It looks that way.” Used when a speaker gives an impression or condition (of something) taken from the speaker’s sense of touch, sight, hearing, smell, etc. and when making other observations like that to give the speaker’s general, estimation-like judgment.

The following patterns are used when responding to things that have already been mentioned: 「そのようだ」 and 「そんなようだ」



文末に付いて、話し手がその内容をかなり確実度の高いことがらであると思っていることを表す。その判断の根拠は外部からの情報や観察可能なことがらなど客観的なものであり、単なる想像ではない。 (632)


Appended to the end of sentences to express that the speaker believes the content has a very high level of certainty. The basis for that judgment is objective, such as outside information or something that is observable, not simply imagination.





Added on to 普通体 (direct style) clauses to express that (the clause) is not something you received directly but reported information that came from somewhere else. Does not form negative or past tense constructions.


…みたいだ 〈推量〉


これに対して、他の人から聞いた話など間接的な情報にもとづいた話し手の推量を表すときには「らしい」が使われ、聞いたことをそのまま報告する場合には「そうだ」が使われる。 (562)


Expresses a speaker’s estimation. Means “I can’t tell for certain, but that’s what I believe.” An expression used to give an estimation based on something the speaker directly experienced, such as they saw something, heard something, or smelled something.

Conversely, 「らしい」 is used when expressing the speaker’s estimation based on indirect information, such as something heard from another person. 「そうだ」 is used when reporting something exactly as it was heard.

I’ve been wanting to post something like this for a while. I actually drafted it way back in 2009 (typed out the sections from the 文型辞典) but lost the post to a hard-drive crash and have been too lazy to get it together since.

I think it’s helpful to look at things like this explained in Japanese. The book also has a ton of great example sentences. Definitely a must-own for any students of Japanese who make it beyond the intermediate level.

Still, it’s one thing to know the dictionary definition of these patterns and another thing entirely to put them into practice. The occasional reminder from texts like the 文型辞典 can help us be mindful of the usages. Now get out there and get reporting indirectly and judging subjectively!


I don’t even like baseball, but I couldn’t help but follow Yu Darvish’s near-perfect game the other night. Thanks to the ESPN app on my phone, I was notified after six perfect innings, and because I live in the south, not far from Houston, FOX Sports Southwest was showing the game. So I was able to watch the eighth and ninth innings live. At some point I posted on Facebook: “Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh – Yu.”

As an isolated post this might have looked like I was quoting Yu or something, so immediately underneath it I provided an explanation: “Nobody. Say. Anything.” When the perfect game was destroyed, I added 残念!

Later on, well after that, one of my former students (a kid I taught when he was in second through fifth grades of elementary school!) commented on the post, and I had a chance to use one of my favorite grammar patterns:



He almost threw a perfect game!

The pattern always reminds me of the time when I nearly finished beating a tanuki to death on the rural roads of Fukushima Prefecture. This is such a fundamental misunderstanding of the word ほとんど that it’s almost embarrassing (my continued misuse of the word “tense” is also embarrassing), and to this day always makes me remember that there is no such thing as perfect translation. Those two phrases above are the best ways to express how close Darvish came to perfection, but they don’t equal each other. They are, however, pretty damn good equivalents.

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.