あかん and 中

I’m in The Japan Times again this week: “‘Thursday Night Football’ NFL draws Friday morning tweeters in Japan.”

I can’t recommend Thursday Night Football on Twitter highly enough. The Japanese tweets are hilarious, and watching them reload beneath the live feed of the game is like mainlining casual, native Japanese. Get some this week and seven other times this year. Check out the schedule. I’m looking forward to the November 17 game because it features my hometown Saints against division rivals the Carolina Panthers.

Two additional points from the article:


1. Origin of あかん

While researching the piece, I started looking into the 語源 (gogen, etymology) of あかん. Like Roy from Mutantfrong Travelogue, I always thought it was a 行かない—>行かん—>あかん progression:

But all the dictionaries point to the phrase 埒が明かぬ (rachi ga akanu, make no progress, not settle). Roy was not convinced and suggested this was a false etymology. He also dug up this great blog post, which is recommended reading:

2. 中 verbs

I wanted to add a little section to the article about additional verbs that work well with 中, but I didn’t have the time or wordspace left. The tweet in the article uses 観戦中, but I can think up the following off the top of my head (with native Japanese examples found in the links):

作成中 (sakusei chū, creating, Tweet)
執筆中 (shippitsu chū, writing, Tweet; this one also seems to get used frequently in Twitter usernames as a way to say what someone is working on)
鑑賞中 (kanshō chū, watching/enjoying, Tweet)
昼寝中 (hirune chū, napping, Tweet)
勉強中 (benkyō chū, studying, Tweet)
検討中 (kentō chū, looking into/considering, Tweet; Be sure to read through the entirety of the epic three-day Twitter conversation between those two friends…very funny with lots of tangents involving Doraemon, dorayaki, and 顔文字)

Got any to add? Put them in the comments (with a link to a tweet or the usage online somewhere) and I’ll add them above!

How to Incomplete Sentences in Japanese

I’m in the Japan Times this week with an article about incomplete sentences in Japanese: “To be a more complete Japanese speaker, leave your sentences incomplete.”

There are so many good examples, and I think I managed to include almost all of them in the piece (and even one they didn’t in 一体!). I found a great article in the chapter “Incomplete Utterance Ending in Japanese” from Developing Interactional Competence in a Japanese Study Abroad Context by Naoko Taguchi. It’s definitely worth a read. The chapter is easily summarized: “The pervasiveness of ellipsis and incomplete endings is a characteristic of Japanese communication” (25).

This is where I got the statistics toward the end of my article: Japanese leave their sentences incomplete 25-50% of the time! This is true even with formal situations, which were left incomplete 30-45% of the time.

One interesting point that I wasn’t able to touch upon in the article is that incomplete sentences also serve to “avoid an explicit marking of the polite or plain speech style” (26). So basically incomplete sentences can act as a hedge when you’re not sure how to address someone.

Another interesting point is that incomplete sentences “characterize the co-construction of an event.” Basically they encourage “collaborative turn completion,” which might explain why I felt like I was being interrupted by my coworker in this post. In actuality, she was just doing Japanese.

And finally, one statistic that I didn’t include in the article: L2 Japanese speakers only used incomplete sentences 4% of the time in one study or 12% of the time in another. This seems to suggest that you can make yourself sound much more native by using incomplete sentences strategically.

Cool Phrase – 〜もんか

monka I’ve got an article in the Japan Times Bilingual page today about the very interesting little particle か: “‘Ka’ can help you sound less like Mr. Roboto.”

For the most part か is harsh and striking (いいか?); it demands attention. This is especially true when compared with が, its softer more demure cousin (ちょっと聞きたいんですが). But I think the article points out a couple of places where maybe か can take the edge off and sounds very natural.

One of my favorite usages of the harsh and sharp か is 〜もんか. The quintessential example of this usage is 知るもんか. The English translation is “Like I know!” with an implied element of “(So why would you ask me/expect me to know?)” This is a great phrase but useful only in circumstances where you’re trying to express disbelief in the person you’re talking with; thus, it’s a fairly rude phrase.

You can attach it to a lot of different verbs to express your disbelief that you would ever do those verbs or that something would ever happen. そういうことやるもんか。そんなことあるもんか。

A Google search turns up a movie titled なくもんか which, judging from its poster, means something along the lines of “I’m not crying *sob*.”

A fun phrase, useful to deploy in certain circumstances.

On a side note, I can share a bit of good news: Barring grievous bodily injury or total mental collapse, I should be in the Japan Times Bilingual page every month this year, the first week of the month. Look for me there, and thanks for reading.

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…

Cool Word – まったり

I’ve got an article on the Japan Times Bilingual page today about the Japanese translation of Facebook. I highly recommend switching your language over to Japanese to improve your recognition of the various loanwords and compounds that get used on the site. And definitely make sure to go in and add your 姓 and 名 into the settings so that your Japanese friends and coworkers can track you down.

Ideally, though, you have loads of Japanese friends who are also using Facebook – this is by far the best use of the site. These Japanese friends should be updating their statuses and commenting on things at a regular pace. I have a few who do so, but even with the small number, I’ve learned a couple of awesome words. Notably, まったり. The best part about Facebook is that you are learning in context: words get defined by pictures and comments.

For example, a friend posted this picture:

With the following comment: 今日は天気悪いから好きなカフェでまったり。

I could immediately approximate the meaning of まったり – what else are you going to do on a rainy day at a cafe with nothing but a cup of coffee? – but a week or so later, another friend posted this status update:


The status went on, but you get the idea from the first sentence where まったり is used to modify the verb 鑑賞 (かんしょう, view) – it means to chill the fuck out. You can either just chill the fuck out at a café because the weather is bad or you can chill the fuck out and watch TV. In the first case, the する after まったり is dropped, and in the second case it’s used as an adverb to modify 鑑賞.

The third syntax you can use is まったりした to modify a noun such as まったりした人, which reminds me of one of my favorite phrases from Cowboy Bebop: のんきなやつだな – that’s one chilled out bastard.

(And on a Facebook sidenote, I hope that the translation of “Like” to いいね! effectively communicates to beginning students of the language that いい doesn’t simply mean good and that 好き doesn’t really mean “like.”)

Rite? Amirite?

You’ll have to forgive me – this semester has been insane. Japanese is still happening, almost on an everyday basis, but often it’s in my dreams. I have been reading Dance Dance Dance in Japanese with the hopes of translating some of the abridged sections this upcoming September. But other than that, I’ve been teaching, reading, and writing English. Here’s a quick lame post so that I don’t skip February.

I wrote about でしょう a couple years ago and wasn’t able to give a really good example of the tone that I was trying to express. Well, I was watching my Twitter feed not too long ago and caught this interaction between New York Times reporter Hiroko Tabuchi and Jean Snow of Neojaponisme:

Tabuchi’s でしょう I think accurately captures what I was trying to communicate – it’s almost along the lines of the tone of the English amirite? or rite?

To further impress this upon you, I have recorded my own versions of the various でしょう tones. Here is How to Japanese Podcast Ep 2, which is so short that it doesn’t even deserve a time index. Hope this is helpful.

Mind Yer Imperatives

Well, I’ve emerged from the Pain Cave just in time to turn 30 and to finally get around to transferring my new domain name howtojapanese.com to Namecheap and setting it redirect to howtojaponese.com. I do hereby return this blog to its original name, How to Japanese! (And the crowd goes wild.)

A couple of weeks ago was Japan Fest over at the New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park. Last year I wrote about the Yakumo Nihon Teien (named for the original Japanophile, Lafcadio Hearn) over at Untapped Cities.

This time, I geared up 祭り-style with my happi to fold some cranes and dress some folks in yukata. Devoted readers might recognize this clothing from the local autumn festival in Nishiaizu.

My participation in the Nishiaizu festival involved helping carry the mikoshi, eating lots of food, and drinking lots of beer. It was a fun time. I was also required to embarrass myself at least once a year by performing the 景気. The mikoshi made the rounds of different neighborhoods, stopping frequently at houses to receive donations and to もむ (lift up and down). Occasionally we parked in front of a house for snacks and a rest. And when we began again, we had to 付ける the 景気 – literally, “apply the good energy.” If you checked out the definition on kotobank, you could say “apply the 元気.”

This meant someone stood up on the mikoshi, shouted 景気を付けて! (which sounded something like けいーきをーつけて: the い and the を were drawn out) and did a little dance while holding a fan. The rhythm was kind of similar to a slow version of a 三本締め party close. Here is what a certain foreigner looked like (his face has been covered to protect the rhythmically challenged):

(Notice the courtesy laughs and the pity smiles.)

The first time I did it, I had no idea what it meant and just followed the instructions of my adopted 祭り family, but I asked in later years and came to have an understanding of what it meant: the person is helping to provide a sense of good spirit for the people who provided snacks. As always, translating this phrase will make you feel like an idiot or a Neo-Confucianist philosopher, so just concentrate on understanding it in Japanese.

I noticed that other people who did the 景気, notably guys, always said 付けろ rather than 付けて. Whenever it was my turn, though, there was a brief debate amongst the townsfolk about whether I should use 付けて or 付けろ, and the former always won. The latter was considered a “bad word” – a curse word, basically.

Until that point, I don’t think I’d ever had a real conception of what the imperatives felt like for Japanese. I used てください and て pretty consistently, and I knew that the ろs and れs were stronger, but I didn’t know exactly how strong. Now you know, and knowing is half the battle, as it were.

Check out this video on YouTube to see some もむ action and read the caption to check out how 景気を付ける gets used.

Cool Verb Ending – -やがる

Over winter break, I started reading 『まほろ駅前の便利店』, one of the books on my Japanese reading list. It’s okay so far – lots of ただ-based puns since the main character’s surname is 多田 – and it was good motivation to discover that it’s being made into a drama series for Japanese TV. Sadly, though, the book was pushed aside by reading I had to do for school. And by manga.

Over winter break I had a thirst for comics for some reason. Not just Japanese stuff. I ordered The Walking Dead Compendium and have been working my way through that. I have the first two volumes of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman queued up as well.

I also brought back some manga from Japan. I was pleasantly surprised to find some Satoshi Kon manga that was recently released to commemorate his death late last year. In his roundup of 2010’s best manga over at Neojaponisme, Matthew Penney mentioned Seraphim, an unfinished project that Kon was working on with Mamoru Oshii (of Ghost in the Shell fame), but the other manga that was on the shelves when I was there was the two-volume, appropriately-titled Opus.

I’m through with the first volume, and I can say confidently that Kon fans should be satisfied by the content – it’s meta with equal parts action and awesome drawings. Light stuff, but lots of fun.

One linguistic thing I noticed while reading was the heavy usage of -やがる verbs. 言いやがる, 出やがる, 行きやがる, 心配させやがる, しやがる, やりやがる – it’s all over the place! I was vaguely familiar with the word from my project manager days – the pattern is used frequently in video game dialog – but I realized that I didn’t know the specific meaning and derivation, so I looked it up in the dictionary:


As you can see, やがる is an auxiliary verb (補助動詞 – that’s a fun four-character compound to say ほじょどうし、ほじょどうし、ほじょどーし). I’ve bolded the meat of the definition: “Expresses a person’s actions with (the speaker’s) feelings of scorn/hatred included.” I added “the speaker’s” to the definition because it’s almost always spoken rather than written.

In short, it’s an auxilliary verb that means fuck. Or fucking, goddamn, damn or whatever curse word feels natural for the person and the verb that person is performing. Basically it’s a tone thing, and in English we express scorn/hatred with curse words. In Japanese, one of the ways they do it is with やがる. The content of the action being performed doesn’t differ at all from a normal 言う, 出る, 行く, する, or やる. What does differ is how the speaker feels about the action.

An example from the manga: the main character is a manga artist who gets sucked into the world of his own comic because one of the characters pops out into the real world and snatches an important page of the comic. The artist is forced to go in after him. The manga artist doesn’t just say (ページを)持って行った (He ran off with the page); he says (ページを)持って行きやがった (He fucking ran off with the page). (Aside: I feel like “He ran off with the goddamn page” is a smoother alternative, but I wanted to get “fucking” closer to the verb to match the Japanese. Any thoughts? I feel like this would be an acceptable change.)

心配させやがる and やりやがる are interesting cases. These both get used in reference to friends rather than enemies, so the former is almost like “Damn, you had us worried.” The latter I saw in a video game once as a やりやがるな! I believe it was in a shooter or in a co-op card game, and the phrase was praising the partner’s actions/play. I can’t remember how the translator handled it, but the one thing that comes to mind now is “Fuck yeah!” or “Hell yeah!” It is along the lines of “Nice work!” Most やりやがる phrases will be more similar to the example above and in reference to an unpleasant やるing.

Yahoo provides us with a nota bene after the core definition that further supports the association with fuck/some sort of casual spoken phrase. The phrase has been taken up by dudes:


This is another one of those phrases that are good to recognize but should never be used. I don’t trust myself to use these precisely enough to get the intended effect. Maybe a joking やりやがるな every now and then with friends I’m really close with but never in any situation even slightly more formal. It is a very useful phrase to know for game and manga translation, though, so keep your eyeballs peeled.

Uncool 相槌 – はいはい

If there were a God, I would ask it to bless the Internet. The Internet is the reason I haven’t lost as much Japanese as I could have over the past six months. When I got back to New Orleans in June, I went on Mixi, the Japanese social networking site, and put up self-introductions on the forum for every Community that was vaguely New Orleans-related. Saints communities, college communities, Jazz communities – if you look closely, you’ll probably find me there.

This effort has yielded results! In July I heard from a Japanese college student who is crazy about the Saints. He was visiting New Orleans to go see training camp. Would I want to meet up? Hell yeah! Thus, I found myself driving out to the Saints practice facility in Metairie at 6AM, speaking Japanese with Shohei. We watched practice, basked in the Yat-ness of the proceedings, and Reggie Bush walked straight up to where we were standing during the autograph session. It was most excellent.

Later, I heard from Aki who was moving to town with her husband, a French public servant who got transferred to the consulate in New Orleans. Would I want to meet up for coffee? Of course! So we started meeting for coffee every few weeks. The luckiest part is that she is the most talkative Japanese person I’ve ever met. She’s constantly losing track of the conversation topic and saying things like, “This is totally unrelated, but…” or “I forgot what I was saying, but…” Not that she’s ditzy; she just has a lot to say. I don’t mind at all. Just keep the Japanese coming.

We met up in November before I took my trip to Japan, and she was telling me a story about a Chinese woman who worked in her office in Japan. The woman’s Japanese was good, but she had a few quirks, one of which was the phrase はいはい, which she used indiscriminately as an 相槌 (あいづち) whether it was with the company president or with Aki. Not only did she double the standard phrase はい, she also added a slightly flippant-sounding tone (which I can’t find an example of online). “HAIhai” is how I would try to express the tone. Aki was telling me the president would get annoyed with the usage but never corrected the woman. Aki was thrown into the role of caretaker and tried to correct the usage, but it never took.

At the time I thought this was nothing more than a funny story, but when I went to Japan a few weeks later, I was having dinner and drinks with a friend –an older businessman, so I was on my best です/ます behavior – and I caught myself はいはいing! Dammit! My tone wasn’t as dismissive as the way Aki was producing, but I think it was still a little casual. Immediately I shifted back to a single はい and kept a close watch on my usage the rest of the trip.

The realization reminded me of this sign I often see in New Orleans:

The goal of learning a foreign language is to be able to use it naturally and smoothly, which means not having to consciously watch yourself all the time. At the same time, if you internalize mistakes, you’ll end up using them without realizing it, and in Japan it often goes uncorrected. Thanks to Aki I caught myself. (Also, I did have one friend correct me on my trip when I was saying 計算する instead of 量る for my weight, so there will be times when they will correct you.)

The moral of the story? Maintain vigilance. And ask folks to correct you. They’ll still hesitate to do so, but every now and then you’ll get a nice bit of help.

The second moral of the story? 敬語 isn’t just being able to say the right honorific or humble words. Sometimes it’s not saying certain words that are casual. Refrain from はいはい, ちょっと, and ハァ? sez the Japanese Internets. Also, as long as you use です/ます consistently and avoid too many んでs, そうやでs, and other contractions, you’ll be able to schmooze your way into the confidence of most folks in Japan.

(In other news, while writing this post I learned that はいはいする means to crawl from a YouTube search.)

Cool Adjective – 悔しい

Well, all good things must come to an end. This post ends my 6+ week vacation from the site, and on Saturday the Seattle Seahawks ended the Saints’ hopes of repeating their championship last year. Our defense gave up 41 points – the most we gave up all season – and our offense was only able to score 36. If you had told anyone that the Saints would score 36 points, I’m almost certain they would have predicted a win. Alas, our defense was subpar all season, and no one was able to recognize this – almost every analyst picked the Saints, including the Wall Street Journal’s sports columnist, who remarked that the Seahawks had “no business in the playoffs.”

I only needed one word to describe the post-game feeling in Japanese:


In English it would take a lot more to describe my feelings. I was totally broken, exasperated, depressed. It sucked. (The only upside is that, as a New Orleans Saints fan, I have years and years of practice losing, so I probably managed to go through the stages of grief more quickly than fans of other franchises. Bring on the 2011-2012 season!)

悔しい (くやしい) often gets defined as “vexing,” “regrettable,” or “mortifying,” but in practice it should never be translated this way. The most famous usage of the word comes from the comedian Ayumu Katoh of the group Zabunguru, who says the word and then makes a face that only he can make (if the YouTube link is broken, a Google Images search for 悔しい should suffice). The face completely expresses the feeling of 悔しい. I always think of it as an emphatic “This sucks!” or “It sucks!” depending on the context.

This is a good lesson to remember for other Japanese adjectives – うまい, おいしい, 痛い (いたい), 辛い (つらい) – whatever the adjective may be, you should never think of it as a one-to-one relationship with an English adjective. An emphatic うまい is more appropriately translated to “Damn, that’s good!” than “Tasty!” 痛い, of course, can be “Ouch” or “That hurts” – NEVER translate 痛い on its own as “painful.”

辛い is often close to 悔しい but involves more physical pain from the endurance of an uncomfortable situation (this is easy to remember: the same character for つらい gets used in 辛抱 [しんぼう], which is one way to say patience/endurance in Japanese). Something 悔しい just fucking sucks. Imitating Katoh’s phrasing is a good way to earn some laughs if you end up in a shitty position. Hell, might as well have a laugh.