That’s What All the Ladies Say

My understanding of だろう and でしょう are tenuous at best. I remember being puzzled by these when I took my first Japanese class – an intensive summer class, which I would not recommend (slow down, everyone, you’re moving too fast).

Two encounters have shaped my understanding of these phrases. Today, encounter one.

I was up in Fukushima, I think during my first year as a JET, watching TV. There was a small variety show where a host was interviewing different celebrities who came out one by one. After the host asked a few questions about the kind of work they did, the audience had to guess the celebrity’s annual income. One of the people on the show was パックン – Patrick Harlan, a Harvard grad who parlayed English teaching into Japanese study into fame as a manzai comedian. I don’t remember exactly what the host said to Pakkun, but he responded with a highly suggestive でしょう, which got a lot of laughs. I immediately noted the tone of his phrasing and added it to my mental catalog of funny phrases to use.

It felt like he was confirming something, just as you would with ですね, but this something was overly obvious and a little silly. A phrase you could substitute it with is the equally laugh-inducing よく言われます – literally, and extremely awkwardly, “That is often said about me.” I guess the English equivalent would be, “That’s what they all say.”

The tone on でしょう here is important – it’s slightly inquisitive with the hint of a smile. Amirite? でしょう?

Ode to っ


Tokyo Damage Report has a nice post taking a look at the 小さいつ and all its different roles. Very interesting stuff. He breaks it down into four categories. I’ll switch them up a bit:

3. Contractions. Put two kanji together, and often the sound between the characters gets contracted. Uninteresting, as he notes.

4. Emphasis. Now we start to get interesting. People add an extra syllable into words like とても and よほど to emphasize them. In English we tend to draw out vowels for emphasis, but in Japanese they hover on that moment riiiiiight at the beginning of the consonant and then hit that fucker with a wicked staccato. This theory works in the next two sets.

1. Onomatopoeia/り. I’m not sure that these words sound exactly like their actions (Is it possible to “sound” like “looking very similar,” which is what そっくり means? Although, maybe it is possible. Maybe the Japanese are just hyper-aware of the sounds of different actions. I guess they do have way more noises than English. Hmm…), but they are at least more aurally interesting than your average word. They also extend on the emphasis theory. The number of superlatives in the group is impressive. One I picked up from a friend is ごっつい, which I think means “huge.” I wonder if there are any XっXり words that haven’t been taken by meanings yet. Get ’em quick before some domain-name squatter can.

2. と. I believe all of the words in this category are adverbs, whereas the words in the り category can actually be verbs themselves. I guess that proves と is a nearly universal marker of adverb-ness? Again these are used to modify verbs and make them even more extreme.

I think the best way to get used to these is to not study them on their own; they almost always work with other verbs, and you should pick one or two for each pattern. Generally they only work with a very limited range of verbs anyway. さっぱり, for example, is used almost exclusively with 忘れる or 分からない, implying a complete blankness of mind.

The other trick is to figure out which ones work on their own (ばっちりです! そっくりです!) and which ones work with する (すっきりした! ).

Great stuff. My personal favorites are ばっちり (with uncomfortably dorky thumbs up), そっくり (I am ルパン) and こっそり (eating onigiri on the train).

Cool Prefix – ド


I can’t remember when I started noticing ド on TV, but whenever it was, the meaning was quickly apparent: people on TV, mostly comedians, use it as a prefix for nouns to emphasize the extremity of that noun. To be honest, I can’t even remember which usages I saw on TV. So it’s kind of a miracle, one of those language-learning miracles, that I am able to use it at all. What’s more, I believe I use it in ways that I’ve never even heard before. ド田舎 (the fuggin boonies) is probably my favorite, as it describes my pre-Tokyo Japan experience. ド真ん中 (right in the fuggin middle) is another good one.

I took it upon myself to look into the origins of the term and found this awesome blog post. Apparently ド級 referred to the dreadnought class of English battleship. Ships built later were referred to as 超ド級. But ど was used as a prefix in the Kansai area long before 1906 when the HMS Dreadnought first entered service. At some point they must have become interchangeable.

Google is an interesting way to look into the usage patterns here. Here are some of the results:

“ドM”              1,370,000
“ド田舎”         1,350,000
“ド素人”         973,000
“ど素人”         968,000
“ドS”               905,000
“ど真ん中”     786,000
“ド迫力”         428,000
“ど根性”         367,000
“ド真ん中”     238,000
“どM”              167,000
“ド根性”         151,000
“ど田舎”         147,000
“どまんなか” 134,000
“どS”               93,500
“ドアホ”         92,500
“ど迫力”         62,000
“どアホ”         21,500
“ドバカ”         2300
“ド高い”         2270
“どバカ”         1720
“ど馬鹿”         1670
“ド馬鹿”         1530
“ど暑い”         1500
“ど熱い”         870
“ドまんなか” 691
“ド熱い”         686
“ド暑い”         668
“ドうまい”     506
“ド上手い”     317
“ド厚い”         243
“ドかっこいい”  217
“ド危ない”         144
“ド格好いい”     85
“ドかっこういい”     0

(Searches from June 23, 2009)

Immediately interesting to me is that ド田舎 gets a TON of hits. I swear I never saw that one on TV. The other interesting thing to note is that there is almost no pattern of frequency between ド and ど; in some cases ド gets more hits but in the other cases ど gets more. On TV, I’ve only ever seen the katakana version, most likely because it is more angular and therefore seems harsher/funnier than ど. The only firm correlation is that ど・ド + noun is much more common that ど・ド + adjective.

M and S refer to masochistic and sadistic, two not-necessarily-sexual personality traits that the Japanese use. Put simply, M means you are more passive, and S means you are more aggressive.

Needless to say, this is an extremely casual phrase. I’m a big fan and try to throw it out there on occasion, but I’ll probably be less likely to use it now that I know it’s Kansai-ben. Don’t want to be one of those foreigners.

That first ド wasn’t big enough. Lemme try again:


Stop the Misuse of Definite Articles!

I saw a traffic sign that read:



This translates to:

traffic fatalities

Here is the Japanese pronunciation:

shibou jiko

Come on, guys. Cut it out.

It is hilarious, though, to replace "traffic fatalities" with other Japanese words. I am just as bad as they are.

Originally posted May 6th, 2006

Cool Kanji – 罰

I have an article about ガキの使いやあらへんで’s annual 罰ゲーム and 世界のナベアツ over at Neojaponisme for their 2008 in review series. Other than Murakami and beer, Japanese comedy is probably one of the few other topics I’m relatively qualified to talk about.

Downtown is a manzai group that I’ve known from the very first time I came to Japan. It’s hard to watch any Japanese TV at all and not realize who they are. Hitoshi Matsumoto is the boke, and Masatoshi Hamada is the tsukkomi. Matsumoto occasionally goes by Hitoshi, but generally they are both referred to by surname or their nicknames: Ma-chan and Hama-chan. They’ve been on television since 1989, and since 1990 they’ve been playing different 対決 (たいけつ), which  decides who will participate in a 罰 (ばつ)ゲーム.

罰 means punishment and is often used in the compound 罰金 (ばっきん, fine/penalty fee).  A 罰ゲーム is any “game” where someone has to go through an embarrassing or painful task as punishment for losing the 対決. For the first decade or so, it was always Matsumoto versus Hamada, and the 罰ゲーム was an embarrassing appearance on television or being forced to go skydiving or ride a rollercoaster:


Matsumoto had a long losing streak, so when he finally won a 対決, he sent Hamada to France to fill up a bottle of Evian water from the original source. He later sent Hamada all the way to New York City to retrieve a mechanical pencil.

For a long time the games had a real gonzo feel, but in recent years, their 絶対に笑っては行けない (ぜったいにわらってはいけない, “You absolutely must not laugh”) version has gotten so popular, that the production level has skyrocketed. They began playing this version annually in 2003, and since 2006 it’s been broadcast in ゴールデンタイム, the Japanese version of primetime, on New Year’s Eve.

These shows all include ココリコ, another manzai group made up of Shōzō Endō and Naoki Tanaka, and fifth man Hōsei Yamazaki. (I always felt bad for Yamazaki since he doesn’t have a partner, but then I realized he gets to play the ultimate role – the boke to the group as a whole: two manzai groups!) These three have been included from as far back as 1999 when they played the surreal 24時間鬼ごっこ.

The shows all follow a fairly set pattern. 3-5 of the Gaki no tsukai members are led on to a themed set by Hiroshi Fujiwara (a producer at Yoshimoto and Matsumoto’s 担当). There they encounter a huge number of up and coming (read: soon defunct) comedians, recurring characters, and members of the production staff, all of whom are trying to make them laugh, which gets them punished. The punishment began as blowdarts in the ass, then moved to an S&M whipping, but for the last four years it has just been a caning.

I was fortunate enough to catch the 2006 show by chance, last year’s on purpose, and past shows through the miracle of the Internets. Here are five of my favorite clips.

The first is the 対決 from the 2003 onsen game . Focus on what Hamada says; he has one of the most recognizable voices and laughs on Japanese TV, and I’m certain that’s part of the reason he’s so successful. “というわけで、松本チーム、罰ゲーーーム!”:

This clip shows how high the production level was last year. It also shows how ridiculous the shows have become. One interesting side note is that more of the guys laughed at the comedian who stutters his line than at the actual 勇気の実:

One of my favorite clips from the police show in 2006, the first one that I saw. ゆうたろう, I believe, is a (now-defunct?) comedian who imitates the late Yūjirō Ishihara, Japanese Elvis-type rock star and actor in police dramas (also brother to Tokyo governor Shintarō Ishihara):

This clip is from the 鬼ごっこ show and it has one of the greatest 罰 buildups ever. Matsumoto sent out oni dressed up in black to chase the rest of the guys around and deliver blows from ひしゃく (those water things at the entrance to shrines), はりせん (accordion-style fan things) and other random things. Then he sent out thai kick guys and head butt guys. After a few hours, he sent out the 紙芝居 (かみしばい) man. Make sure you watch all the way until the end:

And my favorite clip is the simple Shōhei clip, partially because it was the first 罰ゲーム I saw, but it’s also just really funny. I used this at elementary school with any kids named Yōhei or Kōhei, and it never failed to get a laugh:

My only complaint about the show is that every year without fail there is a scene where they laugh at foreigners, often of darker complexion, basically for being foreigners – looking different and speaking Japanese in a funny accent. This year they are airing another 罰ゲーム on New Year’s Eve. It’s six hours long and starts at 6:30pm. Madness. 


One of the elementary schools I taught at for three years was deep in the mountains. Every Thursday I’d drive the beat-up red town car from the junior high school west along the river and then turn right, head into the mountains. The school only had about 30 kids total from 1st to 6th grade, so I taught sets of two grade years: 1st and 2nd, 3rd and 4th, 5th and 6th.

I thought it would be difficult at first, and it was a little when the kids rose a year and got matched with a different set of students, but the older kids always helped the younger ones along. I found that I could get the older kids to provide examples of different patterns and games.

Once I was teaching the 5th and 6th graders vowels. In Japanese the word for vowel is 母音 (ぼいん). [On an interesting side note, the word for consonant is 子音 (しいん)]. 母音 has an unusual pronunciation, so I wrote it on the board for the kids, but for some reason when I said it, the kids started laughing hysterically. I said it again, and they laughed even harder! One kid added, ダニエル先生、すごい! At one point the assistant principal, who was overseeing the class, had to tell kids to stop laughing. I still had no idea what was so funny. I could tell something I said was strange, but I just moved on with the lesson.

A couple weeks later I was teaching the same material to 3rd and 4th graders, and 母音 elicited the same response. This time, however, one of the little boys mimed a giant set of breasts. Ah ha! I thought, ボイン is the noise that boobs make when they move up and down! No wonder they were laughing so much. I had been standing up in front of the class saying, "Okay, guys, there are two types of boobs – long boobs and short boobs, and they make different sounds for each letter."

Laughter is an amazing warning sign. I love it when people laugh at my Japanese. It lets me know that my joke has worked or that I’ve said something incredibly incorrect and strange. Either way, it’s an easy way for people to reinforce better speaking without having to say, “Hey asshole, you messed up.”

If I get laughed at for a mistake, I don’t usually make that mistake again. On the internship I wrote about previously, I once brought omiyage for the group, announcing them by saying このお土産を京都から連れてきました。They all laughed, and the division head let me know that 連れる is only used for people; basically, I had just said, “I have accompanied this omiyage from Kyoto. Please enjoy.” 持ってきた is the correct pattern. Needless to say, I haven’t made that mistake again.

The point? Try not to take it personally if someone laughs at your Japanese, and feel free to laugh at strange English. You’re doing them a favor.

This isn’t really a puzzle, but I will beer the first person to explain the pun from and relevance of the title.

(I also wrote about laughter when I nearly killed a tanuki.)

Cool Kanji – 壷


More Irotori Ninja (色取り忍者) goodness! 1, 2.

Today’s kanji is つぼ (pot), basically an excuse to talk about Irotori Ninja some more.

I think I saw this episode when it aired but didn’t realize how funny the intro part is. The two guests were starring in some movie about 渋い-looking high school kids, which instantly gets associated with the old 数取団 (which I wrote about here). They give Koji Katō a hard time, asking why they don’t play the counting game anymore. (Keiichi Yamamoto, the other member of Katō’s manzai group Gokuraku Tombo, got kicked off the show and blacklisted.) Pretty bold to press a sensitive issue like that.

Another critical vocab word for Japanese comedy is ビンタ – a slap. Slapping and hitting is, for whatever reason, extremely funny in Japan. Watch the 1:45 and the 3:55 mark of the second video to see Shinji Takeda get slapped.

The Road to Meme-dom

Learned a cool word on Mecha-ike a few weeks ago – キレた. You can see the video for yourself here. Watch for a minute or so from the 6:30 mark.

Clearly it’s the past tense of the verb キレる. I’m not sure where it comes from (切る comes to mind) or why it’s half katakana half hiragana, but the meaning is totally clear from the video – it means that someone has just fuggin lost it, gone ballistic, bonkers, completely mad, etc. We had a case of that in the office this week, and immediately this phrase came to mind.

I made a sort of visual mnemonic to help you all remember the meaning:


That is the definitive キレた moment in American cinema.

The Dude Never Dies – The Big Lebowski in Japanese

I wrote for Let’s Go Japan during the summer of 2003. There were five or six of us writing that summer, and we all flew in to Tokyo before heading out in different directions. I went to Kamakura, Yokohama and Nagoya before heading to Shikoku, where I spent most of my two-month itinerary.

At first I was disappointed about being assigned to such a rural place; I’d only been to Japan once before and had only been able to spend a week or so in Tokyo, so I felt like I was missing out. Only later would I know how lucky I was to spend a month traveling around the highly underrated Shikoku, half of that with the refreshing freedom of a car.

While the landscape was breathtaking and the people were friendly, moving from town to town every day or two quickly became lonesome. I called the office a lot, called home a lot, and fortunately a Bulgarian friend in Nagoya hooked me up with some downloads to help me distract myself. He gave me a couple anime series and a movie or two, but I spent most of my time watching The Big Lebowski, which I’d been a fan of since renting it in ’98. Honestly, that summer alone I must’ve watched Lebowski a dozen times at least. I knew all the ins and outs of the film and even felt some 運命ness; there’s a Townes VanZandt version of the song “Dead Flowers” towards the end of the film, and a vinyl record bar I went to in Nagoya played a couple songs from Sticky Fingers.

(Did you know that in the dream sequence when the Dude gets knocked out by Maude’s goons, you can see that Maude was the one who rolled the ball?


So, equipped with a Region 2 DVD player, I’ve taken it upon myself to check out the localization of the movie. A couple weekends ago I watched it – twice. Once with the English language track and Japanese subtitles, and then again with the Japanese dubbing. This may not be a surprise to those familiar with Japan’s movie industry, but the dubbed version was notably better.

Not that the translation of the subtitles was poor. Not being a native speaker, I can’t speak for it completely, but in my biased opinion, it was good and caught a lot of the nuances of the film, even getting laughs out of my Japanese roommates.

But the dubbed translation itself was more accurate and creative. For example, when the Big Lebowski grills the Dude for fucking up the bag drop, the Dude says “We (おれたち) did drop the money,” eliciting a “We?” The subtitles are fairly 文字通り, getting close enough to the Dude’s “royal we” excuse, but the dubbed version goes with some creative Japanese: 「おれっち。言うでしょう?地方なんか行くと。」

The dubbed version does have a major advantage – time. As with subtitles in any language, you have to allow time for the viewer to read and comprehend the line, and when you have a movie with quick dialogue, it’s difficult to capture the feel with subtitles alone. Additionally, the fact that much of the dialogue in this movie is simultaneous makes the subtitles especially ineffective. You can hear the Japanese voices trying to speak over each other in the dubbed version, really helping express Walter’s frustration with Donny.

It also helped that the voice acting was absolutely impeccable; the accuracy with which the voice actors arranged their lines over Jeff Bridges’ and John Goodman’s mouthing was nothing short of incredible, and all of the give and take was more accurately portrayed with the dubbing.

But even the dubbed version misses parts of the critical element that really brings the film together – the role of discourse.

In the very first scene at the grocery store, President Bush on the screen drops the line “This aggression will not stand,” which the Dude later recycles when he confronts the Big Lewbowski. (“I do mind. The Dude minds. This will not stand…ya know. This aggression will not stand, man.”) The dubbed version catches this, reusing 侵攻/侵略 and variations of 許さない, but the subtitled version misses it.

Both miss the Dude’s final line of the movie, “The Dude abides.” This line the Dude recycles from when he was confronted by the Big Lebowksi – “I will not abide another toe.” The subtitled version uses ご免 and the dubbed 許さん for the first scene. In the final scene, the subtitled version has the cowboy say 「元気でな。気をつけて。」to which the Dude responds,

Whereas in the dubbed version the Dude responds with a less intrusively translated 「それがヂュードだし」 to 「気軽にやるんだよ。言うまでもないか。」 Neither relays the idea that the Dude has borrowed terminology yet again.

So what’s the point? The point is that The Big Lebowski is a subtly political film that shows the infectious role of discourse in society and how that discourse is often misrepresentation that leads to innocent victims. Unfortunately, the Japanese subtitles and dubbing don’t fully express this underlying theme of discourse, although I did learn the awesome curse word くそ食らえ.