Cool Phrase – 取れるところから取る

Belated notice, but I was in the Japan Times On Sunday this past week with an article about craft beer in Japan: “Beer Essentials: The craft beer boom in Japan shows no signs of running dry.”

This was a fun piece to research and write. I highly recommend checking out Jeffrey Alexander’s book “Brewed in Japan.” It’s an incredibly interesting read about the history of beer in Japan. I don’t recommend buying the Google Play version of the book, however. I was forced to read it in a very small font on my iPhone. I think I’ll probably get a physical copy of the book and give it another read at some point. There are so many interesting details, and I’d like to be able to enjoy it more leisurely without ruining my vision. Here’s a great passage from the book about Japan’s early encounters with American beer:

When the shogunate then agreed to sign the Convention of Kanagawa [in March 1854]…it held a celebratory reception to mark the occasion. At the event, the US delegation presented gifts to the Japanese officials of innovative American products, including a working telegraph, a one-quarter-scale steam locomotive, and three casks of beer. The beer was described by Japanese observers as being an earthen colour, with a large volume of bubbles on top, but review of its taste were mixed. Some called it “magic water,” while others labelled it “bitter horse-piss wine.”

Ha. Suffice it to say that they’ve warmed up to beer in the interval.

This was also a great excuse to catch up with a lot of old friends in Tokyo, which I was able to do thanks to the Japanese government. They flew me over to Japan the first week of March for a JET conference. I had a few days on the front half of my trip to myself, and I used it going around to bars I frequented when I lived in Tokyo. I got really lucky with the timing. The JT asked me to write the article just a couple weeks after I was invited to the conference. Special thanks to Aoki-san at Popeye in Ryogoku and Sato-san at Beer Brassiere Boulevard (formerly of Dry Dock).

One interesting phrase I heard from several sources in the beer industry was 取れるところから取る (“take [taxes] from where [taxes] can be taken”). A Google search shows that it gets used in reference to many different topics: 10,100 search results are pared down to 2,840 when the term ビール is added to the search. Still, that’s about 28%. A Japanese book I read titled ビールの教科書 suggests that it’s a combination of inertia and the fact that it’s a hard sell for the government to give money back to companies that make booze.

There’s been some small movement on an equalization (一本化) of the beer tax, which would set the tax for any type of alcoholic barley-based beverage at 55 yen/can, but it’s unlikely to happen any time soon, especially if the Japanese economy doesn’t pick up. It would be very interesting to see how that change would affect the beer market, since it would effectively eliminate any competitive advantage for happōshu. It would affect different companies in different ways since their portfolios are so varied. Asahi would likely benefit, since Super Dry is a true beer and already dominates the market. Suntory, on the other hand, sells a ton of Kinmugi, and it would be forced to raise prices.

Sadly the beer tax will likely be a semi-permanent impediment to the development of craft beer in Japan. As long as folks keep drinking, it will be an easy target for politicians.

Cool Word – 場合


I’m on the Japan Times Bilingual page this week: “In Japanese, mastery of the space-time continuum is just a few words away.”

The intro is inspired by my first ever trip to Japan—an internship with a propeller company. I was taken along on a visit to Misawa Homes, one of the big prefab housing companies in Japan. (Of course the propeller company did business with a modular homes company.) I also got to see model homes in a yet-to-be-populated subdivision. It’s impressive stuff.

The article is a bit heavy on the timing words, so I feel like I gave 場合 short shrift. It is the ultimate hypothetical word, one that can sit in for conditional verbs ending with たら or ば and one that doesn’t require you to perform any mental gymnastics with the verbs. Not that it’s all that difficult to construct the たら or ば forms, but 場合 only really needs the past or present tense.

The easiest way to think of it in English is “In the case of X,” where 場合 means “case.” This also works with constructions (suggested by this site) such as 外国人の場合. (The only proper response to which is “break glass,” I assume?)

I feel like I’ve tweeted out this Chiebukuro link before, but the pronunciation of 場合 is one of those few Japanese words that can vary a little. My first sensei pronounced it ばわい, which always stuck with me. I’ll use it every now and then.

Encounter Two – No Way Jose

I live with two Japanese girls and three Japanese guys. We were sitting around our kitchen at some point in the last couple of months, and I told everyone about a beer event – I think the IPA event at Towers back in August. I’m always trying to get them to come along, but they’re usually uninterested, often busy. One of the girls has been trying to be more social and outgoing. She still hasn’t come to any beer events, but she at leasts feigns interest initially. She also a thing for Korean guys, so she asked me if any Korean guys would be at the beer event. I said 来ないかもしれません.

One of my other roommates almost choked on his beer and was like, What the hell are you talking about? 来ないだろう! (Yes, those kana are italicized. No, I was not able to put 傍点. Boo.) There aren’t going to be any Korean guys at an IPA event!

This is the standard usage of だろう・でしょう. The intonation was emphatic, but mostly because the guy was straightening out my ambiguous answer – Korean guys will not be going to an IPA event in Tokyo. Generally the intonation is flat like most Japanese words.

This is what I like to call the “Weatherman でしょう.” Whenever the forecaster gives the weather on Japanese news, he/she uses the set form 明日_でしょう, where you can insert 雨, 晴れ, 曇り, or a number of other possibilities into the blank. Tomorrow it will rain. Tomorrow it will be sunny. Tomorrow Korean guys will not go to cozy but awesome beer bars near Tokyo Station and drink super hoppy beer.

I think it’s relatively safe to equate this with the future tense and a high level of certainty. It’s not 100% certainty (as my 日本語文型辞典 tells me – no Japanese weatherman would make the mistake of giving a guaranteed weather report), but it’s more certain than かもしれない.

The main reason this pattern was so confusing to me early on is the wide range of meaning でしょう・だろう can have based on intonation alone. As a beginner, it was hard to differentiate the ですね, ですよ and ですか aspects of the phrase – no matter how many times I read the textbook explanation, 雨でしょう sounded like, “Will it rain?” until I got used to it by watching enough Japanese TV and hearing my roommate laugh at my かもしれない.

(I tried desperately to put Japanese emphasis dots on the だろう up there but failed epicly. Readers of Japanese are probably familiar with these. They go by the name of 圏点 (けんてん), 傍点 (ぼうてん), or 脇点 (わきてん), and they are the little dots above/beside (depending on the direction of the text) characters that emphasize certain words. They are roughly equivalent to italics in English, and they are definitely necessary to express the emphasis my roommate put on だろう. Beer to anyone who can tell me how to get the dots in WordPress.)

Game Lingo – 〜することができる


Every game translation results in the translation of a game manual. Video game companies will sometimes farm out manuals to a second translation company, which makes sense. The game itself is complete, and the manual isn’t all that important relatively speaking, so you can have a smaller, cheaper company do the translation using the in-game text as reference.

Not that the translation is easy. There is more terminology (button names, controller names, error messages) that needs to be in line with company protocol, and you’re put in the position of having to explain a game (the whole point of a manual) often without having played or even seen it.

Because explanation is the central goal of a manual, some of them are basically a list of what you can and can’t do within the game. One phrase that you see in nearly every manual is 〜することができる. This is the simplest form of the potential tense. The normal potential tense (食べる→食べられる, 飲む→飲める) would be perfectly acceptable here, but these manuals need to be simple so that kids can read them easily. The normal potential tense can be confusing due to the fact that it overlaps with passive for some verbs, and this pattern also works easily with compound verbs (確認, 使用, 保存).

Combine this with the Japanese language’s high tolerance for repetition and redundancy, and an inexperienced translator can end up with something like this:

You can check your items with the A Button.
You can attack enemies with the B Button.
You can move the character with the +Control Pad.
You can pause the game with the START Button.

Yikes. I mean, those are perfectly acceptable translations of these kind of phrases (which all look something like, Aボタンでアイテムを確認することができる), but when you take a step back, look at the sentences together, and think about how they will be presented on the page, it’s immediately clear that “You can X” is a very poor translation. The best way to deal with these sentences is to cut off 〜することができる all together. “You can check your items with the A Button” becomes “Check your items with the A Button.” Simple, clean, and easy to understand.

This rule shouldn’t be applied blindly. The main point here is that while it’s important to keep the Japanese in mind, it’s more important to keep the final English product in mind. This isn’t literary translation – no one is going to be comparing the English with the original, unless you make a giant, embarrassing mistake.

Just more proof that your English composition can be more important than Japanese comprehension.

An Experience with Maybe

The first time I came to Japan I did a summer internship at a propeller company. That’s right, a company that makes propellers of varying sizes for boats. Small ones, medium ones, and giant fuck-all ones.

Fortunately they also had a medical division that made artificial joints and a design division that made ceramic lights. I worked with the latter, helping to make English pamphlets, teaching English after work, doing a small amount of “market research,” and trying as hard as possible not to get in the way.

At the end of my two months I had to give a final report. I talked about all the possibilities of ceramic lights in the US. Maybe they could do this, maybe they could do that. Maybe you could try and sell through this magazine. Maybe you could sell through that website.

Afterwards I spoke with the youngest of the group, the person I was closest with, and asked her how it sounded. “Really negative,” she told me bluntly. I was shocked. These were the eight people I knew the best in all of Japan, and I had just told them, take your ceramic lights and shove them! Not so explicitly of course.

The pattern I was using – have you guessed it yet? – is ~かもしれない. This, I had been taught, is a way to express something that might occur. And it is, most definitely, but it has a very distinguishable negative tinge to it that I didn’t fully comprehend until that moment.

Try a quick search of かもしれない on Here are the first ten results:

– teenage years might be bad
– people might not sign up for something
– conventional wisdom may not apply
– someone might fucking disappear
– something might be indiscrete
– someone might have seen two cars but isn’t sure because there was crazy shit happening
– something might help in the fight against metastasis
– a store might lose a customer
– some country might attack Iraq (guess that isn’t so maybe anymore, right?)
– smoking could cause fatal illness

Not a single happy thing in the top ten. No maybe getting laid. No maybe finding 100 dollars on the ground. And sure as hell no maybe selling millions of ceramic lights in America.

Probability is still something that gives me fits in Japanese, but I know exactly when to use ~かもしれない.

A couple of good examples:

事故があったかもしれません。    Maybe there was an accident.

A: 来ないかもしれない               He might not come.
B:残念!来てほしかったな。    Damn! I was hoping he’d come.

And here’s one I think I used in my introduction speech on the very first day of classes at the junior high school in town:


I may look a little scary, but I’m actually a very nice person, so please say hello.