Tofugu » Learn Japanese A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Fri, 04 Sep 2015 15:28:57 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Practicing Japanese on the JET Program: At Work and in the Community Mon, 10 Aug 2015 13:52:12 +0000 Now that you’re settled on JET and have prepared your Japanese study regimen, it’s time to use all Japanese all the time! But wait. At work you have to use English all day. And the majority of your time on JET is spent at work. This means the majority of your time in Japan on […]

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Now that you’re settled on JET and have prepared your Japanese study regimen, it’s time to use all Japanese all the time! But wait. At work you have to use English all day. And the majority of your time on JET is spent at work. This means the majority of your time in Japan on JET Program could be consumed with English.

Because your job title is English teacher, it is possible to stay in English mode during work hours, even though you’re at a Japanese workplace. You may block out Japanese inputs during work time because switching your brain between English and Japanese is tiring. Then you may do the same after work. Over time this adds up and you can go months or years without learning as much Japanese as you had planned.

Just as you have to be purposeful in setting up your Japanese study regimen, you also have to be purposeful about listening and using Japanese in your daily life. That’s why we’ve put together some advice for practicing Japanese at work (when you should mostly be using English) and practicing Japanese after work in the community. Be consistent and you’ll see the gains you’re looking for.

Practicing Japanese at Work

Practicing Japanese on the JET Program Teaching English in Japan

Photo by Chris Lewis

There will be times at work when you can use Japanese. Any interaction you have with non-English teaching staff, for one. But with your JTEs (Japanese Teachers of English) and students, it’s English a-go-go. And you’ll spend 90% of your time with these two groups.

With so much time spent on English, how can you maximize your own Japanese learning opportunities?

Reverse engineer English classes

This was an idea I had halfway through my JET experience. A few JTEs I worked used me for only 30% of the class, leaving me to stand at the back of the room awkwardly the rest of the time. After getting tired of pretending I was busy, I started bringing a pocket notebook to each class and reverse engineering the English being taught to the students. Having the English grammar on the board gave me a focal point. With the English in mind, I listened to the explanation in Japanese and learned the Japanese grammar equivalent.

Because I was a beginner at the time, every lesson was something I could learn from. But that doesn’t mean high level learners can’t benefit from class time down time. Our own Verity Lane used this time in her own way:

“When a teacher is speaking in Japanese in class, really listen. Don’t switch off. Learning to understand classroom Japanese can be really helpful. However, I would encourage particularly SHS JETs not to use Japanese in class. When you are in class you’re there to teach first, anything you learn comes second at that moment. It’s a time for listening practice, not speaking practice.”

Talk to students in Japanese during breaks

Though you should use English the majority of the time while at work, English is not beneficial to every situation. You may encounter students who are hesitant to speak English or are downright belligerent about learning in general. This is where your struggle with Japanese can help them. While the “yanki” students may take more time to warm up, those that are nervous about English can learn from your example. Tofugu writer Rich explains:

“Though I spoke English with students in class, outside of the classroom I’d often practice Japanese with my students – during lunch break, at after school clubs or if I ran into them outside of school. Not only did my Japanese improve, but students recognized my struggle with Japanese and became bolder in their use of English. Students learned more about me and my culture than they would have if I had built an ‘English only barrier.’ So in the end we both benefitted.”

Turn your lesson materials into study materials

If you’re making lesson plans for your students, reverse the English you’re teaching them into lessons for yourself.

For example, let’s say you’re a beginner at Japanese and teaching at an elementary school. Turn your lesson about animals into a self-study vocab lesson. If you’re an intermediate learner teaching senior high, take English sentences you’re writing for your students and translate them into Japanese.

Depending on your level and situation, you may get a lot or a little from this method. Even if you only learn a few new words, it’s worth the effort. You’ll be doing this work anyway. You might as well squeeze a little bit of learning out of it.

Use your desk time at work

If you’re having trouble blocking out study time at home, you may have all the time you need at work. ALTs and Japanese teachers are not assigned to a class for every period of the day. This is because Japanese teachers need time to prepare lesson plans, attend meetings, and chip away at other work duties. As an ALT, however, you don’t have quite as much to prepare. More than likely, you’ll be able to finish preparing for classes with time to spare.

Most JETs bemoan this part of the job (as I did), wishing there was more work to do or some other way to be useful. Certainly you can find ways to use this time that help your students, but most supervisors are 100% okay with you using this time to study Japanese. If you get your sit-down study time done at work, then the after work study time you have blocked out can be used for going out and using Japanese for even more gains.

Stay after school and chill with the teachers

If work is getting you down and you’re missing chances to connect with staff at your school, stay in the office after the students leave. Though you’re probably allowed to go home at 4:00p or 5:00p, stay after every once in a while, especially if you don’t have anything extra to do. After work hours, the teachers let down their hair and break out the snacks. The teachers’ room becomes a lot more lively and a little less stuffy. You’ll build all-important work bonds and get some Japanese practice. Increase your vocabulary and camaraderie at the same time.

Practicing Japanese in the Community

Practicing Japanese on the JET Program Cooking Group

Photo by masamunecyrus

After school is the perfect chance to get out and use your Japanese. No job titles restricting you to English now! Of course, real life rarely goes as planned. Your energy after work is bound to be sapped. It will be incredibly easy to arrive home, collapse and stay there. Don’t get me wrong. Collapsing and relaxing in a Japanese-free zone is necessary. But just like going to the gym, there are times when you have to force yourself. Here are a few things you can do to practice Japanese in the community.

Put yourself in new situations and keep a notebook on you

Chances are, you’ll get good at some survival Japanese right away because you’ll be put in situations where you have to communicate. But life is full of situations, with caveats, exceptions, and branching consequences. So drill some vocabulary and then get into situations where you think you’ll be likely to use it. Then get into them again. Each time you’ll get better at using the grammar and vocab you learned, as well as getting fuel for future study.

This future study fuel can be most easily remembered with a handy pocket notebook. This is something I did out of necessity and it ended up being one of my best teachers. When trying to communicate in a new situation, if you hit a wall, take note. This reveals gaps in your knowledge, which you should write down and add to you study regimen. Not only will you boost your ability level, but you’ll practically smooth out bumps in the road of your Japanese life.

Our own Verity shares her experiences in this area:

“Try to do things by yourself. It can be tempting to have a supervisor or a friend do everything for you. That’s fine at the start, especially for things like setting up a bank account, but don’t let it become a habit. If you don’t try it for yourself, you’ll never get better. Nothing bad will happen if you say something weird at the postoffice or the garage or the combini. And sometimes you can get a much better deal by doing things yourself. For example, I asked my supervisor for advice about getting my winter tires changed. His way cost me 8000yen. The next season I went to a garage myself and through a combination of Japanese and gestures, I got my tyres changed for 2000yen. Not only that, but I knew I could do it myself.”

Putting yourself out there

It’s great to get in casual chit chat with coworkers and students, but sometimes you need a lengthy, focused conversation to cement language concepts and force you to listen and talk longer. This is your “language power lifting” in comparison to usual “language aerobics.”

But how to do this?

Chances are, your town has community groups that offer conversation meet-ups or some kind of language exchange. Ask your supervisor if they know of any opportunities.

Look for volunteer activities. Part of your job is to serve your town anyway, so might as well get some language practice and connect with Japanese people while doing so. The great part about volunteer work is that it’s a nice break from routine of teaching and you’ll have more opportunities to use Japanese than you will at school.

Every prefecture has an AJET (Association for JET) group that organizes activities for JETs. Though you may only see other JETs, one of your fellow ALTs might bring a Japanese friend or coworker along. Or the event may involve interacting with Japanese people. At the very least they’re fun and stress relieving. At best you’ll get some Japanese practice in as well.

Join a club or group outside school, like taiko or ikebana. Even if you feel like you won’t like it, sign up anyway. Japan is a group-oriented society. So just being part of a group, whether you excel at the particular skill or not, will make you much more likely to become friends with the people in the group.

Another side effect of all this Japanese friend making is that it wards off culture shock and makes you less likely to join the “foreigners only club.” I spent some time in this club, mostly due to culture shock, and during that time my Japanese stayed right where it was. It’s a good idea to hang out with your fellow ALTs and forge those lasting friendships, but make sure you don’t exclude yourself from interactions with Japanese people. Your advancement in the Japanese language will suffer as will your ability to cope with cultural adjustments.

Practicing Japanese on the JET Program

Practicing Japanese on the JET Program Wakayama

Photo by jpellgen

These strategies are the ones I’ve done myself or learned from other ALTs and Japanese learners. But there are certainly others. If you have some that you’ve tried or an idea to improve one listed, leave it in the comments below so we can all benefit.

The best news is that practicing your Japanese in Japan is a virtuous cycle. When you study Japanese, you’re learning to communicate better. When you communicate, your Japanese gets better. All this raises you up and makes your life in Japan easier overall. Here’s to your continued learning and ever-improving life in Japan.

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JET Program Japanese Study: Setting Yourself Up for Success Mon, 03 Aug 2015 13:00:00 +0000 When you first arrive in Japan, it feels as if you’ve got all the time in the world to study. But 1-5 years can fly by fast (especially the 1). Unless you’re planning to live in Japan long term, there will eventually come a time when the total immersion of Japan is not available to […]

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When you first arrive in Japan, it feels as if you’ve got all the time in the world to study. But 1-5 years can fly by fast (especially the 1). Unless you’re planning to live in Japan long term, there will eventually come a time when the total immersion of Japan is not available to you.

You may not see yourself using Japanese after JET. But every bit you learn will make your life easier in Japan. Also a second language increases your marketability, no matter what job you apply for.

Whether you come to JET with a degree in Japanese or next to zero experience, you have a prime opportunity to maximize your learning and take your language ability to new heights.

Read on for good habits, better ideas, and best practices for getting the most out of your Japanese language learning on JET.

The Bare Minimum (What You Should Do Before You Arrive)

kana study notebook

Photo by Ivana Vasilj

For those coming to Japan with zero Japanese ability (like I did), learn kana as quickly as possible. If you don’t have time to learn it before you go, you have a 12+ hour flight ahead of you in which there’s nothing to do but sit.

Use a few hours of this time to cram kana into your short term memory. As soon as you land, you’ll be surrounded by opportunities for your brain to recall what you’ve learned.

For easy and efficient kana guides that help you remember with pictures and mnemonics, click the links below:

If you’ve still got time/energy, go over the first 3 chapters of Japanese for JETs (more on that below), or a better textbook. The more you can understand about basic sentence structure before you land, the better. That way, you can start putting together the handy vocab you learn and use it to communicate right away. If this isn’t possible, cram some survival phrases to hold you over for a few days until you get enough down time to study basic grammar.

The point is to hit the ground reading and speaking, be it ever so rudimentary. The sooner you start using Japanese, the faster you will learn and the better off you’ll be.

Get Your Study Materials Together

japanese textbook for japanese study

Photo by abuckingham

Before you can study, you’ll need study materials. Though you may have some already, CLAIR provides two sources for learning Japanese:

  1. The Japanese for JETs textbook
  2. The JET Programme Japanese Language Course

The Japanese for JETs textbook is CLAIR’s effort to offer some kind of beginning language study materials to JETs that may arrive in Japan with nothing. It comes with a CD and pages full of words. I found the first few chapters useful when I was starting out, but switched to better learning materials as soon as I learned kana.

The general consensus about this book is that it’s good if you’ve got nothing else. But considering the wealth of info online and the fact the book is filled with romaji, it’s best to pass on it and find something better.

CLAIR also offers the JET Programme Japanese Language Course. As recently as a few years ago this was still administered by mail, but it has since been moved online. It consists of a beginner and intermediate course, which you can choose between freely without testing. There is also a Translation and Interpretation Course which you have to test into.

If you want to sign up for this course, tell your supervisor in October when they give you the JET Participant Contact Information Confirmation/Language Course Survey Sheet.

The course consists of lessons and four or more tests a month. If you miss the test submission deadline three times, you are removed from the course.

On the plus side, the deadlines are good way to keep yourself on track. Aside from that I don’t know many other positives. I never signed up for the course myself and most people I knew who did switched to better study tools rather quickly. This old review from 2010 seems to like the course, especially the grammar explanations. But I would imagine the course has changed a lot since then (hopefully for the better). CLAIR itself offers some positive reviews from JETs who have taken the course, but take them with a grain of salt.

When it comes to the negatives, Tofugu writer Verity gives us her experience:

“I completed the beginner’s course, but gave up on the intermediate. The beginner’s course is in romaji, which is really its biggest fault. The grammar explanations are not clear. I almost always had to look them up elsewhere before I could get them. They were less explanations than examples. Also, showing the books to Japanese co-workers often made them confused too. The multiple choice tests (that used to be scantrons that you posted in, but are now done online) often have more than one answer that could be right, but it’s just a case of picking the more right one. Even my co-workers couldn’t work it out sometimes. There isn’t much content in the books either in terms of vocab or useful expressions. I had a friend who took the Advanced course and she was very frustrated that even the advanced course had furigana. It wasn’t advanced at all. Basically, they are written like Japanese English textbooks, about as interesting and useful, ie. not very. They are incredibly patronising. The only good thing I heard was that it gave people study deadlines, but people didn’t actually use the books to study for the monthly tests.”

It’s really up to you whether or not to take the course. It’s absolutely free, so you might as well sign up and try the first lesson and judge for yourself.

If you find Japanese for JETs and the JPJLC lacking, head on over to our page of recommended Japanese learning resources. Pick out a few textbooks, websites, and apps you can use to build an effective study regimen.

A word of advice: no matter what your study regimen looks like, make sure it includes kanji. You’re likely to learn get a lot of grammar, speaking, and listening practice because you’ll be surrounded by it. But kanji won’t come automatically. This is where a program like WaniKani could do you a lot of good. Not only is it an easy way to have kanji learning fed to you with a silver spoon, your Japanese life will ensure you have plenty of opportunities to spot kanji in the wild, further solidifying what you’ve learned.

Do a Little Sit down Study Every Day (Don’t Worry, You Can Start Small)

japanese apartment

Photo by Karl Baron

Once you’ve gotten your study materials, you need to set aside study time. Even though you’re surrounded by Japanese, you may not be immersed. The ALT job (pretty much) requires you to use English 8 hours a day, after which time you may usually be so tired that you don’t go out. Even if you do immerse yourself, immersion doesn’t equal learning. You still need to have sit down and study every day. It’s the only way you’ll learn new material that you can try out in real life situations.

Learn by Doing

volunteering in japan on jet program

Photo by Hajime Nakano

Nothing gets vocabulary or grammar stuck in your head like using it. Why else would textbooks be filled with exercises? But better than textbook exercises is practical application. As former JET and Tofugu writer Verity advises:

“Get involved in teacher’s activities, not just school clubs. Learning through doing is a very powerful tool. For example, I helped the teachers clean the gym and set out chairs before ceremonies. The teachers I was working with explained things in Japanese. I helped through a combination of listening and watching others. Doing the activity you just learned the words for cements it far more than just looking at it on paper. Also, helping with such tasks will improve your relationship with other teachers, so they may be more willing to communicate with you at other times.”

JET Program Japanese Study Success = Failure

festival in japan on jet program

I’ll end with some great advice I got from my Prefectural Advisor soon after I arrived in Japan. “Language is about communication, not perfection. If you’re using hand gestures and messed up grammar, but eventually get your point across, you’ve succeeded.”

I, knowing almost zero Japanese at that time, was terrified to speak, especially surrounded by other JETs who had studied Japanese as their undergrad major. But his advice released that anxiety and allowed me to fail. And fail I did. A lot.

“Failing your way to success” has become a popular idea in recent years and for good reason. That’s how learning works.

If you’re on JET, study every day. Then go out and fail. You’re in the best place you’ll ever be to do it.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Why English Is Hard and Japanese Is Easy Wed, 06 May 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Before all my past linguistics professors start to wail and compose angry comments, let’s get that deliberately sensationalist title out of the way: Really, no language is harder than any other language. Wherever a child is born, whatever language is being spoken there, that baby will learn its native language – or languages – just […]

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Before all my past linguistics professors start to wail and compose angry comments, let’s get that deliberately sensationalist title out of the way: Really, no language is harder than any other language. Wherever a child is born, whatever language is being spoken there, that baby will learn its native language – or languages – just as easily.

The problem, though, is that we don’t get to choose where we are born. And if you’re a native speaker of English who wishes you could speak Japanese, starting over as a baby is not an option. But who cares what babies think? Talking about how easily babies learn Japanese does nothing but make me angry at those lucky Japanese babies and the annoying linguists who think this is a relevant answer to the question.

Of course what we’re really interested in, as adults, is how hard a language is to learn for an adult – and the answer to that question depends on where you’re starting. Yes, it will take me longer to get fluent in Japanese than in, say, Spanish (the Department of Defense has done the calculations, and if you’re studying Japanese, click that link at your own peril). But that’s purely because I am starting out as an English speaker. What makes Japanese hard is that it’s so different in structure from my native language, while what makes Spanish easy is that it’s much more similar.

There’s no answer to “how hard is this language for an adult,” only “how hard is this language for THIS adult.” Regardless of whether we’re talking about babies or adult learners, there’s no such thing as an easy or hard language in absolute terms. But as adult learners, we’re not interested in absolutes – for us, as with the English/Japanese/Spanish comparison, it’s all relative. And there are actually interesting things to say about some of the details and relative difficulty. There are features a language can have that are relatively rare in the world’s languages, so they’ll be hard for speakers of a lot of other languages. We could fairly call those features “difficult.”

And when we look at it that way, English has a fair number of difficulties, while Japanese – yes, Japanese – has some features that make it easy. What’s more, they actually share some features that make both of them hard for everyone else – which means that whichever one you’re starting with, you should at least be glad you don’t have to learn them both.

English vs Japanese: Pronunciation Battle

Japanese Is Easy

Photo by Ben Ward

While no sounds are inherently harder for those irrelevant babies to learn to pronounce in their native language, some are inherently rarer – they occur in fewer of the world’s languages. This means that speakers of more languages are going to have trouble when they encounter them in a foreign language. And when it comes to these less common sounds, English has got a bunch of them.


English has some consonant sounds that are extremely rare. To make matters more confusing, there are two of them that we write the same way, as th. Here are words that start with these two sounds and the symbol that linguists use to write them:

voiceless θ: thin
voiced ð: the

These consonants are found in less than ten percent of the world’s languages. This means that the vast majority of learners coming to English already can’t pronounce these sounds. Most of them will end up substituting either t and d or s and z depending on the language they started with. Japanese speakers will tend to use s and z as you know if you’ve read our Guide to Loanword Phonology, as in the following:

voiceless θ: marathon – マラソン marason
voiced ð: leather – レザー rezaa

What’s particularly cruel to non-native English learners is that we not only have this annoying sound, there’s no way to avoid it, because it’s in words that are used constantly and have no real alternative, like “the” and “that” and “there”. It’s almost like we wanted a way to out someone as a non-native speaker every time they open their mouth.

Another weird consonant is the way R is pronounced in American English. In the vast majority of languages that have some kind of R sound, it’s either a trill or a quick tap against the alveolar ridge (that ridge behind your front teeth). This thing we do in American English where we bunch up the tongue in the middle of our mouth is basically designed to torture nearly everyone else on the planet.

Japanese, in contrast, has no rare consonants. The only candidate might be the exact pronunciation of the f sound, but that only occurs in a limited context, and isn’t going to trip you up every time you try to use the definite article.

Advantage: Japanese


English has only five vowel letters but many more actual vowel sounds. We need special symbols to talk about them precisely:


Compared to other languages of the world this is an above-averagely large number of vowels, and English can be fairly described as having an “unusually rich and complex vowel system, and a great deal of variation in vowel pronunciation across dialects.”

“Unusually rich and complex.” That’s a good thing if you’re talking about, say, cuisine, or literature. For learning a language it just means trouble. For example, the difference between the tense/lax pairs in the chart above is hard for just about anyone learning English – with the result that someone with a strong non-native accent has trouble pronouncing words like “seen” (tense vowel) and “sin” (lax vowel) differently – they both sound like “seen.”

In contrast, Japanese has what is basically a classic system of vowels, which is 5, corresponding to the five vowel letters of our alphabet. (The u sound has a slightly unusual pronunciation but you can get by without ever noticing it.)

So English speakers learning Japanese already have all the vowels they need. There are slight phonetic differences, which is why you probably have a detectable accent, but you can get close enough by using vowels you already know. That’s much easier than the poor Japanese learner, who has to learn to pronounce vowels that they never knew existed.

Advantage: Japanese

And that’s before we’ve even addressed the other thing, which is that in English we only have five letters to spell all of those vowels with, AND we use them differently than all other languages. We’ll get to that later.

Syllable structure/consonant clusters

Individual sounds aren’t the only thing you might find difficult in a new language. It’s also how those sounds are put together, and again, here English poses more of a challenge.

Although it’s kids’ stuff compared to some languages (hello Russia and neighbors), English is more complex than average when it comes to how many consonants you can cram into one syllable.

In comparison, while Japanese doesn’t have the simplest possible syllable structure, it’s pretty close. In some languages, the most complicated possible syllables are sequences of one consonant and one vowel. Japanese only allows a tiny bit more complexity than this. If you’ve read our guides to the Japanese past tense and English loanwords in Japanese, you know that the consonants that can occur next to each other in Japanese words is very limited – certain identical consonant sequences and certain nasal-consonant sequence – and only in the middle of a word. That’s why English words borrowed into Japanese tend to have a bunch of vowels added to them.

The result is that most Japanese sound sequences are going to be possible in whatever other language the learner is coming from, so they don’t present a challenge. The most unusual thing is those sequences of two identical consonants (what linguistics geeks call geminates), but once you learn to the trick to those, it’s the same for all of them. That’s much less complicated than the variety of consonant sequences you have to wrap your tongue around in English, where you can begin a syllable with three consonants (strike), end it with four consonants (texts, which actually ends in the four sounds ksts), and of course there are various different two- and three- and four-consonant possibilities.

And don’t even get me started on how crazy English stress is.

Advantage: Japanese

English vs Japanese: Morphology Battle

Japanese Is Easy

Photo by Adam Koford

Morphology is what linguistics geeks call the study of the structure of words. I’m not going to address syntax (sentence structure) as such in this article, but there a few things languages often do with words to make them fit into sentence structure that both Japanese and English learners can be happy we don’t have to worry about.

Verb conjugation is pretty simple in Japanese. There’s no agreement for person – compare to the Spanish, say:

yo digo – I say
tú dices – you say
él dice – he/she says
nosotros decimos – we say
vosotros decís – you plural say
ellos dicen – they say

In Japanese, it’s all “hanashimasu” no matter who is doing the hanashimas-ing. In English, it’s only a hair more complicated – say/says is the only difference.

In both Japanese and English, we don’t have to learn noun gender, that painfully arbitrary stuff that means that in Spanish you have to use the masculine form of “the” for el lago “the lake” and the feminine form for la mesa “the table” even though these things clearly have no sex at all.

We also don’t have to learn noun case – this is the thing wherein some languages, nouns take a different form depending on whether they are subject, object, etc of a sentence. The classic example is Latin: “girl” is different depending on the role the girl plays in the sentence:

puella if she’s the subject, like, “the girl is eating sushi”
puellam if she’s the object, like, “the dog bit the girl”
puellae if she’s the indirect object, like, “I gave sushi to the girl”
(And that’s only one declension – nouns are divided into several sets, each of which has different endings.)

I haven’t really researched morphological differences thoroughly enough to give a score, but I’m going to do it anyway. I give Japanese the honorary award for being harder because of another thing: the different forms of the numerals for counting different kinds of objects. If you’re counting a bunch of pencils you go “ippon, nihon, sanbon…” and if you’re counting a bunch of dogs you go “ippiki, nihiki, sanbiki….” and if you’re counting sheets of paper you go “ichimai, nimai, sanmai….”

While it’s true that there are also general numbers for counting, and that most people can probably go their whole life without needing to count a bunch of small animals, I’m giving Japanese extra credit for this one. Back in the day when I taught intro linguistics, I used to tell students there were languages like that because the textbooks said there were, but I’m not sure I really believed it. Imagine my surprise when I started studying Japanese…

Advantage: English, because I said so.

English vs Japanese vs Everybody Else: Vocabulary Battle

Japanese Is Easy

Photo by Pierre Metivier

Because of their history, both English and Japanese have unusually complicated vocabulary systems. English is basically a Germanic language, but took in a lot of words with Romance/Latin roots from French at the Norman Conquest. Likewise Japanese has a core of native vocabulary and then took in a whole bunch of words from Chinese. Both histories result in similar complications that are a pain in the ass for second language learners.

In Japanese, this is why you’ve got different kun/on readings for kanji – basically the language has a whole bunch of pairs of synonyms, with different historical origins, that are written with the same character. For those of you who are not (yet) actually playing along at home by studying Japanese, a quick explanation:

Let’s say you’re learning the kanji 豚, which means “pig.” There are two ways to pronounce that same character: the historically native Japanese, “buta,” and the historically Chinese, “ton.” Which way you pronounce it depends on what word it’s in: 豚肉 “pork” is buta-niku, whereas that delicious fried pork cutlet 豚カツ is tonkatsu.

But while you’re wailing and gnashing your teeth about how much this means you have to memorize in learning Japanese, what you probably don’t realize is that English has basically the same problem for the language learner. There are many cases where the relationship in meaning between two words is completely obscure because we use a Germanic root for one and a Latin root for the other.

For example, “mouth” is a Germanic noun, but when we make an adjective meaning “related to the mouth” we use the Latinate root, “oral.” Compare this to German, where the word for “mouth” is mund and to make an adjective meaning “related to the mouth” we mostly just stick a suffix on the same word: mündlich. Which would you rather have to learn?

Or compare it to Latin itself: In English, we have the German word “hear” but “related to hearing” is “auditory.” In Latin, “hear” is audire and “related to hearing is” – wait for it – auditorio. Both contain the root audi, and you can derive all kinds of words related to hearing from that root in consistent ways. Latin is another language that is supposed to be “hard,” but for that pair of words, I know which would be easier to memorize. And there are a lot more pairs like this in English, basically most of the vocabulary for body parts and functions (heart/cardiac, see/visual…. your foot doctor is a podiatrist… etc.)

There are also segments of English vocabulary that do the same thing but add confusion by being less systematic. For example, we borrowed a lot of words relating to food from the French, but not all, with results like the following:

The word for a cow in a barnyard is cow, but in the kitchen it’s beef; likewise, you’ve got a pig in the pen and pork on your plate. Compare to Japanese where niku is meat, pork is buta-niku or ton-niku, both “pig meat,” and beef is gyuu-niku “cow meat.” I know which pairs I’d rather have to memorize, right? And then just to keep those foreigners on their toes, we call chickens, lambs, ducks and any number of fish the same thing whether alive or grilled. I’m sure this results in a lot of people digging around in the dictionary wondering what the word for “chicken meat” is – expecting something just as unrelated as the words “cow” and “beef” – and then wanting to kick someone when it turns out to be “chicken.”

Advantage: Neither. Speakers of other languages should be equally sorry they are learning either Japanese or English.

English vs Japanese vs Everybody Else Including Native Learners: Writing Systems Battle

Japanese Is Easy

Photo by Joe Kester

Both English and Japanese have difficult writing systems. Kanji kicks everyone’s asses – it takes Japanese kids a long time to learn too. And English has a ton of irregularities that make it harder to learn to read than most languages that use the Latin alphabet. There’s probably no winner in this battle other than people who manage to go through life without having to learn either, but English is probably a lot harder than you realize if you’ve been reading it all your life.

Japanese combines two distinct types of writing systems. One is the familiar type that represents pronunciation: when you see the kana か, you know to move your mouth to make the sound “ka” come out. The other element of the writing system, kanji, represents morphemes, which is what linguists call the basic elements of meaning that make up words. Here’s another example, like the one we saw above for the word pig, just to make sure you get it if you’re not already studying the language: When you see the kanji 見, you know that the word will be something related to seeing – you have an idea of the meaning – but you don’t know whether to pronounce it mi or ken without knowing the particular word it’s part of.

If you speak a language that uses an alphabet, kanji can seem crazy. Why make people memorize thousands of characters when they could just memorize 26 letters and combine them any way they need to? But one important thing to realize is that writing systems aren’t designed to be easy for the learner – they evolve to be useful for the fluent speaker. After all, you spend a tiny period of your life learning to read, compared to the years you’ll spend reading afterwards.

And in Japanese, once you’ve learned the system and the language, reading and writing kanji is actually more effective than using a system that represents just pronunciation (as anyone who tries to read Japanese in just romaji will eventually realize). The reason for this basically follows from what we learned earlier about the sound system: Japanese has a relatively small sound system and allows only relatively simple syllables. That means there’s a limited number of ways you can combine sounds into words, so there are many homophones – words that sound the same but have different meanings. If I walk up to you and say tsuku – or if you read つく – you have no way of knowing what it means unless there some context to rely on, because it can mean any of the following and more:

吐く to breathe
点く to catch fire
着く to reach
突く to poke
付く to be attached
憑く to haunt
浸く to be pickled

That’s a modest case, because I made it two syllables. Go type “ki” into a Japanese dictionary and you’ll get a much more impressive list that I couldn’t stand the idea of typing here.

Of course in writing, like in the list above, which meaning is intended is clear, because they’re all different kanji. Native Japanese speakers will sometimes disambiguate even in speaking by drawing a kanji in the air with one finger. So despite the time it takes to learn, the writing system makes sense given the structure of the language.

And in fact, if you want to argue in favor of a writing system that represents pronunciation, you probably shouldn’t do it by talking about how much easier it is to read and write English. There are plenty of languages where the alphabet reliably tells you how to pronounce a word, but English isn’t one of them.

There are even ways that English is a similar kind of mixed system, consistently representing morphemes rather than sounds. A common word that’s hard for second language learners to pronounce is “says.” They look at it and figure, just pronounce “say” and put the sound s at the end, right? Sadly, nope. It’s more like “sez” (a spelling you sometimes see in comic books to indicate casual speech or dialect, which is actually pretty weird since that’s the standard pronunciation).

So why don’t we write it “sez”? Instead of representing the pronunciation, the writing system preserves the relationship of meaning instead: you know that “say” and “says” are forms of the same verb by looking at them, even though it’s not clear how to say them. Just as if the sequence “say” were a kanji character!

A reversed but still similar case is the words to/two/too: they are all pronounced the same but written differently, just like all the different kanji for “tsuku.” Yeah, you’d be able to tell which was which by context most of the time. But there’s no real pressure on the writing system to regularize those spellings, since they do serve a function by making those words easy to distinguish at a glance.

So some apparently irregularities in English writing make some sense, the same way kanji makes more sense once you think about it. Unfortunately, this is not an excuse for most of them.

The basic problem with English spelling is a historical one. (Here’s a cute video that explains much of it ). Our spelling was standardized by the invention of printing at an unfortunate time – before a bunch of pronunciation changes took place. This accounts for some obvious things like the extra letters in a word like “thought” – there used to be a sound where the gh is, but it went away – or “cough” – where the pronunciation of the sound represented by gh changed to f.

But the worst part of all is the vowels. To start, there’s the Latin alphabet. We got it from Latin, which only has five vowels. Since we have more vowel sounds than that, as I mentioned earlier, we have to use combinations of letters to represent some of them. Some of which aren’t even combinations of adjacent letters: pity the second language learner who has to learn that the e at the end of bite isn’t pronounced, but is stuck on so you know it’s a different vowel than the word bit.

And the additional historical problem here is that as a result of something called the Great Vowel Shift, we use those basic vowel letters aeiou differently from everyone else. In other languages that use the Latin alphabet, the vowel letters are pronounced the way they’re pronounced in romaji: ka, ki, ke, ko, ku. To everyone else, ki is how you write what we’d write “kee.” That’s nowhere near the vowel in “kite.” Likewise, the vowel in ka is nothing like the vowel in the word “mate.” There are enough confusing features of English spelling that you can write a poem like this one:

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.
I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;
Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.
Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
Just compare heart, hear and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word.
Sword and sward, retain and Britain
(Mind the latter how it’s written).

…that goes on quite a bit longer if you follow that link. While you may complain because you can’t look at a kanji and know how to pronounce it, I think most speakers of English as a second language would feel the same way about trying to read that poem.

Basically, when it comes to writing, speakers of nearly any other language should be equally sorry they are learning either Japanese or English, when they could have chosen any number of languages where the alphabet consistently represents actual pronunciation. The only possible difference is that speakers of Chinese probably have an advantage learning kanji, but the characters are not the same in both languages and certainly not pronounced the same. As one native Chinese speaker explains it, it’s more just “after learned thousands of Chinese characters from young and having got extremely familiar with such writing system already, you hardly have reason fearing learning a couple of hundred more of them.”

Advantage: Neither, with maybe a slight advantage to Japanese just because there are so many millions of native speakers of Chinese.

Can’t Complain

Japanese Is Easy

Photo by NobMouse

So there you have it – at least some small but interesting portion of it – when we look across the languages of the world and see where Japanese and English compare. Yeah, Japanese is not a piece of cake if you’re a native speaker of English. But anyone trying to learn your language will probably want to punch you if they hear you complain, and they’d be entirely justified. So we probably better keep our whining to ourselves.

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The Dragon Ball Training Guide to Self-Improvement Wed, 29 Apr 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Olympic judoka and UFC champion Ronda Rousey turned some heads and busted some scouters when she appeared at this year’s Wrestlemania wearing a Dragon Ball Z t-shirt with an image of Vegeta and the phrase, “It’s over 9,000!” “You think there’s a bigger Dragon Ball Z fan in mma than you?” an interviewer once asked. “No!” She scoffed, then explained […]

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Olympic judoka and UFC champion Ronda Rousey turned some heads and busted some scouters when she appeared at this year’s Wrestlemania wearing a Dragon Ball Z t-shirt with an image of Vegeta and the phrase, “It’s over 9,000!”

“You think there’s a bigger Dragon Ball Z fan in mma than you?” an interviewer once asked.

“No!” She scoffed, then explained how Dragon Ball Z inspired her to train and admitting that she had a big crush on Vegeta. “I would have gone cartoon for (Vegeta)!” she says before bursting out laughing. “Dude, he knocked up Bulma and then ditched out to go train… that’s hardcore.”

But Rousey isn’t the only celebrity or sports figure inspired by the likes of Goku, Vegeta and company. Marcus Brimage, another UFC fighter, claims Dragon Ball inspired him to be a fighter. MMA pioneer Carlos Newton called his style Dragon Ball Jiu-Jitsu, and mimed a kamehameha as a victory celebration. In other sports, Spanish tennis sensation Rafael Nadal is also a fan of the series, “I have all the DVDs, from the first one to the last one.”

Rapper Soulja Boy made a rap inspired by Dragon Ball (warning it’s both vulgar and horrible). Apparently smoking up makes him look like Gohan. Other artists, like XV, Machine Gun Kelly, J-Live, Wu-Tang Clan’s the RZA, Lupe Fiasco and Childish Gambino (to name a few) make Dragon Ball references and word play, know what I’m saiyan?

The action series, Dragon Ball by Akira Toriyama garnered worldwide fame. With all the powering up, transformations, wishes, special techniques, colorful characters, and violent battles, kids’ll tell you Dragon Ball is fun to watch. But underneath all that action lies life lessons and sound advice for self-improvement.

Like the athletes and lyricists mentioned above, we can all use Dragon Ball as inspiration. The series motivated me to work out, take my running hobby to the next level, and improve my Japanese. And Dragon Ball continues to inspire me to buckle down and get things done today. So next time you need motivation or seek to kick it to the next level ask yourself, WWGD? (what would Goku do)?

Not Awe But Inspiration


When Dragon Ball Z first hit Cartoon Network and gained mainstream popularity in the US, fans discussed the show with awe.

“How cool would it be to be strong like Goku?”

“Did you see when he trained at 100 times gravity?!”

“Wish I could fire off energy blasts!”

Everyone talked about the show’s crazy, over the top moments. They mimicked kamehamehas, did the fusion dance, and argued over power-levels, remaining spectators instead of applying Dragon Ball‘s lessons to the real world

Ronda Rousey couldn’t train with her cartoon crush Vegeta, but she took inspiration from Dragon Ball and became a champion. Rafael Nadalalso hasn’t turned Super Saiyajin (yet), but watching him will convince you he can. I haven’t run Snake Way, but I’ve run a marathon and an ultra-marathon in its place.

Sure we may never blast a big bang attack, drink of Korin‘s “sacred water,” or instantly alter our hair color. But we can take the lessons and strategies that lie beneath all the lightning fast punches, teleportations and power blasts and use them to improve our lives.

Getting Started

Commit and Make Sacrifices


When you want to make an omelet, you have to crack some eggs. Set a goal and commit to it. But remember, commitment means sacrifice.

Kid Gohan’s (forced) commitment to training meant he couldn’t study, enjoy being spoiled by his mother, hang out with his woodland pals, or enjoy his favorite hobby, crying. Later in the series, college-age Gohan commits again when he sits still for over 24 hours, allowing Old Kai to unlock his hidden potential.

When we make a goal, we have make sacrifices to achieve it. Gonna pass the JLPT? Invest time in studying. Gonna lose weight? Better forego movie theater popcorn and a skip those bar crawls. Like Gohan, we all have to make sacrifices when we commit to a goal.

Create a Routine


Piccolo removes his weighted hat and armor before battle. Kid Goku often stretched and warmed up with calisthenics. The Z Warriors prepped for battle by donning their battle gear – at least until said outfits got torn to shreds.

Tell your body and mind that it’s go-time by maintaining a routine. Create a regimen around whatever you’re preparing for. Do the same warm up, down the same drink, use the same writing utensil, and repeat the same mantra whenever you practice.

In A Fighter’s Mind Tim Ferris writes, “Routine can help us enter Musashi‘s mind of no-mind or the zone… It’s a kind of relaxed super-competence.” Routine can help our minds relax, fall into a rhythm and perform without distraction, overcoming the distractions and nervousness when we finally face our challenge.

Reach and Then Redefine Your Limits and Goals


Goku didn’t rest on his laurels when he pulled off his first kamehameha, or when he beat Piccolo to win the Tenkaichi Budōkai Tournament. Goku’s constant progresses redefined him and what it meant to be Saiyajin throughout the series.

In his book 10-Minute Toughness, Jason Selk calls this the “Plus One Concept,”

The best way to climb a mountain is to take one step at a time. (The) +1 concept (is) the idea that success can be achieved by meeting a string of basic, incremental goals in the present that will will ultimately lead to excellence in the future… Believe in yourself and your ability to make gradual improvements, and the results will follow.”

As with Dragon Ball‘s cast of characters did, expect gradual “plus one” improvements as you work your way to your goal.

When you achieve one goal, set another and aim higher. Passed the JLPT level 4? Congratulations, now aim for level 3. Ran a 5k? Try a 10k. Watched 20 episodes of Dragon Ball in a day? Next time watch 21.

In Turn It Up! Jeffrey Spencer states, “Even though most people want an easy life and think it will give them the life fulfillment they seek, my experience tells me that the happiest people are those who perpetually seek goals and whose lives are appropriately challenged, so they remain alert and focused on moving forward to a better future.” New challenges keep life interesting, satisfying and therefore happy.

The Two-Fold Path To Improvement

Surround Yourself With Badasses


Okay, maybe Krillin isn’t the best example, but thanks to a series of badass teachers and foes, Goku became one of the baddest beings in the universe.

Goku learned the kamehameha from Master Roshi. He pushed himself to learn King Kai’s Kaio-ken technique and the Genki Dama because of Vegeta. Majin Buu led him to Super Saiyajin 3, Beerus pushed him to Super Saiyajin God, and the list goes on.

Like Goku, surround yourself with people above your level. “Badasses hang out with other badasses…. Make friends with successful people. If you want to become better then you need to allow the good influences of other people to rub off on you. Let them bring you up to their level” (

Whatever your goal, find a great training partner or a rival. Let them push you. Learn from them and improve. Want to learn Japanese? Find a senpai or native speaker. Want to get better at a martial art? Train with a higher belt rank. Want to become a great cook? Learn from a master chef.

Had training with mediocrity satisfied Goku, he would have never defeated the likes of Piccolo, Vegeta, or any of the other threats to earth. Thanks to the laundry list of badasses Goku faced and trained with, he became the supreme badass we know today.

Blaze Your Own Path


Holy contradictions Saiyaman! Rich just finished telling us to surround ourselves with badasses, but now he’s telling us to blaze your own path?! Aren’t they opposing strategies?

Yes and no. Just look at Goku’s wardrobe. He entered his first tournament wearing Master Roshi’s 亀 (kame/turtle) logo and donned King Kai ‘s 界王 (world king) logo before changing to his own 悟 (go/enlightenment) logo.

After enjoying the tutelage of various masters, Goku becomes his own master. During his solo voyage to Namek, Goku trains alone – improving his techniques and making them his own. When he finally arrives on Namek, its under his own “悟” mark.

Although one needs others to learn from and aspire to, self discovery is also essential. By blazing our own paths we can make others’ teachings our own and find what best works for us. Study Japanese from teachers, converse with native speakers, and then review alone to make what you learned concrete. Learn new techniques from masters and then practice alone to perfect them and make them your own.

While advocating both training with badasses and blazing your own path sounds contradictory, we can employ both strategies to reach maximum heights. Like Goku, utilize both tactics to build the best possible you.

Embrace Downtime

Push the Limits, Then Rest


Follow the Kame school tenet – train hard and rest hard. Sayajin push their bodies to the limit and recover stronger than before. Dragon Ball‘s lesson is clear – rest is vital.

Hard work needs to be rewarded with rest and recovery. “Athletes (or anyone) must learn to toe the fine line of doing what is needed without overdoing it” (Selk). Overdoing it can grossly inhibit one’s motivation, performance, and overall well being.

Similarly, mental exhaustion can lead to “difficulty concentrating, impaired creativity, and negative attitudes toward one’s self, others, one’s work and life” (Bartlett 130). In general overtraining and overstudying lead to inefficiency and unnecessary suffering. It’s probably one reason, among many, that Vegeta is always so pissy.

Good old fashioned “R & R” gives muscles time to recover and grow and allows new information to soak in. Research shows sleep is beneficial for absorbing newly learned information and technique (Claudia Nagel). So whether pushing yourself physically or mentally take a break and come back refreshed for a renewed effort and maximized benefits.



When Bulma, Krillin, and Gohan head to Namek, Krillin and Gohan make the most of their downtime and space capsule’s confined space by practicing visualization. The two meditate and envision battling one another. Although their level of psychic connection might be difficult to pull off in reality, visualization reaps big rewards.

Visualization is creating a mental picture of a situation, such as seeing yourself giving a speech, (taking a test, scoring a goal, etc.)… Also called mental rehearsal, visualization helps you overcome the mental and emotional causes of anxiety. (Verderber 35)

Through visualization, also called a “mental workout,” we imagine the execution of our goal and positive results. Countless athletes (golf legend Jack Nicklaus, Olympic gymnasts Julianne McNamara and Peter Vidmar) swear by visualization, which builds confidence, increases efficiency, combats anxiety, and gives a sense of experience.

Scientists believe that we may experience real-world and imaginary actions in similar ways… Whether we walk on a mountain trail or only picture it, we activate many of the same neural networks – paths of interconnected nerve cells that link what your body does to the brain impulses that control it…. Imagining yourself doing movements can help you get better at them. (Rodriguez)

So if you’re taking a test, imagine what it takes to perform your best – at your desk, opening your test booklet, reading the questions and knowing the answers. If your competing physically, imagine your techniques, be it throwing the perfect spiral, sinking a free-throw, and pulling off the perfect sequences in a karate kata.

Review Your Motivation


Goku and company rarely reviewed their motivation because it stared them in the face; as a matter of life or death for themselves, their loved ones, and the entire planet. In the first Tenkaichi Budōkai Tournament, Nam exemplifies the power of motivation, hoping to win the tournament and prize money to buy water for his drought stricken village.

During downtime review your motivation. Are you saving the planet? Helping others? Trying to land a new job? Supporting your family? Trying to be the best you?

In Running With Kenyans, Adharanand Finn proposes that one reason Kenya churns out great marathoners is that running provides an escape from poverty. Major race winnings prove life altering for the both runners and their families. Suffering in practice and the event can’t compare to the everyday hardships the runners will face if they don’t win.

Take it from Nam and periodically review your motivations. When we are worn, training becomes tiresome, and our drive wanes, it provides a much needed spark. Review them again before the big event, fueling your resolve down to the final stretch.


Don’t Forget Your Routine, Sacrifices, or Motivation


From tournaments brimming with spectators to intergalactic face-offs, Goku always showed up, warmed up, and faced his next challenge.

Remember that routine you made? Don’t abandon it now. Remember all the hours you sacrificed, don’t let them go to waste. Continue on as you have. Different circumstances can’t phase you now, you prepared for this!

Did Goku ever show up to a fight lacking pants? Maybe once. Did Goku ever show up to a fight lacking confidence? No.

Why? He knows he put in the time and effort. You did too. Think back to all of your sacrifices and, like Goku, let your preparation fuel your confidence.

Face Your Fears


Despite training under Master Roshi with Goku, Krillin lacked confidence when he had to face his former senpai, a fellow student from Orinji temple at the first Tenkaichi Budōkai Tournament. He even considered quitting until Goku convinced him to “give it his best shot.” Krillin does and handedly beats his senpai’s baldheaded ass.

Despite our preparations, many of us lose confidence down the stretch. When the time comes review your motivation and remember all your sacrifices. Don’t get scared off when the finish line is in sight.

Take the test. Make the speech. Run the race. Don’t let your fears sabotage all your preparation. Face them head on!

Let Go


Sometimes, despite all the sacrifice, despite training with badasses, despite blazing our own paths and sticking to routine and considering our motivations, things still go wrong.

We lock up during a speech. Our minds go blank during a test. We are asked a question in Japanese and can’t understand despite having studied the words and grammar being used.

At the start of Dragon Ball Z, Goku didn’t even know he was Saiyajin. A few story arcs later he faced his toughest foe, Frieza, and things were not going well. Frieza crippled Vegeta, reduced Piccolo to a bystander, and blew Krillin to dust.

What did Goku do?

He let go. He got angry. And bam! He turned Super Saiyajin. “Five minutes” or about one hundred episodes later, Goku defeated Frieza.

Bruce Lee once said, “And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit, it hits all by itself… Any technique, however worthy and desirable, becomes a disease when the mind is obsessed with it.”

Stressing over the situation makes it worse. When the going gets tough, relax and let go. Chances are routine will kick in and you’ll regain your stride. Like Goku, by letting go we discover new abilities and reach heights we never knew we could achieve.

When the Dust Has Settled



One of Dragon Ball’s greatest themes is that of forgiveness. Pure-hearted Goku befriends forgives everyone – from the jerk Krillin, to the corrupted Tien Shinhan, to the devil in Piccolo, to the fascist Saiyajin prince Vegeta, and most recently the god of destruction Beerus. At this point no one should be surprised if he befriends Frieza at the end of the new movie, Revival of F.

In fact, he would have become best buds with Frieza had Frieza ever chilled out. Of course in reality there’s a point where our best interests lay in burning bridges (for Goku it came in the form of Frieza and Cell). But we can lead less stressful lives (like Goku) if we (like Goku) learn to forgive and forget.

Be a Life-Long Learner


Take it from the SSLLL (Super Saiyajin Life Long Learner) himself. Did Goku stop learning after he mastered the kamehameha? No. Was he satisfied after reaching the first level of kaiyoken? Or the second? Or third? No way. Had he been, he might have never learned the spirit bomb, teleportation, or reached Super Saiyajin…what level is he up to now?

Goku is a life long learner. He may take a rest, but he never gets stuck in a rut or loses his appetite for new experiences. And Goku’s satisfaction doesn’t lie in victory itself but in the constant act of learning, improving, and challenging himself.

Never stop learning. Smell opportunity and take advantage. Recognize and even relish your accomplishments, then move on to the next goal.

Enjoy the Journey


Vegeta spends most of Dragon Ball Z frustrated, unsatisfied, and unhappy. While Goku trains with a smile, Vegeta wears a scowl (and the occasional pink shirt). He takes no joy in the process, never achieves his goal, and subjects himself to a long, angry journey. But by the end of the Buu saga, when Vegeta finally sits back and lets it all soak in, he comes to a realization.

Yet you (Goku) showed mercy to everyone, even your fiercest enemies, even me… You fought to test your limits and push yourself beyond them, to become the strongest you could possibly be… It makes me angry just thinking about it. But perhaps it’s my anger that’s made me blind to the truth for so long. I see it now… You’re better than me Kakarot. You’re the best.

Don’t be Vegeta; or at least don’t be the Vegeta that took about 250 episodes to relax. Remember: it isn’t about the goal, it’s about the journey to achieve it. In 10-Minute Toughness, Tom Selk advises, “Remember that you stand to experience more joy and satisfaction from striving to reach your goals than from actually achieving them.”

Like Goku, enjoy the journey. When you face your next challenge, enjoy the process. No matter the outcome of the effort, value the experiences and progress made in challenging it.

Unleashing That Saiyajin In All of Us


So next time you watch Dragon Ball, Dragon Ball Z or any other series please enjoy it! But allow the lessons they offer to motivate you to face new challenges and become the best version of you that you can be.

RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan sums it up best, “Today I believe we’ve all got a Saiyan inside us… That’s what we’re all trying to reach, through all the chambers of our lives.”

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  • Bartlett, Steven J. Normality Does Not Equal Mental Health: The Need to Look Elsewhere for Standards of Good Psychological Health.
  • Be a Badass By Surrounding Yourself With Other Badasses.
  • Egan, Carol. 4 Slam-Dunk Strategies to Improve your Confidence.
  • Finn, Adharanand. Running with the Kenyans: Passion, Adventure, and the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth.
  • Nagel, Claudia. Learning Best When You Rest.
  • Petrie, Trent A., and Eric Denson. A Student Athlete’s Guide to College Success: Peak Performance in Class and Life.
  • Rza, and Chris Norris. The Tao of Wu.
  • Rodriguez, Tori. 3 Easy Visualization Techniques.
  • Selk, Jason. 10-minute Toughness: The Mental Exercise Program for Winning before the Game Begins.
  • Sheridan, Sam. The Fighter’s Mind: Inside the Mental Game.
  • Spencer, Jeffrey. Turn It Up! How to Perform at Your Highest Level for a Lifetime.
  • Ungerleider, Steven. Mental Training for Peak Performance: Top Athletes Reveal the Mind Exercises They Use to Excel.
  • Verderber, Rudolph F., Kathleen S. Verderber, and Deanna D. Sellnow. Essential Speech.

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Getting Started with Hokkaido Dialect Fri, 17 Apr 2015 13:00:00 +0000 If you’ve been learning Japanese for a while, especially if you’ve visited Japan and heard things you’ve never heard in class or seen in a textbook, you’ve probably come to realise there isn’t just one kind of Japanese. Hokkaidō-ben 北海道弁, or more formally Hokkaidō-hōgen 北海道方言, is the dialect spoken in Japan’s northern island. Thanks to Hokkaido’s […]

The post Getting Started with Hokkaido Dialect appeared first on Tofugu.

If you’ve been learning Japanese for a while, especially if you’ve visited Japan and heard things you’ve never heard in class or seen in a textbook, you’ve probably come to realise there isn’t just one kind of Japanese.

Hokkaidō-ben 北海道弁, or more formally Hokkaidō-hōgen 北海道方言, is the dialect spoken in Japan’s northern island. Thanks to Hokkaido’s history of settlement much of it comes from other parts of Japan, particularly Tohoku. Many of the words I’ll be sharing here are also found in other parts of Japan, because Hokkaido is unique in that it is a melting pot of many different dialects. There are also regional differences within Hokkaido. The Tohoku influence is strongest on the coast and is called Hama-kotoba 浜言葉 or seashore dialect, while in urban Sapporo people speak more standard Japanese. Even though Hokkaido is considered part of Eastern Japan, there are also influences from Northwestern Honshu, the Hokuriku region. Another ingredient in the stew of Hokkaido-ben is the native Ainu language. This is most easily seen in the place names, but we’ll get to that later.

Hokkaido-ben Highlights

めんこい menkoi


Photo by Dai Wat

かわいい (cute) is a ubiquitous word in Japan and probably one you all know. In Hokkaido there is another way to say it. めんこい literally means small face. If someone tells you that you have a small face, they are paying you a compliment. The めん part of めんこい is the same “めん” you hear in kendo when someone strikes at the head. But this isn’t an aggressive word at all. Of all the Hokkaido-ben words here, this is the one I’ve heard the most, usually being squealed by High School girls. A picture of a cartoon bunny is めんこい. A cute haircut is めんこい. Basically anywhere you can use kawaii, you can use menkoi in the same way. It is an い-adjective and functions in the same way as kawaii.

例えば: トフグちゃんはめんこいぃぃぃぃぃぃ〜!
Example: Tofugu-chan is cuuuuuuuuute!

道産子 Dosanko


Photo by tomosuke214

どさんこ means 北海道生まれ, people born in Hokkaido. I remember clearly a boy coming up to me and saying very proudly “I am dosanko!” This nickname for Hokkaido people comes from the Dosanko horse. Dosanko horses are one of Japan’s native breeds of horse. Like dosanko people, Dosanko horses are born and bred in Hokkaido. They are fairly small, but remarkably powerful ponies, adapted for heavy farm work and harsh winters.

例えば: どさんこだから、冬やクマを恐れていないよ。
Example: I’m not afraid of winter or bears because I was born in Hokkaido.

しばれる shibareru


Photo by Chris Lewis

It wouldn’t be a list of Hokkaido words without some for being cold. しばれる is a particularly frosty kind of cold, a cold that gets into your bones and makes you shiver. It’s easy to remember because しばれる sounds like shiver put into katakana. It doesn’t just mean cold, it means deep, freezing cold. 寒い (さむい), the standard word for cold, just doesn’t capture the extreme cold of Hokkaido the way しばれる does.

例えば: 家の中でしばれるです。
Example: The inside of my house is freezing cold.

ごみを投げる gomi wo nageru


Photo by Odyssey

When you throw out your garbage in Hokkaido, you really throw it. Or at least you say that you do. The standard phrase is ごみを捨てる (ごみをすてる). But in Hokkaido the word 捨てる, which means dispose, is swapped for 投げる (なげる), which means throw, as in to throw a ball. If you say ゴミを投げる outside Hokkaido, people will think you are throwing and littering your trash all over the place. This is one to be wary of using outside Hokkaido unless you want to be garbage shamed.

例えば: 兄は決してゴミを投げない。
Example: My brother never throws out the garbage.

内地 naichi


Photo by @yb_woodstock

The formal and standard meaning of 内地 is all the areas covered by Japanese sovereignty, including Hokkaido. It could also be translated as homeland and it crops up a lot in treaties and the Japanese constitution. However, when you are in Hokkaido and you want to talk about the rest of Japan you can also say 内地 naichi to mean the mainland. It can mean just Honshu, or Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku combined, depending on the context. This is a casual usage that Hokkaido shares with Okinawa. If you are at either end of Japan and you want to talk casually about the middle then you can say 内地.

例えば: 彼は内地に旅行にある。
Example: He is on a trip to the mainland.

はっちゃきこく hacchakikoku


はっちゃきこく is the Hokkaido way of saying 一生懸命 isshoukennmei, ‘to the best of one’s a ability’. That sounds a little dry, so maybe a better translation is ‘hustle’, ‘work your arse off’ or ‘work like crazy’.

例えば: はっちゃきこいで勉強しないと、鰐蟹に食われる。
Example: If I don’t study like crazy, I will be eaten by an alligator-crab.

ばんきり bankiri


Photo by Nick Mustoe

ばんきり is the Hokkaido way of saying いつも, always. People don’t always use ばんきり, but when they do… they’re probably speaking Hokkaido-ben. Grammatically, it works the same way as the standard いつも.

例えば: おじいちゃんはばんきり北海道方言で話す。
Example: Grandpa always speaks in Hokkaido dialect.

How to Sound like an Old Hokkaido Man


Some Hokkaido-ben has fallen out of fashion with young people. Though you’ll hear some phrases ringing in the halls of high schools, others you will only hear from people over 50. They are still pretty fun though. Some people took great joy in teaching me these phrases. They thought it was funny to hear them coming from a young foreign girl.

なまら namara


Photo by Verity Lane

There are very many ways to say very in Japanese. You can use なまら in the same way as とても and it has the same meaning, ‘very’. This word emerged in the 1970s, but is not popular with young people these days, who prefer the slang めっちゃ. なまらうまい ‘it’s very delcious’ is a catchphrase of Hokkaido born entertainer Yo Oizumi. If you are eating Hokkaido’s delicious food, it’s hard not to say なまらうまい!

例えば: 私の猫はなまらめんこいですよ!
Example: My cat is very cute!

こわい kowai


Photo by katsuu 44

You might think you know this one. こわい (怖い) means scary. Except in Hokkaido, where it means tired. It’s tempting to think that old Hokkaido folk are just messing with you, taking a perfectly good word and changing the meaning completely. To make things more confusing, the standard use of こわい is also common in Hokkaido. It’s all about context. I often heard older teachers saying “体がこわい” (からだがこわい) as they complained about the seven hours of basketball practice they’d done at the weekend. If you are feeling exhausted or woozy, you can say it too.

例えば: ジョギングの後に私の足はこわい。
Example: After jogging, my legs are exhausted.

いずい izui


Photo by Ashley Grant

いずい is a word for something that you’ve probably experienced, but never had the perfect word for in English or in standard Japanese. It’s a kind of itchy pain, like getting grit in your eye. Alternatively it can mean a pinching tightness, like wearing underwear that’s too small. You’ll also hear people complaining about いずい in Miyagi Prefecture and some parts of Tohoku.

例えば: 私の目がいずいとパンツがいずい。人生はひどいだ。
Example: My eye is itchy and my underpants are tight. Life is awful.

Dialects Within a Dialect


Photo by Verity Lane

I spent three years living in Nemuro, the easternmost town in Hokkaido. In addition to being one of the most remote places in Japan, it is also one of the foggiest. Even in the summer when there was brilliant sunshine shining across the whole island, Nemuro would be covered in a thick sea-fog. So it’s not surprising that the locals had some special words for fog. I’ll share them with you, but you should be aware that if Hokkaido-ben is often misunderstood outside Hokkaido, Nemuro-ben can’t be understood even in the next town over. So it’s basically useless unless you’re planning a trip to Nemuro (which I would recommend.) However, it does show how many variations there are in dialect, even within one island.

じり jiri

じり is a variation of the standard word for fog 霧 きり. The people of Nemuro are fog connoisseurs and there is a difference between じり and きり. きり is a standard fog, but じり is a heavy fog with visible droplets in the air. It gets under your umbrella and inside your clothes. There is nothing you can do to stop じり from soaking you through.

ガス gasu

The second word for fog is ガス. This comes from the English word ガス. Gasu is a less wetting fog than じり. It rolls off the sea and into the town, usually in the afternoons.

Now you know two Japanese words for fog that you will probably never have a chance to use. But if you do find yourself in Nemuro, then you will really impress some people by saying, “なまらじりね!”.

Speaking of living in strange town, let’s take a look at Hokkaido’s strange town names.

I Lived in a Root Room


Hokkaido’s place names don’t seem to make much sense. Down on the mainland, most names of towns and cities have a certain logic to them, even if they sound poetic. Tokyo 東京 means eastern capital. Kanazawa 金沢 means golden marsh. Aomori 青森 means blue forest. Most place names are drawn from the natural world or administrative terms.

But when you get to Hokkaido logic doesn’t seem to apply anymore. Sapporo 札幌 means bill hood. Betsukai 別海 means different sea. Wakkanai 稚内 means juvenile inside. Nemuro 根室, where I lived, translates as root room. The names don’t seem to match up to the real landscape as they do in the rest of Japan.

That is, until you learn that the town names in Hokkaido are often transliterations of the original Ainu names into kanji. The artefacts of the Ainu language can still be seen in Hokkaido’s place names. Muroran 室蘭 might seem strange translated as ‘room orchid’, but its original name was ‘Mo Ruerani’, meaning ‘bottom of a little slope,’ which makes a lot more sense. Wakkanai in Ainu is ヤㇺワッカナイ Yam Wakannay and means ‘cold-water river’. Many towns have the sounds “betsu” and “nai” which both mean river in Ainu. Instead of matching the meanings when the towns were given their kanji names, officials matched the sounds, often using kanji such as 別 or 津 for the Ainu ‘betsu’ and 内 for the Ainu ‘nai’. Place names in Hokkaido don’t teach you much about local geography, unless you look beneath the surface.

More Resources


If you have become なまら interested in Hokkaido-ben and want to find out more, here are some resources to help you.

The Online Hokkaido Dialect Dictionary (3rd Edition) is a little dry, but can be useful.

A めんこい girl teaches you Hokkaido-ben in this series of videos made by Hokkaido Fan Magazine. Here’s an example:

Here is a Hokkaido-ben grammar primer.

If you want to get playful there is a Hokkaido-ben karuta set.

If you are looking for a place to study Japanese, I would certainly recommend Hokkaido. Since most of what you learn is very close to standard Japanese, you won’t have any problems being understood wherever you go, even if people do think you are throwing your garbage around. Plus, there is still a thriving local dialect to give your studies some pop! I might sound like a 70 year old fisherman sometimes, but that’s okay with me.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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The post Getting Started with Hokkaido Dialect appeared first on Tofugu.

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Learning Japanese From Songs (And What This Method Has Taught Me About the Language) Wed, 08 Apr 2015 13:00:00 +0000 You can’t learn a language just by studying vocabulary and grammar. There has to be something you give a damn about understanding in the long run. If you’re studying Japanese, maybe that’s watching anime or reading manga or novels or even actually talking to other human beings. Whatever it is, one reason many of us […]

The post Learning Japanese From Songs (And What This Method Has Taught Me About the Language) appeared first on Tofugu.

You can’t learn a language just by studying vocabulary and grammar. There has to be something you give a damn about understanding in the long run. If you’re studying Japanese, maybe that’s watching anime or reading manga or novels or even actually talking to other human beings. Whatever it is, one reason many of us never become fluent in the languages we study in school is that we lack this motivation. Maybe you chose the language for some lame reason like it was the only class that fit in your schedule. Don’t worry, we’ve all done it.

But even when we start with a stronger motivator, I think another reason we give up is often that we put off the good stuff for too long, waiting for some magic moment when we’ll have gone through enough textbook chapters to deal with the language in its natural state. Problem is, even if there were such a magic moment, the material in most textbooks is so dull that chances are you’ll never persist that long.

The sooner you grapple with the stuff you love in the original language, the better. Sure, it may feel like beating your head against a wall sometimes. But so does a textbook – and with a textbook, the reward if you manage to punch through the wall is rarely very exciting. No textbook can ever provide the kind of thrill I felt the other day when I actually understood a pun in the manga I was reading.

So when I realized that somewhere along the way I’d developed an interest in Japanese pop music and was frustrated that I couldn’t understand the lyrics, I decided that this was an opportunity. Even more so because I love to sing and wanted to be able to sing along.

My level of Japanese right now, after years of stop-and-start in both classes and self-study, is beginner to intermediate with a lot of weird gaps. While it’s way too soon for me to be able to translate songs myself, there are plenty of resources on the internet to help out, and I am definitely learning and inspiring myself to keep going. If you want to try it, I’ve figured out some tricks to help, and also some warnings about what you don’t want to learn from songs that I think will be useful whatever your current level.

Picking a Song

For me there are three main points to consider when picking a song to study. The first is of course that I have to love it enough to hear it over and over. This is studying, after all, and some of it is repetitive and painstaking. I don’t want to be tired of the song by the time I can sing and understand it.

The second is that there have to be translations and romaji transliterations available online. Fan translations may not all be of fantastic quality, but there’s often more than one to chose from, which can teach interesting lessons in itself, as I’ll discuss later.

Most fan translation sites are not strictly legal, so I’m going to refrain from linking to a bunch here, but I trust that you all know how to use Google. You will also find some fansubbed videos – I have found that some of these can be quite terrible, but some are OK.

In the best case scenario, you’re a fan of one of a few current artists with hopes of international success that provide English subs on their videos. As my example I’m going to be using one of these, the song RPG by Sekai no Owari. Click on the little CC in the lower right corner of the video above and that will bring up the subs. I need to type them out these as I listen because if there’s a cleverer way to get at them I don’t know what it is. If you’re using lyrics sites instead, you’ll generally be able to cut and paste.

Third, once I’ve determined that I can find the materials I need, I will make a first pass of singing along using just the romaji transliteration. This can head off doing a lot of work and then finding out that the song is recorded at a pitch that’s not comfortable for me to sing. You also probably don’t want to pick a song that’s really fast or has crazy rhythms, so by doing this first you’ll find out if you’re being overambitious on that score. (This one for example turned out to be a bad idea).

Simple folk songs or other older songs can be a good start that avoids this problem. (This is my favorite, which may seem more appealing if you watch this modern take on it as well, although I’ll warn you that this one – recorded in support of victims of 3/11 – always makes me a little weepy.) But you’ll probably stick with it best if you use songs you already know and love.

How I Lay It All Out


Photo by Warren B

If you follow my instructions, you’re going to end up copying everything you find online and pasting into a file, but just a note to start that you should save anything you find interesting for use later. I find that unofficial translations are prone to disappearing, and since they’re not strictly legal they’re vulnerable to being taken down.

My first step is to save the entire translation, and then, separately, start laying out the romaji lyrics along with the Japanese. Here’s the first line of the song above:

空は青く澄み渡り 海を目指して歩く
Sora wa aoku sumi watari umi wo meza shite aruku

Now before we go any further, I know that a lot of people feel strongly that you should never use romaji when studying Japanese. And frankly, if I could get these lyrics with furigana for the kanji in a form I could cut and paste into a file, I would use that. But so far I haven’t been able to do that, and for me, this is not a reading exercise, so I’m OK with it. My kana reading is already fluent and this isn’t hurting it. And let’s remember that it’s actually perfect natural to learn a word before you know how to write it – that’s how it works for native speakers, who already know how to speak their language as children before they learn how to write.

So, if you want to offer to furigana-ize all my lyrics for me, great, let’s talk. Otherwise let’s put that argument aside and proceed.

Then I line up the kanji roughly with the words:

   空は      青く     澄み 渡り   海を         目指して歩く
Sora wa   aoku    sumiwatari    umi wo     mezashite aruku

Then I look up the words and grammar I don’t know, making sure as far as possible that I know why the translations say what they say. I don’t try to line up entire lines of translation with the text above – there’s no way for that to make sense given the difference in Japanese and English word order. And also, I want to be trying to think in Japanese as far as possible. So I insert only the words I don’t already know, above the kanji.

For this song, there are three translations available online, which I’ll discuss and compare later. For now we’ll go with the translation “Under the clear blue sky, we are walking to the sea.” Looking up the unfamiliar words gets me:

                      be perfectly clear                       aim at
空は      青く     澄み 渡り   海を         目指して歩く
Sora wa   aoku    sumiwatari    umi o     mezashite aruku

Seems like a kind of fancy way to say that thing in the second clause. I note that to myself and move on. As our esteemed Koichi-sensei has wisely said elsewhere, “Most people spend way too much time obsessing over the things they can’t figure out.” I’ve got the general idea what’s going on in this line, so I’m good to go.

Once I’ve done this for the whole song, I will annotate some lines as needed so I can sing along. One thing I’ve already done that in the line above. As I’ll talk about later, in singing, the w is sometimes pronounced in the particle を. This singer doesn’t do that and I don’t want to either, so I took the w out.

There are other singing pronunciations that are unusual, and some of them affect how the words line up with the notes, so I have ways of marking them. For example, syllable-final ん is sometimes sung as a separate syllable to fit a rhythm. For instance, in this song there’s a line:

自分      だけ    が     決めた  「答」      を   思い出して
Jibun    dake     ga      kimeta   “kotae”     o     omoidashite

The first word is sung on three different notes, so I mark the n as bold. You will also sometimes hear long vowels and vowel sequences, such as ou as in もう or ai as in ない sung as distinct separate vowels. I use a period to mark a syllable break: seka.i, for instance, if that word is sung on three separate notes.

I also have some annotations I use to help me when the rhythm is unexpected. I’ll boldface a vowel or syllable when the syllable on the downbeat isn’t what I expect:

   大切な            何か      が       壊れた       あの夜に
Taisetsuna       nani ka   ga      kowareta    ano yoru ni

And I’ll italicize when a syllable is not pronounced or so unstressed that I need to know for the rhythm.

 「目的」       という      大事なもの      を    思い出して
“Moku teki”      to iu        daijina mono     o      omoidashite

In cases that are really hard, if you know musical notation, you can add in notes for the rhythm. Just be aware that if you have to do that right away, you’re probably starting on a song that’s too difficult.

If you do this for every line and you don’t hate the song yet, fire up that music video and sing along!

What I’m Learning: The Basics


Photo by Mike Mozart

I recently read a very interesting book about people who can speak many languages. Toward the end the author asks these people for study hints, and one of them says, “Spend time tinkering with the language every day.” I would call that a good description of what I’m doing here, and if a woman who learned seventeen languages recommends it, I am willing to take her word.

And while this isn’t the most systematic sort of study, there’s definitely specific stuff I’m getting out of it. Vocabulary is one thing for sure. If I learn a line of a song, those words stick in my head, and songs – especially by the same artist – tend to use the same words frequently. Maybe they’re not always the most useful words. After all, there are only so many times you’re going to need to talk about the stars in the sky or a sleepless night in real life, unlike Sekai no Owari, who seem to work those into nearly every song.

But the same is true of many of the words textbooks start out by teaching. And words learned in a meaningful context that’s important to you are just going to stick better. In fact, I’m finding as I go along that the same is true of grammar as well. After all, which of these is more memorable – this line from another Sekai no Owari song:

幻に夢で逢えたら それは幻じゃない

Maboroshi ni yume de aetara sore wa maboroshi janai

If you meet a phantom in a dream, then it’s not a phantom

Or this line from a grammar site that will remain nameless:

If I am free, I will go play.

I don’t know about you, but I’m going to remember that conditional form a lot better from the first one.

And despite the fact that I am not explicitly using this method to study how to read, knowing words has had some benefits in learning reading elsewhere. As I mentioned above, native speakers already know how to speak their language before learning to read it. When I’ve learned a word from a song and then I encounter the kanji in my studies there’s no question I remember it more easily than an unfamiliar word. When 星 for “star” came up on WaniKani, instead of feeling “oh god, another kanji,” instead my heart leapt with recognition, because I already knew that ほし hoshi is the word for star. It was like seeing an old pal in a new place in new clothes instead of trying to make friends with a stranger from scratch.

As far as reading, while I can actually already sing some lines of this song from memory, the plan for the next step is to try to strip away the romaji. I experimented with the karaoke version, which has furigana for the kanji, and I could keep up reasonably well, but the horribleness of the musical arrangement killed it for me, so I won’t try that again. I want to sing along with the bands I like, not some horrible computer-generated elevator-music version.

The other benefit I think this is having is pronunciation fluency. Studying on my own, I don’t have a lot of real opportunities to speak. In singing, I have no choice but to keep up with the music so I have to learn how not to stumble over my syllables.

What I’m Learning: The Deep Stuff


Photo by Aaron Moraes

I’ve found that another important and interesting lesson you can learn from this process is getting really down and dirty with how many different ways there are to translate the same simple line. Songs are great for this because the differences are partly because the grammar of Japanese is so different from English, and partly because essentially we’re talking about poetry, not simple “My name is Linda, pleased to meet you” textbook phrases.

For this song, along with the official one from the video, I found two other translations, this one, which I can’t really vouch for one way or the other, and the other from a site that seems to be consistently of good quality. And I found that even a relatively simple statement like the first line of this song is different in all three translations:

空は 青く 澄み 渡り 海を 目指して歩く
Sora wa aoku sumi watari umi wo meza shite aruku
Under the clear blue sky, we are walking to the sea
The sky was a clear blue as we each walked toward the beach
And the sky is full of a beautiful blue, to the sea we walk confidently

If simply walking to the beach under the blue sky can be phrased in three different ways, you can imagine that more metaphorical statements differ even more:

“Houhou” to iu akuma ni tori tsukare naide
Don’t be possessed by the demon called “The method”
Don’t get possessed by the evils of wondering “how”
Don’t get carried away trying to find “the way”

The fact that these more poetic lines aren’t as straightforward means that in one case the non-official translations seem to have missed the point. Here’s the two fan translations:

“Kirameki” no youna jinsei no naka de
In the midst of my “bright and shining” life,
In my “glittering” life

The official translation:

In a life that’s like a flash that ends so fast

Apparently the band intended quite a different mood for that line, one that’s kind of no surprise if you know their style – lots of cheerful-sounding, upbeat songs that on closer inspection turn out to have depressing lines about mortality, etc. (In fact, their first hit was literally a song about a dead baby).

Basically, this is art, and a non-native speaker attempting a translation may just not get a reference or understand a metaphor. But just to confuse matters further, official translations may be deliberately non-literal. As we’ve talked about elsewhere, decisions on how to promote media for a different country can involve more than simple translation. (We can see a lot of this in movie and book titles, in both directions.) I found one line in another one of their songs where the official translation deliberately did it completely non- literally. The line which is also the song’s title, 炎と森のカーニバル, literally means “carnival of flame and forest,” to the extent of actually using the English word “carnival” in kana. But in the official translation subtitles on the video, it’s translated “Tokyo Fantasy.” I’m guessing this is because they also have a movie of the same name and think this will help promote it if it’s ever released abroad. So while unofficial translations may lack language expertise, official translations may make choices that are confusing because they’ve got bigger fish to fry than our attempts to study Japanese.



Photo by Elliott Brown

Studying Japanese from songs does have some downsides that you need to be aware of. The most obvious one is earworms from hearing the same song over and over. You have to really like the song to do this whole routine, and then it might make you tired of it or even hate the song, which is sad.

But more importantly, just like you have to be careful learning from anime so you don’t end up speaking like Donald Duck or something, you need to be careful about learning things from songs that aren’t appropriate in speech. There are a lot of ways songs are not like regular spoken language in any language, and they come in all areas of grammar, pronunciation, and word use.

As far as vocabulary and words and phrases, like I’ve already mentioned above, surely no one talks as much in real life about the stars in the sky as Sekai no Owari does. Likewise, I’m pretty sure the use of “I love you” in songs in all languages far exceeds its use in actual speech. (If you search on ありがちな 歌詞 you can find lots of blogs, etc, that list cliches in J-pop.) One example of a specific word to be cautious of is the pronoun boku. I’ve been told that what the textbooks say, that women do not generally use this word, holds true in real life a lot more than you’d expect from listening to the lyrics of female singers.

When it comes to pronouns though the real point to be aware of is a grammatical one: songs seem to use a lot more personal pronouns than real speech, especially first and second person pronouns. This is a real danger because this is one of the most important differences between Japanese and English grammar. One that is very hard for English speakers to grasp. For example, the logical subject of a sentence doesn’t have to be expressed in Japanese, if it’s clear from context. The normal way to say “I went” is Ikimashita. If you succumb to the English-speaker’s impulse to say Watashi wa ikimashita, you’re saying something with a particular emphasis, more like “Me? I went.” You’d never know this from all the watashis and bokus and kimis that are thrown around in pop song lyrics.

There are also some pronunciation differences in singing. I’ve already mentioned some above, such as the pronunciation of syllable-final ん as a separate syllable. (There are reasons that this makes sense in Japanese that I don’t have room to explain here, but hope to get into in another post soon.) There’s also the particle をsometimes pronounced as “wo.” Certain romaji systems transcribe it this way as well. If you’ve never heard it before, you can hear it in this song in the last line of the first verse, which is Karappo no kaban wo kyutto kakaete.

Another really interesting phenomenon is that there seems to be some imitation of American pronunciation. You hear this in British rock singers all the time. There seems to be a sense that, since rock was invented in America, American English is the language it ought to be sung it. Since Japanese singers are not singing the same language, it’s not as all-pervasive, but there are some you might be able to hear if you listen closely. The one that I can hear is that Japanese singers sometimes use an American-sounding R. I actually started noticing this because the lead singer of Sekai no Owari noticeably does NOT do this. His R is clearly the Japanese type. I realized that it sounded odd to me, because it was unlike most other songs I’d heard.

There are a few more that a linguist friend researched for me, that I am going to be listening for. I’ll just throw these in so that if you can understand the linguistic terms you can listen for them too:

  • The consonant we write as sh, as in し, etc: the normal Japanese pronunciation of /sh/ is heavily palatal, while the American English pronunciation is post-alveolar. Many singers imitate the American sound.
  • Some singers pronounce vowel sequences (/ai/ for example) almost like diphthongs.
  • The /u/ sound, especially in /ou/, is pronounced more strongly, and with more lip rounding.
  • Heavier aspiration on /t/.

My final warning is that I find that when I get comfortable enough, I can sing along even when I’ve forgotten what the lyrics mean. This may be a result of years of experience as a choral singer, where you have to sing in many languages you don’t understand. I always make sure when this happens to stop singing along uncomprehendingly in the car until I can go back and review the translation. The goal here is understanding, even if it’s not the most real-world-useful language material in the world, so no singing gibberish syllables! If nothing else, someday when you and I meet, we should be able to have a conversation about love and the stars in the sky and understand what we’re talking about. And it will be beautiful.

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Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes: Japanese Anatomy Vocabulary 101 Tue, 07 Apr 2015 13:00:00 +0000 You know what’s more embarrassing than falling on your butt in front of everyone in Japan? Not knowing how to say butt in the first place. You know what’s more anxiety-inducing than giving a speech in Japanese? Telling the person next to you that you have butterflies in your stomach and then realizing that their […]

The post Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes: Japanese Anatomy Vocabulary 101 appeared first on Tofugu.

You know what’s more embarrassing than falling on your butt in front of everyone in Japan? Not knowing how to say butt in the first place.

You know what’s more anxiety-inducing than giving a speech in Japanese? Telling the person next to you that you have butterflies in your stomach and then realizing that their horrified reaction means that they took you literally.

One of the first things you learn as a kid is what to call all the parts of your own body—yet for some reason this often gets neglected when you’re learning another language.

Now’s the time to fix that! Especially since Japanese sometimes conceives of the human body a bit differently than English. As a bonus feature, not only can knowledge of anatomy help you complain about the various parts of your body, it can also unlock the door to all sorts of cool idioms to spice up your Japanese – as well as help you avoid awkwardly translating English idioms into Japanese nonsense.

Starting from the head and finishing at the toes, here’s your guide to Japanese anatomy and some of the key idioms associated with its various parts.


rushmore heads

Photo by Bud

The big container for your brain, otherwise known as your head. あたま can also refer to a more metaphorical head –  the top of something, like a department head or the top of a peak – and it can double as a synonym for the mind, brain, and intellect. You probably already know how to call someone (or yourself) smart by saying 頭がいい(あたまがいい)literally, “head is good.” But there’s more where that came from.
Other adjectives you can attach to 頭 include:

  • 頭が高い(あたまがたかい): to be haughty (lit. to have a tall head)
  • 頭が固い(あたまがかたい): to be stubborn; obstinate (lit. to have a hard head)
  • 頭が弱い(あたまがよわい)/頭が悪い(あたまがわるい)/頭が鈍い (あたまがにぶい):three variations on “dumb” (lit. to have a “weak head,” “bad head,” and “dull head”)
  • 頭の回転が遅い (あたまのかいてんがよわい): to be slow on the uptake (lit. to have a head that rotates slowly)
  • 頭の回転が速い(あたまのかいてんがおそい): to be quick on the uptake (lit. to have a head that rotates quickly)

And here are things that can be done to heads with verbs:

  • 頭を使う(あたまをつかう): to use one’s head (lit. to use one’s head)
  • 頭を捻る(あたまをひねる): to be puzzled over or think deeply about (lit. to twist one’s head)
  • 頭を刈る(あたまをかる): to cut one’s hair (lit. to mow one’s head)

And let’s not forget:

  • 頭ごなし(あたまごなし)without giving someone a chance to explain (lit. without one’s head)
  • 頭にくる(あたまにくる)to get angry/pissed (lit. to come to one’s head)
    頭に置く(あたまにおく)to take into consideration (lit. to put/place in one’s head)


doll hair

Photo from Aimee Ray 

It’s hair—those variously colored strands that burst out of your scalp. Be careful though, because 髪 only refers to the hair on your head, and has two super common homonyms –“gods” 神 and “paper” 紙.

Unlike English where you can idiomatically let your hair down when you’re ready to pahhtayyyy, this word is really straightforward and only means what it means. When you cut your hair, you literally cut your hair (髪を切る) and when you fix your hair you literally fix it (髪を直す;かみをなおす). When your hair is long you say it’s long (髪が長い;かみがながい) and when it’s short you say it’s short (髪が短い;かみがみじかい).



Photo from Sarahnaut

You probably don’t often chat with people about your forehead. So why is this worth knowing? Because the Japanese do, when they want to remark on how teensy tiny something or somewhere is—it’s “as narrow as a cat’s forehead” or “narrow like a cat’s forehead.” (猫の額のように狭い or  猫の額ほどの狭い)


japanese demon masks

Photo from Leo U 

The side of the head with all the holes in it, otherwise known as the face. Sure enough, it’s the go-to noun when you want to discuss your physical face, but it’s also strongly associated with conceptual “face” or reputation and that’s where the fun begins. For example:

  • 顔が立つ(かおがたつ)to maintain one’s status or keep face (lit. to have one’s face stand)
  • 顔がつぶれる(かおがつぶれる)to lose status or lose face (lit. to have one’s face destroyed)
  • 顔に泥を塗る(かおにどろをぬる)to put to shame (lit. to plaster mud on someone’s face)
  • 顔が利く(かおがきく)to be influential (lit. to have an effectual face)
  • 顔が広い(かおがひろい)to be widely known; to know many people (lit. to have a wide face)
  • 顔を出す(かおをだす)to put in an appearance (lit. to show one’s face)
  • 顔から火が出る(かおからひがでる)to be extremely embarrassed (lit. a fire appears from one’s face)


chimp cleaning ears

Photo from Valerle

Here we have the ears, tunnels to your eardrums. Not surprisingly, みみ is frequently conflated with hearing, just as you can “lend an ear” in English when you’re listening to someone. Coincidentally, Japanese also has the same phrase—耳を貸す(みみをかす; lit. to lend an ear. And when you want to exclaim “That’s news to me!” you can say hatsu mimi (初耳; lit. first time ear). A few other handy phrases include:

  • 耳を傾ける(みみをかたむける): to listen closely (lit. to tilt one’s ear)
  • 耳が痛い(みみがいたい): to hear something bad about oneself (lit. one’s ears hurt)
  • 耳に逆らう(みみにさからう): to be hard to take (lit. to go against one’s ear)
  • 耳にする(みみにする): to catch wind of; to hear by chance (lit. to come to one’s ear)
  • 耳に胼胝ができる(みみにたこができる): to talk someone’s ear off (lit. to create calluses on one’s ears)



Photo from Richard Paterson

Next we have the eyes. Similarly to the ears, め often acts as a physical shorthand for sight and vision. But because so much of our life experience is mediated through what we see, 目 has also come to refer to experiences more generally, to particular viewpoints, and to the looks or glances we trade with other humans. Eye level can indicate hierarchical status, too—that’s why 目上の人(めうえのひと;lit. “a person above the eye”) refers to someone’s superior or senior, and 目下の人(めしたのひと; lit. “a person below the eye”)refers to someone’s inferior or subordinate. Other eyeball-filled idioms include:

  • 目が回るほど忙しい(めがまわるほどいそがしい)to be as busy as a bee (lit. so busy that one’s eyes spin)
  • 目がない(めがない)to have a weakness for something (lit. to have no eyes)
  • 目が止まる(めがとまる)to have one’s eye caught on something (lit. to stop one’s eyes)
  • 目が高い(めがたかい)to have an expert eye, a discerning eye (lit. to have tall eyes)
  • 目に残る(めにのこる)to be engraved in one’s memory (lit. to remain in one’s eyes)
  • 目に浮かぶ(めにうかぶ)to come to one’s mind (lit. to rise to one’s eyes)
  • 目の正月(めのしょうがつ)a feast for the eyes (lit. a New Year’s for the eyes)
  • 目の毒(めのどく)an eye sore OR a temptation (lit. eye poison)
  • 目を奪う(めをうばう)to be dazzled (lit. to seize one’s eyes)
  • 目を通す(めをとおす)to look over something (lit. to pass one’s eyes over something)
  • 目を引く(めをひく)to catch one’s eye (lit. to pull one’s eyes)


tengu nose

Photo by RRGreen123456

The nose knows. As you’ve probably guessed by now, 鼻 (like the other sensory organs) doubles as a synonym for the sense itself—in this case, smell. So when someone takes of their shoes and the scent punches you in face, you can say that the scent 鼻に付く(はなにつく;lit. “sticks to your nose”). It’s also used more whimsically as a marker of pride, in phrases like:

  • 鼻が高い(はながたかい)to be proud (lit. to have a tall/high nose)
  • 鼻毛を読む(はなげをよむ)to make a fool of someone (lit. to read someone’s nose hairs)
  • 鼻であしらう(はなであしらう)to snub someone; to turn up one’s nose (lit. to handle with the nose)
  • 鼻で笑う(はなでわらう)to laugh scornfully (lit. to laugh with the nose)

But let’s not forget that the time we’re most likely to be concerned about our nose is when it’s not behaving well. That is, when you’ve got a runny nose — 鼻水が出る(はなみずがでる; lit. “nose water comes out”)– so you grab a tissue — 鼻紙(はながみ; lit. “nose paper”)– and end up giving yourself a nose bleed–鼻血(はなぢ; lit. “nose blood”).

頬(ほほ or ほう)

cheek pouches

Photo by Robert Scott

Your cheeks are there for you, man. They’re there when you smile wide (頬笑み;ほおえみ;lit. “cheek smile”) and when you blush (頬を染める;ほほをそめる;lit. “to dye the cheeks”). They even come to your rescue when you’re dying of boredom in class and resort to 頬杖をつく(ほおづえをつ) resting your face in your hands (lit. “to use one’s cheeks as a cane”).


lion mouth

Photo from Tamboko the Jaguar

The hole in your face that food goes into and words come out of, otherwise known as the mouth. As such, くち is strongly associated with speaking, but also appears in conjunction with eating, and can be used as a metaphor for holes and openings of all kinds. When it comes to talking we have:

  • 口が重い (くちがおもい)to be taciturn (lit. to have a heavy mouth)
  • 口が軽い(くちがかるい)to be talkative; to talk without thinking (lit. to have a light mouth)
  • 口裏を合わせる(くちうらをあわせる)to make sure your stories agree (lit. to match the backs of your mouths)
  • 口から先に生まれた(くちからさきにうまれた)to be a natural born talker (lit. to be born from a mouth)
  • 口車に乗せる(くちぐるまにのせる)to cajole someone (lit. to take someone for a ride on a mouth vehicle)
  • 口が悪い(くちがわるい)to have a sharp tongue (lit. to have a bad mouth)

In terms of dining, we’ve got:

  • 口に合う(くちにあう)to suit one’s taste (lit. to match one’s mouth)

And as an example of “openings” in general:

  • 口を探す(くちをさがす)to look for an opening, in terms of work (lit. to look for a mouth)



Photo from Derek Gates

It’s the most powerful muscle in your body—your tongue. Like the mouth, the tongue takes on some aspects of speaking and eating. Someone who trips over their words or gets tongue-tied easily is said to be 舌足らず(したらず;lit. “lacking a tongue”). Conversely, someone who speaks fluidly and without hesitation is someone who 舌が回る(したがまわる; lit. “one’s tongue turns”). When it comes to food, the tongue can tell you that something has a nice texture with 舌触りがいい (したざわりがいい; “good tongue feeling”). And it makes an appearance when someone’s smacking their lips or drooling over something—舌鼓を打つ(したづつみをうつ;lit. “striking the tongue-drum”). A few other miscellaneous expressions include:

  • 舌打ち(したうち)to cluck one’s tongue (lit. tongue-strike)
  • 舌を出す(したをだす)to stick out your tongue (lit. to take out one’s tongue)
  • 舌を巻く(したをまく)to be astonished (lit. to wind one’s tongue)


happy teeth

Photo from Denise Cortez

And then there’s the teeth–those two rows of food-smashers embedded in your gums. Outside of being brushed and pulled out by dentists, 歯 get to play a rather interesting role in the Japanese language as metaphors for ability and (often unpleasant) social situations. Here’s a taste of what’s out there:

  • 歯が立たない for a task to be impossibly difficult (lit. the teeth don’t withstand)
  • 歯が浮く to set one’s teeth on edge (lit. the teeth loosen)


silly chin

Photo from David Lewis

Basically, it’s the bony ledge that defines the bottom of your face, including the chin and jawline. That’s right, it’s two English words for the price of one. 顎 also appears in a few handy phrases like顎で人を使う(あごでつかう, to order somebody around (lit. “to use somebody with your chin.”).


giraffe necks

While “neck” is a fine way to conceive of 首 in general, you should be aware that it sometimes more closely corresponds (in English, at least) to everything up from the neck. For example, what we might say is cocking your head to the side would be expressed with 首を傾げる(くびをかしげる; “to tilt the neck”). 首 also stands in as a synonym for being unemployed. On that last point, this largely comes into play with the two complimentary phrases for “to fire someone” or 首にする(くびにする; lit. “to turn into a neck”) and “to be fired” or 首になる(くびになる; “to become a neck”. Other idioms include:

  • 首を長くして(くびをながくして)expectantly; eagerly (lit. to lengthen one’s neck)
  • 首を捻る(くびをひねる)to rack one’s brain (lit. to twist one’s neck)
  • 首を縦に振る(くびをたてにふる)to nod one’s head (lit. to wave one’s neck vertically)
  • 首を横に振る(くびをよこにふる)to shake one’s head (lit. to wave tone’s neck horizontally)
  • 首を突っ込む(くびをつっこむ)to meddle in (lit. to thrust one’s neck)


shoulder armor

Photo from Antony ***

Here we have the shoulders, or the sloping line from your neck to your upper arms. Given the tendency 肩 have of getting stiff from stress, it’s probably not surprising that they appear as metaphors for responsibility (much like “shouldering a burden” in English). Their role in defining physical posture also plays into how they’re used in Japanese to express position and stance. In that vein, similar to the English “standing shoulder to shoulder,” Japanese uses 肩を並べる(かたをならべる). Among these types of idioms are:

  • 肩に担ぐ(かたにかつぐ)to bear a burden (lit. to carry on one’s shoulders)
  • 肩が軽くなる(かたがかるくなる)to be relieved of one’s burden (lit. one’s shoulders are lightened)
  • 肩を持つ to support someone; to stand by someone (lit. to hold someone’s shoulders)
  • 肩代わり taking over a responsibility (lit. changing shoulders)
  • 肩で風を切る to swagger about (lit. to cut the wind with one’s shoulders)
  • 肩身が狭い to feel ashamed (lit. to have narrow shoulders)
  • 肩身が広い to feel proud (lit. to have wide shoulders)


arm wrestle

Photo from KAZ Vorpal

At the ends of the shoulders we find the arms. 腕 can do a lot of crap. Take a simple tree, for example. With arms, you can climb that tree, chop down that tree, turn that tree into fire, and then plant another one. All of these tasks that arms can accomplish manifest in Japanese with the usage of 腕 as a synonym for skill and ability. See for yourself:

  • 腕を試す(うでをためす)to put one’s abilities to the test (lit. to try one’s arm)
  • 腕を磨く(うでをみがく)to hone one’s skills (lit. to polish one’s arm)
  • 腕が鈍る(うでがにぶる)to become less capable (lit. for one’s arm to become dull)
  • 腕を振るう(うでをふるう)to display one’s ability (lit. to brandish one’s arm)

And then when the day’s work is done, you can:

  • 腕を枕にして(うでをまくらにして)to use one’s arms as a pillow (lit. to turn one’s arm into a pillow!)


fingers and god

Photo from Daniela Hartmann

The hands, that remarkably dexterous collection of hundreds of bones at the end of your arms. Even more so than arms, hands are directly involved with the majority of things we humans do, and as such they can idiomatically represent the many things that hands do—work, help, care for, hold, write. In a similar vein, 手 can stand in for a means or a way more generally, hands being a means to accomplish lots of things. Here’s a sample to get your hands dirty:

  • 手が空いている(てがあいている)to have free time (lit. one’s hands are empty)
  • 手が足らない(てがたらない)to be short of hands (lit. to not have enough hands)
  • 手に入る(てにはいる)to come into one’s possession (lit. to enter one’s hands)
  • 手を引く(てをひく)to back out of something (lit. to pull out one’s hands)
  • 手を組む(てをくむ)to join forces (lit. to link hands)


cute fingers

Photo from Massimo Lupo

The hand would be pretty useless without fingers. It’s also worth learning the names for your individual fingers, if you haven’t yet:

  • 親指(おやゆび)thumb (lit. parent finger)
  • 人差し指(ひとさしゆび)index finger (person-pointing finger)
  • 中指(なかゆび)middle finger (lit. middle finger)
  • 薬指(くすりゆび)ring finger (lit. medicine finger; medicine paste used to be applied with this finger)
  • 小指(こゆび)pinky finger (lit. smaller finger)

Other than that, there’s only a few idiomatic phrases worth learning. When you’re giving something a try, in English we might say you’re dipping a toe in, but in Japanese it’s dipping a finger in—指を染める(ゆびをそめる; lit. “to dye a finger”). Then there’s a pretty visual phrase for “looking on enviously without doing anything”—(口に)指をくわえる(くちにゆびをくわえる;”to put a finger in one’s mouth”).


super chest

Photo from Gareth Simpson

The chest, the pecs, the breast. むね is also the go-to word for a bunch of emotions and sensations that seem to emanate from that area. So you’ll use it when you’re keeled over from heartburn (胸焼け;むねやけ: “chest burn”) and when you’re tense with anxiety (胸ぐるしい;むねぐるしい;lit. “troubled chest”). It also often seems to correspond with “heart” in phrases like “to be open-hearted” or 胸が広い(むねがひろい;lit. “to have a broad chest”). Others include:

  • 胸がいっぱい(むねがいいぱい)to be overwhelmed with emotion (lit. for one’s chest to be full)
  • 胸が躍る(むねがおどる)to be excited and/or elated (lit. for one’s chest to dance)
  • 胸騒ぎがする(むねさわぎがする)to feel uneasy (lit. for there to be noise in one’s chest)
  • 胸を焦がす(むねをこがす)to yearn for something or someone (lit. to burn one’s chest)
  • 胸を痛める(むねをいためる)to worry oneself (lit. to make one’s chest hurt)
  • 胸を打つ(むねをうつ)to be touching (lit. to strike one’s chest)
  • 胸に畳む(むねにたたむ)to keep something to oneself (lit. to fold in one’s chest)



Photo from kani-jessy

Moving on further south, we land at the stomach—not the organ itself, though! That’s for another day. This is the exterior stomach area, linguistically linked in Japanese with instinctual feelings and with people’s REAL intentions or thoughts. Some examples are:

  • 腹が黒い(はらがくろい)to be black-hearted (lit. one’s stomach is black)
  • 腹が立つ(はらがたつ)to be angry (lit. one’s stomach stands)
  • 腹ができている(はらができている)to be resolute (lit. one’s stomach is prepared)
  • 腹の中で笑う(はらのなかでわらう)to laugh/smile to oneself (lit. to laugh/smile in one’s stomach)
  • 腹積もり(はらづもり)one’s real intentions (lit. stomach intentions)
  • 腹時計(はらどけい)one’s internal clock (lit. stomach clock)

背(せ)or 背中(せなか)


Photo from pleshops 

Flipping over to the other side of the body we have the back. This probably appeared in two of the first descriptors you ever learned in Japanese, when you had to describe your ideal romantic partner in stilted sentences at 8AM (or maybe that was just me). So-and-so is tall or 背が高い(せがたかい; lit. “to have a high back”)and so-and-so is short 背が低い(せがひくい; lit. “to have a low back”). In addition to height, 背 appears in a few other worthwhile idioms:

  • 背中合わせ(せなかあわせ)to be at odds (lit. to be back to back)
  • 背を向ける(せをむける)to pretend not to see (lit. to turn one’s back)
  • 背中で教える(せなかでおしえる)to teach by example (lit. to teach with one’s back)


belly dance

Connecting the back and the stomach we have the waist/hips/lower back region all wrapped up into one handy word. As a core of bodily support and the point at which the body bends, 腰 gets quite a workout in the following idioms:

  • 腰が重い(こしがおもい)to be slow to act or start working (lit. one’s waist is heavy)
  • 腰が軽い(こしがかるい)to cheerfully work (lit. one’s waist is light)
  • 腰が強い(こしがつよい)to be persevering (lit. one’s waist is strong)
  • 腰が弱い(こしがよわい)to lack firmness (lit. one’s waist is weak)
  • 腰を入れる(腰を入れる)to take a solid stance (lit. to put one’s waist into it)
  • 腰を落ち着ける(こしをおちつける)to settle down (lit. to relax one’s waist)

尻(しり)or お尻(おしり)

bear butt

Photo from Doug Brown

You’re probably sitting on one right now—your butt. Just as English has quite a few colorful phrases related to the hindquarters—to get a kick in the butt and to kiss someone’s ass, to name a few—and Japanese doesn’t disappoint, either. Some are remarkably close to English equivalents and others are delightfully vivid and original. Let’s dive in:

  • 尻に敷く(しりにしく)to dominate or boss someone around (lit. to cover the butt)
  • 尻が軽い(しりがかるい)to be *ahem* unchaste (lit. to have a light butt)
  • 尻が重い(しりがおもい)to be lazy (lit. to have a heavy butt)
  • 尻馬に乗る(しりうまにのる)to follow others blindly (lit. to ride a butt horse; aka the last horse in a line)
  • 尻切れ(しりきれ)an abrupt ending (lit. the butt cut off)
  • 尻が長い(しりがながい)to overstay one’s welcome (lit. to have a long butt)
  • 尻押し(しりおし)support; supporter (lit. butt push)
  • 尻もちを搗く(しりもちをつく)to fall on one’s bus (lit. to pound butt mochi; to pound one’s butt into mochi)
  • 尻の穴が小さい(しりのあながちいさい)to be small-minded (lit. to have a small butt hole)
  • 尻に火が付く(しりにひがつく)to be pressed by business (lit. one’s butt catches fire)
  • 尻の毛まで抜かれる(しれのけまでぬかれる)to be completely ripped off (lit. to have everything up to the hair on one’s butt pulled out)



It’d be hard to stand without them—your legs. Well, and your feet. They’re a package deal in Japanese. The closest they get to separate entities is when 足元(あしもと)is trotted out for a few phrases including the omnipresent (in Japan, at least) loudspeakers saying 足元にご注意ください(足元にご注意ください;”watch your step!”). Although that really feels like cheating because all 足元 means is “origin of the leg.” Even footsteps translates to 足音(あしおと;lit. “leg sound”). That’s just the way it is, folks. 足 can also double as a synonym for the way in which or the pace at which someone walks as in the pair 足が遅い(あしがおそい)and 足が速い(あしがはやい), meaning to be a slow walker and a fast walker, respectively. Other idioms of interest are:

  • 足を洗う(あしをあらう)to turn over a new leaf (lit. to wash one’s feet)
  • 足が出る(あしがでる)to go over budget (lit. one’s legs stick out)
  • 足任せ(あしまかせ)wandering without a particular destination (lit. leaving it up to one’s legs)
  • 足元を見る(あしもとをみる)to size someone up (usually to take advantage of them) (lit. to see someone’s feet)
  • 足が地に着かない(あしがちにつかない)to be on top of the world (lit. one’s feet don’t touch the ground)
  • 足を取られる(あしをとられる)to be tripped up (lit. to have one’s legs taken)



Photo from Ryuta Ishimoto

Then we have the knees, those knobbly little joints in the middle of your legs. A few idioms that hinge on knees are:

  • 膝をつく(ひざをつく)to get down on one’s knees (lit. to attach one’s knees)
  • 膝を突き合わせる(ひざをつきあわせる)to discuss unreservedly or intimately (lit. to touch knees with one another)
  • 膝を進める(ひざをすすめる)to draw closer (lit. one’s knees proceed)

足の指(あしのゆび)or 爪先(つまさき)

toe faces

Photo from Janine

Last and possibly least, we have the toes. Because instead of giving them a dedicated word, Japanese just smashes together two other anatomy words when they bother to refer to them at all (足の指;lit. “fingers of the leg”). Alternately, there’s 爪先(つまさき; lit. “tip of the (finger or toe) nails”)which is actually usually translated as tiptoes, not toes. BUT! If you want to scream about how you just stubbed your toe, it’s つま先をぶつける(つまさきをぶつける;lit. “to bump into with tiptoes”). Go figure.

There we have it — Japanese anatomy from head to toe. Of course, some body parts didn’t make the cut (my apologies to elbow and eyelash) but the goal here was to lay a solid foundation by focusing on basic words that either differ from English usage and/or pack a cultural punch. Hopefully the idioms not only give you some insight into Japanese conceptions of the body but also help you remember the names of the body parts themselves. So now if you do indeed fall on your butt in front of everyone in Japan, you can impress the stunned onlookers by exclaiming, 「尻もちを搗いた!」(しりもちをついた; “I fell on my ass!”; lit. “I made butt mochi!”). In fact, I might just start saying that in English.

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The post Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes: Japanese Anatomy Vocabulary 101 appeared first on Tofugu.

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Kid’s Anime for Japanese Learners Mon, 30 Mar 2015 13:00:00 +0000 When I started learning Japanese, the inability to pick up on words in anime, movies and music frustrated me. Aside from “Okā-san!”, “Otō-san!” and “Kusou!”, I had trouble catching words and phrases and my listening skills developed at a slow rate. I used to sit back and wonder, “Will I ever be able to understand what they’re […]

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When I started learning Japanese, the inability to pick up on words in anime, movies and music frustrated me. Aside from “Okā-san!”, “Otō-san!” and “Kusou!”, I had trouble catching words and phrases and my listening skills developed at a slow rate. I used to sit back and wonder, “Will I ever be able to understand what they’re saying!?”

A trip to the video rental shop answered my question. Instead of the anime, drama or comedy sections, I scoped out family and children’s DVDs. Among them I discovered Chibi Maruko-chanOden-kun, and other shows that served as more suitable learning material for a beginner. Although not easy, these programs featured language closer to my level, particularly when compared to the complicated plots of the anime and movies I had been watching.

At last I could improve my listening skills while being entertained! Some of these cartoons, like Anpanman, are made for toddlers and feature simple stories, simple Japanese and clear pronunciation. Others, like Nintama Rantarou, take aim at older children and feature a slight level-up in Japanese and plot. But all of the following shows can be used as study materials. But don’t take my word for it – give them a try!


Photo by DGlodowska

When using anime as a learning tool, kicking back with a bag of popcorn won’t lead to major gains (although chewing gum might help.) It’s best to formulate a concrete plan of attack. Koichi offers tips, tricks and strategies on the subject in his excellent article How to Learn Japanese from Anime, and here are some techniques I find useful.

Watch an episode multiple times to challenge your ear. During the first viewing, turn the subtitles off and try to pick out single words or listen for understanding. You can repeat the process as many times as you want and even take some notes. On the final viewing, turn on the subtitles to see how successful you were.

When watching Japanese cartoons, shows or movies, decide whether to listen for overall understanding or for single words or phrases. When I first started learning Japanese I focused on listening for words and phrases I had studied. As my Japanese improved I focused on trying to understand the overall content of statements and conversations and ignored focusing on single words.

A more painstaking method involves listening to the dialogue and trying to write out the Japanese. This method works best when the anime features Japanese subtitles to compare your work with afterwards. You can also use this method with Japanese music and then check the lyrics online. This technique’s advantage lies in its focus on raw Japanese. Since you don’t need to understand what you write, you can invest total focus on listening. Although time consuming, this study method’s big yields means it’s worth investing time in.

As with any studying strategy, it’s best to try a variety of approaches to find what works best for you. But even when you do, changing things up keeps studying fresh and revives motivation.

Get to the List Already!

impatient tv watching cat

Photo by Carbon Arc

This list features cartoons with varying degrees of Japanese. True beginners (one year of study or less) may not be able to use cartoons for a study tool with great results. But thanks to their simple plots and clear Japanese, the series in this list offer a great starting point for listening improvement.

Anpanman (アンパンマン)

One of Japan’s most popular childrens’ characters is based on a familiar snack food. Welcome to the world of Anpanman, an anpan (bread filled with anko, or sweet red bean paste) headed hero. Sure his weakness is water, but when dampness strikes, the kind old baker Uncle Jam saves the day with a fresh head of bread.

What started as a series of picture books by Takashi Yanase in 1973 grew into an industry spawning clothing, toys, video games, snacks and a hit cartoon. Making its debut in 1988, the cartoon continues today with over one thousand episodes and annual movies and tv specials.

Anpanman reigns supreme among children ages 0 to 4, so the dialogue and stories stay simple. Beginners looking to get their feet wet in Japanese should find Anpanman their best bet. And as a bonus you learn about the Japanese diet: from melonpan to currypan, the delicious cast of characters features foods common to bakeries and supermarkets across Japan.

  • Pros: Aimed at young children. Anpanman features simple stories and simple dialogue perfect for Japanese language beginners of any age. Learn about Japan’s unique takes on bread.
  • Cons: Almost too cute and maybe too childish. Also, Anpanman‘s characters might make you hunger for foods unavailable outside of Japan.

Chirubii (チルビー)

Make it past Chirubii‘s cute, dancing rabbit opening and you’re in for a treat. The series features (slightly) animated versions of popular Japanese picture books with enthusiastic narration and colorful background music. Chirubii aims at children without becoming too infantile. By featuring books from various authors, this cartoon’s visual style varies from episode to episode and the stories never get stale. Watch Chirubii and experience some of Japan’s best picture books while leveling up your listening skills!

  • Pros: Chirubii offers Japanese aimed at the youngest native Japanese learners, so it makes for great listening practice! The variety of stories and art keeps Chirubii fresh and interesting.
  • Cons: The minimalist animation may turn off some viewers.

Nihon Mukashibanashi (日本昔話)

If children’s books and anthropomorphic bread don’t interest you, you might enjoy some good old fashioned folktales. Nihon Mukashibanashi offers up classic stories brought to life by various artists in various animation styles. Like the two series mentioned above, Nihon Mukashibanashi‘s Japanese stays simple, although some of rural and old folks’ Japanese might be difficult to pick up on. Overall Nihon Mukashibanashi offers deep cultural roots with a relaxing vibe.

  • Pros: Like Chirubii, Nihon Mukashibanashi’s assorted art styles keep the visuals interesting. The traditional source material offers a distinct Japanese flavor.
  • Cons: Like most fables and fairy tales, the stories get repetitive. How is it that so many old men saved magical sea-life?

Ganbare! Oden-kun (がんばれ!おでんくん)

Welcome to coolsville. Unlike the childish Anpanman and Chirubii and old-fashioned Nihon Mukashi-banashi, Oden-kun offers up a hip, groovy and occasionally psychedelic flavor. Created by actor (All Around Us), writer (Tokyo Tower: Mom and Me, and Sometimes Dad) and all-around talent Lily Frank, Oden-kun reflects its author’s unique personality and art style.

The story stars Oden-kun, a small kinchaku or mochi-filled bag of tofu who lives in a big pot of oden (a Japanese stew of sorts). His friends include egg-headed girls, a wise old slice of daikon radish and even a sausage-headed alpha-male. Oden-kun uses the mochi in his head to get him, his friends and his customers out of hairy situations. But don’t worry, after being pulled from the pot and eaten, Oden-kun and his pals eventually reappear for new adventures.

  • Pros: With slow and clear pronunciation, Oden-kun‘s Japanese is easy to pick up on. Unique plots and characters make Oden-kun one of the most fun children’s cartoons to watch.
  • Cons: Some viewers might find the show’s depictions of god (dude chilling on a cloud with a beard and bishop hat) offensive. Another one that might give you cravings for Japanese dishes that you can’t get at home.

Nintama Rantarou (忍たま乱太郎)

If ninjas are more your style, give Nintama Rantarou a try! The show focuses on the titular hero Rantarou and his friends Shinbei and Kirimaru as they train to be ninjas at Ninja Gakuen. Childish jokes (some involving poop) give you the chance to learn childish Japanese words (like poop) and make this show a fun watch.

  • Pros: Did I mention ninjas! And a great sense of humor.
  • Cons: Fast talking makes this one more difficult than the previous series on the list.

Sazae-san (サザエさん)

A long-running classic, Machiko Hasegawa’s Sazae-san depicts the everyday trials and tribulations faced by a Japanese housewife and her family. Although often compared to Chic Young’s Blondie character of the comic-strip of the same name, Patrick Drazen compares Sazae-san to Peanuts‘ Charlie Brown, as a “wishy-washy” character engaged in the balancing act of everyday life (Anime Explosion 143). Watch Sazae-san to tune up your Japanese skills while reflecting on a low-key idealization of family life in Japan.

  • Pros: The long running classic is grounded in reality. Suited for all audiences.
  • Cons: Born from the post-war 1940’s, perhaps Sazae-san’s world is overly romanticized.

Chibi Maruko-chan (ちびまる子ちゃん)

My favorite family show, ,the long running Chibi Maruko-chan has made the jump from analog to HD. While Sazae-san focuses on a Japanese housewife, Chibi Maruko-chan follows elementary school student Sakura-chan and her experiences at school, at home and around her neighborhood. Another show based in reality, Sakura’s reactions and thought-process reflect an authentic innocence that make the series both touching and humorous.

  • Pros: A funny, realistic portrayal of a Japanese child’s world.
  • Cons: The narrator’s sense of humor, which often flatly stating the obvious, may get lost in translation.

Crayon Shin-chan (クレヨンしんちゃん)

If a cheeky (in more ways than one) version of Japanese family life is what you’re looking for, give Crayon Shin-chan a look. Shin-chan and his eccentric family put humanity’s imperfect, but realistic shortcomings on display. Shin-chan is best compared to Bart Simpson of the early 1990s, a young troublemaker with his own colloquialisms. But like the later Simpsons episodes, Shin-chan’s universe is not constrained to reality. Crayon Shin-chan offers a crude but “real” representation of Japanese family life with language to match. As such, it’s one of the more difficult series on the list.

  • Pros: Learn Japanese as cheeky little kids speak it.
  • Cons: One of the most difficult to understand on the list, thanks to Shin-chan’s voice and pronunciation.

 Dragon Ball (ドラゴンボール)

No introduction necessary, but here goes: The world-famous series that grew into the definitive shonen action-battle series started off as an action-comedy. Before Dragon Ball Z popularized fights spanning hundreds of episodes (at least that’s how they felt) and extended episode recaps, Dragon Ball kept things relatively simple and humor-based. Fans of the series know what to listen for and some of the characters’ slow, clear pronunciation make Dragon Ball an apt Japanese learning tool. And given its world-wide popularity, Dragon Ball should be the most accessible series on the list.

  • Pros: As a popular series abroad, it’s easy to obtain. Those who have already watched it in English know the plots and therefore what kind of words to listen for. For example, in the clip above Roshi (the old man) is trying to get Lunch (the girl) into the bathroom to peep on her. Since I know his intent, I know to listen for words like bathroom and bathtub.
  • Cons: When the action gets heavy, useful vocabulary dwindles. Goku’s (the main character) voice can be the most difficult to listen to.

Doraemon (ドラえもん)

The big, blue robot cat from the future debuted on the printed page as a manga in 1969 and on television in 1973. Doraemon has been a mainstay of Japanese television and movie theaters ever since. Sent from the future to help his inventor’s great great grandfather Nobita, Doraemon can pull all sorts of crazy inventions from the “magic pocket” on his tummy (think Felix The Cat’s magic bag of tricks).

Doraemon revolves around Nobita’s school and home life, though it occasionally crosses into the fantasy realm. Thanks to its sense of humor and innocent fun, Doraemon remains a favorite among all ages and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more recognized and beloved character in Japan.

  • Pros: Witness the closest thing Japan has to Mickey Mouse (aside from Kitty-chan?), in a long running, influential cultural mainstay. Even after hundreds of episodes, Doraemon’s unique and silly inventions will keep you guessing.
  • Cons: Although the inventions are interesting, the series’ plots get repetitive. Nobita’s bungling helplessness gets old.

Jarinko Chie (じゃりン子チエ)

Experience family life – Osaka style. Jarinko Chie deals with the eccentricities of Kansai life, the seedier, more in-your-face side of Japan. Experience Chie’s hard-knock life, complete with yakuza encounters and badass cats. Chie offers a refreshing change from the other child characters on this list as she faces the challenges of a broken home head-on and proves more responsible than many of the adults that surround her. But beware, taking on Jarinko Chie means taking on Kansai-ben (Osaka’s local dialect). Jarinko Chie is like a gritty, more capable Chibi Maruko-chan.

  • Pros: Experience Kansai-ben!
  • Cons: Experience Kansai-ben…

SpongeBob Squarepants (スポンジョボブ)

The popular American cartoon series has also seen success in Japan. SpongeBob and his friends speak with loud, clear pronunciation. While stories get crazy, the simple jokes and visuals make the dialogue easy to understand. Since the series is originally in English, it’s easy to find a source to compare the Japanese to. But since the series is originally in English, getting your hands on Japanese episodes might require buying the Japanese DVDs.

  • Pros: American humor (for Americans). Voice actors speak very clearly.
  • Cons: Some jokes don’t translate accurately, so the Japanese dialogue may differ from the English equivalent. Japanese episodes are hard to come by.


video store

Photo by Andy Nystrom

Access to these shows would have been nearly impossible just a decade ago. But thanks to the internet, most are easily accessible. Video sites like Youtube offer episodes that can be viewed for free. There’s even an official Doraemon channel you can subscribe to. Can’t find the series by searching in English? Try searching in Japanese. If Youtube doesn’t give you what you want, try different video hosting sites (like Dailymotion).

Online marketplaces like, Rakuten, Yesasia, Play-asia, and CDJapan offer many of these series on DVD or Bluray. Both shops have made international ordering easy by offering English versions of their stores and accepting foreign credit cards. Some series can be found at I found Oden-kun, Chibi Maruko-chan, Anpanman, and even Jarinko Chie there.

But beware of region restrictions that prevent imported disks from playing on domestic DVD players. Luckily region-free DVD players that can play DVDs from any country are inexpensive. Amazon sells units at under $40.

Although I don’t have a region free DVD player, I set my computer’s DVD drive to region 2 so I can play Japanese DVDs. I also play them on my Japanese Playstation 3. Although playing import DVDs can be problematic, there are many easy solutions.

If you want English subtitles, things get a bit trickier. Most Japanese DVDs do not feature English subs. Japanese SpongeBob DVDs feature both Japanese and English options. And most Western-released Dragon Ball DVDs feature both languages. So those are you’re best bets. Funimation’s Western release of Crayon Shin-chan, however, does not feature Japanese language options. So if you buy Crayon Shin-chan DVDs for study purposes, make sure to get the Japanese release.

Doin’ Time

Photo by Unsplash

As Koichi explains, learning Japanese from anime takes work. Passively watching while reading English subtitles results in few gains if any. But by buckling down and deciding on a specific strategy we can dramatically level up our listening levels.

When it comes to listening skills, we all develop at different speeds, but putting in the time and effort can help push things along. But finding the right study material helps. And since many Japanese children’s shows feature simple stories and simple Japanese, they make a great starting point. Most of the series mentioned above feature 15 minute shorts, a length perfect for repeated, focused viewings.

And don’t forget to go back later to check your progress. I love revisiting a series from years ago. Nothing has been more satisfying than cultivating what feels like a sixth sense and understanding dialogue that was once just a bunch of indecipherable sounds.

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Improving Your Japanese Through Exercise?! Wed, 18 Mar 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Language learners rejoice! Science has finally discovered a way to improve your mind, body and overall health – all at the same time. But fear not, this isn’t Tofugu brand snake oil. There’s nothing to buy, no dotted line to sign. Just an article to read and a technique to try. Did I mention the technique is as easy […]

The post Improving Your Japanese Through Exercise?! appeared first on Tofugu.

Language learners rejoice! Science has finally discovered a way to improve your mind, body and overall health – all at the same time. But fear not, this isn’t Tofugu brand snake oil. There’s nothing to buy, no dotted line to sign. Just an article to read and a technique to try.

Did I mention the technique is as easy as a walk in the park? In fact, it can be a walk in the park – literally.

We have long known that regular exercise helps maintain a healthy body. More recently we have learned that exercising the mind can prevent its degradation. But what happens when you combine the two?

Recent studies seek to answer that question. And for those of us studying a new language, the results look promising; learning while exercising can increase the mind’s efficiency and retention. That’s right, in what may be the ultimate form of multitasking, we can improve our bodies, our minds and our overall health at the same time. How can language learners take advantage of these findings? The sales-pitch is over, read on to find out!

Exercise Your Mind

Photo by Autopilot

Years ago “move it or lose it” applied specifically to the body. The lyrical phrase implies that maintaining advances in muscular strength, endurance or flexibility requires consistent repetition. Stop for an extended period of time and the body atrophies, or regresses to its former weak and less flexible state.

The mind, on the other hand, appeared to be less malleable. In Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain John J. Ratey writes, “For the better part of the twentieth century, scientific dogma held that the brain was hardwired once fully developed in adolescence, meaning we’re born with all the neurons we’re going to get.”

Age, it was thought, resulted in an inevitable loss of cognitive function. Unlike the body, the mind could not be exercised or maintained.

At least that’s how old school thinking went. But recent studies prove the opposite; that challenging the mind can help maintain its level of function. Erin Lynn Link of Illinois State University writes,

The number of cells in the brain can start to decline in our mid-20s, but research has shown that the number of connections between brain cells can continue to grow if we exercise our brains. Using your brain pumps blood to it, which carries oxygen and food to cells. Increasing blood flow to the brain has numerous benefits, including counteracting aging and fighting Alzheimer’s. So the more you exercise your brain in childhood, middle age, and all stages of life, the better off your brain will be at all stages.

By challenging our minds to function in new ways we can stave off deterioration. Activities can be as complex as learning a new instrument or dancing, but simpler actions, like using your non-dominant hand or taking an alternative route to work, also allow us to exercise our minds through small variations of everyday activities. Laid back hobbies like reading, knitting, crossword puzzles and video games also help.

The goal is to stimulate our brains with unfamiliar tasks. Denise Park of the University of Texas at Dallas explains,

It is important to get out and do something that is unfamiliar and mentally challenging, and that provides broad stimulation mentally and socially… When you are inside your comfort zone you may be outside of the enhancement zone.

And there’s good news for language learners – the act of learning new languages counts as a mind strengthening activity! Maria Konnikova explains,”Adults who speak multiple languages seem to resist the effects of dementia far better than monolinguals do.”

In two cited studies, bilinguals experienced signs of dementia four years later than monolinguals. So if you needed any more reasons to study a foreign language, like Japanese, throw another motivational log into the fire.

Exercising The Body To Maintain Mind and Memory

Photo by Luc Viatour

But the body and mind don’t function as separate entities. Studies show that a sound body can help protect and facilitate a sound mind. From the prevention of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and stroke, exercising our bodies benefits our minds, keeping them sharp and preventing degeneration.

Norman Doidge of The Wall Street Journal writes,

A randomized, controlled trial by Kirk Erickson of the University of Pittsburgh and colleagues… shows that those without dementia who did aerobic exercise for a year showed significant hippocampal enlargement. The hippocampus is the brain region that turns short-term memories into long-term ones, and it is often the first to degenerate in Alzheimer’s cases and with age in general. Earlier studies showed aerobic exercise increased the brain’s gray and white matter in the frontal lobes, areas involved in planning and goal-directed activity.

But how does exercise help the brain? Doidge continues,

Exercise triggers the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus. It also triggers the release of “neurotrophic growth factors”—a kind of brain fertilizer, helping the brain to grow, maintain new connections and stay healthy.

So if you want to maintain brain function into old age, best start a regular exercise routine if you haven’t already.

But the benefits of exercise don’t stop at maintaining a healthy body and mind. Exercising can jump start the learning process, prepping the brain to absorb new information and create new memories. The compounds released through exercise that promote growth in the brain also aid learning.

John J. Ratey calls the biological cocktail Miracle-Gro for the mind:

When researchers added body produced neurotophic factor onto neurons in a petri dish the cells sprouted new branches, producing the same structural growth required for learning.

Exercise’s benefits haven’t gone unnoticed. The city of Naperville, Illinois has introduced a physical education program aimed at raising its students’ academic performance. The California Department of Education, which closely monitors its students physical fitness via Fitnessgram, showed that fit students outperformed their unfit peers, even when taking income demographics into account.

The good news is that the exercise need not be rigorous. Slow jogging or brisk walking will do the trick. And since we’ve already seen that exercise builds a sound body and sound mind, why not give it a try?

The Ultimate Multitasking?

Photo by BotMultichillT

But why stop there? Some wild and crazy scientists decided to take exercise and learning to the next level when they asked, what happens when one exercises the mind and body at the same time?

Their research shows that people absorb more information and experience better recall when they study WHILE exercising! That’s right – when it comes time to study, we all might be better off skipping the library and hitting the gym instead.

The first positive evidence came through experiments on (you guessed it) mice.

Regular physical exercise (i.e. mainly wheel running) has been shown to stimulate brain vascularization (blood flow), increase levels of brain catecholamines, particularly dopamine and noradrenalin, and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (MiracleGro), which in turn increase neuronal survival and neurogenesis… These changes create a basis for better learning, retention and performance, leading to a more efficient, plastic and adaptive brain. (Stroth 365)

But don’t fret, we need not be jealous of our squeaky, four-legged friends; evidence shows similar benefits can be achieve by human beings.

In summary, subsequent to a running training, associated with increased physical fitness, we found improved cognitive flexibility and cognitive control (in humans). Also, working memory was partly influenced by increased physical fitness. (Stroth 371)

Exercise triggers the production of compounds and enzymes that aid learning. The presence of the compounds “stimulate the genes responsible for learning and memory” (Wlassoff). So if you’re learning anything new, like, say, Japanese, you might want to give exercise a try.

Go With “The Flow”

Photo by Kyle Cassidy

Perhaps these findings have connections with states of “flow.” “Flow” describes a state of heightened consciousness where, as Steven Kotler writes in The Rise of Superman, “we both feel our best and perform our best.”

Have you ever become so focused on something, you lost all sense of time? If so, you experienced flow. In sports it’s being in the zone, on the job it’s getting lost in work. In Future Memory, P. M. H. Atwater explains,

People lose a sense of self in this state. One becomes both actor and observer, irrelevant stimuli are shut out, time and space distort, and there comes a knowing… Unlike concentration, which increases cortex action, flow states decrease cortical activity. (68)

Shutting out irrelevant stimuli is the key. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, godfather of flow theory states that while in flow states, unnecessary parts of the brain shut down, leaving us in a more efficient, proficient state. “We get into flow not by exerting more effort,” he theorizes, “but rather by screening out distortions” (Atwater 69).

Light exercise creates low level flow states that block distractions and aid studying. With decreased “cortical activity” or a “quieted mind” we are opened to absorb information more effectively.

Great News For Language Learners

Photo by GaryD144

If the health of one’s body, mind and memory don’t motivate language learners to mount the stationary bike, maybe this study focusing on language learning will.

A study published in PLOS One followed groups of German women learning the Polish language. Subjects listened to recordings of vocabulary words under three circumstances. One group studied while sitting. Another exercised before sitting and studying. The final group studied while exercising. Afterwards the groups were tested on the words they had studied.

Gretchen Reynolds of the New York Times reported on the findings,

Everyone could recall some new words. But the women who had gently ridden a bicycle while hearing the new words — who had exercised lightly during the process of creating new memories —performed best. They had the most robust recall of the new information, significantly better than the group that had sat quietly and better than the group that had exercised before learning. Those women performed only slightly better than the women who had not exercised at all.

The study also considered variables that might affect results. For example, participants tested immediately after exercise saw less impressive results. The PLOS One experiment suggests that participants performed better after two day’s rest because “physiological arousal would have dissipated.”

The vigor of exercise also comes into play. According to Dr. Schmidt-Kassow, subjects performed best during light exercise because vigorous exercise over-stimulates the body and results in less retention. Light exercise seems to provide the perfect biological chemical cocktail to block out distractions and increase information absorption.

My Experience

Learning Japanese was something I had long wanted to do, but I feared the commitment. When the teaching program I enrolled in called for a foreign language, I finally found an excuse.

Once class started I found studying at desk a waste of time. Did I lack the focus to study vocabulary, grammar points and the dreaded trinity of hiragana, katakana and kanji? I looked the words over and over again. My mind wandered. My body fidgeted. My brain felt like a dry sponge, Japanese vocabulary an unabsorbable liquid. My courage waned – until I took it to the streets.

Frustrated and tired, I jotted the vocabulary down on an index card and went for a run. Careful to avoid potholes and traffic, I stole peeks at the card while I ran.

“Hajimemashite!” “Ogenki desu ka?”

Something felt right as I repeated the phrases in my head. And when I aced the quiz on the following day, I knew I was onto something. Exercise had primed the sponge and the words had seeped in, ready to be squeezed out when need be.

Since then almost every Japanese word and phrase I learned came through the practice of studying while running. The technique also helped me master presentations for a speech class and memorize the lyrics to Japanese songs.

I shared my discovery with a multilingual professor. He laughed and said he found the same to be true when he studied Spanish while doing the elliptical. I knew I wasn’t alone and The New York Times article only served to bolster my confidence in the combination of study and exercise.


exercise vocabulary

Photo by Sancho McCann

Studying while exercising? The idea sounds absurd, even dangerous. But don’t worry, it’s actually not that crazy. Next I’ll provide some tips on getting it done.

Remember, test subjects saw the best results while partaking in light exercise. Gretchen Reynolds writes, “Light-intensity exercise will elicit low but noticeable levels of physiological arousal which, in turn, presumably help to prime the brain for the intake of new information and the encoding of that information into memories.”

I studied at a slow run or while taking a walk. Refreshing, non-taxing speeds worked the best. Don’t lose focus on what you’re studying. And never lose focus of your surroundings.

Choose a safe way to exercise. I took the most dangerous route, studying while running on streets open to traffic. I knew the route well and cars were few and far between, but was still risky.

Gym or home equipment offer safer options. Try a treadmill, exercise bike, or elliptical. They offer a steady pace without the environmental dangers, allowing you to focus on your study material.

If you’re still not comfortable with tackling both activities at once, try studying after a workout. Although the benefits may be less potent, studies show that studying after exercise trumps just studying.

Finally, if you exercise isn’t your thing, give doodling or chewing gun a try! Sue Shellenbarger of the Wall Street Journal reported, “Recent research… shows that doodling can help people stay focused, grasp new concepts and retain information.” Doodling appears to block out distractions and help the mind focus. Although it might not stimulate the production of mind Miracle-Gro we read about earlier, and certainly won’t provide the physical health benefits of exercise, it’s worth a try.

Michael Erard touts the benefits of chewing gum in Babel No More; The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners, “Chewing gum has been shown to improve a person’s immediate recall of learned words by some 24 percent. Long-term recall improves by a larger 36 percent” (236). However, just moving you jaw doesn’t work. Although he’s unsure why, Erard states you have to chew!

Tools of the Trade

Photo by Rich

As for study tools, PLOS One’s research focused on exercising while listening to recordings. Both Japanese learning podcasts and Japanese news programs provide great study material. Recording apps make custom recording easy, so creating your own custom study materials is also a great option.

Study cards worked best for me. Just fold an index card in half and write the English word on the right side and the Japanese on the left. You can even laminate important cards you want to reuse. The fold down the middle allows the card to fold in half, hiding the English or Japanese version of the word. With a quick peek you can quiz yourself and unfold the card to check your answers.

Perhaps the best method is exercising with a native speaker! In 4 Myths About Learning Japanese Michael Richey mentions that alcohol can unhinge inhibitions and relieve nervousness. For me running has the same effect. I get lost in conversation (can conversation create flow states?) and forget about making mistakes. Best of all, conversation warps my sense of time and the kilometers seem to slip by. So if possible find a fluent workout buddy!

Multitasking That Works

Photo by LocalFitness

The merits of multitasking are constantly under fire. Is the human mind made to bounce around multiple tasks? For whatever reason, when it comes to the tasks of study and exercise the answer seems to be “yes.”

Humans are made to move. Physical stress sparks chemical processes that not only promote muscle growth, but neurological growth well. We simply function best when we are in shape.

And although there are still many questions as to why exercise and learning seem to go hand in hand, does it really matter? I’ve had success combing study and exercise and I know I’m not alone. So enjoy a case of “いっせき に ちょう isseki ni chou” or “(getting) two birds with one stone” by improving your body and mind at the same time. Please give it a try and let us know how it works for you!

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The Meaning of 国 Wed, 11 Mar 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Kuni can be a troublesome word.  Full of ambiguity, it can be translated as country, nation, state, or kingdom.  For native English speakers, the confusion is compounded by the distinctions between those words in English, which are not always clear.  Some compound words containing kuni (sometimes read koku) also defy clear definition.  Some come loaded with […]

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Kuni can be a troublesome word.  Full of ambiguity, it can be translated as country, nation, state, or kingdom.  For native English speakers, the confusion is compounded by the distinctions between those words in English, which are not always clear.  Some compound words containing kuni (sometimes read koku) also defy clear definition.  Some come loaded with historical or political connotations.  Here, let’s delve into realms etymological, historical, and political in an attempt to better understand a word we may have learned, but not given much thought.

Confounding Kanji

a mess o kanji

Photo by Stuart Rankin

Starting by looking at the kanji for kuni, keep in mind that Chinese characters are somewhat ideographic.  This is the original character for kuni, used in Chinese and in Japanese for many centuries:


The outer square may look like the character for mouth 口, but in fact it is a nearly identical character (no longer in common Japanese usage) meaning “erect,” “proud,” or “upright.”  In print or type they look indistinguishable to me, though when written with a brush there is a subtle difference.

Aside from the character’s standalone definition, it is often used to enclose other radicals, sometimes words whose meanings are connected to a concept of walls, borders, or enclosures: for example, garden 園, arrest 囚, and surround 囲.  Of course if we’re talking about kuni as a country or state, then those things have borders.

Inside the outer square is the character  或.  It can mean: 1. or, either, else; 2. perhaps, maybe; 3. someone, somebody, some people.  I’m not sure how much bearing the first two definitions have on the meaning of kuni, but the third makes sense.  A kuni can be seen as some people enclosed within borders, although of course that would be a pretty broad definition.

However, a different character is used for kuni in modern Japanese:

There’s the same outer enclosure, but inside is the character 玉.  This character’s most explicit meanings are jade, jewel or ball, though it is used in many ways to refer to things that are round, shiny, and/or pretty.  However, in some contexts, it can represent the emperor or king.  The usual character for king, 王, is quite similar, and jade was often symbolic of royalty in China.  One Japanese example that shows their parallels is the traditional chess-like game of shogi, where the king equivalents for each side are labeled 王将 “king general” and 玉将 “jade general,” respectively.  At any rate, it’s easy to see how in pre-modern East Asia a country could be seen as a king and his borders.

English Etymology Excursus

united nations flags

Before delving further into the origins and meanings of kuni I think it best to take a look at the deeper meanings of some of its most common English translations.  The common usage of these words may not always get across the more precise meanings of these (especially the meanings they imply to historians).  I think the most relevant words for us to look at are country, nation, state, and nation-state.

In English, the word country usually refers to a region of land defined by geographical features or political boundaries.  Today “country” is often synonymous with a sovereign state.  A state is the set of governing and supportive institutions that have sovereignty over a definite territory and population.  Still, there are cases, such as those of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, where an area that is not a sovereign state is called a country.  Of course country can also refer to the country(side) or a general sort of native land.

A nation denotes a people who are believed to or deemed to share common customs, religion, language, origins, ancestry or history.  The term nation-state is used when the bounds of a government coincide with the range of the people it governs, who share some of the qualities mentioned above.  Some states could also be labeled multinational, though the distinctions of what constitutes particular nations can be unclear sometimes.  The prevailing scholarly view has been that nations are a product of modernity that began to emerge around late 18th century and have really taken off since.  However, some argue that there are older examples.  Among the various views on the matter, there are some that put forward the idea that China, Korea, and Japan were nations by the time of the European Middle Ages.

Straight to the Sino-Source

china map 5BC

Photo by Yug

Many people have heard China called “the Middle Kingdom,” a translation of the word for China, zhongguo 中國.  However, originally zhongguo referred to multiple “central states,” during the Spring and Autumn period (771-476 BCE) and the aptly named Warring States period (475-221 BCE).  These were originally smaller city-states, but expanded and fought until the leader of the state of Qin finally managed, through conquest, to unify these former states under his rule.  It is from Qin, that we get the English name China.  From China’s history we can see that guo could be just as multifaceted a term for them as kuni was for Japan.

Conflicting Kuni Connotations

map of feudal japan

Photo by

Things get even trickier when looking at the Japanese era from 1467 to 1603 known as the Sengoku period (sengoku jidai).  It was a time when both emperor and shogun had lost authority and regional lords vied with one another to defend and expand their territories.  The tricky part is that the term used for these lords’ territories was kuni.  This was a designation that originated from legal system of the Kamakura period (1185-1333).  In that sense, kuni could be thought of as provinces, but by the Sengoku period they were largely operating as sovereign states.  Thus, Japan, which we call a kuni today, was made up of many largely independent kuni.

I did a little informal polling of some of my Japanese friends to see how they interpreted the term “sengoku jidai.” Interestingly, two told me that the image they associated with those words was of a single kuni (Japan) divided by civil war, but two other friends told me that to them it connoted the idea of many smaller kuni fighting one another.  It would seem that the term is vague even for them, but without much consequence for the average person.  As another friend told me, they didn’t cover the Sengoku period much in school, but if pressed the first impression would be an association with the Sengoku Musou video games.

At any rate, I think interpreting the kuni in Sengoku period as referring to the smaller divisions accords better with history.  There was a sense of the traditional authority of the emperor, but during this period that authority was extremely limited.  For the most part, kuni were their own little sovereign states.  There appears to have been some sense of bond from sharing a common language, and many common traditions, but there was also great cultural diversity, and a Japanese nationality would not be fully realized for some time to come.

Dissecting the National Body

japanese constitution ceremony

There are many compound words that include the charater kuni, and kokutai 国体 is another one with ambiguous meanings.  Kokutai literally means “national body,” but depending on the context and the translator can have meanings such as “system of government,” “sovereignty,” “national identity/essence/character,” and “national polity/body politic/national entity.”  The word has its origin in China, where its first known usages are found in two books from the 2nd century BCE and 1st century CE, respectively.  In the former, the word is used as a metaphor meaning the “embodiment of the country,” while the latter tome uses it to mean “laws and governance.”

The word kokutai began to take on importance in Japan during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), due to Neo-Confucian scholars like Aizawa Seishisai (1782-1863), who popularized it in his 1825 book, Shinron.  Seishisai was head of the Mito School, which supported restoring the emperor to power.  Seishisai idealized imperial rule as a perfect unity of religion and government.  In his work, kokutai is vague, but seems to mean something like “national structure.”

During the Meiji period, after the nominal restoration of imperial power, ideas of kokutai developed and diverged.  Kato Hiroyuki (1836-1916), in his Kokutai shinron, drew a distinction between kokutai 国体 and seitai 政体. To him, kokutai was the national essence of Japan, made of eternal elements drawn from tradition and focused on the emperor.  On the other hand, seitai was the form of the government which had changed over time.  Thus, it was okay to adopt a western form of government, as long as the emperor was there the kokutai would remain unchanged.

Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835-1901) took a different approach to kokutai, and believed it was not a uniquely Japanese phenomenon.  He thought every nation had its own kokutai, and that Japan’s did not depend on the purported divine descent of the emperor.  When the Meiji Constitution was created in 1889, it accorded more with Kato’s views.

Throughout the subsequent Taisho era Japan grew more nationalistic and militaristic, and the notion of kokutai took on more and more of a mystical aura revolving around the emperor.  This continued into the Showa period, when a committee of professors was appointed to better define kokutai.  In 1937, they issued Kokutai no Hongi (“Cardinal Principles of the National Body”), which taught that everyone was part of the state.  The principles in this pamphlet were spread throughout the education system and society, and both the word kokutai and its spirit were widely featured in propaganda.  Following World War II, the Allied General Headquarters prohibited circulation of Kokutai no Hongi, and the importance of kokutai faded, though some argue that traces of it are still evident in Japanese society.

What’s in a Name?

japan stair

Photo by Ryo Mukae

All of this analysis of a single character may seem a bit esoteric or even pointless.  While a won’t be shutting myself away to meditate upon the mysteries of the word kuni for the rest of my days, I do think it’s beneficial to reflect upon the words we use sometimes.  Particularly for those who study history, the distinction between nation, state, and country can be important in many instances.  When one reads in Japanese, the vagaries of translation and of the Japanese language itself add another step or two on the path to understanding, another chance to misstep.  The better we understand the words we use, the less chance there is of falling.  There’s a lot more nuance to kuni and its English translations than I was able to touch on here, so I encourage you to check it out.

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Politely Puffing with Japanese Smoking Manners Posters Mon, 09 Mar 2015 13:00:00 +0000 One of the biggest adjustments I had to make when I lived in Japan was dealing with smoking. For most of my adult life, a smoking ban in the UK meant that when I went to bars, clubs, or restaurants, I could enjoy myself in a smoke free environment. Almost everyone I knew was a […]

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One of the biggest adjustments I had to make when I lived in Japan was dealing with smoking. For most of my adult life, a smoking ban in the UK meant that when I went to bars, clubs, or restaurants, I could enjoy myself in a smoke free environment. Almost everyone I knew was a non-smoker. Since I have asthma, smoking was never something I wanted to take up. My lung capacity is bad enough as it is.

In comparison, it seemed like most of my friends and co-workers in Japan smoked. Even when I went out to eat with friends who didn’t smoke, there would often be other restaurant customers who smoked, filling the air with a grey haze. After every enkai, I always had a shower to wash the smell out of my hair, no matter how late I got home.

I even knew someone who took up smoking in Japan, even though she had quit in her home country. She said that stress, the influence of her Japanese colleagues, and the fact that cigarettes were so much cheaper in Japan thanks to low taxes broke her resolve.

However, despite my personal dislike for cigarettes, even I can recognise that the Japanese tobacco industry has given the world something wonderful. I’m talking about the beautiful, poetic and funny smoking manners posters.

If you have noticed…


Photo by speedwaystar

If you visit Japan, your eye will probably be caught by the simple design of the smoking manners posters. Using only two colours, green on white, the posters illustrate situations and moral quandaries. The illustration is accompanied by a line or two of text in Japanese and English. The illustrations are labeled only in English, possibly capitalising on the “cool” image of English in advertising. Reading them feels like reading poetry sometimes. The ads seem to owe something to Japanese styles of poetry like the haiku.

“The fire disappears beneath his shoe. Unfortunately, the butt still remains.”

One of the elements of many classic haiku is a shift in perspective using a line break. Many of the posters employ a similar technique, with two sentences that shift your point of view. Others put smoking in a new perspective.

“I carry a 700°C fire in my hand with people walking all around.”

They don’t state rules, but are designed to make people think about their actions. There is definitely a sense of humour too.

“Don’t smoke in a crowd. Coats are expensive.”

Some pose questions.

“Tossing out cigarette butts because others did? Is that a good reason?”

They don’t tell you the answer, but the implication is clear. The tag line of the adverts is あなたが気づけばマナーは変わる。”If you have noticed, your manners change.” There is a lightness of touch that makes these posters strangely affecting.

…your manners change


Photo by tokyofortwo

There are some common themes the posters address; throwing away cigarette butts, being aware of secondhand smoke, burning people and things, caring for Japan’s nature, and the usefulness of portable ash trays. Every season a new batch of posters is released. You can view a gallery of all the posters here. My favourites are the winter ones I spotted at the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri.


Photo by Verity Lane

I’ve stuck my face in plenty of snow and was very glad never to see any cigarettes in there with me, so maybe the posters worked. I spotted this poster in the middle of Oodori, the street that famously holds the huge snow sculptures that you’ve probably seen (yes, including that Star Wars one). Specifically, the posters covered the side of a smoking area that had been set up to separate smokers from the rest of the crowds. That raises the question… who is making these posters?

Anti-Smoking or pro-Smoking Posters?


Even if you’ve noticed the posters, you probably don’t know who makes them. The only clue is the small JT logo. That JT stands for Japan Tobacco. These posters are not an anti-smoking adverts. Did that blow your mind? I know that many people, including myself, have assumed that the posters are some kind of anti-smoking public health campaign. They are made by one of Japan’s largest cigarette manufacturers and the third most profitable tobacco company in the world.

At first this might seem counterintuitive. However, when you think about it, the motives behind this campaign start to emerge. Public opinion and shame play a huge role in Japanese society. Conforming to the expectations of those around you is very important. As cigarette sales and the number of smokers in Japan decline, it is becoming less of a cultural norm. Therefore, smokers are more at risk of being judged by other non-smokers. It is in Japan Tobacco’s interests both that the tobacco industry and smokers appear to be well mannered so as not to upset others. The more smokers have good manners, the less friction there will be in society, and the less likely that public opinion will turn against smoking leading to things like smoking bans, which would cut further into Japan Tobacco’s profits.

Viewed from this angle, the charming posters seem quite cynical. However, regardless of the poster’s motives, if they are effective then they are doing some good. Though some areas of Japan, like Kanagawa and Hyogo Prefectures are imposing smoking bans, most of the country does not seem to be following yet. In the short term, if the posters improve smokers’ manners and help keep Japan clean, this is a good thing, even if they slow the decline of smoking in the long term, which is not so good.

The posters and TV adverts were made by the ad agency of Kinya Okamoto, Okakin. Okamoto is also responsible for Japan Tobacco’s “Adult Training Course,” with yellow posters and a similar theme to the green and yellow ones. He seemed to have corner the market in “adult” (no, not in that sense) adverts. He is also responsible for the Otona Glico (adult Glico) chocolate campaign. The link between cigarettes and adulthood is a bit easier to understand. The age of majority and the age you can buy cigarettes is 20 in Japan. This is the age when you are expected to take on adult responsibilities.

Beyond Smoking


Photo by Jackson Boyle

The ads have been so effective that they’ve been taken on by another industry. Japan Rail (JR) has a collaboration with Japan Tobacco. The JR posters have the same style as the JT posters, but address common travel faux pas. They are displayed in train carriages, often with one half addressing train manners and the other the familiar smoking manners. When I was backpacking around Japan, my eye was certainly caught by the poster about large bags.


Photo by Verity Lane

It did make me more aware of how I was carrying my bag and I adjusted my behaviour. Many foreign tourists in Japan use public transportation. If you are going on a trip, look out for them. Not only are they interesting, they can also help you mind your manners on the often very packed trains.

Studying Japanese


Photo by megadem

Beyond teaching manners and providing the occasional chuckle, the posters have another use. They can be used as a Japanese language learning resource in three ways. The first way is that they provide reading practice “in the wild.” Coming across one of these posters is either a chance to test your reading skills by trying to read the Japanese and comparing your translation with the English on the poster, or a chance to study some new kanji. Since most of the sentences are short and only have one verb, it’s easy to pick out the verb and match it to the English meaning. If you are a visual learner, the picture can help reinforce the memorisation. I liked to look at the posters as little learning resources scattered across my journeys through Japan. It was always exciting to find a new one.


Photo by Walter Disney

The second way the posters can help you with your Japanese goes beyond just kanji and grammar. It is fairly rare to see direct translations of Japanese into English. A good translator will keep in mind the idioms and style of the target language. That’s great if you’re just interested in the final translated content. It’s not so great if you’re trying to look behind the scenes and gain a better understanding of the original language. The English on the smoking posters sounds strange in a way that it’s difficult to pin down. It’s not misspelled, grammatically incorrect or “Engrish”. It’s just not quite how a native speaker would express the same sentiment. If you are studying Japanese, this can give you a great insight. I found that by studying these oddly direct translations, I could better understand how these statements were constructed in Japanese.


Photo by Lee LeFever

The third way they are useful builds on the second way. If we examine not just what the posters are saying, but how they are saying it, we can understand something about constructing an argument in Japanese. Anyone who has tried to teach English essay writing skills will know that an English argument and a Japanese argument are very different creatures. The smoking posters illustrate one of these differences. Rather than trying to convince people through direct command, they evoke contemplation or a emotional response. Trying to convince a Japanese person of something can sometimes be a very frustrating exercise.

When I was trying to convince teachers that students should try writing original sentences in English, it didn’t matter what educational theory or evidence I cited. In the end the thing that convinced them was an anecdote. Take a look at the smoking posters and see if you can see how they make their arguments in a subtle way. What is important goes unspoken, but is implied. Learning Japanese is not just about learning the language, but also how to think in that language. You might learn what to say, but if you don’t learn how to say it, you’ll be missing an important component. The smoking posters can give you an insight into this aspect of Japanese that is often hard to see.

Not only useful as reading practice, the very literal English translations clearly illustrate the differences in English and Japanese go beyond the words themselves to a way of thinking. By reading these translations, we can understand something about the different thought process behind constructing a persuasive argument in Japanese.

Behind the Smokescreen


Photo by Evan Blaser

For all that I admire about the artistry and the usefulness of the smoking manners posters, we can’t get away from the fact that they are part of a cute cover-up for a big health problem. The problems with smoking that the posters highlight are trivial in comparison with the real problems caused by smoking. Tobacco kills up to half of people who use it. The World Health Organisation estimates that 7,000 people are killed by second hand smoke every year in Japan. However, Japan’s smoking rate is falling, part of a wider trend in developed countries. Despite the lack of a nationwide smoking ban, smoking is becoming a hotter issue in Japan. Lung cancer has overtaken stomach cancer as one of the biggest killers in Japan. The smoking salary man is an image that seems to belong in the past. The tide is turning in Japan, with increasing taxes and decreasing smoking rates, but there is still along way to go before Japan is a pleasant environment for non-smokers, despite the efforts of the smoking manners posters.

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The Ghibli Dictionary: A Japanese Study Guide Revolution! Mon, 23 Feb 2015 14:00:00 +0000 Last year, a new English-Japanese dictionary was released in Japan for Japanese people learning English. This may not seem very special until you hear the title: Star Wars English-Japanese Dictionary for Padawan Learners. Does this sound as awesome or what? I’m totally jealous of Japanese people who get language study tools based on Star Wars! The dictionary is essentially a list […]

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Last year, a new English-Japanese dictionary was released in Japan for Japanese people learning English. This may not seem very special until you hear the title: Star Wars English-Japanese Dictionary for Padawan Learners.

Does this sound as awesome or what? I’m totally jealous of Japanese people who get language study tools based on Star Wars! The dictionary is essentially a list of words that are used in the original Star Wars Trilogy. Readers are given lines of dialogue using target words so they can practice speaking like Star Wars characters.

The problem is that we, English speakers learning Japanese, don’t have anything similar. Why do Japanese people get all of these wonderful study guides while we’re stuck with boring dictionaries and textbooks?

This is why I have constructed a new type of Japanese study guide that helps English speakers study Japanese with the help of movies better than Star Wars: The films of Studio Ghibli! Studying alongside these wonderful films will hopefully bring fun to the learning process and warm your heart with child-like fantasy at the same time.

How It Works


The Ghibli Dictionary is not like a normal dictionary, simply listing words in alphabetical order. Its purpose is to teach you words that will increase your understanding of the Japanese used in Ghibli films (without subtitles, of course).

The words are organized according to the films they can be found in. For each film, there is a different category of word to focus on while viewing the film. For example, the My Neighbor Totoro section focuses on nouns. In this way, you can concentrate your studies toward learning one specific aspect of the dialogue at a time, instead of trying to learn everything all at once.

There are many ways to use the dictionary according to your level and preference. One way I recommend is to read over the words for the film you choose and try to remember as many as you can. While viewing the film, listen for the words you just learned and see how many you can recognize. Once you recognize them here, you’ll be surprised at how often you encounter the same words in other anime, dramas, or films. Soon, you’ll be speaking, thinking, and even dreaming in Japanese!

Be advised that all the listings in the Ghibli Dictionary are in kanji, hiragana, and katakana. No romaji! Romaji, as helpful as it seems to beginners, its actually detrimental. It can make it hard for you to read real Japanese later on and wastes your study time. So if you don’t yet know hiragana and katakana (you don’t need kanji to get started in the Ghibli Dictionary), I suggest you check out Tofugu’s handy guides for learning hiragana and katakana. It will take less than a day or two to learn both, and you will be studying much more efficiently from then on.

The words in the Ghibli Dictionary are listed (for the most part) in the order they appear in the films, so you can get a general idea of where to find them.

Enough talk. Let’s get started!

NOUNS! in My Neighbor Totoro


My Neighbor Totoro is a simple story about two young sisters who move with their father to a new house in the countryside. Their mother is ill and staying at a hospital nearby. Soon after moving into the new house, they meet a big fluffy creature called Totoro. With his mysterious kindness, Totoro helps them get used to a new environment and deal with the anxiety of their mother’s illness.

Since the dialogue centers around two children, Satsuki and Mei, the language is quite simple and easy to understand. If you feel ready to graduate from the annoyance of subtitles, this is a great place to start.

Repetition is one of (if not the) most important aspects of language learning. The great thing about My Neighbor Totoro is that many words are used repeatedly, as children are apt to do. So let’s focus on learning the nouns that repeat in My Neighbor Totoro.



Let’s start by learning the nouns and pronouns for people since they are the most repeated words. Sometimes words for family members are said with or without the お, and さん honorifics, and instead are replaced with ちゃん. They mean the same thing, but the お and さん are a bit more formal. The list includes the form that is used most in the film.

お父さん ( おとうさん) = Father, Dad

お母さん (おかあさん) = Mother, Mom

お姉ちゃん (おねえちゃん) = Older Sister

妹 (いもうと) = Younger Sister. Unlike おねえちゃん, this word is not used to call your younger sister, but only to refer to her. In Japan, younger family members are only addressed by their names.

おばあちゃん = Grandmother, Old Lady. This word is generally used for any woman who is elderly, not just your own grandmother.

私 (わたし) = I, Me. Mei refers to herself as Mei instead of I or me. Young girls tend to do this but the older sister Satsuki mostly uses 私, which makes her sound more mature.

私たち (たしたち) = We, Us

みんな = Everyone. The teacher at Satsuki’s school says みなさん, which is a more formal way of saying everyone.

先生 (せんせい) = Teacher, Doctor. You may be used to calling your Japanese teacher 先生, but people of many other occupations are addressed as 先生 as well, such as doctors, lawyers, or politicians.

子供 (こども) = Child

あなた = You. Formal.

おまえ = You. Informal.

バカ = Stupid Person

女の子 (おんなのこ) = Girl

Things and Places


This is a list of the nouns that are repeated most throughout the film.

お家 (おうち) = House, Home. Satsuki’s teacher uses this word to mean household, which is also a common usage.

家 (いえ) = House, Home. This is the same word as お家 (おうち), even though the pronunciation is quite different.

お化け (おばけ) = Ghost

お化け屋敷 (おばけやしき) = Haunted House

木 (き) = Tree

クスノキ = Camphor Tree. This is the type of tree that Totoro lives in.

どんぐり = Acorn

リス = Squirrel

ネズミ = Mouse, Rat

水 (みず) = Water

道 (みち) = Road

お弁当 (おべんとう) = Boxed Lunch

庭 (にわ) = Garden

傘 (かさ) = Umbrella

バス = Bus

猫 (ねこ) = Cat. The cat bus is called 猫バス (ネコバス).

夢 (ゆめ) = Dream

電報 (でんぽう) = Telegram

病院 (びょういん) = Hospital

風邪 (かぜ) = Cold (as in catch a cold). This has the same pronunciation as 風 (かぜ) meaning wind, so try not to get them confused.

迷子 (まいご) = Lost Child

Mei’s Mispronunciation


Mei, being as young as she is, is prone to mispronouncing words. One of those words is トロル (tororu, meaning “troll”), which she pronounces as トトロ (totoro). The name of the film and the fluffy creature we all love is just Mei’s way of pronouncing troll. The other two words that Mei mispronounces are words that new learners of Japanese may have trouble with as well, so watch out.

おたまじゃくし = Tadpole. When Mei finds tadpoles in a small pond in the garden, she yells out オジャマタクシ!, an understandable mistake.

とうもろこし = Corn. Mei mispronounces this word two different ways トンモコロシ and トンモロコシ. I’m sure there are a lot more ways to say it wrong…

ADJECTIVES! in Spirited Away


Spirited Away is possibly the best-known Ghibli film. It is the highest grossing Japanese film of all time and even won an Oscar. It is a fascinating story about a ten-year-old girl who, with her parents, enters the world of the gods. Her parents are turned into pigs and she is forced to work at a bathhouse run by a wicked witch.

The colorful environment and wonderfully detailed artwork make this film a joy to watch. So what better words to learn from this film than words that describe things? Adjectives!

There are a number of different adjectival forms in Japanese, but we’ll only focus on the three most common: ones that end in い (i), しい (shii), and な (na).

The い-adjectives


This is the most common and basic form of Japanese adjective. These can be placed either before or after the thing it is describing.

いい = Good. This word is used in many different ways, just like the word “good” in English. One combination you will hear often is いい子 ( いいこ) meaning “good child.”

悪い ( わるい) = Bad

青い (あおい) = Blue

近い (ちかい) = Close

柔らかい (やわらかい) = Soft

小さい (ちいさい) = Small

どんくさい = Slow, Slow-witted. This word is used for people who are clumsy or slow to learn. Lin calls Chihiro this in the beginning, but Chihiro becomes brave and spirited by the end, so she takes it back.

うるさい = Noisy

汚い (きたない) = Dirty

強い (つよい) = Strong

うまい = Delicious, Skillful. This word can be used to say food is delicious, but it can also be used generally as “good” or “well.” For example, near the end of the film, No-Face is helping make a broom for Zeniba and Zeniba says, “うまいじゃないか” to tell him that he is doing a good job.

早い (はやい) = Early, Fast. This can also be written as 速い.

遅い (おそい) = Late, Slow. Even though there are two different ways to write fast and early, there is only one way to write slow and late.

The しい-adjectives


These are actually just a form of i-adjectives. They tend to be emotions, personalities, or states of being.

新しい (あたらしい) = New

忙しい (いそがしい) = Busy

おかしい = Weird, Odd. This word has other meanings such as “funny,” but in this film, it is only used to say “That’s weird…(おかしいな…).

美味しい (おいしい) = Delicious. The difference between “ おいしい” and “うまい” is that “おいしい” is a bit more formal while “うまい” is casual and manly.

珍しい (めずらしい) = Rare, Unusual

優しい (やさしい) = Kind, Gentle

苦しい (くるしい) = Painful, Strenuous. Another word with many meanings. It is used for any situation where one is having a hard time, physically or emotionally. In the film, Chihiro uses this word to ask Haku (in his dragon form) if he is in pain.

嬉しい (うれしい) = Happy, Glad

The な-adjectives


These adjectives can only come before the noun.

きれいな = Pretty, Beautiful, Clean. きれい can be used on its own, but adding -な at the end of きれい makes it able to modify a noun.

うまそうな = Delicious Looking. うまそう is a conjugated form of うまい. It might be useful to know that if you replace the final い or な in most adjectives with そう, it becomes “looks ——.” For example, if you replace the い in つよい and say つよそう, it means “looks strong.”

バカな = Stupid

贅沢な (ぜいたくな) = Extravagant, Luxurious

余計な (よけいな) = Unnecessary, Needless

大切な (たいせつな) = Valuable, Precious

大事な (だいじな) = Important. だいじな and たいせつな have a similar meaning but たいせつな sounds much more important and emotional.

生意気な (なまいきな) = Impertinent

変な (へんな) = Strange, Weird

IMPERATIVES! in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind


Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is set in a world where most of the land is covered in toxic forests swarming with giant insects. Nausicaä, the princess of the Valley of the Wind, gets caught up in a struggle with the Tolmekian army who are trying to use an ancient weapon to wipe out the insects.

The story is full of suspenseful events and high-pressure moments, which means that there is a lot of ordering around going on. They just don’t have enough time to ask nicely. If your image of Japanese people is that they are extremely polite and would never tell you anything directly, well…that’s not always the case. The dialogue of this film uses an abundance of imperatives (commands) that are useful to learn for understanding your boss’s orders or picking a fight.

The language of this particular film is a bit archaic, so it could be challenging to try and understand all of the dialogue. Let’s just focus on imperatives for now.

(Technically, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is not a Ghibli film, because it was released before the studio was formed. But since its success led to the founding of Studio Ghibli, I decided that it deserves to be in the Ghibli Dictionary.)

Direct Orders


These words are in the simple imperative form that could sound very rude in the wrong situations but are very useful in dire circumstances. They are useful to know when watching war movies or detective dramas. Be aware that these words are all verbs translated into forms that make them commands. Since this is a dictionary we won’t go into how these verbs are conjugated (use a textbook for that), but it’s good to know that these words are conjugated forms.

急げ (いそげ) = Hurry Up. This is by far the most used word in the film, since the characters are always in a hurry.

引け (ひけ) = Pull

出ろ (でろ) = Go Out

早くしろ (はやくしろ) = Do It Quickly.  Sometimes the older men say はよせい, which is the exact same word just in a different dialect.

待て (まて) = Wait

来い (こい) = Come

見ろ (みろ) = Look

集まれ (あつまれ) = Gather

動くな (うごくな) = Don’t Move. If a Japanese cop yells this at you, you might be in a bit of trouble.

落ち着け (おちつけ) = Calm Down

やめろ = Stop

聞け (きけ) = Listen

撃て (うて) = Shoot or Fire (as in a gun or a cannon)

着けろ (つけろ) = Pin It On (as in pinning something to your shirt)

捨てろ (すてろ) = Throw It Away

渡せ (わたせ) = Hand It Over

言え (いえ) = Say It

どけ = Get Out Of The Way

離せ (はなせ) = Let Go

放せ (はなせ) = Release Him/Her/It/Them

行け (いけ) = Go

逃げろ (にげろ) = Run Away

Softer Commands


This form, ending in て (te) or で (de), sounds softer and closer to a request. These are words in the て form, which we won’t go into explaining here, because this is a dictionary. It’s fine to know these て form words as they are, but be sure to learn how the て form is conjugated and utilized by studying a textbook.

急いで (いそいで) = Hurry Up.

燃やして (もやして) = Burn It. Princess Lastelle uses this word to ask Nausicaä to burn the cargo. This is a good example of the difference between the softer commands and direct orders. She does not say 燃やせ, which would have made her seem rude and stuck up.

待って (まって) = Wait

聞いて (きいて) = Listen

どいて = Get Out Of The Way

教えて (おしえて) = Tell Me. おしえて literally means “teach me” but it is often used to say ‘“inform me” or “let me know.” When Nausicaä meets the Pejite soldiers, she says おしえて to say, “tell me what your plan is.”

やめて = Stop It

見て (みて) = Look

The -nasai Form

Some of the commands are given in the -なさい form, which is a softer but condescending form of the imperative. It should only be used for people who are much younger or are of lower social position than you. Parents often use the -なさい form to their children.

見なさい (みなさい) = Look

渡しなさい (わたしなさい) = Hand It Over

捨てなさい (すてなさい) = Throw It Away

To Children or Animals


Japanese has words that can only be said to children or animals. You can hear Nausicaä saying these words to the ohmu and the fox-squirrel in the beginning of the film.

お帰り (おかえり) = Go Back. Yes, this is the same word to say “Welcome back,” but what the speaker means should be clear from the context.

おいで = Come Here. This can also be used to invite friends to your place, but it must be a very casual context or you may sound rude or condescending.

Nimoji Jukugo in Whisper of the Heart


My personal favorite Ghibli film, Whisper of the Heart, is a slice-of-life story based on the manga of the same name by Aoi Hiragi. It was written by Hayao Miyazaki, but actually directed by Yoshifumi Kondō. It is about a 14-year-old girl, Shizuku, who loves to read. She keeps seeing the same boy’s name, Seiji Amasawa, on many of the library checkout cards and begins to daydream about him. One day, she meets a boy who gets on her nerves, who turns out to be Seiji Amasawa.

This is a great film for learning Japanese because the language is realistic and very casual. So let’s focus on a very general type of word that covers a wide range of usages: nimoji jukugo! Nimoji jukugo are words that are made by combining two kanji characters. The meanings of the two characters are combined to make one meaning. I’ve divided the words up into four different categories so maybe you can try to tackle one or two at a time.

The great thing about learning kanji words is that you can mix and match the kanji to make new words, or if you recognize at least one of the kanji, then you might be able to guess the word’s meaning. So if you are an intermediate or advanced level, try to learn the kanji as well. If you know Chinese and already recognize the kanij, well then…you’re just lucky.

Time Words


I probably don’t have to explain how important these words are. You can probably see some patterns in the kanji.

時間 (じかん) = Time

明日 (あした) = Tomorrow

今日 (きょう) = Today

昨日 (きのう) = Yesterday

毎日 (まいにち) = Every Day. Pretty much every word that has to do with “day” has the kanji 日 in it.

午後 (ごご) = Afternoon. The word for before noon is 午前 (ごぜん).

最後 (さいご) = Last

最初 (さいしょ) = First

瞬間 (しゅんかん) = Moment



These words are nouns when used on their own, but when you add する at the end, they become verbs. For example, 説明 (せつめい) means “explanation,” while 説明する (せつめいする) means “to explain.”

出勤 (しゅっきん) = Going To Work

遅刻 (ちこく) = Being Late

勉強 (べんきょう) = Study, Studies

応援 (おうえん) = Support. This word can also mean “cheer” as in “cheer for a sports team,” but is only used as “support” in the film.

安心 (あんしん) = Relief, Peace of Mind

説明 (せつめい) = Explanation

返事 (へんじ) = Reply

仕事 (しごと) = Work

完成 (かんせい) = Completion

期待 (きたい) = Expectation, Anticipation

約束 (やくそく) = Promise

Things and People


自分 (じぶん) = Oneself. A very useful word that can be used to say myself, yourself, himself, herself, or one’s own. It can also be used in place of a first or second person pronoun, which can be a bit confusing. For example, when Shizuku gets angry at Seiji after finding out his name, she calls him じぶん which means “you” in this context.

物語 (ものがたり) = Story

人形 (にんぎょう) = Doll

時計 (とけい) = Clock, Watch

職人 (しょくにん) = Craftsman

宝物 (たからもの) = Treasure

魔法 (まほう) = Magic

進路 (しんろ) = Course. In this case, the course of one’s future.

才能 (さいのう) = Talent. Often used as 才能がある (さいのうがある) which means “to have talent” or “be talented.”

読者 (どくしゃ) = Reader

Others (Emotions, Adverbs, Adjectives, etc.)


元気 (げんき) = Healthy, Energetic

一緒 (いっしょ) = Together. This words can be use to say “same” as well, but in this film it is only used as “together.”

本当 (ほんとう) = Truth. Adding a に at the end makes it into an adverb, meaning “really” or “truly.”

自信 (じしん) = Confidence. There is another word that is pronounced じしん written as 自身. This word means “oneself,” so try not to get them confused.

素敵 (すてき) = Wonderful, Great

全然 (ぜんぜん) = Not At All, Completely. This word was originally used only for negative phrases but is now commonly used in positive phrases as well. For example, 全然食べれません (ぜんぜんたべれません) means “I can’t eat at all” and 全然食べれます (ぜんぜんたべれます) means “I can definitely eat.” Keep in mind that using this in the positive form is not technically correct and is often used by young people.

全部 (ぜんぶ) = All

平気 (へいき) = Fine, Okay, Indifferent

上手 (じょうず) = Skillful

Have Fun!


I hope you enjoyed using the Ghibli Dictionary and picked up a few words to add to your vocabulary. By the end of studying these four movies, you will begin to recognize the words and structures of dialogue. Once recognition kicks in, understanding will naturally follow.

Animation, and films in general, are a great resource for learning Japanese. But without a clear goal or method, it can be ineffective and take a very long time. I hope this guide gives you an idea of how to use film as study material.

I would love to hear about your experience of studying with the Ghibli Dictionary. Whether it was helpful or useless, loved it or hated it, want more of it or have suggestions on how to change it, please leave all of your thoughts in the comments below. Your feedback would be invaluable in further developing the Ghibli Dictionary and The Study Guide Revolution!

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