Tofugu » Learn Japanese A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Thu, 29 Jan 2015 17:00:07 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Why Quantity, Not Quality, Makes You Fluent In Japanese Mon, 26 Jan 2015 17:00:00 +0000 I’d like the start this article with a quote from “Art & Fear”, a book written by David Bayles and Ted Orland. The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the […]

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I’d like the start this article with a quote from “Art & Fear”, a book written by David Bayles and Ted Orland.

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

These two paragraphs are what inspired Tofugu’s 500 Japanese Sentences (which later became 4500 Japanese Sentences, available now btw), a workbook that gives you a lot of Japanese sentences to translate, based off of words that are ordered by frequency of use. The focus, of course, is all on quantity, not quality. If you don’t know how to translate something and can’t figure it out quickly, move on. If you’re confused, move on. If you’re stuck, move on. Do what’s at your ability level and what’s slightly above it and skip the rest. It’ll be there waiting for you on your second run through.

This goes against what most people are taught in school. In fact, there’s a popular saying you’ve probably heard a lot: “Quality over quantity.” It turns out, though, that quantity creates quality, and this can be applied to pretty much any skill you’re trying to develop, Japanese included.

Let’s Make Some Assumptions First


Photo by Graham Watson

To understand why quantity trumps quality, we first have to come to a belief about how one acquires language. Today we’re going to look at one particular hypothesis known as the “Input Hypothesis” by Stephen Krashen. That being said, it is just a hypothesis (not a thesis or a law!). But much of my support for it does come from personal experience, the experience of others, and a few poor souls that I’ve experimented on.

There are five parts to this hypothesis, but we’re only going to look at one. It is:

Input Hypothesis: A learner’s progress in their knowledge of the language when they comprehend language input that is slightly more advanced than their current level. Krashen called this level of input “i+1″, where “i” is the language input and “+1″ is the next stage of language acquisition.

I’ll admit, there are some parts to this set of hypothesis that I don’t like, but there are other ideas that I love. This will probably change tomorrow, but for now let’s roll with it and take a look at what this has to do with quantity over quality.

+1 +1 +1 +1 +1 +1


The Input Hypothesis says that progression in the language that you’re learning comes from when you can comprehend language input that is slightly above your current level. Comprehending something that is +1 above your current ability level isn’t all that hard. It’s only +1, after all. Comprehending something that is more than +1 is, according to this hypothesis, not a good use of your time. Trying to comprehend a sentence that is, for example, +10 above your current level likely won’t teach you anything new. Mostly it’ll befuddle you and make you frustrated.

While I don’t think this is true in every situation, I do see where he’s coming from. I follow a very similar philosophy with the lessons I write. Everything is +1 +1 +1 +1. Many small steps that build on each other. But, this is true when you look at the bigger picture too. Cut out some of the outliers and exceptions to the rule hypothesis, and you see a lot of real-life examples pop up. Are any of these you?

Kanji Learning:

Quality: To learn a single kanji, you learn every single meaning and reading, and you also learn how to write the damn thing. With your precious hands. Arguably, these are all important things, and I do think that it’s important to learn them all eventually. The “quality” group will learn kanji like this, one by one by one, and it will probably take a while.

Quantity: Instead of learning everything, you learn the bare minimum so that you can hurry up and learn the next kanji. In extreme cases, that just involves you learning the meaning of the kanji and that’s it (Heisig’s). In our corner (WaniKani), usually we have people learn just one meaning and one reading.

You skip a lot of information while studying with the quantity over quality method. But, there’s a funny thing with kanji study that I see in student after student after student: the more kanji they know, the easier it is for them to learn the next kanji. There’s a few reasons for this and I won’t go into too much detail, but experience does beget experience. By cutting the fluff (removing less important readings, meanings, and handwriting) you end up with way more kanji “done” in the same amount of time.

This is important because you need a lot of kanji to be able to read real Japanese. Think of it this way. Say you’re reading Japanese text (a blog, cooking site, book, manga, etc). You come across a compound jukugo word. If you don’t know the meanings of the kanji already, you have to look that up, the readings, and then the meaning/reading of the word. Certainly not +1 (more like +4). That means it is too high above your level for you to naturally comprehend it. But, say you run across the same word and you know the meanings and readings of the kanji that make up the word. All you need is to look up the meaning of the word because you can read it already. Also, the meaning of the word is related to the meanings of the kanji. Something like that is +1. Or better yet, you guess the meaning of the word based off the meanings of the kanji. Without having to look anything up you know the meaning of that word. That’s an easy +1.

Sure, you can do this in the quality camp as well. But, the opportunities for this to happen go down dramatically. Reading Japanese only to have to look up 75% of the kanji/words on the page is a very frustrating experience. But if you go the quantity route with kanji, you’re setting yourself up to do a lot less of that. With quantity comes quality.

Sentence Studying:

Now let’s look at sentence studying. The idea here is that you’re using sentences to study / improve your Japanese. You read them and you translate them. Let’s assume you’re at an intermediate-ish level or above, or at the very least the sentences are tailored to your level. That being said, there are way fewer beginner-level sentences out there to study (compared to the plethora of real Japanese sentences that exist).

Quality: You spend a lot of time on each sentence. You try to learn and memorize every single word. You make sure every bit of grammar is absolutely perfect before moving on to the next one.

Quantity: You don’t spend much time on each sentence. You’ll look up grammar the best you can. You look up words too. But, if you get stuck you don’t worry about it. You’re trying to stay at or slightly above your ability level. Any part that’s not, you just skip.

The important thing here is that you’re moving on quickly. You don’t worry about memorizing every word. If it comes up enough you’ll start to remember it, after all. If you’re at the right level, studying with sentences is an excellent way to get a lot of +1 feedback loops. The hard part is embracing the idea that “It’s okay to move on. Quickly.”

The great thing with this is that you’ll start to see patterns, which is only possible when you focus on quantity. Seeing 500 sentences over the course of a month (quantity) is much different from seeing 500 sentences over the course of a year (quality). Patterns get too spread out to see when you take too long to move on to the next sentence.

Also, while we’re buying into the Input Hypothesis, think of sentence studying in this way:

In a single sentence there might be one or two things that are a +1 to your current skill level (if you’re lucky). There will also be things that are +5 and +10. If we’re assuming that these things don’t really help you to get better, then spending all that extra time on a sentence to figure out the +5 and +10 stuff isn’t going to help you as much. If you brute force through a lot of sentences, you’ll see a higher number of +1 improvements. In the long run, you’re coming out way, way ahead. Then, when you finish, come back to the stuff you didn’t understand. I think you’ll find that the things that were +5 before are more like +1.

Kanji and sentences are just a couple of examples. If you think about your Japanese in this way, you’ll see that it’s true everywhere else you look too. If you want to get good at speaking… well, you should probably speak. A lot. Then do it some more. Don’t get hung up on being perfect because it will slow you down (and make you scared to speak). This goes for reading, writing, listening, and every other aspect of Japanese learning. Think about what you’re having trouble with right now. Does the cause have anything to do with your focus on quality instead of quantity?

Oh, That Immersion Thing?


At this point you might be thinking about how to add quantity to your Japanese studying routine. What about immersion?

Well, immersion is just quantity over quality pushed to the extreme. You get so much friggin’ input that you can’t help but learn something. This is simply because you’re getting a lot more +1 opportunities. It is the brute force of brute force strategies, and it works. There’s a reason why most people say immersion is the best and easiest way to learn a new language.

But, immersion isn’t realistic for many people. Whether that means creating an immersive environment for yourself or going to Japan to live there, that’s usually not an option.

So we have to come up with a compromise… one that favors your Japanese progress. To do that, you must…

Find A Good Teacher


I’m not necessarily talking about someone who stands up at the front of a classroom or sits across a table from you, though sometimes that will be true. I’m also including “you” in this list. And textbooks. And the raving posts of Japanese learners on various message boards. Teachers comes in many different shapes, sizes, and bytes.

But, there is a good way to figure out which ones are good and which ones aren’t. It comes down to quantity over quality and how they go about applying this to your studies.

A good teacher won’t make you perfect. They’ll know what is out of reach and instead focus on the things that will incrementally make you better (+1).

A bad teacher will focus on perfectionism. This will make you neurotic. It will make you too worried to make a mistake. You’ll slowly focus on trying to figure out how to not screw up, which will usually result in you speaking and using Japanese less and less. You’ll try to make a few things perfect but everything else will be nonexistent.

A good teacher will let you make mistakes, and lots of them. As Michael Jordan once said: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Mistakes are an important part of learning, and if you don’t make enough of them you can’t get better. Actually, many studies show that mistakes in grammar are actually just a part of the learning process. They’re a step on a set of stairs. Without them you can’t move up.

A good teacher will be smart about the quantity they give you. It should be the thing you need to level up, not just a bunch of stuff for the sake of being a bunch of stuff. Quantity is good, but it stops being useful when there are very few +1 opportunities inside.

A bad teacher will tell you to learn something “because that’s how it’s always been done.” This will often be +10 above your ability level. You’ll hear things like “Just learn it!” but there won’t be any reason behind it. It won’t be broken down into +1 pieces. As a beginner, it’s really hard to break something up into +1 sized chunks. That’s the teacher’s job, at least until you get a little better at this whole “learning Japanese” thing. When this happens, you spend a lot of time trying to figure out this +10 task when you could have been spending the same amount of time making 100x +1 progress.

A good teacher makes you comfortable to use your Japanese more. To do this, they have to make you feel less bad about messing up. If they can do this, you’ll use your Japanese a lot more, get better, and be fluent in Japanese faster. This is the biggest difference between a quantity and quality focused teacher.

The list goes on and on, I’m sure. Being able to know when and how much quantity you should apply to your studies is difficult. To figure it out, you have to try a lot of different things sometimes. A good way is to ask the pros what they wish they did more of when they were first starting out. With Japanese, I think a lot of people might say something like “I wish I knew more kanji”. In this way it’s easy to identify what you should get a lot of.

How do you apply quantity to your Japanese studies? Or better yet, where can you do a better job applying quantity instead of obsessing on quality? I’m sure many other people will completely disagree with all of this as well, so get your words in the comments.

Bonus Wallpapers!

[Desktop ・ 5120×2880 / 1280×720] ・ [Mobile]

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Wasei-Eigo: I Can’t Believe It’s Not English! Mon, 27 Oct 2014 16:00:07 +0000 Borrowing words from other languages is a phenomenon as old as language itself. That’s why, even though you probably don’t speak French, Latin, German, Spanish, AND Japanese, you can somehow comprehend the following (however unlikely) sentence: “I decided to carpe diem and go to a fiesta instead of taking a siesta, but the party was […]

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Borrowing words from other languages is a phenomenon as old as language itself. That’s why, even though you probably don’t speak French, Latin, German, Spanish, AND Japanese, you can somehow comprehend the following (however unlikely) sentence:

“I decided to carpe diem and go to a fiesta instead of taking a siesta, but the party was just déjà vu all over again, so I spent most of the time eating sauerkraut and wishing a tsunami would come and sweep me out to sea.”

Linguists love to argue about why and how exactly this word borrowing happens. For pure practicality’s sake? Because the speaker wants to show off with fancy schmancy foreign words? Just because it’s a fun way to spice up conversation? Whatever the reason, the incorporation of foreign loanwords into native languages is pervasive, and Japanese is no exception.

As you might know, modern Japanese is stuffed not only with Chinese-origin loanwords but also a hearty helping of gairaigo (外来語:loanwords from languages other than Chinese, ranging from English to Dutch to French). Koichi’s discussed some English loanwords here (and some of the strange definitions they’ve acquired) and Sarah W. gives a great overview of gairaigo here.

But that’s not all. The widespread diffusion of English throughout the world has been incorporated and integrated into a variety of languages in a variety of ways. In the words of linguist Ishino Hiroshi, “the roman alphabet now belongs to everyone.” And there’s no better example of this phenomenon than wasei eigo (和製英語), literally “made-in-Japan English.”

Wasei eigo is another topic linguists drool over. Unlike English gairaigo loanwords, most linguists classify wasei-eigo vocabulary as “pseudo-loanwords” or “pseudo-English” or “pseudo-Anglicisms.” So what makes these loanwords “pseudo”? Because wasei-eigo refers to words quite literally manufactured in Japan. By splicing together never-before-seen combinations of English words (often dissected parts of English words, and sometimes with a Japanese word welded on for good measure) and then sliding it through a katakana processing unit, wasei-eigo has been coming hot-off-the-presses since at least the Meiji Period (1868). Essentially these are brand-spanking-new morpheme and phoneme combinations that no native English speaker has ever heard or used.

But that doesn’t mean you don’t need to learn them! Wasei-eigo is a living part of the Japanese language—you can hear it on NHK news and in the street; you can see it on billboards and in magazines. Given that fact, I thought it might be useful to provide a mini dictionary of English for Japanese learners, complete with example sentences shamelessly ripped from real live and recent Japanese sources.

A note of caution! Because of the endless experimentation possible, new wasei-eigo are constantly being cooked up from English ingredients. However, they don’t all catch on and become integrated into the vocabulary at large, and even if they do they’re often fads that fade with time. Keeping that in mind, I tried to choose words with apparently high circulation and staying power so you don’t end up trying to use a phrase that is sooo last year (like that phrase is).

Prefixes and Suffixes

In, out, up, down—such unassuming little syllables that it’s easy to forget they exist. But then wasei-eigo came along to give them a new reason for living, turning them into prefixes and suffixes, daring to put them in places you’ve never seen them before. And then there are the words like “my” and “pink” that have been reinvented as prefixes in their own right. Welcome to the wonderful world of wasei-eigo.

In Key (インキー)


Photo by Herry Lawford

Have you ever accidentally locked yourself out of your own car, tugging desperately at the door handle only to realize with horror that your keys are still safely stashed inside the vehicle? Then, congratulations, you already know what it means to in-key.

What should you do after you’ve in-keyed?

Bed In (ベッドイン)

This one requires a few ellipses to explain. It does mean to get in bed…but with someone else…in order to do engage in decidedly un-family-friendly activities together…

実録! 男が「初めてベッドインする彼女」にギョッとした経験・15選
True Stories! 15 Men’s Startling Experiences With The Girlfriend That They Bed-In For the First Time

Goal In (ゴールイン)

When someone scores the winning goal in a soccer game, wins the final point in a tennis match, or crosses a finish line in a race, they’ve goal in-ed. But this word can also lend the sort of triumphant feeling of victory to non-athletic endeavors as well. Any time you accomplish a goal or achieve something you’ve been struggling for, you’ve goal in-ed. Within the second usage, getting married seems to be a particular popular goal to in.

Bob goal in-ed first.
From:’s Tanaka Corpus

Characteristics of Couples That Goal-In Even Though They Broke Up Once Before

My Pace (マイペース)


Photo by きこう

This word can be a character trait, an adverb, or a verb in the right circumstances. While its origins probably lie in the English phrase “to do something at one’s own pace,” from there it morphed into doing something your own way, i.e. without being influenced by other people. There’s even a song about it:

マイペース (SunSet Swish)

She’s my pace.
From:’s Email例文集

My Boom (マイブーム)

What’s your boom? It helps to know that “boom” is a fairly common suffix in wasei-eigo used to describe a current trend or fad, like a “K-Pop boom.” When it’s YOUR boom as opposed to society’s boom, it’s “my boom”—in other words, it’s used to refer to your current obsession(s).

Everybody please share your my boom.

For some reason suddenly my boom is eggs.

My Bag (マイバッグ)

Not just any old bag will do—you can’t start referring to all bags as my bag willy-nilly. This word is strictly reserved for reusable shopping bags of your preferred style, size, and material. A number of cities and towns across Japan have been campaigning for a “My Bag Movement,” encouraging their citizens to forgo planet-strangling plastic bags at the store and instead use a “my bag.”

Let’s work on reducing disposable shopping bags by using my bag.

I want to somehow set up my cell phone so that I can avoid suddenly realizing “Oh! I forgot a my bag today!” whenever I drop by the supermarket.

Pink Salo(n), Pink Bira/Chirashi, Pink Eiga, etc. (ピンサロ, ピンクビラ, ピンク映画, etc.)


Photo by きこう

Remember the days when pink used to be an innocent color, reserved for flowers and toys and kitten collars? In Japan, at least, those days are over. As a prefix attached to an array of other nouns, pink tells you that whatever the next noun is, it’s probably a sexy version of that noun. This works similarly to how in English “blue” is (or maybe was at this point?) used to signal XXX-rated material, as in “a blue movie.” You can probably guess what a pink eiga (pink movie) is, then. A “pink salon” is a euphemism for a sexual establishment that usually fronts as a bar or nightclub. And a “pink bira” (pink bill) or “pink chirashi” (pink leaflet) is a flyer handed out on streets to advertise any number of other “pink” places or activities.

I’ve seriously fallen for a girl who works at a pink salon.

• 公衆電話ボックス内、公衆便所内又は電柱等の公衆の見やすい屋外の場所等への掲示、配置
• 公共の場所における頒布
• 人の住居等への配付、差入れ
The followings acts are prohibited in regards to pink bira and the like:
•Posting in public telephone booths, public bathrooms, or on telephone poles outdoors that can be easily seen by the general public, etc.
•Distributing in public areas
•Inserting into mailboxes of residential homes

Because I went to a pink eigakan for the first time, I’m writing at length about how to enter one and my own impressions/important points for people who want go at some point.

Cost Down (コストダウン)

Once you get the hang of how “down” works as a wasei-eigo suffix, you’ll be able to figure out most words with it relatively easily. Basically, “down” is wasei-eigo for “to lower” or “to decrease.” So cost down means to lower costs.

We’re seeking to cost down.
From:’s Email例文

Manner Up (マナーアップ)

Here’s another popular wasei-eigo suffix. Similarly to “down,” “up” usually means “to raise,” “to increase,” or “to improve.” So “taste up” means to improve the taste to something. That’s basically the case with manner up, as well—“to increase manners”—but a smoother English translation in this case would be “to improve manners.” Either way, things are moving in an upward direction. Schools, organizations, and city governments LOVE this word, and they particularly love to use it in posters and public service announcements and the like as a rallying cry to improve people’s manners.

A manner up campaign is periodically held at the library.

Image Down/Image Up (イメージアップ/イメージダウン)


Photo by gullevek

Companies, organizations, public figures, and the like all have a certain image to keep up, right? These words come in handy when describing real or attempted shifts in those images. When their public image improves, it’s image up; when their public image is tarnished, ruined, or otherwise destroyed, it’s image down.

If you want to be elected, you’d better plan to image up.
From:’s Tanaka Corpus

Due to this scandal our company has severely imaged down.
From:’s Tanaka Corpus

English/Japanese Hybrids

Here you’ll find the chimeras of wasei-eigo, half-Japanese and half-English hybrids that run wild through the fearsome linguistic plains. While these might seem highly exotic, they’re really not much different from pie a la mode or chicken gratin—examples where useful bits of French were welded onto English words in order to create a new word (and sometimes a new recipe!).

Butter Kusai (バタ臭い)


Photo by Casey Bisson

Literally, “butter stink.” This adjective can be used to describe anything that reeks of the foreign and of Western or Westernized styles in particular (land of butter, apparently).

The brand strategist professional told us to give the new product a butter stink name.
From Weblio英語基本例文集

I’m not a fan of this butter stink Sailor Moon.

Datsu Salaryman (脱サラ)

Literally, “to de-salaryman.” Here’s a juicy cluster of wasei-eigo goodness. First of all, salaryman, itself a wasei-eigo word, became so popular that it was exported internationally. But this isn’t just your run-of-the-mill salaryman, this is a datsu sarariman. One becomes a datsu salaryman by quitting your office job, and striking out on your own, often with the connotation of freeing yourself from the hamster wheel and/or starting your own business.

Convinced to take a leap of faith and plunge into the dark, I datsu salaryman-ed.

Oyaji Gag (オヤジギャグ)

Literally, “an old man gag” or “a dad gag.” Gag is probably an appropriation based off of “gag gifts” and the like, but here the meaning is much closer to joke. Whenever someone tells a real groaner—a cheap joke or a stupid pun that you’d expect your middle-aged uncle or embarrassing father to cook up, –they’ve told an oyaji gag. I’m a dork enough to really enjoy these, so I couldn’t help but include a few examples below.

I’ve collected one hundred usable oyaji gags. If you don’t use them correctly it can be a painful experience to witness, but if you use them with perfect timing and delivery you just might become more popular.

Arumi kan no ue ni aru mikan.
A tangerine with an aluminum can on top.

Atarashii no ga atta rashii
There seems to be a new one.

Gai Talent (外タレ)


Photo by John Koetsier

Literally, “outside talent.” Here “talent” means celebrities of all stripes, regardless of their level of talent. The “outside” bit is shorthand for foreign or foreigner, so when you put the two together you get a foreign celebrity.

A bunch of my favorite gai talent are coming to Japan.

Nomyunication (ノミュニケーション)

This one’s an oldie but goodie. I couldn’t resist including it even though it’s dramatically fallen in popularity over the years and is now regarded as only part of the older generation’s active vocabulary. This is probably due to the circumstances of its creation, circumstances that have now drastically changed. Nomyunication is a mash-up of nomu for “to drink” and the English loanword “communication.” While this can simply mean the (seemingly at least) enhanced ease of communicating while drunk, it was practically a business philosophy in Japan during the 1980s when regularly drinking with clients and within the company was all but required. When the economy took a sharp nose dive, this strategy lost much of its luster and the word went with it. Which is a pity, because it’s so darn clever.

In the first place, nomyunication came into being during the high-growth economic period, as the result of mistaken thinking that sought to conduct harmonious business operations.

Homodachi (ホモ達)

Literally, “homosexual friend.” Homodachi is what happens when homo and tomodachi merge, so if you hear someone say it, you’re not imagining things. It means exactly what its component parts mean, that is, it’s a noun that can be used to refer to your gay friends. However, in other contexts it can also be used to refer to one’s same-sex boyfriend/girlfriend/lover.

@nirvanagi なぎさんホモダチいっぱいいるでしょう
Don’t you have a lot of homodachi, Nagi?

Are Putin and Medvedev homodachi?

Bubble Keizai (バブル経済)


Photo by Jay Morgan

Literally, “bubble economy.” This isn’t a casual word that can be used in a variety of general situations, but it’s so common that it’s worth committing to memory. In the simplest terms, post-World War II the Japanese economy rapidly ballooned and then, like a bubble, it popped. While it might seem like economic jargon, this is actually a general use word at least as widespread and frequently referenced as the “Great Depression” is used as shorthand for a period of American cultural and economic history.

The Japanese side emphasized that Japan’s economy is continuing the longest period of economic recovery since after the bubble keizai collapsed.
From:’s 財務省

Elite Shain (エリート社員)

Literally, “elite worker.” Think Wall Street. To qualify as elite in this context means to be a white collar employee at a large company.

Taguchi was previously a promising elite shain.

U-Turn Gensho (Uターン現象)

Literally, “U-Turn Phenomenon.” No, Japan’s not facing a sudden rash of eccentric driving behavior involving lots of u-turns. The phenomenon in question here actually refers to the growing numbers of people who, after working or studying in cities (primarily Tokyo, but others as well), ditch the neon lights and return to their hometowns to settle down and make a living. U-Turn gensho is used for the socio-cultural trend at large, and U-Turn sha (U-turn people) is used to identify individual people who make up the larger phenomenon.

After getting to know her, the U-turn gensho started happening to my life in a big way.

My Personal Experiences as a U-Turn Sha
The reason I U-turned is that my mother (who is over eighty) came to be repeatedly hospitalized, and there wasn’t a nursing home system like there is now.

Cushion Kotoba (クッション言葉)


Literally, “cushion words.” Delicate situations that require some verbal padding most often take place with the use of these so-called cushion words. Japanese in particular has a built-in lexicon of set phrases and expressions that function as cushion words to soften the blow, create a softer landing, and generally just keep everything as soft and squishy as a sofa cushion. These words are particularly important in business situations.

How to Use Cushion Words to Instantly Increase Good Will
There are myriad advantages to smoothly progressing conversations that depend upon the use of these words. So I’ve collected here tricks to using these cushion words.

Apo Nashi (アポなし)

Literally, “without appointment.” I’ve included this one so that you’ll be aware of the existence of the suffix -nashi, which appears as the caboose on a number of (often unrecognizably abbreviated) English words. In this case, it’s appointment, first shortened to apo and then rounded out with the nashi. You can ask a business office or doctor’s office, beauty parlor or tattoo parlor, if they’ll see you apo nashi. Alternatively, they might come right out and state (or have written on signs) whether or not they’ll see you apo nashi.

Please bear in mind that we will be unable to receive you even if you give us the pleasure of arriving at our company, if you do so apo nashi.
From:’s Email例文集

Kyoiku Mama (教育ママ)

Literally, “Education Mama.” This word has a decidedly negative connotation, so it’s not something you want to start accusing people of, at least to their face. As a stereotypical image, a kyoiku mama is unhealthily obsessed with the education of her children, constantly pushing them to achieve greatness with every shoelace they tie and shape they sort, pushing meals through the doggie door to their children’s rooms (dungeons) where they are forced to spend every waking and maybe even non-waking hour studying. Critics of pushing children to overachieve as well as annoyed children will use this word to describe demanding (although ultimately well-meaning) parents.

That private school has a reputation of there being a particularly large number of kyoiku mama.
From:’s 研究社 新和英中辞典

How to Raise Good Children Without Becoming a Kyoiku Mama?

I definitely don’t want to become a kyoiku mama but of course as a parent I want my child to go to a good college and have a stable job.


In the previous two sections, I tried to tame the wild variety of wasei eigo at least somewhat by placing as many of them as possible in some sort of cohesive category. Alas, not all of them fit, so this is where the rest of them ended up.

Hair Manicure (ヘアマニキュア)


Basically, instead of coloring your fingernails with polish, you’re coloring your hair. But don’t worry, there’s no nail polish or cuticle clippers involved in this procedure. If you’re scheduled for a hair manicure or decide to do-it-yourself at home, all it means is that you’re dying your hair.

The other day I got a hair manicure at a beauty salon for the first time.

Romance Gray (ロマンスグレー)

Just because your hair has gone gray doesn’t mean you can’t bring on the romance. The George Clooney’s and Sakamoto Ryuichi’s of the world earned their titles as romance grays just by being attractive older men with attractive gray hair.



Don: Up to what age would you be willing to date someone?
Sen: Probably about 15 years older than myself.
Nao: I could do up to about 70!
Don: Wow!

Nao: As long as he’s a fantastic romance gray.

One Pattern (ワンパターン)

If all your clothes featured the same pattern, that’d get pretty boring and monotonous, right? One Pattern works like an adjective to describe people, places, things, and activities that are as mind-numbing and repetitive as a single pattern.

Your ideas are one pattern.
From:’s 研究社 新和英中辞典

Probably drinking at a bar and karaoke. We’re one pattern.
From:’s Tanaka Corpus

Going on dates with him (or her) was always one pattern so I lost interest.
From:’s 研究社 新和英中辞典

Ice Candy (アイスキャンディー)


This is nothing more and nothing less than a frozen popsicle.

This combination is also made as shaved ice and ice candy.
From:’s 日英京都関連文書対訳コーパス

Catch Ball (キャッチボール)

In its humblest form, this word merely stands in for “playing catch.” But from that original adoption it evolved to signify the back-and-forth of an engaged and engaging conversation between people. You can visualize it as tossing a conversational ball back and forth—-active, fun, and invigorating yet comfortable. I think the closest English equivalent would be “developing a repartee,” but alas that’s not even English, it’s French.

Let’s catch ball.
From:’s Tanaka Corpus

Techniques for Conversing with the One You Love! Secrets to Romantic Catch-Ball-ing!
It becomes impossible to communicate if only one side is doing all of the talking. It’s precisely when conversations catch ball that the relationship between two people can deepen.

Last Heavy (ラストヘビー)

Essentially this means the final push, the last burst of effort before a task is completed or a goal is achieved.

I expect that the All-Nation Kendo Association will go on to make the last heavy.

Pocket Bell (ポケベル)


Photo by Hades2k

Remember those ancient devices we called “pagers” in English? The Japanese called them “pocket bell.” The word may become as obsolete as the technology, but I at least would vastly prefer to have a pocket bell over a cell phone.

If it’s an emergency I can call her with the pocket bell but…
From:’s Tanaka Corpus

Soft Skills (ソフトスキル)

If someone has soft skills, it means they’re good with people. This is as opposed to “hard skills” like computer engineering.

However, as your career advances, soft skills become more important.

Body Con(scious) (ボディコン)

At first glance, you might assume that this refers to someone who is overly conscious about their appearance. What this adjective actually refers to is clothing that causes OTHER people to become overly conscious of your, ahem, appearance. In other words, it’s used to describe sexually attractive and/or tight-fitting clothing.

I want a body conscious dress like something Mariah Carey wears…but I can’t find one. Please let me know if you know some store website where I can find that sort of thing.

Paper Driver (ペーパードライバー)


A driver, but on paper only. In other words, this noun can be used to refer to someone (including yourself) who does in fact possess a driver’s license but drives so rarely and/or so poorly that the license is little more than a scrap piece of paper.

Since I’m a paper driver, I don’t have confidence in my driving. So let’s go somewhere by train.

Bed Town (ベッドタウン)

A town where a commuting student or worker basically does nothing but sleep for the night, so it’s the town where their bed is but not much else. These areas tend to cluster around big cities like Tokyo and Osaka and such—and it’s not just slang, the other day I heard NHK news even refer to a Tokyo suburb as a bed town.

It’s a typical bed town; even in the middle of the day there’s not much pedestrian traffic.
From:’s Tanaka Corpus

Skinship (スキンシップ)

Physical contact in an intimate relationship.

You need to value skinship with children.
From:’s Tanaka Corpus

Pair Look (ペアルック)


Photo by Eric Parker

This happens when a pair of people look identical because they’re wearing matching outfits (usually a couple).

Did you see those two just now? That pair look is in pretty bad taste, don’t you think?
From:’s Tanaka Corpus

Virgin Road (バージンロード)

Nope, this doesn’t mean a highway that’s never been driven on before. It’s a colloquialism for the aisle of a church that the bride and groom walk down towards the altar.

As for church weddings, it’s said that brides choose them for the virgin road, but not even 1% of couples go to pray at the church afterwards.
From:’s Wikipedia日英京都関連文書対訳コーパス

Guts Pose (ガッツポーズ)

This is the triumphant stance that a victorious person assumes after winning a match, vanquishing all of his foes in a battle, or FINALLY beating a video game.

That guy must have been extremely happy to strike a guts pose like that.
From:’s Tanaka Corpus

Shutter Chance (シャッターチャンス)


Photo by Paul Reynolds

You already know exactly what this is. It’s a way to describe an opportune moment to take a photograph, otherwise known in English as a photo opportunity.

Thanks to your shouting I missed out on a rare shutter chance.
From:’s Tanaka Corpus

Over Doctor (オーバードクター)

While this can refer to over-educated people generally, it particularly connotes a currently unemployed person who also holds a Phd.

From the perspective of Japanese companies, an over-doctor of literature is not at all the sort of person they want.

The over-doctor issue became a social problem in this country thirty years ago.

Doctor Stop (ドクターストップ)

This is what happens when a doctor orders you to stop doing something for your general health or for recovery purposes.

The sports that I had been playing were doctor stopped.

Handle Keeper (ハンドルキーパー)


Photo by Bridget Coila

Being a handle keeper means being the person who keeps the handle of the car door out of reach of drunken peoples. Otherwise known as a designated driver.

After the drinking party I had forgotten that it was me who was the handle keeper.

Live House (ライブハウス)

These are locations or venues where live performances, acts, or concerts happen.

I’ve collected all of the live houses that appear to be famous in all of the prefectures of the country!

Baby Hotel (ベビーホテル)

This is not an outlet of the Hilton catering to newborns—it refers to an unlicensed child care facility, which is not nearly as life-threatening as it sounds. The very particular regulations on child care in Japan mean that many sane parents choose to send their children to a baby hotel for a variety of reasonable reasons.

The number of baby hotels suddenly and radically increased.

Silver Seat (シルバーシート)


Photo by hitoshi koda

These refer to seats on public transportation that are reserved for the silver-haired (i.e. elderly) population.

I do it on purpose so that it’s visible right in front of the healthy young people playing around on their cell phones in the silver seats.

Charm Point (チャームポイント)

Your charm point is your most charming or attractive feature.

The result is that the greatest number of women believe that their charm point is their eyes.

X-Day (Xデー)

An X-Day is a euphemism for a day in the near future when you’re anticipating or expecting a major event to occur.

Having taken in that information, a view is surfacing that the X Day when the real estate bubble will burst will soon arrive.

Match Pump (マッチポンプ)


I can’t even begin to explain how this one came into being. All I can tell you is that it’s a noun used to describe someone who likes to stir up trouble just so that they can be the one to fix it and thereby look like a hero.

He’s a match pump.
From:’s 研究社 新和英中辞典

Parasite Single (パラサイトシングル)

If an adult after graduating from college could make a living on his own but would rather not, and so returns to his parents house in order to live rent and board-free, then he or she is a parasite single. As far as I can tell the US is witnessing a similar phenomenon that it’s calling the “boomerang generation.”

My low-income self is jealous of parasite singles.

Pipe Cut (パイプカット)

A vasectomy. ‘Nuff said.

A Record of My Experience With Pipe Cut Surgery
There’s a scraping sound as they prepare the tools used for the pipe cut operation (a sound like they’re placing a scalpel and pincers on a stainless steel plate).

Why Wasei Eigo?


Hopefully the unorthodox glossary I’ve cobbled together here has given you a taste of the many flavors of wasei eigo. A number of linguistic “purists” (both native English-speaking and Japanese) have lodged complaints against wasei eigo as an unsavory corruption of both languages involved. Others reject linguistic “purity” as a myth and further argue that wasei eigo is actually a vitally creative force rather than a destructive one, one that enhances expressive abilities rather than degrades them. From this point of view, wasei eigo gives Japanese speakers a sort of verbal playground where they can experiment with words in order to more fully reveal something or to euphemistically obscure something, to refer to a specific socio-cultural phenomenon or just to make someone laugh. But regardless of whether you think wasei eigo is a blight on or a boon to the Japanese language, by all accounts it is here to stay so we might as well enjoy it.

Did I forget to include your favorite wasei eigo word? Let me know what it is in the comments!

Bonus Wallpapers!

[1280×800] ∙ [2560×1600]


  • “Wasei eigo: English ‘loanwords’ coined in Japan” by Laura Miller
  • “Japanese Communication: Language and Thought in Context” By Senko K. Maynard
  • “Japanese English: The use of English by the Japanese today” By Morito Yoshisa
  • Weblio 英和・和英辞典 (

The post Wasei-Eigo: I Can’t Believe It’s Not English! appeared first on Tofugu.

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How to Spice up Your ALT Lessons with the Nine Intelligences! Mon, 06 Oct 2014 16:00:24 +0000 The Nine Intelligences: by itself the term sounds like an elite spy group or a color-coded hero team. “Gentlemen, we’re clearly in over our heads.  The world is in danger.  Only The Nine Intelligences can save us now!” Although the nine intelligences aren’t a super hero team, they saved me on countless occasions – only under totally different circumstances.  Boring […]

The post How to Spice up Your ALT Lessons with the Nine Intelligences! appeared first on Tofugu.

The Nine Intelligences: by itself the term sounds like an elite spy group or a color-coded hero team.

“Gentlemen, we’re clearly in over our heads.  The world is in danger.  Only The Nine Intelligences can save us now!”

Although the nine intelligences aren’t a super hero team, they saved me on countless occasions – only under totally different circumstances.  Boring textbook have you cornered?  Give them a call!  No ideas on how to teach a topic?  They can lend a hand!

Like a secret weapon, I call upon this educational theory in times of trouble. When my mind goes blank, the creativity well runs dry and lesson plan ideas are few and far between.

Although originally intended to quantify learning styles and help all students find success in the classroom, the nine intelligences - part of Multiple Intelligence Theory - can also be used to add variety to lesson plans.  And since the the theory can be applied to any age group, in any subject – all teachers, regardless of their situations, can benefit from using it.



Photo by: Josh Davis

The real hero, Harvard professor Howard Gardner, formulated Multiple Intelligence Theory in the 1970s and published his findings in the groundbreaking book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences in 1983.   And he hasn’t looked back since, defending and refining his theory to this day.

According to Mr. Gardner, Multiple Intelligence Theory started as a response to the introduction of IQ tests, uniform curriculums, and other “one dimensional” educational practices – particularly those that aimed to gauge intelligence.  Mr. Gardner writes:

Some years ago it occurred to me that this supposed rational (of a single, quantifiable intelligence) was completely unfair.  The uniform school picks out and is addressed to a certain kind of mind…  But to the extent that your mind works differently… school is certainly not fair to you (5).

Gardner contends that since individuals’ strengths and weaknesses vary, everyone thinks and learns differently.  As a result, uniform tests and curriculums fail to accurately measure a student’s true intelligence and capabilities.  He implored his readers:

Let your thoughts run freely over the capabilities of human beings…  Your mind may turn to a brilliant chess player, the world-class violinist, and the champion athlete… Are the chess player, violinist, and athlete ‘intelligent’ in these pursuits?  If they are, then why do our tests of ‘intelligence’ fail to identify them?… What allows them to achieve such astounding feats?  In general, why does the contemporary construct of intelligence fail to take into account large areas of human endeavor? (6).

Gardner challenged contemporary ideas of intelligence by considering successful, evidently intelligent people that scored low on the tests – or more accurately, that the tests had failed to recognize.  He contended that  people were intelligent in different ways, ways the tests and “uniform schools” failed to evaluate or perceive.

I believe that human cognitive competence is better described in terms of set abilities, talents, or mental skills, which I call intelligences.  All normal individuals possess each of these skills to some extent; individuals differ in the degree of skill and in the nature of their combination. (6)

Gardner quantified these intelligences in multiple intelligence theory.  Although Gardner’s original theory featured only seven intelligences, he later expanded the count to nine.  As an ever evolving theory, Gardner contends that if discovered, more intelligences can be added.

Without Further Ado: The Nine Intelligences


Photo by: Linda Hartley

Gardner’s original seven intelligences included visual-spatial, body-kinesthetic, musical, intra-personal, interpersonal, linguistic, and logical-mathematical categories.  Years later he added naturalist and existential intelligences to make a total of nine intelligences.  Multiple intelligence theory devotee Dr. Thomas Armstrong provides a concise summary of the nine intelligences, which I have streamlined for this article, in his book, “Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom.”

Visual-Spacial Intelligence: the ability to think in three dimensions, graphic and artistic skills, and an active imagination. Sailors, pilots, sculptors, painters, and architects all exhibit spatial intelligence. Young adults with this kind of intelligence may be fascinated with mazes or jigsaw puzzles, or spend free time drawing.

Body-Kinesthetic Intelligence: the capacity to manipulate objects and use a variety of physical skills. This intelligence also involves a sense of timing and the perfection of skills through mind–body union. Athletes, dancers, surgeons, and craftspeople exhibit well-developed bodily kinesthetic intelligence.

Musical Intelligence: the capacity to discern pitch, rhythm, timbre, and tone. This intelligence enables us to recognize, create, reproduce, and reflect on music. Interestingly, mathematical and musical intelligences may share common thinking processes. Young adults with this kind of intelligence are usually singing or drumming to themselves.

Interpersonal Intelligence: the ability to understand and interact effectively with others. It involves communication, sensitivity to the moods and temperaments of others, and the ability to entertain multiple perspectives. Teachers, social workers, and politicians exhibit interpersonal intelligence. Young adults with this kind of intelligence are leaders among their peers, are good at communicating, and understand others’ feelings and motives.

Intrapersonal Intelligence: the capacity to understand oneself and one’s thoughts and feelings. Intra-personal intelligence involves not only an appreciation of the self, but also of the human condition. It is evident in psychologist, spiritual leaders, and philosophers. These young adults may be shy but aware of their own feelings and are self-motivated.

Linguistic Intelligence: the ability to use language to express complex meanings. Linguistic intelligence allows us to understand the order and meaning of words and to reflect on our use of language. It’s the most widely shared human competence and is evident in poets, novelists, journalists, and effective public speakers. Young adults with this kind of intelligence enjoy writing, reading, telling stories or doing crossword puzzles.

Logical-Mathematical Intelligence: the ability to calculate, consider propositions and hypotheses, and carry out complete mathematical operations. It enables us to perceive relationships and connections and to use abstract, symbolic thought and sequential reasoning skills. This intelligence is important for mathematicians, scientists, and detectives. Young adults with logical intelligence are interested in patterns, categories, arithmetic problems, strategy games and experiments.

Naturalist Intelligence: the ability to discriminate among living things as well as sensitivity to other features of the natural world. This ability lends itself to botanists and chefs,but is also speculated that much of our consumer society exploits the naturalist intelligences.

Existential Intelligence: the ninth and final intelligence (not pictured in the chart above) regards sensitivity and capacity to tackle deep questions about human existence, such as the meaning of life, why do we die, and how did we get here.  This intelligence also concerns cultures and religions.  This intelligence might be attributed to philosophers, theologians and life coaches.” (6-7)

Multiple intelligence theory asserts that individuals possess “the full range of intelligences” but no two people share the same “intellectual profile,” or mix of skills in each category, which is shaped by both genetics and life experience.

Furthermore, possession of an intelligence does not guarantee its use.  In fact, thanks to uniform testing and curriculums, some individuals may never discover their intellectual strengths – which makes incorporating Multiple Intelligence Theory into the classroom all the more important.

The Secret Spice


Inherently positive and empowering, multiple intelligence theory believes all students can succeed.  Instead of molding students to a curriculum or test, the theory encourages students to explore, learn about themselves and take advantage of their individual strengths, talents and interests.

By incorporating the theory into lessons, educators acknowledge and activate intelligences, providing students with opportunities to discover their own strengths and talents.

Once students recognize their strengths and weaknesses, they can take responsibility in their own learning – taking advantage of their strengths while improving weaknesses.  The first taste of success gives lifelong “failures” invaluable and refreshing confidence, leading to increased motivation and (in theory) more success.

Although multiple intelligence theory benefits students, it also makes teacher’s lives easier, acting as a simple, convenient tool for adding variety to a lesson.  And I find it especially useful in the English classroom as an ALT in Japan.  With so much to gain, educators should call upon the nine intelligences whenever necessary!

And there’s no situation more necessary than lesson planning.   Dull lessons act as classroom kryptonite, stripping students of their will to learn, sucking away everyone’s energy, and destroying any chance of a positive atmosphere.  Multiple intelligence theory became my secret spice, the flavor that added extra zing to my lesson plans.  Whether applied to lessons created from scratch or those based on a textbook, Gardner’s theory always helps to mix things up.

Classroom Examples


During my time as a high school teacher I taped a list of the nine intelligences to my desk.  Always a glance away, they became impossible to forget.  When my mind went blank I knew where to look. Like the magic eight-ball, the list held an answer.

At times a lesson topic and intelligence would mesh perfectly.  Other times combining intelligences and topics would be a fun, creative challenge.  Creating warm-ups and activities to go along with textbook topics had been difficult, but The Nine Intelligences changed that.  Here are some examples.

The musical intelligence sparked the use of Bill Haley’s song Rock Around the Clock to introduce time – afterwards students had no trouble remembering the term o’clock.

In honor of Halloween, the naturalist intelligence inspired pumpkin carving which also sparked the visual-spatial thinkers’ artistic abilities.  Students reviewed face words and experienced another culture first hand.  A week later we displayed their work at the school culture festival.

The body-kinesthetic intelligence made boring activities into fun games by adding movement.  In one case, student pairs had match questions and answers.  To make the activity more interesting I posted the sentences on the classroom walls.  Students walked around the classroom, reading and remembering the questions and answers. Back at their desks they wrote down and then matched the questions with the corresponding answers.

In reading class I simplified a fable’s dialogue and students activated linguistic and body-kinesthetic intelligences by performing the story in the classroom.  The performance assured they understood the story’s content, something that was later proven when they took a test on the unit.

I incorporated existential intelligence into a cultural lesson about the Amish societies of the United States.  Students not only contemplated different religious beliefs but the reasoning, challenges and consequences of lifestyle choices.

In elementary school I incorporated the logical-mathematical intelligence into a dice game.  Two students faced off, each casting a giant die.  The first to add up the rolled numbers and say the answer in English would earn the team a point.

In kindergarten we played a game that activated interpersonal intelligence.  First we chose a category. In this case, we chose fruit.  Next, with students unable to see my paper, I wrote down four types of fruit in English.  Student teams then chose four fruit, hoping to match my choices.  Each correct match earned one point.  Students not only considered what choices I would make (“Sensei said he likes strawberries, maybe he’ll choose that!”), but had to cooperate with group members when making their choices.

As time passed, incorporating different intelligences into lessons became natural.  Variety within a single lesson is just as important as variety between separate lesson plans.  I added opportunities for music, art and movement – venues for learning I had neglected.  I started integrating multiple  intelligences, using one for a warm-up activity, a different one for main activity and then another for the conclusion.

The lessons surprised students with their variety and originality.  The lessons surprised me because they worked.  Multiple intelligence theory became my secret spice – the heroes that made adding that variety to lessons (almost) as simple as glancing at a list.

Value In The Face of Criticism


Photo by: John F. Williams

Every hero team has an adversary or rival. In the nine intelligence’s case, it’s The General Intelligence Factor or Spearman’s g.  Dating back to the early 1900’s, Charles Spearman sought a universal way to measure intelligence.  His studies eventually spawned IQ tests which sowed the seeds of standardized testing and unified curriculums.  Spearman concluded that with proper testing, anyone’s intelligence, regardless of strengths and weaknesses, could be determined and assigned an accurate value, called “g” (Brand and Kane).

Proponents of Spearman’s theory point out that multiple intelligence theory is not research based and therefore doesn’t produce quantifiable hard data (Armstrong 194).  Its effectiveness is difficult to gauge.

Other claim multiple intelligence theory “dumbs down curriculum.”  According to these critics, lessons incorporating music, art, and hands-on activities don’t produce solid, measurable results and thus have no place in a serious curriculum.  Furthermore, these lessons pose the danger of giving students a false sense of accomplishment, making students feel smart and capable – even if they are not. (Armstrong 194)

Spearman’s g and Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory seem to oppose one another.  But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Competition between the theories will (hopefully) lead to improvements in education.

Yet, incorporating multiple intelligence theory into lessons doesn’t need to undermine the goals of standardized testing and curriculums.  As my examples show, educators can incorporate the nine intelligences into a standard curriculum.  The two theories can coexist.

Nine Intelligences! Assemble!


Photo by Pat Loika

Whatever the case, multiple intelligence theory has too many benefits to ignore.  To argue over a lack of hard data is to miss the theory’s point – education needs to address its learners’ diversity.

For me the theory became a useful, convenient tool for adding diversity to lessons.  But the nine intelligences, my secret spices, those lesson-saving heroes add up to more than just a convenient “trick.”

As an English teacher it pleases me to see students do well on tests.  But engineering lessons that awaken students that “hate,” “don’t understand” or “have no need for” English provides the most satisfying experience of all.

By harnessing the nine intelligences, I’ve been able to reach the unreachable, inspire the uninspired, motivate the unmotivated, and English the “unEnglishable” (is that a flash of linguistic intelligence there or a lack thereof?).  For students that have never tasted success, that have never been given the opportunity to discover or use their talents in the classroom, sometimes a little variety is all it takes.

Bonus Wallpapers!

[1280×800] ∙ [2560×1600]


  • Armstrong, Thomas. Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom. 3rd ed. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2009. Print.
  • Gardner, Howard. Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons. New York: Basic, 2006. Print.
  • Kane, Harrison, and Chris Brand. The Importance of Spearman’s g As a Psychometric, Social, and Educational Construct. The Occidental Quarterly v3.n1 (Spring 2003).

The post How to Spice up Your ALT Lessons with the Nine Intelligences! appeared first on Tofugu.

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So You Want To Be A Japanese Translator? Starring Susanna Fessler Tue, 30 Sep 2014 16:00:23 +0000 Here at Tofugu we get countless emails from people who want to be Japanese translators. While my own experiences are limited, I thought there would be no better person to ask than my former Japanese literature professor and university advisor, Dr. Susanna Fessler. She was nice enough to hop on Skype and answer all of my questions regarding literary […]

The post So You Want To Be A Japanese Translator? Starring Susanna Fessler appeared first on Tofugu.

Here at Tofugu we get countless emails from people who want to be Japanese translators. While my own experiences are limited, I thought there would be no better person to ask than my former Japanese literature professor and university advisor, Dr. Susanna Fessler. She was nice enough to hop on Skype and answer all of my questions regarding literary and freelance translation, and interpretation. This is the written version of that conversation, so please pardon the casual tone and enjoy this unfiltered interview!

Q. What is your name and where do you currently work?

My name is Susanna Fessler and I’m a professor in the East Asian Studies Department at the University at Albany, I’ve been there for twenty years.

Fessler, Susanna_0149

Q. What kind of translation work have you done?

What I do is largely literary translation. I have done commercial, or what they call technical translation, it’s been a very long time since I’ve done it. I did it back when I was in graduate school on sort of a freelance basis. I can’t remember how many jobs I had – a few, I was in the midwest. And I also spent a summer being a technical translator in a car parts factory in Ohio for a subsidiary of Honda. They were just setting up production and they had a staff of about a dozen Japanese management and about a dozen Americans and they had a huge problem because the Japanese didn’t really speak English and the Americans didn’t really speak Japanese and they were trying to get their factory set up so they hired me to come in and both interpret and translate.

Q. How many years have you been working the the world of translation?

I guess all told, about twenty-five years, on and off since grad school.

Q. How did you become interested in being a translator?

Well, when I was doing technical translation I was in it for the money, I’ll just be perfectly honest about that (laughs). Technical translation is not something – I don’t know anybody who does it because they find it edifying – but it pays well. And what often happens is you’ll find that technical translators do that to put food on the table, but then they’ll also be really interested in literary translation because it’s the literary translation that is edifying.

Now in my case, I did the technical translation to make the money, and since I have pretty much stopped doing that. Sometimes I’ll get a query through the department or something but usually I’m not interested, or I can’t do it cause there’s a time conflict or something like that. So I just pass it on. But you’ll also find, if you talk to a lot of people who do translation, that in the world of,literary translation almost everyone, with maybe the exception of one or two people in Japanese to English translation, is not really a professional translator. They are probably like me; they are professors. They do translation on the side, so to speak. In academia, it depends on the institution but in a lot of places they kind of frown upon translation as research activity. They’ll say, Oh it doesn’t “count” – count toward the research portfolio that you have to build in order to get promoted and to get tenure. And so what pattern you’ll find is that a lot of literary translators start out as professors but they don’t really do literary translation until after they’ve gotten tenure. At that point they’re safe, that job is safe,  and they can go do that translation and it’s not going to be held against them when they come up for promotion further on. And I very much fit that pattern.


Photo by Guwashi999

So my first two books were monographs, and then I got tenure, and then I remember chatting with another professor, who’s been my mentor since I came here, and I said, you know I have this opportunity to do this literary translation, I really want to do it, but I know everyone says, oh translation doesn’t count, but he said don’t worry about it, you’ve got tenure now you can do whatever the hell you wanna do (laughs). So that’s what I did, you know, I did that translation. Then that led to the next project, which is another translation, which I’ve just finished, and I’m not sure what the next project’s going to be, I’m kind of torn. I was asked if I wanted to do another translation and I’m just not sure. Maybe that’ll be like, the project after the next project.

Q. What was the very first thing you translated?

That goes way way way far back. I translated a short story when I was a sophomore in college. It was a story by Enchi Fumiko and the title of it is “Korosu” as in the verb “to kill” and it was published in this rinky dink little publication that the East Asian Studies Department at Oberlin College puts out called Ao Tung. So that was my sophomore year and in a way it was kind of like what you were doing last semester. It was my first foray into anything like that, it was an independent study, they call it something different at Oberlin, but that’s what it was. And so I worked with a professor and you know, I picked out the short story, and then I spent the semester effectively with Nelson’s chained to my ankle (laughs) and just sat there and, you know, worked and worked and worked at it.

Q. What would you say someone needs to do to professionally translate literature? Do they have to become a professor to do it? Or is there a different path?

You know there isn’t something you have to do, there is that standard path that I just described, but there are some people who are not professors who translate. They’re few and far between, usually they’re independently wealthy so they don’t have to worry about it, right? Obviously, you have to develop the language skills and you have to develop the research skills. You have to be an excellent writer in your own language. If you’re doing Japanese to English, your English has to be really good. There’s a website – I was thinking about this as I was madly peddling home today – that I have passed onto a couple of different people and I can’t remember if I passed it onto you. It’s called something like, So You Want To Be a Translator. It’s written as part of a blog by a woman who does Japanese – English translation. I don’t think it would be too hard to find if you do some judicious googling. And I thought she had some really good advice, she had like four or five points about what you need to do, and I’ve already reiterated three of those I think, in terms of developing research skills and language skills, and I think one of the other things she points out is that when you translate something, you become an expert in it. Especially when you’re doing technical translation. So you actually have to learn about that thing. That really rang true to me too when I was working in the car parts factory, that was a factory that produced rack and pinion steering components. About which I knew nothing, absolutely nothing, right? I didn’t know the English for half the things in that factory, but I learned really fast. And so later on I knew a lot more about that production process. Or, I did a small job translating some newspaper articles from the industrial glass world. And I didn’t know anything about industrial glass production, but I learned a lot doing that too.


Photo by Roger Wollstadt

So for technical translation you do have to become that expert, but you know in literary translation you have to become an expert too, in that you have to find the voice of the author, and try and reproduce that. So you create a specific persona, or if it’s a work of fiction where you have dialogue and things like that, then you know the different characters have to develop that voice. You can’t just do a sort of mechanical kind of translation, it doesn’t really work very well.

There is at least one training road that one can take. That list of people that I contacted for you were all part of the British Centre for Literary Translation. I don’t think there’s anything like that in the United States. It’s located at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, in the UK. And every summer they run a workshop where they get people together who are interested in literary translation and they have different language groups each year. The year I went, which was about five years ago, there were, I think, six different groups and Japanese was one of them. In each group there were about ten participants, and in addition to the ten participants, this is the really cool part, they bring in contemporary authors. They have the author there, and they have someone who has worked with the author as a literary translator, and they run the sessions. So for a week, all day, everyday, you’re sitting in this room with a contemporary author and a bunch of other translators, and looking really closely at various passages that that author has written and deciding how it would be translated well into the target language, and in my case it was English.

The author that was there my year was Tawada Yōko, whose work I’m not a big fan of, I gotta say, but she is a very famous writer. And I met some really cool people, and had some fascinating conversations, and got to see other people’s methods and learning how to translate, or doing the process of translation. One of the things I learned that week was that there isn’t one method that’s right and we all have our different approaches. For me, it’s kind of, I don’t know what the right word is, it’s kind of organic. I do it sentence by sentence, I read a whole sentence, and I sort of turn it around in my brain or my gut, and then spit something out. Other people would mull over bits and pieces of sentences and then put them together. It really differed. And then we had all kinds of discussions about finding that voice, what I was saying earlier.

There were things I hadn’t anticipated, like in that room we had people from New Zealand, and the UK, and Canada, and the United States, and India, and we all had our own idea of what English should be. So what sounded natural to one person didn’t sound natural to the other one, and then all kinds of fascinating things came out of that session. So for example, I can’t remember if I told you this story or not, there was a passage where there was a noun, and of course in Japanese it’s just a noun, it’s not singular or plural, but in English we had to make that decision – whether it was singular or plural, and it made all the difference in the world. It was one of those discussions that could have gone on forever, except that the author was sitting right there! She said, “Oh that’s an interesting questions I never thought about it that. Like mm, what if I made it this way-” No no no, you can’t change your mind you have to just tell us what you intended (laughs).

So anyway, to my knowledge thats one of the few actual training places that one can learn literary translation. I have noticed the phenomenon of courses at the university level being taught on translation increasingly in the world and I have no idea how that works, because they’re not language specific. I can’t imagine how I would teach that class. I know people are interested in the topic, but I think it has to be language specific, and it would really have to be a very high level course to fly, I think. You know, you can’t have people who are in first year language or second year language struggling with texts.

Q. So what does a recent grad do to become a translator? You’ve just graduated and you have all this language knowledge that’s kind of there, how do you get where you need to be?


Photo by Jessie Jacobson

Well if what you want to do it be a literary translator, then you go participate in the BCLT thing in the summer maybe (laughs). And if that’s all you want to do then, either you’re going to have to live hand and mouth, or you have to be independently wealthy for a very long time before you can get your foot in the door. Because in the literary world most publishers these days are not interested in publishing older stuff, they only want to publish new stuff. So I can’t say, oh I just discovered this new novel, or this novel by Natsume Sōseki that nobody knew existed and let’s publish it. People would say, forget it man, the guy died in 1916, who cares? Even though he was one of the great writers of his generation.

For the most part you’re working with authors who have current contracts with publishers, and so you have to work with the publisher and the author. So the authors get a say in who they want to translate their work and sometimes that goes really well and sometimes it just doesn’t. And the more famous the author is, usually the more cantankerous they are, you know, they can be really picky. If there is somebody who isn’t really well known, then they’re probably going to be more flexible.

Sometimes presses can be friendly and sometimes they can just be kinda standoffish. Most of the presses that do literary translations are university presses. And so if you’re competing in that pool, you’re competing with professors. There are a few presses, like Kodansha has kind of pulled out of the game, but for a long time Kodansha International was sort of one of the key players, Tuttle, obviously, is also still there, does a lot of translation. But they often let stuff fall out of print, and then it might just die a quiet death.

I work with a publisher – it’s a one man gig – so there’s one person working in the office and he does most everything. He lives in Fukuoka, and his love is books, and so he just wants more stuff to be translated. So he’s got a nice website and he’ll say if you’re interested in translating they actually have a process that you can go through. They have an application if you’re interested in publishing with them, and they will ask you to pick one of, I think it’s ten different things they have on their website to translate, and send it in as a sample. If they think you’re competent and there’s hope there, then you can start talking with them about it.

The guy’s name is Edward Lipsett. I don’t know how Edward deals with current authors. In my case, the guy I translate is dead, and has been dead for more than fifty years, so everything is public domain, we don’t have to worry about copyright or anything like that. But when you’re working with more current authors, then that’s where the publisher has to get involved. But Edward, I think he tries to contact the authors and says, you know we have somebody who’s interested in translating your work, would you be interested, or he talks to the publishers of the original Japanese and then tries to get them onboard. So there’s a big negotiation process, but you kind of have to, as the translator yourself, you have to first show that you’re competent, that you have something to offer, and getting to that point isn’t super easy.

Now, how do you get to that point? One way is by doing technical translation, and getting comfortable with that process. How do you do that? Well, it’s like looking for any job. You have to send a resume out to a whole bunch of different places. It’s like opening the phone book and looking under translation, because most technical translation is done through an intermediary, middle-man party. So Company A needs a document translated, they contact the translation office, and then the translation office farms that out to the appropriate person. So it’s never a full time job, where you get a salary. Unless you’re one of the very few people who does it full time, for say, Toyota is always the example we use, it’s not only Toyota, but you know huge companies like that actually do employ a few people full time. But often those people they employ full time are specialized, like they do law, or something like that. I would never take a law job. It’s too scary. I don’t know that vocabulary and I can’t learn it fast enough to be safe. Like, I don’t want to expose somebody to a lawsuit (laughs).

Q. So if someone wanted to work for one of those big companies, they should definitely have some kind of specialization. Like if you want to work for an automotive company you should know about that? Or medicine, etc.?

Right, so that’s one way to get your foot in that door. Talking to some of the people at the BCLT event who actually have worked for Toyota in the past, they say that what often happens is you simply do a couple jobs, a couple freelance jobs, and they really like your work, and so then you’re their go to person, and the middleman maybe gets cut out or something like that. But it takes a long time to be that go to person.

And the competition is, well Japanese to English not as great as lots of other languages, but it’s still there. One of the problems with translation, if you move out of the sort of musty world that I’m in and into stuff like video games and manga and anime, is that there is a large crowd of people out there who are willing, and who do, translate game scripts and web pages and all those kinds of things for free, for fun. And you know, you can’t compete with free when you’re talking about what you’re going to charge for something. So that’s why I keep saying it’s just not lucrative. I think in total I’ve made like, maybe $150 from my translation (laughs), from the book that I published in 2009. And I’ll probably make about that much money from the one that I’m publishing right now. So I just do it because I enjoy it, and it’s a fun, fascinating challenge, and it dovetails with my research.

Q. So it really has to be something that you’re passionate about, that you want to do because you want to do it, and not, “I want to be rich, I’m going to translate,” that’s not going to work out for you?


Photo by epSos .de

I don’t think anybody gets rich doing it. At all. I’m curious, so for example, Jay Rubin, who is now retired, who’s my daisempai, if you will. He had the same advisor in graduate school as I did, he was the first generation and I was the last generation, We both worked under McClellan, and McClellen was, you know, one of these demigods of translation. So a lot of the students that he produced then went on to do translation. So Jay did a number of different translations and now in his glorious retirement, is one of the go to people for translations of Murakami Haruki. So Murakami Haruki has two translators and Jay is one of them. I’m not sure how much money he makes on that. I don’t think he does it for the money, I’m sure he has a nice pension (laughs). But I’m sure he’s making more, because Murakami Haruki, I’m sure he’s making more than I am. No question about that.

Yeah, if there’s a name that everyone knows now, it’s Murakami Haruki.

Yeah, exactly, well those books sell. I mean the reason I don’t make money is because my books don’t sell. Quite literally every year, maybe two or three copies sell, and that’s okay, I don’t care. But you know, I don’t depend on it to make money, that’s for sure.

I should also say, the cousin of translation is interpreting.

Q. Have you ever done interpreting, or do you stay away from it?

For the most part, I stay away from it, but at the car parts factory I did it. But it was exhausting, it was absolutely exhausting. Translating I can sit and do all day, I mean I get tired, but the mental work involved in interpreting, especially because I was a first year graduate student, and at that point I had been studying Japanese for six years, on and off, and there was just a ton of stuff that I didn’t know. So it was really very nervous making too. There was a lot of zangyō because they were just setting up everything, you know. And inevitably, half the time you ran overtime. And it was an hour commute one way, in summer, in a car that had no air conditioning. It’s the one time in my life when I’ve come close to falling asleep at the wheel.

But after three months I was so glad that it was ending. I was just exhausted. I wanted to go back to school and do something different. I can’t imagine interpreting for a long period of time, unless you were raised bilingually. It’s just really hard.

Q. What exactly did you do? Did you follow some people around and help them talk to each other?

Yeah, basically. Like I said, they were setting up the production line, so I would go and interpret for, usually it was the management, who was explaining to the Americans what needed to be done. Or it was an assembly line and they were doing it according to this sort of long standing Japanese tradition where you train everybody for every station, so that if someone’s out sick one day, production doesn’t stop. So they had to train all the Americans in all the different stations. Like okay, today we’re doing chrome plating, or whatever.

So there was stuff like that, and then I would kind of follow people around. One day we had someone come, an American subcontractor who needed to check out some of the air conditioning units that are on the roof of the factory, it was a flat roof, right? So the management was really funny, it was almost all men in this factory, there were like two women in the office, and then everybody else was male. And then there was me. They realized that they needed help with this and they said well, we’re not going to ask you to climb up on the roof and I said why not? I’m not afraid of heights (laughs). And so I just followed them up the ladder, and you know, did whatever I could do to explain things.

You’re just going to have to be intrepid about it, and say okay, I’ll take this challenge or that challenge. But they were nice, they realized that I had my limitations as somebody who’d only studied the language for six years, but my price was right. I was only charging – this was 1988 – I was only charging $10/hr, well 10 to 15, it was cheap compared to anybody else. I think they felt like they were getting their money’s worth, and I felt like they were getting their money’s worth too, so I didn’t feel too bad about it. I wasn’t like, oh my God, I’m an impostor I don’t really speak Japanese (laughs). That kind of thing.

Once in a while the department, even now gets a call, they’re looking for, and the people, they’re like folks over at RPI or whatever, they’re always looking for interpreters. They’re never looking for translators. And often its legal or court proceedings or some management muckity muck is coming into town and they need someone to help in a meeting, and I just think, no I’m not going there. You know? I would mess that up. If it were a hundred year old Meiji Japanese maybe, but I don’t know that stuff, right? So I just kind of pass it on.

Q. So from when you started learning Japanese to when you got your first job, it had been six years?


Q. Was that off and on studying or was it hardcore, everyday studying?


Photo by Nomadic Lass

Well my first year I was a high school exchange student, so I lived with a host family in Kyushu, and I attended a regular school, and I went with no Japanese whatsoever. So that was a really inefficient but intense learning experience. And then I returned to the United States and studied Japanese at college for two years and then I went back to Japan for my junior year abroad, again another study abroad program living with a host family. That one was a little more like the UAlbany program, so I was attending language classes but then English language classes on Japan at the same time. So it was less intense than my high school experience.

Then I came back to the United States and there was really nothing, there was no Japanese left for me to do in my last semester. I graduated mid-year in January because I’d brought in some credits when I first went into college, so I wasn’t doing Japanese that senior year in any serious way. I was tutoring some undergrads, but that was about it. And that was a year that I studied Mandarin. Then the year after I graduated I went to China for a year and I was teaching English and studying Mandarin, but my roommate was Japanese and she doesn’t speak any English, and she had no interest in learning English. So actually I got to use a lot of Japanese that year that I was in China, so I sort of still consider that a year of study.

Then I came back to the States, I’ve lost track of how many years I’ve covered now, and I spent a year in graduate school in Ohio State in Japanese Languages and Literatures. It was the summer after that year that I had the job at the car parts factory. So, what is that, six or seven years.

Q. Our readers really want to know what level of the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) you need to be able to pass before you start being a translator.

You know the JLPT is one piece of the bigger puzzle. So just because you pass JLPT 1 does not mean that you’ll be a good translator and just because you failed JLPT 1 doesn’t mean that you can’t be a good translator. Because translating is deliberative. JLPT is timed and restrictive – you can’t use a dictionary, you just have to read and spit, or listen and spit, right?

The skills the JLPT tests are really not the same skills as translating, so I could give some kid in EAJ202 (Intermediate Japanese) who’s motivated, a bunch of dictionaries and a page of Japanese, and I could expect that person to produce something. It might even be something really good as long as they’re not too stuck on a particular grammar point, and it’s not in classical Japanese or anything like that. If I give them as much time as they need, and all the reference works, that’s a really, really different mental process.

You know if you walk into a situation where you’re trying to sell yourself as a translator and you say, well I passed the JLPT 1, people are just going to look at you like “so what”, I think. They’re going to ask you to produce an example of your work. That’s really sort of the first key thing.

I had a student who, two years before he graduated, somebody asked me, a friend of a friend, asked me if I could help with a translation, Japanese to English, and I thought, you know, I don’t want to work for the friend of a friend – it was actually the boyfriend of a friend. Like that could be good or it could be really bad. And so I said, how about I just give this to an advanced student, what do you think? He said I don’t care, he was not ready to pay the professional going rate, which is like $30/hr, it’s just ridiculous how much the super professionals do for technical translating. So there’s sort of this sub-world where if you’re not super professional but you’re good enough and you charge less, then you know, maybe you can get that job.


Photo by Nic McPhee

So anyway I knew this student was looking for translation work and he didn’t need anything full time, so I asked him if he was willing to give it a shot, and he said well yeah, sure what the heck, right? And he just knuckled down and actually ended up working with one other student because it was a rush job, but they got it done and the guy was happy. It wasn’t perfect, but it was what he needed. They were actually translating a patent, again law stuff, God I hate that, so boring. So they translated the document. He was happy and the student was happy and the student emails me and says, “Uh how much am I supposed to charge this guy, I’ve never done this before” (laughs). And I said oo, well uh… (laughs).

Anyway how did I get there, where was I going with that? Oh! Right, what are your skills. So this student at the time was, he had tried to take the JLPT, just 2, and just barely didn’t pass. But does that mean that he couldn’t do that job? Absolutely not. He had the document, he had dictionaries, he had the research skills that he needed because he’d taken 205 (Japanese Research and Bibliographic Methods) and he just, you know, he did it. I think those skills have continued on for him in, at masters program too, but going back to that webpage I was mentioning earlier you know, So You Want To Be a Translator, I think that woman also mentions that just having a language skill – it’s part of what you need but it’s not the answer.

So I would hesitate to tell anybody that, oh you have to do JLPT 1 or something because I worry that people are going to bust their butt to pass JLPT 1 and then they’re going to discover that there’s no golden path down to Emerald City. And they’ll feel very betrayed and angry and unhappy.

Q. So if people say, but no, there’s gotta be something you have to pass, there really isn’t anything?

That’s right, I mean it’s really establishing a good reputation, doing good work, doing it in a timely fashion. Um.. what else..

So starting off as a freelancer so that you have something to build up a resume with -

Exactly. You can say, here is an example of the work that I did for, you know, building a portfolio for this company or for that company. You might say how long it took you to turn it around. You want to think about how much you’re going to charge as a freelancer. Those rates change over time because of inflation. You don’t want to undercut the whole market and then try and raise your prices because people will freak out about it, and you’ll kind of get a bad reputation. But like I was saying earlier, you kind of want to charge what you think is the right value for what you’re producing. So if you don’t have confidence about your Japanese then don’t feel bad about having a lower price (laughs).

One of the other things is that translators have to be good communicators not just in the process of translating but also in working with the clients because clients often will come to you – they’re blind, right? – they have this document that they can’t read, it just looks like chicken scratches to them, but they think the document’s important. And you’d be surprised how often it isn’t. When you’re doing a freelance job you’re usually charging by the word, that’s usually how they do it, 10 cents, 15 cents, 20 cents a word, something like that, right? Which I like because it means there’s no time pressure, you’re not charging by the hour, it’s not like a lawyer. But in any event, if you discovered that the document is not what the client thinks it is, and you go back to them and say, you know I don’t think you want to pay me for this, then that puts you in a really good place. Okay, maybe you lost that job, but they’re really happy that you were honest about it. Because the other option is that you translate the whole thing, and then you charge them out the wazoo for it, and it’s a piece of crap for them. They’re never going to come back to you because they’ll think, ah we wasted so much money.


Photo by reynermedia

I’ve had that happen twice. I was asked to transcribe – well, I was sent an audio recording of a meeting. It was a meeting that had taken place, I think in Detroit, and most of the meeting was in English, because it was between two Americans and two Japanese. But in the course of the meeting the two Japanese guys occasionally said something to each other in Japanese and the American’s were like, convinced that they were sharing like industry secrets or something like that. So they wanted a translation of what these guys said so they sent me the audio tape and the first fifteen minutes of the meeting there’s no Japanese at all, and I’m sitting there listening, like when’s it going to show up, what’s going to happen? And then when they did start speaking a little bit of Japanese, it had absolutely nothing to do with the content of the meeting. It was stuff like, I wonder when lunch is going to be, or I need to use the bathroom where do you think it is? You know, stuff like that. And so as soon as I realized that I contacted the translation agency and I said, we can’t charge these people for this. I’ll be perfectly honest, I’ll tell you, I’ll summarize what it is, I’ll sign off on it that that’s what it is and I’m not trying to cover anything up, but it would just be wrong Because I would have ended up charging like $500 for, “Where’s the bathroom?” (laughs) “Are we allowed to smoke in here?”

So I think it’s really good reputation builder as a translator to provide that kind of evaluation service – to look at the thing you’re asked to translate and verify yeah, it really is worth your money for me to do this. You don’t get paid for that but it’s easy to do. It’s easy to glance at a document and, translating it take a lot of work, but just glancing at a document to say okay I know what it is.

The one exception I suppose was when I was working in the glass industry, industrial glass production, that was also in Michigan, and they would occasionally send me newspaper articles from a trade journal and ask me to translate what was in the articles. And I did that, this is where I learned, for example, what float glass is. I didn’t even know what float glass was in English. I’d look at it and think, there are no industry secrets here, just none. Like I don’t recognize anything here that looks like it’s a gem, but the American’s were so concerned that the Japanese glass industry was doing stuff that wasn’t coming through the language barrier. So they just wanted to keep their finger on the pulse of what was being published in those Japanese trade journals. I said okay fine, I don’t see why you want this translated but it’s your money, you know? Whatever, I’ll translate it.

Q. Is there anything when you’re translating that is particularly difficult or you dislike coming across?

Certainly when you’re interpreting you don’t have any leisure time to think about what you’re going to say. And I was never trained as an interpreter, I always found taking on the voice of the person when I was interpreting really hard, so I’d always end up doing something awkward, like, “He says, yadayadayada” as opposed to just “yadayadayada”. But that’s interpreting it’s not translating.

Um, translating. God, I wish I had been a translator in the age of the internet. So many things… Because if you were caught without your dictionary, there was nothing, you know? There was no internet, there was no wikipedia, there was no google. And you just kinda have to fly by the seat of your pants.

And then dialect can be frustrating.

Q. We did have some people asking how you’re supposed to prepare yourself to translate dialect and colloquialisms without going to Japan and living in the areas that use them.


Photo by Luke Ma

You really can’t. If you’re translating, you have to learn that dialect or read it a lot and get a feel for it. Nowadays you can google a lot of stuff so it makes it much easier. It used to be you had to buy a specialized dictionary.

Another thing that I ran into in the car parts factory, and I never would have anticipate it, was a generational difference. So the younger managers tended to use gairaigo (外来語) and the older managers would use some sort of, you know, hyōjun (標準) something. So for example, we had the chrome plating, right? Of the rack and pinion steering components. The younger guys called it pureteingu (プレーティング), and the older guys called it mekki (鍍金), which is the Japanese word for chrome plating. So in a way I was kind of learning two different vocabularies within the Japanese realm because there was that generational difference.

The thing is, when you’re translating you can’t be a word connoisseur, you have to kinda be a word garbage disposal (laughs). You have to take whatever is thrown your way and you can’t say, well people don’t say that, or whatever. Whatever is there on the page, you’re responsible for rendering in the target language, so you can’t get indignant about it. You can get frustrated (laughs), but you can’t get indignant about it.

It’s a lot easier now I think, because media has made language so much more standardized. Television and the radio and the internet. So if you’re dealing with someone from, you know, your generation from Hokkaido, you’re probably not going to run into big language differences compared to somebody from Kyushu. You’re all going to have the same slang because you’re all in the same generation and you’re all looking at the same media. And when those older generations die out, then those old differences I think will lessen to some extent.

So I guess the good news is, it’s getting easier. It’s not impossible to do those things without the internet but it’s just much more time consuming. I think translation has become a much faster industry now, because we can find the answers to things so much more quickly.

Q. One person said that they don’t know whether to translate literal meanings or cultural equivalencies and what situations would be better for one over the other.

I would tend to agree with translating the cultural thing and not literal. Literal sounds bad and awkward, so to me the best translation is something that does not read like a translation, and if you’re just doing literal stuff, you can’t get there. This is one of the reason’s that I love McClellen’s translation of Kokoro, because it really reads as if the novel were written in English in the first place. And a good example kind of a cousin of that, if you will, is Memoirs of a Geisha. Have you read it? I tried to read it, I couldn’t get past page three (laughs), but I guess the reason I didn’t want to go past page three was because as I was reading it, you know, ostensibly it’s supposed to be translation, but as you’re reading you know it isn’t. It’s just, there’s so many places that are not a translation.


Photo by Norio NAKAYAMA

That’s neither here nor there, but anyway you want to represent the culture but you don’t want to get too slangy, or too specific to your own generation. So if I am reading along in a translation and I see a expression like “It’s the bee’s knees” I think to myself, well you know my grandparents might have said that, but nobody said that anymore (laughs). There was probably a better choice than doing that.

Now technical translation, yeah, absolutely just be technical. But literary translation, it’s a whole other situation. Somebody’s not paying you just to get the meanings of the words, someone’s paying you to transform a work of art. So what you produce should be artful, it shouldn’t be clunky.

There is an article I wrote, originally for the journal that the BCLT produces, about the challenge of translating catholicism and catholic terms in that translation that I did in 2009. So you’ve got somebody who is a scholar of Buddhism, but it’s somebody who was very well versed and familiar with the catholic tradition, but he had to convey specific ideas to his Japanese audience, and so he had to decide what words he was going to use. And then when I was translating it back into English I had to decide how specific I wanted to be or how general, because he’s never super specific. There’s this huge vocabulary associated with catholicism, and I wasn’t raised in a catholic tradition, so this was a big learning experience for me. Thank God there’s a catholic dictionary, and thank goodness Professor DeBlasi, who was raised in the catholic tradition, has his office right next to mine so I was constantly asking him for answers.

So when Anesaki was trying to convey these ideas in Japanese, he would do so but not with these really specific terms that got only used in catholicism. It seemed wrong to me to use those specific terms when I was translating in English, back into English. But you know I had to put some thought into it, so you can look at that article and you’ll see specific examples of choices I had to make. What do you call the Virgin Mary, how do you translate that? That kind of thing.

Q. How long did that whole book project take?

A book like that takes me about four years. I don’t remember exactly when I started Hanatsumi Nikki, but Teiunshū, which is the one I just finished, I know I started that in the summer of 2010. To be honest, it was largely done by the summer of 2013, but then it had to go through the copy editor and then back to me for changes, and we’ve been piddling around on this thing since last October. But just today I got the postcard in the mail that I’m going to scan and send a digital copy of to my editor in Fukuoka and that’s going to be the cover of the book, so that’s the last step. He said as soon as you get that to me, we should be able to get it up on amazon.

Ooh, exciting!

Yeah, it’s like, I came home today and I looked at the mail and I was like, yes! It’s here, I gotta scan it!

So it took… yeah, but you’ve got to remember, I’ve got a day job, right? So the really active time that I spend working on the project most certainly was not three or four years. Really active time, I would say a year, and actually, I asked Jay about this, Jay Rubin, how long does it take you to do a Murakami Haruki novel, now that he’s retired and had no other day job to do, and he said it’s about a year.

Wow, they’re so long though!

I know! But if you’re not doing anything else, you know.

Yeah, I guess so, but doesn’t he want to sit around and smell flowers or something? Like enjoy his nice leisure time now that he’s retired?

Well, you know translating for me, and I think a lot of people, is the kind of mental activity where you have to get into a zone. You can’t just pick it up for ten minutes and then walk away. It’s not like answering your email, something you can do while you’re standing at the airport gate, or whatever. So for me the summer is the best time to get that work done, cause I’m not teaching.

Q. So if someone had a really hard time concentrating and prefers to be doing twenty different things at once, this probably wouldn’t be the best thing for them?

Right. Technical translating, not so bad, cause who cares if you have a consistent voice or anything like that, right? But especially a sustained piece of fiction, or a sustained narrative, there’s all kinds of stuff, not just the voice that you have to keep in your head, so details that were six chapters earlier, specific terms that might get used, or whatever. You have to keep all that in your head so that you’re consistent later on. Cause as a translator you’re constantly making decisions, how am I going to translate this particular word? And then once you decide it, it’s a little bit like that lecture I did in 205 when I was talking about style, and I said you know, you can choose whatever style you want, but once you choose it, you have to stick with it. You have to be consistent, you can’t change midstream. That’s a lot of what translating is like, and I know from personal experience, I’ll work really intensely on something over the summer and then I’ll have to set it aside for a couple months and getting back into it is really hard. Then I’ll discover, as I have in the past few months doing fine copy editing and things like that, that there are places where I was not consistent. Thank goodness for search and replace, because then you can go back and fix stuff. But only when I’m reading it in one sitting do I catch those inconsistencies, and I don’t sit down and reread the whole thing every time I want to work on it. It’s only when I’m doing the copy editing that that happened.

Q. Do you have any fun stories about when you were translating and you made a mistake or something like that?

Let’s see, when I was doing Hanatsumi Nikki, it was right at the very beginning, in the opening pages. He’s in Switzerland, and this was before I’d done a lot of research on him, I hadn’t been looking of photographs of him or anything like that. He’s in a carriage, this is like 1908, there’s no automobiles, there’s horse carriages. He’s in a horse carriage in Switzerland and he’s going through the Gotthard Pass and they hit a rock or something and the carriage topples over and he falls into the snow, and he laughs about it. He says, oh I had all this snow on my hige, and I translated hige as beard.


Photo by warrenski

It wasn’t until much later, I was looking at photographs of him and then looking back at my translation and I realized he never had a beard, he only had a mustache. Ever. In his life. Of course, hige can mean mustache also, right? So I wasn’t really sure (laughs) but then I fixed it and I thought, well I’m glad I caught that, cause somebody else would say, what? Beard?!

Okay, two more stories. When I started that project I had read Hanatsumi Nikki in order to do part of my second book, and that’s how it got on my radar in the first place. I was really just not familiar at all with Anesaki’s work, but I put it on the back burner and thought I gotta come back to that, so then I come back to it and if you look at the kanji that he uses to write his name (姉崎), it could be Anezaki or it could be Anesaki. So it’s a difference between a Z or and S, and I just thought Z sounded a little more like what it would be, and I hadn’t done due diligence to make sure that was right. So it’s still the beginning stages of this research project and I can’t remember if I posted it to H-Japan, somehow I got involved in a listserv discussion and his name had come up.

Eventually, I got an email from somebody who provided some answers and then said, oh by the way the name it’s not spelled with a Z, it’s definitely spelled with an S. I thought, oh how do you know? And then the next sentence said, “I know this because he was my grandfather.” And I thought, holy shit! (laughs). So then I felt like this punk, this irreverent punk, you know? I wrote this very polite, very nice email, and actually I still correspond with that grandson, and another grandson, I met another grandson in Japan. There’s more than that in that generation, but those two are both former professors, retired professors and have shared a lot of family knowledge with me about Anesaki, which has been great, but I was just so surprised when I got this email, like oh yeah he was my grandfather. Wow okay, you’re absolutely right, I’m not going to argue with you about that one. So that was that.

What was the third story… oh, this is an example, it kinda goes back to what I was saying where you catch things only if you’re looking at the full project. This happened two weeks ago. The very last changes I made to the manuscript before I said to the editor, please, please just publish the damn thing cause I could keep changing it for the rest of my life.

In the original, he visits all kinds of churches in Europe and when he’s describing the architecture, he uses the word (塔), the one that gets used for stupa, like in a Buddhist temple. So he uses that kanji 塔 for everything in the architecture, the physical architecture of buildings and I never thought about it until I was rereading it for the umpteenth time that a on a church could be a steeple, but it could also be a tower, like York Minster. One of the reasons I went to England last summer was because I wanted to see in person a lot of these places that he had visited in England. So York Minster, for example, does not have steeples, it has two towers. So first of all, we’ve got that problem of steeple versus tower, and the other problem is , as I was saying earlier, you know it’s not singular or plural, it just is.


Photo by andy

I suddenly realized that I had translated as steeple for a building that didn’t have one, it only had a tower The only reason it all came together for me is because we had finally finished the layout and we had put the photographs where they belonged in the manuscript, and there’s the photograph of the church building and it’s clear there’s no steeple. So in that context, it looks like I’m an idiot because I’ve translated it as steeple. I had to do a search and replace and make sure that every building that where I had said steeple, there really was one, thank God for the internet again because I could go and I could find photographs of these building and also make sure that singulars and plurals were correct. Sometimes there’s one tower, sometimes there’s two towers.

So now that’s all been cleaned up, but that goes to that point that when you’re translating, you have to do a lot of research. Because authors, they kind of assume that you know what you’re doing and they also, they’re not responsible for the problems of your target language – like it requires singulars or plurals, and they’re not responsible for those cultural differences, like the difference between a steeple and a tower, right? But in English, if you don’t fix that, if you don’t specify, it’s just wrong. So you have to provide – to answer to that other question – you do have to provide that cultural stuff. You know, what if I just called a a tower every single time? That’s going to be an awful translation and it’s going to be inaccurate.

Especially if you have a picture reference right there for them to see.

Yeah, so there was another case in a scene where Anesaki says that a priest is wearing the hat of a priest, and my editor, who was very persnickety, said oh well it should be called a miter, cause that’s the hat that priest’s wear. And I got back to her and I said that’s a good point, but you know what there’s more than one priest’s hat in catholicism, it could be a miter, it could be this other thing, we don’t know, we’re just going to have to leave it as a priest’s hat (laughs). So you’ve got to do tons of research.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a former classmate of mine in graduate school, he’s now a professor at Binghamton, David Stahl. When he was a graduate student at Yale, he helped out a friend, a Japanese friend of his, who had gotten a contract to translate from English to Japanese a Stephen King novel. Now, I’m not a huge Stephen King fan, I don’t read Stephen King, I don’t know if you do, but apparently these novels are just chock full of all kinds of cultural references. This poor person in Japan was struggling, and so she would do a basic translation and then she’d send Dave all these questions, what does King mean about this, what does this mean in English, what are all these things? And Dave said half the time he didn’t know even though he’s a native English speaker.

So when you’re the translator, the text is unforgiving, you can’t fudge it, and literary translation frowns upon footnotes. Now mine have footnotes because it’s an annotated translation, but that’s a very small wedge of a bigger world. In most cases translating presses don’t want footnotes, so you don’t have that as an out, you have to figure out how to do it in the translation itself.

Which can be so hard if something isn’t clear.

Yes, exactly.

So you have to think in your head, I have to make this clear, but how can I do that? I can’t leave it out either.

Right. You have to say, I have to make it clear and what that requires, more often than you’d like is you and only you are stuck having to make a tough decision. You have to say, okay, I’m just going to pull the trigger on this one, it’s singular, or something like that. Or, I’m going to pull the trigger on this one, it’s a beard not a mustache, because there’s nobody there to answer that question.

I think especially when we come out of being a student, we’re so used to saying “I don’t know the answer I’ll go ask somebody else,” and once you get into that world you can’t do that anymore. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat at my desk and thought, who can I ask- I can’t ask anybody (laughs). I just have to make this decision myself.

You know what was really good training for me was being department chair and then later university senate chair because you’re in a lot of situations like that where you consult with folks but eventually you are the one that has to make a decision and you just have to be comfortable with doing that. It’s not always the right decision, but you know, you do it, and you own it.

Q. Would you say that you enjoy what you do? And what kind of person would you say you need to be to enjoy translating works of literature?

I do enjoy it. It’s like a big mystery puzzle. Not all of it is fun, I hate copy editing, I’m so glad it’s over now, but the initial process is really cool, it’s like writing a book, actually, in that you have this really big project with lots of moving parts and I find putting it all together really satisfying. I like organization, I like being organized, I like organizing stuff, and I love reading a sentence in Japanese and rendering it into English that sounds natural. There’s something really organically pleasing about that and the more you do it the more comfortable you become with that process.


I guess the only frustrating thing about it to me is that sometimes people will say, how do you do that?, and I don’t know how to teach how to do that. I try, you know, I teach EAJ410 and I teach EAJ411 (Readings in Modern Japanese Literature) and we talk a lot about translating, thats the main focus of those courses, but I still don’t feel like I know how to teach somebody how to do it. So I guess that’s the hard part for me. I wish I could, because I enjoy it, but I guess not everybody would. Not everybody would find that fun.

I wouldn’t be a professor of literature if I didn’t enjoy language and the beauty of language, and sometimes I’ll read a poem or a passage that I just find really moving and wonderful. So that’s the cool stuff, that’s the really cool stuff.

So other than just being passionate about literature, it helps if you like organization and those types of things?

Yeah, I mean one of the problems with the younger generation, my kids are such great examples of this, is that they live in a world of thirty seconds. My youngest son has a disgusting addiction to youtube and if he watches too much youtube, he starts to act like youtube. In other words, he can only stay focused for a very short period of time. You know, my generation, the people would complain about the kids watching too much television and having short attention spans, but I think it’s sort of accelerated right now, and the process of translating anything, even a short story, it’s not a short focus thing. It’s a project that requires serious attention and concentration and kind of getting lost in that particular text and I don’t think people do that very much anymore. I don’t see very many folks in the classroom who love reading, there’s a few, but most of them see reading as a chore, and I don’t think they get lost in a book the way that I like to do.

My kids, I don’t want to trash them too much, but they’re not here, they’re off at boy scout camp enjoying the rain, and not playing on youtube which is wonderful (laughs). My kids can get lost in a book and it’s fascinating because they’re very critical of their classmates who don’t read and who can’t find pleasure in reading. So I’m glad that they’ve discovered that but I think those concentration skills that you need for translation are closely associated with reading a longer text.

And if someone wants to translate they should probably already be reading that kind of stuff all the time. If you don’t like reading, there’s no reason to want to be a translator.

Oh, definitely. When I was started working on Anesaki I started reading more history of the early twentieth century and also trying to read fiction from the early twentieth century just to get a feel for how people spoke. One of the things that I didn’t do until later, but I did do it was, Anesaki also published in English, so I wanted to read his English writing to get a feel for what that sounded like, although I wasn’t absolutely sure that would be right, because of course you would have an editor. So what you see on the page might not exactly be what he would have been writing in the first place, it was his third or fourth language. Turns out his English actually was excellent. I went into the Harvard archives two months ago and found some letters that he had written to a former Harvard professor and the English is almost flawless, it’s fascinating.

Q. Last Question! Is there anything that you’d like to say to someone who wants to be where you are today? Or if a student came up to you in school and said, I want to be just like you, help me, what do I do?


Photo by takako tominaga

Uhm… It’s hard because I do have students who come and they want to translate, they want to be in Japanese studies, but their incentives are never the same as mine. In other words, they’re not interested in Meiji literature, they’re interested in anime and manga and video games, and I’m not really sure what the path is to get into that realm. I think it’s tough, I think it’s really tough. It’s not super easy in Meiji literature either, but I think it’s different in anime and manga.

I guess the advice that I have for people who, if they want to go into academia, I usually say, well first of all, be absolutely sure that’s what you want to do. Understand what it involves, how much time commitment there is, understand what your life will be like, because you see me in the classroom, but you don’t see the other two thirds of my life as a professor so here let me tell you what that’s like. And you really have to be the person who loves books and who loves being surrounded by books. You know, sure I watch TV and movies, I’m not some sort of nun or something (laughs), but you do it because you enjoy it, not because somebody gives you those assignments. You also absolutely have to be a self-starter. I think as an undergraduate you become very used to being given assignments, because that’s how we structure undergraduate education, but if you move onto graduate school and beyond there, then you absolutely have to be a self-starter. You have to be the kind of person who can set personal deadlines and meet them, because otherwise it’s just not going to happen.

I think a lot of people want guidance, there’s nothing wrong with wanting guidance, but in the world beyond that undergraduate education it may not be there. You’ll get advice, but you’re not going to have someone saying you have to do X, Y, and Z.

It’s not like becoming a doctor or a lawyer. It’s not like there’s translation school. It’s not medical school, it’s not law school, it’s not professional guild. There’s a couple fringe organizations on those sorts of things but that’s it. This is not systematized.

Another thing for people who are interesting in translating is to join organizations like that, especially if they’re free, what have you go to lose? If they publish a newsletter, absolutely read those newsletters. If it’s literary translation, then the British Centre for Literary Translation’s journal, I think would be really helpful because it raises all kinds of interesting issues and problems with literary translation. It’s not going to get you a job, but at least it’s going to get you familiar with the industry and know what the professionals are talking about. It’s a pretty small world, they actually kind of get to know each other.

There’s also a few translation prizes. There is one that kind of comes and goes. It’s actually sponsored by the Ministry of Education in Japan. They provide a list of works that they would like to see translated and they’re always current fiction, and the languages that they’re interested having it translated into, and people submit their translations and then there’s a small cash award. It’s like $2000 or something like that to the winner, and then they list the winners every year and then those works actually get published.

So entering contests like that may also help people get a feel for the process, they’re probably not going to win, but at least get a feel for the process and then when the contest is over, they can compare what they produced to whatever the winning translation is and probably have a much better feel for what is considered a high quality translation. They’re not usually super widely advertised, the trick is finding them. I bet if you googled “translation prize” and then threw in Japanese, you might find some other stuff.

Even Kurodahan doesn’t do it every year, there were a couple years where they didn’t do it. What happened with MEXT, with the Ministry of Education, they got some big government grant that paid for the whole thing. I’m not sure how long that grant ran, that’s why I said it comes and goes, I’m not sure if it’s still active right now. It’s usually a short story that you’re translating, it’s not a novel or anything like that.

The stuff that, for example Kurodahan has, they say all translators are required to translate at least one sample from our trial translation, and then they provide you with a PDF of those. And I’ll tell you that Edward chose those things carefully, it’s not random stuff, each one, I think there’s thirty one pages in that PDF, I don’t know how many works there are. Each one presents it’s own challenges, so older vocabulary that might be a little trickier to parse, for example, dialect, in some of them. You get a choice, you have various things that you can translate, but they do it so that they can kind of weed out the riffraff, if you will (laughs). I’m lucky I don’t have to mess with it because I’m already a known entity with them. I can just call Edward and say, I want to publish this, publish it.

Well I think that’s it. Thank you so much for answering all of our questions!

You’re welcome! It was fun!

Works by Susanna Fessler:

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How To Be A Japanese Literary Translator And Interpreter, Starring Jonathan Lloyd-Davies Tue, 23 Sep 2014 16:00:01 +0000 We at Tofugu get a lot of emails from people saying they want to go into Japanese translation, looking for advice. To help you folks out (and to help anyone who’s ever been somewhat interested in translation), we did a series of interviews with professionals in this field. For today’s article, I interviewed Jonathan Lloyd-Davies, […]

The post How To Be A Japanese Literary Translator And Interpreter, Starring Jonathan Lloyd-Davies appeared first on Tofugu.

We at Tofugu get a lot of emails from people saying they want to go into Japanese translation, looking for advice. To help you folks out (and to help anyone who’s ever been somewhat interested in translation), we did a series of interviews with professionals in this field. For today’s article, I interviewed Jonathan Lloyd-Davies, a 36 year old freelance literary translator and asked him all about translation, interpretation, how to break into the field, and what resources there are for people new to the field.


Let’s get started with the questions.

Q. What kind of work have you done?

As a literary translator I have worked on Edge by Suzuki Kōji. I have also translated Gray Men by Tomotake Ishikawa, the Demon Hunters Trilogy by Yumemakura Baku, Nan-Core by Numata Mahokaru, and The Owl’s Estate by Toshiyuki Horie. I am currently working on 64 by Yokoyama Hideo.

Q. How long have you been working in your field?

I have been working in literary translation for three years. I have three years of prior experience in translation and interpreting – one year for an NGO and two years on the JET program as a CIR working for a business incubator.

Q. How did you become interested in literary translation?

I have always loved reading and writing and languages, and they all come together in literary translation.

Q. What was your first job in the field?

My first job in the field was when I translated Edge by Suzuki Kōji, with co-translator Camellia Nieh. The book won the 2012 Shirley Jackson award in translation.

koji-suzuki-edge-coverCover art by Peter Mendelsund

Q. What does someone need to do to become a literary translator?

My route into the profession came from contacts I had made during my prior years as a translator and interpreter. This is quite a roundabout route and not necessarily the best.

It’s important to look for opportunities to learn about the trade and network with people already involved. In the UK, the BCLT (British Centre for Literary Translation) does a lot of great work in partnership with organisations such as the Nippon Foundation.

Getting a portfolio together is useful; if nothing else, it’s great practice. Some people get into the profession by translating samples and making the sell to publishers.

Submitting your translations to competitions is also a great way to get your name out there.

Q. What are the best schools for this type of translation?

In the UK, the BCLT runs a fantastic summer school.

The University of East Anglia (UEA) also offers MAs in literary translation.

Q. As a recent graduate, or someone who is new in the field, what kinds of challenges do you face?

It can be a challenge to manage workflow. There are empty periods and periods when you’re too busy.

Q. How competitive is literary translation? Do you have any stories about “competition” you’ve had with other translators?

I have found the profession to be very welcoming, with a number of organisations offering help to new translators. Supply and demand does mean that translators end up competing, but there are always new projects to find.

Q. As someone who has been doing this for a while, how do you continue to find work in literary translation?

Repeat work, and through contacts – other translators and mentors in organisations such as the BCLT.

Q. How did you become interested in freelance translation?

When I started work on Edge.

Q. How do you find jobs as a freelancer?

As above. I sometimes do agency work (for commercial translation), and find sites like ProZ useful.

Q. Is there a lot of work out there for a freelance translator?

There is a lot of work in commercial translation, especially if you have a speciality or two (or three).

Q. What kind of work does a freelancer get?

Agency work tends to focus on a specialisation (finance, medicine). Work comes in on relatively short notice. Direct clients are hard to build up, but once you have a solid base the work can be more stable and better paid.

Q. What kind of advice do you have for someone who wants to be a freelance translator?


Photo by Ray_from_LA

Realise that you will be spending a lot of time alone with a computer. If you’ve worked in an office before, this will be a big change. You will also have to work longer, perhaps less sociable hours, particularly when you’re trying to establish yourself.

Look up agency sites such as ProZ. Surf some forums to get a feel for the kind of rates you need to be charging. Lots of the information is freely available.

Q. How did you become interested in interpretation?

When I was working as a CIR for a business incubator.

Q. What should someone do if they want to be an interpreter?

There are various schools that offer MA courses in interpreting. If you want to be a professional and not casual interpreter, these may be useful. The alternative is to learn on the job.

Q. How do you find work as an interpreter? How should a recent graduate or someone new to the field do to find work?

Mostly I learned on the job, through JET and then Peace Boat.

Q. What would you say are the main differences between translation and interpreting, in terms of the skills needed?

Interpreting requires confidence in speaking and fast reaction times. Translation is less hectic, but requires generally a high level of writing skill.

Q. What would you say is the most important thing that someone who wants to get into interpreting should do or know?

Decide whether you like speaking in front of people and being in potentially stressful situations (particularly in the case of simultaneous interpreting).

Q. How long did it take for you to learn Japanese and then to get your first job in your field?

I studied Japanese for 4 years in university, and graduated into a job as a CIR with JET.

Q. What recommendations or advice do you have for someone who is still learning Japanese?


Photo by garberus

Make sure you spend time with the language, either by living in Japan or hanging out with Japanese people. Speaking the language is by far the quickest way to becoming proficient.

Q. What level of the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) would you say someone would have to pass before being able to work as a translator or an interpreter?

Level 1. And it is a great selling point on your CV.

Q. How can you beef up your resume? Are there any good starting jobs?

Take the JLPT. Working as a CIR is a great starting point. Doing anything in Japan will probably help, as long as you can show you are using the language.

Q. What do you find the most difficult about translating from Japanese to English? Are there any things that used to be really difficult for you?

There are a number of quirks in each language that you only really become consciously aware of after wrestling with them over and over again: the relative strength of pronouns, how often to use the passive voice, differences in punctuation and syntax. Once you’re able to edit out the quirks, everything else is voice. Getting to that point takes time and hard work.

Q. Should you translate literal meaning or cultural equivalencies? In which situations would one be better over the other?

I always prefer to go for literal meaning. But in many cases this just doesn’t work without resorting to footnotes. If an idiom sounds good in the original but silly in the translation, it probably needs to be changed. That being said, it’s usually important not to localise the text.

Q. Is it better to specialize in a certain field like medicine, engineering, automotive, computer science, etc., to find higher quality jobs?


Photo by Antonio Tajuelo

This should lead to you being able to command higher rates, and it is certainly useful in marketing yourself to clients.

Q. Can you give some examples of projects you’ve done along with how long those projects normally take you / the team you’re on?

Literary projects can vary in length from four months to over a year, depending on the length of the book and the publisher.

Q. How should someone living in Japan find work as a translator or interpreter?

Translation can be mediated entirely over the internet. Failing that, applying for in-house positions.

Q. Do you enjoy what you do? What kind of person would you say someone needs to be to enjoy the kind of work you do?

I love the work I do. It can be very challenging, and the work itself is very solitary. You need to be able to sit alone with a computer for hours and still enjoy the process.

Q. Is there anything else you’d like to say to someone who aspires to be where you are today?

Keep your day job and break into things slowly. Stay positive, and seek out opportunities to get involved with the community.

Thanks for the interview! For more on Jonathan Lloyd-Davies check him out on Amazon!

Want to know more about translation? Check out our other interviews.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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How To Be A Manga Translator, Interpreter, and Freelance translator, Starring Jocelyne Allen Tue, 16 Sep 2014 16:00:40 +0000 One of the emails we get over and over again is: “I want to become a Japanese translator, what do I need to do?” We have some ideas, but we certainly don’t have a lot of experience in this field, so we found people who do and interviewed them. Over the next few weeks we’ll […]

The post How To Be A Manga Translator, Interpreter, and Freelance translator, Starring Jocelyne Allen appeared first on Tofugu.

One of the emails we get over and over again is: “I want to become a Japanese translator, what do I need to do?” We have some ideas, but we certainly don’t have a lot of experience in this field, so we found people who do and interviewed them. Over the next few weeks we’ll be posting interviews with people who have experience with literary translation, technical translation, commercial translation, interpretation, manga translation, and more. You’ll hear about these professionals’ experiences and learn how to follow in their footsteps, should you want to jump into their fields. For today’s interview, I talked to Jocelyne Allen, a 39 year old translator and interpreter to talk about her experiences in the field of literature, commercial translation, interpretation, and manga translation. Let’s see what she had to say. JocelyneAllen

Q. What fields have you worked in?

Literary translation, freelance translation, interpretation, and manga translation.

Q. How long have you been working in your field?

10 years.

Q. How did you become interested in literary translation?

I’ve always been a huge reader and my dream job was always to get paid to read books. Once I started working in translation, it was an obvious direction to head in.

Q. What was your first job in the field?

My first literary translation job was probably a short story. I actually can’t remember.

Q. What does one need to do to become a literary translator?


Photo by marguerite

You need to love reading. And you need to read a lot in both (all) of your languages. See all the different voices authors have in each language, learn the subtle differences between words.

Q. What are the best schools for this type of translation?

I have no idea. I didn’t go to school for translation.

Q. Okay, then for people who are new in this field, how do you find work?

For people new to the field, I’d recommend reaching out to magazines that focus on literature in translation like Words Without Borders. Try to get work on shorter pieces first to establish a reputation and show that you can do the job so that editors will trust you with longer works.

Q. How competitive is literary translation? Do you have any stories about “competition” you’ve had with other literary translators?

I’ve never knowingly competed for a job with another translator, although I’m sure before an editor hires me, they are also considering other translators. I think the field is pretty competitive, though, given how little work is published in translation in English.

Q. As someone who has been doing this for a while, how do you find / get work in literary translation?

To be honest, my work now comes from editors and publishers approaching me. I do reach out when I hear about a project I’d like to be a part of, but usually someone contacts me, either because we’ve worked on other projects together or because someone I’ve worked with has recommended me to them.

Q. How did you get interested in freelance translation?

I’m assuming by “freelance translation”, you mean commercial translation. I basically was interested in translation and commercial work was the easiest to get.

Q. What was your first job as a freelancer?

I worked for a few years in-house with a translation agency before becoming a freelancer, and that relationship continued when I became independent. I still do work for that agency on occasion now.

Q. How do you find jobs as a freelance translator?

Pound the metaphoric pavement. Send your resume out to agencies and direct clients in the field you want to specialize in. Cold call. People will ask you to do translation tests or hire you for small jobs to see how you perform. Make the deadlines and send in quality work and you will get more work.

Q. Is there a lot of work out there for freelance translators?

Obviously, this depends on your field of specialization, but I think there is, in general. Global business needs translations. I do commercial work in the fields of automotives and engineering, and I am always turning work down.

Q. What kind of work do you get as a freelance translator?

Most of the work I get are documents or presentations to be used within the company, with the occasional user’s manual or academic paper.

Q. What advice do you have for people who want to become freelance translators?

Outdoor Classes

Be willing to work really hard. For the first couple years (at least) that you freelance, you will probably need to take any and every job that comes your way to build up your reputation and also make enough to pay your rent. Also, working in-house and training under veteran translators for a few years is a great way to learn your craft and earn a steady, risk-free pay cheque at the same time.

Q. Now let’s talk about interpretation. How did you become interested in interpretation?

Interpretation got interested in me. Because I translate manga, I ended up being asked to interpret for manga artists.

Q. What was your first interpretation job and what did it entail?

I interpreted at meetings and things while I worked in-house, but my first non-in-house interpreting job was working with a manga artist, basically hanging out with him during the entirety of his visit and speaking for him during public events.

Q. What should someone do if they want to become an interpreter?

Keep your ears sharp. Listen to a lot of stuff in your B language. Practise interpreting it. An interpretation course could help a lot too.

Q. How do you find work as an interpreter today? And what should a new interpreter / someone who just graduated do to get interpreter work?

My work as an interpreter is very focussed on manga, and fortunately, I am known for working with manga artists, so people find me. Volunteering with organizations you’re interested in is always a good way to get your name known in the circles where you’d like to interpret. Like, if you’re interested in working in manga/anime, see if a local con needs interpretation help.

Q. What would you say are the main differences between translating and interpreting in terms of what skills you need?

Interpreting is very much right now. You need to be able to concentrate and think very fast to interpret. It doesn’t matter if you use the perfect word for the situation as long as you use a word that means the right thing. Translation lets you linger (until your deadline at least) on finding exactly the right word to convey the sentiment. You also need to have a certain level of people skills for interpreting, whereas you can be a translator and basically never see anyone ever.

Q. What is the most important thing that someone who wants to go into interpretation should know or do?

Be aware that it can be pretty stressful. And always eat before any dinner where you will be required to interpret. My rumbly tummy has interrupted more than one conversation.

Q. Last topic. Manga! How did you get interested in translating manga?


Photo by Andrew Subiela

I love manga and comics, so once I started working in translation, it seemed like the logical next step.

Q. What was your first job in the field?

I started working in BL manga. I can’t remember what my first book was.

Q. What is the difference between localization and translation?

Roughly speaking, translation is putting the words in English, while localization is making those English words match the target market English and maybe smoothing the rough translation edges.

Q. How do people normally get into translating manga?

I don’t really know. I think everyone’s path is different.

Q. How do you get in contact with employers/websites for manga?

Most manga publishers have a “jobs” page or contact form. They’ll tell you how to get in touch with them. In the worst case, they’ll have a general contact email address. Be very specific in your subject line so that your inquiry goes to the right person.

Q. Does it help to be familiar with current anime and manga? Or does it not matter very much?

I don’t know if it helps to be familiar with current manga (I can’t speak to anime since I don’t work in that field), but it does help to be familiar with manga in general. Knowing the tropes and the styles makes your job a lot easier and your work a lot better.

Q. What programs should you be familiar with, like editing software?

I use Scrivener, especially for longer series or novels, but I deliver my translations in Word documents and I’ve never had a publisher ask for any other format. So work with whatever software works for you, but make sure you can use Word to check and deliver your final translation.

Q. For someone hoping to work on manga translation, what is the most important thing they should know or do?

Don’t miss deadlines. This goes for every kind of translation, though. This is literally the most important thing. (Obviously, your translation should also not be straight out of Google Translate.) The project has a schedule, and the translation is usually the first step in that schedule. So when you miss your deadline, you knock everything down the line off the schedule. If you’re not going to be able to make the agreed on deadline, tell your publisher. Schedules usually aren’t that tight and something can almost always be worked out. But when you commit to a deadline and you don’t meet it, you’re basically telling the publisher (or the agency or the direct client) that you are unreliable. 5374200948_539b10fb1c_b

Photo by Dafne Cholet

Q. How long did it take for you to learn Japanese and get your first job as a translator?

A few years. I started studying Japanese when I moved there, so I had a bit of a leg up since I was surrounded by the language constantly.

Q. What recommendations or advice do you have for someone who is learning Japanese?

Go to Japan. I know that’s not always possible, but immersion is really the best method. So if you can’t go there, surround yourself in Japanese. TV, podcasts, books.

Q. What level of the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) would you say you have to pass before being able to work as a translator or an interpreter?

I don’t think the JLPT is a good measure of practical ability. I have JLPT Level 1, but I spent a lot of time studying things I’ve basically never used since to get it. If you want to work with clients in Japan, though, having Level 1 or 2 will make you look more credible.

Q. How can you beef up your resume? Are there any good starting jobs?

Volunteering is a great way to beef up your resume. Agencies can also be a good place to get work when you’re first starting out.

Q. What do you find most difficult when translating from Japanese to English? Are there any specific phrases or words that you remember having a difficult time on?

The set phrases are always the hardest. Really common everyday things like “Yoroshiku onegai shimasu” or “ganbaru”. Because they mean so many different things in so many different contexts. One thing I remember having the hardest time with was this pun in a manga of rakugo stories. The whole story hinged on this word which meant two totally different things. That story nearly drove me insane.

Q. Should you translate literal meanings or cultural equivalencies? In which situations would one be better over the other?

Context is king. You should always look at your audience, look at the text, look at who is paying you to translate the text. There’s no hard and fast rule about this, other than hewing to the literal is usually preferred by commercial clients. But even that’s not set in stone.

Q. Is it better to specialize in a certain field like medicine, engineering, automotive, or computer science to get higher quality jobs?

Absolutely. Specialization is key to getting higher-paying, more interesting work.

Q. Can you give some examples of projects you’ve done along with how long these projects normally take you / the team you’re on?

A typical manga project usually takes me about a month, but that’s never the only thing I’m working on. Novels take a lot longer. Other projects vary depending on the length of the project itself. I don’t work in teams, in the sense that I am translating with anyone. My editor will come back to me with questions or comments, but that’s about it.

Q. Do you have any funny or interesting stories from when you were working on something?

I have changed the name of a character halfway through more than once. I’m very bad with names. Fortunately, I always notice in the editing stage and change it back. I also constantly hassle my friends and family with word usage questions. My sister has kids so she often bears the brunt of this as I try to figure out what the kids these days are saying.

Q. How should someone living in Japan find work as a translator?


Photo by alq666

Pound the literal pavement. Japanese clients really like to meet in person before hiring people. Even if they hire you without meeting you, that relationship will definitely be strengthened by a (scheduled) visit to their office. Face time is very important in Japanese business.

Q. Do you enjoy what you do? What kind of person do you think someone would need to be to enjoy this kind of work?

I love what I do. I can’t believe I actually get paid to read all day long. I think to be in translation, you really need to be a person who’s comfortable being with themselves and alone with their thoughts. And you need to be a reader. Although I don’t know why you’d want to be a translator if you don’t like reading.

Q. Is there anything else you’d like to say to someone who aspires to be where you are today?

You might not be able to get work in the field you’re most interested in right away, but that doesn’t mean you should give up. There are lots of different roads to where you want to go. I studied math at university, worked for a car company as my first translation job, and now I translate manga and fiction full-time. There’s no straight line from where I was to where I am.

Thanks for the interview! For more on Jocelyne Allen check out her website!

Want to know more about translation? Check out our other interviews.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Weird Kanji – Unusual Readings and their Origins Mon, 25 Aug 2014 16:00:59 +0000 Good old kanji! You know, the 50,000 some odd characters borrowed from Chinese that are used to read Japanese? They’re daunting at first, but get easier once you know the rules. There’s the on’yomi and kun’yomi readings, the Chinese and Japanese readings, and all kanji can be read as either one or the other. OR CAN THEY?! There are […]

The post Weird Kanji – Unusual Readings and their Origins appeared first on Tofugu.

Good old kanji! You know, the 50,000 some odd characters borrowed from Chinese that are used to read Japanese? They’re daunting at first, but get easier once you know the rules. There’s the on’yomi and kun’yomi readings, the Chinese and Japanese readings, and all kanji can be read as either one or the other. OR CAN THEY?! There are several Japanese words that don’t follow the standard readings. Don’t fret, however, because I’m here to clear things up. By the end of this article, you’ll have a firm grasp on these renegade kanji and be on your way to understanding them fully.

Jūbako-yomi 重箱読み and Yutō-yomi 湯桶読み – Mixed Readings


Jūbako-yomi and Yutō-yomi are both types of compound words, meaning more than one kanji. However, instead of simply taking the on’yomi or the kun’yomi readings, they actually take both. These words are named the way they are because they actually follow the same rules.

In jūbako-yomi the first character takes the on’yomi and the second character takes the kun’yomi.

重箱 jūbako

重 on’yomi reading ジュウ / jū

箱 kun’yomi reading ばこ / bako

The opposite of this is yutō-yomi. The first character takes the kun’yomi reading and the second takes the on’yomi reading.

湯桶 yutō

湯 kun’yomi reading ゆ / yu

桶 on’yomi reading トウ / tō

The reason these words ended up mixed like this is because they are hybrid words. This means that the parts that make them up are derived from two different languages. In this case, China and Japan. These words aren’t as uncommon as you may think. Here are a few everyday examples:

金色 kin’iro / gold color

金 on’yomi reading キン / kin

色 kun’yomi reading いろ / iro


場所 basho / place

場 kun’yomi reading ば / ba

所 on’yomi reading ショ / sho


合気道 Aikidō / the martial art aikido

合 kun’yomi reading あい / ai

気 on’yomi reading キ / ki

道 on’yomi reading ドウ / dō

Ateji 当て字 – Words that Borrow


Photo by The Q Speaks

Ateji are basically words that borrow only a part of themselves from their kanji, and they are NOT kun’yomi. Way back in time, when Japan was still adapting the Chinese writing system into its own, there were problems with words that already existed in Japanese and new loan words that were imported. A way to handle these old and new words arose, creating three types of these ateji words.

1. Words that borrow the reading of the characters

First we have words that borrow the phonetic value, or reading, of the characters. We see this commonly in country names. Have you ever seen the kanji for America: 米国 beikoku. If you look at those characters, they don’t really have anything to do with America. 米 means rice and 国 means country. Of all the countries in the world, America isn’t exactly at the top of the list for those we would name the “country of rice.”

米国 was originally written like this: 亜米利加

They didn’t use those characters for their meaning either, they simply used them for their phonetic value, their sounds. Below is the on’yomi reading:

亜 ア / a

米 マイ / mai

利 リ / ri

加 カ / ka

Okay, so this spells out “amairika,” but you should be able to see why they chose these characters. Using Chinese characters only for their readings was actually something Japan had been doing for a long time, all the way back to the 7th century with man’yōgana.

Man’yōgana is the name of the writing system used in a famous collection of poems called the Man’yōshū. During that time, Japanese was written out using Chinese characters for their sounds, not their meanings. Sentences were just big blocks of kanji (before it was even called kanji). Honestly, it’s pretty horrifying to look at. What’s worse is there were so many characters with the same sounds, that different characters could be used for the same sounds in the same sentence.

Scary as it was, man’yōgana writing paved the way for hiragana and katakana, and led us to the way we write Japanese today. Love it or hate it, it was a really big deal, and it should help you see why using 亜米利加 to spell out America, made a bit of sense.

The same thing happened with other countries like France, 仏蘭西 which was shortened to 仏国 (fukkoku). It doesn’t mean that it’s a Buddhist country at all. Just that the characters 仏蘭西 were pronounced the same way as フランス.

Other words include: 寿司 sushi, 亜細亜 Asia, 珈琲 coffee, 流石 as expected, 沢山 many.

2. Words that borrow the meaning of the characters

There are also ateji that borrow the meaning of the characters but not the readings. This happened when the Japanese already had a word for something before the writing system came into use, and there was no existing character in Chinese for whatever it was.

One of the most commonly used examples of this type of ateji is tobacco.

煙草 tabako / tobacco

煙 means smoke

草 means grass

Smoking grass, why that’s obviously tobacco, right? But if you look up the readings, you won’t see any part of “tabako” listed under the on’yomi or kun’yomi readings. That’s because the word tobacco, along with the plant, came to Japan via the Portuguese in the 16th century. They were given a way to say it, but they needed a way to write it. So they used the characters for grass and smoke, while still calling it “tabako”.

Other words include: 台詞 speech, 南瓜 Japanese squash, 海老 shrimp, 海苔 nori/seaweed.

3. Words that borrow both

Then of course we have words that take both the reading AND the meaning of the word. If you’re wondering how this works, sometimes they were able to find characters that matched the reading and the meaning of the words they were trying to find a way to write. For example:

合羽 kappa / raincoat is a word that was introduced by the Portuguese with the word capa, meaning raincoat. The kanji they chose mean “join” and “wings” which they saw as a great way to represent a raincoat (wings coming together, like how a bird protects itself from the rain). The readings also end up giving you a similar reading to the original capa, with kappa. So they were able to take both the meaning and the reading of the characters for a foreign word.

Other words include: 倶楽部 club, 算盤 abacus,  剃刀 razor, 田舎 countryside.

Around the Meiji period Japan switched to katakana as a way to handle loanwords, so when you encounter ateji, they’re probably from long ago. In some cases newer katakana versions have become more popular, like アメリカ rather than 亜米利加.

Single Character Gairaigo 外来語 – Loanwords get Kanji


Photo by Leo Reynolds

Gairaigo is a term used for loanwords in Japanese that are usually spelled out using katakana. These are words like アルバイト part-time job and コンピュータ computer. However, there are some cases where single character gairaigo are given a kanji. Many of these are units of measure, like the metric system, and there are a few that are simply common words.

メートル mētoru / meter can be written with the kanji 米

ページ pēji / page can be written with the kanji 頁

ゼロ zero / zero can be written with the kanji 零

These are NOT ateji because they don’t borrow their meaning or their reading from the character. Instead these readings are considered kun’yomi. Is your head spinning yet? Sorry about that because next we’re looking at names.

Nanori 名乗り – Name Readings


Photo by kazamatsuri

For anyone who has studied enough Japanese, or maybe just met enough people, names can make anyone feel like their language skills are inadequate. Even native Japanese people can look at a written name and not know how to read it because there are SO MANY possible readings for the characters used for names.

One of the reasons for this is that sometimes people go to pick a name for their baby and… well they mess up. A lot of the time, new readings pop up simply because someone’s mom or dad made a mistake, thinking that a kanji had a particular reading, and in the end it just gets added on to all the others. Sometimes parents want their child to have a unique name, so they purposefully add on a reading to a character that didn’t exist before.

There is some control over the name situation though. The Japanese government has a list of approved kanji to be used for names. The thing is, people always slip through.

Another problem, for non-native Japanese speakers in particular, is that these name readings don’t show up in normal dictionaries. Here is an example:

長谷川 is a surname. If you look each character up in a dictionary, none of the readings will help you know how to read this name. Try it out and see what you can come up with. Okay, did you try? Do you have Hasegawa? Of course you don’t, because the name readings aren’t in your dictionary!

How about 裕仁. If you look these two characters up here is what you will probably find:

裕 has the on’yomi ユウ

仁 can be the on’yomi ジン, 二, or ニン

However, no combination of these readings will give you the real reading of this name. It’s actually Hirohito ひろひと, as in Emperor Hirohito.

As a side note – Japanese names can also take on the opposite extreme. Some names can be written a ridiculous amount of ways, while they are all pronounced exactly the same. The name Akira is so popular that there are literally dozens of ways to write it! It can be either a boy or a girl’s name too.

彰, 明, 顕, 章, 聴, 光, 晶, 晄, 彬, 昶

Those are just a fraction of the ways you can write Akira! And if you look them up in a normal dictionary, that reading won’t even be listed. Luckily sites like have an option to search their name dictionary, rather than their general dictionary, so if you don’t have a proper name dictionary at home, I’d suggest using theirs. For those of you that are looking for a name dictionary, “Japanese Names: A Comprehensive Index by Characters and Readings” by P.G. O’Neill is a great one. Though you’re more likely to find it in a library than a bookstore.

That’s All Folks


Photo by hiroaki maeda

Okay, so if you’re still reading, good for you. I know this can be overwhelming but it’s some pretty important stuff if you’re interested in the Japanese language. Hopefully this helps you realize that words which make no sense at first, actually have reasons for being that way. They simply fall outside of the box you’re used to. Break out of that box, my friends!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Gaming To Learn Japanese Tue, 19 Aug 2014 16:00:47 +0000 Teaching yourself Japanese isn’t easy, and let’s face it, it takes a large amount of time, effort, and dedication to make noticeable progress. After coming home from a long day of school or work, sometimes the last thing you want to do is sit down at a desk with another textbook. Wouldn’t it be more […]

The post Gaming To Learn Japanese appeared first on Tofugu.

Teaching yourself Japanese isn’t easy, and let’s face it, it takes a large amount of time, effort, and dedication to make noticeable progress. After coming home from a long day of school or work, sometimes the last thing you want to do is sit down at a desk with another textbook. Wouldn’t it be more relaxing to just play some video games?

There are games out there designed to teach you Japanese. Most of those games only offer the basics of grammar and vocabulary, but they certainly aren’t the only games out there that can supplement your studying. Some of your favorite video games may hold within them the ability to become a teaching tool and can become a legitimately fun way to study.

Back in 2011 we made a list of the Top 5 Nintendo DS Games for Learning Japanese. A lot has changed since then, and some great new games have come out that you can use to your advantage. Most of these games are available in the US!

Games Made to Teach You


First, I’d like to mention My Japanese Coach, a Japanese learning game released for the Nintendo DS in 2008. If you’re not familiar with the My Coach series, they are a bunch of self-learning and self-help games that range from learning languages to losing weight. There is even one that’s supposed to help you quit smoking.

The game starts off with a placement test, but don’t be fooled, this is definitely a game for beginners. It will teach you the basics: hiragana, kana, starting grammar, etc, but it only has about 100 lessons total and hasn’t really been updated since it’s release.

One of the major problems with this game is that some of the kanji require you to use the wrong stroke order to pass them. When the lead programmer’s response to this was, “With thousands of characters in the dictionary, there were bound to be some incorrect strokes that would get overlooked,” instead of suggesting a patch correcting the problem, they’ve chosen to ignore it. So, I can’t recommend it for advanced, or even intermediate members. And while stroke order mistakes may seem like a trivial matter, using correct stroke order is extremely important if you’re serious about learning Japanese. (You’ll have a horrible time using a traditional or electronic dictionary if you get them wrong.)

Otherwise, if you’re willing to double check the information you’re getting, this can be a decent way to start out. If you like word searches, matching, and multiple choice games, this may be a fun way to get you into Japanese, but can you really call this a game?

My Japanese Coach may call itself a game, but what I listed above can’t really be considered gameplay. Instead of more examples like this, the following are real games that you can play to learn but ALSO enjoy for the games that they are.

Listen While You Play


Change the language settings! You may not know this but a lot of the games you’re already playing may have Japanese language options. Depending on the game, players can change the spoken language into Japanese with English subtitles, or even better, Japanese with Japanese subtitles. This is possible for quite a few modern JRPGs (for the non-game savvy: Japanese Role Playing Games).

One of the best examples of this is Ni No Kuni, which came out in the US in 2013 for the Playstation 3, and was developed by Studio Ghibli. You may know them from such classics as Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and any of the other awesome movies they’ve been churning out since the 1980s.


This whimsical and highly entertaining game offers English and Japanese voice tracks as well as English subtitles. (The only downside being the English subtitles are for the English version – but you can take advantage of that.) So while you’re enjoying this epic and colorful adventure with Oliver, Drippy the Lord of the Fairies, and all of their friends, you can also be brushing up on your Japanese skills. One of the best things about using this game in particular for study is that it is absolutely bursting with puns. Character, town, and creature names, not to mention good old jokes, are all chock-full of these eye-roll worthy play on words. They can really help you learn what’s malleable in the Japanese language. Not to mention there are fairy-tale references all over the place.

This may sound daunting, but don’t worry, these aren’t cryptic Japanese idioms like 猿も木から落ちる / Even monkeys fall from trees. No, it’s actually much easier than that. In the first area of the new world that Oliver is thrust into, the town is called Ding Dong Dell (ゴロネール王国) and the king is a giant cat names King Tom Tildrum XIV (ニャンダール), otherwise known as His Meowjesty, who speaks to himself in the third person.

Just reading the English names should give you an idea, but when you listen to the Japanese voice track you can hear what the Japanese equivalent to these puns are. It makes you think, helps you put things together, and really makes you laugh. Instead of just reading literal translations, you are able to see the connections the localization team was able to make. The game is seriously dialogue heavy too, meaning there is plenty of material available to you. This kind of studying is pretty hard to find in a book or in a classroom, but it can really open up your mind, so take the plunge!

Just don’t blame me when the game breaks your heart.

Similar Games: Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster (2014), Xenoblade Chronicles (2012). The Japanese Version of Persona 4 (2008) is also a great game for learning more natural Japanese but requires a Japanese game and a Japanese console.

Reading With The Nintendo 3DS


Games that are not all about listening, but more about reading and doing things, can have the written language changed to Japanese as well. After all, we all have our favorite silent protagonists. One of these games that is still fairly new is Animal Crossing: New Leaf / とびだせ どうぶつの森, which came out in Japan in 2012 and America in 2013.


This is a cute, and honestly, terribly addictive game that, if you buy the Japanese version for the Japanese Nintendo 3DS, can be a really great study tool. This is a laid back type of game in which you are suddenly tasked into being the mayor of a town. You interact with the animals that inhabit it, catch fish, bugs, and sea creatures, and do your best to improve the town until it’s the best it can be! (Which is really whatever you want it to be.) For those familiar with previous versions of the game, this latest installment has everything you love and more!

The great thing about using this game to learn Japanese is that it isn’t difficult. You play when you want, learn at your own pace, and take away from it what you put in. All of the bugs and fish you can catch are real creatures, this means you’ll be learning the actual Japanese names for them. You can also bring them to the museum where you can read a short description of each creature you catch.

The real benefit to playing this game in Japanese is the conversations you have with the animals in your town. Different animals have different personality types ranging from cranky, to snooty, to lazy, to uchi. That’s right, uchi, which is commonly translated as “big sister-type” in English, because that’s how they treat you, like they’re you’re older sister.

Like Ni No Kuni, ACNL has puns. These can be a bit more difficult because you don’t have any English subtitles, but they are still fairly simple.

For example, when you catch a nibble fish, you read this:


In Japanese a nibble fish is known as a “doctor fish” so this reads:

I caught a doctor fish!
A river esthetician!

This isn’t the same joke that’s made in English because, well, it just wouldn’t make any sense. In fact most of the jokes are different based on which language you’re playing in. So even if you’re familiar with the English version of the game, you’ll be able to have a fairly new experience in Japanese, and you’ll have to figure out the puns for yourself.

Similar games: Pokemon X & Y (2013), Bravely Default (2014). *These two games have Japanese language options in the NA versions, so you won’t need to worry about a Japanese game or 3DS for them.

PC Games Exist Too


Photo by Webhamster

If you don’t have any new consoles, or you simply don’t feel like spending money, you can always hop on your computer and play Slime Forest Adventure. There are three different versions of this JRPG style game available and the demo version is absolutely free.

First, let me warn you, the art is pretty abysmal and there is no sound. However, this game does lend itself to the simple RPG style of fight monsters > save princess. You won’t be playing a variation on flash cards and calling it a game.


In the game you fight through different areas, defeating slime monsters by typing in the readings of the hiragana, katakana, or kanji on the slimes. It’s simple, useful, and did I mention free? Of course you can choose to pay for an upgrade to the Gradeschool Kanji version or the Common Use Kanji version. Both of these offer sidequests and more vocabulary and kanji.

For those of you who aren’t fooled by the games that use matching and word searches (those aren’t real games!), this could be something to try.

Dating Sims for Your iPhone


No modern game list would be complete without mentioning at least one phone app. Moe Academy is a dating sim-type gaming app available for free in the itunes app store. Though, a quick word of warning, this is very much a dating sim, so if you aren’t already a fan of those, you probably won’t like this game. It’s pretty directly targeting straight male players, and doesn’t really offer much for anyone else, unless you’re playing it ironically.

However, the game does give you lessons for vocabulary words and time based mini games that differ based on which girl you’re playing them with. While the lessons aren’t much more than a list of words with the Japanese and English equivalents, the games are pretty entertaining. Picking the right meaning for a word will let you shoot ghosts with arrows or enjoy festivals with girls, and if you get a high score you could get a love confession from the girl you played with. The higher lessons do cost money to unlock, so if you really like this style of game, there are currently twenty different courses with levels ranging from beginner to what they call advanced plus.

image (1)image (8)image (7)

The game also offers both Japanese and English text for all of the conversations you have with the characters, including your own thoughts. Sometimes the sentences in both languages can be a bit strange, the translations into English aren’t always the greatest, but they are there for people who want to use them as a study guide as well. The conversations are also skippable, so if they’re too corny for your liking, you can go straight to the lessons/reviews instead.

If you are going into this game without any prior Japanese knowledge you may be out of luck. It teaches you hiragana and katakana but uses kanji and no furigana (kana readings above the kanji) in all of the conversations, and the lessons/reviews seem to be more of a refresher than a real teaching tool, but that doesn’t mean the game doesn’t have merit. The art and the music in the game is actually really well done, and it does feel like a real dating sim. But again, this game isn’t for everyone.

Learn Japanese with Koe (声)

Okay, so this game isn’t out yet, but bear with me on this one. Koe (声) is a game that was just recently backed on Kickstarter in March of this year. It is set up as a JRPG and is all about learning Japanese. They’re calling it communicative language learning and it looks really interesting. This means you’ll be hearing and reading Japanese, something that Slime Forest Adventure certainly doesn’t do.

One important aspect of this game is that they say they’re putting a focus on actual gameplay. That means it will be more than flashcards and multiple choice, unlike My Japanese Coach. Koe promises to contain all the traditional JRPG elements we know and love, like a story, random encounters, weapons, and a turn-based battle system. That’s more than any Japanese language focused game has been able to brag about before.

Koe looks promising and they’re aiming for a summer 2015 release. While the game does seem to be focused on completely new Japanese learners, there really isn’t any news about the learning level they go up to by the end game. There is talk of an editor, allowing the player to add new vocabulary to their in-game kit, but unfortunately, it’s too new to tell at this point. Hopefully this will be a great addition to the few Japanese learning games currently offered in the US.

To learn more about Koe, check out their Kickstarter page.

“Let’s Play” In Japanese


For those of you who prefer to watch games being played for you, there is something out there for you too! While online streaming of games has been growing in popularity over the last few years, especially on sites like and youtube, more and more Let’s Plays have been coming out of Japan.

For those who don’t know, a Let’s Play or 実況プレイ in Japanese, is a video in which someone plays through a game with commentary. It’s not the same as a walkthrough, because the point of watching isn’t to help you get through the same game yourself, but to enjoy it and the personality of the person making and hosting the video. There are quite a few Japanese Let’s Players and watching them can give you both the joy of playing numerous video games and help you study and learn Japanese.

Watching Let’s Plays can be beneficial in a lot of ways. First, you can hear Japanese that isn’t scripted. This isn’t textbook Japanese, it’s how real people talk, and that’s an important thing to learn how to understand and do if you want to be able to use more than just polite and bland Japanese. If you don’t have a way to get to Japan to experience this type of banter for yourself, Let’s Plays are probably the closest thing you can get to a real, colorful conversation with friends. This is also a great alternative for people who aren’t fans of Japanese talk shows.

The next awesome thing is that you can pause, rewind, and relisten to the things you hear. Some Let’s Players even edit their videos to add in subtitles like you’d see in talk shows, which can help you be sure of what you just heard. While watching these videos you can pause when you hear something you don’t know, use an online dictionary to look it up, and then easily return to the video and completely get what’s going on.

There are literally hundreds of games to choose from! If you only like first person shooters, there is a Let’s Player for you. If you love hardcore action role playing games, there is a Let’s Player for you. What about games with friends like Mario Kart and Minecraft? Yup, they exit. There are so many different types of people, games, and experiences out there to help you with your Japanese.

Here are some great Let’s Players on youtube. Feel free to check them out!

Language Options Are Getting Better

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Over the last few years there have been some pretty great improvements to learning Japanese from games. With international editions of games coming out, like Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster, players outside of Japan are finally able to change their language settings to be in Japanese. Even some games not coined “international” like the new Pokemon games are having simultaneous release dates, and suddenly languages are an option, not a preset or region-locked to your console.

Hopefully with games like Koe coming out in the next year or so, more advanced games will follow their lead. If Koe does well, we might even see a sequel aimed at advanced language learners. Our future could see more interaction, more options, and better resources. Maybe in the near future we will see an MMORPG where you focus on speaking Japanese with other people to finish quests. Instead of killing spiders in caves, you have to talk your way through. You never know where the future of games will take us!

(If there are any game developers reading this, make me that MMO!)

Tips and Suggestions

  • Keep a notebook handy while you game. If you hear a new word or expression you don’t understand, pause, jot it down, and look it up when you’re done. Then you can add those words to the list of things you’re already studying.
  • Don’t just rely on subtitles. Paying attention to English subtitles while listening to a Japanese voice track can be really helpful, but try to wean yourself off of them. Subtitles should be a reference and if you catch yourself reading and thinking in English while you play a game, then it doesn’t really matter that the voice track is in Japanese.
  • Try to recognize the speech patterns and dialects different characters use while they speak to one another. You can do this whether you’re listening or reading in a game. Being able to recognize emotions and personality types from the way someone speaks is a great skill to have.
  • Repeat what the characters are saying aloud, or if you’re playing a game without sound, try to speak as you read. A major problem of self-taught language learners is in practicing verbal communication skills, and even students in a classroom may not be getting the enough time to practice speaking. Copy the inflection and tone of the characters you’re playing. Don’t worry about who can hear. They’ll be impressed by your mad Japanese skills!
  • Don’t make playing games too much of a chore! Remember, this is supposed to be a fun way to learn. An exercise for your brain. If you go at it too hard, you can tire yourself out quickly. Pace yourself. If you’re the kind of person who likes to marathon games, you may get overloaded and end up forgetting quite a bit of what you learn. Learning a language is going to take time, the more you cram, the more likely it is you’ll forget.

Above all, remember to have fun! And be sure to let us know if there are any other games you’ve used to study recently.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Interview About Lang-8’s New Service: HiNative Mon, 07 Jul 2014 16:00:44 +0000 Most everyone who reads Tofugu knows about the language learning site Lang-8 (and if you don’t you should check it out). Lang-8’s creator, YangYang, has recently released a new service which has seemingly spawned from something that comes up a lot in Lang-8: People want to ask questions about languages. There is a saying in Japanese: 餅は餅屋 (Mochi wa […]

The post Interview About Lang-8’s New Service: HiNative appeared first on Tofugu.

Most everyone who reads Tofugu knows about the language learning site Lang-8 (and if you don’t you should check it out). Lang-8’s creator, YangYang, has recently released a new service which has seemingly spawned from something that comes up a lot in Lang-8: People want to ask questions about languages. There is a saying in Japanese: 餅は餅屋 (Mochi wa Mochiya), which literally means “you should ask a rice cake shop about rice cakes” and figuratively means “leave it to a specialist”. We wanted to know more about this new service so I talked to the CEO of Lang-8, YangYang Xi. He will answer all our questions about HiNative in this article so we can learn more about it and why they created it.

Name: YangYang Xi. Occupation: Lang-8 CEO


Q. What’s your story?

I was born in China, moved to Japan at the age of four and grew up in Japan, so I was never really good at speaking Chinese when I was younger. So when I was a university student I went to Shanghai to study the Chinese language for one year. During that time, I did a language exchange and my Chinese skills rapidly improved. I then thought it would be a great service. After coming back to Japan, I developed lang-8 with my friend and made it into company after my graduation.

Thanks to everyone, it grew in to a worldwide service with about 870,000 users from 190 countries (4 more countries to conquer the world). Then, this year, we launched a new service (still need to improve a lot of things though) called HiNative which enables you to ask native speakers any questions at any time. I can’t wait to introduce this awesome new service to you all!

Q.Really quickly for the people who don’t know, what is Lang-8?

Lang-8 is a language exchange platform, which is an SNS language learning service that native speakers utilize to teach their languages to each other.

Q. How did Lang-8 go from your bedroom to the company it is today?

I just wanted to make Lang-8 bigger, so I set up a company.

Q. Why should people use Lang-8?

I think learning from native speakers is the shortest way to improving language skills. That’s how I improved my Chinese and Lang-8 enables everyone to do so without actually going abroad.

Q. So you now have a new service called HiNative. What is that?


It’s a service where you can be frank about asking native speakers about absolutely anything, including language-related things, as if you were saying “Hi!” to them.

It’s aimed to be used on the Smartphone or tablet, though we are still in the middle of developing the app, so literally you can ask questions from anywhere you are with a simple press of a button.

Q. Why should people use HiNative?


In my experience, I often come up with random questions about the language I am learning and/or some cultural things of other countries. I could ask my friends to find the answer out, but I don’t want to bother them too much. I think many people have similar experiences. In such situations, if you have “HiNative” on your phone or tablet, you can freely ask questions without imposing on your friends.

We also set up some question forms that people can make a question sentence just by tapping the screen because we want HiNative to be very user friendly for everyone. We received a lot of Lang-8 user’s voice messages saying that they don’t even know how to ask questions, though they have many things to ask in their minds. So we hope this format option will be helpful to such people.


You can choose the language level you believe yourself to be at, so if you choose beginner, it is often that you will you be replied back to in your native language.

Q. Can you give me some examples of how somebody might use HiNative in real life?

You may think you can just Google the meaning of a word, but if you are a serious language learner, you’ll probably know that the dictionary is not always right. Even if it is right, the word you searched may be too formal for the situation you’re in. So when you want to find the true and natural usage of a word or a sentence, HiNative will be a perfect tool for it.

As I said above, you can ask any questions such as “What is the current most popular thing in the country?” Furthermore, if you are at a restaurant and you don’t understand what the menu says, you can take a photo, upload it, and ask native speakers what it is. In the future, we will make it an option to upload sound or video and a native speaker will be able to answer whether or not your pronunciation is right. There are a lot of uses.

As a real life example, I thought this one is quite unique. The Chinese person named bebe found the word 泡盛り(Awamori) on a face washing soap. Awamori is actually a type of alcohol and that’s the only meaning that she/he found on her/his dictionary. So she/he was wondering why it was written on the soap. Japanese people answered it is not a common usage and only used to emphasize that there are a lot (盛) of bubbles (泡) that the soap can make as a pun of the famous alcohol 泡盛. I’m pretty sure that bebe would not be able to find out the answer without asking native speakers.

Q. Do you have plans for an app in the future?

We are currently making the app. HiNative is intended to be used with smooth operation on smart phones and tablets just tapping the screen.

Q.What do you think about the language learning industry right now (in general?)

There are so many language-learning sites right now, but most of them are “contents-type”, which offer you a set material. On the other hand, the “SNS-type” such as Lang-8 and HiNative aren’t that numerous yet. In that sense, I think our services still have great potential.

Q. How could language learning be improved more (in general)?

I believe that you can improve language by actually using the language that you have learned and by making a lot of mistakes, then ask native speakers to fix it or adjust your requests.

Q.How are you trying to fix those problems with Lang-8 / HiNative?

Even though you are in an environment without native speakers around you, you can get the language you are learning fixed by native speakers on Lang-8 and ask questions to them via HiNative without any wait time. If you study with non-native speakers, you may not learn natural expressions, but you can learn natural phrases from native speakers on Lang-8 and HiNative.

Q. What do you think language learning will look like 10 years from now?

I’m not sure about 10 years from now, but in the near future the technology will be incredibly increased by machines making the perfect translation. If such time does come, HiNative will be used not only for language questions but for things more related to cultural differences and opinions.

Q.What are some upcoming features or updates for Lang-8?

We are focusing on HiNative from now on, so we will maintain the current state of Lang-8 for a while.

Q. What are some upcoming features or updates for HiNative?

We will make an app and an option to upload sounds and videos. We will also make some small improvements as well. Oh, and we haven’t decided the mascot character’s name yet, so we will get that done.

Q. Why is your mascot character Momonga (Flying Squirrel)?


I’m not sure, so I’ll let our designer answer that.

(The Design of Lang-8 Nutti~ answers)

I wanted to use a unique character and I’ve never seen a flying squirrel used as a mascot for anything else. They also fly quite fast from branch to branch, and it reminds me of a scene of people chatting with and questioning each other. That is why I chose the flying squirrel for the HiNative mascot.

The name hasn’t been decided, but I call it “Monga-sama” with myself. The name of the Ai file that I drew the illustration in is too. We would appreciate it if you could let us know if you like the name Monga-sama, or if you have come up with what you think is a better name and why you believe it is so.

Q. Do you have any other messages about HiNative to share with the Tofugu readers?

HiNative is an incredibly useful and cool website, so please try it out if you’re interested in learning a new language.


We at Tofugu are interested in seeing how HiNative grows and evolves. I mean, anything made by the creator of Lang-8 is worth keeping an eye on, I think. At the very least, perhaps you can direct some of your Japanese-related questions to HiNative instead of our support emails :p

But, being able to ask a native speaker a question and get an answer fairly quickly is quite a nice thing to have. In the past, you would have to search for an answer or ask the question on a forum, and you’re never sure if anyone will answer it. Now there’s an actual place for it, and if this works as well as Lang-8 does, you’ll be getting answers soon after posting them. Plus, being a community environment you add the “give and take” equation in there. You help out people and they help you out. Everyone’s warm and fuzzy.

If you’d like to try out HiNative for yourself you can visit the HiNative website on your smartphone or tablet.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Introduction to Kobun (Classical Japanese) Part 6: Old Kana Thu, 26 Jun 2014 16:00:33 +0000 Finally, you can translate The Tale of Genji from the original! But can you read it out loud without confusing your Japanese-speaking friends? It would be strange, after all, if you didn’t read「今日」 as「 きょう」, despite the fact that it was spelled as「けふ」in older texts. If  the けふ >  きょう reading doesn’t make sense, consider that languages change. Important […]

The post Introduction to Kobun (Classical Japanese) Part 6: Old Kana appeared first on Tofugu.

Finally, you can translate The Tale of Genji from the original! But can you read it out loud without confusing your Japanese-speaking friends? It would be strange, after all, if you didn’t read「今日」 as「 きょう」, despite the fact that it was spelled as「けふ」in older texts.

If  the けふ >  きょう reading doesn’t make sense, consider that languages change. Important sounds change, but writing takes a while to catch up to the new sounds, or sometimes it never does. You know these transformations occur because I just spelled the word “know” with a ‘k’, yet there’s no ‘k’ in its pronunciation. There used to be! A long, long time ago.

In this post, I’ll focus on two important sides of the same coin, which you’ll use to purchase meaning in the Classics:

  1. How to phonetically read Classical Japanese kana and
  2. how this knowledge helps you decipher Kobun texts

In Japanese, this system of sound conversion is called “Rekishi-tekina kanadzukai” (歴史的な仮名遣い), or “historical kana usage”. I’ll assume you’ve read the other Kobun posts (introverbsjodoushiadjectives, and honorifics), but even if you haven’t, you’ll learn cool skills, like how to read old-timey hiragana signs in Japanese.

English Mirror


Before you can use Old Kana rules, you need to know why they’re beneficial. By looking at more familiar English — specifically, Middle English — you’ll see why.

Read the stanza below from William Langland’s “Piers Plowman” (from the 1300’s). If you’re strict with your “suspension of disbelief”, this could ruin certain time travel movies for you; I don’t remember Timeline characters having babel fish or translator microbes, and the script didn’t sound like this:

“In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne
I shoop me into shroudes as I a sheep were
In habite as an heremite unholy of werkes
Wente wide in this world wondres to here…” (Langland)

You can listen to that stanza, read with accurate Middle English sounds in this video:

Here’s my interpretation just based on reading and listening:

In a summer season, when soft was the sun
I shop(?) me into shrouds as I a sheep(?) were
In habit as a hermit, unholy of works
Went wide in this world wonders to here

The question marks are beside words I couldn’t make sense of, but made a stab at based on my Modern English. Want to see how close I got to a reasonable translation?

“In a summer season when soft was the sun,
I clothed myself in a cloak as I shepherd were,
Habit like a hermit’s unholy in works,
And went wide in the world wonders to hear” (Attwater)

Notice the words that don’t resemble our modern vocabulary. This exercise should give you a taste of the comprehension scale a Japanese native speaker approaches their own Classics with. historical kana usage rules help you do to Kobun texts what I did to the “Piers Plowman” stanza. In other words, you’ll be reading funny Kobun spellings, filling it in with your Modern Japanese knowledge, and coming to quicker conclusions about the Classical texts you read.

Kobun Rules

Don’t let the word ‘rules’ scare you. These aren’t rules for you to follow; they’re rules the sounds have followed, leaving a trail of bread crumbs from, say, an old ふ in the Kobun word 給ふ  to an う in the Modern 給う.

Watch the above video to hear what I mean.

Unfamiliar Faces


Photo by yamayadori

ゐ/ヰ and ゑ/ヱ are characters that are not used in Modern Japanese (except to invoke Shakespearean, old-timey language), but they crop up in the Classics.  The hiragana ゐ and katakana ヰ represented the sound ‘wi’ but the words written with ゐ/ヰ evolved simply into an い (look back at the Piers Plowman video; English ‘hear’ used to sound way different, and was spelled differently, too).

The same is true for ゑ/ヱ, which used to be ‘ye’ (or even ‘we’), and is responsible for “Ebisu” sometimes being romanized as “Yebisu”.

If you would read ゑ/ヱ as え, you could discern what a Classic story is talking about based on your Modern Japanese vocabulary. For example, what comes to mind if you read こゑ below as “koe”? Let me help with the other vocabulary; 祇園精舎 (gion-shouja) is a temple name, and 鐘 (kane) means “bell”.


Probably, you thought of the most common “koe” you hear in Japanese, and that’s “voice”. “Voice of the Gion Temple Bell”? Close enough; koe had a few other meanings, including 音色 (neiro), the quality, or “color,” of a sound. So it’s a metaphorical sense of ‘voice’ in that clause.

If you had read こゑ as “koye” instead of “koe”, you might have missed this clue and had to go searching through a Kogo-jiten. We do that enough already, so you can see how sound rules make the process faster  and easier.

Magic Particles


Moving away from unamiliar characters, を is a kana you know best as the direct object marker in Modern Japanese. But in Kobun texts, this was common in many other places where the ‘o’ sound could appear, mostly at the beginning of a word. In the Nara period, the pronunciations of を and お were consistent and starkly different (wo and o). But the を pronunciation began wobbling in the Heian period. Here’s an example of the Kobun を acting unexpectedly:

と兄(いろせ)といづれか愛(は)しき」(From the Kojiki)

That を? It’s actually 「男」- “boy / man”, which could also be hiragana’d in the slightly more familiar 「をとこ」way, but also as 「をのこ」. You just need to read these を’s as お.

Also, you learned at the beginning of your Japanese education that は (wa) and へ (e) aren’t pronounced the way they’re written, so you’ve already been using modern pronunciation for tricky, archiac spellings!

Small Things


This Kobun rule of thumb will help you with words like しずか (“quiet”) and 味 (aji; “flavor”):

Read づ as ず and ぢ as .

There are a lot of words that have changed their spelling in this way, like 水 (みづ → みず),  何れ (いづれ → いずれ), 閉(と)ぢる → とじる, and 紅葉 (もみぢ → もみじ).

If you look at the photo above, you can see that this train station post has on the side the location: Ochanomizu. Yet, the hiragana  is “Ochiyanomidzu.” I described the づ → ず rule, but it’s also worth mentioning that small characters weren’t really a thing way back when; hence, おちゃ is written as おちや. Little y-sounds (や、ゆ、よ) and small つ’s (such as in あった) will often be rendered as the standard-sized hiragana in Kobun texts, so try sounding things each way for clues.

Tenko, or stage directions


Photo by Ralph Daily

Below you’ll find bulleted lists of Tenko -“change of call”. These have to be practiced and memorized, but the bright side is that they’re straight-forward.

On the left is a Kobun word, and the sound change formula you should remember is on the right of the semicolon. In the formula, the left is the Kobun kana, while the right is how you read it:

  • かは (かわ);ha → wa
  • ひたひ (ひたい);hi → i
  • たまふ (たまう);hu → u
  • まへ (まえ);he → e
  • おほす (おおす);ho → o
  • らむ (らん); mu → n

The Tenko rules above are for the middle of words, so 我 is still “ware”, and 昔 still “mukashi”.

These are the other Tenko trends:

  • くわかく  (かかく);kuwa /guwa → ka, ga
  • あふぎ>扇 (おうぎ);a + u → ō; verbs with the a + u vowel ending are an exception (like 給ふ, read as 給う in modern)
  • じふじ> 十時 (じゅうじ);iu → yuu
  • けふ > 今日 (きょう);eu →  yō
  • きやうだい>兄弟 (きょうだい);iya → yō(pronounce the Kobun hiragana for that word; it’s almost like a southern accent)

Sound rules make the song below pretty interesting. The original melody uses modern Japanese lyrics, but the musical group likes to make Kobun-esque cover songs. In doing so, “koe” (声) became archaic “koye”, but the jodoushi らむ is still pronounced らん.

There might be an explanation for the discrepancy, but I haven’t found one. Whatever the reasoning, it’s fun to listen to the song and see what other oddities or consistencies it has compared to typical historical kana usage.



Cover of Matsuyama’s 1895 “Kyoto Guidebook of Famous Places and Art

Nobody was born knowing the English alphabet; someone taught you how letters represent sounds. Think back to that learning process. Rules like ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’ are inaccurate but often helpful. The Japanese sound rules for historical kana usage aren’t accurate 100% of the time, either, but they should make Kobun a little less confusing and empower you on any quest to better understand the Japanese language.

I focused on concepts that I struggled with, but there are clumpier presentations, like “Wakatta zo!” at Yotsuya If you want more details or history, Jim Breen’s site mentions some of each. As always, I’d love to hear your questions and any Kobun or kana experiences!


The post Introduction to Kobun (Classical Japanese) Part 6: Old Kana appeared first on Tofugu.

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An Introduction to Kobun (Classical Japanese) Part 5: Honorifics Wed, 28 May 2014 16:00:17 +0000 I talked about Kobun adjectives last time, but you might want to review verbs and jodoushi before reading this. You should also know how Modern Keigo works. Review those because, this time, I’m outlining honorifics in Classical Japanese, including verbs, prefixes, and some special nouns. The scale of respect shown in honorific language helps you […]

The post An Introduction to Kobun (Classical Japanese) Part 5: Honorifics appeared first on Tofugu.

I talked about Kobun adjectives last time, but you might want to review verbs and jodoushi before reading this. You should also know how Modern Keigo works. Review those because, this time, I’m outlining honorifics in Classical Japanese, including verbs, prefixes, and some special nouns.

The scale of respect shown in honorific language helps you to identify sentence subjects. I’ve mentioned before that Classical Japanese frequently omitted sentence subjects (like Modern). So to figure out who is honorably on first and what’s humbly on second in the monogatari’s, honorifics can be a big clue. A possible side benefit from reading this article, if you remember ‘agar mode’, is that you might indirectly improve your Modern Keigo.

Respectful Language


Photo by Håkan Dahlström

Imagine you’re a writer in the Heian Times, and you want to tell people about your nobleman landlord. If he heard you’d been talking about him like you were an equal there’d probably be a punishment of some sort. The following are words you would use to avoid getting your head chopped off while talking about the higher-ups. If you want in-depth examples of navigating different formalities in Classical texts, see the video below (Japanese):

The Nobleman Gave

There’s mostly just one word for honorific “give”, and it’s a very important Kobun word: 給ふ (tamafu). Tamafu’s Modern counterpart, 給う (tamau), means “receive/give”, which goes back to how this verb, on its own, also meant “receive/give” in Classical Japanese. That makes it sound contradictory, doesn’t it? If you’re confused about which meaning is true, “receive” or “give”, then just think of how Modern kudasaru and itadaku work; who receives what from whom are questions answered by the particles involved. You’ll have to pay attention to that stuff with tamafu and other honorifics, too.

Kobun:「いざたまへ、出雲(いづも)拝みに。かいもちひ召させん」(From Tsurezuregusa)

Modern: さあ、いらっしゃい、出雲神社の参拝に。ぼた餠(もち)をごちそうしよう。(context explanation here)

English: “Come… . let us worship at the Izumo Shrine. We’ll have . . . rice cakes” (Keene 192).

The Nobleman Was

Tamafu means more than “to honorably bestow upon someone”. It’s like Modern nasaru (“to honorably do”) and irassharu (“to honorably be”). If this Yodan tamafu is immediately preceded by a verb, then, just like with Modern “~ni naru”, the whole verb phrase is elevated to respectful language.

Tamafu isn’t the only Kobun verb equivalent to Modern nasaru, irassharu, and ni naru. おはす is an honorific expressing the “go/come/relocate/is” parts of irassharu. Then there’s つかはす, which is “to honorably do”, with an added meaning of “to honorably send”.

There’s also a kind of super honorific form, called Saikou (最高) Keigo, which was reserved for discussions of emperors, their families, and even those royal-marrying Fujiwara’s of yore. Saikou Keigo is expressed using one of two former jodoushi, せ or させ, plus tamafu, but you should consider せたまふ and させたまふ each as a set verb. Both mean “nasaru” or “irassharu.”

Here’s just one sampling of Saikou Keigo:

Kobun: 「人の謗りをもえはばからせ給はず」 (From Genji Monogatari)

Modern: 桐壺帝は人々の非難をも気兼ねなさることもおできにらならないで。

English: “But the Emperor… paid not the smallest heed to those who reproved him” (Waley 7).

The Nobleman Said


Photo by Derrick Coetzee

And the esteemed parrot king said, “Polly, let’s have popcorn instead.”

おほす, like modern おっしゃる, means so-and-so “honorably says” something. You’ll likely see it before or after quotations. おほす could also be “to command” or “appoint”.

Kobun:「大将おほせて、『おり』とのたまふ」(From Makura no Soushi)

Modern: 大将が命じて「下りよ」とおっしゃる

English: “Come down,” the general ordered.

Now I should mention the chimaera of honorifics: 召す (mesu – easy enough to remember because this word is a mess). Its basic meaning is “to summon or call upon”, but it can also be an honorific for “govern”, “see”, “eat”, “ride”, or “wear”. Mesu can also tag onto another verb and make a ~ni naru type honorific phrase, as in 思し召す.

The Nobleman Knew

知ろし召す(shiroshimesu) is like Modern ご存知である – “to honorably know / be aware of.” It can also mean 治めになる (おさめになる) – “to govern” or “manage.” Those meanings sound incongruent. But just think of how a queen has subjects in the land she reigns over, but she can also be proficient in the subjects of math and astronomy. Those subjects are different (one being “constituents”, the other being “topics of scholarly focus”), but the word used is the same.

Kobun:「かかるに今天皇(すべらぎ)の、天(あめ)の下しろしめすこと」(From Man’youshu)

Modern: 今上天皇が天下を統治なさることが

English: “In the reign of our [peerless] emperor” (Rodd 46)

While we’re talking about what’s in this nobleman’s head, I may as well mention 思ほす(omohosu), equivalent to the Modern “お思いになる” – “to honorably believe/think/consider.” There are some variations on this, including 思す(obosu) and 思し召す(oboshimesu), but they all mean the same thing.

The Nobleman Ate


Photo by David Hollin

You’ve noticed, surely, that half of these words have more than one meaning. I mentioned how 召す(mesu) expresses “to honorably eat” in addition to it’s crazy collection of other meanings. 聞こしめす(kikoshimesu) is another indecisive honorific. Its base meaning is “to ask/listen,” with an additional meaning of “to be concerned with” and “to manage,” and, finally, “to consume.” That goes for food and drink.

Altogether, that’s a long list of honorable words to remember. Songs, like the one below, should help keep things simple and fun:

Humble Language

Now, back to you: the Heian Times writer. You want to pen a memoir. When it hits the market, you hope readers think you are cool, but not in an arrogant way. So your editor advises that you describe your past actions with some of these humble words.

I Gave


“Did my humble self give these guys weapons which are effective against animated dead? Hope so.”

The first humble verb for “to give” is pretty straightforward: 参らす (mairasu). The other two have a medley of other meanings. 奉る (tatematsuru), for example, can mean “humbly give”, but also “to humbly eat”, “drink,” or “wear.” Then there is 参る(まゐる), which is so much like modern polite 参る(まいる), meaning not only “to humbly give”, but also “to serve”, “go”,” “come,” “visit,” and “do.” (Of those, only the movement words really hold true in Modern 参る.)

Kobun:「いかにもしてたすけまゐらせんとは存じ候(さうら)へども」(From Heike Monogatari)

Modern: どうにかしてお助け申し上げようとは存じますが。(the whole passage here in both Kobun and modern)

English: I would spare you if that were at all possible.

I Received

“To Humbly receive” is also a mixed bag. First, 賜はる (tabaru, tamaharu) is a humble verb for “to receive”, and that’s pretty much its main meaning. But then there’s 承る (uketamaharu), which is a humble form of “accept” or “receive”, but also “to listen.”

Finally, (and this is where the song videos help dramatically), there is the Shimo-nidan verb 給ふ (tamafu). Yes. It’s the exact same kanji and dictionary form as in the Yodan verb 給ふ. When each one conjugates, the endings differ sometimes, and, obviously, the meaning differs, too. This tamafu means “to receive the privilege of….” and is like modern sasete-itadaku.

Kobun: 「今はこの世のことを思ひたまへねば」 (From Genji Monogatari)

Modern: 今は現世のことは考えさせていただきませんので。

English: Because, humbly, now, I think no longer of worldly things…

I Was

I’m calling this section “I was” because these words mirror how the Kobun equivalents of irassharu, nassaru, and ~ni naru have overlapping meanings.

Let’s start with one you should already know: 致す (itasu) – “to humbly do”, as in the Modern 失礼いたします. Then, again, 参る(まゐる) has some meanings for “do”, but also for “go/come/visit.” Since 参る, like itasu, looks familiar, it shouldn’t be hard to remember. A new one, however, might be まかる, which means “to humbly go,” or sometimes just “to humbly ~” if it compounds onto another verb.

Kobun: いづ方へかまかりぬる。いとをかしう、やうやうなりつるものを」


English: “Where can it [the sparrow] have gone off to? And this after we had taken so much trouble to tame it nicely!” (Waley 98).

I Said


Photo by Grant

In your novel, you’re going to write “I asked Mr. Mountain-Rice Field what he expects this season from crops.” So what’s humble Kobun for “ask” or “say” (or even “call”)? Here’s one word that can do all that, and it’s even survived to Modern Japanese: 申す(もうす), as in 「山田と申します」.

Next, there’s 聞ゆ (kikoyu), which originally meant “to hear/be audible”, but in situations demanding humble speech, this is actually “to humbly say” or even “to humbly give.”

Another word won’t ring any bells but hits the same “to say” spot: 啓す (keisu). Keisu is equivalent to the modern 申し上げる, which is just “to humbly say.” One of the ways you can write a Japanese letter is with the set greeting 拝啓 (haikei). That second kanji is the same as in keisu, see?

Speaking of addressing people, the emperor is one person you’ve spoken to. That is, you have been privileged to humbly speak to the emperor. So heed this word, Kobun language user, when you write about that experience: 奏す (sosu), which is like 啓す(keisu) when the person addressed is the emperor or the royal family.

I Knew

You think you know things, writer? You want to open your novel with the line, “I know this guy named Prince Genji, and I think he’s an idiot”? Stay classy and use the word 存ず (zonzu). It means “to humbly know,” “think,” or “consider/believe.” Then your sentence will sound more like, “I am but a petty aquaintance of Prince Genji, and I humbly believe he’s an idiot.” Much better, isn’t it?

Kobun:「ただ一身の嘆きとぞんじ候ふ」 (From Heike Monogatari)

Modern: …ただ我が身の嘆きと思うことでございます。

English: When I think of the sadness of it…

Check out all of these and a couple other humble forms in the fun song below. Listen to it enough and you’ll have them memorized!

Beautifying Prefixes


Photo by MattysFlicks

Now, writer. You want to make sure your audience thinks that the things you mention are awesome. It’s nice to sound humble about your actions, but there’s no reason other things can’t have some flourish. So, you don’t just eat senbei, you eat osenbei. Enter the beautifying prefixes.

Two such prefixes still exist in Modern: お- and ご-. Nowadays, お- (sometimes を in Kobun texts) is used for kun’yomi words, while ご- is used mostly for on’yomi vocabulary. But that distinction isn’t a modern innovation. お- and ご- act pretty much the same in Kobun texts.

According to Vovin in A Reference to Classical Japanese Prose, the Kobun prefix み- is mostly paired with kun’yomi words, but “can also be used in combination with words of Chinese origin, probably those that were more nativized than others” (30). He then describes three vocabulary categories that pair with み- regardless:

  • “Human appearance, body parts, and secretions” (30, like tears or voice)
  • “Dwellings, buildings, and their parts” (31)
  • “Kinship terms” (32)

Nowadays, the み-prefix is permanently a part of certain words, like mikoshi (a mini, portable shrine) and isn’t detachable the way the お- in おせんべい or ご- in ご飯 are.

It’s hard to tell, though, which prefix you’re looking at if Kobun writers used the kanji , which could not only read お-, ご-, or み, but also おほん or おおん. おほん and おおん are two sides of the same coin and form an interesting pronoun-like prefix. See this example, where おほん stands in for something previously mentioned:

Kobun:「対の上のおほんは、三種(みくさ)ある中に」(From Genji Monogatari)

Modern: 対の上の(合わせられた)お(香)は、三種類ある中で。

English: “Murasaki had submitted three kinds” (Waley 691) of incense to the contest.

There’s one more pretty prefix to talk about, which builds on the same kanji. 「大御」 reads 「おほみ」, and a noun following it won’t just sound cool. That noun will sound super respected. 大御 usually preceded vocabulary for emperors, gods, shrines, or parents.

Ending Grammar


Photo by Philo Nordlund

This is the last post on Kobun grammar. However, there is one important thing I’ve left alone throughout this series that you can expect soon. If you listened to any of those songs I linked, you’ll notice that the way Kobun words were written wasn’t how they get pronounced. There are rules governing those sound discrepancies which can improve your interpretations of Classical texts. Until now, I’ve (deliberately) just provided links to guides on old kana. But rest assured, I’ll still be writing a post to walk you through the rules of reading Kobun kana and why it’s helpful to know said rules.

Meanwhile, Hello-School has a larger chart to help you solidify your knowledge of Classical honorifics. I hope both your Kobun and your Modern Keigo muscles flexed a little after reading today. This post only covered prefixes and verbs, but I’ve read about other sentence elements, like pronouns and plurals, that border honorific language. So, if you’re curious about those or want to share your Kobun/Modern Keigo stories, make like Murasaki and write something in the comments section.

Bonus Wallpapers!

[1280×800] ∙ [2560×1600]


  • Keene, Donald, trans., and Kenkō Yoshida. Essays in Idleness; the Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. p. 192.
  • Rodd, Lauren Rasplica, and Henkenius, Mary Catherine, transl. Kokinshu: A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern. 1984 Princeton Uni Press. p. 46.
  • Tollini, Aldo. “Keigo”. Tables of Classical (Tavole di lingua classica) Japanese Keigo. Classroom materials from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice.
  • Vovin, Alexander. A Reference Grammar of Classical Japanese Prose. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003. p. 30-32.
  • Waley, Arthur, transl. The Tale of Genji: a novel in six parts by Lady Murasaki. New York: Random House, 1993. p. 7, 98, 691.

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How To Speak Beautiful Japanese: An Interview With Yomiuri TV Announcer Naomi Uemura Tue, 13 May 2014 16:00:24 +0000 I know most everybody here loves to watch Japanese television. That’s why I thought it would be interesting to interview somebody who was actually on Japanese TV. I was surprised when I heard back from Yomiuri TV’s 25 year veteran announcer Naomi Uemura, who I’ve respected for a long time. She is one of the […]

The post How To Speak Beautiful Japanese: An Interview With Yomiuri TV Announcer Naomi Uemura appeared first on Tofugu.

I know most everybody here loves to watch Japanese television. That’s why I thought it would be interesting to interview somebody who was actually on Japanese TV. I was surprised when I heard back from Yomiuri TV’s 25 year veteran announcer Naomi Uemura, who I’ve respected for a long time. She is one of the most popular announcers in Japan, especially so in the Kansai area (Yomiuri TV is located in Osaka and serves the Kansai region). Honestly, I never thought this would work out the way it did, considering I watched her on TV all the time when I lived in Japan. However, she is an incredibly kind person and I was so pleased when she (and Yomiuri TV) politely accepted the offer and agreed to answer our questions.

“But why an announcer?” you might be asking. First of all, she’s someone I’ve been a fan of for many years, so this is a lot of fun for me. But, I also thought that someone who is an announcer could also help all of you who are learning Japanese. Part of their job is to speak beautiful Japanese, after all! We’ll get to that part later in the interview.

So, a very special thanks to Naomi Uemura and Yomiuri TV, once again. I’m sure all of you will like it because she shared her great experience and provided us with some great advice. Don’t miss it!

1. Uemura-san’s Details

Let’s take a look at her details first. This way you can get to know her a little bit before the interview starts!

Name: Naomi Uemura
Born: December 27, 1966
Graduated: Sophia University Faculty of Literature (Major in Philosophy)
Occupation: Yomiuri TV Announcer
Length of Announcing Career: Since 1989; 25 years
Main TV Programs She’s On / Appeared On

  • “NNN naomi-uemuraNews”
  • おはようドクター” (It’s airs Sunday at 5:50 a.m.)
  • おはようニュースマガジン
  • ザ・ワイド
  • ミヤネ屋
  • おもしろサンデー
  • ニュース・スクランブル
  • テンベストSHOW
  • マルバレ
  • リーダース・アイ
  • 極上の散歩道
  • 読売新聞ニュース
  • ザ・サンデー
  • サンデー・ドクター
  • ダウンタウンDX
  • BLT
  • 11PM
  • and more!


Note from Uemura-san: I believe that the meaning of the word “announcer” in English isn’t exactly the same as in Japanese. In Japan, the word announcer refers to various roles, whereas in English there are specific terms used to denote the people working in those roles. For example, in English there are news anchors, broadcasters, reporters, talk show or game show hosts and narrators of documentaries. Everyone who does these kinds of jobs would be called “announcers” in Japanese. My work calls for me to take on all kinds of such roles.

2. The Life And Work Of Naomi Uemura

Q. Why did you want to become an announcer?

What made me decide to become an announcer was a summer part time job that I had when I was in university. I was offered an MC position at a sporting event and I worked as a vendor in a sports drink tent where people threw a die and the number rolled indicated the number of free sports drinks we would give away. The event was held for about a week, but within a couple days some people from the neighborhood, from children to grandfathers to business men, became regulars of mine and came to my place every day. I hosted the dice show with a funny story and managed to create a great atmosphere. When I teased the audience, they quickly reacted with hearty laughter. It was very fun and interesting for me to see how the crowd swung from joyful laughs to empathetic sighs all because of what I said. Because of that, I thought I would seek a job in something that involved this type of talking.

Q. What was the most difficult thing about becoming an announcer?

Actually, I had almost no difficulty. When I was in my 4th year of university, I went to a job interview and just popped into Yomiuri TV. The difficult thing was…well, when it comes right down to it, the interview may have been the most difficult part because I was the only one chosen out of over 2000 applicants. At the time, going to job interviews was basically my hobby as I had interviews with more than 40 companies. Most of the companies had several rounds of interviews for applicants to go through until they were hired. There were even companies that had up to nine interview stages. My calender looked like it had been painted black due to all those interview appointments.

Q. What was it like to be the only female announcer in the company? (There weren’t any female announcers when she entered the company at least, but there had been a few before her)

In the Kansai area at the time, female comedians were very popular and because of that, jobs such as reporters and assistant hosts on television shows were often reserved for those female comedians. At that time, however, there were about 20 announcers on Yomiuri TV in 1989 and they were all men. Since they were all male, they were accustomed to changing their clothes in the announcer room without hesitation and, strangely enough, my new presence there did not change this. The pin microphone position in the news studio was standardly set to fit to the left lapel of a man’s jacket, so I was scolded when I changed it to fit to mine, the right lapel of a woman’s jacket. It was tough that there weren’t any female announcer superiors to consult with, as well. As for the job, there weren’t any positions for female announcers, as I mentioned above, and we had to obtain them from female comedians one by one. In order to do so, I worked hard and brushed up my announcing skills and expressiveness to appeal to the merits of using a female announcer. Now, out of the 20 announcers in the company, 10 of them are women. Those women undertake the announcing positions that are reserved solely for females. My first job involved creating something from nothing and doing it from the ground floor.

Q. What are the differences between when you started announcing and today, in terms of being a female announcer?

Nothing really.

Q. What was your greatest / most memorable moment in announcing?

Announcing is not a job that helps someone directly. It’s a job that requires the delivery of information to a camera and then through the TV screen. So, it’s rare to find yourself with an opportunity to help someone else. However, when the Great Hanshin earthquake occurred in 1995, I was actually in Ashiya, which was right in the center of the affected area that got a 7.2 magnitude earthquake. Fortunately I lived, so I reported what was actually happening in Kobe day to day through live news feeds and interviews with the perspective of the victims.

One day, after finishing a live news feed as an on-scene reporter, a man approached me to tell me that his life was saved by me. A lot of questions burst into my mind like, “Why? What did I do? Where were you? What do you mean I saved your life?” I then asked the gentlemen why he thought so and he began his story.

“I ran a photo shop in Kobe, but the photo studio, which was also my house, was completely demolished by the earthquake. Additionally, my wife passed away as a result of being trampled by a stampede of people. I lost not only my job, but also my family. After the earthquake, I got stomach cancer because of the stress. When I found out the only life I had left from the earthquake was disappearing, I began to wonder what I was living for. During that time, on the way to the hospital in Kobe, I got into an interview with you. You and I talked about the harsh times I had encountered and about how sad I was. I told you everything. You listened to my story with a full heart and burst into tears with me. Before that moment my sadness had nowhere to go and I had been struggling with the pain of my new life, but you accepted all my feelings and cried with me.

Upon the realization of that, the burden on my heart went away. In that moment I was able to think that if I continued to live, something good might happen. I was actually contemplating suicide, but a ray of light plucked me out of the darkness and and I knew I could hang in there.”

One day, by chance, we ran into each other in the effected area again, and told me that story and how “his life was saved by me”.

Hearing those words was the greatest and most memorable moment of my career.

Q. What is the funniest thing that happened to you while working?

In 2000, I bought an apartment for the first time in my life. At first, I took out a 35-year mortgage, but I would pay it back partly when I saved up some money. It is called “kuriage-hensai” (繰り上げ返済) which means pre-payment in Japanese. It was very fascinating for me that the mortgage term was shortened by about 10 years after “kuriage-hensai”, even though it wasn’t a lot of money. Shortly afterwards, I was obsessed with it and repeated the ‘kuriage-hensai’ as soon as I saved up even more money. Saving money kind of became one of my pastimes.

Meanwhile, Kyosen Ōhashi, who served briefly as a member of the House of Councilors in the Diet of Japan, resigned from his political position. On the evening news, I happened to report this story and during that piece I said, “Due to the resignation of Mr. Kyosen Ōhashi, Mr. Martti Turunen was”kuriage-hensai“-ed.” Of course, I didn’t intend to say “kiriage-hensai”, but “繰り上げ当選 (kuriage-tousen)”, which means to win an election as a result of the death or disqualification of one of the winners. All the staff members who knew that I liked paying “kuriage-hensai” were shaking their shoulders to prevent themselves from bursting out laughing. It was a news cast, you know, so they couldn’t laugh out loud. I didn’t even realize that I had made that mistake, so it turned out to be a funny story after the show ended. On the other hand, who knows, Mr. Martti Turunen may have been paying kuriage-hensai as well, so it might have not been a mistake after all….as if. (She chuckled)

Q. What is the most difficult thing about being an announcer?

[The most difficult thing] is the action of “conveying”. I’ve worked hard for 25 years to properly convey the news to people, but the fact is it’s still difficult to convey stories exactly as I want to. Sometimes, even though I think I conveyed things properly, it didn’t come off to the audience the same way as I thought it should have. Things like the environment that someone grew up in or the books they have read, there are so many factors that contribute to making the mind of an individual different from the next. Even if I say the same thing, whether it was to someone who just lost their loved ones, or to someone whom just had just seen their baby come into the world, my words would be received differently and it’s no wonder. Even for the expression “thank you”, some people may feel that it sounded “pushy” or “sarcastic”, whereas others may meekly consider it to be an expression of gratitude from the bottom of someone’s heart. After all, to convey something exactly how you want is such a difficult thing, and perhaps that is the reason why this is a job that I will never lose interest in.

Q. What is required to become an announcer like you?

Please graduate from a university and come to an interview here at Yomiuri TV. Try to habitually take interest in various things and convey that interest to as many people as you can. Attempt to feel various emotions, understand them, and learn how great it is to convey your feelings to other people. I’m looking forward to seeing you all.

Q. Do you think a foreigner could do that and become an announcer in Japan?

If the person could speak Japanese properly and have a lot of knowledge and insight, then I’d say why not?

3. Advice For Japanese Learners

Since Uemura-san is a professional at speaking, and since many of you would like to speak Japanese better, here are some questions that will help you with that!

Q. Being able to speak clearly and nicely is important to learning a language. How did you train to improve your voice to speak such beautiful Japanese?

I trained with abdominal breathing and pronunciation drills. I’ve been doing them since the beginning of my career.

Q. Could you talk more about the abdominal breathing?

In order to produce a beautiful voice, you have to inhale a lot of air into your lungs. To do so, you need to expand the space surrounded by your ribs. The only thing you could do for that is either to throw your shoulders back or to lower the diaphragm. However, if you strain your shoulders, it will strain your neck and your throat will constrict, so it won’t help you find your beautiful voice. So, to create a beautiful voice, lowering your diaphragm is the only way. For that, you have to train your abdominal muscles and try to learn how to move your diaphragm up and down. That is abdominal breathing. You become able to do that type of breathing once you get strong abdominal muscles.

Q. How about the pronunciation drills?

In Japanese, there are basically only 5 mouth shapes, which are the shapes when you say vowels “あいうえお” and the unique consonant “ん”. You can make 50 different sounds just by adding a consonant to the beginning of those 5 vowels. You can easily make consonants sounds with your tongue, but you have to properly shape your mouth when you pronounce vowels. Once you can make good shapes, your pronunciation will be proper and beautiful. So, pronunciation drills for proper mouth shape are very important. I still practice these at least once a day in the studio.

Q. What’s the difference between speaking Japanese and delivering what you think in Japanese”?

To read scripts in a beautiful way, to speak, to communicate, and to deliver are all different. Even though you pronounce words perfectly, without an accent and speak in fluent Japanese, sometimes what you want to say doesn’t come off as you intended. In order to have a better delivery, you may try changing the tone of the word you want to emphasize, to higher or lower, or you may change the volume of it, either louder or quieter, or you may even want to whisper. On top of that, a change of tempo might be called for, either slower or faster. You need to get a little creative and make all kinds of efforts. Put yourself in the frame of mind that you want to deliver the story in and think about what you could do to delivery that story to the people in the most effective way, and then talk. That’s the way to improve the skill of “delivering what you think”. I think it’s the same whether it’s Japanese, English, German, or French.

Q. What do you think is the most important thing to practice or learn if you want to speak “good Japanese”?

This doesn’t just apply to Japanese but to any foreign language, and the fastest way to improve your skills in another language is, I think, to make friends who speak that language. If you listen to that language with your ears and speak it from your mouth every day, then you’ll naturally learn new Japanese phrases, the way to say things and how to deliver what is said.

However, even if you become a fluent speaker of Japanese, I’d say that writing is a whole other monster. Unlike the alphabet, there are so many characters in Japanese with the incorporation of Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. So I believe it would be much more difficult to write a letter in Japanese than it would be to recite what is written in the letter.

Q. When the news is delivered, I think it’s constructed to be easier for people to understand. How can we make “easy-to-understand” Japanese?

This is again not only for Japanese, but information given through speech is “easy-to-understand” if you focus on the base formula of communication – That is “5W1H”: Who, When, Where, What, Why, and How. If your message is compact and consists of these elements, it will be “easy-to-understand” in any language. Whenever you talk to your friend (or whoever), be aware of how you are delivering what you’re attempting to communicate and afterwards try to recall whether or not you’ve contained each element of 5W1H. It’s a great training method and you’ll end up being able to speak “easy-to-understand” Japanese if you focus on this.

Q. Do you have any other advice for Japanese learners?

The Japanese language might be difficult if you study its grammar. Yet, it is a great language for you to deliver and create sentimental expressions and atmospheres. You may like Japanese more if you not only study the Japanese language, but also Haiku or Tanka poems. In Japanese, it’s also common that the words from other countries find their way to Japan and settle in as a part of the Japanese language. Words such as 金平糖 (konpeitou), which means “confetti” which is Portuguese, or マネージャー (manger), which comes from English, are two of hundreds. Since ancient times, Japan has adopted many elements of foreign cultures and it even shows in its language as well. Japan has accepted many foreign things throughout it’s history, with Chinese influence being the most resonant of them, as Japan adopted techniques, social behaviors, Buddhism, ideas, customs, and kanji characters from China. The language is, in part, a demonstration of the country’s culture. When you study a language, try getting interested in its history, background, and culture. As you learn more, you may also enjoy learning more.

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