Understanding the ga and wo particles: Make Japanese grammar work for you instead of against you

ga-vs-wo-particlesThe ga and wo particles are the most basic building blocks of Japanese grammar. The ga particle comes into every sentence whether you can see it or not.

If you can understand these two particles properly, they will work for you and make Japanese grammar relatively easy. If you understand them improperly they will work against you and make  the grammar seem like a vague  guessing game or a list of meaningless “exceptions” that you have to learn.

Unfortunately, the way the particles are taught in schools and in the standard textbooks tend to leave them working against you.

What the textbooks either say or imply is essentially this:

The ga particle usually marks the grammatical subject and the wo particle usually marks the object. But sometimes, for no very discernible reason, they reverse their meanings, so you just have to learn them on a case-by-case basis – or guess.

There also seems to be a post-modernist school that says there is no subject at all in Japanese, so the ga particle cannot mark it. I suspect this is a reaction against the absurdity thrown up by the standard textbook view. But it is a reaction in exactly the wrong direction.

The third view is what I would call the Japanese view, because it is what Japanese elementary school textbooks broadly teach. Stated simply:

The ga particle always marks the doer of an action (like eating a cake) or the manifester of a quality (like being red).

No exceptions. Ever.

(Apart from passive sentences, which are clearly distinguished because the verb must be in passive form)

The wo particle always marks the receiver of an action (like the cake that is being eaten).

So what about all the apparent exceptions, like

keeki ga suki desu


Nihongo ga dekimasu – ?

Cure Dolly has explained exactly why these sentences are not exceptions, and how the ga particle is working in them in exactly the same way that it always works.

I won’t reiterate her arguments. If you haven’t read this:

Upside-Down Japanese: How the textbooks are teaching you wrong

then read it now. It will take maybe a quarter of an hour and  maybe a bit longer to really digest the information. It will be the most effective time spent in your whole Japanese-learning career.

I am inclined to say that Cure Dolly’s model (which is essentially that of the native textbooks) is the correct one. After all if one model is full of strange exceptions and another works all the time, with any sentence you apply it to, it would seem to stretch credulity to say that it works by mere coincidence. It would seem reasonable to assume that it works because it is right.

However, we don’t even need to get into the thorny area of “right and wrong” in grammar. The more important point is that in comparison to a model that is full of inexplicable exceptions that you “just have to learn”, a model that works in the same way all the time is of far more value to the learner.

So where’s the catch?

What is the drawback of the simple model? Why doesn’t everyone use it? Essentially, because have to adjust your thinking a little and realize that English’s ways of putting things aren’t the only way of putting them, and that Japanese works a little differently at times.

Kind of what you might expect really. But it is the failure to recognize this and the insistence on assuming that Japanese works the same way as English that creates all the false “exceptions” and leads to the notion that the ga and wo particles can ever mean anything other than what they always mean.

So, if you haven’t read

Upside-Down Japanese: How the textbooks are teaching you wrong

yet, go read it now, then come back here, because I’ve got something else to tell you.

It’s the Particles, Stupid

Cure Dolly said “In a conjuring act you watch the magician’s hands. In a Japanese sentence, you watch the particles”.

Best advice ever. Once you understand what the particles really mean, it will never let you down.

As Cure Dolly also pointed out, the “problem” English speakers have with Japanese, they also have to a lesser extent with Spanish.

When I attended Spanish class people had terrible trouble with sentences like

Me gusta el tequila (usually translated as “I like tequila”)

I politely suggested that “gusta” should be translated as “pleasing” rather than “like”. Because that is what it means. “Tequila is pleasing to me”. The doer, the agent, the subject – call it what you will – is “Tequila”. What it is doing is pleasing the speaker (who is therefore the object of its action).

This is exactly what is going on in Japanese when the ga and wo particles seem to be reversed in meaning. They aren’t. They never are.

My Spanish class was so locked into seeing Spanish through English eyes that they never took my advice and continued to believe that “gusta” meant “like”, and continued to find that piece of grammar unfathomable.

In Japanese, however, problems like that are more common than in Spanish, and the solution is not quite the same.

Because in Japanese, the particle, not necessarily the verb, is what makes the difference.

In most of the cases where the particles seem to the English mind to have “changed places” – potential verbs, the -tai form, verbs like wakaru etc – where the supposed object takes the ga particle – just to make things even more confusing, very often it can also take wo, even though ga is more usual.

This leaves many people who have learned standard textbook grammar feeling that the situation is hopeless and you might as well just pick a particle out of a hat and hope for the best.

But there is nothing random or confusing about this, once one understands that the ga and wo particles are always consistent. They are like the speed of light in astro-physics. By realizing that they have a constant value, you can measure everything else by them.

Cure Dolly points out that:

tori ga kikoeru
= the bird is audible / a bird can be heard

tori wo kikoeru
= (I) can hear a bird

In the case of -tai form, she also points out that both anpan ga tabetai and anpan wo tabetai are grammatically correct and commonly used (though the ga-form is much more usual). I would add that they don’t mean precisely the same thing, although the meaning is close

Anpan wo tabetai

means literally

“(I) want to eat anpan”

This is what an English speaker would expect. The anpan is the wo-marked object (the wanted), and the implied “me*” is therefore the ga-marked subject, (the wanter).

However, this is not the usual way of saying it. Much more common is

Anpan ga tabetai

This is the one that confounds English speakers. It’s literal meaning is something like

“Anpan is making (me) want to eat it”

Anpan is the ga-marked subject so the implied “I” must be the wo-marked object.

To the English speaking mind this is a very unnatural way of putting it (though not actually impossible even in English). A Spanish-speaker would probably find it somewhat more comfortable.

Is there a difference in meaning? Yes, a subtle difference. The second and more natural form puts the emphasis on the anpan. Anpan is so delicious that it makes me want to eat it. Anpan, as opposed to something else, is what I want to eat.

Anpan wo tabetai puts more emphasis on one’s own feeling. I really want to eat anpan. And since it is the more unusual construction, it is really stressing that desire to eat it.

I suspect that “ga tabetai” also feels somewhat more civil since one is not putting oneself so much at the center, which may be partly why that form is so much preferred.

The difference is subtle and it is certainly not necessary to master it at an early stage. I may not have mastered it fully yet.

What is necessary is to understand that the particles, rather than being odd adjuncts that behave erratically, are central.

They are not just being slapped in at random or changing their function without notice. They always do the same thing.

Usually the particles radically affect the sentence. The difference between “I ate the cake” and “the cake ate me” is significant, and it is the particles that tell us which of the two things happened.

Sometimes the difference is only subtle. The difference between “anpan is making me want to eat it” and “I want to eat anpan” is very subtle.

But it is the same difference. Wherever they are, the ga and wo particles are always doing the same job. Day in, day out.

Like the speed of light they are absolutely constant, and you can gauge everything else by them.


*It is worth mentioning, and may make things clearer, to note that “I” means watashi ga, and “me” can mean either watashi wo or watashi ni.

Similarly, “she” = kanojo ga, “her” = kanojo wo/ni 

“He” = kare ga, “him” = kare wo/ni

I probably shouldn’t add (but will anyway) that “who” means dare ga and “whom” means dare wo/ni, since most English speakers don’t seem to know the difference between who and whom. Though if one is clear on the distinction between the ga and wo particles, Japanese can help to clarify the matter!

Please also remember that wa is usually “concealing” either ga or wo (though it can also “conceal” ni and other particles).


Sakura wa utsukushii (Sakura is beautiful) in subject/object terms = sakura ga utsukushii

This is explained more fully in I Am Not an Eel! The Mysteries of Invisible Japanese Pronouns and the Real Meaing of the Wa-Particle

Is there a Grammatical Subject in Japanese?

does-japanese-have-grammatical-subjectUnderstanding the question of the grammatical subject in Japanese is absolutely key to understanding the language.

Without that understanding you can muddle through basic Japanese, but as it becomes more complex, you quickly become lost in an incomprehensible fog.

An esteemed correspondent recently told me that she believes there is no grammatical subject in Japanese.

After replying to her I began to wonder if this idea is at all widespread, and I came upon an article by no less a person than Tae Kim-sensei entitled:

“Repeat after me, there is NO such thing as a subject!”

Kind of forceful, ne?

I have great respect for Tae Kim-sensei and recommend his excellent site, but I have to say that this is the kind of idea that ties people’s minds into knots over Japanese and makes it almost impossible for them to progress beyond a certain point in the language.

Tae Kim-sensei gives an example concerned with wanting to eat crepe. I won’t reply to that directly here, because I think I have dealt in detail with this exact point (the way the “object of desire” can be the subject in Japanese – and the way this is misinterpreted from an English-language perspective) in my article on upside-down Japanese. And in fact I would say that Tae Kim-Sensei’s statement takes the upside-down-ness of regular textbook Japanese to a new level.

Actually I would say that Tae Kim-sensei’s article does not really address the question of whether there is a grammatical subject in Japanese, but only of whether が ga marks the grammatical subject. They are two separate issues, and I wish to consider both. However, let us start with the assertion (which Tae Kim-sensei states but does not attempt to demonstrate) that there is no grammatical subject in Japanese.

This stronger of the two assertions is the most troubling because it really reduces language to absurdity. I think it can be dealt with very briefly.

Is there a grammatical subject in Japanese?

Sue hit Mary

Mary hit Sue

I think we can agree that these two sentences do not have the same meaning.

In the first Sue is the doer, in the second Mary is the doer.

Sue ga Mary wo nagutta
Sue hit Mary

Sue wo Mary ga nagutta
Mary hit Sue

And that is it. I rest my case. That is the whole argument.

There is a doer and there is a done-to, and distinguishing between them is vital.

Whether one chooses to use the term “grammatical subject” or not, is a matter of – well, word choice, but the phenomenon clearly exists in any language or we would be reduced to inarticulacy.

NOTE: The markers and tell us who is the doer and who is the done-to. Now there is certainly a tendency to put the doer first in Japanese, as there is in English.  So the final  example sentence above is slightly unusual. But in Japanese the word order has no grammatical effect and putting them either way around is perfectly grammatical. As sentences become more complex, relying on word order (inexact from the start) becomes less and less useful.

But regardless of this there must be a grammatical subject and object – whatever we choose to call them – or it would be impossible to argue about who hit whom.

And believe me, Japanese people are perfectly capable of arguing over who hit whom.

Does ga mark the grammatical subject in Japanese?

I believe that grammar, rather than being a set of rules that govern language, is an attempt to describe language, so it is entirely possible that people may see it in different ways at times without necessarily anyone being wrong.

And of course when we use terms like “adjective” and “grammatical subject” we are attempting to impose a foreign grammar on Japanese, which makes it even more uncertain.

However, whether we call it a “grammatical subject” or not, there is always something that is either “doing” or “being” something in every sentence from the most simple to the most complex (other than a few exceptions like exclamatory sentences) – and the rest of the sentence/clause is telling you what it is doing/being and all kinds of circumstances surrounding it (in Western grammar this is termed the predicate).

And as sentences get more convoluted, we are very much helped by being able to identify that “something”.

Also, with Japanese being much more “adjectival” in structure than European languages, very often a lot of the sentence is lining up to the left of (or above in the more usual vertical text) that “something” and modifying it.

My correspondent wrote:

At my very basic learning level, my Japanese teacher has explained to me that the ga particle is about introducing another topic, whereas the wa particle is about differentiating a given topic from the rest.

This is essentially what Tae Kim-sensei is also saying.

The が ga particle certainly has the function of introducing a new topic, in that you can’t say は wa for an unknown entity. In that sense (but only in that sense) it is like “a” as opposed to “the”; however, it doesn’t work exactly like a/the because – well, it isn’t a European language. It is a useful model to bear in mind though.

However, introducing a new topic isn’t the only thing が does. That consideration is useful when comparing が ga to は wa. But the comparison of が ga to を wo is far more fundamental.

If we are confused between が ga and は wa we will speak somewhat unnatural-sounding Japanese and miss some of the finer nuances of what we read and hear.

If we are confused between が ga and を wo we will speak nonsense-Japanese and have very little idea of what we are hearing and reading.

So let us look at が ga vs を wo, which is really the very basis of Japanese grammar.

Here is what, were I Tae Kim-sensei, I would ask you to “repeat after me”:

が ga marks the thing doing an action or manifesting a quality (e.g. being red).

を wo marks that which is receiving the action done by the  が ga-marked actor.

  はwa can “conceal” the が ga-function or the を wo-function (and sometimes に ni or others). And we need to know what a は wa-marked topic is actually doing in が ga/を wo terms in order to understand a sentence.

In simple sentences that is often obvious. But it can get much more difficult in more complex sentences if one hasn’t a firm grasp of how it works.

Here is an example that I discussed on this site before:

聞こえる can seem ambiguous because, in English terms it can mean both “can hear” and “hearable”. It is not in fact ambiguous because the grammatical markers tell us which it means in a given instance.


tori ga kikoeru
= the bird is audible / a bird can be heard

tori wo kikoeru
= (I) can hear a bird

Why? because が ga marks the doer and を wo marks the done-to (in European terms subject and object). So in the first sentence the bird is doing something/manifesting a quality. It is audible. In the second sentence, the unnamed が ga-marked hearer is doing the action of hearing, and the bird is the object of the action, the thing being-heard.

If there is a wo there must be a corresponding ga-marked actor, whether it is explicitly named or not.

It is precisely because of this logic that elements of a sentence can be (apparently) “left out” as opposed to being marked by placeholders called pronouns.

Japanese is quite complex in certain respects and the difference between は wa and が ga in all its subtlety can take a very long time fully to understand (just as even fluent Japanese speakers of English sometimes get “a” and “the” wrong – in certain cases they are much more complex than they seem).

However, the difference between が ga and を wo is very simple and is absolutely vital. And it is important in many cases to know whether the non-grammatical particle は is “concealing” a が or a を (or something else).

When I say that は is “non-grammatical”, that is Eurocentric in that I am really saying “does not correspond to anything in European grammar”. However, even Japanese people use European concepts to describe much of their own grammar (though they do it a little differently from Europeans) because the art/science of describing the structure of language was not terribly well developed in Japan before they encountered European ideas.

As you have probably guessed my personal leanings are not Eurocentric. I actually do not regard European “scientific culture” as the pinnacle of civilization or the best explanation of the nature of being. But as a tool, these European forms of analysis can be useful – as Japanese practice acknowledges.

They can also be harmful, as attempting to subject Japanese to European rules can distort it and make it less understandable, but I find this analysis of が ga and を wo to be completely consistent and to do no violence at all to Japanese (unlike, say, the concepts of verb vs adjective vs noun which have to be treated with considerable caution even though they can’t be altogether disregarded).

By grasping the subject-object nature of が ga and を wo, and understanding them in ways uncluttered by the often rather different way in which English understands subject and object, we can get a clear grasp of how Japanese actually works and avoid the muddle and sense of vagueness that besets many learners of Japanese as they progress.

If you take only one thing from this article, take this:

Whatever else it is doing (and it does do other things) が ga, always marks the doer of an action or manifester of a quality. In other words, it always marks what Western Grammar calls the subject.

If it appears not to, as in Tae Kim-sensei’s crepe example, that is because we are looking at the concept of doing or manifesting a quality in Western terms.

If you disagree, please use the comment section below to give an example of a valid Japanese sentence in which が ga does not mark the doer of an action or the manifester of a quality.

I don’t believe such an example exists.

With the obvious exception of passive sentences, which are kind of upside-down in that the receiver is treated as the “doer” – just as in English passive sentences, the receiver takes the position in the sentence normally occupied by the doer.


The Magic of Sound – Harness audio power to turbo-charge your Japanese!

Anki audio-immersion
Deepening your audio immersion

We learn language with our ears.

We all do.

Long before children learn their first あ、い、う、え、お, or A, B, C, they are already fluent in their native language. They understand the grammatical structure and have relatively large vocabularies.

Indeed, the very concept of written language and all that is involved in using it is explained to them in spoken language.

Our ears are made for learning language, and we need to harness them at every stage in the process.

When learning vocabulary we should be hearing it, preferably spoken by a native Japanese speaker, every time we review it. This not only tightens our grasp on the pronunciation, but activates those audial areas of the brain that are designed for language-learning.

How easy is it to arrange this?

Fortunately, it is now very easy.

Rikaisama has a huge database of readings recorded by Japanese speakers for most of the words in its dictionary (you can hear them by pressing the F-key while the Rikaisama definition-box is active).

You can make use of this wonderful free resource to enhance your learning every day.

If we use Anki to review and consolidate the vocabulary we learn by immersion, we can easily add sound with the same one-click real-time import process we use to make our cards (learn about real-time import here).

That is the good news.

The bad news is that it isn’t completely obvious how to set it up in the first place.

However, it isn’t difficult once you know how, and once it is set up, it works automatically.

So, here’s how to set it up.

How to add audio to Rikaisama-Anki Real-time Import

Stage 1

The first (and perhaps least obvious) stage is to make sure your audio is stored in Anki’s media folder (it won’t be by default):

1 Open Rikaisama preferences

2. Open the Clipboard and Save tab
How to add audio to Rikaisama-Anki Real-time ImportClick to enlarge

3. Click the button beside the Saved Audio field and navigate to the media collection in  your user-name folder inside the Anki folder. If you have more than one Anki user name make sure you use the folder for the right one!

Note: This will be called collection.media and the Anki folder will usually be in the Documents folder on your computer. If you have trouble locating it, do a search for collection.media.

Stage 2

The next part is to place the saved audio in your card. For this we click the Anki tab and we will see the following:

How to add audio to Rikaisama-Anki Real-time Import2Click to enlarge

The Save Format field tells Rikaisama what to put in your card and where to put it. If you have the simplest format, it will read $d$t$r$t$n. This means “put the word in the first field (the front of the card), put the reading in the second and the meaning in the third (both on the back). The $t code tabs to the next field.

So all you have to do in theory is add $a for audio wherever you want it.

Unfortunately, that won’t work. You have to add [sound:$a] in order to get the audio to play.

So, if you have the basic set-up just edit $d$t$r$t$n to read $d$t$r[sound:$a]$t$n. This will place the audio in the Reading field on the back of the card. I put it there because it means the audio for the word will play before any other audio I add to the card.

And that’s it. You’re done. You now have automatic audio added to every card.

Of course if you prefer you can put the audio anywhere you like, including creating a special Audio field. But the method above is simple and it works.

Now every time you make a card, it will have the audio placed on the back and you will hear the word or expression read aloud by a Japanese speaker when you turn the card over.

This helps greatly in activating the automaticity of language in your mind (what you have in your native language that makes you understand words without thinking about them).

Every time you see a word you also hear it, not only in subtitled anime, but also in your Anki reviews. Your mind is able to merge the visual and audial aspects of the word into a single, natural whole just as it does with words in your first language.

We can go a lot further with unlocking the Magic of Sound in our Japanese learning, and I will be talking in depth about that in the next article in this series.

The next steps involve a little more work and start to introduce the concept of Japanese definitions. However, even if you are not ready to make the Big Shift to Japanese definitions, having sample sentences spoken aloud in Japanese  can make a huge difference to your understanding and appreciation of the words you are learning.

In our next article I will show you how to auto-add sample sentences to your Anki cards, how to hear them spoken aloud during reviews, and how to use spoken-aloud Japanese definitions.

Even if you aren’t ready for full Japanese definitions yet, there are still ways to make pragmatic partial use of them that can boost your Japanese enormously.

What we have learned today is simple and automatic. Once you have done the set-up process above, all your new auto-made cards will have audio on the back without your doing another thing.

Kind of amazing, isn’t it? But it’s just the beginning!

This article is part of the Anki Master-Class Series

Anki for Self-Immersionists: the Master-Class

anki-japanese-immersionAnki, the free intelligent flashcard system, is the primary tool for those learning Japanese by self-immersion.

For many of us, once we get past the stage of learning basic grammar, Anki is about the only actual “study” we do on a regular basis. We are learning Japanese essentially by massive input .

And for many of us, Anki is the glue that holds the method together. With Anki we make sure that what we are learning naturally, by exposure, sticks in our minds between exposures to a given word or form of expression. The two work seamlessly hand-in-hand.

However, the use of Anki in real self-immersion is a little different from the way many learners use Anki. Here are some of the key aspects of our method:

Learn from real, passionate encounters. Then use Anki to hold the experience until the knowledge becomes permanent. This means using Anki as a secondary adjunct to immersion. We don’t use pre-made decks because our first encounter with words should be real, “live” ones not abstract lists.

Making your own decks too much work? Fortunately the process can now be pretty much fully automated. I am going to show you how to unlock the (very) hidden secrets of one-click Rikaisama-to Anki direct import, including instant audio-import and automatic sample sentences.

Unlock the Magic of Sound. Learn with your ears. Sound can revolutionize the way you learn. Use Anki’s sound capacities to the full. And learn the secrets of brevity and efficiency that allow a word and its (Japanese) definition to “ring together” in your mind’s ear. This is how children learn. You can use it too.

The gentle way to J-to-J. Scared of Japanese-to Japanese definitions? Don’t worry. A pragmatic approach can ease you in without getting caught in endless dictionary dives. It will make your Japanese immersion work seamlessly and make your learning far more effective. But we will show you how to ease it in at your own pace so that struggling with J-J never monopolizes time that should belong to happy, natural immersion.

Anki on steroids, but not for geeks. If you want a lot of technical stuff about Anki or how to understand the statistics, I can’t help you. I never even look at the stats myself. Anki-for-Anki’s-sake doesn’t interest me. But if you want to know how to turn Anki into a far more powerful assistant to your Japanese self-immersion, that works with a minimum of time and effort (because we want to give our time and effort to immersion itself), we have some power-techniques that will blow your socks off!

The basics – your personal immersion Anki deck

Live encounters are the best way to learn words. With Immersion-driven learning, one picks up one’s vocabulary from Japanese-subtitled anime, books, manga and other sources and enters it into Anki. In many cases, I remember the context in which I first learned a word whenever I encounter it in Anki (until it becomes a true part of my vocabulary).

This is a very good sign. It means that the word is not a “list word” but an “experience word”. It will stick better if it is tied to a real experience, and you will also have the first step toward knowing how it is actually used (including what kind of people say it under what circumstances) rather than just how a dictionary defines it.

Of course you need many more real encounters before you truly know the word. No amount of Anki will make you know a word. Because knowing a word means getting used to it as a real living part of actual communication. Anki’s job is not to “teach us words”. It is to hold the words we learn in place so that they don’t slip through the gaps between real experiences.

If you don’t ever encounter a word outside Anki, don’t expect to “learn” it from Anki. Eventually it will be pushed back two or three years and when you finally see it again you very likely won’t remember it.

But guess what? If you haven’t actually used the word, passively or actively, in two or three years, you didn’t need it, did you? For the very rare times you encounter it there is always a dictionary!

To a real immersionist, Anki isn’t some game of acquiring words. It is the tacking-stitch that holds the experience in place while real life (immersion-life) grafts them into our actual living vocabulary. It is like a crutch that helps us walk until we get stronger. It isn’t a substitute for our legs!

So, how do we build our deck without spending excessive time on it? Rikaisama makes the job very easy. If you don’t know it or haven’t installed it you should do that now!

You also need to activate Rikaisama’s Real Time Import function. And use the Real Time Import addon in Anki. I won’t go over the basic process as it is explained here. However in our next article I will be telling you how to unlock the more obscure features, which can make your experience much richer and your learning much more effective with little to no extra effort after the initial set-up.

Once you have the basic set-up, all you need to do to is look up a new word on your computer. Usually I type it into a dictionary, but having done so, I don’t necessarily even hit “Enter”. I just run Rikaisama over it. If I am happy with the definition I hit the R key while the Rikaisama definition-box is active, and that’s it. A new card has appeared in Anki (note that you must have Anki open and the the deck that you want to add the word to active).

Of course if you are reading something online, the process is even easier, since you just have to hover over the word as you read and hit the R button to create a card.

So making your own deck really isn’t any kind of a drain on your time. We can also set things up so that that same single keypress enters audio of  a native Japanese speaker saying the word into your Anki. Typically I have it set up to put the audio on the back of the card along with the reading and definition. Only the kanji is on the front.

It isn’t immediately obvious how to get automatic audio, but I will be explaining this in the next article in this series along with a lot more information about the Magic of Audio and how it can greatly enhance your Japanese learning. There are a few steps in setting it up, but once they are done the process is automatic and you never have to think about it again. Don’t worry the doll will take you through it.

If the word is one that is usually written in kana alone (for example ありがとう is rarely written 有難う). You can hit the T key instead of the R key to put the kana on the front of the card (R and T stand for Real Time).

Fortunately Rikaisama marks words that are usually written in kana alone with (uk), so you know which ones they are. You may want to make your own decision based on your experience, but the (uk) marking is a useful extra guide.

If you want Japanese-to-Japanese definitions just have Anki in Sanseido (J-definition) mode when you hit R. Whatever is in the definition box at that time will be imported into the new card. You can flip between E-J and J-J definitions by pressing the O-key.

This is all you need for making basic cards. You really don’t need to rely on pre-made decks. In the following articles I am going to discuss some extra things you can do such as automatically adding sample sentences and adding extra audio – having the definition and/or the sample sentence spoken aloud.

These techniques make the card-making process take a little longer (though it is still simple once the basic setup is complete) but they can do a lot to help your understanding and memory of the word and its natural usage. I dedicate a full article to the Magic of Sound in Anki.

However even if you decide to adopt these techniques you can always make a single-keypress card (including audio of the defined word or expression) any time you want to.

If your “study” method is fundamentally immersion, then this is the way to go. You learn words not from Anki but from your immersion material. Your deck is your deck, based on your living day-to-day Japanese experience. Like a child learning language, you learn from life – in this case your immersion-Japanese life – not from lists (including pre-made decks).

One final tip that belongs in this first overview article: you can sync Anki on your different devices. In my case while I look up words and ping them into the deck on the computer (you need to do this) nearly all of my reviewing is on a mobile device.

With this method you can review at odd moments throughout the day, which can help to overcome the potential time-consuming aspect of Anki. You don’t need to be sitting at a desk concentrating in order to review your deck. You can do it on a bus or while brushing your teeth or walking – especially if your interaction is 80% audio-based as mine is. In fact getting used to recognizing words while your mind is subject to other stimuli isn’t a bad idea.

If you have problems or questions or want to share your own experience, please feel free to pop a comment below.

Next in this Master Class: Unlock Anki’s hidden Automatic Audio function to turbo-charge your Japanese learning.

The Key to Kanji Learning

There aren’t many shortcuts to learning Japanese. But there is at least one, and we want to share it with you!

People say that there is no Golden Key to the kanji. You just have to learn them. Preferably as words, bit by bit, organically.

But while there is no Golden Key, there is a Silver Key that can help enormously.

You can get it right here. The cost is – free, ’cause Dolly loves you!

It can help you to recognize kanji you only half-know. It can help you to guess the pronunciation of kanji you don’t know at all. It can help you with words where you know the sound but are very vague on the appearance of the kanji, and conversely it can help you with words where you know the kanji but don’t remember the pronunciation.

number-one-kanji-hackYou can get it right here. The cost is – free, ’cause Dolly loves you!

It can help you learn the kanji in the first place, and it can help tie together the triplicity of sound, meaning and appearance. It even talks to you (audio on every card).

The secret of this kanji hack is that there are a number – something under 100 – of kanji elements that pretty regularly indicate the on-reading of a kanji (the one usually used in two-or-more-kanji words, which make up the majority of Japanese words). I introduced an important selection of them in my Sound-Sisters article. I have now made a Complete Sound Sisters Anki deck with all the main Sound Sisters (including many not in the article).

I am not a fan of learning kanji in the abstract. I am especially not a fan of trying to learn kanji readings in the abstract. However, the leverage involved in learning the full Sound Sister set is so huge that (pragmatist as I am) I make an exception in this case.

For the investment of mastering a very small set of kanji elements and their sounds (the main part of it will take a week or so at a few minutes a day), one has in one’s hand a key that will make kanji much, much easier. It affects many thousands of words and a substantial proportion of all the Joyo kanji.

key-to-learning-kanjiYou can get it right here. The cost is – free, ’cause Dolly loves you!

This deck includes the fundamental 90 most common and regular Sound-Sisters elements, main examples of the kanji they appear in, audio and mnemonics for each of them, and other notes where appropriate.

Using the Deck

The deck is designed to be used in conjunction with the Sound Sisters article, which groups together similar sounds with mnemonic narrative. It helps you to learn the elements there and a large number of others.

Download the deck, unzip it (your computer will likely do that for you automatically) and add it to your Anki.

Pro tips:

Use the deck in conjunction with the Sound Sisters page. Remember that you will only need the mnemonics for a short time.

Remember that sounds may sometimes appear as their voiced variants – ひょう as びょう, さい as ざい etc.

You will “finish” the deck quite shortly as it is a small deck by Anki standards. After that, either keep it in your deck-list and run through it when reviews appear, or merge it with your main deck (but don’t do that until the reviews have dropped off to zero or very few most days).

Apply what you’ve learned. Use it to help you learn kanji as words. Also do some Sister-spotting while reviewing words, even with kanji you already know. This gets you used to the Sisters and helps to cement the whole process. You will also be using it to firm up still-learning words where you are a bit shaky on the appearance and/or pronunciation.

You can get it right here. The cost is – free, ’cause Dolly loves you!


Another importance of knowing the Sound Sisters is that working with them helps one to be more aware of the many other sound-connections in kanji.

There are a lot of Sound Half-Sisters: that is, sound relationships that are not regular enough to be included in the deck, but certainly very useful. Rather than learning them in the abstract it is best to become aware of them in an organic manner. But the use of the regular Sound Sisters is excellent training for spotting and using the Half-Sisters.

For example, the hyou/byou of 平等 byoudou is found in 評価 hyouka and 評判 hyouban and we will find it in other places too. 忍 and 認 are nin most of the time (the nin of 忍者 ninja).

Such examples are either not regular enough or do not govern enough kanji to be full Sound Sisters, but once we become attuned to these links by using the main Sound Sisters we will find this sort of thing quite often and it is very useful.

斉, sei on her own, is sai/zai often enough (剤, 済, 斎) that I almost included her as a full Sound Sister*. I may do so in a future edition of the deck (of course subscribers will receive any updates as they come along).

This really shows how fluid the situation is, and how getting a feel for the sound-associations of kanji elements can help so enormously.

Some of this really has to work organically, by reading, making friends with kanji, and getting used to Japanese.

But with a set of nearly 100 reasonably regular Sound Sisters that are easily assimilated, we can give the organic process a huge kick-start.

You can get it right here. The cost is – free, ’cause Dolly loves you!

* We did eventually includein the deck.

Fixing “Improved” Japanese input in Mac OSX

This is just a quick tip that you may find useful.

Recent versions of Apple’s  OSX have changed the way the Mac handles Japanese input by default. It is supposed to be an improvement, because it guesses what you want to type and changes your input to kanji on the fly rather than waiting for you to push the spacebar at the end.

The problem with this is that I find that it guesses wrong as often as not and it actually takes longer to undo its frequent well-meant guesses than to do it the old-fashioned way, which gives you a list of guesses as you type (so you still don’t have to type the whole word in many cases) rather than jumping to one of its own conclusions.

It also messes up some other functions. For example, Rikaisama’s native-audio saving only started working properly again after I reverted to the older input style.

So if like me you find this live-changing more trouble than it is worth, what can you do about it? Fortunately the fix is easy. Go to System Settings > Keyboard > Input Source (入力ソース) and you will see this:

If your Mac is in Japanese, the setting you want is ライブ変換 (live conversion, ringed above). It will be in the same place in English. It is checked by default. Uncheck it and your Mac will go back to behaving like a useful tool rather than a mama-knows-best robot!

PS – Seeing the above screenshot, someone noted that I have Japanese as my only input language. The reason for this is not that I never type in English, but that I use the romaji character set from the Japanese IME rather than an English IME. And the reason for that is that I can then assign it to caps-lock within the Japanese IME, so that when I want to switch to typing English I only have to hit the caps-lock key.

If English is your default language you may want to do it the other way around, but I can confirm, should you want to try it, that not using a “real” English IME has no adverse effects that I have noticed on English input.

How Japanese Is Just Like English

japanese-is-like-englishOne thing that intimidates people about Japanese is how different it is from English.

Yet many of the supposedly “complex rules” of Japanese work just like English.

A lot of things that are presented by the textbooks as if they were strange and complex rules in fact work very similarly to English and are much more easily understood once one realizes that.

Of course Japanese is not related to English, but since both are essentially dialects of Universal Grammar, there are many fundamental similarities.

Non-past? No tension

Take the so-called non-past tense. That can seem very puzzling. Why not have a present and a future like other languages? How do we use this strange non-past tense?

Well, as a matter of fact we use it in the same way that we use the English non-past tense. It works very similarly. In English it gets called the present tense, but it is actually non-past.

Let me explain.

What is the English present tense? Phrases like I eat, I walk etc are called “present tense”, but in fact they are rarely used that way.

Only a foreigner* ever says “I eat potatoes” meaning “I am eating potatoes right now”.

“I eat potatoes” usually means “I am in the general habit of eating potatoes”. Or we might say “I eat potatoes every Friday”.

The “present tense” is also regularly used to indicate the future.

“Tomorrow we fly to New York”.

“I have an exam tomorrow”,

“I am meeting my sister next week”

Admittedly English has a specific future tense (tomorrow I will have an exam). However, the present tense is so often used to represent future events that it would be more accurate to call it non-past just as the Japanese “present tense” is so called.

Remembering this, we can see that the Japanese non past is used in much the same way as English.

Jagaimo wo taberu

is usually translated as “I eat potatoes”, but it is more likely to mean “I eat potatoes (in general)” or “I will eat potatoes (tomorrow)” than to mean “I am eating them right now”.

That is most likely to be expressed as

Jagaimo wo tabeteiru

Which means not “I eat potatoes” but “I am eating potatoes”. As you see, it is just the same as English. We don’t say in English “I eat potatoes” to mean “I am eating potatoes” either.

Think about it this way and you realize that the mysterious Japanese “non-past tense” isn’t actually mysterious at all. In fact it is pretty similar to English.

If you can use the English non-past tense it is a very simple step to understanding the Japanese equivalent.

To に or not to に

Another point that sometimes puzzles people – because it is explained so unintuitively in the standard textbooks – is Japanese absolute and relative time expressions.

We are told (correctly) that Japanese generally uses the particle に when speaking of an event taking place at an absolute time (say, 3pm or Friday the 22nd) but omits it when speaking of an event taking place at a time relative to the present (say, this morning or last week or tomorrow).

The way it is expressed in standard descriptions it sounds as if we have a rather abstract rule to memorize, but in fact all we have to remember is that it works the same way as English. In English we use a preposition for absolute time expressions but not relative ones.

Let’s look at some examples:

nigatsu itsuka ni jagaimo wo tabeta
I ate potatoes on the fifth of February

Sanji ni jagaimo wo tabeta
I ate potatoes at three o’clock


Kesa jagaimo wo tabeta
I ate potatoes this morning

Ashita jagaimo wo taberu
I will eat potatoes tomorrow

You see, English leaves out the preposition (in, on or at) for all relative time expressions, just as Japanese leaves out に for all relative time expressions. It is just the same, except that Japanese is simpler because it always uses に, while English uses in, on or at depending on the particular time expression.

Now that really is an abstract rule that you just have to learn. If you speak Japanese and want to use English time expressions correctly it is a little complicated.

But if you speak English and want to use Japanese time expressions correctly, all you have to do is just what you do in English. Where you use a preposition in English use に in Japanese. Where you leave the preposition out in English, leave the に out in Japanese.

It is as simple as that. I wonder why it is often made to seem more complicated.

*The fact that foreign learners of English often do say “I walk” to mean that they are walking now, when native English speakers never in fact say that, is another example of the inadequacy of textbook grammar. They say it not because they are foolish, but because they have been told in classes and textbooks that “I walk” is the English present tense, when in fact it is more like the Japanese non-past tense. Lacking sufficient immersion experience they follow what the term “present tense” would seem to imply, and so use unnatural English.

What native mistakes teach us about language

native-japanese-mistakesNative speakers are often the worst guide to their own language. But understanding why can help us enormously.

In a recent comment, one of our readers told us what a native Japanese speaker said about the word いぬ, meaning “dog”:

as I was told by a Japanese person, 犬 is usually used for a wild dog, イヌ to refer to a dog in a more biological context and いぬ for a pet dog.

While one feels hesitant to disagree with a native speaker, I am 95% sure this is not correct. I have seen pet dogs called 犬 so many more times than I have seen it written any other way. But not relying on my own memory and limited experience I tried an experiment:

I tried searching “うちのいぬ” and “うちの犬” (“our dog”, therefore definitely a pet) on Google (using quotes to specify the exact form) and got around 70,000 entries for うちのいぬ and over half a million for うちの犬.

How surprising is this kind of misinformation coming from native speakers? Actually not very surprising at all. One of the reasons I shy away from sites like Lang8 (where native speakers correct one’s writing) is that I saw a large amount of pure misinformation coming from native English speakers about English usage.

It is a commonplace in linguistics research that if you want to know how someone pronounces a word, you must never ask them how they pronounce it. You must steer the conversation so that they say it naturally.

Why? Because how people think they pronounce a word and how they actually pronounce it are often two different things. If you ask them they will think about it and tell you what they think they say. If you maneuver them into saying it they will simply pronounce it as they always do.

Similarly with rules and usages. An ordinary untrained speaker gets natural usage of her native language right most of the time. But when she stops to think about what that usage actually is, and what the “rules” are, she gets it wrong as often as not. Just as when you start thinking too hard about the spelling of a word you often become unsure of it, even though you know it well.

Using my old analogy of touch-typing, it is just the same as the fact that when I am typing I hit all the keys accurately and at speed, but if you ask me where the V-key is, suddenly I can’t even find it.

The part of the brain that processes immediate, automatic actions is different from the part that processes conscious, thought-out actions: and it seems that those parts often can’t even communicate with each other very well, and even obstruct each other.

I am not saying that native input and correction is not useful, though it is more useful when the native speaker is actually present and says “Oh, that isn’t how we say it”, because her first reaction is usually correct, and the more she thinks about it and refines it the more likely it is that misinformation will creep in.

However, my point isn’t really about native correction at all. It is about the automaticity of language and how it works both for us and against us. It works for us when we speak a language natively or pick it up by immersion.

Language is an automatic process. The more we reduce it to rules and conscious processes, the further we get from natural language. This is not to say that we shouldn’t learn basic grammar. And I do spend time explaining how Japanese actually does work in a way that most textbooks never do.

So am I contradicting myself? Not really. As I have always said, learning rules and grammar is a shortcut. Native speakers usually can’t articulate these things very well themselves, but they use them mostly unerringly.

If we want to speak and understand Japanese naturally we have to get to the point where these academic abstractions are mostly forgotten. If I want to know a conjugation or whether a ru-ending verb is ichidan or godan, I almost always have to reverse-engineer it by first remembering how I would say a particular thing and then seeing what that tells me about the verb or conjugation.

I am not working from the rule to the language, I am working from the language to the rule, which is how we work in our native language. This is not to say that my Japanese is anywhere near perfect. But what I do know tends to work the natural way around.

How did that happen? By immersion and massive input.

I have done some study, but I would say that for every hour of actual “study” I have done, I have done at least 20 hours of reading novels, watching anime and other shows, listening to stories, playing text-heavy games and daily conversation.

I would say that a 10 : 1 immersion-to-study ratio is the very minimum one should have (except in the very early stages). Learning Japanese primarily by study keeps it in the area of the brain dedicated to conscious, deliberate knowledge, and that is not the area in which real, natural language lives.

In language, conscious study is a good servant, but a very bad master.

Kanadajin3 (Mira): What you should know

kanadajin3This post is very different from the usual content of this site, and I apologize for that. I am putting it here because I think it is important.

If you don’t know the name Kanadajin3 (Mira), please feel free to skip this article, but if you are aware of her I should be obliged if you would hear what I have to say.

I do not now watch English language videos, though I had seen some of Mira-san’s work before I started immersing in Japanese. I recently saw a video on her Japanese language channel and was disturbed by what she had to say.

So disturbed that I looked into the matter a little and felt moved to write something about it here. I thought of making a video, but I don’t make English language videos, and since most of this oosawagi has been in English, a Japanese video probably wouldn’t have much effect.

So, if you have gotten this far, you may know that Mira-san is a Canadian who lives in Japan and intends to become a Japanese citizen. She is a popular video blogger. And she has been accused of various misdeeds, including making fake accounts to defame and attack other J-vloggers.

Of the various accusations, this is the only one that has much credibility, and the main evidence for it (there are some others but they are far from conclusive) is that various accounts targeting certain persons with attacks and defamation all made exactly the same rather unusual spelling errors that Mira-san habitually makes.

Now let us look at this logically. Logically there are four possible reasons for this, and as far as I can see, only four:

1: Several ill-intentioned people just happen to have the same spelling quirks as Mira-san.

I think we can dismiss that as completely improbable.

2: One ill-intentioned person other than Mira-san has made several accounts for malicious purposes and just happens to have the same spelling quirks.

Less unlikely than 1, but still too improbable to consider seriously.

3. The accounts were made and used by Mira-san.

Entirely possible. If there were only these three possibilities we would have to go with this one.

BUT there is a fourth possibility.

4: Someone who dislikes (or just wants to bully) both the victims of these attacks and  Mira-san made the accounts and deliberately employed Mira-san’s mannerisms.

How likely is this? Well, there is no point saying “conspiracy theory” because we have a conspiracy theory either way. Either Mira-san has been doing black ops or someone else has.

Now, long before this incident, Mira-san already had a lot of haters. There were whole hate-sites set up against her. They make it perfectly clear that what they dislike about her is her attitude to life and to Japan and, that any accusations they throw at her are secondary, and are motivated by their hatred for who she is.

Before this incident, one of those hate-sites published a “dictionary” of Mira-san’s mispellings. This would provide the perfect tool for anyone wanting to leave false clues against her. So we have the means, the motive (we know there are dedicated haters willing to go to the trouble of building sites) and the opportunity.

Now I ask myself, who is most likely to spend all the time and effort involved in setting up multiple false accounts for malicious purposes – a busy, popular vlogger, or an angry person who frequents hate-sites?

Is that question a definitive proof one way or the other? No, it isn’t. People do irrational things and Mira-san could have. But there seems to be no compelling reason to think that she did.

I am not saying that Mira-san must be innocent in all respects. I am saying something more important than that. I am saying that everyone is innocent until proven guilty.

The trouble with “internet justice” is that it is lynch law. There is no due process. Accusations are cast and people are persecuted because of them. Mira-san has been hounded. Her family’s telephone numbers and other personal information have been hacked and they have been harrassed too. She has received death-threats and massive amounts of hate-mail.

In the Japanese language video I saw she said that she was going to ignore all this, but the onslaught has been so relentless that it seems that that has not been possible for her.

I am not a personal friend of Mira-san. I have never met her either in person or online. I am writing this because I don’t think I should just stand by while someone is being seriously mistreated. I should do what little I can.

I don’t think anything I say or anyone says will affect the nastier people, because they are just bullies. They don’t really care whether their victim is “guilty” or “innocent” – they just want an excuse to bully someone.

But I do think it is important for everyone else – regular, kind people – not to listen to ill-founded rumors and gossip.

At the beginning people accused Mira-san of illegal activities and said they were going to the police. As one J-vlogger who initially joined the attack on her has now had the integrity to publicly state, all that came to precisely nothing. Of the remaining accusations, the making of sock-puppets – even if it were true – is not exactly a hanging offense and hardly justifies such hate and venom.

All this underlines for me why I am not interested in being part of the English-language J-internet community. Yes, I write for this site in English, but that is about as far as it goes. I get my own share of hate-mail (I guess we all do). It doesn’t bother me but if it got to the extent that Mira-san has had to suffer that would be a different matter

It isn’t that I am afraid of this kind of thing. It is more that to my mind this kind of extreme incident is the tip of a much bigger iceberg. I have never felt at home in the English-language internet, because it always seemed to me to harbor so much disharmony, hostility and cynicism. It just isn’t the kind of world I want to inhabit.

What can one do? Well, one thing is to make sure that when we see someone being mistreated we don’t join in, or turn the other way. I don’t generally participate in these things either actively or passively, but when something does come to my attention I try to do the right thing.

Let’s all be kind to each other.

Thank you for reading all this way. We’ll be back to our normal kind of article next time.

Ki ga suru vs Ki ni suru vs Ki ni naru : How Japanese actually makes sense

ki-ni-suruThe expressions ki ga suru, ki ni suru and ki ni naru are very frequently used. They sound similar but have different meanings, and many learners find them confusing.

One great problem of learning from textbooks and grammar sites is that they tend to treat many aspects of Japanese as if they were a list of arbitrary rules that just have to be learned.

In most cases, such as the rules governing i- and na-adjectives or the use of sou to mean “seems like” or “I heard”, there is nothing arbitrary about them at all. Once you understand what the textbooks don’t tell you, they make perfect sense.

The same is true of ki ga suru, ki ni suru and ki ni naru. So, what is the secret? How do we tell them apart?

Watch the Particles

In a magic show you keep your eye on the magician’s hands. In Japanese you keep your eye on the particles. They are often the primary clue as to what is going on.

In all cases the particle-marked noun is ki – one’s spirit, thoughts or feelings.

Ki ga suru

気がする uses the active ga-particle. In other words, your spirit is doing something. It is active. What your spirit is doing is having a feeling or a hunch. It may also be wanting to do something. In all cases your ki takes the initiative. It is your feeling, your impetus.

Ki ni naru

In 気になる ki is marked by the passive ni-particle and uses the passive naru rather than the active suru. Something is happening to your spirit. It may be worrying you, arousing your curiosity or your desire. But it is all more passive than ki ga suru.

Ki ni suru

With 気にする we are back to the active suru verb, but the marker is the passive ni. This means that something is being done to your spirit. It is almost the reverse of ki ga suru. The tone of this is much more negative. Something is worrying you, literally preying on your mind.

Ki ni suru is often used negatively, as in ki ni shinaide (don’t worry), ki ni shinai (I don’t care/it doesn’t bother me).

While these expressions ovelap to some extent, they are distinct in nuance.

Ki ga suru and ki ni suru are the furthest apart in meaning and barely overlap at all, whereas ki ni naru comes in between and, depending on usage, will be closer to one or the other.

But as you see, it is not a question of rote-learning. The expressions mean what they mean because of the way they are constructed. Once we understand them, we are much more likely to remember them and use them correctly.

Japanese does make sense!