Dolly Dialogs – Japanese output: communicating in Japanese

Japanese output: how to communicate in japaneseCure Tadashiku: You have always said that in order to learn Japanese you need to use Japanese, and that means communicating in Japanese, not just having massive input of anime, novels and such.

However, learners seem remarkably loath to do that. You’ve discussed the reasons for that, but the fact remains. How do you suggest tackling it?

Cure Dolly: That’s right. Well, look, if people don’t want to communicate in Japanese, that’s their affair. Many people spend endless time on English-language Japanese forums. Essentially, if that’s what they want to do, if that’s where they get their fun, who am I to complain?

I don’t think it is a good use of time if you really want to learn Japanese (rather than learn about Japanese), but all I am here for is to offer my advice. After that it’s up to the individual to do what she wants to do.

Cure Tadashiku: But you have tried to make ways for people to use Japanese – notably the KawaJapa Forums and now the new Line Group. You seem to be especially interested in the latter at the moment.

Cure Dolly: I think the problem with the Forums has been essentially a critical mass problem. Because only a minority of Japanese learners seem to want to (or reach a level where they can) interact in Japanese, the demand for such a forum is not high, which presumably is why there aren’t other all-Japanese learners’ forums online.

It is quite possible that once people do reach a high enough level, if they are actually interested in using Japanese they move on to online interaction with actual Japanese people, as you and I have done. However, I still think there might be a place for interaction with other second-Mothertongue speakers, partly as an easy entry for beginners (interaction beginners, not Japanese beginners) and partly because we do have things in common that we might want to discuss (which is why there is such a lot of English-language forum activity).

A rather bigger site than ours started such a forum a while back and abandoned it from lack of participation. Ours keeps going in a quiet way, but the problem is that someone comes, is quite enthusiastic, but because not many people are there, understandably moves on. Occasionally a small community starts to form, but it will only be two or three people, so when one of those people gets busy or goes on vacation or something the group dissolves. We don’t reach a critical mass where an active self-sustaining community is formed.

The Forum still works well in its quiet way. We have quite a few visitors per day and it rarely stays quiet for more than a day or two. But it hasn’t reached critical mass.

Cure Tadashiku: So what about the Line group. Do you think it can break this pattern?

Cure Dolly: We’ll see. I think there is a chance that it could. Line interaction is more casual. You can post a picture, say a word or two, share a link. You can have real-time chat if people are there, or slow-motion chat if they aren’t. Importantly, it doesn’t need many people. It is a format ideally suited to a small handful of participants. It may grow, but it doesn’t require critical mass in the way a Forum does.

Cure Tadashiku: So might it eventually replace the Forums

Cure Dolly: Probably not. They work differently and the two may end up complementing each other. A Line group is not an ideal medium for laying out ideas in detail or having an in-depth discussion. Those things want their own thread and a more permanent location. People may well do that on the Forum and link to it from the Line group. We’ll have to see how it all evolves.

Cure Tadashiku: It is certainly an interesting experiment and I have to salute your tenacity in an area where no one seems to have made a lot of headway!

Cure Dolly: You’d be welcome to join the group too you know (-o⌒)

Cure Tadashiku: I don’t have a keitai, and honestly I am less involved with non-native Japanese speakers (as well as non-Japanese speakers) these days. So I guess I am part of the problem. I think there are those Japanese learners who really want to stay based in English, and conversely those who really move into Japanese and out of the foreign-learner circuit altogether.

Speaking of which, how do you see your future in these terms? I know you want to become a writer in Japanese eventually. I know you thought you would never do another English book and then you did Unlocking Japanese.

So where do you see yourself going in the long-to-middle-term? Will you continue to support the Forums, Line group etc? More broadly, will you go on blogging in English? Do another book in English?

Cure Dolly: I don’t know. Really I don’t. A community may form via the Forums and Line group(s). If so, I guess we may grow together. So far the Line group is attracting people who are pretty darn serious and really want Japanese as a second Mothertongue, I think. That being the case we are likely to grow in Japanese together and stay friends in Japanese.

As to the rest, I did Unlocking Japanese because I realized that I (with the help of you and others) had discovered some really important things about Japanese that no one else has ever put into English – things that can be extremely helpful to Japanese learners. In some ways they revolutionize Japanese learning. For that reason I felt I had to do a book. I would have been failing in a duty not to lay out these discoveries in usable book-form.

I continue to discover more so there may be another book at some point. For the present I continue contributing to this site. I don’t guarantee to do it forever! I really am not that interested in working in English, but I do want to help people tread the same path. I want to share what we have learned. But, yes, there is probably a limit to that.

Cure Tadashiku: So if people who are not dedicated second-Mothertongue people want to join the Line group?

Cure Dolly: Absolutely welcome. So long as people are wanting to interact in all-Japanese we are happy to welcome them. At some point, if it all expands, we may form different groups. If it doesn’t expand, that’s fine too.

Cure Tadashiku: Thank you.

Cure Dolly: Thank you.


KawaJapa Line Group
KawaJapa Forums
Unlocking Japanese

KawaJapa Japanese Learners’ Line App Group

japanese-learners-line-groupWe are happy to announce that we have a new group on the Line messaging application for readers of this blog, members of the KawaJapa Forums and Japanese learners in general.

We engage in casual text conversation, sometimes real-time, sometimes not, and some of us play online Japanese games like Pigg Party or synchronize meetings in Doubutsu no Mori.

We are happy to welcome new members. The only rules are, be polite and courteous and only use Japanese.

This is not a group for beginners. You must be able to function at least minimally in Japanese. It is a kind, supportive group, so it’s fine if you are a long way from perfect (none of us is perfect), but if you need to use English for some things, you need a different group.

There are endless resources online for people who want to “play Japanese” in English, and very, very little for people who actually want to use Japanese (it seems not many people do!), so we try to fill that gap.

The Line group is one way of expanding your “Japanese life” in a supportive group that is perhaps a gentler entry-point than native Japanese online locations.

If you want to join, please contact me, Cure Dolly, via the KawaJapa Forums, or the Dollygram (my address is on all Dollygrams, including the introductory one. Just hit Reply).

Or you can just use the comment box below.

Please write in Japanese. There is no test to join the group other than that, but if you can’t write a little note in Japanese, the group would not be of much use to you. Don’t worry, it isn’t an essay – a one-line yoroshiku will be fine!

Once in the group, you are free to interact as you like or just watch. The only reasons we would ever eject anyone is for being rude or unkind to other members, expressing hentai, cruel or hateful things, or using English.

Looking forward to hearing from you and making a new Line friend!

Interview on Line App group and Japanese communication in general→

Moshi Moshi – what does it really mean?

meaning of moshi-moshiEveryone knows that “moshi moshi ” is what Japanese people say when they answer the telephone.

But what does it really mean?

There is a legend that kitsune (shape-shifting fox-spirits) cannot say “moshi moshi ” , so if someone answers with that phrase, you know she must be a real human being – or at least not a kitsune.

However, that isn’t where the phrase comes from. It is actually a contraction/doubling of the word 申す mousu, which is the humble form of 言う iu – “say”.

So “moshi moshi ” is really a polite, humble way of saying “speaking, speaking” or “I say, I say”.

Moshi moshi is not only used on the telephone. It can also be used to call someone’s attention in person. Kind of like saying “Is anyone home?” when someone doesn’t seem to be listening.

The pronunciation of moshi moshi varies somewhat, so it can come out sounding like




Other places we often find the mousu of moshi moshi are in phrases like

(Watashi wa) Mary to moushimas
My name is Mary

What this literally means is “(I am) said Mary” – a bit like the French je m’appelle Mary (I call myself Mary).

The usual way of saying this would be

(Watashi wa) Mary to iimasu

which also means “(I am) said Mary”. By using moushi-masu instead of ii-masu you are turning it into something like “humble little me is said Mary”. You use this on more formal occasions, like meeting your Japanese boss for the first time.

Another common place we find the moushi of moshi-moshi is in the expression:

moushi-wake arimasen

which the dictionaries often translate as “I’m sorry”.

A Japanese beginner once wrote to me

びょうき で もうしわけ ありません
(in grown-up Japanese: 病気で申し訳ありません)
Byouki de moushi-wake arimasen

What she meant was “I’m sorry you are sick”.

But what moushi-wake arimasen literally means is something like “there is no excuse I can humbly say”.

It does of course mean “I’m sorry” but not the “I’m sorry” of “I’m sorry you’ve been sick” – well, not unless your bad cooking was to blame for it.

Dictionaries, like textbooks, can be confusing!

Ever wondered what these words really mean?

Urusai, Yurusanai, Oishii, Yatta, Yokatta

Just click one to find out now!


Unlocking Japanese – a breakthrough in how we learn the language

unlocking-japanese-cover800Cure Tadashiku: Unlocking Japanese isn’t just another book about Japanese. It is a breakthrough in how people can learn the language.

Cure Dolly: Thank you. It’s kind of hard to say that sort of thing about your own work. Everyone thinks her book is important, after all.

But I do think that objectively we have done something here that badly needed to be done and has never been done before.

And that is, simply to explain what Japanese sentences mean, rather than what they would mean if they were English sentences.

By doing this we can cut out endless confusions and false complications. We can cut out all kinds of apparent “exceptions” and things you “just have to learn”.

Japanese is very, very regular and fundamentally a surprisingly simple language. But you do need to look at it through its own “Japanese” eyes, not through the eyes of English.

Cure Tadashiku: And that is where all the standard textbooks go wrong.

Cure Dolly: That’s right.

Cure Tadashiku: Because they are trying to make things simpler for their readers in the early stages?

Cure Dolly: Partly that, but mainly because up to now there has been no model for understanding Japanese that doesn’t lean heavily on English and European grammatical concepts. These concepts don’t fit Japanese well, so they create all kinds of unnecessary complications. By looking at Japanese as Japanese we can cut through most of them quickly and easily.

I suspect that not only does European grammar not fit Japanese, but the fact that early interpreters of Japanese grammar to Europeans were using methods related to European languages also created an expectation of and tolerance for a lot of irrational exceptions that you “just have to learn”. Because European languages really are full of them. Japanese isn’t.

European languages really do have pages and pages of irregular verbs that don’t work the same as other verbs. Japanese famously has just two irregular verbs – kuru and suru – actually a few more if you count minor irregularities, but very few. And that regularity continues throughout Japanese even in places where Europeans have been unable to see it up till now.

Most European languages other than English have “grammatical gender” which calls every object in the world masculine or feminine (some languages, like German, have more than two genders). These genders add nothing whatever to our understanding of the word, but every one “just has to be learned”.

So  when Europeans tried to explain Japanese in terms of European grammar and found places that don’t fit or that are plain irrational, they said “Oh, these must be arbitrary rules you need to learn. All languages are full of those.” But all languages aren’t full of them. Japanese isn’t.

If we understand Japanese as Japanese, it is very, very regular. The problem is that there has been no model up to now for explaining Japanese as Japanese.

Cure Tadashiku: The model wasn’t entirely your doing, was it?

Cure Dolly: No. I owe a huge debt to Dr. Jay Rubin whose work introduced me to some key concepts on which this book is built. What we have done is to take the implications of what he taught and expand them much further.

Rubin-sensei showed how every Japanese sentence has a grammatical subject, whether you can see it or not, how the wa particle never marks the grammatical subject (even when it might appear to), and how the invisible subject works. All this is explained in I Am Not an Eel.

Progressing from I Am Not an Eel, we can draw many other conclusions that follow logically. For example, the fact that there is not only always a subject (which may be invisible) but also that it is always marked by the ga-particle (though obviously that may be invisible too).

From here we are in a position to solve many of the apparently exceptional problems of Japanese. We can see things like what a logical particle is, why the so-called “passive” isn’t actually passive at all and works just like the rest, and why “conjugation” isn’t actually the right word for much of what gets called “conjugation” in the West.

This, for example, solves the problems contained in sentences like

Creepu ga tabetai
usually translated as “I want to eat crepes”

Which have led one very prominent writer to state that there is no grammatical subject in Japanese, which essentially destroys our ability to understand the language.

Even without going so far as this writer, I would say that most learners are confused about how particles work by these apparent illogicalities. And particles are the lynchpins of the language. Misunderstanding them gives the whole language a foggy “voodoo” feeling – essentially because it is being explained as if it were a European language when it isn’t.

In fact there is nothing illogical at all about these sentences – or much else in Japanese – once you can actually see how it works. It all runs in a beautifully understandable and predictable way, all the time.

I know these issues sound a bit complicated when I try to put them briefly here…

Cure Tadashiku: But it isn’t complicated. That’s the whole point. It is the European approach that gets complicated. In the book you explain it very simply, step by step, with very little special terminology. I think anyone can pick up the basis of Unlocking Japanese in an evening, and that evening will be paying off for the rest of one’s Japanese life.

Cure Dolly: Thank you.

Cure Tadashiku: But to ask a tougher question: what would you say to someone who asks, “But how can you say you’ve got Japanese right when everyone else has gotten it wrong?”

Cure Dolly: Put simply, I don’t think there is any such thing as “right” or “wrong” in grammar. Grammar isn’t a set of rules by which people speak. It is an attempt to describe what is happening when they use (a particular) language.

European grammar isn’t “wrong” when applied to Japanese. It is just not the most efficient way to describe it and it creates artificial exceptions.

So the test of any model for describing Japanese is “how well does it work?” What we have done in Unlocking Japanese is provide a model that works very regularly and throws up almost no exceptions as compared to the “Europeanized” model.

That is because we were looking at Japanese on its own terms and not as if it were “English gone a bit wrong”. Whether this is the “correct” model is,  I think, a meaningless question. The point is that it works more efficiently and leads us to seeing Japanese as far as possible from within, rather than through foreign glasses.

It’s a bit like riding one of the first bicycles that had no gearing (that is why the front wheel was so huge) and then a geared bicycle. It isn’t that one is right and one is wrong. It is that one has looked at the other one, seen where it was inefficient, and found a way to do the job better.

That’s what is meant by a breakthrough and why I think we really can call this book a breakthrough.

Cure Tadashiku: So do you think Unlocking Japanese will eventually revolutionize Japanese learning and teaching in schools and elsewhere?

Cure Dolly: I don’t know. Dr. Rubin’s work has been quite influential, but I don’t think it has actually revolutionized teaching. The textbooks don’t, for the most part, take his ground-breaking insights into account. We have gone a lot further in Unlocking Japanese, so perhaps we have even less chance of being taken up on a general basis.

I do think, because what we do in Unlocking Japanese actually, and quite unarguably, works, that it will become more widespread over the next decade or so. Whether it will force open the ironbound doors of academia, I don’t know. That wasn’t really my aim (though it would be nice).

My aim was to provide a clear and easy path for self-learners (and others) into the beauty and simplicity of Japanese grammar.

I am not trying to replace grammar textbooks (though I have my own views on how to use them) but to give the “walkthrough” that makes real sense of them.

Cure Tadashiku: And that you have done.

Cure Dolly: Thank you.


The warm kanji: 温かい vs 暖かい. What’s the difference?

As you probably know, the word あたたかい atatakai (warm) can be written in two different ways: 温かい or 暖かい. Is there a difference between them?

Yes there is, and actually it is a fairly obvious one, but I think it is a little less well known to learners than similar differences in other temperature-words.

Of course you know, unless you are a very early beginner, that there are two words for cold: 寒い samui, which means cold weather or ambient temperature, and 冷たい tsumetai, which means a cold object, cold hands, a cold drink etc.

You probably also know that there are two forms of あつい atsui (hot), which correspond directly to the two words for cold: 暑い (atsui with a double dose of sun) is hot weather or ambient temperature, 熱い (atsui with a fire under it) is a hot object.

So it isn’t too surprising to learn that atatakai does the same thing – though not quite as absolutely.

tsume-chan暖かい usually means warm weather or ambient temperature.  I see this one as 爪 tsumechan lifting her 友 friend into the warm 日 sunshine.

Oh – you haven’t met tsume-chan yet, have you? Some day I would like to do a book introducing my personal kanji-element characters.  Tsume-chan is the 爪 element – a happy UFO-catcher claw who rescues her friends from all kinds of danger. For example, she helps 子 childrenfloat when they fall in the 氵water.

ufo-catcherShe looks like a UFO because she works in a UFO Catcher when she isn’t out on rescue missions.

Anyway, enough of that. I do love my characters!

The only other thing to remember about 暖 is that its usual on-reading is dan, as in 暖房 danbou (interior heating) and 暖炉 danro (hearth fire).

温かい is more prone to mean a warm object, warm water etc. From the kanji, warm water might seem to be a primary meaning. It is easy to remember that the 日 sun warms water in a 皿 dish .

The on reading of 温 is on. Easy to remember if you think of 温泉 onsen (a warm-water spring or spa).

The two atatakai forms are not as absolutely distinguished as samui and tsumetai, and there is some crossover between them. 暖 especially seems to cross over into the area of things that warm the body, like a warm coat or a hot (i.e., warming) drink. It also seems much less used than 温 for metaphorical warmth (warm-heartedness etc), just as a cold-hearted person would be described as tsumetai, not samui.

While the two are not absolutely distinguished, if you bear in mind their general tendencies it will help you to use them in a natural-sounding way (for your own use you can treat them as equivalent to samui and tsumetai on the warm end of the scale) and to catch the nuance when you see them used.

Kanji Distinctions – 初 vs 始 : Cloak ‘n’ Dagger vs the Lady on the Pedestal

kanjiThere are a number of words in Japanese that have the same pronunciation and roughly the same meaning but can be written with two or more different kanji.

In some cases the two are interchangeable, but often they have a subtle difference in implication and sometimes a distinctly different (though related) meaning.

I am going to be covering some of these over the next little while. So let’s begin at the beginning!

Hajimeru means “begin”. But it can be written in two ways:




Does it matter which one we use?

In this case, there is a distinct difference between the two. They both mean “begin”, but they mean it in different senses. Let’s look at them.


kanji初 – Cloak ‘n’ Dagger at the Beginning of Time

This one I call “cloak ‘n’ dagger” since it is made up of the kanji elements for clothes and sword.

It means begining in the time sense. The first time something is done or the beginning of something (in a time sense), for example:

hajime wa kowakatta
(it was) scary at first / (I was) scared at first

It is often used in the form hajimete, meaning “for the first time”. For example:

nihon wa, hajimete desu ka?
Is this (your) first (visit to) Japan?

The construction actually makes more sense if we render it according to the system in Unlocking Japanese:

“Speaking of Japan, is this (your) first time?”



Cloak ‘n’ Dagger sounds like an old show, doesn’t it? Useful to remember, because the on-reading of 初 is regularly sho, unlike 始, whose on-reading is regularly shi.


kanji始 – The Lady on the Pedestal, Starting to Act

始is made up of the elements 女 (female) and 台 (platform or pedestal).

This 始める refers to action rather than time. It doesn’t mean “the first time I did something” but “beginning to do something”, sometimes a subtle distinction, but quite definite. In

Shigoto wo hajimeyou
Let’s start work

we are taking action. Work isn’t just “starting” at a particular time. We are actively starting to work.

Sometimes the two kanji can be used in similar circumstances, but 初 is always stressing the first time or beginning period of something. 始 is stressing taking action.

So when you see the lady mount the stage or pedestal, you know that she is always about to do something. And shi is also the regular on-reading for this kanji.

It doesn’t always have to be a person acting. It can be a thing. For example:

yoru ga akehajimeta
Dawn began to break

Note that ga. As explained in Unlocking Japanese, it always marks the actor, the subject. Literally, the sentence means “night began to clear”, and night, the actor, is doing something. It is becoming light/clear. Thus the pedestal lady is the correct kanji.


So does it matter which one we use for hajimemashite? In my early days I used to write this one in kana because I could never quite remember.

Hajimemashite, sometimes vaguely translated as “pleased to meet you”, actually means “this is the beginning (of our acquaintanceship)”, so the correct kanji is 初 (cloak ‘n’ dagger, the time-beginner).

Armed with this knowledge you will have a clearer idea of the meaning of words using these kanji as well as a nearly-always-correct idea how to pronounce them in two-kanji on-reading words.

始 is very consistently shi, but remember that 初, while mostly sho, is sometimes hatsu, as in 初恋 hatsukoi (first love). People with cloaks and daggers often have hats pulled down over their eyes too!


The Dolly Dialogues: Do Japanese learning methods stand the test of time?

sound-sisters-timeRecently Cure Dolly has been very much immersed in finishing and preparing for the official launch of her new book Unlocking Japanese, but she found time to give an interview to Cure Tadashiku.

Looking back on some of the Japanese-learning innovations introduced by this site, Cure Tadashiku asks “Have they stood the test of time?”

Cure Tadashiku: So are you really a nine-inch plastic doll?

Cure Dolly: You can see for yourself, can’t you?

Cure Tadashiku: Yes, but the readers can’t.

Cure Dolly: Let’s leave some things to their imaginations.

Cure Tadashiku: Ryoukai. Let’s look at a couple of the innovations you have brought to Japanese learning and see how they have stood the test of time. First, your Dolly Sentences Method.

Cure Dolly: I wouldn’t really call that an innovation. It is a little thing I did for myself and I don’t know how many other people ever picked it up. As much as anything, I hope it gave people their own ideas on the creative ways you can use sound in learning.

Cure Tadashiku: Do you still use the method yourself?

Cure Dolly: No.

Cure Tadashiku: Are you glad you did use it for a while?

Cure Dolly: Absolutely. It was invaluable to me at the time. Some things you graduate from once you no longer need them. Hearing all those sentences really helped me to understand how words are actually used. I rely even more heavily on massive input now, but I still use a variant of the Sentences method.

Cure Tadashiku: What kind of variant?

Cure Dolly: I only have one Anki deck now, which is basically vocabulary. When I enter a word that needs it, I also pop in an audio sentence, sometimes even two, to clarify how the word is used. I always include the word’s own audio too of course. My Anki is very audio-oriented. Occasionally I even pull the audio sentences out of my old Dolly Sentences deck. There are better TTS services now, but Kyoko still holds up pretty well.

I intend to write something soon about integrating sound sentences with Japanese-Japanese definitions and creating an audio-based immersion-support deck.

Cure Tadashiku: Do you still recommend the method to learners?

Cure Dolly: It is maybe a slightly odd method. Cure Yasashiku and you have never actually used it, I know. I would say to our readers that if it feels like a good fit for the way you learn, please give it a try. It was absolutely invaluable to me. I don’t use it any more, but I am extremely glad I did use it for about a year.

Maybe when one gets to the stage of doing Japanese-to-Japanese definitions, if one chooses to use audio-based immersion-support Anki methods, that is the point when the DSM becomes redundant. In any case, audio-based J-J will probably be used by a wider range of learners.

Cure Tadashiku: Out of interest, when did you drop it and why?

Cure Dolly: Last time I was in Japan, I was doing all kinds of things and found it hard to keep up with Anki. (I did do some every day to keep them down, but in the last few weeks that got more difficult.)  When I got back I had a backlog on both decks and I decided that one deck was enough. The sentences method had served its purpose and the time would now be better spent on real immersion.

I hope to be saying the same about the vocabulary deck eventually! Study aids aren’t supposed to be life partners. They are there to get you to the point where you don’t need them any more.

The Sound Sisters

Cure Tadashiku: How about the Sound Sisters? You introduced them nearly two years ago and recently created a free deck to help people learn them. But do you still use them yourself, or have you graduated from them too?

Cure Dolly: The Sound Sisters never grow old! Well, maybe they will one day, but actually I would say I use them more now than ever. Rather than growing out of them, one grows into them.

Cure Tadashiku: Would you care to explain that?

Cure Dolly: Yes. They are useful right from the start for all the reasons I have explained elsewhere. They do take a while to get to know really intimately, so your knowledge of them keeps on deepening and becoming more useful.

But more than that, they help to unlock the sound-aspect not only of kanji but of the Japanese language as a whole in one’s mind. I am continually discovering new “half-sisters” – sound elements that aren’t regular enough or widespread enough to include in the Complete Sound Sisters Deck. They are incalculably  useful, but even they aren’t the whole story. By using the Sound Sisters (and thereby becoming more aware of half-sisters), you become increasingly alive to the way sound works in Japanese. It is incredibly subtle and wonderful. I can often guess what a word means from the way it sounds now.

I’d love to write something about this some time, but right now it seems too subtle to formulate. Maybe it is something you “just have to get a feel for”. But then people have said that sort of thing about more apparently rarefied aspects of Japanese grammar and we have managed to pin them down to easily understandable concepts. So maybe we will end up with some similar breakthroughs in Japanese sound-association.

In any case, you do develop a sense of the “sound and feel” of Japanese, and I am certainly not saying that this won’t happen without using the Sound Sisters. Immerse in Japanese for long enough and it will.

But the Sound Sisters can give you a turbo-charged head-start in the process. And yes, I certainly still use them every day.

Cure Tadashiku: ありがとうございました。

Cure Dolly: どういたしまして。ところで、9インチなんかじゃなくて、12インチなのよ。

Cure Tadashiku: ごめんね。

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 Unlocking 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).

Now some people may argue that the grammatical subject and the “doer” are not always the same. This is true in English (mainly in passive sentences) but it it is not true in Japanese, as I explain in Unlocking Japanese. I find it clearer to say “doer” (or manifester). Either way, the notion of “subjectless Japanese” is a very serious barrier to understanding the – very simple and logical – way that Japanese actually works.


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.

(I know the concept of “concealed particles” may seem unfamiliar, but it is vital to understanding the language correctly, and I walk you through everything step-by-step in Unlocking Japanese)

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.

For example, 聞こえる kikoeru 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.

So, to take an example used by Cure Tadashiku in her guest chapter of Unlocking Japanese,

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 grasp (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). Fortunately this is a “finer point” and is not a barrier to understanding the language.

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”. A more accurate and helpful term is “non-logical”, as I explain in Unlocking Japanese. 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.


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

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.