Category Archives: Japanese word meanings

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

moshmoshiii

or

moshimo-osh

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

(私は)メアリーと申します
(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

(私は)メアリーと言います
(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:

申し訳ありません
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-ad3

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:

始める

and

初める

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:

初めは怖かった
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:

日本は初めてですか
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?”

unlocking-japanese-ad3

 

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

仕事を始めよう
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:

夜が明け始めた
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.

Hajimemashite

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!

unlocking-japanese-ad3

Yatta vs Yokatta: What do they mean?

Yatta and yokatta: What's the difference?
Yatta and yokatta: What’s the difference?

Two words you often hear in anime are Yatta! and Yokatta. They both express positive feelings, but the words are in fact unrelated and have different meanings.

Yatta is the past tense of the word yaru, to do. So when you hear someone shout Yatta! its primary meaning is “We did it!” or “I did it!”

So whether you hit the jackpot on a fruit machine or your team defeats the universe-eating monster, you are entitled to shout Yatta!

However, the meaning has extended from the literal sense of the word. For example, when I was in Japan and my host mother announced that she was making hotcakes, my little host sisters shouted Yatta!

In this case it wasn’t because they had done anything or even because their mother had (the hotcakes weren’t made yet) but because the word can extend beyond its literal meaning to a general cry of triumph or delight.

Yokatta is the past tense of ii, which means good. Ii is one of the very few irregular words in Japanese. The older form of ii is yoi (which is still often used), and the only irregularity is that whenever ii is conjugated in any way it reverts to being yoi. So the past tense of ii isn’t ikatta but yokatta.

So the meaning of yokatta is clear enough. It means “it was good”. Like yatta, it is often used for things that we don’t necessarily consider to be “past” in English. But when you think about it, the Japanese is logical. Something has to have already happened before we can know whether it was good or not.

Yokatta can be used in many different situations to express relief or happiness at the way things have turned out.

A very common expression in anime is

無事でよかった
buji de yokatta

Buji means literally “without incident” but usually has the sense of having arrived somewhere or done something safely or unhurt.

So buji de yokatta means “it was good that you are unhurt”. That puts the past tense in a slightly different place from where English would put it but the sense is the same as “I’m glad you weren’t hurt”.

Yokatta can express happiness in getting a present, passing an exam, or just about anything, but always the root sense is the same: “The way things turned out is good”.

As you have probably already realized, the reason the words look somewhat similar is that they both use the plain past ending -atta.

So, to put it all in a nutshell, when you hand your perfect test result to your mother, you say Yatta! and she says Yokatta.


unlocking-japanese-ad3

Yurusanai! What it really means.

yurusanai-meaningYurusanai or yurusenai is often used in manga and anime. Often said with a similarly angry tone, it can be confused with urusai, but it is a completely different word with a very different meaning.

Yurusanai is often translated as “I won’t forgive you”. This is a reasonable translation in some cases, but often falls rather short of the full meaning.

The term is often heard when a hero makes a stand against a villain who is doing something unforgivable. However, the sense of the phrase in this case is often closer to:

I won’t let you do this.

The reason for the difficulty is that word 許す yurusu means both “to forgive” and “to allow” and also has an implication of “to give up”. So that shouted yurusanai (the negative form of yurusu) means at once “I won’t forgive you” and “I won’t let you do this” with overtones of “I won’t give up”.

This makes it a very powerful expression in these circumstances, and one that has no brief and direct English translation.

Note: this word is sometimes confused with Urusai, which also tends to be angry but is quite different.

When a word combines several meanings, those meanings are often closely entwined in the mind of the speaker. You may have noticed that Germans speaking English sometimes say “happy” when they mean “lucky”. That is because the German word Gluck means both happiness and luck, so that the two concepts are more closely bound up in the German mind than in the English.

The same is true of the concepts of allowing and forgiving in the word yurusanai. The resulting mixture gives a powerful expression in the negative, which is why it is so often used.

Sometimes you will hear yurusenai in place of yurusanai. The only difference here is that yurusenai means “I can’t allow/forgive” rather than “I won’t”.

Because it tends to be spoken in anger, the word is usually used in the plain form. However, there are occasions when it is used in the polite form, sometimes to great effect.

Cure Beauty’s first appearance in Smile Precure is prefaced by her ojousama civilian persona facing down an evil witch who has downed all the current Precures.

Immediately before her debut transformation, she makes a defiant but dignified speech ending with the words:

わたくし、青木らいかが ゆるしません。
watakushi, Aoki Reika ga yurushimasen.
I, Reika Aoki, will not forgive you/allow this.

This unusual (for anime) use of yurushimasen, the polite negative of yurusu, gives a powerful and dignified effect.

Cure Beauty YurushimasenNot to be confused with: Urusai!

unlocking-japanese-ad3

Urusai: What does it really mean?

meaning-of-urusaiUrusai is a word you encounter a lot in anime and manga.

The most usual translation is “Shut up!” and if it is said (or shouted) on its own, it is pretty much the exact cultural equivalent of “Shut up!” However, the meaning is not identical.

The actual meaning of the word is usually given as “noisy” and that is very much the sense of the term, especially if we remember that “noise” is essentially unwanted sound.

We can describe noisy traffic as urusai; we can also describe a person who is too fussy as urusai. For example, we can even say that someone is “urusai about her clothes” – fussy about them. Again, the sense is that she makes too much “noise” over them.

So when urusai is used in the “shut up” sense, someone is essentially saying “Your words are unwanted sound”, thus “I don’t want to hear this”. Unlike “shut up”, urusai is not directly an order to stop talking, but a statement of one’s feelings about the talking.

Perhaps the second most common usage in anime (after the shouted “urusai!) is “urusai na”. The “na” in this case is a marker for a feeling expressed to oneself (though it may be “expressed to oneself” for someone else to hear). An English equivalent might be “what a noisy person!” – or possibly something less polite along the same lines.

Note: this word is sometimes confused with Yurusanai, which also tends to be angry but is quite different.

The “feeling of sounds” is more important in Japanese than English, and that “sai” ending gives the feel of an excessive/unpleasant sensation, as in kusai, “smelly”, and extensions like mendokusai, “troublesome” (literally: “stinking of too-much-effort”).

Interestingly, while urusai is always negative, it isn’t necessarily critical. When I was in Japan recently we were in the direct path of a typhoon. We got torrential rain, as well as continual news reports and warnings about the incoming windstorm. For a while the television seemed to talk about nothing else.

However, at the last minute the typhoon changed course and veered northward toward Tokyo. The weather cleared up and went back to early-Fall sunshine and warmth.

My host mother commented:

テレビはうるさかったね。

“The television was urusai, wasn’t it?”

I don’t think she was criticizing the television at all. The typhoon was coming right at us and they would clearly have been failing in their duty if they hadn’t given warnings and news about it.

If the typhoon had hit us, she would certainly not have described the television as urusai. But as it happened it didn’t, and all that commotion turned out to be unwanted/unneeded “noise”.

In English she might have said “Well, that was a big false alarm, wasn’t it?” The use of urusai here represents the “false” (therefore unnecessary) part.

It was an interesting example of the fact that while urusai always means something negative, it doesn’t necessarily imply adverse criticism of the source of the “noise”.

Not to be confused with: Yurusanai!


See also

Oishii: what does it really mean?


unlocking-japanese-ad3

Common Fallacies in Japanese: Oishii means “Delicious”

The feast. Deeply bound up with the concept of oishii.
Gochisou – the feast. Deeply bound up with the concept of oishii.

The translation of Japanese words into English words is often a bit rough, because precise equivalents frequently do not exist. For example, suki doesn’t really mean “like” and wakaru doesn’t really mean “understand”.


Learn Japanese easily


These commonly used “definitions” may in many cases be the word an English speaker would use in the same situation but they don’t work quite the same way grammatically or mean precisely the same thing.

I recently realized that the common translation of the word oishii to mean ”delicious” is also incorrect. Western people sometimes complain about the over-use of oishii in Japan, saying that it is too general and says nothing about what kind of delicious. The reason for this is that it actually does not mean delicious at all. What it means not easily translatable but is along the lines of: “enjoyable – (but only in connection with eating or drinking)”.

One can for example say that a restaurant is oishii. If one translates that as “delicious” it is absurd. We don’t eat the restaurant. But what it really means is “it is an enjoyable eating-experience”. I attended a very formal home celebration in Japan and afterwards said it was tanoshii (fun/enjoyable). A Japanese person who was meue (in a superior position) to me corrected me. I should have said oishii. This is because there is always a right adjective for particular situations. But the reason it was right was, I think, that it was an enjoyable experience involving food – but a little more serious than tanoshii would imply*. In English “delicious” would not only be grammatically and semantically incorrect to describe the whole occasion but would also imply a rather gluttonous attitude to it. But oishii does not mean delicious.

Kakigoori in the rain - still delicious, no longer oishii.
Kakigoori in the rain – still delicious, no longer oishii.

Another example. In Shirokuma (Polar Bear) Cafe a kakigoori (shaved ice with syrup) party that everyone had looked forward to was held on a balcony. It began to rain and although the balcony was covered, it was cold and damp. The characters ate their cold kakigoori but did not enjoy it much and one commented that kakigoori is not oishii on rainy days. Everyone agreed. Of course the rain did not affect the taste of the kakigoori but it did affect the enjoyability of eating it, and of the occasion on which it was being eaten.

Oishii was the right word. But “delicious” would have been quite wrong.

There are, of course, many occasions when the translation “delicious” works – which is how the misunderstanding arose, presumably. We can say oishii ryouri, and it is reasonably translatable as “delicious food/cuisine”. Even then we should be aware that it has a much richer coloring than merely “delicious” and, depending on the context, will imply to a greater or lesser extent “food that will give rise to a wonderful experience in eating it”.

This in miniature shows why translations of Japanese can’t help being “wrong” and why learners need at some point to start learning Japanese words themselves rather than learning the nearest English equivalent


See also:

Urusai: What does it really mean?


_____

* The non-use of the expected oishii could also have implied under-appreciation of the sekkaku tsukutta cuisine. Again because oishii is not “delicious” it would mean in this context “an enjoyable occasion involving excellent food”, rather than tanoshii which would leave, perhaps rather pointedly to a Japanese ear, the food out of account.unlocking-japanese-ad3