Category Archives: Language/culture

Learning Japanese in Japanese: The Hawk Question

learning-japanese-in-japaneseSwitching from looking up Japanese words in a Japanese-English dictionary to looking them up in a Japanese-Japanese dictionary is an important step. When and how one takes it, and whether one takes it all at once, is something I plan to write about very soon.

In fact, I planned to write about it today, but I got rather carried away on the Hawk Question.

[Update: I did write it, and our beginners’ guide to J-J definitions is here.]

But the reason I did is that I think it is very important. It is a kind of thought experiment, and one I first began thinking through a long time ago. To be honest I thought at first that it was an argument against early-ish J-J definitions. But as I thought it right through I realized that it was an argument for them.

Let me take you along the road I followed:

Suppose I wanted to look up the word タカ without using any English sources (it means “hawk”. I actually learned it from watching the Japanese Heidi anime).

Assuming the English word was never thrown in (which it might well be at some point) I could get through a ton of ornithological information, if I were determined enough, and end up either:

A) Still not knowing what bird it was


B) Saying “oh, it’s a Hawk” – in other words ending up with the result I would have gotten right off with a J-E dictionary.

Now even if my moment of revelation had come in Japanese. I would still have thought あら、それはhawkなのね!Because I have no other way of pinpointing the bird.

This is especially so because my relation to hawks is largely verbal and symbolic. I have no very clear idea what distinguishes a hawk from some other bird of prey. But the word hawk has all kinds of associations of a verbal and symbolic nature. Hawkeye, hawkish, “a hawk making lazy circles in the sky”. I don’t really know what a hawk looks like. But the word is rich in associations.

I know what 犬 is without reverting to the word “dog” because I am familiar with 犬 nature. But if, in researching タカ, I never encounter the word “hawk” all I will know is that it is some bird of prey.

Now this could sound like an argument against strictly J-J definitions. But the more I think about it, the more I see that it is an argument for them.

It is actually better, provided I get enough cultural immersion, not to know the word “hawk” in relation to タカ. Whether it can be avoided in the long term I don’t know, but this is really a thought experiment.

If I never know that タカ means what English means when it says “hawk” (a bird I know very little about except on a verbal level), what will happen?

At first I will know very little more than that it is a bird of prey. The one I saw in Heidi that made quite an impression on her. So I will know that it is somehow a significant and impressive bird. A name to conjure with, rather than, say, a “lesser spotted marsh tern” (yes, I did make it up, but you get the point). I might read some extra ornithological information, but I won’t take it in, any more than I would in English.

But, I already have one cultural association with the word タカ. It comes from Heidi. I also know it isn’t a カラス. I met a カラス very early on in my Japanese journey when it flew into the window in Karigurashi no Arietty, the first Japanese anime I watched with Japanese subtitles. Later I met them in the flesh in Japan and marveled at how the Japanese ones really are as big as the ones in Arietty, and really do haunt Shinto shrines, as they do Rei’s shrine in Sailor Moon. If I hadn’t known the English word for a カラス I would now have a standard of comparison for both birds.

But let’s stick with タカ. I don’t know the English name, so I can’t bring in all the English language associations of “hawk”. I do know vaguely how it looked in Heidi (my visual memory isn’t great), more importantly, I know its emotional impact on Heidi. I know it is a bird of prey from both Heidi and the J-J dictionary. I know it isn’t a カラス. And at this stage that is about the limit of my possible knowledge. Just as it would be if I were a Japanese child.

What is going to happen as I get more cultural immersion exposure is that I will add to this other encounters with タカ. I will read about them in books, see them in anime, note (often subconsciously) the “tone” in which people use the word. I will also encounter expressions that use タカ.

Instead of importing all the English associations of “hawk” and grafting them onto タカ I will be gradually building my relation to the Japanese word and learning to see, hear and feel it the way a Japanese person does.

And this, in miniature, is why J-J definitions are important. No two words in different languages mean the same thing. People argue that “water” means the same as 水. In a way that is right but in another way it isn’t. 水 refers to the substance we all drink and swim in, certainly. But the word also has literary/linguistic/cultural associations and colorings that differ from those of “water”, and vice versa.

As soon as we get beyond the simplest words the differences deepen. Oishii does not mean “delicious”, for example. There is no English word that exactly expresses what oishii does mean.

Hawk and タカ refer to the same bird, but unless you happen to be an ornithologist, that is not what is really important about the two words. What really matters are their linguistic/emotional/cultural reverberations.

If you want to learn Japanese in a polyglot “fluent in three months” way, none of this matters. If you want to learn “business Japanese” (only), none of this matters.

But if you want to learn Japanese from the inside, to feel it in its true “weight” and “coloring” – in other words, to know what Japanese words mean, not what their nearest English equivalents are – then this is very important indeed.

Japanese-Japanese definitions: getting started →

Language Acquisition Theories: How they can help you learn

Make Universal Grammar work for you

In the previous article on modern language acquisition theories, we learned how Universal Grammar forms the basis for a child’s initial acquisition of language and generally how that acquisition actually works. Now we can turn to the practical application of the science.

What do these language acquisition theories mean for the language learner?

First, they mean that age is not any kind of a barrier to language learning. After the age of around ten you can learn language equally well at any age. The deciding factors are motivation, amount of study, degree of immersion etc., but not age.

The current language acquisition theories also mean that you will probably not become fully “native” though you may get very near it. They also tell us what the key to this is:

The more you can map your target language onto Universal Grammar rather than onto your first language, the nearer you can become to native.

Now there is a balance here. Especially in the early stages, learning via a known language is a very important short-cut. Remember that contrary to popular belief, small children do not learn language quickly. The number of “study hours” it takes a small child to be able to express herself even rudimentarily is very large indeed. By mapping onto your already-acquired native language at first you can and do cut down this time radically.

Learning grammar rules, as I have often said, is a quick-and-dirty shortcut to learning language. But it is a shortcut and it does work (here is how to go about it efficiently without getting bogged down in it).

Pseudo-immersion methods, like Rosetta Stone, which try to replicate the small-child-learning process fail for a number of reasons: there is no human interaction, it is not done for every waking hour, but primarily they fail and must fail because the user already knows Language. Whatever happens, she will be mapping what she learns onto her native language—just doing it very inefficiently. At the end of many, many hours she knows a lot of nouns, some verbs, and almost no grammar. If she doesn’t give up at that point, she will, very wisely, invest in a grammar textbook.

So do our language acquisition theories deny the possibility of immersion-learning for adults and older children?

Absolutely not. But these, I believe are the conditions:

1. If you can find a genuine 100% immersion environment—all Japanese all the time with complete isolation from your own language—then absolutely go for it. I envy you. You will learn even with no theoretical teaching—though it will take a long time and will actually be much faster if you have mastered basic grammar first. But having said that, it is probably the best way to learn.

2. Failing that, what can and should you do by way of immersion, and how will it work in accordance with our language acquisition theories?

Remember that our aim is, as far as possible, to map Japanese onto Universal Grammar and not onto English. You should start by learning the grammar through the medium of English (or your native language) because that quick-and-dirty shortcut will give you a big head-start once you begin the real thing.

What is the real thing? It will vary from case to case, but our aim is to think in Japanese, not to think in English and “translate” Japanese back to ourselves. To this end, we should:

a. Imbibe native materials (not for-gaijin Japanese) as soon and as much as possible. I have talked about how to do this via anime. Personally, I do not have any recreational activities in English. Japanese to me, outside of necessary English communications (like this one), is not “a language” but Language per se. If I can’t watch an anime in Japanese (with Japanese subtitles), I can’t watch it. If I can’t play a game in Japanese, I can’t play it. If I can’t read a book in Japanese, I can’t read it. I don’t allow myself any recreational English activity.

b. Talk in Japanese every day if you possibly can. Whether it is with Japanese friends or other learners. Some people worry about talking Japanese with non-Japanese people, feeling they may “learn wrong” or pick up mistakes. If you are doing a. you should be getting exposed to a lot of correct Japanese through that. But I also believe that even if you are picking up or cementing in some incorrect language that is not nearly as important as the fact that you are using Japanese regularly. Small children don’t always speak correctly, and often their conversation is with other children who don’t speak correctly. But they do use the language because it is, for them, Language per se—the only means of communication. So it should be when you speak Japanese: even if you both know English, if you can’t say it in Japanese, you can’t say it.

Ideally, it is good to have practice partners  with whom you only ever communicate in Japanese. This is important not merely because it extends the amount of time you spend speaking it. The most important element is a subtler, but vitally important, psychological one. You are building a human relationship in which Japanese is the only language—Language per se. Language is the basis of our human relationships, and human relationships are the basis of our initial acquisition and continued use of language.

You see the pattern here. What you are doing is carving out areas of your life where Japanese is not a language but Language per se. You are not practising Japanese, you are using it. If you want to say something to your Japanese-partner friend you have to say it in Japanese because there isn’t another language. If you want to see a movie or play a game, you have to use Japanese because there isn’t another language. Your limitations in Japanese are your limitations, period—at least for the areas of your life that have become Designated J-Zones.

c. Think in Japanese. This is probably the hardest part but also the one that will most effectively map Japanese onto Universal Grammar rather than onto English in your mind. You need to begin putting your internal monologue into Japanese. If not permanently, then at least for designated periods. While this is difficult, it is very possible. You can “dethrone” English from its place as your thinking-language though it takes a lot of ganabaru and a spirit of taihen da kedo zettai ni akiramenai (I definitely won’t give up however tough it gets).

And it will get tough. English will try to hang on to its position as your representative of Language per se—or Universal Grammar—like grim death. Inch by inch you will have to force it out. The more you do this, the more your “first thought” is in Japanese, the more you are mapping Japanese to Universal Language directly rather than to Universal-Grammar-via-English.

By these methods you are forcing your mind, at least to some degree, to map Japanese to Universal Grammar (its root language model) directly rather than via English. Thus you will be using language acquisition theories to your advantage and absorbing and using the language in the most natural manner.

NOTE: Since writing this I have discovered that learning to think in Japanese is much less difficult than I made it sound here if you use the method I recommend. I don’t know if this will work for everyone but it has certainly done wonders for me.

Language Acquisition Theories and What They Mean for Language Learning

language-acquisition-theoriesLanguage acquisition theories have changed a great deal over the last half century. The most popular notions—for example that language learning ability declines with age—are based on ideas half a century old and not supported by the last several decades of research.

The idea that language-learning ability deteriorates with age is largely a myth. What is true is that very small children have one very important advantage in language learning.

Actually they are not that fast. It takes about four years to become fluent, but by no means adept, in one’s native language—and remember that children are “studying” the language almost every waking hour for that time. But their enormous advantage is that they don’t know any other language.

In some ways this is a disadvantage. It cuts out many of the shortcuts second-language learners can (and should) use—definitions of words, grammar explanations, etc. This actually does slow them down in relation to older second-language learners.

But far, far outweighing that disadvantage is the advantage that they learn language organically. They learn to associate words directly with concepts, not through an external medium (another language).

Many current language acquisition theories now accept the concept of Universal Grammar (UG). This means essentially that basic grammar is part of the inborn human mental apparatus. This theory is necessitated by the fact that small children learning language actually know more than they do, or can, explicitly learn.

What small children are in fact doing is mapping the local dialect (the native language) onto universal grammar structure that already exists in the brain. This is why, despite their great differences, the fundamental similarities of human languages are even more striking. They all have something like nouns, something like verbs, and something like adjectives, for example, and they all link them together to form descriptions of objects, events, and concepts in patterns that, while widely various, essentially work in the same way.

In the sentence:

Mary threw the ball at Susan

Mary is the grammatical subject, the ball is the direct object, and Susan the indirect object. English marks these simply by word order. If we say

The ball threw Susan at Mary

the ball has become the grammatical subject, Susan the direct object, and Mary the indirect object, and while the sentence may be absurd, it is perfectly grammatical and understandable.

German and Latin mark these three cases (subject, direct object, and indirect object) by declining the verbs with case-endings, making word-order largely interchangeable. Japanese does the same thing by appending a particle to each noun (ga,* wo, and ni respectively). But all the languages are doing the same thing. They are taking Universal Grammar and expressing it through different local conventions.

So each child begins, not with the tabula rasa (blank slate) postulated by the early-modern language acquisition theories of Rousseau and his followers in the 18th century, but with the fundamental structure of grammar in place and ready to have actual words and local structures mapped onto it.

To this child, the local words and structures she learns become the “incarnation” of Universal Grammar. She does not feel that she is learning “a language” but that she is learning Language. And in a sense, she is. She is learning, or more exactly actualizing, Universal Language in the particular form in which her local culture embodies it.

This is why the “native language” is nearly always more fluent than later-learned languages. To the mind, the native language is Language per se, while any second language is learned through the medium of the native language and therefore is mapped not to Universal Grammar but to the native language. It is a second-level mapping that can never be as organic as the primary mapping.

Many non-specialists are still influenced by 1960s language acquisition theories based on the exploded theory of the brain’s plasticity being greater early in life (it isn’t) and therefore language acquisition being easier at that time. They may point to the fact that a child learning a second or third language very early in life can pick it up to near-native level quite naturally.

The truth here is that the mapping of the local (native) language onto Universal Grammar is still not complete and “hardened”. Small children, even when fluent, still make many mistakes that even the most uneducated adult or older child never makes. Thus with the mapping still in a fluid state, a second or third language is mapped partly onto the first and partly onto Universal Grammar. In the case of a child exposed to two languages from birth, both may be mapped onto Universal Grammar and thus both will be “native”.

Now that we have looked at the basis of language acquisition theories, let us see how we can apply them to learning language in general and Japanese in particular, and especially to the problem of how we can try to map a second language to the Universal Grammar structure in our brains rather than to our first language. Because this is the key to near-native proficiency.

Proceed to: Using Language Acquisition Theories to Learn Language

*Those who would argue that if wa is used the grammatical subject has not been marked should read my essay I Am Not an Eel.

Localization: Why Anime Translations are so Wrong (even when they don’t mean to be)

Most of us here at Kawaii Japanese prefer to play games and watch anime in the original Japanese if we can. Even if no changes have intentionally been made the English translations usually have a  very different atmosphere from the Japanese.

Some of this is connected with the practice of “localization”, but a lot simply stems from the fact that Japanese just isn’t directly translatable into English. It says things in different ways to the extent that in many cases it is actually saying different things. The English translation is not so much a translation as something like what the original was saying.

Extreme “localization” means essentially pretending the Japanese characters are American and making them talk and think as if they were. You have probably seen examples of this. However, the problem is that the line between localization and translation is much thinner than many people realize. To a large extent one has to localize while one translates because what the Japanese characters are actually saying either doesn’t exist in English or can only be said by using very wordy and unnatural English to translate a one-word Japanese concept.

Even the textbooks and dictionaries are full of “localization”. The world oishii, for example, is routinely translated as “delicious” however, as we show elsewhere, that is only a rough and sometimes misleading approximation of its real meaning. I am not blaming the sources in question. A real explanation of oishii takes a small essay (which I wrote), but that is hardly practicable for a vocabulary list or a dictionary.

Generally speaking, where the source material is quite gentle, the English translation has to come over as “rougher” and more casual, because modern English just works that way. In fact once one tries to translate these things one begins to realize how far modern English forces one into certain attitudes and cultural “boxes”.

Which in my case, at least, is one reason for learning Japanese.

Just for fun, let’s take a very brief humorous caption to a picture (I love Japanese caption contests but please note that this is strictly for academic purposes and not just because Cure Dolly wants to post a kawaii picture of a tanuki holding a kitten).

I tried to translate the caption, and although it is only a few words long I found that I ran into various small problems. None of them were really serious, but multiply this by several thousand words and you can imagine how, with no conscious attempt of localization at all (which is rare in fan translations and pretty much non-existent in professional translations), the whole tone of a work is completely changed.

Tiny as this caption is, there are several nuances that are just about impossible to render in English. The English version is still fun and cute, I think, but it loses quite a bit.

Here is my English translation:

“Hey, Mama, can we keep her?”

ねぇ ne is endered in my translation as “hey” because I don’t know a closer English equivalent. It is an attention-calling word, like “hey” but its shading is a little different. Both are a bit insistent, but “hey” assumes a kind of egalitarian attention-calling, while ねぇ has a more from-below flavor to it, like a little sister pulling on one’s sleeve. It is decidedly cuter.

Actually even the first question mark (after ママ mama) represents a particular tone of ねぇ-sentence  which some of you will be familiar with. It  calls attention quite strongly before proceeding to the point. If I tried to get that across in English it would feel kind of bratty, which isn’t how it sounds in Japanese (it can, when, say, Dokin-chan does it, but mostly it doesn’t, and even with Dokin-chan it is still cute).

このこ(この子) kono ko means literally “this child” but it is not restricted in meaning to the extent that English “child” is. Maybe “this little one” would be better, but that starts to get much wordier than the original, thus losing its brevity and immediateness, and is also not a regular expression in current English as この子 is in Japanese.

飼って katte is rendered as “keep” in English and I don’t think that loses much, but 飼って very specifically means “keep and look after as a pet”. There isn’t an equivalent English word.

Taken together the English translation necessarily loses something of the flavor of the original. More interestingly though, this shows how even a very small and very simple sentence can only be rather roughly translated, even with extreme good will on the part of the translator and no desire to “localize” in the sense of virtually turning the speakers into Americans (as many Anime translations do).

This caption was not selected to demonstrate translation problems. Rather the reverse. It is a very straightforwardly translatable sentence compared to many. What it shows is how even a non-problematic sentence can’t really be exactly rendered. When you multiply this by hundreds and add in some real cultural/linguistic problems (which leave the translator with the choice of long footnotes or just re-writing the sentiments into American ones), you can imagine how far from the original even a conscientious translation will fall.

Which is one reason it is important to watch anime in the original if one can. And why, if one is learning Japanese, it is best, after the early stages, to learn Japanese words as Japanese words rather than learning their nearest English equivalent.

HabitRPG Japanese Deep Cave Adventurers’ Guild: Beginner’s Immersion Challenge

*This Challenge will be held again in September, from September 6, 2014 through October 6, 2014.

始めまして。優しくです。Pink Dragon


In August, the HabitRPG Japanese Deep Cave Adventurers’ Guild will be sponsoring its first Challenge, which will be a Beginner’s Immersion Challenge.   This Challenge is designed to assist Beginning Japanese students (and more advanced students) to start to use Japanese, rather than merely to practice Japanese.  One of the steps towards going beyond practicing Japanese to communicating in Japanese is to encounter it in the wild…in its natural habitat, as it were, rather than safely in textbooks, vocabulary lists, and learning sites.

As Japanese learners, we are very fortunate to have a wide range of media readily available in the form of Anime and manga in order to assist us encountering the language in its natural habitat.  Cure Dolly has written a wonderful article describing how to learn Japanese through Anime, which you can find here.  I use this method myself, with a few tweaks for my own learning style and temperament.  When I first started working with Anime, it took me about 6 to 10 hours to work my way through a 24 minute episode (I started VERY early in my studies).  Now I can manage most 24 minute episodes in an hour or two, depending on the complexity.

So, this brings us to the first part of the challenge, which is a Todo of watching 1 episode of Anime with Japanese subtitles during the month, slowly, looking up new words and grammar points, and entering them into your Anki (or other learning tool).  For this Beginner’s Challenge, getting through one episode in the month is sufficient.  For true beginner’s, it might take a week or two (or more) to get through one episode.  That is fine.  You can do more if you wish, and count it in your own HabitRPG list; however, only one will count towards this particular challenge.

The second part of the challenge is a Daily of listening to spoken Japanese.  There is a lovely learning site, Effortless Japanese, in which Tomoe-sensei reads stories aloud in Japanese and asks questions about the stories in Japanese.  There is also another website which has stories that you can read along with while you listen.  An example of one of the stories can be found here.  Still another option for this Daily is listening to Anime.  To get the most out of this Daily, it is best to study the material that you will be listening to ahead of time, and put new vocabulary into your Anki.  Unlike the first leg of this challenge, it is perfectly acceptable to do this Daily while engaged in other tasks, such as housework or exercise.   The minimum requirement for this Daily is one story or episode, which range from 15 – 30 minutes long.

The third leg of this challenge is designed to start one actually using Japanese.  This leg is a positive habit of writing your habits, dailies, and todos on HabitRPG in Japanese.  This will help you to work out how to express what you actually do in Japanese.  It is also helpful in learning to use collocations, or words that go naturally together.

Here are some examples that I learned my own discipline of using Japanese for my own tasklists:

ベッドを直る (なおる)。Make the bed, in English, but is literally “fix the bed.”

アイロンを掛ける (かける)。 Do the ironing, in English, but is literally, “hang the iron.”

Now you have two tasks in Japanese for free!

For this habit, you can give yourself a + for each new Todo, Daily, or Habit that you write, so long as you write that habit in Japanese.  As this is a Beginner’s Challenge, this is a positive Habit only, so you will not get any penalty for writing in English.  While you should strive to write your task in correct Japanese, if you do your best, and write it in mistaken Japanese, that is ok too.  It is your own list that only you can see!  In my own experience, when I discover I have written a task incorrectly by later learning the correct way to say that task, I tend to really remember the correct phrase!  It is all part of the fun, I think!

In the Japanese Deep Cave Adventurers’ Guild chat area, English is strictly kinshi.  For this reason, the Challenge itself will be written in Japanese.  For beginner’s, this is what it will look like:



日本語の字幕でアニメを1話見る (“Watch one episode of Anime, using Japanese subtitles”)


日本語を聞く (“Listen to Japanese”)


+  日本語で新しいHabitRPGの用事を書く (“Write new HabitRPG task using Japanese”)

The winner(s) of this challenge shall receive one Gem.

Good luck!


On Learning a Second Language without Having a First Language

japanese-second-languageMiss Geneviève Falconer once said: “Most English-speaking people would benefit immensely from learning a first language”. The witticism is apt and much appreciated, but in my case it is more literal than it was ever intended to be.

As a space alien (as one of my fellow exiles so amusingly puts it) I am very aware that English is not really my first language, although currently it is my only language (I have a smattering of a few other languages, but am not yet fluent in any). I write books in English, so I suppose, up to a point, I have gotten into the cage with the chair and whip and made the language do some of the tricks I want it to do. But it is really not my language.

There are many things I want to express, and I kind-of know the words for them but those words don’t exist in English. It is an interesting challenge to try to force and twist the language into expressing what I need to say, and I don’t claim not to enjoy it, at least upon occasion. I am in the unusual position of having a native speaker’s facility with the language, but not a native speaker’s culture and sensibility, and to be actuated by thoughts and feelings that do not seem to belong in English at all. It really feels like speaking a second language while not knowing more than snatches of my first language.

Language does not exist in a vacuum. All languages ultimately derive from “the first, the mother language”. Just as “numbers were before there were things to be numbered” (a saying from my homeland), so words were before there were incarnate beings to speak them. Just as music derives from the Primordial Note and descends via the unheard Music of the Spheres to the realm of things palpable (or in this case, audible), so language derives from the Primordial Word and descends via the unheard Language of the Angels to the worlds of incarnate souls.

The languages that beings speak are formed by centuries of thinking and feeling. Languages, like all things have a warp and a weft – a vertical and a horizontal dimension. The vertical dimension of the fabric of language is the Primordial Language, without which no being could speak a word. The horizontal dimension is what happens to language through its exposure to the world of flux and change. This, of course, includes the special character of each dialect, or “language” into which the Primordial Tongue is broken, which is shaped by the particular character of the collectivity that speaks and forms that dialect. So English has its own particular character, as do French and German, Japanese and Chinese and all the other languages of this world and of all other worlds. Each one corresponds to a particular “genius”, with all its strengths and weaknesses.

No serious philologist doubts that the “progress” of language is a degeneration. The earliest known languages are the most complex, subtle and sophisticated (compare Sanskrit to Hindi, Latin to its various modern derivative languages or ancient Greek to modern Greek – or any other like comparison you care to make). That the implication of this is “down from the Angels” rather than “up from the apes” they naturally avoid, for this would conflict with the current ideology of their world, but the fact that the entire known history of language is a history of decline is indisputable.

This is not to denigrate modern languages, since the decline is a part of the process of manifestation, and to a degree what languages lose in depth they gain in breadth – a poor exchange but one that is metaphysically necessary. My own is no exception, of course. Modern Western languages, though, and English in particular, have been shaped by centuries of de facto materialism and individualism. As such it is about as far from the sensibility of my people as a language can get. It makes me wonder why I – like several others – was deployed in the Anglosphere, though doubtless there are good reasons. It certainly makes the expression of the thoughts and sensibility that I have to convey a little more challenging.

On a personal level, it also very much increases my sense of isolation – which I suppose is not necessarily a bad thing (except from the standpoint of my own humble emotions) since I am not supposed to “go native” – and going native is near-to-inevitable in a life-deployment unless one is provided with unusual circumstances and a teflon soul. Both of which seem to have been the case with me.

I have had an opportunity to observe the effect of language as a “filter” for the manifestation of a soul in a dear friend who is an American English-speaker but fluent in Japanese. Her English-self is beautiful in a way that is rare in these times, but her Japanese-self is something else – something more beautiful and more true (I believe) to who she really is.

Japan has long been cited as something of a this-world analogue to my home nation (by no means an exact analogue, of course, since the all-possibility is limitless and the exact same Form does not manifest twice). I had always accepted that, and have always been somewhat fascinated by the Japanese language.

But in seriously beginning to learn it I became for the first time aware that there might actually be a language that allows my soul to be filtered into manifestation in a way closer to its true nature than is made possible by its current linguistic medium.

Time for the Great Experiment.

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


What Kind of Japanese do you Want to Learn?

...but why would I want to stop sounding cute?
…but why would I want to stop sounding cute?

I rather unusually spent some time browsing around about-Japanese websites recently, and found some interesting things.

One was that, looking at sites that recommend partial immersion (as we do), there is often quite a strong desire to reach fully-native levels of Japanese and lose all trace of accent.

One prominent blogger, speaking of older Japanese learners, said:

 While [their] Japanese is “good”, their pronunciation still sounds very foreign, they make many mistakes, and they don’t yet have that natural flow. I believe that you, the next generation of Japanese speakers, will be different.  You won’t be satisfied at average.  You will join the ranks of the few and bask in the rewards.

It is a laudable aim, but it caused me to pause and think, what kind of Japanese do I actually want? Do I want to sound completely native? My English doesn’t sound completely native, and it is the only language I currently speak well. I don’t pass as native anywhere – in English-speaking  countries, strangers always ask me what country I come from.

I have spent time on language exchanges, helping Japanese people with their English. Some of them also express a desire to sound completely native. I do not believe they will ever achieve that. They are too far from it and not immersed enough to learn the hundreds of thousands of tiny things that need to become second-nature before you sound native. Heck, I haven’t absorbed them myself (that “heck” was a conscious affectation. I don’t naturally use these native colloquialisms!).

Also – and I am going to get very controversial here in some folks’ eyes – do they really want to lose all the little cute Japanese mannerisms and ways of expressing things that give them such charm?

Now I know a lot of people do. I have seen an English-speaking blogger touch precisely this point (that Japanese people, even if they will correct you sometimes, won’t correct the things they find cute). Well, I can see how some people might not want to sound cute. Personally, I spend a lot of time trying to sound cute in English. Why would I want to throw away my natural cuteness in Japanese?

All this comes down, I guess, to the question of “what are your real aims in learning Japanese?” For some people they are very practical and quantifiable. For others they are less clear. One thing that I think can happen is that having started on a course of improving one’s Japanese (which of course is what you have to do for a long time before you get even remotely competent), that quest becomes endless. Like rich businessmen who have made enough money that there is really nothing they actually want that they can’t buy, but continuing to make more money has become an end in itself.

I am not criticizing this – either for businessmen or language learners. All ends are, in a sense, arbitrary. Wanting to make more money when you don’t need it is no more irrational than wanting to capture the opposing king in chess or wanting to hit a white ball into a hole (actually I can think of metaphysical symbolism in both those acts that is lacking in money-making, but even so…)

What do I want out of Japanese? I am still not sure. But I don’t think it necessarily entails speaking Japanese in such a way that people think I am a native if they have their eyes shut.* As much as anything, I want to enter a new soul-world, and one that to me feels closer to my real native one than the English soul-world does.

In many ways it is a kind of rebirth. Many of my activities have reverted to a more child-like level. If I can’t watch a show in Japanese, I can’t watch it. If I can’t play a game in Japanese, I can’t play it. I don’t do those things in English any more. In certain – quite large – areas of my life I now act as if Japanese was Language per se and there is no “other language” to fall back on.

I want to communicate in Japanese and experience a Japanese way of seeing. All this entails getting a lot better than I am. It does not necessarily entail native level. I am interested to see how Japanese changes my thinking and in some cases how it enables thinking that feels natural to me but is inexpressible in English.

Currently I watch anime for children and read children’s books. In a way the logical progression would be to graduate to adult ones, but frankly – while I certainly want to get to a more sophisticated level than I am at now – I am not interested in adult books and movies in English, so why would I be in Japanese?

I express quite sophisticated thoughts in English, I guess. Do I want to express those same thoughts in Japanese? I am not sure. Maybe they will be different in Japanese. I am interested to see where Japanese leads me. Maybe Japanese will want me to attain native levels in all areas. Maybe it won’t. In Japan I was content to let Mother Japan lead me. I am also content to let Mother Japanese lead me. I am determined to improve my Japanese. I am not particularly determined to lose all trace of accent or even necessarily to read newspapers (which I don’t in English). I might want to keep a level of simplicity in Japanese that I have lost in English.

But in the end it won’t be what I want of Japanese, but what Japanese wants of me, that determines things, I rather fancy.

* I think my regular readers know me better than this, but just in case there was any room for misunderstanding, I am absolutely not saying that it doesn’t matter how you pronounce Japanese. Talking Japanese with English vowels, timing and intonation is horrible. Of course one should be striving for correct pronunciation. What I am saying here is really only addressed to very high-level perfectionism – and not to criticize it, only to give my own – probably quite odd – thoughts.

Japanese Kanji for World and Kingdom

The Sacred Monarch: uniting the three worlds
The Sacred Monarch: uniting the three worlds

Today let’s look at the kanji for world and kingdom.

A friend watching Doki Doki Precure with Japanese subtitles was becoming a little confused by various words for world and kingdom, so let’s look at the basic ones. What do they mean, and how do we remember them?

As usual, let’s look at them in the light of traditional symbolic thinking.

The word for “world” is 世界 – sekai. It consists of two kanji: 世 se meaning “generation” and 界 kai meaning world.

se shows a mother holding children* – generations. It has other pronunciations and related meanings (world, society etc.) but its root-meaning is generation(s). The pronunciation is really a gift (at least in 世界) because it looks similar to せ and that is exactly how it is pronounced (it is theorized that the kana せ is actually a simplification of the kanji 世 ).

kai means world. This is a very fundamental kanji. There are two great symbols for the world (cosmos) in traditional thought. One is the house – the house is always a microcosm of the universe, with the hearth-fire as its central sun (heart). The field is the symbol of the world seen as the “field of action” (this is fundamental to the symbolism of the chess-board), or as the “place of growth”, or manifestation.

As you see, these two fundamental world-symbols, field and house, make up 界 kai. 界 only ever has one pronunciation, so if you want a mnemonic you could say “the world is not quite the (heavenly) Sky – so we cut the S off and just say kai”.

These two kanji together make the regular word for “world”, 世界 sekai.

The word for “kingdom” is 王国 oukoku.

ou means monarch. It is such a fundamental concept that it has no consonants. It is just pronounced ou. To understand the kanji we need to understand the concept of the Sacred Monarch, who occupies the middle position betwen World and Heaven, mediating between them. The Sacred Monarch (originally a Sacred Queen, later a King) carries the Mandate of Heaven and mediates it to Earth. The kanji 王 ou depicts this [for much more on this kanji and concept, please see this article (note that the kanji reading there is Chinese not Japanese)].

kuni/koku means “country”. Here we see the Sacred Monarch surrounded by what she rules. In traditional thought a realm is precisely the Sacred Center and its periphery. Without the Sacred Center there would not be a realm or country but a mere wilderness.

The kanji 玉 is actually not 王 the Monarch herself. It means ball or jewel. The Crown Jewel, and the Crown itself, is what adorns the Monarch and is often used as a synonym for the Monarch or her rule (terms like “property of the Crown” are still used in English). We could go further on the meaning of the Jewel as the Central Treasure (the Jewel in the Lotus) but that would be too much of a digression. What we should note here is that once we grasp the centrality of the Sacred Monarch we can see how Jewel and Monarch are closely related concepts. The jewel is a small-thing** that represents all the splendor and centrality of the traditional Monarchic concept. Therefore the kanji for jewel shows the Monarch 王 with a small-thing 玉. It implies both the small-thing that adorns the Monarch and the small-thing that is in itself Monarchic.

So the country, an ordered- or ruled-place (kosmos as opposed to kaos), is represented by the periphery with its central monarchic-jewel -  国.

We may also note that the kanji of 王国 oukoku, kingdom can be reversed to give us 国王 kokuou the Monarch of a country.


* While generally means world or generation, the connotation of mother-like care is not completely absent. 世話 sewa means caring-for or looking-after.

** Smallness is symbolically important, as “the Jewel in the Lotus” represents the Center that is not extended quantitatively into manifestation, but upon which all manifestation depends.

Japanese Pokemon Name Meanings

You think Bunnelby is a rabbit? In Japanese it’s a wallaby. Learn more surprising facts at the new Japanese Pokemon site


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