some tips for learning Japanese

Oops, it's already February! I wanted to post this in January because I have some advice to those who have made the decision to study Japanese in 2016. But, I believe that it's never too late to read this post if you are new to nihongo.

If your mother tongue is either Chinese or Korean, you’ll find many things in common between the languages when you start studying Japanese, and you have a lot of advantages because of the similarities. Lucky you!

On the other hand, for those who speak Western languages such as English, Japanese is a completely new language. You’ll quickly find that Japanese is very different from the Western languages you learned before. Unfortunately, I’ve seen many Westerners get disappointed by the difficulty.In fact, just learning Japanese words and grammar alone doesn’t get you to a stage where you can speak it. Japanese is not that easy. That’s why you need to start thinking in the way Japanese sentences are constructed.
First of all, you should understand Japanese word order.
I went to Kyoto.
I: watashi (wa)
went: ikimashita 
to: ni 
watashi wa  Kyoto ni  ikimashita. (I Kyoto to went.)
You must get used to saying “I Kyoto to went.” Until this Japanese sentence comes out of your mouth naturally as a habit, you consciously need to switch your brain to Japanese mode when you speak in Japanese.

Now you are able to say “watashi wa Kyoto ni ikimashita” (I went to Kyoto) or “kino watashi wa eiga o mimashita” (I saw a movie yesterday). At the next stage, most of my students ask me, “How do you say I can in Japanese?” “How about I need?” “How about I should?”  They want to try to add some more meaning to their Japanese, and it’s only natural to want to do this. However, this is where Japanese gets hard. It just doesn’t work as simply as English.

I consider English to be an "add" language. Even if you just know “go” and “can”, you can just combine them. Then, “I go” becomes “I can go”.
On the other hand, Japanese is a “change” language. You need to change “watashi wa ikimasu” (I go) to “watashi wa ikemasu” (I can go), and you need to know the rule for this change. "watashi wa mimasu” (I watch) doesn’t change to “watashi wa mikemasu”.
Also, the rules are different for each expression:
  • I go: watashi wa ikimasu.
  • I can go: watashi wa ikemasu.
  • I need to go: watashi wa ikanakereba narimasen.
  • I should go: watashi wa iku beki desu.
When you look at the verb “ikimasu”, you notice that only the “i” doesn’t change and the rest after the “i” conjugates. The expressions for “need to” or “should are” are attached after that. This system is different from that of an “add” language.

Accepting this new concept quickly is important for learning Japanese. In the beginning, everyone tries to translate his or her own language to Japanese. This is natural. But, please be aware of the unique rules and sentence structures in Japanese.
I’ve been teaching Japanese for over 10 years and learning English for over 20 years. From my experiences, I’ve realized that adaptation, educated guessing, and simplification are very important skills for studying languages. If you have these three abilities, you have what can be called linguistic sense. 

  • Adaptation: When you learn from one or two examples, you can apply this to other words
  • Guessing: Even though you don’t know every word or grammatical expression, you don’t stop trying to understand and you can guess meanings.
  • Simplification: When you find it hard to directly translate what you want to say from your own language, you simplify it and try to speak with the words and expressions you already know. 

I believe these three skills help you. If you find learning Japanese stressful, try to change your method. You should enjoy it. Good luck! Gambatte kudasai !


Dear travellers, Have a nice trip!

The Paris attacks are very sad and horrible. I pray for those victims.
I just hope that the same thing will never ever happen again and that this tragedy will not cause another one.
As you know, Paris is a melting pot. Because of this, the city has been suffering from many problems and distortions. At the same time, this diversity is one of their charms. Especially for me, living in (almost) monoracial and monocultural Japan, a diverse city is special.
Religion and terrorism are different things. I do hope that people can stop the negative chain reaction of hatred and violence and that everybody can simply live a happy life in any society. Unfortunately, they seem like impossible hopes right now. The negative chain reactions has been happening here and there...

Let’s start talking about Japanese.
There are so many English expressions with “have”, such as “Have a good day”, “Have a good weekend”, “Have fun” and so on. You can almost create as many as you want. On the contrary, Japanese has no such handy verb. (I also wrote about this in an old post.)
That’s why direct translation doesn’t work for “Have a nice trip” and “Have a nice flight”. But we do have Japanese expressions for travelers.
Have a nice trip.: ryoko o tanoshinde kite ne.
Have a nice/safe trip: ki o tsukete itte kite ne.
An interesting point in Japanese is that “kite ne” is attached at the end of the sentences. This “kuru” indicates that a traveler will come back to the place where he or she is now. 
ryoko o tanoshinde kite ne.: Enjoy your trip and make sure to come back.
ki o tsukete itte kite ne.: Take care and make sure to come back.
I just remembered what my teachers told students on school excursions. The teachers said to us every time, “An excursion doesn’t finish until you get home. Going to a destination is not the end of an excursion. Going back to school from the destination is not either. You should behave well until it’s over.”

Next, according to a dictionary, “flight” is “bin” in Japanese. But we don’t say “ii bin” (good flight), “anzen na bin” (safe flight) or “watashi no bin” (my flight). However, the following usages for “bin” are okay.
chokkobin: chokko bin (direct flight)
asa/hiru/yoru no bin: asa/ hiru/ yoru no bin (morning/ afternoon/ evening flight)
001bin: flight 001
iki/kaeri no bin: iki no/ kaeri no bin (a flight to go/ to come back)
My flight is late” is “watashi no hikoki/flight wa okureteiru.”

Here is another expression for traveling or going out. In English you say, “I’m on my way.” Its direct translation, “(watashi wa) tochu des”, is also wrong. The correct way is like this:
I am on my way (to school). : (gakko e) iku tochu des./ (gakko e) mukau tochu des. 
“Tochu” indicates not only being between a starting point and a destination, but also between the beginning and the end of an activity. Therefore, the following expressions are possible, too.
Tabeteiru tochu de seki o tatanaide kudasai. (Don’t leave your seat while you are eating.)
Shokuji no tochu de seki o tatanaide kudasai. (Don’t leave your seat during a meal.)
shiai no tochu, ryoko no tochu, shuccho no tochu (in the middle of a game, trip, business trip)
By the way, Japanese people have been talking about how many omiyage Chinese tourists purchase in Japan. A new word for this trend has even been created. It’s “baku gai” which literally means “explosion purchase”. Japanese people are also famous for buying omiyage for family, friends and colleagues, but I think they don’t do baku gai and just buy a few of each item. It’s actually fun to buy a nice omiyage or get them, but free “miyage banashi” is also nice.
Miyage banashi: tales of one’s travels
The other day, my non-Japanese friends visited Kyoto for the first time. They told me that they were impressed by the beautiful ryokan, were irritated at the popular spots with crowds, appreciated Japanese culture at quiet temples, and how they viewed the city. I really enjoyed listening to their miyage banashi!

Those who have taken the JLPT, otsukare sama!! I hope you will have a break from Japanese and enjoy the festive season from now on!! When you go back home, kio tsukete itte kite kudasai! And then when you come back, tell your miyage banashi to your friends in Japan.


Japanese cautions at stations

Today is the last day of September. I almost missed my deadline for this post, but I made it!

This is the out of blue, but do you know what “hyogo” are? They’re writing on posters that tries to convey messages to the public. In Japan, they’re usually illustrated with characters and put up at stations. You’ll know what I’m talking about as soon as you see one. The following is an example of one.

The Tokyo Transportation Bureau created this one. I found it on a bus and took its picture recently. In this poster, two strange creatures (not human beings) bump into each other on the platform. Also, the train has eyes and a mouth and is making a surprised expression. There are hyogo above and below the illustration. 
We Japanese have seen these all the time since childhood, so we don’t find them special, but don’t you feel this is a bit weird?
The author Haruki Murakami lamented once that there are too many hyogo in Japan.

By the way, I didn’t take this picture because I liked the poster, but because this hyogo has some grammatical points worth mentioning.
  1. nagara aruki
  2. kou naru kamo
  3. yame you
Do you know what “nagara aruki” (#1) is? This means walking on the platform while using your cell phone. It’s hard to see, but the character on the right side is looking at his red phone. He is focusing on his phone so much that he bumped into the person next to him.
Of course, you can use this grammar with expressions other than “while playing with your mobile phone” (keitai o ijirinagara). “While reading” (hon o yominagara) or “while being drunk” (yopparai nagara) are both types of “nagara walking” and could cause accidents.
The left part of this picture is cut off, but the English sentence says “No mobile phones and games while walking”

It seems many people think that it’s easy to use “nagara”, but I’ve realized that even advanced learners often misuse it. Everyone is convinced that “nagara” is the same as “while”! “Nagara” is certainly often translated as “while”. However, there is one important condition.
nagara: A person is doing two activities at the same time
Here are some examples of correct usage.

  • (Watashi wa) keitai o ijiri nagara, (watashi wa) aruku. (I walk while using a cell phone.) 
  • (Kare wa) ongaku o kiki nagara, (kare wa) unten suru. (He drives while listening to music.)
Here are some examples of mistakes.
  • (watashi wa) hon o yomi nagara, (kanojo) wa terebi o miteiru. (??) (She is watching TV while I am reading.)
  • Ame ga furi nagara, (watashi wa) hashitta. (??) (I ran while it was raining.)
Do you see the problems? The first example describes activities done by two different people. In the next one, “ame ga furu” (It is raining) is not the speaker’s action. As you probably noticed, you must have the same subject before and after "nagara".

Here are the corrected sentences:
  • Watashi ga hon o yondeiru aida/toki ni, kanojo wa terebi o miteiru.
  • Ame ga futteiru aida/toki ni watashi wa hashitta. Or: ame no naka, hashitta.
Next, kou naru kamo” (#2) indicates that this kind of result may happen because of “nagara walking”. "kamo" is the casual/short form of "kamo shiremasen".

Lastly, “yameyou” (#3) is the casual/short form of “yamemasho”. 

This is such a simple hyogo using only one kanji, but it includes three useful expressions! It’s a great one to use as Japanese learning material. Do you ever try to learn Japanese by reading hyogo or advertisements?

Anyway, when you put these three expressions together, it reads “Please stop walking while looking at your mobile phone. It may cause an accident.” Yes, this is true, but each of us just have to pay attention to our surroundings. I wonder how effective this hyogo is in decreasing the number of the accidents? 


Omissions in Japanese

It’s summer now! Or is it the end of summer? Most of you have already come back from your vacation. I’m going to take mine after summer ends. I’ve chosen where I want to go, but haven’t planned anything yet, so I don’t know if I can actually go or not. If I make it there, I’ll let you know.

Today, I’m thinking about omissions in Japanese. We even leave out “watashi” or “anata” in Japanese sentences. You often wonder what’s hidden in these sentences when you hear or read Japanese, don’t you?

First of all, I’ll write about the omission of subjects. When you speak with another person, you know you are either talking about yourself or him/her even if there are no subjects in your sentences.

But, when you start talking about a third person, you definitely mention his or her name the first time they come up. Otherwise, you don't know who is being spoken about. And then you may keep talking about this person without mentioning their name again. This is probably not always the case, though.

However, why do the speakers know who they are talking about? The reason lies in verbs. There are some verbs with which it is obvious who the subject is.

Here are three examples.
1. ageru, morau and kureru: For example, if you use “kureru”, the subject can’t be yourself
2. keigo (polite Japanese): For example, if you use “irassharu”, the subject can’t be yourself.
3. iimashita and itteimashita (someone said): For example, if you use “itteta”, the subject generally  can’t be yourself. (However, when it’s used to mean “I was saying”, the subject can be the speaker.)
(I won’t discuss here why the subject can’t be the speaker when “kureru” and “irassharu” are used, but if you want to know, please ask me in the comments below.)

The point is that you can often guess who does the action from the verb even though the subject is omitted. Therefore, it is important to listen or read carefully to notice which verbs are used.

Next, I’ll introduce very short sentences. Some words are omitted from these. I am sure those living in Japan have heard this sort of thing many times.
1. watashi wa beer.
2. Nihon wa nagai n des ka?
A literal English translation of “watashi wa beer” is “I am beer.” This doesn’t make any sense, but if you say this when you order beer at restaurant, it does make sense. The complete version of this sentence is 
“Watashi wa beer ni shimas.”
Here “shimas” means “choose” or “decide”, so the sentence means “I choose beer among the drinks on the menu.” The verb is omitted because you can guess what the speaker is trying to say from the situation even without the verb.

A literal English translation of the next example, “Nihon wa nagai n des ka?" is “Is Japan long?” Japan is long indeed from north to south, but the actual meaning of this question is “Have you been in Japan long?”
The complete version of this sentence is 
anata ga Nihon n iru no(jikan) wa nagai n des ka?”
Half of the sentence was omitted, but if you ask this to someone whom you’ve met for the first time, it makes sense.

In the last example, nothing is left out grammatically, but there is no verb.
Q. mou Tanaka san ni aimashita ka? (Have you already met Tanaka san?)
A. mada des. (Not yet.)
This “mada desu” implies “mada atteimasen” (I have not met). Although the actual meaning is “mada atteimasen”, which is a negative sentence, “mada desu” appears in an affirmative form. I think this is interesting.
Basically, “mada + desu” has the meaning of “mada … shiteimasen” (haven’t done yet). You can guess which verb is implied from the previous sentence.

This is a bit off-topic, but I heard a funny conversation when I went to dinner with my bilingual friend the other day. She was talking in both Japanese and English and he person at the counter asked her, “Nihon wa nagai n des ka?” Her English is perfect, but she looks completely Japanese. I found it funny to ask this question to a Japanese person. I think it is more natural to ask her, “kaigai wa nagakatta n des ka?” (Did you stay overseas long?) 


"Shirimasu" (know) is never used.

I’m sorry that I didn’t write an English post in May.
June is the rainy season in Japan. The other day I was thinking that it hasn’t rained a lot in Tokyo this year … and then I got caught in a torrential downpour. All of sudden it started pouring and I got soaked, but it wasn’t even raining at the next train station! As it gets hotter, we’ll have more and more local downpours.

Today I’m going to write about how to use “shiru” (shirimasu). First of all, I want to make sure you know something: “I know” is not “shirimasu”!
I know. shitteimasu
I knew.:shitteimashita
Do you know? :shitteimasu ka
I don’t know. :shirimasen
I didn’t know. :shirimasen deshita 
Te-form is used for affirmative sentences and in questions, and masu-form is used for negative sentences. Why is that? First, I would like you to understand the difference between te-form and masu-form.


  1. indicates an action in progress  [example] ima watashi wa asagohan o tabeteimasu. (I am having breakfast now.)
  2. indicates the continuation of the state that has happened some time ago.  [example] watashi wa Tokyo ni sundeimasu. (I live in Tokyo.)
  3. indicates a habitual action  [example] nihon de gakko wa 4gatsu ni hajimarimasu. (The school year starts in April in Japan.) 

Let’s go back to “shiru”, then. The English definition of “know” is as follows:
to have something in one’s mind or memory as a result of experience or learning or information
This means that the state of “I know” has been continuing since someone came to know something sometime in the past. Te-form #2 applies here. 

The example I mentioned for te-form #2, “Tokyo ni sundeimasu”, would be translated as “I live in Tokyo” in English. Because this describes the current state starting from the past, we use te-form. If you say, “Tokyo ni sumimasu”, it would be something that is going to happen in the future (masu-form #1).

The next point is the difference between “shiru” and “wakaru”.
I think many of you have already noticed that Japanese use “wakarimasen” instead of “shirimasen” when they say “I don’t know.” For example:
Q. Kono hen ni yubinkyoku ga arimas ka? (Is there any post office around here?)
A. Sumimasen, wakarimasen. (Sorry, I don’t know.)
In this case, “wakarimasen” doesn’t mean “I don’t understand your question”. It means “I don’t know where it is”. Japanese often use “wakaru” in this way, so you must figure out what it is meant from the context. 


Every day is "mai nichi", but every child is NOT "mai kodomo".

The sakura season went by quickly and the weather has been unstable in Tokyo since then. We often have rainy days and sometimes have windy days too. Spring weather changes a lot. Did you enjoy the sakura this year? 

Today we are studying “mai” and “every”. “Mainichi” or “maishu” appear at the beginning of Japanese textbooks since they are easy and useful words. However, it isn’t always the case that “mai = every”. Advanced learners have probably already noticed this.
mai: something always happens at a certain time
every: regular occurrence at specified intervals
Only when these two definitions coincide is it possible to translate “mai” as “every” and vice versa.
As you know, “mai” is prefixed to another word when it is related to time, such as in “mai nichi” (every day), “mai asa” (every morning), “mai toshi” (every year), “mai kai” (every time) and so on. Other examples include “mai shoku” (every meal) or “mai shiai” (every sports match). These have the meaning of “every time”, so you can use “mai”.

Also, "every five minutes" is “go fun goto” in Japanese. This usage can be applied to other time-related words as well.

What about other cases? Let's study some definitions and examples from an English dictionary (Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary).
every: refer to groups of three or more which are seen as wholes
I think “subete”, “zenbu” or “minna” work well in this case. I will translate the following sentences. (Keep in mind that these are my own translations and there may be other ways to translate this text as well.)

  • Every child in the class passed the examination. (kono class no kodomo tachi wa minna shiken ni gokaku shita)
  • I've got every record she has ever made. (kanojo ga ima madeni tsukutta (dashita) record o subete motteiru.)
You can also say “dono ________ mo”.

  • class no dono kodomo tachi mo shiken ni gokaku shita.
  • kanojo ga dashita dono record mo motteiru/ kanojo ga dashita record wa dore mo mottieru.

What happens when “every” takes on the meaning of “each”?
every/each: every person, thing, group, etc., considered individually
I would say sorezore” or “ichi X ichi(one X one X).

  • He enjoyed every minute of his holiday. (kare wa yasumi no ippun ippun wo tanoshinda.)
  • They were watching her every movement. (kare tachi wa kanojo no ugoki o hitotsu hitotsu miteita.)
  • Each of us has a company car. (watashi tachi wa sorezore kaisha no kuruma o motteiru.)
  • He gave us 5 pounds each. (kare wa watashi tachi hitori hitori ni go pondo o kureta./ kare wa watshi tachi ni go pondo zutsu kureta.)
maitoshi haru ni saku sakurawa nihonjin ni totte taisetsuna mono des. 
sore wa tada no hana dewa naku, toki no nagare ya jinsei no henka nado o tsuyoku kanjisaseru mono des.
hitotsu hitotsu no chiisai hana wa jinsei no ichi byo ichi byo ni mo niteiru to watashi wa omoimas.
sakura wa nihon ju no dono machi ni mo uetearu node, doko ni sundeitemo, nihonjin wa sakura to tomoni seicho shitieru no des.

(Sakura, which bloom every spring, are important to Japanese people. 

They are not just flowers: they strongly remind us of the flow of time and the changes in life. 
I think every small flower represent a second of our life. 
Sakura trees have been planted in every town in Japan, so Japanese people grow up with sakura wherever we live.)

I should have posted this earlier. The Golden Week has just begun today!  Happy Golden Week, everyone in Japan !!


I hope (part 1)

The weather in Tokyo is getting warmer little by little, but it is still cold. I hope you haven’t caught a cold. I have almost gotten sick twice this winter but took care of it immediately, so I got better soon and have been well. Every time I feel a little sick, I take some medicine, go to bed early, and sleep a lot that day. This makes my condition better the next morning. I haven’t gotten a serious cold for last five or six years.
Some people are reluctant to take medicine, but I think that it is better for your body to take medicine when necessary.

“I hope” is one of the most common expressions that non-Japanese people want to know soon after starting to learn Japanese. I usually simply teach “to ii” to a beginner, but this is a tentative expression because “to ii” is not always used in the same way as “I hope” in English. For example, there is the common English phrase “I hope you had a good weekend”. You can’t directly translate it into Japanese. Thus, I am writing about this point today.

First, translate the next English sentence to Japanese: "I hope it will be warm tomorrow." 
Ashita wa atatakai to ii.
Ashita wa atatakai” is a speaker’s hope. This part should end with the dictionary form of verbs or the short forms of nouns and adjectives. “To” indicates “if”—essentially, a hypothetical.
So, if you directly translate this Japanese sentence, it is "If it is warm tomorrow, it would be good."
The dictionary shows “nozomu” or “kibou suru” as the definition of hope, but these words are not used in this situation. In Japanese, we just use an “if” expression. We don’t strongly show the speaker’s desire. I think that is interesting.

Let’s look at more examples.
"I hope you (will) have a nice trip." This expresses hope for events that will happen in the future. In Japanese:

  • Tanoshii ryoko da to ii ne.  (It would be good if it is a nice trip.)
  • Ryoko ga tanoshii to ii ne.   (It would be good if a trip is nice.)
  • Tanoshii ryoko ni naru to ii ne.  (It would be good if it will be a nice trip.)
Next is a hope for events happening now. "I hope you are having a nice trip."
  • (anata ga) ryoko o tanoshindeiru to ii na.  (It would be good if you are enjoying the trip.)
This hypothetical sentence can be used to assume something for the future and the present, but not for the past. Basically, no past tense verb can precede “to”.

You must be wondering how the Japanese express "I hope you had a nice trip."
  • Tanoshii ryoko datta? (Was it a nice trip?)
  • Ryoko wa tanoshikatta? (Was the trip nice?)
  • Ryoko o tanoshinda? (Did you enjoy the trip?)
Ask if it was nice or not. This is the best way. Very simple and easy.

While I was thinking about “I hope”, I realized that it is such a complicated expression that I can’t finish writing about it this time, so I am also going to write about it in the next few posts. This is the end for today. See you next time.