Now Featuring 1級 Grammar, Everyday Japanese That You Won't Find in the Book, and Language and Cultural Trivia!

Monday, June 30, 2008


きし かいせい
kishi kaisei

Today we're gonna take a look at some of the words and phrases that describe come-backs of all kinds. These are words that I've heard plenty of times, but I always get confused when I try to use them. It's hard to keep track of which ones are right for which situations.

  • よみがえる (yomigaeru) - to be resurrected; resuscitated; renewed; restored; revived; recalled. よみがえる is used in the most literal of senses (Jesus よみがえたed, for example), and for abstract concepts. If you're talking about a renewal of hope, faith, or love, you want to use よみがえる. You can also use it to mean "remembered" or "recalled." 「私の脳によみがえた」 means that something was brought back to your mind, or awakened, whether it be memories of the war, or an old flame.

  • 生き返る (ikikaeru) - to come alive (again), to be brought back from the dead. This one can also be applied literally, but it's the one you want if you want to express the feeling of being refreshed. 生き返る is used in connection with all sorts of non-zombie activities: eating, drinking, getting massages, haircuts...

  • 復活する (fukkatsu suru) - to restore; to revive. 復活 is not applied to once living creatures, and it can be used in the same way as よみがえる if you want to talk about the restoration of hope, but it's mostly used to talk about restoring things like customs, traditions, or laws. It's also the one you want to use to describe the restoration or re-opening of a business or building. (このFight Clubはぶれていたけど、復活した. よかった。)
And now, lets check out today's yoji, 起死回生。

1. To bring back from the brink of death.
2. Revival of something dead or near dead.
3. Last second rescue.
4. Recovery from a hopeless situation
5. An unbelievable come-back

This one is most commonly used as a sports metaphor, but there are cases of medical 起死回生, as well as financial ones. You can also find stories about once endangered species featuring this yoji.

Are there any other Japanese words or phrases that you know that relate to returns, revivals, or come-backs?

The Daily Yoji website, begun last year, lingered near death without any updates for a long time. But, thanks to Nirav and Brett's interesting posts, the site is back from the brink!

Friday, June 27, 2008


おん こち しん
on kochi shin

You'll notice that the hiragana and romaji formatting of today's yoji is broken in different places than usual. This is because, while many times yoji can be made by combining two niji compounds, today's has a niji compound stuck right in the middle: "故知: the wisdom of the ancients." How cool is that?

You'll recognize 温 from 温泉 (onsen) and 新 (new), and if you apply the meanings, in order, you get: from the warm wisdom of the ancients, comes the new. But the wisdom wouldn't be warm still, if we didn't keep it warm. Read on to get a better definition.

1. Learning from the past
2. Build new things on proven foundations
3. Develop new things by studying the past
4. Learn new things by applying old things


You've heard the famous quotation from George Santayana, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it?" This same idea applies pretty well to 温故知新. Remembering the past keeps it alive, keeps it warm, but the purpose of keeping it alive is not to keep living in it... but to prevent yourself from repeating it.

The connotation of 温故知新 is more on advancement, creation, and moving forward, not just prevention.

What I find intensely interesting is the possibility that Santayana's saying might BE an example of 温故知新, as 温故知新 is itself part of a famous Confucian saying. Is there a chance that a philosopher like Santayana writing in the early 1900s might have been familiar with Confucianism and based his new ideas on a similar, old principle?*

For those of you who are interested, check out this article about a case of real life 温故知新 and a case of real life Jurassic Parking in Dubai!

例文: 地球が爆破したことはまことに残念ではあるけれども、温故知新の精神で、生き残ったみんなで、ここでもう一回緒戦しましょう。
火星, 2057

The fact that earth blew up was a terrible shame, BUT, if everyone can keep the lessons of the past fresh in their hearts, those of us who are still alive can give it another shot, here.
-President Mehta

Mars, 2057

* The internet says "NO."

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Japanese Language Trivia of the Day:

As a male who likes to cook, I tend to arouse a lot of curiosity in Japan. I get a lot of questions about what kinds of things I cook, how often I cook, what's my favorite thing to cook, etc. Two questions that used to catch me off guard in this situation were the following:

1) 大好物はなんですか?
daikoubutsu wa nan desu ka?
What's your favorite dish (to eat)?
This one was weird to hear for me because the word 大好物 doesn't SOUND like it has anything to do with food. It always reminded me of 植物 or 動物, so I found myself imagining a giant plant animal beast when I should've been answering with お好み焼き or something like that.

2) 得意な料理はなんですか?
Tokuina ryouri wa nan desu ka?
What food (kind of food) are you good at cooking?

This one gave me pause, not because of the meaning, but because I never knew how to treat the useage of 料理. Was I supposed to name a specific dish, or just say "Mexican," "Italian" or something like that? I've had someone tell me that their 得意な料理 was ナス料理: stuff with eggplant in it.

Recently, I came across some GREAT language trivia that helps solve the problem presented by question number 2, and will help you impress people with more than just your cooking skills, especially if you know the origins of this trivia as well. The kanji for today's trivia have two readings, and both are used, so pay special notice to this:

じゅうはちばん ・ おはこ
juuhachiban ・ ohako

Where your 得意な料理 might be the KIND of food you're good at cooking, a person's 十八番 is their specialty dish.

I had dinner at a friend's house the other night, and one of the party members had recently returned from a homestay in New Zealand. She prepared New Zealand style roast chicken, and when everyone oohed and aahed over how delicious it was, she said: 私の十八番になったみたい。

This kicked off a lot of discussion around the table of what everyone's 十八番 was. Someone joked that their 十八番 was 卵焼き which I've heard a lot of other people joke about (seems like it's the Japanese version of "I can cook toast"). I was able to catch the meaning pretty quickly, but I was pretty confused.

What the hell did the number 18 have to do with cooking food?

So there are a few schools of thought on this or 説, meaning theories, which you can read about here on Japanese wikipedia, but we'll stick with the main one, because a: it's the most widely held and b: the buddhist explanation is wicked complicated.

The predominant theory is that this expression comes from kabuki theater, way back in the day (early 1800s) when kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjuro VII selected the 18 kabuki plays that he believed to be the best representations of the aragoto style of kabuki. The kabuki plays that are still performed today are taken from these 18. It took me a while to figure out why, of the 18, the 18th was considered the best. But then I realized that the phrase doesn't have to translate as "the eighteenth." It might just be "the eighteen." So when you say your 十八番、 you're not neccesarily identifying the 18th in a series, you're just referencing the idea of the best selection.

The fact that these same kanji have also been given the 当て字 reading/pronunciation of 「おはこ」 (honorable box) is attributed to the actual boxes that the props and settings for these 18 kabuki plays were stored in. This explanation looks suspect, however, when you consider the fact that there are records of this reading being used that predate the selection of the 18 kabuki plays.

Since my last super historical post ended up pretty dense and obscure, I'll let those of you who want to read more about this follow the wiki link above.

Other than that, you should also know that both readings of 十八番 can be applied to your best Karaoke song, as well as your specialty food.

Also interesting is this note I found, also on wikipedia: "the number [18], along with other eight-related numbers such as 80 and 88, is symbolic of the general concept of "a great many."

Hmm. So what are your 十八番s?

表現 Break: 衣ばかりで和尚はできぬ

ころも ばかり で おしょう は できぬ
koromo bakari de oshou ha dekinu

Get ready for a link festival!

Today's expression is an old one; you can tell by the way they turn できない into できぬ, an archaic form of negation which only survives today in these kinds of expressions (we covered this when we talked about how Japanese people treat cuckoos).

I found this one when I took another look at the site where I got the picture for 十人十色. 

日本のことわざ In English is a great page, and I've added it to the links bar on the left. While its English translations aren't always perfect, the accompanying artwork is engaging, colorful, laugh-out-loud bizarre, and sometimes downright scary. Check the picture for "Well-clothed and fed is well mannered." WTF?

Other than "Ten people, ten colors," you can see their versions of some of our posts, like 猿も木から落ちる、which has a great picture or 七転八起 or 悪事千里 from WAY back when The Daily Yoji was still on it's second post.

Now on to today's expression:

Literal - A robe alone does not a buddhist priest make (A hood does not make a monk).
1. The clothes don't make the man.
2. Appearances can be deceiving.
3. A monkey with rings on his fingers is not necessarily a king (Bulgarian proverb, according to my crazy friend Emo).
4. Sticking feathers up your butt don't make you a chicken.

I purposely left off "Don't judge a book by its cover," because this one seems to be designed more to warn the naive about those who affect an appearance without having the substance or to admonish those types directly.

"Book by its cover" always sounded like it had a more positive connotation to me, where the interior had a chance of being more valuable than the exterior led one to believe. This is not the case here.

When it comes to men, you should remember that appearances can be deceiving. There are lots of men out there who will act like they like you until they get what they want.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


ひょうり いったい
hyouri ittai

Whereas I happened upon previous yojis by happy circumstance or through random J-kaiwa, this one I actually acquired through blunt force (ie, asking a friend "What are your favorite yoji?"). In Japan, this can be seen as a kind of personality test. First, ask somebody what the first 四字熟語 that pops into their mind is. Anything is fair game. Next, ask them what their favorite yoji is, with the distinction that it should probably be different than the first (though it doesn't have to be. Their first reply is supposed to reveal their perspective on life, and their second is supposed to reveal their perspective on love.

I was first subjected to this two-step personality quiz by my girlfriend, who despaired in the answers my limited knowledge of such phrases yielded: 四面楚歌 and 中途半端. So in life I feel like I'm surrounded by enemies, and my affections are half-assed. It took some fancy footwork to convince her that the test was bogus outside the realm of native speakers (hell, I still think 凸凹 is the best kanji EVER), but if you don't want to suffer the same fate, you'd best keep comin` back.

Hmm - 凸凹 (でこぼこ) is actually a pretty good segue here...

1. Two sides of the same coin
2. Two parts of the same thing that are inexorably linked with one another.
3. You can't have one without the other.

I still haven't completely pinned down the usages of this one, but they are wide-reaching and can be applied to a lot of interesting situations. Computer hardware and software, for instance, came up a few times in my research. Just having the hardware or the software is meaningless - you have to have both. In this way, the yoji works for two things that define eachother's utility.

But beyond that, you can also apply it to situations where the two 'sides' are conflicting instead of complementary. For instance, being a professional football (AMERICAN, that is) player might seem like a glamorous proposition. But the other side of that coin is a ton of hard work, sometimes unwanted attention, and risking your body and career every game you play.

An even subtler usage is provided in an example from my 電子辞書:親切とおせっかいは表裏一体だ. Kindness and meddling are two sides of the same coin. Even if you are just trying to help someone out, that assistance can be misconstrued as condescension or downright interference. "The road to hell..." and all that.

My challenge for you all is to try and use this word in a creative way in daily conversation, and to post your results here. To make it harder, you can't use it in any of your many conversations concerning Newtonian Physics, because that would just be cheating.

Batman's enemy "Twoface" is the very embodiment of the phrase "two sides of the same coin." From his suit to his scarred face, he is a walking contradiction. He even has a scratched up coin, for Christ's sake!

Fun, 表裏一体 links!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Japanese Language Trivia of the Day

虫のマーチ! June is the first month the weather gets humid enough to prompt the return of Japan's torrent of enormous bugs. As such, what better time to be armed with a comparable barrage of 虫-based phrases?

むし めがね
mushi megane

Literal meaning: Bug glasses.
Translation: Magnifying glass.

むし ぼし
mushi boshi

Literal meaning: 干し means to dry out via heat, whether it be by the sun or a fire. So this one is "dry out the bugs"
Translation: Airing out, or to air out, ie what people do to their futons in the spring time.


むし ば
mushi ba

Literal meaning: Bug tooth
Translation: Rotten/bad tooth.

むしず が はしる
mushizu ga hashiru
Literal meaning: The bug-acid runs.
Translation: Disgusting

むし の いどころ が わるい
mushi no idokoro ga warui

Literal meaning: The bug's location is bad.
Translation: To be in a bad mood.

よわ むし
yowa mushi

Literal meaning: Weak bug
Translation: Coward

なき むし
naki mushi

Literal Meaning: Cry bug
Translation: Crybaby

むし の しらせ
mushi no shirase

Literal meaning: Bug's news.
Translation: A premonition, to have a feeling about something.

Now that you know all these awesome bug phrases, beware - there are a few well-known Japanese phrases that begin with "mushi", but it's not the same kanji. For example:

むし あつい
mushi atsui

Meaning: humid and hot, with pretty much the same translation

むし する
mushi suru

Meaning - To ignore, disregard, or neglect.

There are a whole lot of other ones, so if you're uncertain, look it up or ask.

2級 Grammar 51-55

Today's grammar sentences are brought to you by an event of BIBLICAL proportions: the 大掃除 of Brett's apartment, and man was THAT overdue. Check the examples to get an idea of the kinds of shenanigans that this involved.

51) ~ざるをえない
~ have to

This is the same as しなければならない, with the nuance that the action that must be performed is something that you don't want to do. It's good to think of this one as "しないわけにはいかない: not doing it is not an option." 

~ざるをえない replaces the ない in the negative plain form of verbs.

Ex. Macaroniの箱四個を捨てたくなかったけど、賞味期限が1998年に切れていたので、捨てざるをえなかった。

52) ~しかない
- is the only thing (to do)

しか was a revelation for me when I first learned it, cause it's so easy and so useful. Just put しか in front of a negative verb, and you've turned it into a positive sentence with the added meaning of "only."

How many people came to your party? 二人しか来なかった。Only two.
Can you speak English? 日本語しか喋れない。

This 2級 grammar point adds the fun of VERB + しかない, meaning VERB is the only thing to do (That's true by the way. It is.)

Ex. 3-4年間かかっても、掃除するしかない。引越しすることが出来ないし。

53) ~次第
~ after
~once X is done

Used commonly to ask someone to do something, after something else, and used most with verbs of conclusion. After something is finished (concluded, decided, etc), please do etc.

Check the comments below for an important point on using 次第. And some weird discussion.

Ex. やー、ブレット!掃除が終わり次第、あなたの孫によろしく、ね。

54) ~次第で(は)・~次第だ
~ depending on

I've been waiting for so, SO long to learn how to say "depending on" in Japanese. Don't know why I didn't just ask somebody. で is attached when you use it to say "Depending on X..." and continue the sentence from there. だ is attached when you end the sentence with "... depends on X."

Ex. 掃除が終わる時の体調次第で、パーティをするかもしれないし、休むかもしれないし、死ぬかもしれません。

55) ~上・上は
~ in relation to
~ concerned with
~ regarding

This one is a bit tricky. It's used to pinpoint the essence or the target of something, in an explanatory fashion. Like:
"They've had a lot of problems related to money: あの二人の間には、金銭上のトラブルがあったようだ。"
"He quit for reasons related to health:健康上の理由で止めた."

Ex. 彼女がいること上、アパートを掃除したくなったのかな?

And with that, I've taken care of my both my weekly grammar and my weekly give-Brett-a-hard-time quotas! Wooooot.

Post script:
Google Images let me down. I couldn't find any pictures of the fridge from Minority Report.

Also, here's a sample of real dialogue from the 掃除 session:

"I just cut myself on something in this cabinet."
"Is it bad?"
"No... but this place is like the inside of a Komodo Dragon's mouth. Even if the wound isn't deep, the ancient bacteria are gonna kill me."

Monday, June 23, 2008


しゃくし じょうぎ
shakushi jyougi

A guy I know once told that me that he felt that "culture shock" was a misnomer. "Cultural abrasion" was more of an apt phrase, he said, because culture shock doesn't come in sudden "Oh-my-god-look-at-how-weird-that-is!" bursts, but rather in small "I-can't-believe-this-office-meeting-is-STILL-going-on-and-all-we're-talking-about-is-bicycle-safety" doses. Little differences wear on you, until one day you're just tired of things and that's when you get "culture shock."

Since Japanese people are often interested in my opinion about the differences between American and Japanese culture, it's good to be able to express these sentiments and relay cultural shock experiences in Japanese. However, unless you're talking to your close friends, be careful with what you say. It's easy to offend someone when comparing countries and cultures. Japanese style toilets and raw meat are safe topics. Education and politics might not be.

That being said, today's yoji relates to one of the biggest differences between my existence in Japan and my existence in America, and one of the most frequent sources of culture shock for me. Allow me to relate a small anecdote:

I went to McDonald's in Saga City, to pick up some food for myself and a friend. We both wanted chicken nuggets. I tend to find that, with the the notable exception of mayonnaise, Japanese people use condiments in much smaller portions than I'm used to (I never get enough ketchup with my fries, anywhere!). So when I order chicken nuggets, I ask for two packs of barbecue sauce. On this occasion however, since I had ordered two packs of nuggets, I asked for barbecue sauce 四個. It was then that I was informed that there were strict rules, that had been set about the amount of barbecue sauce that could be legally distributed:

1 box of nuggets = up to 2 packs of barbecue sauce
2 boxes of nuggets = up to 3 packs of barbecue sauce
3 boxes of nuggets = up to 4 packs... and so on

Well, I suggested... maybe they could just give me an extra one?
No dice.
Well, then, I said, I'll buy one.
I'm sorry, they said, they can't SELL barbecue sauce.
They can't let me have one, and they won't let me buy one?
That's right.
That's just the rules.

So I told them I just wanted one box of nuggets with two packs of barbecue sauce, bought my meal, returned to the back of the line, waited, and bought another set: 1 box of nuggets, two packs of sauce. That was cool with them. Fricking. Ridiculous.

1. An inflexible system of rules
2. Stickler for rules
3. Having one pre-decided method, for dealing with all situations/things
4. Hard-and-fast rules
5. Bureaucratic decision making

When you come across a situation in which someone tells you what you can or can't do, but can't explain why, 杓子定規 is a good yoji to know. When you're feeling stressed out about dealing with hierarchies at work when all you want to do is ask the boss directly if you can make a minor change, upset about being treated as though you were the universal prototype foreigner, or are frustrated enough to want to communicate the seeming senselessness of your situation, 杓子定規's your phrase.

Use it as though it were a な type adjective, and attach it to nouns like "態度," "考え," or "処遇."

Japanese McDonald's seems to have never heard the expression "The customer is always right." Why are they so rigid in their arbitrary rules?

Friday, June 20, 2008


いっしん ふらん
isshin furan

I've never particularly felt like posting the yoji 一生懸命(いっしょうけんめい;isshoukenmei), because... well, because it's so common that it doesn't even feel like a yoji to me. After all, it's probably the yoji that's used most frequently in conversation, and I know that both Brett and I had each used it hundreds of times before we even knew that it was a yoji.

I even remember the first time I came across it, in my first Japanese text book. It was written in romaji, and it was defined simply as an adverb meaning : "hard," as in "I study hard." Not a particularly auspicious introduction.

But then I remembered that it wasn't until I came to Japan that I actually started to use it when I spoke (because everyone here says it) and that somewhere along the line someone mentioned to me that the Japanese version of doing something "hard" carried the nuance of expending all of the effort of your heart, your soul, your entire life. And this nuance is buried in the kanji that this yoji is constructed with. 一生懸命 can mean "for dear life," even when applied to innocuous things like studying or playing badminton, because if you do them seriously, you put all of yourself into them.

So with this post, I wanted to take care of the fact that I've neglected the most common yoji ever for far too long, but I was still worried that too many of my readers might see an 一生懸命 post and go, "Meh. I already knew that...." So I did some digging and I did some talking and I found an alternate yoji that will cause more of an impact when you say it. Here you go.

1. Intense concentrated effort in one specific direction
2. Single-minded devotion to something (more likely to be a goal than a person)
3. Unwavering concentration

"One heart, no rebellion" according to the kanji. You might recognize the 乱 from words like 乱暴、or ... other words that use 乱. The idea is that when you're in this state of mind, nothing breaks your concentration. The example I got (mundane as it may seem) was that if you're working at your desk, and you're really into it, and a mosquito starts draining your blood and you don't even notice, 「一心不乱に働いている」と言われる.

At Nishi Kawasoe Elementary, we Takeshita-sensei and Kyoto-sensei and I had a long talk about these two yojis (whose meanings are 大同小異) and how they were different. Here's what you should know.

一心不乱 is not used with imperative forms. You can't say 「一心不乱頑張ってください。」

Opinions (two of them) are divided as to which of the two expressions is stronger. Takeshita-sensei contends that 一生懸命 implies that 「命を懸ける」; in the original meaning, your life is at stake, so 一生懸命 has the more powerful meaning. But he was forced to concede to the point Kyoto-sensei made: In modern Japanese, 一心不乱 is rarer, and 一生懸命 is so common that people (like me) don't tend to really HEAR it, any more than they really HEAR an お疲れ様 at the end of the day. If one was to say 一心不乱 in it's place, they'd be more like to grab the listener's attention.

So the consensus (of two) was that while 一生懸命 is stronger in meaning, 一心不乱 is stronger in terms of impact when used.

  • 不乱 is pronounced like "fran."
  • The following video is an example of someone who DOESN'T know the meaning of either of today's yoji, and needs to be reminded: 「自転車を乗り、調子乗ってんじゃね!

Since I was a kid, my dream has been to become a novelist. But even though I've written volumes of my own fiction, I've never REALLY tried to sell anything. So from here on out, I'm going to focus all of my efforts on making my dream come true.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


icchi danketsu

I was looking for something that I could use when I was talking about the "Monster Parent" epidemic in Japan, cause recently, I've been having a lot of conversations about it. I'm really glad that the ridiculous attitudes of some of these parents have started to draw international attention, even if the attention is not much more intense than "Oddly Enough" blurbs on Reuters. See, the school where I work has a pretty serious "monster parents" problem, and a lot of my teachers are miserable about it. Whenever some ヤンキ disrupts the class, or the class next door, or starts a fight, or breaks something, the kid's ヤンキ parents get angry at the school, and want to know why the teachers are bullying their child. They don't seem to understand the idea that discipline is not bullying.

This isn't the way it always was in Japan though. Which brings us back to the point:

1. Complete and total unity and cooperation.
2. Banding together for a common cause.

This is the yoji that your average person would use when they talk about the relationship parents and teachers should strive for. I know because I've been corrected when I tried to use this very, very similar yoji:

だいどう だんけつ
daidou danketsu

1. Presenting a united front
2. A big and important merger (governmental as well as business)

This one's more appropriate for talking about things like military movements, government decisions about foreign policy, and business consolidations.

When you want to talk about less structured things, like sports, community activities, or relationships among 一般人, you would use 一致団結する, as in the following:

The "Monster Parent" Problem in Japan is really quite serious. Parents and teachers have to work together to set kids on the right path.

表現 Break: 猿も木から落ちる

さる も き から おちる
saru mo ki kara ochiru

Be careful with how and when you say this one, because it can sound like a warning, or a threat, if you say it to someone who has not yet screwed up.

If you say it AFTER someone makes a mistake, however, and say it kindly, it's interpreted as a comfort.

Literal- Even monkeys fall from trees
1. Everybody messes up sometimes.
2. Pride goes before a fall

The nuance here is that it should be used when someone has messed up at something that normally, they are very good at, OR is natural to them. If you ever happen to accurately correct a native speaker's Japanese grammar or kanji or something like that, it would be a great time to use this, feign modesty, and impress them even further.

A bonus phrase that goes along with this expression, particulary the "pride before a fall bit," is the following:

ちょうし のっている
choushi notteiru

Your 調子, as most of you already know, is your condition, or state of health. You can use 調子 to ask about someone's health (調子はどうですか?) or the condition of other things, like machines (車は調子悪い。), but did you know you can ride on it? "Riding on your own condition" is a Japanese way of calling someone stuck up, arrogant, or all puffed up on how cool they think they are.

We've taken to reminding each other and our Japanese friends during wakeboarding sessions (when someone invariably tries to do a cool trick and ends up eating it really hard): 波を乗り、調子乗ってんじゃねRide the waves, not your choushi.

Nirav didn't know the meaning of 「切磋琢磨」? Well, everybody slips up sooner or later. And anyhow, messing up every once in a while is good for that giant ego of his, don't you think?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


がでん いんすい
gaden insui

The Giving Tree is a fantastic book, and one that seems to have crossed the cultural divide pretty well. I've seen a lot of translated copies in Japanese classrooms or homes. Shel Silverstein had such a great ability to embed important life lessons for kids into dark, sad stories, without ever making anyone feel like what they were reading was dark, or sad, or... educational, I guess. I mean, think back about the story of The Giving Tree. That was a spoiled little kid, who grew up into an ungrateful man, who eventually becomes a sad, apathetic old man. It's a story about an exploitative relationship, and one that aptly characterizes today's yoji.

Literal - Drawing water for one's own field.
1. Being selfish
2. Acting in one's own self-interest
3. Manipulating (situations, arguments, people) to suit one's self

Think about the literal translation as though you were drawing the water for your field out of your neighbor's drinking supply.

The second, third, and fourth kanji are pretty easily recognizable: field, pull (draw), and water. If you haven't learned the first kanji yet though, you've definitely heard it. Let's look at some of the ways that it can be used.

  • 我々(われわれ; wareware): the あらたまった version of "watashi-tashi." You don't use this to say, "We're going to the store." You use it for "We are gathered here today...."
  • 我侭 (わがまま; wagamama): mostly written in kana these days, meaning "selfish; self-centered; egotistical."
  • 我輩 (わがはい; wagahai): an arrogant, masculine way to say "me," "myself," or "us." It's actually a pretty old form of speech, but many people know it because of this famous Japanese book, which of course, inspired one of the funniest lines in this cartoon.
Back to today's yoji though, I've found a million different usages on the web, in some of the following patterns:
  • 我田引水をする
  • 我田引水的な
  • 我田引水になる
  • 我田引水で(+動詞)
    English teachers working as ALTs often do more learning of Japanese than they do teaching of English. If asked why they wanted to come to Japan, many will reply that they wanted to learn Japanese, but there aren't that many who say "I wanted to teach English." If that's the kind of experience they were counting on before they came, isn't that kind of a self-serving plan?

    Tuesday, June 17, 2008

    Japanese Language Trivia of the Day:

    Do you know this kanji: 米? I bet you do. It means rice and America. I use it as a joke when I write my last name (米里; I tell them it means AMERICA village, which gets a laugh, but doesn't stop them from calling me コメザトさん).

    I remember learning a long time ago that the reason the kanji for "rice" also just happens to mean "America" is because the Japanese used to write America in kanji, and they would choose the Kanji based on their sounds, not for the meaning. 米 can be read as め so it became a part of 亜米利加. Other non-Japanese countries got similar treatments, 伊太利亜 is Italy, and that too is often shortened, using 伊 by itself to represent the nation.

    If you've ever watched an English movie with Chinese subtitles, you'll know that they do the same thing: the characters names are often written in Chinese kanji. No, there is not a Chinese character that means "Tyler Durden."

    So what I learned recently is the NAME for using kanji in this fashion:

    当て字 or 宛字

    The man on the right, Natsume Soseki (pen name), is a famous author, and is also well known for being the man to come up with many, many of these 当て字。And they're not just used for names of foreign countries/ers.

    Have you ever seen the kanji for sushi? Here you go: 寿司. I've seen it at tons of shops, on advertisments, on Brett's kaiten platinum card... but I never stopped to wonder why the kanji for sushi would mean "long life" and "government official." The meaning is arbitrary!
    The same thing happens to hijiki:
    鹿尾菜 or, translated, deer-tail-grass. Yum.

    Sometimes, in extremely fortunate situations, the kanji can be chosen for their meanings AND their sounds. In fact, the way I got interested in ateji in the first place was when I asked a teacher if he could write the extremely difficult kanji for りんご. He could not, and since I had made the faux paux of asking him in front of his class, he was obligated to quickly explain this inability away by saying that NO-ONE writes apple in kanji; the kanji are ateji! I thought, man, if that's a legitimate excuse for not knowing kanji, I need to know which ones are ateji right away. And yes, 林檎 as the interwebs confirm, are substitute characters, albeit extremely fortunate ones. Their separate meanings are "forest" and... "apple." What?

    Other fortunate examples are 合羽 (かっぱ, kappa) which, I did not know, comes from the Portuguese "capa" meaning "raincoat." The kanji can be thought of as "the meeting of wings: folding wings over yourself to provide shelter." It's a stretch, but, hey. It's cool.

    If you're a foreigner living in Japan, and you're lucky enough to not be named Jeff or some other name with sounds that don't occur in Japanese, you probably have been given 当て字 for your name. If not, you should make your own! Take your name as you would write in in katakana, and then search a kanji dictionary looking for Kanji that fit you, phonetically as well as personally. I had some nice calligraphy framed for my new niece, with her name in 当て字: 蛍里「けいり」 - firefly village.

    Then there's another type of 当て字:


    熟字訓 are 当て字 but backwards. They're words spelled with kanji that are chosen for their meaning and NOT their readings. 煙草 means "smoke" and "grass" and SHOULD be read: ケブリクサ or ケムグサ or something like that. Instead, it's read タバコ。

    These kinds of words have to be long and established to count as 熟字訓 though. A lot of times, in modern manga or novels, a writer will include 振り仮名 that suggest pronouncing 宿敵 as ライバル (rival), but because this word has it's own Japanese pronunciation and a Japanese definition that already means rival, it doesn't count as 熟字訓. It's just plain old 当て字.

    My favorite so far, and the one that convinced me to write this post, is the one that the poor woman who sits next to me at school begged me to unlearn. It appears only in manga, fiction, and is very popular in graffiti. I like to think of it as what you would say to someone you hated before you had to fight them to the death. For your Japanese learning pleasures, I'll leave you with it.

    2級 Grammar 46-50

    It's been a while since I put up one of the grammar posts, so I'll try and make my sentences related, like Brett's been doing, though I can't promise to live up to his special brand of hilarity. Here's the next in the series, which brings us up to over 25% of the 2級 list! Yay.

    We begin with the last of the ことs

    46) ~ことはない ・ こともない
    ~there's no need for
    ~you don't have to

    This is basically a more polite way to say, しなくてもいい, when you want to be able to say "There's no cause for...," in a formal situation. It gets used often with わざわざ sentences and なにも sentences.

    Ex. すみません、社長。今、なにも返事することはないですけれども。。。ずっと愛していますよ。

    47) ~際 ・ ~際に ・ ~際は
    ~at the time of
    ~on the occasion of

    This one is also a formal phrase, or as my book calls it, あらたまった表現。Add to the plain, conjugated form of verbs, or a noun + の. Use as below!

    Ex. 社長に初めて紹介された際は、夢みたいでした。

    48) ~最中に ・ 最中だ
    ~ just as
    ~ exactly when
    ~ちょうど - しているとき

    The subject doesn't have to be the same, but think of this one as "Right when I was in the middle of.." and you'll have it down. It can be used with progressive verbs, adjectives, or nouns + の.

    Ex. 離婚の最中に、あなた様に会えたおかげ、愛に信用がよみがえました。

    ~ even/not even

    This one is really hard. Look back at the からして post and see what you can do with it. My book has a lot of intense notes explaining that the nuance of さえ is in that it implies abnormality.

    Usually, humans don't eat mice, but :食べ物がなくなれば、人間はネズミさえ食べる。
    Usually, little kids shouldn't know things about explicit sex, but: インターネットのせいで、子供さえ「Double-frosted donkey punch」 の意味をしている。

    Ex. 自分でさえ、この禁物の愛は本当になると思いませんが。。。

    50) ~さえ~ば
    ~ even if only... then
    ~just... will suffice to...

    This one's easier. ネズミさえ食べれば、生きれる。Even if you have only mice to eat, you can survive.

    Ex. 社長は「私も愛している」さえ言ってくれば、ガマンできると思います。それに、給料を上がってくださいませんか?

    Monday, June 16, 2008

    天下無敵...and friends

    てんか むてき

    tenka muteki

    After much alcohol-fueled internal deliberation, I decided to feature this yoji while touching only briefly on its similar cousins.

    1. Unequalled, invincible.
    2. Unrivaled, the best on the planet.

    The structure is simple enough that a basic understanding in Japanese will yield a working translation - "Under heaven, no enemies", ie nobody on earth can be your foe. The great thing about this phrase is that it's wildly flexible. A quick image search reveals that the phrase is used in application to sports teams as often as it is for pornography (NSFW if you're skeptical), thus letting you quickly know who you should cheer for and what videos to look for in the adult section of your local video rentary.

    If you're more curious about the implications of the etymology, being without enemies doesn't mean work in the same sense as "he's such a nice guy, he would never make an enemy of anybody." It can only be applied in a "Nothing can stand up to that guy" sense of the phrase. There is a somewhat recent line of thinking that the former can apply, and digging around in various blogs shows that there definitely exist people who extrapolate the former meaning as applied to some life-lesson... but I would be hesitant to use it in describing anything less than spectacular. For example:

    The first few minutes are all you need to get an idea of where I'm coming from if you are (unfortunately) not well-versed in the ways of 北斗の拳.

    Now to march out two of the cousins of today's yoji: 天下無双(てんかむそう) and 天下無類(てんかむるい). At first glance it might look like I haven't made any change at all, but such is the single-moji replacement. The reason these yojis get less attention is because they are more or less interchangeable with 天下無敵, with vary faint nuances that cater to those unwilling to outright declare their dominance over all comers. Let's take a look at the kanji that set these phrases apart.

    双 can also be read as "ふた", and the most common place you're likely to see it is in 双子, futago, or "twins". It is best suited for when there is not only a pair, but a pair of things that either resemble one another or are the same. Thus, twins. 無双, then, means unmatched or unequaled. In this regard it is unlike today's main yoji in that it can be easier applied to someone who dominates a certain field where true "enemies" might not exist. For example, Einstein might be considered 天下無双 in the realm of physicists. While 天下無敵 still works, it might make it sound like Albert was prepared to engage in all out physics showdowns with quantum-field pretenders... which might be what you're actually trying to say.

    類 is often seen gallivanting down the sidewalk paired to make 種類(しゅるい), or "type/kind". It's quite a lot like 無双 save that instead of the connotation of there being no similar matching, there's not even a similar category that you can thrust others into. This is best used in situations where the subject breaks the mold, so to speak, or is in a league of their own.

    As a last note on usage, it functions pretty well as an adjective with "な" tacked on the end, though simply saying "~は天下無敵です" is perfectly fine, as are other の and に permutations.

    If you want to study Japanese, beyond a good textbook or effort you need a passionate teacher. That's why I read the unbeatable "Daily Yoji" blog EVERY DAY.

    A-san: "「笑い芸人の中で誰が好き?」と誰かに聞かれたら、「やっぱりガラガーが大好きだ」と返事する。なぜなら、スイカを潰すことに来たら、そいつは天下無類だ。"
    "Whenever someone asks me what comedian I like, I tell them 'Why Gallagher, of course'. If you asked why, that guy is unrivaled when it comes to smashing watermelons."
    B-san: "うそだろう!そいつは全然面白くネー!つまり彼は天下無双なもったいないの反面教師だぞ!"
    "Are you serious?! That guy isn't funny at all. To put it simply, the only thing he is a master of is setting a bad example!"

    Friday, June 13, 2008


    かいけい のはじ
    kaikei nohaji

    I think that I've found a yoji that defeats Rikai-chan! In fact, it defeats all of the Japanese teachers at the desks around me. I considered not posting this one, because it's SO Chinese that it's almost irrelevant (not that I mean to equate China with irrelevancy). But its history is really interesting, and it IS included in two of my "Increase your Japanese Power" books, and then... I remembered that the goal of this blog is to give you things to say that elevate you above the average speaker, even the average native-speaker. If you can ever pull this one off, you might have to explain it to the people around you, but they will be awestruck at your knowledge.

    1. A crushing defeat or humiliation that instills a deep, burning desire for retribution.
    2. The shame of being beaten; the suffering of the hunger for revenge

    The first two Kanji are taken from the name of the capital city of the ancient Chinese Kingdom of Yue, which was around during the 春秋時代, or Spring and Autumn Period, (722-481 BC). There was a princess of Yue who married into the neighboring Kingdom of Wu, but decided she didn't like Wu all that much so she left her husband and fled back to her home. King Helu of Wu led a war on Yue over this insult, but he was defeated and mortally wounded. He made his son, King Fuchai of Wu vow to neither forgive nor forget their enemies in Yue until Wu honor was avenged.

    This is NOT where the phrase originated. Remember, it's not Wu's shame that the yoji refers to. It's Yue's shame.

    See, King Fuchai didn't forget, and he led a successful resurgence against Yue three years later, capturing Yue and it's King, Goujian of Yue. Instead of fully annexing Yue, as his advisors recommended, Fuchai decided to make a peace with them. And apparently, as per the terms of the peace, Fuchai chose to keep King Goujian and his minister Fan Li as slaves. They eventually earned their freedom (after three years) when King Fu Chai fell sick. Fan Li recognized the nature of Fu Chai's illness, and at his urgings Goujian went to offer a diagnosis. After Goujian performed a dramatic "examination," including checking the color and TASTE of Fu Chai's excrement, he assured Fu Chai of a quick recovery. When Fu Chai did in fact recover, he took the exchange as a sign that the two could forgive their old rivalry, and he allowed Goujian to return to power in his own Kingdom. But a man who must eat shit to earn his freedom does not soon forget the taste.

    After his release, Goujian spent ten years rebuilding his kingdom's economic and military capabilities. He also undertook a complex campaign of bribery, espionage, and political intrigue designed to weaken the state of Wu on all possible fronts.

    For this entire ten year period Goujian slept on sticks, dressed in rags, and ate food suitable for peasants, which he always prefaced by forcing himself to "taste bile." He did this so that he would never forget the conditions of his humiliation, and so that his thirst for revenge would never diminish. This, in itself, spawned this:


    がしん しょうたん
    gashin shoutan

    The chinese write this as 卧薪尝胆 but, notice how "尝" shorts out Rikai-chan? The fact that the Japanese don't use this kanji necessitated the change.

    Literal - Sleeping on brushwood and tasting gall.
    1. Enduring the unthinkable for the sake of revenge.
    2. Pursuing a goal no matter how high the cost.

    So with his preparations in place, bile on his dinner table, and King Fuchai away on an expedition, King Goujian led his army to capture the Capital of Wu. He took the city in a blitzkrieg of blood (One of his tactics was to stock his front lines with condemned prisoners who would decapitate themselves at the outset of a battle as a method of intimidation). King Fu Chai fled to a palace in the mountains where he committed suicide after King Goujian refused to negotiate any terms of peace.

    Wu became a part of the Yue Kingdom, and Yue became the last great power of the Spring and Autumn Period.

    This site has all sorts of information about the conflict, and Chinese history in general.

    Now that you know all of that, and have the background to explain not only the 意味 (meanings ) of these yoji but their 由来 (origin) as well, here's how you might be able to use them:

    As far as 会稽之恥 and 臥薪嘗胆 go, 'revenge' doesn't have to mean getting back at someone who hurt you. It can be used in situations where a failure, particularly an embarassing one, drives you to retry that goal until you accomplish it... and force it to commit suicide.

    I passed the JLPT 3kyuu last year and am gunning for 2kyuu. My passion to succeed is not as powerful, though, as someone who DIDN'T pass 2kyuu last year, and has set their sites on 1kyuu this time around.

    Fueled by the shame of my humiliating failure on that last examination, I'm gonna pass the hell out of the next one! Even if it means having no time to chase girls, giving up drinking, or having to pretend that I like my teacher, I'm gonna do this, no matter how much it costs me!

    Thursday, June 12, 2008

    Japanese Language Trivia of the Day:

    Picked some of these up from my friends over at Lang-8, which I highly recommend for your Japanese writing practice (thanks for introducing me to it, Clay).

    I was writing about movies and was at a loss for the right word to describe Paul Newman's character in Cool Hand Luke, and in trying to find it, I came up with all sorts of words that are close... so today, we've got all kinds of good vocab for describing people who don't fit in.
    • 人外 (にんがい; ningai): outcast, usually because of being a law-breaker*

    • のけ者 (のけもの; nokemono):odd man out; pariah

    • よそ者 (よそもの; yosomono): outsider, because of being from somewhere foreign; newcomer

    • 食み出し者 (はみだしもの; hamidashimono): someone who sticks out; misfit
    There are two more related terms that I want to include, that for me, elevate this post from "Themed Vocab" to "Trivia."

    ippiki ookami

    I think this constitutes a 三字熟語, and was suggested by someone who was correcting my Lang-8 journal. It translates perfectly into English as "lone wolf." And just as in English, an internet search reveals three pretty distinct categories of usage:

    1. Used to describe the behavioral patterns of actual wolves.
    2. Used to describe fictional characters, particularly in movies, television, video games, or manga (一匹狼 comes up in relation to the movies Cool Hand Luke, Pirates of the Caribbean, Spy Game, Bullitt, Shoot 'Em Up, and Hitman, just to name a few).
    3. Used by people on blogs or SNSs to describe themselves (hmmmm...)

    The other one I want to include is something that I came across forever ago through random Kanji-jisho browsing and it might be one way that you end up an 一匹狼.


    This term means "village ostracism," and it's fascinating when you read about the way it was applied in Japan during the Edo period, often associated with society under Tokugawa**. By popular interpretation, the Kanji it's spelled with ("village, eight, parts") refer to the idea that an ostracized family (entire families suffered for the failure of one person to abide by community rules or regulations) were denied eight of the ten privileges associated with village life, these being: coming-of-age ceremonies, weddings, memorial services, as well as assistance with births, sickness, floods, travel, building and repairs. They were still granted assistance when it came to fire and funerals, but they were not allowed to take part in any community meetings or celebrations, and other villagers were forbidden to greet them.

    The kind of offenses that people could commit that might bring about such treatment varied, but sometimes they were kicked out of the village before their offensive nature could draw the attention of officials, which might mean trouble for the whole town. To prevent this, the people were cast out (these kinds of outcasts were called 非人(ひにん)***), and they were sometimes forced to live in special villages for such outcasts called 部落; buraku.

    Incidences of 村八分 still occurred occasionally; there were scattered reports up until 1952, but one of the more interesting pieces of information I came across was an incident of 村八分 that happened in Niigata in 2004! Apparently, in the town of Sekigawa, some of the community leaders were upset with a local household whose members hadn't done enough to help out with the preparations and clean up for a local fishing contest, and so he incited 11 other townspeople to help ostracize this family. What did they do? They discontinued garbage collection and prohibited the family from picking local edible wild plants. The family sued, and ended up winning a decision of 2,200,000 yen for their trouble!

    • 一匹狼 is surprisingly NOT used in the original Japanese title of the manga series "Lone Wolf and Cub"

    • 村八 is a common name for bars, pubs, and izakayas in Japan. There's a chain of izakayas that uses that name in Kyuushuu.

    • If you want to grammar it, 村八分 takes 「にする」 or 「に遭う」 after it.

    • You can read all about 村八分 in English or in Japanese.

    • Don't ever call yourself a "lone wolf" in ANY language. It's not cool.

    * Be careful using this word. The same Kanji can be read じんがい, which means "inhuman treatment." Don't mix them up!
    ** Tokugawa is referenced to indicated time period and not association with Tokugawa rule. 村八分 was a local practice, undertaken by influential community members who didn't necessarily wield any official government or military power.
    ***Thanks to Lane for correcting my kanji in the comments below.

    表現 Break: 怪我の功名

    けが の こうみょう
    kega no komyou

    The great achievements of an injury... Sounds kind of sadistic doesn't it? Maybe it's some kind of martial-arts related phrase about the efficiency of the hammerfist technique when applied to the Triple Warmer-23? Maybe not.

    Rikai-chan will get you closer, by telling you that 怪我の功名 means a "lucky hit," but this doesn't capture the nuance of the phrase. 一刀両断-ing a watermelon with a broom stick while blindfolded is a "lucky hit (or at least, it appeared to be). It's not 怪我の功名.

    1. A fortunate mistake
    2. A happy accident
    3. Fortune disguised as misfortune

    To qualify as a lucky hit of the 怪我の功名 variety, you have to start with something that seems to be bad, a mistake, a screw-up, or a calamity of some kind.

    One of my books, 小学四字熟語・ことわざ has this great picture of a baseball player who has accidentally knocked a man unconscious with an out-of-the-park smash... but the black mask that the injured party wears, the sack of loot he carries, and the elated police officer standing over him reveal that this unlikely head trauma was actually a civil service!

    A lot of the usage on the internet is related to cooking. "I mistook oyster sauce for ソース, but it came out DELICIOUS," etc.

    Can you think of any examples of things that would count as 怪我の功名? I'll start us off with some historical examples of fuck-ups with fantastic consquences.*

    Crap! I dropped all these chocolate chips in the cookie batter. Now, it's just RUINED!

    ... もしかして、お前がそんなに不器用でいるのは、ベーキングをする
    ... Maybe you wouldn't be so clumsy if you didn't always wear those stupid gloves when you baked...

    This white wine has all kinds of bubbles in it! You've really messed it up this time!

    And on top of that, it seems to be on fire...

    And I'll make the last example, today's

    Scooby and those dudes manage to mess up in a way that somehow catches the criminal, EVERY TIME! If you're not a little kid, it's pretty fricking boring...

    ...though I might still watch it if it looked like this.

    *Historical examples do not accurately reflect history.

    Wednesday, June 11, 2008


    きょきょ じつじつ
    kyokyo jitsu jitsu

    A long time ago, I posted the origin/metaphorical basis for the yoji 海千山千 and asked you to guess the import. This time, I'll tell you the definition of this one, and let's see what you can come up with in terms of why it means what it does.

    1. An extremely well-matched contest between two skillful opponents.
    2. A mutually exhausting combat, full of clever deceptions and well calculated attacks.
    3. Probing a hostile party for weaknesses.

    And let's back up a bit and take a look at the definition in direct translation because it's SO hard core, and full of good stuff:
    Having mutually exhausted all of your best-conceived strategies, engaging in a desperate battle to find the chink in your opponent's armor that will let you bring them down first.

    • 互 of 互い (たがい;tagai) happens to be my favorite kanji, mostly because I like the way it looks, but it's meaning, 'reciprocity,' is pretty cool too.
    • 策略を尽くす (さくりゃくをつくす;sakuryaku wo tsukusu) means "to exhaust all of your ideas or strategies" and can be used any time you don't know how to deal with a recurring problem.
    • (すき; suki) is the chance presented by a weak spot in someone's defenses; a chink in someone's armor.
    • 必死 (ひっし; hisshi) is a な type adjective used to indicate frantic desperation, but it's connotation of "inevitable death" makes it a lot more dangerous.
    This has a lot of violent and vivid imagery in it, but it's used mostly in terms of psychological warfare. Nowadays, outside of comics and movies, this is a phrase most commonly associated with business or political negotiations. See some examples from the internets below:

    This is some EPIC haggling, right here.

    The weakened rice country (America) has been acting the part of the disciplinarian, doling out punishments and rewards as it sees fit, in it's enduring, nerve-wracking battle of wills with Iran.

    Other usages I've found include descriptions of resilient types of weeds, and particularly competetive chess matches.

    After eight brutal hours of strategic chess scheming with no success in sight, I finally found his one weakness: being beaten to death with the chess board.

    So tell me, what do you think gives these two repeated characters (Hollow Hollow Truth Truth) the meaning that they carry today?