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

Friday, April 25, 2008


meikyou shisui

Since Brett and Jeff are off in "India" (wherever that is...), I'm going to do my best to make sure that the Daily Yoji doesn't take a two week hiatus (although I can't promise that it'll be more than the weekly yoji).

Anyway, today's four-letter word comes from my favorite series for Nintendo DS, 押忍!闘え!応援団! (Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan!, which can be translated loosely as "Yeah! Fight! Ouendan!" - and, yes, I do think that Ouendan is best left in Japanese).

The literal meanings of the characters are "bright mirror stopped water." Basically, this phrase describes a state of mind wherein the person being described has no extraneous delusions gumming up their thought process.

1) clear-eyed
2) under no delusions
4) a state of "readiness for action" in certain parts of the female anatomy (thanks, google images)


There've been a ton of talented people before, but she's different. I mean, check out those eyes, its like she's got nothing else at all on her mind! It's no wonder their Glee Club is considered so invicible this year.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Announcing a Short Hiatus:

We finally had a good run going here on The Daily Yo-ji, but Brett and I are gonna be leaving you for a while. As a part of our never-ending quest to improve our Japanese, the two of us and a small team of others are going on an excursion to India!

"Why India?" you ask.

Well, because if living in Japan has taught me anything, it's to base my opinions of foreigners on very narrowly defined stereotypical categories, and hey, 100% of the Indian people I know are fluent in both Japanese and English. Makes sense now, right?

Actually we're off on a Habitat for Humanity trip until the 11th of May.

If you're lucky, Nirav might make a post or two in our absence.


Book Review: KY式日本語

I'm always looking for ways to make my Japanese studies more fun, and therefore easy to remember. My latest endeavor is trying to read The Spiderwick Chronicles entirely in Japanese. Since it's probably the kind of book older elementary school students are reading, so far I've been doing okay.

When I went to the bookstore to pick up the first volume, I came across another interesting looking book.
This one:
Forgive the blatant borrowing of the picture from Amazon.jp, but it's a direct link to the page too, so click away.

Most of you have heard the term KY. It's a 略語, an abbreviation or acronym, and it stands for 空気読めない、 meaning someone who's socially awkward (literally: they can't read the air). I first heard this a while ago, and while I thought it sounded like the sort of silly thing a 笑い芸の人 would think up as a gimmick, it did help me learn a new phrase. I started to hear more from my students. PK was パンツ食い込んでいる, used to describe someone chubby (or someone who just happens to be wearing too tight underwear, the elastic "eating into" their waist). JK was 女子高生, which made JK nanpa (the act of trying to pick up high school girls), a very dangerous phrase for a teacher to repeat, even when he's just trying to ascertain the meaning. Whoops.

While I have yet to power through the full introduction, I get the sense that this book supports the inclusion of these kinds of 略語, a number of which have made it into the new edition of Japanese dictionaries this year. The bulk of it is made up of hundreds of other abbreviations, some in use now, some that it either suggests or imagines might be popularly used in the future.
  • FK abbreviates the already abbrieviated ファンデコイ, which means your ファンデ (foundation, as in make-up) is 濃い (too strong, as in flavors, smells, or make-up applications).
  • HT means 話ついて行けない. Someone who can't follow a conversation.
  • And the RIDICULOUS "I"T means 'I'す食べたい。 アイス食べたい。 Gurrrrooooan.
I recommend it. I recommend carrying it around and showing it to your Japanese friends. It will produce some GREAT conversations about Japanese phrases, a lot of laughing, and a lot of head shaking followed by "日本人はそのこと言わない。" And it'll put a lot of new things in your head, which is really what it's all about.


jyaku niku kyoushoku

Today's Yo-ji is a good one to know for the world of fierce competition as it pertains to either sports or business. But an internet search reveals that its also commonly pops up in manga, drama, or movies about high school. Check the picture below and think Mean Girls.

1. Survival of the Fittest
2. The Law of the Jungle
3. A cut-throat struggle for domination
4. Dog-eat-dog

Plus your
Bonus word of the day:
なま あし 
nama ashi:
It means 'bare-legged' or 'bare-foot,' but is often used to refer to girls who are not wearing stockings,' and the fact that nama means raw carries a bit of a lecherous connotation. Use wisely.

Today's Yo-ji usage note: You can use it as a stand-alone concept, or attach の世界.

The world of JK Nanpa is dog-eat-dog. You have to keep trying, no matter how many times you fail. If you never ever give up, you can become the most desired boy in your school.*

*Feel free to use this as your own, Manga-Writers of Japan. You're welcome.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

七転八起 & 七転八倒

七転八起 - しちてんはっき
shichiten hakki

七転八倒 - しちてんばっとう
shichiten battou

Daily Double! Recently I've been (trying to) learn break-dancing, and while I can't claim to have found these while researching ways to not destroy myself as effeciently as I've managed to so far, they are pretty appropriate for that particular topic. Both of them start with "七転", which is easy enough to translate as 7 turns, or - as may be more appropriate to the phrases - the base kanji of "転ぶ", or "ころぶ", to fall. So 7 falls, and 8... 起 means to raise or get up, and 倒 is to fall or break down. I think you can see where this is going...

七転八起's Definition:
1. Getting back on the horse

2. Never giving up.

3. "The vicissitudes of life"

七転八倒's Definition:
1. Writhing in agony.
2. Unbearabl
e suffering.
3. Utter chaos.

This is actually a fun one in that a lot of Japanese people will not correctly read or even translate 七転八倒. One journal I found reminisced about an interview where applicants were asked to read 七転八倒 and then give a definition. Many read it as "nana korobi ya oki", which is actually a variation of the OTHER yoji, "七転び八起き". When asked for the definition, they then gave the definition for 七転八起. Less than 10% of the interviewees got both the reading and the definition correct.

"Breaking" is an aptly named style of dance. At practice I seem to do nothing but screw up and roll around in pain. But I guess since I never complain and I'm always back on my feet pretty quickly, it'd be better to say I'm getting right back on that horse and progressing bit by bit.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Speaking Japanese as a Non-Native

Jeff's entry the other day about the difficulties in speaking Japanese as a non-native touched on a lot of issues that, I think, most people eventually hit in their studies of Japanese, probably more than any other language. Why? Regardless of whether you agree with them or not, it seems the vast majority of people raised in Japan believe that there is something biological about the cultural aspect of Japanese language that renders it incomprehensible to non-natives.

Personally, I don't want to get into a long discussion about culture and cultural differences (which I think are vastly overplayed, although certainly not something you can easily discount). What I do want to go into is why I think it's a travesty that so many people fall into, and at times end up perpetuating, the myth that the cultural differences facing us NN's (non-natives) are insurmountable.

Plus I like to 1) show off how much I know and 2) use the fact that it was my birthday to force Jeff into letting me write a guest post.

Let's start by considering the example sentence that Jeff gave us, which a Japanese person informed him was "grammatically correct, but not what a Japanese person would say." I don't know exactly what the person said in Japanese, but I imagine something along the lines of "文法は間違っていないけど日本人はそんなことを言わない。" (or, since he lives in Saga, 文法のおうとっとばってんが、日本人そぎゃんこついわんたい!)

Actually, regardless of how much Japanese girls may go crazy over it, Jeff's bunpo was incorrect here. Since we're all nerds to some extent here, I'm going to pull those proof-reading terms from 7th grade (your grade-age may vary). This is what we would call, in English, a diction error. The specific Japanese term for diction is 語彙 goi. Considering how people almost never consider a diction error the same thing as a grammar error in Japanese, I almost said that the two are completely discrete concepts in our 2nd (or 3rd or 4th) language of choice; on second thought, thinking of the unenviable grammatical skill of the average native speaker of any language lacking other linguistic qualifications, I'm going to withhold judgment. Nevertheless, Jeff's example sentence was not in the truest sense correct, and this is another example of native speakers not always knowing their language as well as one might assume. Confusion between sentences with correct grammar that simply aren't said in Japanese and those whose grammar, or specifically their diction, are incorrect is far too common, and its much easier to write all of this confusion off as "文化の違い" than to really think about it. (Just like the landlord who is afraid of his tenants cooking with oil, or the gaijin who claims "I used perfect Japanese and the guy pretended not to understand me!") That's because this excuse allows you to not really think about why a given sentence is incorrect (just like the landlord might realize, after a little thought, that Japan is, after all, the land of foods like katsu, kara-age, and tenpura, and like the gaijin might realize that, well, he talks like a gaijin and no one can understand wtf he's saying).

Fine, you say, but that's just one example sentence. We've all had multiple experiences with the "Nihonjin ha sonna koto iwanai," and I don't mean to discount them all, just most of them, which are purely questions of diction.

Whats a legitimate "sonna koto iwanai?" Let's consider Jeff's other example about (and I can just see this happening) someone who's prejudiced and poorly thought out comments are reflective of their lack of brains. I think this is the perfect example for me to explain how I feel on the subject.

There is nothing about this sentence that renders it unspeakable in all cases in Japanese society. There are just two ways to arrive at it.

The first is the direct route. My translation of Jeff's sentence (with some allowances for 流れ): あなたの言ってることは間違ってると思う。あなたのその間違った考え方は、あなた自身の愚かさか、故意的な無知さを示している。

Do most people say this exact thing, in these exact words? No, certainly not. There is the obvious problem of having to change politeness levels and certain usages depending on your age and social station. More importantly, you can be pretty sure that whoever you say this to won't be happy about it, so you'd have to be quite prepared to 縁を切る(en wo kiru) with, or rather 縁を切られる (en wo kirareru) by this person, but isn't that true of saying the same thing in English? Aren't you actually better off in Japan, because, let's face it, you're more likely to get punched in the balls for your rudeness in the US than you are in Japan (my apologies to any non-US English speakers who may be reading this, but your ways are far more difficult for me to comprehend than those of Japanese people. I mean seriously, guys, 'flavour'? Would you like some balswet with your Francified spelling?)

Now consider the second way to the same meaning. This involves changing the words, obviously, to the point where you can't directly reverse translate to get the same English anymore. I don't have a problem with this and don't see why this necessarily has to mean that we are talking about a completely different sentence. Yes, you have to make an allowance for the more 縦 tate nature of Japanese society (and this is where I will make a concession when it comes to "bunka no chigai"), but a Japanese literate listener who allows that you have a certain amount of literacy will understand your meaning, and the disdain behind it.

Aye, there's the rub. As a foreign speaker of Japanese, you're going to have a hard time being ascribed fluency in Japanese. The same person who asks me to teach their children kanji will turn around and wonder at the fact that I can read the characters for 'ichi,' 'ni,' and 'san.' But kanji, and Japanese in total, are by no means easy, and certainly not as easy our bravado sometimes may make them out to be. So I don't doubt the intentions of the Japanese person who assumes that I can't speak Japanese (yes, I'm only human, and in real life I get as angry or more so when brushed off for my gaijin-ness). I do, though, think that the illiteracy assigned to us as foreign-born speakers is the biggest bunka no chigai that keeps our Japanese from being as effective if not as correct as we may want it to be.

But how many of us really have that language literacy on a consistent level? I'd wager not that many. So let's not get ahead of ourselves, because we all still make "diction" mistakes, sometimes even at Saga Jinja.

PS Jeff, since I've given you so much crap on this post, here's a gift. 勃起気味. It works.

Jinja jinja~, jinja jinja jinja~


inga ouhou

Today's Yo-ji post was something I came across by accident. I went to GEO GEO to look for the movie The Crow, starring the late Brandon Lee*. They didn't have the movie but, strangely enough, they had the soundtrack, which they offered me instead. I didn't want it but I felt like it would be rude not to at least look at it and when I did, one of the tracks jumped out at me because it was (are you ready for this?) a Yo-ji-juku-go. And it's an apt selection, because 因果応報 is what The Crow is all about.

*I started wanting to watch the movie, because I've been thinking a lot about crows.^
^I've been thinking a lot about crows because Brett got attacked by crows twice last week.

1. What goes around, comes around
2. You reap what you sow.
3. Karma
4. Retribution
5. Karmic retribution
6. Retributional karma.

My net research, ever fruitful, reveals that 因果応報 can be used in both positive and negative connotations, and that when you use it, you can use it with で. There is another yo-ji-juku-go, that means specifically "Sow Evil, Reap Evil." I think I'll hang onto that for a future post though.

Peter Parker had real power, and yet he let the robber go free. It was an act of karma that his own Uncle was then killed by that same criminal. That one regret, more than being bitten by a spider can be considered the origin of the hero called Spiderman.

Question of the day: If 因果応報 was a projectile weapon, what would it be?

Boomerang! You really DO always come back!

2nd Question of the Day: Is there a way I could have possibly been a BIGGER dork in this post?

Friday, April 18, 2008


bi ji rei ku

I was having a discussion with some friends the other day about how reactions to things seem bigger in Japan, at least in a verbal sense. Remember what I was saying in Wednesday's post about the way different cultures use language differently?

Since I've come to Japan, I've adopted the habit of declaring a meal (most any meal) to be おいしい in excited tones, more than twice. My Japanese acquaintances will do the same thing more than five or six times. I don't ever say "ええー!" when I hear something interesting, or something that I didn't know, but it no longer strikes me as strange when other people use it to reply to everything I say. Nor does it strike me as uncommon that Japanese people love to compliment each other on all manner of things: how good you are at singing, at handwriting, at cooking, at driving, at all kinds of things. If you were to tell me how great I was at handwriting in America, it would strike me as odd. If you were to tell me about it more than once, it would strike me as patronizing. Apparently, even though the cultures have different thresholds to determine precisely when compliments begin to make us feel uncomfortable (or suspicious), there is a level where, even to native-speakers, compliments began to become patronizing.

1. Flowery prose
2. Verbose and insincere flattery

My second translation doesn't appear with a Rikai Chan Analysis, but you'll note that the Japanese definition says that this Yo-ji is used to refer to the kinds of words that, if you heard them used in everyday speech, they would strike you as insincere. Most of the instances of actual usages that I've found involved telling someone to stop it with the over-the-top compliments.

Usage note: You don't 言う 美辞麗句, you 並べる them. Connect the two with を instead of と.

例文:  姑さん: わー!このカレーはうまいよ。本当に本当にうまい!おいしいーーー!あたしの人生で、初めてこんなにおいしいカレーを食べた。これからは、他の人が作ったカレーを食べないつもりです。で、わたしも作ることをやめるよ。なぜならば、あなたが作ったカレーではないから、ぜったいがっかりするよ。うーーーーーまい!
Mother in law: Wow! This curry is fantastic! It's really, REALLY, good. It's so delicious. This is the best curry that I've ever eaten in my ENTIRE LIFE. I will never eat another person's curry again. And I'll quit making my own. Putting someone else's curry in my mouth, after this, it could only be a disappointment. It's THAT good.
嫁さん: ええと、それほどでもないんですが。。
New Bride: Oh, thanks but, it's nothing special really...
Tanaka san: Mom! Knock it off with the bogus flattery. Give it a rest already!

Note: Please check the comments for an alternative (better) way to use 美辞麗句。 Thanks Mizuki!

表現 Break: 犬猿の仲

ken en no naka

This interesting little expression provides a window into another subtle difference in Japanese and American culture. Literally, "dog-monkey relationship" is used in the same way we would use "like cats and dogs." Not as in "It's raining cats and dogs,"" but as in (*Alma-mater shout out warning*) "The Florida Gators and the Florida State Seminoles get along like cats and dogs. Employable, attractive, cats who scored well on their SATs and dogs."

What, in Japanese history or culture has created this idea of a strong animosity between dogs and monkeys? I don't know. A search of Japanese websites offers a number of possibilities, but as some of them seem contradictory to me, I don't know what to think:

  • Dogs and monkeys are not animals that traditionally meet, so the phrase involves the hostility of parties that are unfamiliar to each other. Because of this, the selection of "dogs" and "monkeys" is arbitrary. Any two unrelated animals would work fine.
  • Dogs and monkeys are both pack animals, and both territorial, so clashes between them are easy to imagine.
  • Man often domesticates dogs and uses them as hunting animals. Monkeys are not used to being smelled and tracked, so dogs strike them as a villian possessed of preternatural abilities.
    In the same way, dogs are used to seeing things at dogs eye-level, and are not used to encountering creatures that can climb to high distances and defend themselves by throwing things. They are each others 苦手。
Despite an exhaustive 30 minutes of my own research, and about 30 seconds of Yuri's research, we couldn't find anything that seemed more conclusive, or less like the opinion and speculation of random people. In my English language search though, here are some other interesting things that I came across:
  • Another expression that plays on the same idea of contention and animosity between dogs and monkeys: 嫁と姑、犬とサル (yome to shuutome, inu to saru), "Bride is to Mother-in-law, as dog is to monkey (or vice-versa)."
  • A manga from the 1930s called Norakuro, drawn by one Suihou Tagawa, about a misfit dog who joins the fierce dog army, and like some sort of Showa-Scooby Doo, succeeds despite his absurd mistakes. The series is most notable because it became a political allegory, when the lovable, brave, honorable Japanese Dog Army defeats the cowardly Chinese pig army, and becomes the herders of the Manchurian sheep-people. Back before the comic become propaganda, though, guess what animal played the role of the Dog Army's nemesis?

  • Lots of Chinese Zodiac advice (Japan uses the Chinese Zodiac as well), warning dogs to watch out for monkeys and monkeys to watch out for dogs. Their often conflicting personality traits(D: moralistic; judgmental; lazy; unpretentious; cold; strong sense of justice and fair play M: morally flexible; open-minded; problem-solver; egotistical; sociable; cunning improviser), make them incompatible. More over, if it's the monkey's year, the dog's gonna have a rough one. The opposite holds as well.
I also suspect that most English speaking peoples have not spent much time observing the natural interactions between dogs and monkeys and that maybe, this phrase is just as natural as "like cats and dogs" to people that have. When I asked my co-workers however, they cited the monkey and dog allies in the Momotarou story, and remarked on how friendly monkeys and dogs seem nowadays.

I don't really want to go to his birthday party by myself, but then, Nirav and my girlfriend can't STAND each other.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


kogun funtou

We've been going back to Brett's 四面楚歌 post a lot, so I figured, while it was still fresh, we could add this Yo-ji to the mix. The two are used in conjunction so often, that they reference each other in my dictionary.

I was confused by today's entry when I first heard it, because it was explained to me as 「一人で頑張っていること: Doing your best, by yourself.」 I figured "That can't be a bad thing, right?" Chalk up another mistake to the hazards of Japanese contextuality.

1. A lonely, difficult struggle
2. Fighting alone
3. Up shit creek without a paddle (This might be a stretch but it captures the desperate situation and the absence of all help)

Explanation of today's picture: This was last year's Puerto Rican team at Nanayama's Annual Waterfall Climb, an event that requires lots and lots of help from your community . Jose looks like he's got a long, lonely battle ahead of him.

孤軍奮闘 differs from 四面楚歌 in that it doesn't require that you be under attack from any specific enemies. You don't have to be in hostile waters, you just have to be in trouble, with no one to help you out.

I also wanted to post it because, I feel like I'm in a situation now where I might be able to use it appropriately.

See, my water heater broke. That means no hot showers and no hot water in the sink, and while I can put up with that for a few days, I really don't want to live like that. The water heater was 20 years old, incidentally, so it's not like it broke because of gross misuse or anything. It just broke. In America, if something like this happens, it's usually the landlord's responsibility to take care of, right? But when I contacted my landlord and the propane company, they consulted the Board of Education (who leases my apartment), and came back to me with this:

"The Board of Ed says that you only have four months left on your contract, after which they will no longer be leasing the apartment. Therefore, they do not feel that it is worthwhile to pay to have the water heater replaced."

Today we had a meeting of all the major players, and while I sat and listened, the landlord, whose concern is that the apartment remains in good condition so he can find a new tenant, and the BOE, whose concern is not paying any more money than they absolutely have to, agreed that the best course of action was to buy a new cover for the water heater so that it looks new, and new tenants will not be wary of it.

As they were finalizing things in their conversations, I had to remind them that I still did not want to spend the next four months without hot water. They said "Oh, well, we can also talk to the propane company about repairing the inside (as opposed to replacing it, which the propane company maintains is the only solution). We'll call you tomorrow."

So while neither the BOE or my landlord is my enemy, they definitely don't seem to be on my side, and they're certainly not trying to help me out. IF it gets fixed, it will get fixed because I persist in complaining, and demanding that they fix it. I'm even prepared to do and say desperate things to show them the error of their ways. If they don't have to take care of me because I'm only here for four more months, then I guess it's okay if I don't honor my end of the contract either. I could protest by coming to school all summer without showering, or telling teachers that I'm too busy to come to lessons when they ask me.

I would not describe taking such actions by saying 「一人で頑張っています.」 I would say「孤軍奮闘している.」

Today's example sentence was inspired by a google image search for 孤軍奮闘: Since it's one of my favorite movie franchises, I knew I had to use it.

The next question is Movie Trivia: Name the desperate super-spy who fights a lone war against the likes of enemies such as the CIA and the Russian Mafia. If you don't know who he is, that's okay. He doesn't know either.

表現 Break: 鎬を削る

shinogi wo kezuru

I have to credit this phrase to the same guy who taught me 四面楚歌, as he was a treasure trove of battle-related expressions. The understanding of this expressions relies on some understanding of katana anatomy, so we'll get that out of the way first.

鎬(しのぎ) in this phrase refers to the most prominent part of the blade, the part tucked between the actual cutting edge and the rear of the blade. The shinogi can either be close to the back of the blade, thus making the cutting edge longer and sharper but more fragile, or closer to the edge of the blade, making for a sturdier build with an arguably duller cut. Now that you are learned about the placement of the shinogi, and also that it is separated from the edge by a sharped portion of steel, we can get to the definition.

1. A swordfight so epic that the combatants are chipping away parts of each other's swords.
2. A fierce competition.

So the expression breaks down to "chipping your shinogi", or "shaving away parts of the edge of your sword". It's important to note the implication that the two opponents are evenly matched. If one side slaughters the other, it can't be said that they 鎬を削る, since breaking off pieces of your sword on somebody's skull doesn't constitute the same challenge. Unless you're fighting Wolverine. Or the terminator.

Wolverine versus Terminator... Now THERE'S a battle I wanna see! Those two would definitely have some epic clashes!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Speaking Japanese as a Non-Japanese person

For this site, and for my own studying, I write a lot of example sentences. They help me to make the new grammar point or the new expression my own.

I also make a lot of mistakes, and I welcome corrections. Many times, I'll show a co-worker my example, and they will say "意味わかります: I know what you mean." When that happens, I know my grammar is messed up, and I ask them to tell me how they would say what I was trying to say. I learn a lot that way.

However, I also receive a lot of corrections from the Japanese people around me, not about the way I said something, but about the content of what I'm saying. Look at my example sentence for my 2級 Grammar Post, Point 15:

Ex: 彼と結婚しているかぎりは、寝ると彼のいびきを聞く。
As long as I've been married to him, I've been listening to his snores.

This example sentence was unacceptable to a substitute teacher I work with. When I pressed her about WHY this was no good, all she could tell me was "Japanese people would not say something like this."

We went back and forth over the use of かぎり、debated changing the primary clause to 現在進行形 to make the translation a better fit, but no matter what, she didn't think it was okay. Finally, I had to ask her, "Is the GRAMMAR okay? Is this a legitimate application of かぎり?"

She said yes, but it still wasn't natural, because it wasn't something that a Japanese person would say. In this case maybe she's right; maybe there are more natural ways to communicate the same idea. But it's not the first time that the only criticism of my statement has been: "Japanese people don't talk like that" or worse, "Japanese people don't talk about that." I take a philosophical issue with this.

My general goal in learning Japanese is not to become a Japanese person. It's to learn to express whatever I want to express in grammatically appropriate Japanese. You follow the difference, right?

This is an extreme example, but even if you translate it into Japanese, the average Japanese person would not say "I think you're wrong and that your way of thinking reflects either stupidity or willfull ignorance." I can't imagine your 日本一般人 saying something so directly confrontational. However, if I'm having a conversation with a middle-aged man who's telling me, very loudly, that America is a dangerous country and he would rather that his children avoid learning English, so that they grow up Japanese, instead of learning to shoot guns, do drugs, and fornicate, then that is EXACTLY what I want to say. I want to know how to say it.

Today, when I wrote my example for 気味, I extrapolated from my book's example, 風邪気味: a slight cold, and created 日焼け気味: a mild sun-tan. I created it according to the rules in my grammar book, but when I tested it out on the nearest native speaker, I received half-an-hour of "Well, something's not right," before finally being told, "文法的に合っていますが、聞いたことがありません." (In terms of the grammar, it's fine... I've just never heard it put that way before.)

I tend to think that, unless you start learning from the time you're a small child, you will never be able to speak any language exactly like a native speaker. So why try? After all, native speech is not just a matter of mastering the grammar, but it's a matter of being a part of the culture as well. People from different cultures don't communicate in the same ways and the kinds of things we say in English aren't necessarily the kind of things that are said in Japanese.
(For the opposite example, imagine an American or Canadian or Englishman rubbing your corduroy pants or your shaved head and shouting "It feels GOOOD!" 気持ちいい!)

On top of that, who determines what a Japanese person might or might not say? There are things a woman might say that a man wouldn't. There are things that young people might say, that my ANCIENT substitute teacher co-worker has never even heard of. Languages change. Things that you would not have said become things that you say. I don't recommend placing the proverbial keys to the kingdom in my gaijin hands and shouting "Redecorate as you see fit," but take a minute to think about the influence of foreign languages on Japanese. I wouldn't be surprised if a foreigner was the first to coin the now famous "KY."

You can't predict the situations for which you might need a word or expression that you've never used before. I don't know what's gonna happen to me. But the more you know about the way the language works, the better off you will be when those situations surprise. What if one day, I need to make an apologetic explanation to a Shiatsu-masseuse? I wonder if I can use 気味 to say that I had "a bit of an erection."

I guess, part of the guiding philosophy behind the Daily Yo-ji is to provide people with the tools they need to say the things that they want to say, when the need to say them arises. When you say something unexpected in bad Japanese, you're more likely to be dismissed as not knowing what you're saying. If you get your phrasing right, people have no choice but to consider your words.

That being said, let's work to make sure our example sentences are as clear and accurate as possible without compromising the essence of what we want to say.

2級 Grammar 31-35

Breaking free of the tyranny of the からs, The Daily Yo-Ji is proud to present...

31) ~かわりに
instead of

You can attach this to the dictionary form of a verb (エレベータを乗るかわりに、階段を上がろうよ!) or a noun if you insert の (焼肉のかわりに、サラダをたべようよ![Can you tell that I'm in a diet and exercise phase?]), and it's just that easy.

Ex. おぼれるかわりに、泳いだら?

32) ~気味
just a little bit (of a)...
feels/seems/is slightly...

気味、on it's own, means "the sensation" or "feeling," but when attached to either a noun or the stem of a -ます form verb, it becomes... "少し."

Ex 1. 日焼け気味で気持ちいいけど、日焼け過ぎたら痛くて皮がむけるよ。
Ex 2. 学校に到着するのに、1,2分遅れ気味でもダメですよ。

33) ~きり ・ ~きりだ
the last time (see further explanation below)

Verb た形 + きり = the last time someone did that verb. Got it? It's difficult to explain in English, but easy to use. 「六ヶ月前にお母さんに電話したきりだ : Six months ago was the last time I called my mother.」 The past tense is inherent in the verb you're modifying, so you can stick with just だ、or です to end it, or keep going from きり as long as the next clause doesn't counteract the idea that the same action hasn't been repeated since.

Ex. 21歳の時、も3年前ぐらい、女とやったきり、恋人がぜんぜんできない。

34) ~きる ・ ~きれる ・ ~きれない
all the way through...
to the end...

This is similar to しまう, except that it is only used when something is done completely (I believe you completely), or entirely (I read that book entirely). しまう can be used to express something that was done regrettably. きる can not. Also, しまう is attached to a verb in the てform. きる is attached to the stem of a ます form.

Ex. 日本では、こんなに多く食べないのでこのアメリカのハンバーガを食べきれない。

35) ~くせに
and yet...

Another form used to express a contradiction, and one that connotes a sense of dissatisfaction. My book example translates as 「Even though you know, you won't tell me anything? You jerk. : 知っているくせに、何も教えてくれないんですか?ひどいなあ。」

Ex. ダイエットすると言ったくせに、やっぱり毎日アメリカのハンバーガを食べています。

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


kiyou binbou

This is one of the first Yo-ji-juku-go I ever learned, due to the fact that the individual 二字 compounds that it's made of are words that I heard a lot. 貧乏 (binbou) means 'poor; impoverished' and was mentioned again and again in conjunction with the bullying epidemic that was a huge conversational hub when I first got to Japan. Being called 貧乏 by your peers was one of the methods of psychological terrorism that was thought to have elevated the teen suicide rate.

器用(kiyou) is something that a lot of people called me in the early months. It can mean 'skillful' but is better thought of as 'deft' because it's almost always used to say "You're good with your hands."

Flashback conversation, late 2006:

Brett: What does 'kiyou' mean?
Me: It means like, 'skilled fingers.'
Brett: Oh. Do you know that because of your card tricks?
Me: Uh. Yeeeeeeah, that's why.
Brett: I [expletive] hate you so much.

All joking aside though, I used to show off some of my playing card flair and magic tricks at work enkais, and yes Brett, that is how I learned the word.

So when I heard the two together, "Poor person with good hands," I was like, "What's that?"

1. Jack of all trades, master of none.

Please note that the definition stresses more of a disadvantage (the being poor aspect, I suppose) in being this kind of person. While we think of "Jack of all trades," as a positive thing, the addition of "master of none," implies an absence of progress, and suggests that maybe this kind of person often finds him or herself mastered by another (used/employed by others, as one would a tool.)

It's been handy for me to know this one, as my last post will attest. I have a ton of interests and hobbies that I have devoted a moderate amount of time to, including my card-sharpery. When I first came to Japan, people asked me things like "Do you play pool," "Do you surf," "Do you play badminton," or "Do you rock climb?" And I said "Yes," because that's the truth. That answer got me in trouble though, because if someone asks you "Do you surf?" it's not because they think surfing is cool, surf sometimes on weekends, and think it would be fun to go together one day. If someone asks you if YOU surf, be careful, because odds are good that SURFING is that person's LIFE.

That's a big difference between Japanese and American cultures for me, and also the source of a bonus word today: 極める (kiwameru).  極める means "to master" something, to take something as far as you can possibly take it.* Many times, it's the way that Japanese people approach their hobbies. Whereas in America, it's not un-common for somebody to be an "outdoors person," or a "water sports person," or a "things requiring the use of a racquet person," in Japan, I think it's more common for someone to choose one very specific avenue of interest and pursue that avenue to perfection.

So when I found myself in situations where I was being ruthlessly schooled in 9-ball, and my new Japanese friend was saying "Oh, I thought you said you played pool," 器用貧乏 was a good one to know.

My older brother is working at an automotive factory this year. Last year he was doing furniture delivery. But he usually gets canned before he can move up in the place. He can do pretty much anything, but he's always just been kind of a disposable grunt.

*極める is also a good word to know, because it's one of those words that Japanese people don't expect you to know unless you're really good at Japanese, so it scores you えらい points.

Monday, April 14, 2008


ki sou ten gai

I go through a lot of phases in Japan. Sometimes I'll get really into exercising and jogging. Sometimes I'll study like crazy for two weeks. Other times I'll play guitar, or cook, or write, or blog. Hell, check out the HUGE gaps in the time-line of this blog... when I wasn't dedicated to it, I was busy being dedicated to something else. It leaves me pretty consistently ALMOST in shape, with a variety of hobbies that I'm ALMOST good at.

The last few weeks, I've been in a reading phase, and I'm working on Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver. So far it's an amazing historical fiction epic, dealing with the lives of men like Newton, Hooke, Leibniz, and Wilkins. A scene that I read the other day prompted me to dust off 奇想天外。

1: A brilliant idea
2: A bizarre idea
3: An idea generated by a highly unconventional way of thinking.

The scene in question involves an inquiry Newton makes into the abilities of the eye. After reading Boyle's theories and observations on colors, Newton realizes that all of these observations were based on the assumption that the eye was an objective seeing instrument. To test this assumed objectivity, he inserts a darning needle into the socket next to his eye, and records the changes in his vision that occur when he uses the needle to put pressure on and change the SHAPE OF HIS EYE. Brilliant? Yes. Would the average person EVER think of doing something like this? NO. That's 奇想天外.

Now just imagine those lines going through his eye...


A-san: 昨日、皆でプールで泳ぎながら、俺のバカ息子は突然に、プールから上がって、水着を外して、ちんちん出して、プールに小便した。
Yesterday, we were all swimming at the pool, when suddenly, my idiot son gets out, drops his bathing suit, pulls out his junk, and starts pissing right in the pool!
B-san: ええー?何で?
What? Why?
A-san: 水着をぬらしたくなかったって。
He said he didn't want to get his bathing suit wet!
B-san: 奇想天外だよ!
That's brilliant!

Special thanks to Things We Lost in The Fire, for providing the inspiration for today's example.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Jokes that Japanese People Might Not Get:

chuu to han pa

1. Half-assed
2. Incomplete
3. Left undone

Have you seen the movie Jumper? If not, don't, but just to fill you in, it's basically about a guy who can transport himself anywhere he wants at any time.

We went to see it with our friend Taishi, who seems to like all movies, as long as they're action oriented and have cool special effects. It didn't bother him that the plot was contrived, and so many story-lines left unresolved with the obvious intention of paving the way for a wallet draining franchise. It was, in many ways, a movie that was 中途半端、in it's creation.

But, the thing about "Jumper" in Japanese, is that it's ジャンパ (janpa). Which led Brett to start thinking about rhymes.

To rhyme, in Japanese, is 韻をふむ (I need a kanji check on that fumu), but I don't know how much emphasis they put on rhyming in things like plays-on-words.

So Janpa, rhymes with 半端(hanpa), as in 中途半端. Just saying 半端 (as I learned from Brett, via Nirav) can mean half-assed, or at half-strength. It's often used with "ではない” to negate it, like when it's pouring rain, one can say 「半端じゃない」 to indicate that it's coming down heavy. Or when that kid punched me (see 言語道断), I said 「傷つけるつもりではなかったけど、半端ではなかった。」”

So then, Janpa and 半端 also rhyme with ナンパ (the widely used Japanese word that means "girl hunt," going out to pick up some ladies).

When we proposed a shorter film, entitled ジャンパ半端ナンパ (Janpa Hanpa Nanpa) to our friend Taishi, he was confused, and didn't really laugh, until we acted it out for him:

Janpa-san: おい。電話番後おしえてくれ。
Hey. Lemme get your number.
Ojou-san: あのー
Janpa-san: 教えなくてもいいけど。。。
Well, you don't have to tell me it...
Ojou-san:  え。。。 ええー?
Uh... What?
Janpa-san: まー、どうでもいい。
That's cool.

Ojou-san:  何のこと?
What are you talking about?
Janpa-san: vanishes instantly
Chicks love it when you stare at them all creepy from around the corner first.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


shimen so ka

When I first came to Saga, I sat near a substitute science teacher with whom I liked to eat lunch and talk English/Japanese (and no, this isn't a typo, I mean it in the same sense as "talk shop") He would also teach me little Japanese phrases, most of them born in a military vein, which actually interest me a lot more than most idioms since I've always been fascinated with the wartime aspects of Japanese history.

...which is kinda ironic seeing as this idiom is 100% Chinese in origin. Translating the phrase strictly by Japanese interpretations of the kanji will leave you only with a bit of a meaning and none of the history. 四面 is changed easily enough to "on all four sides", but it's the 楚(briar/thorn) and 歌(song) that'll trip you up. So the thorny song from all sides might imply that you're either in a pinch, or - per American folklore - you just escaped Brer Fox.

1. To be completely surrounded by enemies on all sides, in a situation where no help will come.
2. To fight alone and isolated.

Chinese history lesson time! As a quick warning, this was meant to be short, but I got caught up in the research...

After the fall of the Qin Dynasty in 206 BC, the two major contenders for the throne were the Han - led by 劉邦(Liu Bang) - and the Chu - led by 項羽 (Xiang Yu). They fought for 4 years until 202 BC, when Lui Bang surrounded the remainder of Xiang Yu's forces in a canyon, which they had entered in order to rescue Xiang Yu's captured wife. By this point Lui Bang had already conquered a large part of Chu, Xiang Yu's homeland, and thus had many Chu troops in his ranks. He gave the order that all of his troops sing Chu songs, giving Xiang Yu's remaining soldiers the impression that the rest of their countrymen had already been conquered by - and even worse, subsequently joined - their enemies. It's important to note now that 楚 means "Chu" in Chinese, and thus it is "The Song of Chu on all sides".

Their spirits broken, most of Xiang Yu's troops fled on their own, and Xiang Yu's wife - blaming herself for having been the reason the army was caught in this trap - committed suicide. Xiang Yu was eventually able to break free with a tiny contingent of loyal warriors, but after countless misdirections, near escapes, and killing a few hundred men on his own (who refused to make mortal strikes, having been given the order to take him alive), he committed suicide.

例文: 言葉が分からない国に引越しすることは怖いところもあります。友達もいないで、簡単な表現することはできなくては真の孤独を感じられる。だが知らない人は敵じゃないだろう?それで「四面楚歌だ!」と言うな!その言葉を勉強して、仲間を会ったら、万事うまくいくよ!
Translation: Moving to a country where you don'tt speak the language can be scary. You don't have any friends, and your inability to express yourself in even simple terms can give you the feeling of being all alone. But the people you don't know aren't really your enemies, persae, so don't go shouting that everybody's against you. Just learn the language, make some friends, and it'll all be good.

2級 Grammar 26-30

If you find Japanese grammar confusing and hard to remember, you'll be pleased to see that today's post does wonders to help clear things up by introducing 5 new grammar points with very similar usages that ALL begin with から. That oughta take care of that.

26) ~からして
even (as in "not even")
on the most basic level...

This construction works well when you want to describe the extreme to degree to which someone does or does NOT do something. You add からして to a noun, and then a verb phrase. My book's example is "ひらがなからして読めない," which means "I can't even read Hiragana." The catch is that you could normally say this with only the particle も、right? So the use of からして necessitates a second clause, which takes the sentence from the basic level to a higher one. ひらがなからして読めない。だから、漢字はぜったいムリだ。

You can also use this without such a rigidly parallel follow-up, like in my example sentence:

Ex: 父はすしからして食べてみようともしない。日本に来ないと思います。

27) ~からすると ・ からすれば
according to
in terms of
judging from
from the point of view of

This one seems straightforward enough, but I'm getting bogged down in it. You attach it to a noun again, and then you have either a reason or an origin for a statement of opinion/judgement that you are about to make. My book gives
"According to the observed temperature, it's not supposed to be so hot, but because the humidity is high, it feels hot."
"By the look of the section chief's expression, I have no doubt that last month's business grade (sic) was not so good."
You can understand the bogging、and why I will model my example sentence CLOSELY after the final book example.

Ex: アメリカ人一般の考え方からすると、私の日本人の知り合いは「ゲイな友達や黒人の友達が欲しい!」と言っているのはしつれいに思われるかもしれない。

28) ~からといって
just because...
even though...

Used to make assertions of what you CAN'T do, just because of something else.
JUST because you're gorgeous, doesn't mean you don't have to pay to get into the club.
Even though you're tired, you can't just go home early.

This is used quite often with わけではない、とはいえない、限らない、and できない。

Ex 1: 給料が高いからといって、毎日外食するわけではない。
Ex 2: 彼女がいることからといって、彼女だけとデートするとは限らない。

29) ~からには ・ からは
now that
because of
so long as

This is highly similar in usage to dakara, or 以上・以上は。

Ex: 彼女がいるからには、もナンパするわけには行かない。(Hmm, quite the opposite of the previous example.)

30) ~から見ると ・ から見れば ・ から見て ・ から見ても
when you look at it like/from
when you consider

This looks really similar to point 27, right? The connotation here, I guess, due to the inclusion of 見る is more of a focus on "seeing" or "looking" in this specific expression.

Ex: あの選手ふたりの統計からみれば、かなりいい交換とおもわないか?

表現 Break: あばたもえくぼ

abata mo ekubo

I thought it would be nice to intersperse all the Yo-ji-juku-go with some other kinds of Japanese expressions, and today seemed like a good opportunity to do so.

あばた are pockmarks.
えくぼ are dimples.

Even pockmarks are dimples. Why? Because love is blind!

(This can be used as a stand-alone phrase. See example dialogue below.)

Obviously Jealous Japanese Girl: なんであのものすごくかわいい女の子はあんなにダサい彼氏がいるの?彼女が外人の男が好きでいること知っているけど、彼が最悪!もったいないわよ!
Why is that gorgeous girl with that loser? I mean, I know she goes for foreigners, but that dude is the WORST! She could do so much better.
Less Cynical Friend: うるさいなー!それは愛のことだよ。あばたもえくぼ。
Oh, be quiet! That's love for you: blind.

His shirt says "Searching for a J-girlfriend." I hope he doesn't find this picture.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


hagan isshou

In my endless Yo-ji-juku-go files, half of which I get from the lovely Ootao-san, I was starting to notice that so many of their meanings were meant to be used in negative situations: 前代未聞、for example, or one I'm saving for the future, which means a 180 degree turn-around, but only in a bad way. I mentioned this to her and she took it as a challenge. Since then, she's been supplying me with happier yo-ji-juku-go. I like today's especially because there are tons of opportunities to use it, and because of the contrast between the violent nature of the kanji, and the pleasant meaning.

One of the problems with learning these, is that I always try to learn the kanji and their meanings individually, so I can use them in other contexts, but for the yo-ji meanings, it can be confusing. Brett's first post (cut-polish-polish-polish) can attest to this. So my first attempt at translating this one, according to the meaning of the kanji was: a laugh that rips your face open.

1. Smiling from ear to ear
2. A broad smile

My translation problems, as you can see, were two-fold. One is that 'laugh' and 'smile' are the same in Japanese, and you have to know the context to know precisely which one, although in some situations, it doesn't matter. The second is that the 破 character, which by itself means all sorts of violent tearing and ripping stuff, also lends itself to the concept of ほころぶ, which can mean either to rip (as in cloth or a piece of paper), or to stretch your lips open by using your face muscles. Huh.

例文 (featuring Japanese ghosts!): 口裂け女は復讐の鬼であるので、いつも討とうとしている。だが、誰かを見つけて、殺すことができると、満足で破顔一笑する。その笑顔を見らずに住めばラッキーだと思えばいい。
The Kuchi-sake woman is continously driven by a desire for revenge, but when she finds and kills a victim, her satisfaction shows in her smile. If you can make it through life without seeing that smiling face, you should count yourself lucky. 

Check out the Kuchi-sake info on Wikipedia for some background on who she is in Japanese Legend and Cinema, but basically, if a girl in a mask asks you if you think she's pretty, say "Yes," and stick with that answer no matter what.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Japanese Language Trivia of the Day:

Chikuba no tomo 
is a phrase I learned a long time ago while randomly browsing through a kanji dictionary (way back when I was still working on kanji like 竹 (chiku, take). Browsing through kanji dictionaries, incidentally, is a GREAT way to learn phrases that nobody says any more.

A 竹馬の友 is a childhood friend. I've had mild success with saying things like 竹馬の家, but more for being amusing, than for being correct in my usage.

I only recently learned the origin of the phrase, however, in a conversation with one of the women who runs the vegetable stand in my neighborhood. See, for along time, I had mistakenly imagined the ば in ちくば、as this kanji: 場 which led me to believe that the 竹場 was a place of bamboo, which I imagined to be a tiny village, reminiscent of everyone's childhood home. Yay, ethnic stereotypes!

The real version, 竹馬, actually means bamboo horsey, and can be alternately read as たけうま, which is a game that Japanese children used to play a lot, and still play sometimes, probably as part of an organized, "Don't Forget Your Culture Day" at school. It consists of making tall stilts out of bamboo and running around on them. They might have たけうま races now, or some kind of competition, but for little kids, I'm sure the thrill of being taller and on stilts was enough for them to just frolic for hours. So, a friend with whom you engaged in bamboo horsey, and therefore, obviously a childhood friend, is your 竹馬の友。

Monday, April 7, 2008

2級 Grammar 21-25

The Daily Yoji is back and back strong with TWO POSTS IN ONE DAY.

21) ~かねる
cannot ~, ~ is difficult

I've been waiting for this grammar point for SO long - it's basically the same construction (-masu stem) as ~にくい, but it's for things that are difficult or impossible to do because of psychological barriers. Until this point I've never been able to use "見にくい", because it means "ugly" or "hard to see", as in "I forgot my glasses, so everything is hard to see!"

If you say something is 見かねる, however, it means you cannot watch something in silence, as in the example sentence below. For this one, just remember - it's like ~にくい, but when you can't do things for mental reasons.

Ex : インドの貧しさを見かねて手伝いに行く!

22) ~かねない

This one's nice in that it's clearly a negative form of the above, although I always seem to have a problem with modifications that by themselves are negative, and when THOSE are made negative, the result is positive. It sounds even more confusing when I say it like that... anyway, it's also mentioned that this is used mostly in negative situations. A good way to remember this would be my 電池辞書's definition of "I wouldn't put it past ~", as in...

Ex : 僕の隣家の人は大好きな子猫のトラインバイクを食べかねなかった...

23) ~かのようだ
seems as if
looks like

This is just a really basic modification of "ようだ" or "ように" or what have you. The only different as far as my book goes is that this one is stronger.

Quick refresher on usage:
Verb = dictionary form + かのようだ.
な type adjective or noun + である + かのようだ.
~かのように + Verb or Adjective
~かのような + Noun.

Ex : GTOかのようだ教師になるように。

24) ~から~にかけて
from ~ to ~.

This one is awesomely simple. It's VERY similar to ~から~まで, with the one catch being that it's not exact. You wouldn't use it to say "class is from 5 to 6 o`clock", or "I fly from Narita Airport to Seattle", but you could use it for "Japan is pretty hot from spring until fall", or "snow fell all the way from my home to the mountains".

Ex : 中国から日本列島にかけて黄沙がよく降っている。

25) ~からういと  ~からいえば  ~からいって
On the subject of ~
If you're talking about ~
In regards to ~

This is pretty much a fancy connector for a subject and ones judgement or evalution of that subject.

Ex : ブログの時間厳守からいうと、ザデイリー四字が完敗した。


shiku hakku

切磋琢磨するために、I'm back in action, and bringing you a brand new Buddhist Yo-ji-juku-go that's ALL about the pain.

Your Kanji today are easy enough in the translation (four-suffering-eight-suffering), but they come with a slightly involved theology lesson, so let's jump in:

Do you know the four noble truths of Buddhism? The first one is this: LIFE = SUFFERING. I'll let you look up the rest on your own (Clay, work on memorizing the Ten Commandments first). Suffering, in early buddhism, is divided into, that's right, eight categories, half being physical and half being mental.

  • 生: The pain of birth
  • 老: The pain of ageing
  • 病: The pain of sickness
  • 死: The pain of death
  • 愛別離苦: The pain of separation from loved ones
  • 怨憎会苦: The pain of contact with hated ones
  • 求不得苦: The frustration of unsatisfied desires
  • 五蘊盛苦: Suffering of the illnesses of Five Skandhas (form, sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness)
So, 四苦八苦 encompasses all of these 8 sufferings.
1. In a world of hurt
2. In a state of physical and mental anguish
3. Being "hard put to it" (from rikai-chan, not to be confused with "having it put to you, hard")

例文(featuring 2級 grammar)

So, one day, while I'm driving, I get this call from my girlfriend, right? And as soon as I pick up, without even saying "Hello," she goes: "I'm breaking up with you!" I was so surprised, I rear-ended the police car in front of me, and broke six bones. I've been in the hospital for two months, and it looks like my insurance isn't gonna cover it! On top of that, today my ex came to visit, and she brought her new boyfriend: my little brother! CURSE YOU, EIGHT SUFFERINGS (AS SET FORTH BY THE GAUTAMA BUDDHA)!!!!


Friday, April 4, 2008


せっさ たくま
sessa takuma


After bothering your stalwart kanji connoisseur for many a moon, I have finally been given the privilege to muck up this blog with some of my own posts. For a quick introduction: hi, I'm Brett. Most people reading this already know too much about me, so I'll cut if off at that. (unless Brett-based fan mail starts pouring into the Daily Yoji in-box, in which case I will begin writing introductory haiku to accompany each of my posts. And yes, they'll be in Japanese. And yes, it will be even more ridiculous than it sounds.)

Okay, getting started - 切磋琢磨(せっさたくま) is the flavor of the day, and was actually one of the first 四字熟語 I learned. It was so early, in fact, I didn't even really know what it was. This one also has the privilege of being the ONE Japanese phrase that I knew before Nirav. So, with that rich history in mind, how about an explanation?

Breaking it down into individual kanji will only scare/confuse the hell out of you. Why? Here's how it goes down. 切 = cut. 磋 = polish. 琢 = polish. 磨 = polish. 磋 and 磨 even referenced eachother as synonyms in my electronic dictionary, and all of them started their definitions with 磨く(みがく), or "polish/brush", as one should do to their teeth every morning. So the low-down is "cut, polish, polish, polish", which is the first yoji I've seen structured like this. Now let's go to the second half of this post for the definition forecast. Second half of this post?

Thanks, first half!
1. To zealously apply oneself in scholarly or moral pursuits.
2. To at once encourage and be encouraged by progress made by a friend or rival.

For the second part of this definition, it is VERY important to note that it does not work for someone or something you compete against in a more antagonistic vein. I asked teachers here, and you could not say that America and the USSR were 切磋琢磨ing during the Cold War to see who would get into space first, nor could you say that Asahi and Kirin are getting their 切磋琢磨 on to make the best beer. What it DOES work for, however, is a near perfect example of Jeff and I vis-à-vis Japanese... and a LOT of other things we do to boot.
例文: 僕の競争心は僕の友達にも反映されている。見知らぬ人と勝負で勝っても負けても、幸せか絶望を少しだけ感じる。でも優れた友達と鎬を削ったらすごく喜びを感じる。それで僕には切磋琢磨できる仲間がいる。
My competative nature is reflected in the friends I keep. Whether I win or lose a game against someone I don't know, I only feel a little triumph or defeat. But if I have a fierce competition with one of my skilled friends, then I get real satisfaction out of it. Because of that, friends who enjoy the mutual thrill and drive of competition are a must.

Which is why Jeff needs to get better at Smash Brothers, STAT.