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

Friday, February 27, 2009



We spend a lot of time telling you ways to fancy up your Japanese. TOO MUCH TIME! It's always "Ancient Chinese history" this and "archaic grammar" that. Well you know what? All your nancy-pancy conjugations aren't gonna do you a lick of good when THIS guy tears through the sliding door of your dojo and challenges everybody inside.
「ほら!何やってん、オメー!?」 he slurs through his perpetual sneer as he starts pushing you around. Indeed, the situation has gotten pretty やばい - the hyper-casual (or often outright insulting) ways of ヤンキー語 will be the only way you get out of this unscathed. If you consider being forced to buy him some アンパン "unscathed."

What follows are some basic guidelines to either understanding this brand of speech (which is quite common on tv shows, anime, etc) or using it yourself (which can be either endearing or completely inappropriate. Use with caution!)

あい・い => え

This point confused me to no end when I was first trying to learn some rougher ways to express myself. For example, I learned that "shut up!" was "うるせー!" from watching anime, but "うるさい" based on textbooks. I didn't realize until much later that they were the same word, except the former was altered to make it a more bad-ass manner of speaking. This rule applies to an almost unlimited number of cases: "じゃない" becomes "じゃねー", "すごい" becomes "スゲー", and so on. It can even apply to words that end in other vowels as it did above, changing "おまえ" to "オメー". Adjectives are the most common victim of this slurring. Think of it as adding "so damned" or something similar before the text you're talking. "スマブラがなんておもしれぇ!" becomes "Smash brothers is so much goddamn fun!"

いる = ん

This one applies mostly to verbs, and is reflective of an underlying rule of ヤンキー語 - much is either shortened or changed to enable easy speaking. Don't believe me? Just give it a try with almost any of the examples I've given so far. "え" is probably the easiest of the 母音 (vowels), and "ん" is a step easier than "いる".

As a quick example of the above: "ガタガタいってんじゃねぇよ!" "Quit your goddamned babbling!"

人(ひと) = いつ

Best employed with phrases like 「誰、そいつ?」, or "Who the hell is that guy?" It can also be used in the phrase "どいつもこいつも", which can be loosely translated as "every-f***ing-body". As with all Japanese, tone and context will determine the severity of your speaking. Still, remember that this - like most things I'll cover here - are not something you want to use in a professional setting. I once developed the bad habit of using language like this almost exclusively for a period of time, to the point where normal ways of speaking began to elude me. I was in the middle of class and wanted to indicate one of the students, but - not knowing his name and wanting to do more than grunt and point - gestured with an emphatic "そいつ!". Though this got a lot of laughter from the kids, the teacher was noticeably flushed. I've since used it in other classes, but affected the ヤンキー voice while doing so to make clear it was a joke.


A lot of you are probably thinking - ほら? Isn't that pretty tame? Well that's because you're not saying it right. Another part of speaking this way is rolling your "r"s, or 「巻き舌で言う」. If you roll your "r"s just a bit each time you say "ほら", you'll have the Japanese (rough) equivalent of interspersing your speech with "hey" or "yo"... although a good sight ruder, depending on circumstances.

These, as I see them, are the fundamentals of ヤンキー語文法. If you just couple this with wanton use of the rudest imperative you know (ほら!アンパン買って来い!), you'll have a good start. The following video does a pretty good job of unifying all of these points while being completely hilarious at the same time. For the full effect I recommend watching the whole video, but those eager to figure out what a "young key" is, just hit play, and enjoy!

On a final note - if there is interest, I'll post some links that will let you expand your ヤンキー単語. Just like English, Japanese has a few colorful expressions that pop up a lot in this mode of speech. But that is a post for another time, even if the place is right on.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


keikou gyuugo

~The first in an occasional series of cow-related words and phrases~

As you all are aware (or should be), 2009 is the year of the ox/cow, depending on which language you are speaking. Unlike my two co-writers, one of whom is a boar/pig and the other a rat, I happened to have been born in a cow year, which means that this year I am a 年男, or man born under the same sign as the current year. Accordingly, it's been my plan to do a series of posts on "cow-words" in honor of both the new year and myself for some time now, and this post is the first in that series.

This is something of an odd yoji to start off with, because it doesn't give the most flattering view of cows, but I'm starting with it because it's probably among the more useful ushi-kotoba that I've come across. 鶏口牛後 is another one of those yoji's that has an ancient Chinese backstory, so gather round for storytime!

Back in the day, during the Warring States Period in China, the country of Han seemed on the brink of becoming a tributary state to the expanding country of Qin (later the first dynasty of China). Seeing this, and knowing that becoming a tributary would mean the certain doom of Han, Su Chin (I think - his name, 蘇秦, is read as そしん in Japanese) went to the king and said:

keikou to naru mo, gyuugo to naru nakare

Better to be a chicken's mouth than a cow's butt!

Jet Li as the first Qin emperor in the stinkfest third Mummy movie...

Moved by these words (and not wanting to be a cow's butt), the King of Han decided against joining the Qin, and instead formed alliances with other neighboring states against them. (Of course, they all ended up being subsumed by the Qin anyway...) 鶏口牛後 is an abbreviation of that famous line.

I know what I want the next time I go to Japan...

1. Rather be the first in a village than second in Rome.
2. Better to be a big fish in a little pond, than vice versa.

例文: 大手の企業に入ったって、トップになれる倍率はものすごく低い。だったら鶏口牛後の精神で起業をしたほうがましだ。
Even if you get into a big company, your chances of making it to the top are slim to none. That's why you're better off remembering that it's better to be first in a village than second in Rome and starting something on your own.

I know what I want the next time I go to Japan...

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

表現 Break: 知る人ぞ知る

This 表現 is actually a 表現, and not a ことわざ. I came across it for the first time well over a year ago, in an article that Claytonian of The Hopeless Romantic sent me. The article is about a hidden restaurant that a guy runs out of his junk/memorabilia filled house somewhere in Nagasaki, and though I could understand a fair amount of it back then, there was one phrase that was too far over my head, no matter how hard I tried to figure it out.

しる ひと ぞ しる
shiru hito zo shiru

Only those who know, know, and they know it well.
Conversely, if you're not in the know, you're not.

The hidden restaurant in the article remains hidden, because it refuses to divulge its address, referring to it only as 知る人ぞ知る長崎の穴場スポット: A nice little spot in Nagasaki, well-known and well-liked by a select few. Both Clay and I were of the opinion that it would be really, really cool to figure out a way to become 常連 or お得意 さん at a place like that.

There were a few reasons I couldn't figure this phrase out at the time: context, timing, and a lack of grammar knowledge.

When I got a Japanese friend to help me try to find out where this place was, they explained 知る人ぞ知る, by saying "People who don't know, won't know," which is a decent job of translating contextually, but not literally. Literally, this expression emphasizes KNOWING, but her translation put the emphasis on NOT KNOWING. Which was bad timing because I had just learned the ~ずに construction, I kept trying to think up a way to connect 知る人ぞ, to the idea of negation, like you would do with 知らずに. Why? Because they both had 'z' sounds, and because I wasn't yet familiar with the way to use こそ to stress a subject.

Turns out that ぞ, is yet another archaic feature of Japanese, still preserved in some turns of speech today. It's an old way of saying "こそ," which makes it much, much easier to understand. Who knows? People who know こそ know.

A-san: あなたは外国人なのに、日本の一般人より多くの四字熟語を知っている理由って、なぜ?
Why is it that even though you're a foreigner, you know more yojijukugo than your average Japanese person?
B-san: 知る人ぞ知るウェブサイトのおかげですよ。
It's thanks to a certain site that those of us in the know use...

Monday, February 23, 2009


にちじょう さはん
nichijyou sahan

Give us this day our daily bread, but if you can't do that, at least give us our Daily Yo-ji.

Today's 四字熟語 contains the Japanese equivalent of the idea of "daily bread," although... free of the religious connotations. 茶飯 (also read ちゃめし: lit. tea rice) is rice, prepared with tea and other seasonings. Brett's a big fan of お茶漬け, which is kind of the same thing, at least to my 外人 sensibilities. What makes it the equivalent of 'daily bread,' is in its simplicity.

Just as bread is perceived to be the 代表 of western cuisine, rice and tea are two of the pillars of the Japanese diet. No point in getting into the パン食、米食 debate. No matter how much you might chafe at the idea of "bread" as summing up your country's cuisine, it won't change the fact that Japanese people see it that way. Nor will it change the fact that Japanese people DON'T chafe at the idea of being gastronomically identified with rice. That's the way things are.

On a less debatable point, the addition of "日常' also helps draw the "daily bread" analogy nicely.
You can use 日常 to talk about anything that is routine, ordinary, regular, everyday to the point of being 当たり前.

Of course, the same thing could be said of the entire phrase as well.

1. An everyday occurrence.
2. Something perfectly ordinary and expected.

Try using this with である。

In Japan it's considered bad form to talk on your cell phone on the train, but using it for mail, the internet, or for games is about as common as rice.

Friday, February 20, 2009


Even More Japanese That Ain't in the Book

Nirav promises to finish up his series explaining some of the nuances of the many words you can use to talk about one's condition, especially some of the words using 気, but in the meantime, I'm gonna toss in a few more feelings phrases "to help make your 言い回し more 日本人ぽい."

One thing that was really difficult for me, when I first came to Japan, was explaining to people how I felt, especially if how I felt was anything other than "元気." Nirav will get into this more in his post, but really, the only thing I was equipped with, in terms of saying, "I don't feel good" was "気分悪い."

However, telling people that I was 気分悪い almost always had the effect of making them think that I was sick, and giving me more attention when most of the time, what I wanted to let them know was that I was in the mood to be left alone.

Thanks to Brett, I now know that I can simply explain that "the bug's whereabouts are bad" but what about getting more specific about why you're not in a good mood?

Luckily, if you're in Japan long enough to form close relationships, especially romantic ones, you'll learn how to express all kinds of moods. And if you want to know what to say without having to get in a bunch of fights with a significant other, well, that's why The Daily Yo-ji is here.

iraira suru

to be/get frustrated; to feel frustration

Do NOT trust Rikai-chan on this one. I've NEVER heard this used to mean "getting nervous." See the next point on the list for that. Use this to express frustration, being fed up, and having things get on your nerves.

dokidoki suru



kinchou suru

to be nervous; to feel nervous tension

ドキドキ is the sound of a heart beat, and when you get nervous, your heart starts beating faster. These are great words to use about anything that makes you nervous: having to give a speech, trying something for the first time, when the pressures on you to do or say the right thing, getting on a roller coaster, petting a lion, etc. 

MOST of the time, you can use these two interchangeably. When I was meeting my girlfriend's family for the first time, I could (and did) use BOTH 緊張する and ドキドキする。

However, when you're with a boyfriend or girlfriend, you might feel 緊張, but you'd be better off telling them that you are ドキドキしている. 緊張 might be interpreted as, "You make me tense." ドキドキ is like, "You give me butterflies," or "You make my heart beat faster."


moyamoya suru

to feel sad; to be upset; to be gloomy

This is good for when you're down about something, and can't (or don't want to) explain why. When nothing's wrong, but you're still upset, or when a bunch of little things have combined to make you feel like EVERYTHING is depressing, that's もやもや.


to get upset; to reach the breaking point; to be fussy;
to throw a tantrum

Again, leave the Rikai-chan translation alone on this one. It'll just confuse you (to become perverse? inferiority complex? what?). It does have some other applications, but here's the easiest way to think of it: a child throwing a temper tantrum is いじけている. You can use it about yourself or others if it's a situation where the person in question is so upset that they can't do anything but be upset, or if they're making a show of how upset they are, like a crying child. I don't recommend using it, because I associate it with things like being わがまま (making a scene when you don't get your way) and the idea of 切れる emotionally where you just SNAP, but as others have pointed out, it also has the nuance of "being fussy," which, just like in English, can sometimes be thought of as endearing in small doses. And one more fun note about いじける: You can call people who are overdoing it, "いじけ虫." But watch out. If they really are pissed, you might make it worse!


After I posted this, Brett had trouble looking up いじける、which lead to long conversations with native Japanese speakers about いじける (it's 標準語, so it wasn't one of those "DAMN YOU, SAGA-BEN[ben = dialect]!" moments), and then today we got a comment from reader mico saying some of the same things. Bolded phrases above have been added to reflect where we needed to make changes, and a few sentences that were incorrect have been removed. Thanks for the input!


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Japanese Cultural Trivia of the Day:

These are words that I considered tossing into a 教科書に載っていない post, but then I figured it be more fun to do them like this.



裏, not to be confused with the homonymous 浦 from 津々浦々, has tons of meanings, but the common thread that they share: you can't see the 裏 from the front.

表, which you can find in 表面, 表現, and 代表, has an equal abundance of interpretation and represents the opposite of 裏. It's the visible surface.

You might remember both of these from 表裏一体.

They work really well for talking about buildings and locations (駐車場は裏にあります) and I hear them a lot at work, where 表 is the part of the bakery that the customers frequent, and 裏 is where the baking gets done (「表の掃除終わりましたか。」とか「裏から鉄板持ってきて。」).

But where you can hear it and use it most often is in today's cultural trivia:


裏か (うらか;uraka) as it gets abbreviated in speech, is a system of dividing people into two groups. I want to call it a kid's game, but then... it's not a game, though it often precedes games, and much like じゃん拳 (じゃんけん;janken), everyone in Japan does it, regardless of their age.

Whenever you have a situation where you need two groups, or two teams, you can find people doing 裏か表, which works like this: 裏, as it's meaning implies, refers to 手の平, the part of your hand that can't be seen from the front, so... your palm. 表 in this case is 手の甲, the back of your hand. Everyone stands in a circle, puts a hand in, and then everyone (or at least SOMEONE) in the group chants 「裏か表!」 while shaking/flipping their hand back and forth between the two states of hand-existence.

On the final chanted syllable, everyone picks a side and thrusts their hand out, showing either 裏 or 表. If the numbers of people who chose each are approximately even, then 裏s form one group, 表s form the other. And if the numbers are way off, the process is repeated. Just like じゃんけん has あいこでしょう, when you have to do it again, there's a different chant. What that chant is, however, is subject for disagreement. The kids that I learned it from always said 「手、手、のって!」 Yuri says simply 「っせ!」 There are even little kid versions that get longer and ridiculous, 「裏かオモ、てんぷら、ハンバーガー。。。」 and on into あほ臭い territory. Have people in other parts of Japan heard other versions?

裏 and 表 can also be linked to ideas of 本音 and 建前, as well as martial arts, but those are subjects for other posts.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Further Yo-ji Resources

Most of the time we try to do one of two things when posting yo-ji, hyougen. kotowaza, and other cool stuff:

1. We post something that we learned in conversation with Japanese people. We usually have a story to go along with it, might be able to relate it directly to our lives, we don't have to look up how to use it, and we can rest assured in the fact that it will be useful to us and to our readers because native-speakers use it.

2. We try to post something that lends itself to interesting cultural or historical content: a lot of times we'll look for phrases that are seasonally relevant, or have fascinating origins in Japanese (Chinese) history that will help us and our readers impress people with the range of our knowledge.

But sometimes we run dry, and we have to go yo-ji fishing. When that happens, here's what we use, and now with a little cash and some Amazon.co.jp, you can use them too.

The Yojijukugo "All you need" Encylopedia
published by Escargot Books

This is something I inherited from 大づの先生, the most senior 国語先生 at Kawasoe-Chuugakko. My copy still has his name written down the spine. Sometimes I think he gave it to me so I'd stop asking him what stuff meant all the time. As you can see, it's very, very dense, but all-encompassing, with over 1700 四字熟語 and their definitions contained in its pages. Does not feature example sentences.

Grade School level: Commonly Used Yojijukugo and Proverb Workbook
published by さし書房

I lost the cover to my copy a while ago. This was the first yo-ji book I ever bought, and is still the easiest to use. The Japanese is easy to understand. The definitions are illustrated with pictures that... I guess they could be clearer, but they could also be more obscure. Also doesn't feature example sentences, but it does have quizzes where you have to choose the right saying for the situation or match the definition, etc. Pretty useful.


Increase Your Proverb and Yojijukugo Power!
published by 世界文化社

My yo-ji mentor, Otao-san, uses this book. It's like the Japanese equivalent of a book containing anecdotes or jokes or techniques or quotations to be used in speeches. It contains in-depth explanations of thousands of phrases, examples of the 使い方 for many of them, and is organized into sections based on theme: "Proverbs related to success," "Proverbs for when you're lost," "Yo-ji related to society and nature," and the very broad "Yo-ji related to life" (to name a few). It also has a running sidebar that's like a "On This Day in Japanese History," section. I haven't really looked at that much. Lot of people's names, written in kanji.

Textbook Yojijukugo 2009 Wall Calendar
published by 旺文社

Last but not least, I got this calendar as a house-warming present from the very same Otao-san. I find it extremely comforting because it only features three yo-ji a week, and if a Japanese publishing company can't put out more than that, The Daily Yo-ji's not doing so bad after all. It's designed so that elementary school students can also use it (all kanji glossed), which makes it easy to use in the bathroom where, unless you're Brett, you probably don't bring your electronics with you. And yes, I was given explicit instructions to hang it in my bathroom. When I laughingly promised to comply saying, 「毎日読まれるようにね,」 Otao-san corrected me by saying, 「毎日より、毎回!」


ちょうちょう はっし
chouchou hasshi

Before we get too much distance between ourselves and last week's 喧々囂々、侃々諤々、喧々諤々 EXPLOSION, I want to take the time to address a legitimate concern that reader Alex addressed in the comments section: that shit was hard.

Not only are the kanji involved ridiculous, but the first two expressions are rarely used in conversation, and the third is actually not even a real yo-ji!

If only there were a good 四字熟語 that meant roughly the same thing, was easy to use, even easier to remember, and contained a kick-ass sword-fighting metaphor... Oh, wait.

1. A fierce clashing of words, resembling a fierce clashing of swords.

According to the 「四字熟語」これだけ辞典, which we also posted on today, this yo-ji can also be written like so: 丁丁発止. Internet searches reveal tons of examples of both, but since the book lists 打打発止 as the primary form, and the book has the virtue of being ancient, we're gonna use it as well.

丁々, as Rikai-chan will tell you, is the sound of chopping, and also lends itself to the sound of metal on metal. I'd imagine it as more metallic sounding, but then, I've never heard a mouse say ちゅう either. 発止 gets translated as "a loud clack;" the kanji, meaning "halted departure," convey the idea of something in motion (like a sword) coming to a quick, sudden stop (when it hits another sword).

Sounds like 打打発止 could be used in close proximity to one of Brett's earliest posts: しのぎを削る.

I wonder what those two Americans are saying. They're always shouting back and forth in English, like they're having a fierce dispute, but I've heard that they're actually really close.

If you ever have the opportunity to use this in connection with an actual sword fight, feel free. It can work literally as well.

Challenge: If you know who that anime character is at the top, quick, tell me where I can download a copy of that... I'm incredibly embarrassed to admit that it's the ONLY incarnation of that franchise that I haven't seen.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

One Hundred... and FOUR.

We here at The Daily Yo-ji wanted to do something special to commemorate the posting of our 100th 四字熟語. But not only did we fail at "special," we failed at other, more important things, like noticing or counting...

So today we're celebrating our 104th 四字熟語! That's right. Of 197 posts on a website called "The Daily Yoji" which has been running for over a year, we've managed to pass on 104 4-character idiomatic expressions!

That's over 52% 四字-goodness.

That's over 416 kanji (though, with doubles and repeats, maybe closer to 375?)!

That's so many yo-ji that we don't remember many of them!


That's why our 104th 四字 anniversary present to you is THIS.

Anki is the best free create-your-own Japanese flashchards program out there, and I'm assuming that many of you already use it. If you don't, now you have one more reason to start. Every 四字熟語 that has appeared on one of our posts, even if it didn't merit an entire post of it's own (I'm looking at you, 一生懸命), is collected and included in the first Daily Yoji Anki deck.

I've organized it so that it works for recognition only: you see the kanji and must recall the reading and meaning. If you're keen on remembering to write them all out yourself, once you download the file, you can reorganize it to include production as well.

In addition to the readings and meanings of each 四字熟語, you'll find occasional notes on usage, and labels that let you know how Common or Rare each yo-ji is, so you'll have a sense of how confident you can be if you want to use it. The labels range from "Extremely Common" to "Extremely Rare," and were determined through a complex process that took into account many factors:
  • Anecdotal evidence
  • Google searches
  • Native-speaker response in the comments sections
  • Number of times I've heard or seen them occur naturally
  • Reactions to my attempts at using them
  • Whether or not my girlfriend has ever heard of them
  • Whether or not Nirav posted them
... so there might be a margin of error.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy them, and I hope they help you retain some of what you've picked up here. If you find yourself interested in the meanings of the specific kanji, or suspect that a yo-ji might have an interesting origin, the search bar in the upper left corner of this page will help you out.

Thanks again for all your comments!

Jeff, Brett, and Niro

表現 Break: 能ある鷹は爪を隠す

I like the animalistic nature of today's 諺, and the advice it offers appeals highly to me, kind of like 不言実行. I've always thought that strengths are strongest when they're kept hidden (and I think that my powerful desire to learn languages is motivated way too much by my dreams of surprising people who think that I don't understand them, like a linguistic-rope-a-dope).

のう ある たか は つめ を かくす
nou aru taka wa tsume wo kakusu

Literal - The talented hawk hides his talons.
1. The wise man does not make all of his abilities known.
2. It is better to play some of your cards close to your chest.
3. He/She who knows most, often says least.

Note that the Japanese definition here adds a nuance that my personal inclinations leave out: modesty. You don't just hide your talents because, as Paul Newman says, being the "unknown" gives you strength and makes you cool, but because showing-off is to be frowned upon. Modesty is a highly prized virtue, especially to the Japanese way of thinking.

There are some really cool expressions that encapsulate the same meaning, in an antonymous way:

  • 空樽は音が高い
    から だる は おと が たかい
    kara daru ha oto ga takai

    A loud sound indicates an empty barrel.

  • 能無し犬の高吠え
    のうなし いぬ の たかぼえ
    nounashi inu no takaboe

    A barking dog seldom bites (loudness masks weakness).

  • 口達者の仕事下手
    くちだっしゃ の しごと へた
    kuchidassha no shigoto heta

    The glib are poor workers.

  • 能無しの口叩き
    のうなし の くちたたき
    nounashi no kuchitataki

    The incompetence of braggarts.

  • 鳴く猫鼠捕らず
    なく ねこ ねずみ とらず
    naku neko nezumi torazu

    The cat that meows doesn't catch the mouse.
Wow... there were a lot of those.

A-san: あの子とファーストデートはどうだった?
How'd your first date with that girl go.
B-san: よかったよ。夕食は俺の手作り料理で、その後ギターで俺のオリジナル曲を彼女に弾いたり、俺が書いたポエムを読んだり、マッサージしたりしてやった。
Sweet. I cooked her dinner, then played her some of my original songs on guitar, read her my poems, and gave her a massage.
A-san: ファーストデートで?お前はバカじゃないの?2番目のデートはどうする予定?
On the first date? Isn't that overkill? What do you have planned for the second date?
B-san: ええと。。。
A-san: わからないでしょう!「能ある鷹は爪を隠す」という諺は意味あるよ。
You don't know, do you? There's a reason they say to keep some of your strengths in reserve.

Also, does this proverb make anyone else think of the character Zatoichi? Follow-up question: Anyone see the latest Zatoichi incarnation? The female one?

Monday, February 16, 2009


あおいき といき
aoiki toiki

Here's a special post-Valentine's Day Yo-ji for all you lovers... who failed miserably on Saturday. That's right, today's post has nothing to do with Valentine's day in general, but the only good image I could find for "blue breath" had hearts in it.

I hope that you can't use 青息吐息 in relation to your Valentine's... but just in case you can, I might as well tell you what it means.

息 is your breath, and 吐息 is a sigh. Less common is 青息, which means a 'pained sigh.' But it makes sense when you think about some of the other appearances of 青: 顔が青い、青ざめる、青あざ, 青枯れ病 (why do I know that word?), etc.

So put a bunch of pained sighs and regular sighs together, and what do you get?


1. Deep distress.
2. Desperation.
3. Involuntary exhalations caused by deep distress or desperation.

You should use this in relation to large sources of stress or anxiety, and it most commonly takes です or だ after it like, 「来週のエバリュエーションのため、彼はさすがに青息吐息だ: Next week's the evaluation, so of course he's really stressed out.」

I bought my new car with a loan, but because the payments are so immense, it's become a desperate situation.

Friday, February 13, 2009


Even More Japanese That Ain't in The Book

~Feelings, nothing more than feelings~ Part 1 of X

Yet another installment of words and phrases "to help make your 言い回し more 日本人ぽい."
Today, we're going to look at some of the nuances in useage of a whole lot of words used to talk about conditions, mood, feeling, or atmosphere. This is a rich topic, so it will probably turn into more of a series of posts. There is an entire post to be written about each and every one of these words, but hopefully you'll be able to glean enough information here to give yourselves a solid foundation to start doing some learning by experiencing Japanese language firsthand. (Thanks to Jeff for getting this list started!) Today we are going to focus on the essential building block of feelings/emotions, also known as:


essence, nature, energy

気 is probably one of the most important words and concepts that you will come across while studying Japanese. It has all kinds of definitions, but in general there seem to be about 5 will help you understand most phrases that you might come across:
1) The basic energy that runs through the universe (kind of like The Force)
2) Life-energy
3) The mind and/or heart, and their various states
4) The atmosphere or essence of a specific place or scene
5) The essence of a given thing; the aspect of a given thing that makes it what it is
If you've ever watched Kung-fu movies, I believe that this is what is commonly referred to as "chi" in the Chinese terminology (though since I'm not a Chinese-speaker, you will have to take that with a grain of salt... or wikipedia). That being said, let's look at some 慣用表現 (かんようひょうげん), or idiomatic expressions, that make use of this character, if only to gain some kind of familiarity with it.

ki wo tsukeru

to be careful; to pay attention

I'm sure that all of you have already heard of/make use of this phrase fairly often. It was certainly the first context in which I learned the word 気, and I wouldn't be surprised if this was true for most Japanese-learners. It is fairly simple; one "attaches" their mind to a specific thing. This is usually used as an admonition to have your mind on whatever you are doing at the time. Notice that a similar construction is used in the intransitive:

気が付く or 気づく
きがつく or きづく
ki ga tsuku OR kidzuku
(pronounced kizuku)

to realize; to notice

This is another simple one. It is when your mind or heart attaches to something - that is, realizes it, when something that had escaped your notice before suddenly becomes clear to you. Note that 気づける, which one might try to say as a contraction of 気をづける, actually becomes the potential form of this verb.

ki ni naru

to worry about, to wonder about, to be on one's mind

This is another good one, which perhaps some of you don't know. Most people first learn this as meaning "something is worrying me." For example:
I'm worried about DY's lack of updates recently. I wonder if they're ok?
How sweet of you all to worry about us! There are other uses, too. For example, you might use it to talk about something (someone?) you want to know more about, either in a good way or a bad way. Something might be, for example, 気になるNirav情報満載! That would mean its full of the Nirav-info that you've all been wondering about! And what a wonderful thing that would be.

気を遣う OR 気遣い (note the kanji usage! 使う is wrong!)
きをつかう OR きづかい
ki wo tsukau OR kidzukai

to consider someone, to worry about someone

Japanese-learners are often faced with the fact that Japanese society tends to be very concerned with appropriate levels of politeness and decorum. Part of this is 気遣い. Put roughly, it means to consider someone's wants or needs, often without being asked. For example, putting out some tea and/sweets when someone comes to visit might be an example of 気遣い. Slowing down or going easy on an amateur is another example. People sometimes use this sarcastically, but that is a topic for another day.

ki ga kiku

considerate, sharp (as in smart)

People whose 気遣い is on target will often be told that their 気が利く. 利く here means to function or be useful. In other words, if you are a good host, you will know in advance what your guests will need. You can also use it to describe someone who is mentally sharp.

ki ga au

to get along well

When your 気 and someone else's 気 match up, that means your specific essences match up, and you get along well. When they don't match up, trouble ensues!

ki ni kuwanai

ki ni sawaru

to get on one's nerves, to not be able to stand

I put these together because they have essentially the same meaning, although as I understand it 気に障る is more serious. You might notice that 障る is read the same way as 触る. There is a whole post in this, but for now, imagine the feeling of someone 触る-ing your eyeball. That's how I think of the meaning of 障る. And that is the feeling I get when I meet someone who really gets on my nerves. Stop touching my eyeballs!

ki ga sumu

to be satisfied, to get something out of one's system

Notice the 済む here (also notice that it is NOT 住む). This character means "to end" or "to be over with." (For example, paying off a loan is called 返済; something that is already spoken for is 約束済み; etc, etc). It can also mean "to subside" or "to clear." Here, your 気 is full of desire to do something - be it cry, scream, play a prank, whatever. Once you've gotten on with it, you can say that your 気が済んだ and you are done with it. Often times you will be asked それで気が済んだのか? (Is it out of your system now?)

ki ga chiru

to lose one's concentration

You know when you're trying to study, but there are gunshots outside? Or when you are trying to put together a blog post, but someone keeps g-chatting you? That's the kind of thing that really makes your 気 散る. Think of 散る as things falling haphazardly (perhaps your belongings all over your apartment, or the leaves off of a tree). When this happens to your 気, you lose your ability to focus.

Focus, people, we're almost done.

ki wo hikareru

to be distracted

This is slightly different from the above, in that it is more like your mind wanders. Rather than have an external shock (like someone yelling at you), you might be writing your blog post and get distracted by the TV, or by the book on your desk, or by the food in your refrigerator, or by....

Ok, anyway, now that you've got a basic (though by no means exhaustive) idea of what 気 is, next time we go through some of the more complicated 熟語 that contain it, and related words that it would be a good idea to distinguish/differentiate. Until then!

Two-Kanji Yo-ji Week Wrap Up

Just some final notes and additions to this week's Yo-ji posts:

  • Although 三三五五(さんさんごご; sansan gogo) is an officially recognized yo-ji, I decided not to write up a whole post for it because it's pretty basic and utilitarian, in the same vein as 天地無用. Rikai-chan will tell you that 三々五々means "in groups of twos or threes," but something in me balks at the idea of translating "five" as "two," so I prefer the second definition it offers: "in small groups."
  • 唯唯諾諾 (いいだくだく;ii dakudaku) means "ready and willing." I thought I might gloss over that one, because we'll need it, if we ever get around to writing "The Nightly Yo-ji." Also, I was scared to google it.
  • Much like yesterday's 喧々諤々、some people will list 各各然然 (かくかくしかじか; kakukaku shikajika) as a two-kanji yo-ji (using the above kanji or other ateji versions), but it's not a real one. It's a linguistic convention that has been turned into a yo-ji through common usage. It means the same thing as 「ま、そういうことで。」 It functions to mark the end of a topic of conversation, kind of like saying "So... that's that."

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Daily Double: 喧喧囂囂 and 侃侃諤諤

けんけんごうごう and かんかんがくがく
kenken gougou and kankan gakugaku

Winding down the week of two-kanji yo-ji, we've got some high-level rare yo-ji with very similar meanings. We could have made this a triple by including 喧喧諤諤 (けんけんがくがく;kenkengakugaku*), but let me explain why we didn't after the definitions.


1. Pandemonius uproar

1. Heated arguing
2. Outspoken about one's beliefs (pushing the boundaries of politeness)

While I was planning out the line-up for this week's theme, I asked some of my friends for contributions, and one of them suggested 喧々諤々, but when I looked it up online, I came across a Japanese forum thread where someone was asking why 喧々諤々 doesn't show up in a 国語辞典. I looked it up in my 四字熟語辞典, and I couldn't find it either. One of the commenters in that thread pointed out that the reason it doesn't show up is because it's not a real 四字熟語. While both my Japanese word processing software and Rikai-chan recognize it (defining it as "tumultuous; everyone voicing their opinions at once), the fact of the matter is that it's an oral tradition, a verbal mangling of today's two. Take the first part of one, the last part of the other, and you've made yourself a brand new idiomatic expression.

If you're writing, I recommend using either 喧々囂々or 侃々諤, whichever suits your purposes. But since they're old and rare, if you want to say something in conversation, people today are much more familiar with the amalgamation: 喧々諤々.

You can follow any of these with the verbs する, or 言う to fit it into a sentence, or you can also use になる。


After that politician's remarks on the Amakudari system, the Diet erupted into pandemonium.

There's absolutely no cause for heatedly arguing politics or religion when you're talking to your mother-in law.

When I asked whether or not we should stay and wait to be rescued, or try to fight our way through the zombie hordes, everyone began shouting their opinion simultaneously. Man, the apocalypse is rough.

* post-post edit, thanks to Sash's watchful eye.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


せいせい どうどう
seisei doudou

Continuing this week with the 2 kanji yo-ji theme, we're getting into military territory with 正々堂々.

正 means "true," or "regular." Shows up in 正しい (ただしい)and 正午 (しょうご)and makes things correct, or exact. Double it up, 正正, and you get 'accurate,' 'punctual,' or 'neat.'

堂 makes buildings. 本堂 is the main temple building, 食堂 is a cafeteria, etc. Doubled up, 堂々 is 'magnificent'... or just 'fair.'

1. Fair and square.
2. Aboveboard.
3. Energetic, vigorous, in an organized way.

This last translation comes from the origin of 正々堂々: Sun Tzu's Art of War. In fact, this yo-ji is a shortened version of this longer quote, translated from the original Chinese: 「正正の旗を邀(むか)うることなく、堂堂の陣を撃つことなし。」 My best translation is: Do not face off against the stately banner, do not attack the well-prepared formation. Not very a good rendition, but it gets the idea across. Imagine a flawless military regiment, in perfect formation, well drilled, and ready for action. It was one of Sun Tzu's most basic strategic concepts: Don't engage an enemy you can't beat; 正正堂堂した敵と戦わないように...

How it made the transition from the idea of high spirits, preparedness, and efficiency at war to today's more common usage, "fair and square," is less clear to me. Maybe it has to do with setting itself at odds with Sun Tzu's philosophy which was all about deception.

Note: I didn't know it at the time, but 風林火山 also comes from Sun Tzu.

Probably not a good idea to try to use the same yo-ji twice in the same sentence with two different meanings, but...

Sun Tzu advises not pitting yourself against someone who knows the rules better than you, but I don't want to go up against someone who doesn't play fair either.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

表現 Break: 猫被り

If ever there was a 諺 to keep out of a google image search bar, this one is it.

猫被り  ・  猫を被る
ねこかぶり ・ ねこをかぶる
neko kaburi ・ neko wo kaburu

Literal: Wearing a cat.
1. Wolf in sheep's clothing.
2. Feigned naivete.
3. Pretending to be innocent to lure someone in.

Origins for this one are pretty standard. Felines are pretty universally accepted as being kind, when it suits their purposes, and being a generally manipulative animal.

If you like cats, (and NOT in the way that a certain sect of Japanese オタク likes cats: there are CAT maid cafes!), then check out this site, which lists pretty much every Japanese 諺 where cats make an appearance.

And since we're discussing 猫被り, I'd like to raise a point for discussion: Is 猫被り a trait that is considered desirable in a Japanese woman? Culturally, I mean.

(These are some of Yuri's friends. They made this video as humorous presentation for their friend's wedding. We've seen lots of these (they're a common practice) and trust me, in terms of the choreography and production quality, this is on the high end of the scale.)

Back to the matter at hand, according to "Pink Samurai," which is a non-fiction book, not a smutty manga, thank you very much, Japanese males are attracted to the ingenue more than the experienced woman, which explains the obsession with underage girls. The book even analyzes the number of occurences of the phrase 「優しくしてね,」 in personal ads for girls who work in the ヘルス massage industry as a kind of 猫被り, analogous to a western pro saying "Be gentle," with the pretext of inexperience implied.

On a personal level, Brett and I have witnessed a couple of examples of conversations where Japanese girls have claimed to not understand a patently obvious joke about things of a sexual nature. One even claimed to not be able to imagine how the person in this picture (who shall remain nameless) kind of looks like he's violating the karaoke tv.

A Japanese woman whose opinions I value told me that Japanese women do pretend to "not get it," at least in front of other men.
I'd love to hear what Japanese people, or non-Japanese women (koff koff Cassie) who have lived in Japan have to say. I know the foreign female Japan experience and the foreign male Japan experience are very different, and I wonder what kinds of insights my gender might not be privy to.

In the meantime, I think that 猫被り is a good opportunity to revisit some earlier posts and make some clarifications:

  • 猫を被ること would go well with the idea of 海千山千: someone who looks like a kindly, wise, Dragonheart-dragon might actually turn out to be a wicked, ravenous, Reign of Fire-dragon.
  • 猫を被ること would NOT go well with 衣ばかりで和尚はできぬ, which is more often used to mean "You can't become a monk just by getting the robes," than it is to mean "Appearances can be deceiving."

That Daily Yoji site is a wolf in sheep's clothing, don't you think? Oh sure, they'll ask for female "input" all nice and polite, but is it for real? The truth is, they're always posting dirty pictures, and Brett's writes sexist comments... And did you see those nanpa posts? Suspect! Sure, this time they're trying to get women involved, but somehow I doubt that it's a woman's "opinion" that they're interested in.

Monday, February 9, 2009


tsutsu uraura

This week we're gonna look at two-kanji 四字熟語. In our post headings we'll write each of them out in their entirety, but they're just as often written out using the くりかえし mark: 々, Like this: 津々浦々。

To date, we've only posted one other two-kanji yo-ji. You remember it?

Researching this week's posts have given me tons of cool trivia and info to discuss with Japanese friends, and to show off my yo-ji knowledge. Test your friends by asking how many two-kanji yo-ji they can think of. By the end of this week, you should know more than they do!

Let's get into 津々浦々。

1. All over/Everywhere (geographically)
2. Every part of the country

You'll notice that the first part of the Japanese gives the literal meaning of 津々浦々, based on it's kanji. 津, meaning port, harbor, or haven, gets used an awful lot in the names of places in Japan, like 唐津, here in Saga-ken, famous for its beaches, pine forests and festivals. 浦, meaning inlet, gets used similarly (the picture above is of one of Kyuushuu's most famous inlets and rice paddies, located in 浜野浦, in 唐津).

When you take into account the Japanese linguistic practice of repeating something twice to imply a multitude or succession (人々、国々、日々, etc) and the fact that Japan is an island nation, you get a sense of how "Every port, every inlet," came to mean everywhere. 「津々浦々」wouldn't go far in a landlocked country, or a country with less 海 adjacent property...

Attach particles like の, から, and で for the most common usages.

That guy's a pimp. I heard he's got a girl in every port.

Friday, February 6, 2009


Even More Japanese That Ain't in the Textbook:

Yet another installment of words and phrases "to help make your 言い回し more 日本人ぽい."
This time we've got three helpful phrases that Japanese people use ALL the time, and you can incorporate into your speech just as easily.

betsu ni

not particulary; nothing special.
You'll recognize 別 as meaning 'separate,' or 'apart.' When you need separate checks at a restaurant, you say "別々."

別に、however, is the best way to answer "Do you like" questions when you don't have any strong feelings on way or the other, but it has tons of other uses as well. Technically it should take something afterwards, like "別にない," to make "nothing special," or "別に構わない," for "It' doesn't particularly matter," but in conversation, people say 「別に」 as a standalone phrase all the time. It's so common that Brett and I debated introducing it here; we say it so often that it seemed too basic.

Did you do anything fun this weekend? 別に.
Do you like natto? 別に.
Do you want to read the first draft of my novel? 別に.

You can use 特別にない as well, to highlight your lack of specific preference, as 別に can often sound detached to the point of being very cold, so be careful with it.

When I was going to meet Yuri's family for the first time, we talked a lot about how to get him to take me seriously as a boyfriend. We also used to joke about things that I should NOT say if he asked why were seeing each other. Top of the list was 「ゆりの事は別にきらいではない。」 Translation: I don't really DIS-like your daughter. Winning words? 別に。

yaku ni tatsu

to be helpful; to be useful

役 means 'role,' 'position,' or 'use.' An actor or actress's role is their "役," for example. But in this case, it gets used to mean to be of assistance, or to help someone out.

「役に立ちたい」 means "I want to help out."

「学校で習うことは将来に役に立つはずです」:The things you learn in school are supposed to help you out in the future.

You can use 役に立つ in all kinds of ways, and you'll hear it all the time. The Daily Yo-jiは皆の役に立てたらいいですね。


safety; peace; quietness; nothing
Literally meaning "the absence of things," 無事 gets used to mean "without incident." You'll hear it most often with the verb 着く, as in 「無事に着いて良かった: It's good that you arrived safely." I heard it tons of times on my hitchhiking trip from people who asked me to let them know when I made it to my next destination. You can use it with verbs like 届く for packages or letters, with 終わる or 終了する, pretty much anything you can attach "without incident" too.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Japanese Language Trivia of the Day

If you're preparing to go to Japan, the internet will provide you with an endless checklist of things you should or should not do to make yourself less of a foreign barbarian. While a lot of it is encapsulated in phrases accompanying this or that action, half or more is registered through gestures that would be seen as harmless in some other cultures. There are a few notions that rank as chief among these faux pas: standing your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice, treading over tatami mats in shoes - muddy or otherwise - or chomping on some food while walking around, to name a few.

Beyond the big ones, though, the personal awareness one must exert to adhere to the minutia of manners is intense. Zen Buddhism intense. I used to think I had a fairly good grasp on dinner table etiquette when my girlfriend's mother suddenly pointed out to me that I was doing EVERYTHING wrong. There was, apparently, an order in which I was supposed to pick up my respective bowls. Nested within this order was a new way for me to pick up my chopsticks that involved first lifting a bowl with my left hand, then my chopsticks - from above, and at the exact center - with my right, tucking them between the pinkie and ring finger of my left hand, gliding my fingers about a quarter of the way down the newly suspended chopsticks before shifting my hand below them so as to not break contact while also refraining from touching the tips, and finally adjusting the chopsticks to a usable position (ie the proper position, which is a whole different lesson) with just one hand. If it sounds complicated (and vaguely run-on sentencey), that's because it is. I still practice it from time to time when the mood strikes me, but as a ravenous eater I can ill abide cultural nuances asserting themselves between the food and my mouth. And that's where today's trivia comes in.

えんりょ の かたまり

enryo no katamari

I can guarantee that anybody who has been in Japan for any more than a week or two will have experienced this phrase, even if they did not know the meaning or even detect anything unusual about it. Breaking down the words is not only helpful, but fun for two reasons.

First, 遠慮 is a great word. Why? It summarizes the traditional Japanese psyche: reserved. While this word is not nearly so definitive today as it might have been hundreds of years ago, it will still serve as an excellent label for the diffidence you will puzzle over from students, coworkers, etc. It will also give you the stock phrase "遠慮しないで", or "don't hold back," "don't be shy," as well as the not so stock phrase "今度は遠慮します," which can help you politely decline something you don't want to do. Use them wisely, padawans.

Next - and also, high-geek warning - 塊 is the first word in the title of the bizarre but ridiculously amusing game "Katamari Damacy," or 塊魂. This, sadly, has almost nothing in common with today's trivia save the kanji 塊, which means lump, chunk, clump, bit, etc. For this phrase, though, I'm going to flex my editorial muscle and add in "morsel" as a potential translation.

Put it together - the morsel of reservation, ie the last bit of food on a communal plate that nobody is willing to be responsible for taking. The idea is that everyone is being gracious by saving the final piece for everybody else. Rather than make a big deal about who is going to enjoy the last, tiny, delicious bit of food you've been snacking on, nobody takes it, and the problem is solved. But - much like no-walking-and-eating, always using bathroom slippers, and not referring to your students as the Japanese equivalent of "that little bastard" during class - this is another convention I break unrepentantly.

On a final note, our long-time readers might remember we covered a similar phrase that would've been enriched by this bit of trivia: いいとこ取り. If you use these two phrases together in a single sentence, there is a very high chance you will actually KILL the person you are speaking to with impressiveness. Consider yourself warned.

A little sampling of my usual dinner chatting:

Brett "The Eating Machine" Staebell has dibs on this last piece! Anybody who thinks they can stop me: BRING IT!