Monthly Archives: March 2014

Ways to express probability and possibility in Japanese

In this post I’d like to discuss a few ways to express probability and possibility in Japanese.

I think most of you already know about some of the more basic ways to express uncertainty in Japanese, for example:

  • かもしれない  (sometimes abbreviated as かも)
  • (じゃない) かな
  • でしょう (discussed here)
  • たぶん

These all can be used to convey various degrees of uncertainty (‘maybe’, ‘probably’, etc.) depending on context and tone of voice.

Let’s look at a few more advanced ways to express possibility. The word “possibility” can be translated as 可能性 (かのうせい),  which is derived from 可能(かのう), which roughly means “possible”. The antonym of 可能 is 不可能 (ふかのう), or “impossible”.

Here are few example sentences illustrating the use of 可能性.

  • このノートパソコンは新品なので壊れる可能性がないです。
  • This (computer) notebook is new (= just bought) so there is no possibility of it breaking.
  • いや、新品でも可能性はありますよ。
  • No, even new products have that possibility.
  • そうほ言っても、壊れる可能性がものすごく低いと思います。
  • Even saying that, I think the possibility of it breaking is very low.
  • 壊れる可能性が高いとは言ってません。
  • I’m not saying that the possibility of it breaking is high.

From these sentences you can see that ある/ない is used to express the existence of a possibility, and 低い/高い are used to express a low or high chance of something occurring.

Another word with similar meaning and usage is 確率(かくりつ), which is closer to English “probability” and to me has a more mathematical/technical feel to it.

  • 火星で暮らせる確率がきわめて低いです。
  • The probability of being able to live on Mars is extremely low.

You can use the following words to express a specific number.

  • パーセント(or %) = percent
  • 割(わり)= 10 percent  (discussed here)
  • ゼロ = zero (0 percent)

Here is an example sentence using the first two of these.

  • 「2割の確率」というのは、起こる可能性が20パーセントという意味なんです。
  • Saying “The probability is 20%” means that there is a 20% possibility of occurring.

Another way to say “possible” in Japanese is あり得る. It’s antonym is あり得ない, and this word is commonly used together with the word なんて (after either a verb or noun) to express something is not possible, either literally or  metaphorically.

  • やりたいことがひとつもないなんてありえない。
  • There is no way that there isn’t a single thing you want to do.
  • 銀行がつぶれるなんてありえない。
  • It’s impossible that a bank would go out of business.

A final expression that can be used to express possibility is “考えられる”. This literally means “Can think of”, and is sometimes used by police detectives when discussing  different possibilities.

  • 犯罪者がすでに日本を出たというのは,まず考えられませんね。
  • It seem’s unlikely that the criminal already left Japan.
  • しかし、共犯者がいたことは考えられるでしょう。
  • But there is a possibility there was a accomplice.


Research Results: Homophones in Japanese

One thing that has always struck me as surprising is the large number of homophones – words with the same pronunciation – in the Japanese language. Those new to Japanese typically discover this by looking at the number of dictionary entries for a given pronunciation, or number of kanji conversions when hitting spacebar while typing.

In the spoken world, pitch accent (discussed here) helps to distinguish these, but there are many regional variations and some words can be pronounced with more than one pitch pattern. In the written world, things are made manageable by kanji which differentiates the meaning, like 橋 (bridge) vs 箸 (chopsticks), which are both pronounced as “hashi”. In this example the pitch accent is different, but for non-natives it can be very hard to distinguish that.  Some people have also claimed that one of the reasons subtitles are so common certain types of Japanese TV is that it helps differentiate the meaning of certain words which have homonyms, though I don’t think this is the only reason.

One thing that always caught my interest was exactly how frequent these homonyms really are. Are they actually more frequent that in English, or is it just that I can naturally differentiate those in my native language so I don’t realize them as much?

I stumbled upon Jim Breen’s EDICT, which is a freely available file containing around 170,000 entries of Japanese words with their readings and meanings. This gave me the idea that with a little scripting this file could be data mined for exactly what I was looking for – the frequency of homophones in Japanese.

In my analysis, I generated both a histogram of the number of homonyms, as well as a list of the pronunciations with the highest number of homonyms.

Histogram of homonym frequency (excerpt)


Words with highest number of homonyms (excerpt)


Note: In both graphs, I have only showed a few data points. If anyone is interested in the rest of the details let me know and I can try to prepare a more detailed report.


From the first graph, we can see that roughly 94% of all words in Japanese do not have a homophone, which is significantly less than I expected. There are around 3% (~6000) words which have one homophone and 1% (~2000) which have two. The curve goes down fast and there are only a total of 55 words (0.03% of total) which have 10 homophones.

Though there are only a few words in Japanese which have a large number of homophones, it you look at the second graph above you’ll see that most of those are short and contain sounds which are commonly used in Japanese. “こう” is the winner for the most homophones, with a whopping 45!  “かん” and “しょう” have 38 and 31, respectively.

The good news, which this data doesn’t really capture, is that many of the homophones are not frequent in Japanese, especially everyday conversation. More advanced topics like science, government, and academic subjects tend to use more of these homophones, and if you include older words when are no longer in common use you get more still. Fortunately, more homophones tend to be used in Japanese writing  (on advanced topics), but the kanji there helps make up for it.

Although this little exercise did temporarily quench my research thirst about homophones in Japanese, there is still much more work to be done in this area. Firstly, a similar sort of analysis needs to be done to English and only then can we compare these two languages on (semi) equal ground. To get even more meaningful results, the word frequency in modern language would need to be factored into use, filtering out those homophones which are never or almost never used in practice. This might be able to be done using some targeted Google searches (hopefully in a programmatic way with available public APIs), but that would take a good bit of time.


Book Review: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (Book 1) [Warning: Mild Spoilers]

Before I dive into the review of Haruki Murakami’s first of three books of “1Q84”, I’d like to talk a little about my experience with this author to give you some background on where I’m coming from.

I consider myself a avid reader, and have read many books over the course of my life, especially during my high school years. During that time, I happened to stumble on Murakami’s novel “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World”. I really enjoyed it, and ended up reading several of his other works after that. I used to visit book stores quite frequently and as many people tend to do, I’d read the marketing blurb on the back of various books, looking for something which caught my interest. Many of the other books just seemed like uninteresting or uncreative cookie-cutter stories, whereas there was something fresh and unique about his works.

I had originally selected his first novel without much relation to him being a Japanese author, and at that time I was only just beginning to get into Japanese language. At my interest in both grew, it got to the point where I was dreaming about how awesome it would be to read Murakami’s novels in their original Japanese form. Not only could I then read his latest novels which weren’t yet translated into Japanese, but I could also experience his surreal world directly – without the unavoidable filtering and biasing of a translator.

As a result, Haruki Murakami was one of the main factors in me deciding to ramp up my Japanese studying, especially in the areas of Kanji and reading in general. I eventually read “Kafka on the Shore” in Japanese before it was released in English, and though it took considerable time it was a very satisfying accomplishment.

So as you can imagine, when “1Q84”, a novel somehow connected to “1984” (one of my favorite books), was released in Japanese, I was extremely eager to journey again into Murakami’s world.

I hope you’ll excuse one more sidetrack before we get to the review proper. For those of you who haven’t read this author before or know little about him, I’ll give some additional background information.

To me, the beauty of Murakami’s works is how they take common everyday life and sprinkle in strange supernatural elements. These stories aren’t typically classified as traditional “fantasy” or “science fiction”, but rather simply as “fiction” (or “literature”) with an undefinable eerie atmosphere. Stylistically I feel Murakami is a cross between Steven King and Twilight Zone, though there are probably enough differences to warrant a stop to any such comparison.

The author himself is quite popular nowadays, having gained critical acclaim in Japan with his novel “Norwegian Wood”, published in 1987, which eventually was made into a movie in 2010. Ironically this book focuses on romance and lacks many of the mysterious elements that define his other fiction works. Murakami eventually moved on to become one of Japan’s top-selling novelists with many fans across the globe and translations in over 40 countries.

Truth be told, this is actually the second time I read 1Q84, book 1. The first time was around five years ago, around the time the book came out. Then a few months ago a coworker told me he had picked up this book but gave up partway through – he just didn’t get what was so interesting about it. My memory being what it is, I had forgot many of the details and couldn’t really make a strong argument about it’s merits. This, plus the fact that I have  book 2 and 3 purchased and waiting to be read, prompted me to read the book again from the beginning. In my many years of reading novels as a hobby, this is the only time I’ve reread a book like this, in Japanese or English.

At last, we come to my thoughts on the book itself. This novel in many ways echoes themes from Murakami’s other novels, especially the idea of an alternate universe and surrealism that pervades cover to cover. There are also occasional references to animals, music, and cooking – three things appearing in some of his other works. There’s one weird element in particular that I was very found of. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read through the novel yet, but just say that it reminds me of a scene from another of my favorite stories, “Dhalgren”, by Samuel R. Delany.

At this point I can no longer refrain from discussing the weakest part about this novel – the overuse of blatant sexuality. I can appreciate a good sex scene if it involves two people who love one another and is integral to the story of the book, but here Murakami pulls no punches and proceeds to describe several sexual acts in unnecessary full detail, some of which involving people in a relationship that most would call ‘immoral’ by any normal standards. Sexual abuse and non-standard sexual acts are also mentioned several times. Here Murakami’s penchant for heavy comparisons goes overboard, and we end up with this one which I couldn’t get out of my mind for some time: “木の根っこみたい” (It was like a tree root). I won’t reveal exactly what was being described there and leave that up to your imagination. I want to avoid making any sweeping generalizations for any race, but I was not expecting this level of lewdness from a Japanese author. Come to think of it, this type of unrestrained sexuality is probably what helped make “Norwegian Wood” such a big hit.

My second time around reading this novel different from the first in two major ways. First, my Japanese ability had improved significantly (or so I’d like to think) so reading the book was not nearly as challenging or arduous. Second, in my recent past there was a period where I was thinking of becoming a writer and wrote several short stories and chapters of a novel, and even got some critique on the very helpful website Critique Cricle. Though my passion for writing has lessened significantly since, I still considering returning to writing as a hobby some day, and the knowledge I learned from that time has changed the way I view literature.

With my slightly honed sensibility towards fiction, I picked up on how Murakami relies heavily on metaphors and similes, like the “tree root” one mentioned above. After a time they become so frequent and extreme that they started becoming funny, and I wondered if there wasn’t a different, better way to express things. But like it or not, it’s clearly one defining aspect of his style.

The slow and irregular pacing of the story was its other biggest weak point. Rather than an action-packed chain of events that you’ll see in other novels or comic books, 1Q84 instead focuses more on daily life sprinkled with a few surreal events and plot twists. These are great when they appear, but soon after things slow down again, leaving you wanting more. Having said that, once you get pulled in to the basic premise of the story and the interrelated elements, it’s a bit easier to overcome these slow points. Murakami’s trademark surreal atmosphere wouldn’t work too well with a series of high-paced plot twists anyway.

This blog’s theme is Japanese study, so I’ll say a few points about the novel from the point of view of someone learning this language.

As it so happens, Murakami has also done translations of several works from English to Japanese, including the acclaimed classic “Great Gatsby”. His knowledge of English shows up in 1Q84 book 1 in the form of expressions that seem as if they were translated directly from English. For example, there is an phrase like “ホットケーキみたいに売れている” which literally means “Selling like hotcakes”. His heavy use of similes may also be due to influence from English literature. I did some research, including a post on Oshiete Goo here, and it looks like Murakami is well known for his English-like Japanese. This means that native English speakers learning Japanese will probably have an easier time reading his books in Japaense, though it also means you will  learn less of authentic (or should I say ‘traditional’) Japanese culture from the experience. Haruki Murakami obtained his international fame by his works being more accessible to people of many countries, which may be in part because some of the elements of more traditional Japanese literature are less predominant.

Although Murakami does use a vocabulary which contains many descriptive words you’re unlikely to hear in daily life, I feel that his works do have significantly easier grammar and vocabulary than some other Japanese authors I’ve read. On the other hand, Murakami has chosen minimal use of Furigana, so unless the Kanji is very uncommon you’re unlikely to be told it’s reading. If you have learned a way to do quick Kanji lookup (using radicals, drawing the Kanji, or some other method) then you’ll survive, but otherwise this book could be a bit of a chore unless you Kanji repertoire is quite good. You could always get the Kindle version which allows word lookup with a single hold-touch.

Much of the book is comprised of conversations between the characters, which are fairly easy to follow and don’t contain too much advanced Japanese (with some exceptions). There is also a lot of inner dialog by the main characters which is very valuable for those training to think in Japanese. I enjoyed one part of the book that had detailed descriptions and terms related to the process of writing and editing a nove. These felt like they came straight from the author’s mouth and were interesting to learn.

A few sections of the book completely change gears into what I call “documentary mode” and give detailed reports of some other culture,  organization, or event. The Japanese in these is extra difficult and in one case (it was an excerpt from another novel – you’ll know it when you come to it), I had to skip a few paragraphs because it was just too tough.

All in all, except for the “documentary” parts, the Japanese in this novel is quite manageable. It can be appreciated by anyone with a good understanding of Japanese grammatical basics and a lot of time and patience to look up words you aren’t familiar with. For me, since I’ve read several of his other books in Japanese my reading speed with his works surpasses that of any other authors’, though it is still not quite as fast as my native English speed. And yet, it’s still satisfying to burn through a few pages without having to look up tens of words. Surely, some of this is because I’ve read this book before and remember some of the expressions from the first time around.

Since I haven’t yet read book 2 and 3, I’ll reserve judgement on whether this book is a ‘masterpiece’ or simply an amalgam of interesting and mysterious themes thrown together. But if you can get past the frustrating pacing and unnecessary sexual elements, you might find yourself quite entertained with this moderately long (500+ page) book.

If I was reading only for entertainment, I would probably immediately move on to Book 2. But taking into consideration that I want to expand my knowledge of Japanese culture, literature, and the language itself, I feel it might be best for me to read some other authors’ works first, and then come back to Book 2 in a few months. I’m less worried about forgetting the basic story elements since I’ve read through it twice now.

I’d like to end this review with a paraphrased, translated quote from 1Q84 which nicely describes Murakami’s works and shows he is self-aware of the incomplete elements of his stories.

“An author’s job is not to solve problems, but merely present them for others to ponder.”

(Including this line, I wrote exactly 1984 words  (:)


Podcastle, a great way to search and listen to Japanese podcasts

Once in awhile comes along a study resource thats so good, you revel in the treasure you’ve found and for a moment the thought of keeping it to  yourself flashes through your mind.

Podcastle is one such site, and when I first discovered it I thought it was too good to be true. It’s a general purpose search Engine for audio podcasts as well as videos (YouTube, Nico nico douga, etc.), which supports both Japanese and English languages. It searches not only the titles but also the content within, and allows looking at transcriptions while listening to the the audio in real time. The voice recognition is done by a special engine designed by AIST (National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology or 産業技術総合研究所), a research facility housed in Tokyo. I haven’t listening to too many yet, but the transcriptions seem pretty accurate.

Just as I’ve recommended viewing Japanese TV shows and movies with Japanese subtitles, listening to audio podcasts with the parallel transcript is a great way to expand your vocabulary. Over relying on this could actually dull your listening skills (or at least make you lazier), so I would recommend first listening to a podcast without subtitles (you can download the original media file by clicking on the ‘Details’ button near the top of the page), and then a second time with the transcription.

Podcastle currently has over 250,000 episodes, and this number is growing at a surprising rate each day. Try searching for a keyword that matches one of your interests and you may discover an interesting podcast.


Japanese particles: で (de) vs に (ni)

I this post I’d like to compare the two Japanese particles で and に, both which are used very frequently in everyday Japanese.

I’m not going to do a thorough treatment of either particle covering all possible uses (there are many for both), but I’ll summarize a few of the most common usages.

で is typically used to express where an action is taking place.

  • ジョンは図書館で勉強をしています。
  • Jon is studying in the library.
  • サラは台所で料理をしています。
  • Sara is cooking in the kitchen.
  • 今晩、映画館で映画を観よう。
  • Tonight, lets watch a movie in the movie theater.

に, on the other hand, is used to express where something exists (living or nonliving).

  • 先生は教室にいます。
  • The teacher is in the classrom
  • 本は机の上にある。
  • The book is on the table.

に is also used to express a direction ‘to’ or target of an action.

  • 僕はモルモットにえさをあげた。
  • I gave food to the guinea pig.
  • 海に行かない?
  • Do you want to go to the beach? (lit: “Won’t you go to the beach?”)

The interesting thing about these particles is that there are some times where either can be used, depending on what you want to emphasize.

  • ケーキがお店に売ってる。
  • ケーキがお店で売ってる。

Both of these sentences could be translated as “Cake is being sold at the store”, but the first one (with に)emphasizes more that the cake is residing  at the store, and the second (with で) emphasizes that the store is the place where the action of ‘being sold’ is happening.

Google statistics show that the で in this case is more common (roughly twice as frequent), although both are equally correct.

Here is another example where either particle can be used:

  • 彼はベッドに寝ています。 [Emphasizes the location he is at is the bed]
  • 彼はベッドで寝ています。 [Emphasizes the place the action of ‘sleeping’ is being done is the bed]

What about if we wanted to say “There was an accident here” in Japanese? Which do you think is correct?

  • ここに事故があった。
  • ここで事故があった。

The answer is the で (the second sentence), because here the verb あった is referring to something which ‘happened’ (in the sense of ‘起こった’) rather than the accident was a physical object that was here.

However there are still times when you could use に with the phrase “事故があった”. Here are two such examples:

  • 勤務中に事故があった。
  • An accident happened while I was working.   [Here に is used to indicate a specific point in time]
  • 友達に事故があった。
  • An accident happened to a friend.  [Here に is used to specify the person who was impacted by the accident]

You can use a similar pattern whenever using 事(こと)+ある, like ”ここでいい事があった”

Finally, are で and に ever used together, like “ここでに。。。”? Nope, there are no cases when they are used together. It’s always one of the other.

Beginner Japanese: Are three alphabets better than one?

In Japanese, there are three alphabets used together, and each has it’s own set of uses. Let’s go over each of them briefly before we talk about how this trio impacts the language.

Hiragana: This alphabet is the most basic and is the first alphabet that Japanese children learn. Any word can be written with it, but it is typically used for particles (ex: “を”) and other words which don’t have a common representation in either of the other two alphabets. It consists of 48 characters, each of which is assigned as specific pronunciation. Examples: ”か” = ka, ”さ” = sa.

Katakana: This alphabet also contains 48 characters which have the same sounds as hiragana letters, and is used for special purposes such as onomatopoeia (when words are used to represent sounds, something very common in Japanese), foreign words, some scientific terms, and also for emphasis. Katakana is also used in a practice called ‘furigana’, where the pronunciation of a another word (usually in Kanji) is given above that word when it may be otherwise unclear. Examples: ”カ” = ka, “サ” = sa.

Kanji: This alphabet contains the most advanced characters, and is commonly used for many words including nouns, verbs, and pronouns. Words can be composed of a single kanji, multiple kanji, or in some cases a mix of hiragana and kanji.  In total there are over 50,000 kanji characters, though many of these are not in frequent use. The set of ‘Jouyou’ Kanji 2,136 contains frequently used Kanji. It is fairly well known that these characters come from Chinese, but the fact is that both Katakana and Hiragana have also evolved from Chinese characters. Kanji contains many pictographic characters, and there are many Kanji that are composed of other sub-Kanji. Eamples: “人” = person, “日本” = Japan, “火” = fire.

So now on to the main topic of this article – does it hurt or help Japanese to have three alphabets? Clearly, for those learning the language there is a steeper learning curve as opposed to a language with a single alphabet. But because these alphabets can be used interchangeably and there are things like furigana (discussed above) to help understand difficult kanji, a Japanese learner shouldn’t have too much trouble reading text that is targeting his or her skill level.

More importantly, for students of Japanese the use of three alphabets in concern actually makes it easier to know where one word begins and the next ends, a major boon for a language with no spaces between words (except for certain children’s books). Let’s take an example sentence to see how this helps in practice.

  • 僕は日本語のカタカナを勉強しています。
  • I am studying Japanese katakana characters.

This sentence contains several instances of all three alphabets: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. For beginners reading this article I’ll spell out exactly which is which. In each sentence below I’ve bold/italicized the characters from the respective alphabet.

hiragana: 僕日本語カタカナ勉強しています。 (used for particles and verb)

katakana: 僕は日本語のカタカナを勉強しています。 (used for the word ‘katakana’)

kanji: 日本語のカタカナを勉強しています。  (used for nouns)

In this sentence there is a transition from one language to another at each word boundary, which makes the act of figuring out each word very easy. While this is a somewhat cherry-picked example and there is many cases where this does not happen as nicely, this type of pattern is present in much Japanese to a certain degree. Exceptions would be young children’s books, which have mostly hiragana (but spaces to compensate), or news headlines which can have a lump of kanji stuck together,  sometimes looking a bit like Chinese.

One thing that is interesting to note is sometimes words which have a proper kanji representation are still expressed in one of the other two alphabets. In the above example I used カタカナ to say katakana (which is in katakana of course), but that word could be written as 片仮名.  Depending on the audience and the writing style either can be used, though I see 片仮名 used less often in my experience.

I occasionally hear from those unfamiliar with Japanese something along the lines of “Wow, you had to learn three alphabets!”, but hiragana and katakana don’t really add much difficulty since Kanji is so hard (or should I say time-intensive) to learn. Although if one were to compare either of these alphabets to English they would seem tough with nearly twice the number of characters.

For those of you considering learning Japanese, don’t be deterred by the “three alphabets” thing or even Kanji itself, since that can be learned with proper study habits and sufficient time. Japanese is a wonderful language to learn, and all the time you put in will surely be rewarded with satisfaction the more you study.


A look at a Japanese proverb

I ran across this quote online, credited as a “Japanese proverb”.

”Vision without action is a dream. Action without vision is a nightmare”

I did some searching around and couldn’t find any reference to the original Japanese or the originator of this phrase, so I decided to post on Oshiete Goo in Japanese. You can see my post here.

One of the responses I got attributed this quote to Honda Soichiro, the founder of Honda motor company. Let’s look at the original Japanese text, and then analyze it word by word.


理念(りねん):idea, ideology,philosophy



凶器(きょうき):deadly weapon

であり: form of である, a more formal/flowery way of saying “で”, which basically means “and” here.

無価値(むかち):valueless, lacking any value

When we put these together, we end up with the following (mostly) literal translation.

”Action without ideology is dangerous, but ideology without action is worthless.”

If we switch the two clauses around, this is very close to the original statement, so I’m fairly sure it’s just a different translation of the same quote by Mr. Honda. We see the word ‘vision’ used to replace ‘ideology’,  ‘dream’ replacing ‘worthless’, and ‘nightmare’ replacing ‘dangerous weapon’. At first I felt that this is a mistranslation for the sake of dramatic effect, but since the resultant quote sounds quite good, with added parallelism between ‘nightmare’ and ‘dream’, I can’t complain. As I mentioned in a recent blog post, a translator’s job is to produce a good end result, regardless whether it’s a ‘literal’ translation or not. The heart and soul of the original quote are definitely present in this translation.

Honda Soichiro was an amazing man who took his love for machinery and invention and turned it into the billion-dollar multinational company that it is today. For those who want to learn more about him, here is one site that has a biography of him posted online.


Different ways to say ‘only’ in Japanese

In this post I’d like to discuss a few ways in Japanese to express the various shades of meaning of the English word ‘only’.

First, there is だけ which one of the simplest and most common ways of expressing ‘only’ or ‘just’. Let’s see a few examples.

  • 言ってみたかっただけ
  • I was just saying.    (this expression can be used when someone asks ‘Why did you say that?’, and there wasn’t a deep meaning behind your words)
  • それだけはしたくない。
  • That’s the only thing I don’t want to do.  (lit: “It’s only that which I don’t want to do”)
  • テレビをみてただけ
  • I was only watching TV.
  • それだけ
  • Thats all?  (lit: “Only that?”, Used when you expected more)

Beware that だけ doesn’t have a very strong sense of ‘only’ by itself. It also has other meanings such as expressing an approximate amount of something, like くらい or ほど.

One way to make the sense of ‘only’ a bit stronger is by using the phrase 〜しか〜ない, which is structurally similar to “~nothing but~” in English. This expression can be a little confusing at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s easy to use.

  • 10ドルしかない
  • There is only 10 dollars. (lit: “There is nothing but 10 dollars”)
  • 最近、映画しか見てない
  • Lately, I’ve only been watching movies.
  • それしかできないのか?!
  • Is that all you can do?!
  • 日本にしか興味がありません
  • I have no interesting in anything but Japan.

Figure out the pattern? Basically you need to add しか after the object (and after a particle if present) and then change the associated verb, adjective,  or other word, to the negative form.

A related use of this is the phrase 〜するしかない, which means “no choice but” in a dramatic sense.

  • 頑張るしかない
  • I have no choice but to try!

ただ is another word that can be used to mean ‘only’ in two different senses.

First, it can be used to emphasize ‘only’ at the beginning of a sentence, and can be used in conjunction with だけ。

  • ただ、言ってみたかっただけ
  • I was just saying.
  • ただそれだけだよ。
  • That’s all there is.  (lit “It’s only that”)

Second, ただ can be used followed by の to mean ‘merely’ or ‘simply’, as in ‘I’m only a man’.

  • 彼はただの男友達
  • He’s just a guy friend.

While we are talking about ただ, I might as well mention another it’s meanings, which is ‘free’ (as in beer). Another way to say this is 無料。

ばかり (sometimes pronounced ばっかり) is yet another Japanese word that can be used to mean ‘only’.

  • ばっかり
  • You’re full of lies! (lit: “all lies”)

If you use this word after a noun or a verb’s て form, you can express that someone is only doing that one thing.

  • 今日、ゲームばっかりしてるね。
  • You’ve been playing games all day today. (lit: “Today you’re only playing games.”)
  • あの子はしゃべってばっかり
  • That girl just keeps talking.  (lit: “That boy/girl is only talking”)

ばかり/ばっかり can also be used express something ‘just’ happened, as in it happened very recently. For this usage, simply put it at the end of a verb in the past tense.

  • いま帰ってきたばかりだ。
  • I just got home now.

Though it’s somewhat formal and I don’t see it too often, for completeness I’ll mention the word のみ, which can also mean ‘only’.

  • ”従業員のみ”
  • “Employees only”

“〜に過ぎない” is another expression that roughly translates to ‘only’ or ‘just’, though it’s somewhat formal and I see it mostly in written Japanese.

  • 彼は子供に過ぎないの。
  • He’s only a boy.

過ぎる means ‘to go over’ or ‘exceed’ so this literally means “He does not exceed a boy”. The meaning would be similar to ”彼はただの子供”.

Finally, if you want to say ‘only’ in the sense that there is only one of something, you can use the word 唯一(ゆいつ).

  • 唯一の友達に裏切られた。
  • I was betrayed by my only friend.

普通 (futsuu), a perfectly “normal” Japanese word

  • 普通 (ふつう)、which is generally translated as “normal”, is an convenient word with several uses. I’ll go over a few of the more common ones in this post.

One of the simplest ways to use this word is by treating it as an adjective, by adding a の on the back end of it.

  • 普通の人は夜遅くまで日本語の勉強をしないでしょう!
  • A normal person would not study Japanese until late at night!

You can also use this word unmodified to mean “normally”. In the below example the は is optional.

  • 普通(は)、お菓子ばっかり食べないと思うけど。
  • I think that normally, people don’t eat nothing by candy.

If you want to say “normally” in an adverbial sense (meaning it modifies an action), it’s best to add a に to ふつう。

  • このパソコン、どうやってつけたの?
  • How did you turn this computer on?
  • 普通にスイッチを押しただけだよ。
  • I just pushed the switch normally.

A final way I have heard this word is to mean ”typical” or “nothing special”.

  • 映画どうだった?
  • How was the movie?
  • 普通.
  • It was OK.

You can use 普通に for a similar meaning when you want to modify another adjective or other word.

  • 夕食はどうだった?
  • How was dinner?
  • 普通においしかった。
  • It was alright, I guess.  (lit: “It was normally tasty”)

Another word with a similar meaning is 普段(ふだん), which means “usually” or “ordinarily”.

  • 普段は朝の8時ごろに通勤するんだけど、その日は寝過ごしちゃって10時ごろに家を出た。
  • Usually I commute around 8am but that day I overslept so I left the house around 10.

One final thing to be careful of – if you say “普通の人はそんなことをしない”, you are probably implying someone is “abnormal”. If you want a safer expression, you can say ”一般の人は…” which means more like “an average person” or “the general public”.

〜て + ある (~tearu): saying something exists in a certain state

“~て+ある” is one of those expressions that doesn’t really have a directly translation in English, but once you grasp what it used for you may find what it can express quite useful.

It is made using the て form (“食べて”、”歩いて”、”話して”、etc.) plus the word “ある” which means for something to physically exist, or be in a certain place. A few quick review sentences of ある for those who are new to studying Japanese:

  • 床にリンゴがある
  • There is an apple on the floor.
  • 車がある
  • There is a car.

Now, back to the expression that is the focus of this post. “~て+ある” is used to express that something happened to an object to put it in a certain state, and now the object is physically present in that state. I’ll show you two sentences and then how I can combine them using this pattern.

  • 彼が本を捨てた。
  • He threw the book away.
  • 本がある
  • There is a book.
  • 本が捨ててある
  • The book was thrown away and is sitting there.

My English translation of the last sentence is arguably not the most natural sounding, but it conveys the meaning of 捨ててある。You could also say 捨てられてある to get closer to the literal English, but this expression is used less commonly than 捨ててある。

For another example, if you wanted to say “A message was written” in Japanese your first instinct might be to say the following:

  • メッセージが書かれた
  • A message was written.

This would be grammatically correct, and quite passable Japanese. However you can use the 〜て+ある form to express this more simply.

  • メッセージが書いてある
  • A message was written.

While the English translations in these two are the same, the nuance in Japanese is a little different. In the first case there is emphasis that the message was written by someone, but in the second case the message is just written there.

This reminds me of a phrase I use quite frequently:

  • なんて書いてある?
  • “What does it say?” (lit: “What is written?”)

This short phrase is useful when you want to ask someone about what they are reading about.

Here is another common usage of 〜て+ある using the verb 置く, which means “to place”

  • 携帯(けいたい)がテーブルに置いてあります
  • The cellphone is on the table.

In all the above examples I have used が before the object, but を can also be used. For example, both of these mean “the seat is reserved”.

  • 予約してある。
  • 予約してある。

At this point some of you may wondering what the difference between ~て+ある and ~て+いる, since the latter also can express a state. Let’s look at two example sentences, both of which are correct and natural Japanese.

  • 準備をしてある  (static state (状態))
  • 準備をしている(continuation (継続))

In both cases something is being prepared, but when ~て+ある is used the emphasis is more on a static state, whereas the 〜て+いる sentence emphasizes more a continuation of an action, as in the preparation is actively being done. Also, if the person doing the preparation is important (as in ”僕は準備をしてる”, then ~て+いる is a more appropriate choice.