Monthly Archives: May 2014

Colors in Japanese – noun form and adjective form

Color words in Japanese exist in two different forms: i-adjectives and nouns. Some of them are present in only one form (usually the noun form), but many are present in both. I’ll present a list of basic colors along with the different forms that color exists as, with the i-adjective form first (if present).

  • Red:         赤い(あかい)  / 赤(あか)
  • Green:  N/A                         / 緑(みどり)
  • Blue:       青い(あおい)  / 青(あお)
  • Yellow:   黄色い(きいろい)/ 黄色(きいろ)
  • Grey:      N/A                              / 灰色(はいいろ)
  • Orange:  N/A                            / オレンジ
  • White:    白い(しろい)      / 白(しろ)
  • Black:     黒い(くろい)    / 黒(くろ)
  • Pink:      N/A          / ピンク
  • Brown:  N/A                             / 茶色(ちゃいろ)

If you get into different shades(ex: 瑠璃色) and older terms (ex: 橙色) there are hundreds of color words, but the above is a good start for expressing everyday colors. I’ve also omitted a whole set of noun forms that end with 〜色 such as 緑色(みどりいろ) and 青色(あおいろ), which are a bit less common in my experience.

The reason one needs to distinguish these different forms is that their usage and meaning is different. For example, the i-adjective forms are simply placed in front of a word to modify it, whereas the noun forms typically require a の in-between themselves and the word to modify.

  • 赤い電車   [red train]
  • 赤の電車   [red train]

If you search around the net you’ll find occasionally people will use な instead of の after noun colors. For example “赤な電車”. From what I understand this is not grammatically correct, but it’s not a major mistake either and people will still understand you even if you mistakenly use な。

The negative forms are be conjugated as shown below.

  • 白くない雲       [the cloud that is not white]
  • 白じゃない雲   [the cloud that is not white]

There is another key difference between these forms. I-adjectives inherently contain the concept of “is”, which is why it is awkward to say ”赤いだよ”, and more natural to say ”赤いよ”. Another way to say this is that ”赤い” literally means “it is red” whereas ”赤” just means “red”.

This is important because if someone asks you “好きな色は何ですか?” (Which color(s) do you like?), you should answer with the noun forms. For example:

  • Q: 好きな色は何ですか?
  • A: 赤です   Correct
  • A: 赤いです     Unnatural

There is one case where both forms follow the same rule, which is when expressing there is something of a certain color, like “the black one”. In both cases you simply add a の to end end of the word, and the result is a noun.

  • 黒いの    [the black one]
  • 黒の        [the black one]

So when using color words to describe something, which form is best? Personally I just the i-adjective form if present if there is one, and if not I use the noun form. But feel free to use either except in cases where a noun is required (these are pretty rare).

(Featured image taken from Wikimedia commons here:


The long road to fluent reading ability in Japanese and some pointers to help on the way

The other day I heard from someone that they were having difficulty learning to read Japanese, such that they had to re-read passages several times over to fully grasp the meaning, and generally had trouble thinking in Japanese when reading.

This is a difficult problem indeed, one I have faced for many years myself. I have surely read thousands of Japanese sentences multiple times to try and finally figure out meaning is hidden within. Although I have improved much in that department, It’s not uncommon for me to still stumble on sentences with complex  grammar.

The frustrating part about reading comprehension is that no matter how well you think you know Japanese grammar, especially the nuances of word order, until your mind learns to efficiently process Japanese grammar it will be challenging to read anything fluently. Through experience, the explicit rules of processing grammar (an academic understanding) gradually turn into implicit rules (a practical understanding).

It’s true that the quick answer to this dilemma is ‘practice more’, but that does little for a frustrated student who is seeking motivation and some sort of satisfaction for all the studies he or she has put in so far.

So to help everyone out (as well as remind myself), I’ll list a few of the reasons reading comprehension can be particularly hard, and some ideas to help you through the process.

  • Reading speed: When listening to spoken Japanese you are forced to process the sentence structure at a fairly set speed (varying somewhat on the speaker’s rate of speech), whereas when reading there are no such restrictions. This means you have to manage your reading speed such that you don’t move onto the next phrase until you really understand what you just read. For those who have a good grasp of katakana, hiragana, and some kanji, it can be easy to blaze through a sentence hoping the meaning will just come to you as it does when reading in your native language. But if you rush past with only a weak understanding, you’re likely to loose track of what the sentence is trying to say and have to backtrack to think about things again. Did I really understand this word? Did I really understand this grammatical pattern and the nuance it conveys?
  • Learn where to divide and conquer: As mentioned in the previous point, you don’t want to move past one phrase until you understand it completely. But what really is a phrase? The easiest way is to use comma-separated sections, but for advanced text that you still may need to break things down more. You separate out relative clauses (like “(僕がきのう買った)本は安いよ”), and also divide phrases up using keywords like ”したら”、”すれば”、”するように”、”する事”、”するから”、”するけど”. Discovering what size chunks are best for understanding is part of the learning process.
  • Incomplete understanding of hiragana / katakana: If you are still learning the basics of hiragana and/or katakana, stick to sentences with extremely simple grammar. If your mind is struggling to recognize each character then you won’t have any time left to think about complex grammar.
  • Unfamiliar kanji: Similar to the previous point, if there are many unfamiliar kanji in the text you are reading, you won’t have any brain cycles (think ‘余裕‘)  left to process grammar or overall meaning, and you’re more likely to forget the kanji you learned if you are over-taxing your brain. Learning kanji is a critical part of Japanese fluency, but don’t be afraid to divide up at least half of your reading practice for text which has frequent furigana. It will give your mind a bit more freedom to think about how the various words fit together.
  • Unfamiliar/complex content: If the text you are reading is about a subject which you aren’t too knowledgeable about, your mind will have to do double duty trying to understand the Japanese, and then trying to understand the content itself. For example when I tried reading this book, the complex sentence structure used to express advanced psychology concepts was too much at once. I was able to get through 30 pages, but I eventually resigned to the fact the book was above my level, or rather that the enjoyment I was getting was not worth the effort required. If you really want to read Japanese about a difficult topic (say, economics), don’t be afraid of brushing up on some of the basic concepts in your native language. That will make comprehension that much easier as opposed to trying to learn two things at once (Japanese + economics).
  • Review vocab words before reading: In some textbooks and other educational resources, there is a list of vocabulary words listed either before or after the main text. Don’t be afraid to read through those and look up words you don’t know before attempting to tackle the text itself. It will allow you to focus more time processing the grammar of the main passage, and refresh your memory on the words you just looked up. [I’m actually working on a tool to do this automatically, and hopefully I’ll eventually release it to the public]
  • Try reading out loud: Some people have said that reading a difficult passage out loud can help with comprehension. In a way I can understand this, because it forces you to read a certain pace and engages different parts of the brain that are used to process auditory language as opposed to just visual. I do this time to time but usually I find it makes me focus less on the passage, since I am trying hard to pronounce the words correctly, and this is something I’ve noticed even in my native language since I was a child. Nonetheless, for some this may work so its a good thing to experiment with.
  • Don’t be afraid to move to easier text: If you find yourself frequently frustrated and have thought about giving up Japanese, it’s probably time to move to reading simpler Japanese passages until you can get the basics firmly down. Try moving to something for young adults and if that is still too hard, move to something made for children or even babies (see this as a good example).
  • Keep a well balanced study program: Focusing too much on reading Japanese can be tedious and get you into a slump. To avoid that keep balance between various types of exercises: reading, writing, vocab, cultural, listening, speaking, kanji, and focused grammar exercises. Such a variety will keep your interest longer, and the skills gained from one exercise will influence your performance in other areas.

Japanese phrase ender し (shi)

It’s time for one of those posts which I rarely do – one where I focus on a single word. This time not only is it a single word, but a single character and single sound.

“し” can mean everything from poetry (詩) to death (死), but in this case I’m referring to neither. Rather I’m talking about when し is used at the end of a phrase (or a sentence), as in the following example:

  • 付き合ってあげるよ。宿題もう終わった。暇だし。

This word expresses a feeling of “and”, or “in addition”, not unlike the Japanese expressions “それに” or “しかも”. So the above sentence could be translated as:

  • I’ll hang out with you. My homework is done, and I have free time.

Here’s another example sentence:

  • そのレストランは安い、美味しいからしょっちゅう食べてるよ。
  • That restaurant is cheap and tasty so I eat there all the time.

Here the main purpose of the し (after 安い)is just to continue the sentence. Changing things to “安くて美味しいから” wouldn’t change the overall meaning much, if at all.

One subtle difference between these two usages is the first one (暇だし) is used at the end of a sentence, and the second example (安いし。。。)is used in the middle. But in both cases the concept of ‘this… and something else’ is embedded in the word. Sometimes, as in both of these examples, “し” also has a light nuance of giving a reason for something.

This word is somewhat informal, and used less (if at all) in polite Japanese (敬語). Also, it doesn’t have a very intellectual image to it.

For example, there is a Japanese TV celebrity by the name of Rola (ローラ) who frequently speaks with this expression and draws out the し sound. Although I think it is all an act, her character is very ditzy and seems like she has a two-digit IQ. So when you are using し, make sure to not overly draw out that sound, unless you a young girl and want to project that sort of image. (:

As long as you use this expression wisely, I think you’ll get a great deal of mileage out of it. I used to preface many of my sentences with  “それに。。” but I realized that removing それに and adding し to the end of my sentence was a whole lot more natural.

I’ll give one more example:

  • 日本語の勉強は難しいけど楽しいし、やりがいもある。
  • Studying Japanese is difficult but it’s also fun and rewarding.

For those who want to learn more about this word’s usage, here is a great article in Japanese with many example sentences and additional details about the word.






Learning foreign languages and humility

Succeeding in learning a foreign language, especially one very different from your native tongue, requires many traits: a good memory, time management, the ability to experiment and learn to pronounce foreign sounds, listening skills, and an analytical ability to comprehend and use various grammatical constructions.

But there is one critical trait that is often overlooked and can mean the difference between giving up and becoming fluent: humility.  [謙虚 (けんきょ) in Japanese]

Humility, or being modest, makes it easier to recognize your own mistakes, and leverage the constructive feedback you receive from others to improve. It also allows you to study more closely with your peers and learn from them, regardless of the amount of experience they have studying the foreign language in question.

Staying humble allows you to keep learning more about a foreign language with five, ten, or even twenty years under your belt. I think many people after some point will decide within themselves that they are “fluent” or “fluent enough”, which will reduce how much new information they absorb, and prevent them from becoming truly fluent.

One great thing about learning foreign languages is that no matter what other subjects you excel in, odds are that – unless you are a linguistic genius – learning a new language will take a huge effort and time investment. Even if you live in an environment where you hear that language spoken on a daily basis, it will take years until all the cracks in your knowledge are filled up. So throwing any preconceptions about what you are good at, or think you should be good at, will just make the learning process faster.

In the spirit of humility, I’d like to invite anyone to offer corrections or comments about any of my past or future blog posts, from beginning students to native speakers of Japanese. Even though one of the main purposes of this blog is to teach things about Japanese to others, I still have a great deal to learn, and I want to keep that in mind every time I make a post.

On occasion, I also post comments on other people’s blogs about unnatural, or incorrect Japanese. Please don’t take that the wrong way, and if you think I’m wrong or don’t appreciate the comments feel free to let me know (:



Book Review: The other side of the swing (ブランコの向こうで) by Hoshi Shin’ichi (星新一)

This book is one of the few I picked up in the used Japanese book section of a Japanese market in South Florida, along with this one which I reviewed the other day. My wife had shown it to me and said I might enjoy it, so I picked it up and looked it over.

The title, translated as “The other side of the swing”, is quite cryptic and didn’t really mean much to me, so I checked out the marketing blurb on the back. Here is an excerpt from that, followed by my English translation.



One day on the way home from school, I met another “me”. He had a face identical to mine, as if he just jumped out of the mirror. You don’t believe me, do you? I began following him, as if pulled forward by an invisible thread. After walking for some time, this boy entered into a house I’d never seen before. I tried to follow him inside and then…


I was immediately intrigued by this brief intro and decided to purchase it, pulled into the story just like the main character was pulled to follow his other “me”.

I’m not one to give too many plot spoilers, but after finishing this book in only a few weeks I can say that I was very satisfied by a story filled with surreal and fantastical elements. The main character’s journey across diverse landscapes kept my attention, and the ending was quite good as well. At a bit under 200 pages it’s not an overlong read, either.

To give a very minor spoiler, I’ll just say that dreams are a key theme in this book, along with their connection to reality. Even though the narrator is a young boy, there are many thought-provoking scenes which will feed the intellectually curious.

Another reason I enjoyed this novel is that parts of it reminded me of my favorite TV show of all time, an American Sci-fi series from the late 80s and early 90s.

Linguistically, this book is one of the most simple Japanese novels I’ve read that was targeted at adults or teenagers. The number of Kanji used per page is much less than any other book I’ve read, so much that it took me a while to get used to reading long, unbroken streams of hiragana which ironically I’m not too great at. There isn’t too many advanced or special-purpose vocabulary words either, and much of the text is stream-of-consciousness straight from the main character’s head. This is actually quite useful for learning phrases to use in your own internal dialogue, much more so than witty dialogue or over-detailed descriptive passages.

Although I’ve managed to get to the point where I can read somewhat advanced Japanese novels, after reading this book I’ve realized that simple Japanese like this allows me the freedom to focus more on imagery and the story itself rather than nitty gritty grammar details. As a result I can really get into the plot more.

One amazing thing about this book is it was actually published quite a long time ago. The book I read was published in 1978, but it was a reprinting of the same story with a different title (誰も知らない国で) in 1971!  Whether conscious or not, I feel that this book was influential on several generations of Japanese writers. Actually it turns out that this book’s author, Shin’ichi Hoshi, was a famous and very prolific writer of Sci-Fi short stories.

For Japanese that is over 40 years old, it wasn’t much different than Japanese from modern novels that I’ve read. The biggest difference was the absence of some modern phrases, plus a few old ones which aren’t too popular any more, like “〜たらない”. The biggest thing that took me time to get used to was the frequent use of ある to describe the existence of people, whereas in modern Japanese いる is almost always used. This was particularly frustrating to me since I was trying to get rid of my bad habit of doing that exact thing when speaking in (modern) Japanese.

Unfortunately for non-Japanese speakers, there doesn’t appear to be a full English translation of this story, only an abridged picture book version. The flip side of the coin is that Japanese speakers get that much more satisfaction from reading something they knew they could probably never read in their native language. I haven’t checked translations for any language but English, but they seem unlikely.

Overall a super read, highly recommended for anyone who is an intermediate to advanced student of Japanese.


余裕(yoyuu): a unique and useful Japanese word

余裕(yoyuu) is a great word to learn in Japanese because it has no direct translation to a word in English with the same nuance, and also because you’re likely to hear in in daily life once in awhile.

Generally speaking, 余裕 represents some sort of resource, and oftentimes it is used in the negative sense to specify that resource is lacking.

It’s uses can be broken up into four broad categories: space, time, money, and emotion. I’ll go over an example of each so you can see the usage.


  • うちの部屋に置く余裕がないよ。
  • I have no space to put (that) in my room.


  • 今日はばたばたしててゆっくりする余裕があまりなかった。
  • Today I was very busy and had almost no time to relax.


  • 俺、金がなくて新車を買う余裕ないかも。
  • I don’t have (much) money and might not be able to afford a new car.


This usage is the hardest to understand and the most difficult to translate to English. You can think of it as a mental energy, or “bandwidth” of sorts.

  • 彼は余裕で敵を倒しました。
  • He defeated his enemy with ease.

I have a strange memory where at times I can forget important things, but sometimes I can clearly remember the first time I heard a Japanese word. This is true for 余裕 – I first heard it playing an old Playstation snowboarding game called ‘SSX’. There was a Japanese character, and when she did some great trick she yelled “余裕! 余裕!” which I now understand is similar to the last example above, and basically means she was bragging about how easily she outdid the other participants.