Monthly Archives: June 2014

Japanese podcast highlight: 青春あるでひど

I decided to take a break from my usual lineup of Japanese podcasts and download a few episodes of a podcast I’d heard once or twice before, “青春あるでひど”. The title is made up the word 青春 (seishun), which means roughly means “youth” and あるでひど which is probably a reference to アルデヒド (aldehyde) which is a common organic compound.

The website gives a interesting description of it’s content so I’ll excerpt that and give a rough translation of a portion of it here.



Cutting Edge Science Radio: Arm yourself with logic to get through a cheerio-holding slacker life.

(I tried to give a fairly literal translation but the result is less than ideal. A less literal translation would be sound much more natural in English.)


The content of this podcast matches up pretty well with the above description. It’s about science with a splash (or a waterfall) or joking around mixed in.

I’ve only listened through around 7-8 of the newer episodes so far, but answering listeners science-related questions in detail has been a large portion of the show. There are also extended discussions about various topics including science, food, and traveling, which can last 10-15 minutes on some of the topics. Sometimes there is also guests invited to show, like a Rakugo expert who spoke about this form of traditional verbal entertainment.

The show is hosted by two younger men (hence the ‘youth’ portion of the title), roughly late 20s to early 30s, which is a big plus for me since I feel that I can learn more useful expressions from someone in my age group. The drawback is that they speak Kansai dialect, so I try to avoid copying their pronunciation and sometimes think thyself what their lines would sound like in Tokyo dialect.

The presence of a dialect is the only reason I don’t recommend this for beginner students of Japanese, since there is a chance they might pick up the regional pronunciation of certain words. Studying Japanese as a second language at my age, I don’t expect to ever be able to sound exactly like a native speaker, but I try to make an effort to focus on speaking standard Tokyo dialect, and recommend the same for most beginners. If you have friends or family who speak Oosaka/Kansai dialect, or you want to live there because of interest in that region, of course it’s OK to choose that dialect as your base. However just pick one dialect and try to stick to it.

For those looking to listen to science-related Japanese spoken in Tokyo dialect, you can try this podcast out which is generally easier to follow:

Although the hosts speak in an everyday casual tone, the wide range of subjects and accompanying technical terms can make this podcast hard to follow, but I still enjoy the portions I can understand, and feel that I learn a lot from this show.







Book review: “数学者の言葉では” (In the words of a mathematician) by 藤原 正彦 (Masahiko Fujiwara)

This book I picked up at the same time as 影の現象学, and the two works are similar in that I misunderstood both to be fiction when in fact they were nonfiction academic books.

This book is a collection of short essays from the mathematician and popular essayist Masahiko Fujiwara, whose parents were also popular authors. The first chapter tells the story of a woman who tried to become a mathematician, but ended up leaving the field for several years because she couldn’t accept the fact she would have to sacrifice a huge part of her life. The author goes on to talk about four characteristics required to become a proper mathematician. I remember three of the four so will mention them here:

  • 執拗 (persistence)
  • 野望    (ambition)
  • 知的好奇心  (intellectual curiosity)
  • ?

He goes onto say that making any serious progress on difficult math problems requires giving up almost everything and devoting all your time and energy to that problem’s solution.

Having a strong interest in math, to the extent that I have worked on a very difficult problem in some of my spare time the last few months, I could appreciate much of Mr. Fujiwara’s commentary on that field and profession. I think much of his opinion is right on the mark, though the end result is sort of depressing for me since it means a half-assed attempt at math won’t yield much in return. Also, as an essayist is he quite good at explaining things in great detail, but I feel sometimes he goes overboard, spending around ~30 pages on a topic which could have been done in half that. Having said that,  if you enjoy his writing style and can empathize with him you may enjoy this book.

Rather than the content itself, my biggest challenge with this work was the high level of the Japanese text. I consider myself somewhat well-read in Japanese (at least for an American who has learned Japanese as a hobby), but this book really tried my skills in terms of vocabulary and in some cases complex grammatical constructions. While there is some advanced math terms used that even an average Japanese person probably would struggle with, the general level of even the non-math specific parts is quite high, and I found myself having to look up over 10 words per page in some areas. Part of this may be because this book was published in 1984, so there are some expressions which aren’t that popular anymore. One phrase that comes to mind is “後顧の憂いなく” which means something along the lines of “with no worries for what was left behind”.

Just as I was at the point of debating whether I should continue this book due to it’s long-winded style and difficult Japanese, the topic of the second chapter made it easy for me to put it down indefinitely. It’s titled 体罰, “physical punishment”, and in it Mr. Fujiwara talks about how he has physically punished children on the subway who were acting up, like a 10 year boy who was pulling his mother’s hair. His forms of punishment include kicking children (on the butt or lightly on the shins) as well as grabbing their shirt collars.

To quote his reasons for doing this,

“子供を正しい方向に導くのは、 親や教師の責任ばかりではなく、 社会の責任でもあると私は日頃思っている”

(my rough translation)

“I have always felt that guiding children in the right direction is the responsibility of not only parents and teachers, but also of society as awhole


I can empathize with wanting to give words of warning or encouragement to a child whom I happen to pass on the street, but to enact physical punishment, even that which does not cause any major injury, is quite outside of what I would consider proper education.  I wonder how Mr. Fujiwara would feel if he was given a kick to be guided in the “right direction”?

To give the author’s side of this debate, his reasoning is that many children of a certain age (around middle school) commit wrongdoing while willingly understanding it is wrong, and trying to reason with words is not very effective. He remarks how many of the more memorable punishments from his younger days involved something physical, like being punched or forced to run a long distance. His final justification is that adults can get emotional when speaking, and the wrong words said to a child can leave a long-lasting emotional mark, something akin to emotional trauma. I find this ironic since he just stated physical punishment was more memorable than verbal. While I can the author is doing his best to convince himself that kicking children he’s never seen before is the proper thing to do, as a whole his argument is weak to me.

Mr. Fujiwara does state near the end of the chapter that adults need to be prudent when dishing out corporal punishment to avoid injury, but this doesn’t excuse his actions.

Because of the incompatibility with the authors morals and mine, I am not really interested in reading the rest of this book. To make matters worse, this topic really doesn’t have anything to do with math or mathematicians, so why did he even include it?

All in all, I think this book was worth the ~$2 I paid for it (used), but I cannot recommend it to anyone except those who can overlook his stance on physical punishment for the sake of learning the style of a popular Japanese essayist.

Note: For those interested,  there is a few lines quoted (in Japanese) of the “physical punishment” chapter on this blog post:


Three great Japanese verbs about the mind: 覚える(oboeru), 思い出す(omoidasu), and 思いつく(omoitsuku)

For this post I’ve chosen three Japanese verbs which I think will be very useful for the beginner Japanese student. All of them relate to thought and/or memory in some way.

覚える (おぼえる)is a verb which can be used to mean  ‘to learn’, or ‘to remember’, depending on the context.

One of the most common ways to use this verb is when you want to talk about remembering something specific. To that you use the ~ている form.

  • 彼の名前を覚えてる
  • I remember his name.
  • 車の色を覚えてない
  • I don’t remember the color of the car.

As you might expect, you use the particle を after the thing you remember.

To use 覚える in the sense of ‘to learn’, you usually use it in the dictionary form (as it is).

  • 学校で覚えることがいろいろあります。
  • There are various things which you learn at school.

Another important usage is when you want to request that someone remembers something, or when you want to express that someone will remember something in the future. This is typically done using the 〜ておく form, which gives the nuance of ‘doing something for later’.

  • これを覚えといてください。     (a common abbreviation of 「これを覚えておいてください」)
  • Please remember this.
  • ぜったい覚えとくよ!
  • I’ll definitely remember!

On to the next word: 思い出す(おもいだす).  This is a compound word coming from 思い which means “think or feel” and 出す which has many meanings including “let out” and “take out”.

This word also means “remember” but in a different sense than 覚える because the act of drawing forth the memory from your mind is emphasized, so it is better to think of 思い出す as “recall” which is better match to the Japanese nuance.

If you want to say you remembered a specific thing, you can just use the past tense of this word.

  • あ、しなければいけないことを思い出した
  • Oh, I just remembered something I have to do!

To use 思い出す in the negative sense, you usually say 思い出せない (“can’t remember”) rather than 思い出さない (“won’t remember”)

  • 単語をどうしても思い出せません
  • I can’t remember the word no matter how hard I try.

Because you are using the potential form, you can substitute が for を here.

If you want to express trying to remember something, you can use the 〜しようとする form.

  • ちょっと待って, いま思い出そうとしてる。
  • Wait a second, I’m trying to remember now.

The final word for today’s post is 思いつく, which is also a compound word that contains the same 思い as in 思い出す. The second part of the compound, つく is a word that is difficult to translate and has many meanings (see here for all 16), but you can think of it simply as “to stick” or “to turn on”. In both cases the thing being turned on or stuck is the subject, not the object, as in ”ライトがついた” which means “the light turned on”.

While 思いつく can mean “to remember”, it is more commonly used to mean “think of” in the sense that a new idea came to mind.

  • いい名前を思いついた
  • I just thought of a good name.

If you are trying to say something came to you that you had learned before, you use 思い出す, but if it’s a new thought (creative or otherwise) you should use 思いつく。

I’ll end with a sentence using one of these words. Do you understand it’s meaning?


 Related words

  • 思い出 (おもいで)- (specific) memory (i.e. “いい思い出”, “good memory”)
  • 記憶(きおく)    – (specific) memory
  • 記憶する  – to remember, similar to 覚える but more formal
  • 記憶力 (きおくりょく) – memory ability (i.e. “記憶力がいいね”, “you have a good memory”)






Foreign language learning and the rebirth of a new you

The path of learning a foreign language, especially when self-taught, is fraught with many challenges and difficulties, and one should always expect a minimum of several years for any reasonable level of fluency.

Fortunately, all the hard work is (eventually) rewarded with satisfaction in this great achievement, better appreciation of another country’s culture, and increased opportunities for careers and life in general.

In my study of Japanese I’ve come to realize there is one more hidden bonus in getting proficient at a foreign language. It’s that you have a chance to rewire parts of your personality, in essence create a new ‘you’.

This may sound crazy, but think of it is way – When you are learning your native language, you learn a variety of expressions from your surroundings and gradually build up a set of phrases that make up who you are linguistically. We all have our own unique ways of speaking, and I am sure you’ve had the experience where you hear a phrase and think “this sounds like something so-and-so could have said”. In addition, these linguistic influences may go deeper than you might guess, as there are some theories that language can have a major effect on how we think and act.

This process of personality-creation also applies to a second language. Initially, all of us will have experiences where we struggle to translate some set phrase from our native language since it’s the first thing that comes to mind, but the more we are surrounded by native speakers of this second language, the more we will pick up new expressions, many of which have the potential to carry nuances not present in our mother tongue.

Depending on our age and how linguistically endowed we are, some of us may struggle to make complex sentences in a foreign language and as a result end up with a much simpler personality when using this language, as we strive to minimize mistakes.

But we can also make active choices about how we direct our foreign language studies. For example, we can strive to improve our descriptive ability, or promise to ourselves to improve expression of our own feelings. While in theory we could do this in our native language, starting from linguistic scratch provides a more convenient opportunity to get rid of our old habits and sculpt a new self word by word, sentence by sentence.

This idea came to me one day when I had realized that there were some things I could say with more ease or in more detail in Japanese, despite the fact it is my second language. I’ve noticed there is a lot of ’emotional baggage’ associated with words in my native language which can actually act as barriers to expressing myself fully.

I’m curious to hear if any of you have noticed personality differences when speaking in a second or third language.




Understanding in Japanese: 分かる(wakaru)

Learning Japanese can be quite tricky for those just starting out. First you learn some basics, like how objects are followed by the を particle. Then, you learn 分かる (wakaru) means ‘to understand’ in Japanese. Your first instinct would probably be to try and write a sentence like this:

  • 僕は日本語を分かる [Wrong!]

However this sentence is grammatically incorrect. The reason is that わかる it is an intransitive verb, so it usually doesn’t take an object using を.

Rather, the proper way to say this would be the following:

  • 僕は日本語が分かる。[Right]
  • I understand Japanese.

In this sentence 僕 is the topic, 日本語 is the subject, and 分かる is the verb.

To help myself understand the usage of 分かる, I sometimes think of it as ‘to be understood’. In fact you can also use には before the topic of the sentence like this:

  • 僕には日本語が分かる。
  • Japanese is understood by me => I understand Japanese.

As with many other uses of が, it’s often safe to omit it. In fact, in this example sentence I would argue it’s more natural without the が。

  • そんなの分からないよ。
  • I don’t understand that.

分かる is often used in the past tense (分かった)where it is close in meaning to the English expressions “I got it” or “OK”.

Since the 〜ている form can be used to express an ongoing state (such as 知ってる, “I know”), you might wonder if 分かる can also be used in this form. It can, but it carries an exaggerated connotation, as in this brief dialog.

  • Father: 明日、学校だよ!
  • Father: You have school tomorrow!
  • Child: 分かってるよ!
  • Child:  I know!

Though 分かってる can mean ‘I understand’, another one of it’s meanings is ‘to know’, and that fits better in this situation.

Similarly, 分かって(い)ない is only used when you really want to exaggerate that someone doesn’t know something.

If really want to use を, you can with the verb 理解する (rikai suru) which also means ‘to understand’, but is a transitive verb that takes an object as you would expect. Just keep in mind it’s a bit more stiff/formal than わかる。

  • 数学をだいたい理解しています。
  • I generally understand math.

As I mentioned above, を is usually not used with the verb 分かる. However, sometimes when 分かる is used in place of 理解する you can see を分かる used.  There is some debate as to whether this is grammatically correct, so I don’t recommend ever trying to use that yourself. If you are curious, you can see a nice thread on the topic here in Japanese.

One final interesting thing about わかる is that the kanji frequently used to write it, ”分” also means “to divide” (it’s also used as the counter for minutes). If you think about it, being able to “divide things” can be seen as an important step in understanding something, like identifying the basic components that are part of a complex thing. So “日本語が分かる” would translate to “Japanese can be divided”, and hence “understood”. I haven’t researched the origin of 分かる so it may be nothing more than conjecture, but I enjoy this sort of philosophical connection nonetheless.

わかる can also be written as 解る or 判る, though these are used less frequently than 分かる。