Monthly Archives: March 2015

Japanese verb suffix 〜きる (~kiru)

In Japanese there are many verbs which can be as a suffix to another verb in order to enhance the other verb’s meaning. The verb which is being enhanced comes first and is always in the pre-masu form (i.e. たべる→たべ or のむ→のみ). The suffix which does the modification can be conjugated like a normal verb into the negative, past, or some other tense.

In this post I’d like to talk about the verb きる (切る) which by itself means “to cut”, although as a suffix it means to do something completely.  (きる can also mean “to wear” (着る), but that is unrelated)

  • (pre masu form of a verb) + 〜きる (〜切る)= to do that verb’s action completely.

Though you can technically use this suffix with any verb, in practice there are few verbs it is used with commonly. I’ll show example sentences for some of those here.

  • そりゃ分かりきったこと。
  • That’s obvious.

Here きる is used with “分かる” (to understand) to mean “completely understand”, which in natural English translates to something like “obvious”.

  • 食べ物が多くて食べきれない
  • There is a lot of food and I can’t finish it.

Here きる is conjugated to きれない which is the past potential form and modifies the previous verb to mean “not able to completely do”. In this case the verb is the pre-masu form of 食べる (to eat), and so the resultant meaning is “not able to completely eat”.

  • 今日、朝から運動をして疲れきった
  • Today I exercised since morning and am exhausted.

Here the effect of 〜きる (conjugated in the past tense as きった) modifies 疲れる to mean “completely tired out”, or exhausted.

  • 時間がなくて説明しれきれなかった。
  • There was’t enough time to completely explain it.  (literally: “There was no time and it couldn’t be explained completely”)
  • 彼は大人になりきれなくて子供っぽい
  • He can’t grown up and acts like a child.
  • 旅行が楽しみ!待ちきれない
  • I’m looking forward to the trip! I can’t wait.

This use of 〜きる doesn’t exactly fit with the concept of “doing completely”, so it’s best to just remember “待ちきれない” as a phrase.

  • お父さんは思い切って日本に行くことに決めた。
  • My father completely made up his mind to go to Japan.

While 思う literally means “think” or “feel”, 思い切って is a set expression that means when someone has decided something with conviction, and can be translated as “take the plunge”. The verb 思い切る can also be used to mean “to give up”.

  • 張り切って頑張ろう!
  • Let’s do our best!

張り切る here is another set expression that means something like “to do with enthusiasm”. The verb 張る has many meanings including “to stretch”, “to strain”, or “to pull”. For the English translation, it’s a bit hard to capture the nuance so I just gave a generic phrase. Here is one more example using 張り切る。

  • 今日は張り切ってますね。
  • Today you seem filled with enthusiasm.

For our last phrase “やりきれない” there are two meanings. The first is what you would expect literally, which is “unable to finish doing something”. The other meaning is when something cannot be endured. Here’s a sample of the latter meaning.

  • 悲しくてやりきれない。
  • It’s so sad that I can’t bear it.

Experiment: How good are Google Translate’s English to Japanese translations?

Back when I first started studying Japanese, I wasn’t aware of any translation programs that worked between English and Japanese, and if there was I’m pretty sure they were very expensive and not very commonly used.

Nowadays we have things like Google Translate, a free service that translates between over 50 world languages, including Japanese.

As someone who has spend a great deal of time learning Japanese, part of me gets a bit scared at the prospect of a machine translator that is even remotely close to that of a human. Could all my efforts go to waste?

I’m curious about both directions of translation (English->Japanese and Japanese->English), and although choosing my native English as the target language would be easier to evaluate, for this post I’ve decided to just focus on English->Japanese this time.

I’ve picked a single paragraph of my recent essay on conversation in a foreign language, as it is a somewhat complex passage that was written naturally, without any bias of writing it for the purposes of a translation experiment.

Let’s start with the English text. Here it is:

Of all of the activities we do on a daily basis, I feel that the act of communicating with another person using spoken language and a series of back and forth exchanges, what we call “conversation”, holds a very unique place. If you think about all the things involved in this process, and how closely it is linked with who we are, it’s pretty amazing.

Now for the Japanese text returned by Google Translate:

私たちが日常的に行う活動の全てを、私は話し言葉を使って別の人と私たちは “会話”と呼んでいるものを前後に取引所、一連の通信の行為は、非常にユニークな場所を保持していることを感じる。あなたがこのプロセスに関与に関するすべてのことを考えると、我々が誰であるか、それがとリンクされているどのように密接に、それはかなり驚くべきことだ場合。

If you are reasonably fluent in Japanese feel free to read through the Japanese text above and you’ll realize soon where this post is going.

For the rest of us, let’s start by breaking down the first sentence into a few phrases and see how they match up with the original English text. I’m not going to look for perfection, but instead focus on the overall grammar and see if Google Translate was able to comprehend the sentence.

Of all of the activities we do on a daily basis ====> 私たちが日常的に行う活動の全てを

All of the words used in this translated portion match roughly to the original English sentence, although some of them are quite stiff. For example, I don’t think 行うwould be the best choice here, though that’s a minor quibble.

However, there is a much bigger problem – A critical aspect of the grammar in the source text is missing. The first word “of” represents treating all the “activities we do on a daily basis” as a category from which something is chosen from, and this is not captured anywhere in the Japanese translation.

I would expect something like: “〜の中で”、”の内(で)”、or at least a ”〜から” somewhere, but nothing like this is present.

The translator clearly failed here to comprehend the English grammar. Let’s check the next phrase.

the act of communicating with another person using spoken language ====> 私は話し言葉を使って別の人と

The parts “using spoken language” and “another person” are translated in a way that is understandable. However the part “the act of communicating” got shifted to later in the sentence for some reason. Let’s look at that phrase next.

and a series of back and forth exchanges ====> を前後に取引所,一連の通信の行為は

We can see where these words came from in the original text, but the ordering and grammar is all messed up.

“back and forth exchanges” was translated to a semi-literal but awkward “を前後に取引”, and the second half of the above phrase says something like “the act of a series of communications”. This is very different from what I said in the English text because it is mixing up two phrases.

Also, the “and” from “and a series of…” is not represented anywhere. I would expect a に or と somewhere.

what we call “conversation” ====> 私たちは “会話”と呼んでいるもの

Though there are times “call” can be translated as “呼ぶ” in Japanese, but in this case the phrase “という” more appropriate. The resultant phrase here sounds decidedly like translated Japanese.

Grammatically I think が would be more natural here than は, and although the translated phrase itself is somewhat understandable, the もの here is followed by “を前後に取引所。。。” which makes absolutely no sense grammatically.

holds a very unique place ====> 非常にユニークな場所を保持している

The grammar here is relatively intact, but as usual the word choice is quite unnatural and the resultant phrase hard to understand. I would expect something like “位置づけ” to be used in a proper translation.

I feel that ====> ことを感じる

This part is also a bit unnatural but literally correct. I think using “と思う” or “ような気がする” would be more appropriate.
I’m not going to go over the entire second sentence, but like the first it’s a real train reck. First there is the odd phrase “関与に関する”, and the fact the phrase “and how closely it is linked to who we are” is translated into the wrong place (after the “if you think…” instead of before it). It ends with the extremely odd “だ場合”, and I have no idea where that came from.

I think this experiment clearly shows that Google Translate’s English->Japanese translation has a long way to go in terms of word choice, grammar comprehension (especially understanding how commas work), and odd bugs.

You could argue that the English used in the sample passage is a bit advanced (and arguably not that well written), and it’s true that Google Translate works a bit better with simpler grammar. However for a translate tool to be much use it must handle at least this level of complexity, and maintain at least the critical connections between the phrases involved.

So Japanese learners, you can relax knowing that least for the near future, your effort will not be for nothing. (:

Also, let this be a lesson that you should never use Google Translate to try and validate your own Japanese, or use it to get suggestions for phrasing or grammar.


1) Though Google is a massive company with a huge amount of funding, you could make the point they have put less effort into it because it is being given away for free. If anyone knows of any better translation services that I can try for free I would be curious to experiment with those. But given the complexity of understanding and generating written language I’m not expecting much progress anytime soon. I did try a few brief tests with Bing which was equally horrible, if not worse.


Opposition to the overuse of metrics in language learning (and in daily life)

We live in a day and age where recording aspects of our daily life as numbers, and analyzing that data, has become more and more commonplace.

To give a few examples: we measure how many steps we walked, how long we brushed our teeth, how much we drank, how many times we smoked, how long we slept (and the quality of that sleep), and let’s not forget how many people read our blog each day.

These things can be called metrics, and we typically try to use them to help us get motivated or confirm how much progress we made in a certain area.

These metrics can be very helpful. Take the example of someone who is a bit overweight and decides to measure the number of steps they walk daily, establishing a plan where they increase their target distance every week, and track their steps using some sort of application or website. This sort of program is self-reinforcing and can help build confidence and ultimately lead to weight loss and a greater enjoyment of life.

This line of reasoning, which is true to a point, is what many companies are using (either directly or indirectly) to market their products. After all it’s the age of data, the age of statistics and the more we numerify our lives the more we can improve them – or so the story goes.

Of course, there is a dark side to all this metrics-mania. The fundamental danger to this type of approach is that it’s easy to get addicted to daily statistics watching and value the numbers themselves over the end goal. It shouldn’t be forgotten that metrics are just means to an end.

Let’s look at another example of using metrics, this time related to this blog’s theme of Japanese language learning.

Bill wants to learn Japanese and after discovering there are around ~2000 Kanji characters he needs to learn before he can have a chance at reading anything written for adults, he makes a promise to himself to learn 50 characters a week. At first things go smoothly, but after a few weeks Bill finds it hard to learn new Kanji while retaining those he learned in the recent past. To counter his difficulty, he uses several programs such as Kanji flash card apps, and even makes a graph of the number of Kanji he has learned to date and his retention percentage. Bill prints out a graph each week to paste on his bedroom wall, and glances at it every time he enters that room.

He ends up succeeding in his goal to learn all 2000 Kanji, but at the end of it all he feels completely burned out, and to make things worse he realizes he should have spent more time studying grammar and vocabulary, and as a result he still can’t through on entire newspaper article. Bill decides to take a break from studying for a few months and when he does return he realizes he’s forgot over half of the characters he’s learned.

This is an extreme example, but I’ve seen people do similar things (including myself).

The real goal of language learning is not to “pass a class”, “pass a test”, or “learn X characters”, but rather to learn to understand others and communicate with them in that language, and hopefully enjoy oneself while doing so. I feel that any plan to study a foreign language that over relies on metrics is bound to fail in the long term, even if there is a certain degree of satisfaction for meeting target metrics.

Those who have decided to teach themselves a foreign language without a formal class or teacher are more likely to run into this problem. This is because one of the important duties of a language teacher is to provide a variety of materials, well-balanced in several core areas (cultural, pronunciation, reading, writing, listening, conversation, etc.). To be sure, there are those people who are more well-suited for self study, though those people typically have their own strategies for creating a balanced study routine to avoid overspecialization or getting burned out.

Here is something else to think about: Conversation ability, arguably one of the most important and most challenging skills to learn in a foreign language, is also one of the hardest things to measure improvement in. The foreign language classes I took for Spanish had little to none of actual conversation, and I don’t think there are any great metrics to measure how well someone communicated during a conversation. However, those participating in a conversation have a very good idea how well they understood and how well they communicated, and even more importantly what sorts of positive feelings they felt. All these things will act as a form of positive feedback that is based on the most important element – real human experience – as opposed to some numbers which might be meaningless in the long run (* See Note 1 below).

Now I’m not saying to completely stay away from tools like the popular “Anki” (though I’ve never used it myself), but if you do choose to use them, make sure you keep your real goals in sight. And don’t get too addicted to the numbers, no matter how satisfying they seem.

I try to apply this philosophy to other parts of my life as well. I’ve stopped using FitBit, which I obsessively wore and monitored for several weeks. Though I did learn how many thousand steps I tend to walk each day, I quickly forgot that number. The most important thing I learned from wearing FitBit is to be more conscious of when I was talking in my daily routine, and where I could make improvements, like adding a brief walk in the afternoon on some days.

As for checking blog stats frequently, I recommend focusing more on metrics that matter (number of followers and especially thoughtful comments), as opposed to raw “hit counters”, since the latter doesn’t have that much significance.

Above all, always keep in mind that all statistics are only good as their interpretation, and an interpretation’s validity is something that cannot be measured by any number.


1. Regardless of the fact that numerical metrics are not always the best way to measure progress, most classes held at a college or school will have things like tests which try to determine your knowledge about certain area(s) and turn that into a percent, and this has some validity to it. Testing practices will however vary across teachers and schools, though I feel that the older and more mature a classes students are, the more appropriate it is to get away from using hard metrics to measure pass/fail. Other areas, like scientific research (linguistic or otherwise), have no choice but to resort to using some sort of metric to measure input and output variables of a study or research project.


Mini Japanese quiz 3: distinguishing between transitive and intransitive verb forms

I’ve released my 3rd Japanese quiz, this time on transitive/intransitive verbs. Take it here:

Here are the details:

Quiz Topic: Differentiating between Japanese transitive / intransitive verbs:

Number of questions: 10

Question style: Multiple choice – each question has two verb, one intransitive verb and one transitive verb. Some of the verbs are conjugated.

Required knowledge: Basic hiragana and vocabulary (つける、かける, etc.) . Questions contain Kanji words but there is a brief definition and pronunciation given for all Kanji words.

Link to related blog post:

Login information: No registration required, just pick an arbitrary user name and start.

Cost: free

Link to take test:

If you have any comments about the questions themselves or want a detailed explanation of them, please leave a comment on this post.

Japanese polite language and appropriate phrases for asking a person’s name

Japanese has a very complex system of politeness which is often claimed to be one of the reasons it’s so difficult to master, and I completely agree on this point. Depending on the relationship between you and the person/people you are speaking with, you will use variations on certain words, or even entirely different expressions. You have to take into account the listener(s) ages, experience, and job position, along with other factors when judging the appropriate phrases to use.

The system contains more than just “polite” and “non-polite” forms, instead there is whole continuum of politeness levels. And they are not necessarily applied equally to all parts of a sentence. Sometimes you may use a polite form of a noun, or a verb, or both, and of course many sentences have more than one verbs or nouns to worry about.

In this blog, I emphasize how you can improve many aspects of your Japanese ability without any sort of formal teacher, usually without even leaving your house. But polite language is one of the areas that is hardest to master this way, because without going through a great many experiences in Japan, with various real people of various relationships to you, you never really know what the best expressions to use are. Textbooks are a good place to start but become outdated quickly, and can’t describe all the subtleties required. Watching things like dramas or movies can get you closer to ‘real’ Japanese, but again you aren’t really there, so you don’t know what the characters are feeling, and there is always a chance that exaggerated language is used for effect.

One good thing about Japanese polite language is that once you memorize all the common expressions and transformations, it’s relatively easy to understand what is being said, and you might even have a feeling something of how ‘polite’ a phrase is.  It’s when you try to use these yourself that you may struggle to pick the best choice from a large set of words.

And I’m no exception – I can understand much of the polite language thrown at me (except some of the really high level stuff), but when speaking I typically don’t break out of basic forms I learned in textbooks.

If you’ve studied any Japanese at all, you’ve surely been taught about the “desu/masu” verb forms (ex: です、たべます), and consistently using these for sentence-ending verbs is a great place to start, especially when you are speaking with someone for the first time or haven’t become too close to yet. (ex: ”僕は日本語を勉強しています”)

Next there are the honorific prefixes お and ご, which I’ve written about here.

Even for for most basic polite language, you can see we now have two choices. Should one use the “desu/masu” verb forms, the honorific prefixes, or both?

Let’s take the scenario where you are trying to ask someone’s name. You’ve have may learned the following phrase in a textbook or class:

  • お名前は何ですか?  (onamae wa nan desu ka?)
  • What is your name?

At first this looks pretty polite – after all we have both です and the honorific お prefix used for “name”.

It just so happens I had a debate with a fellow blogger where I made the claim that “お名前” is most appropriate to use here, and he countered with the point that ”名前” was perfectly fine, even arguably better. In fact, he said that he had heard ”お名前” was less used, and that Japanese people felt it was awkward for foreigners to overuse polite forms like this. After some back and forth, he claimed he verified with a native speaker that it was only normal to use this word when talking to a superior or someone older than you.

I felt this wasn’t correct and it was generally safer to use ”お名前” even with those younger than yourself, though I didn’t have much more than my Japanese source against his. So I decided on posting on Oshiete Goo and was fortunate enough to get three responses, including one massively long and detailed one.

I’ll translate the best reply here (from “phj”) into English. Due to the length, I’m not going to belabor every little nuance in the translation, but rather go for conveying the poster’s overall meaning in a way that is easily understood. I’ll go paragraph by paragraph, showing my translation in bold, prefaced by the original Japanese text for those who want to practice reading comprehension.  If you want to read the original question and answers in Japanese in their original context, see here.

If you want to skip the details and get to the punch line, just jump to the summary section at the bottom.

(Note: Though “phj” is not a definitive source on this matter, the other two posters confirm some of his points, and his overall knowledge and expressive ability makes him appear very credible.)




In modern Japanese, there is a growing trend for polite language to be perceived as somewhat old-fashioned. In particular, the honorific prefix “お” is extremely easy to use, even by young children. As a result, improper use of it can make one sound childish.


I feel that the Japanese person you mentioned (who felt the expression “お名前” was too polite) was probably thinking along these lines.


Now, if we take a look at the question whether the phrase “お名前は何ですか?” is incorrect, that is clearly not the case. It’s just that this sort of language has a slight old-fashioned connotation to it, and viewed from the perspective of modern polite language can be seen as childish.

(I think it’s safe to assume that much ‘textbook Japanese’ has a characteristic feel of the 1980s or slightly before. If you looked at an English textbook used by us Japanese you’d probably feel the same way about that English.)


When inquiring the name of an important business client, superior, or someone seen as ‘above’ you (including elders), it would be more polite to use the phrase “お名前はなんとおっしゃいますか?”. Other common expressions include “お名前をお聞きしてもいいですか?” and “お名前をいただいてもいいですか”.


Technically speaking, “何ですか?” is not incorrect, but as was written in another answer here there is a recent tendency to avoid that expression.


Generally speaking, it should be appropriate to use polite language when speaking with those you are speaking with for the first time, and this would even apply to those at a lower position or younger age than the speaker. Nevertheless, if you really wanted to use an alternate expression, omitting the お and saying “名前はなんとおっしゃいますか?” or “名前を聞いていもいいですか?” would probably be still be considered as polite expressions. Even the phrase “名前を教えてください” would not be seen as rude or offending.


[The above is a quote from my original question]

>”Even assuming that it is natural to say “名前は何?” to a young person you are meeting for the first time, when employing the the polite phrase “ですか”, shouldn’t “お名前” instead of ”名前” be used together with it?”


In Japanese polite expressions, using suffixes such as “お” and polite or respectful terms such as “ですか” or “おっしゃいますか” can be used independently of one another.

Depending on the combination used, the resultant level of politeness changes.

Therefore, saying “お名前は何ですか?” is considered a higher politeness level than “名前はなんですか?”. In the same way, “お名前はなんとおっしゃいますか?” is even more polite, and a phrase like “ご尊名を賜りたいと存じます” can be seen as the ultimate level of politeness, utilizing several polite constructs (it uses both special verbs and nouns) .

Well, I guess this last phrase is so extreme that I cannot think of where it would be appropriate to use in real life.


When speaking Japanese, or should I say “when speaking to a Japanese person”, I recommend making an effort to always speak politely. Having said that, I think that there would be very few Japanese people who would get upset as a result of a foreigner making a mistake when speaking Japanese.


As I mentioned above, “お” is very easy to employ in order to add politeness, but for that very reason it’s overuse can make one sound childish. Children who are just learning to speak are told “おをつけて丁寧に話しなさい” by their parents, and try to speak using the お in words like “お母さん”, “お兄ちゃん”, “お花”, “おトイレ”, “お仏壇”, etc. However, as a rule, a child going through the learning process will add お to words where it is not permitted, such as “おご飯”, or “お先生”。



Therefore, it is commonly understood that adding ”お” to words haphazardly is childish and accordingly not appropriate as polite language. The system of Japanese polite language is extremely deep and complex. To be honest, even among older Japanese people it has become increasingly difficult to find those who can use it appropriately.

For this reason, if you ask a Japanese person a question about polite language, you may not necessarily receive the correct answer. Young people in particular have been seen to make mistakes in this area, so keep that in mind.



Here I’ll summarize the main points of the above quoted answer, plus the others to my Oshiete Goo post. In some cases I have added my own interpretations and opinions.

  1. Some Japanese people feel that it’s generally best to avoid the expression  ”(お)名前は何ですか?” when asking sometimes name.
  2. 名前は何ですか” is seen as more polite when the お is present (compared to “名前は何ですか”), though neither of these is technically incorrect.
  3. The term ”お名前” can be used with those at a (job/age/social) level below yours, including to those younger than you. In that case it signifies you are treating that person on the same level.
  4. More appropriate ways to ask the name of someone politely include “お名前をお聞きしてもいいですか?” and “お名前はなんとおっしゃいますか”
  5. Polite language in Japanese is extremely complex and it can be argued many Japanese people can’t use it completely correctly. In addition, the younger generation seems to be taking a different stance on polite language and may use parts of it incorrectly. Therefore, their opinion on what is “too polite” will be different across different generations.
  6. Some polite language, such as the honorific prefixes “お” and “ご”, is commonly taught to children, and over- or mis-usage of these can make one’s Japanese sound childish.
  7. Some of the phrases contained in Japanese textbooks (for foreign language learners) are likely to be out-dated. My recommendation is to use the very latest textbooks (not more than few years old), and always ask native speakers to confirm. A teacher or tutor who is native Japanese has lived in Japan recently would be a good source for information.
  8. If you aren’t sure whether to use polite language or not, it’s probably safest to err on the side of being too polite than the opposite.

After all this, I now feel very confident that the word お名前 is safe to use. However, discovering that “お名前は何ですか?” is not a common expression was quite a shock.

In any case, this was a fun exercise and I learned a great deal.



Movie review: Big Hero 6

I first heard about this movie a few months ago (it debuted last November in theaters) as a CG-animated film which was heavily influenced by Japanese culture.  Being a fan of both CG and Japanese culture, I had to see it, although I waited until it came out on Blue Ray last month.

The story involves two brothers, Tadashi and Hiro, with Hiro into creating robots and using them in underground battles. Hiro’s older brother Tadashi is a student at a prominent technology school. Without giving away much of the plot, I’ll just say both of them get involved in developing some amazing technologies, which are in a sense the real main characters of this movie.

One of the movie’s biggest Japanese elements besides the protagonist’s Japanese names (and apparently bloodlines) is the city the movie is set in:  “San Fransokyo”, which as you can probably tell from it’s name is a (futuristic) mix of San Francisco and Tokyo. This setting was done quite nicely with ultra-realistic CG. I’ve been into computer graphics from way before I became interested in Japan, and this movie’s CG is without a doubt top-class (with a decidedly ‘top-class’ budget of $165 million). My only problem with the visual direction is the character design, but that is more a personal preference. Most american CG movies (unlike some of the Japanese ones) elect for funny-looking ‘comic’ like characters, which typically lack realism in one way or another. But since that was clearly a conscious decision taken by the filmmakers, I can’t really hold it against them.

Besides the CG, the other awesome thing about the movie was the action scenes – and boy there was many of them. Most of the fight scenes, and much of the movie itself, felt like cut scene or boss battle from a really, really great Japanese game. Even though I only saw one or two Japanese-sounding names on the credit’s roll, it’s clear many of those involved with this movie were very familiar with popular Japanese gaming culture. In fact, more than one part of this movie (especially some of the character design, such as hairstyle or clothes) reminded me of the Kingdom Hearts games. The bosses were also decidedly Japanese in the way they visually manifested and attacked.

As for other aspects of Japanese culture in the movie, there were a bunch of things that were Japanese-like but clearly thought of by a non-Japanese person. For example, there was strange placement of Torii gates throughout the city, and parts of the Golden Gate-ish bridge themselves looked like Toriis. Although I didn’t mention it at the time, seeing some stills from the movie previously is one of the things that inspired this post about these traditional Japanese gates and their usage in pop culture.

The fact many things weren’t authentic didn’t bother me too much, since I had the feeling the movie was more about fun and action than a documentary about Japan’s culture. There was little actual Japanese language in the movie itself except a few signs throughout the city in Japanese.

All in all, for an American CG movie it was pretty entertaining, with great action scenes, a good dose of comedy, stunning visuals, and a story that, while it wasn’t a masterpiece, did have some emotional moments. I think that the average person, adult or child, would really enjoy this film.


(Note: if you want to see a really great CG movie with better plot and masterpiece action sequences, you can check out the slightly old but never outdated Advent Children.)