Monthly Archives: April 2015

Words to express “truth” in Japanese

In this post I’d like to review some of the ways to represent “truth” in Japanese, and as you’ll see there are quite a few.

The most common one to know for everyday conversation is 本当 (hontou). This can be used as an adjective or as an adverb. In the latter case に is often added.

  • Person A: 今日は僕の誕生日だよ!
  • Person A: Today is my birthday!
  • Person B: 本当
  • Person B: Really?
  • 日本語って本当に難しいよね
  • Japanese is really (truly) difficult.

The word ”まじ” (sometimes said as ”まじで?” when asked as a question), is a modern slang term used by younger people that has pretty much the same meaning as ”本当”.

The opposite to this (false) can be said using the word 嘘 (uso).

  • Person A: 僕、日本に行くんだよ!
  • Person A: I’m going to Japan!
  • Person B: 嘘!
  • Person B: No way !

This word can also mean “a lie”, referring to a purposefully false statement made by someone, as in the phrase “嘘をつくな” (don’t lie).

Another related word is 実際 (jissai), though this one is more often used as an adjective. It has the flavor of “in practice” or “in reality”.

  • 簡単そうだけど、実際にやってみると意外と難しい。
  • It seems easy, but if you actually try it, it’s surprisingly difficult.

The word 現実 (genjitsu) means “reality”. It is similar to 実際 but is typically used as a noun. This word can be used to contrast against non-real places such as virtual worlds or games.

  • これはゲームの世界じゃなくて現実だよ。
  • This is reality, not the world inside a game!

If you are talking about a cold, hard fact you can use 事実 (jijitsu).

  • 彼女が殺されたのは事実である。
  • It’s a fact that she was killed.

If you want to get even more formal, or even philosophical, you can say 真実 (shinjitsu). For example this word was used in the definition for 嘘 as “真実でないこと”。

You’ve probably noticed the Kanji character 実 (jitsu) is used in many of these words, and if you don’t know it already it’s a good character to learn sooner than later. In fact, this character plus に can be used as an adverb to mean “truly” or “really”

  • 実に面白い。
  • Truly intriguing.

Keep in mind this word has sort of a academic or stuffy atmosphere. The line above was said by the main character of “Galileo” (, who is a genius scientist that has a serious ego.

Another term I hear only once in awhile is “現に” (gen ni), which means pretty much the same thing.

If you are looking for a formal way to say “lie” or “untruth”, you can use 偽り (itsuwari).

Japanese expression “kuru kuru paa”

In today’s post, I’ll be introducing a phrase you’ll not likely to learn in a Japanese textbook or class.

Japanese, like English, has it’s fill of words to describe someone being mentally slow. You’ve surely heard of “baka”, but there others such as “manuke”, “noroi”, “usuratonkachi”, or even “kyouki”. Each of these has their own nuance and history.

I’d like to add another related word to your lexicon – “kuru kuru paa” (くるくるぱあ).

The “kuru kuru” part of this word indicates something spinning around and around. I’ve been told it has a faster, lighter feel than “guru guru”, though besides that they have similar meanings.

The second part, “paa” has a few meanings. First of all, it means “paper” in the children’s game “rock, paper, and scissors”. In fact, that game is called “guu choki paa”. It also refers to loosing all of one’s money and possessions, or the effort that went towards some task was done in vain, with no tangible result. It’s final meaning is pretty much the same as “kuru kuru paa”, expressing slowness or lack of thought.

The reason “kuru kuru” is part of this expression is a bit unclear. I did some research and found some interesting information, but nothing authoritative. For example, the expression was apparently around since the 1940s to 1950s, and has been used by Japanese comics in their routines. There was even one theory that tries to explain this word using stories from the bible and history from ancient Egypt. It’s notable that there is a gesture in America (not sure if this is understood by other countries) where one points a finger to the head and swirls that finger around which also indicates lower intellect.

If it’s not already clear, this expression is not one you should use except in the closest company, as there is a risk being rude or upsetting someone. I mention it mainly just so you can recognize it if heard in a conversation, and also to help keep your studies interesting.


Making embedded questions in Japanese

An embedded question is when a sentence contains a question inside of it, for example “I don’t know where Japan is”. Sentences with embedded questions can be declarative statements like that example, or instead can be questions themselves, as in “Do you know where Japan is?”. An example of a non-embedded question would be the basic sentence “Where is Japan?”.

As a fluent English speaker, all of us already know the rules for making embedded questions in English, but you may not be consciously aware that when making an embedded question sometimes the word order changes. For example, in the above examples, “where is Japan” changes to “where Japan is” when embedded into a larger sentence.

One nice thing about Japanese language is that making embedded questions is simpler because you never have to worry about word order changing. In fact this also applies to non-embedded questions, since those have word order changes in English as well (ex: “It is cold” => “Is it cold?”).

The most important thing to know about embedded questions in Japanese is you always need to add the question particle “か” after the question. The か particle may be used in non-embedded questions, though this is much more common when speaking in polite language, and can add a rough feel to non-polite language (i.e. “やるか?” sounds like you are instigating a fight)

To me, this intuitively makes sense because without word order changes like English the listener would have a harder time understanding the sentence without a hint there is a question involved.

Let’s look at how we would say some of the above example sentences in Japanese, using polite language.

  • Where is Japan?
  • 日本はどこですか?
  • I don’t know where Japan is.
  • 日本はどこ知りません。
  • Do you know where Japan is?
  • 日本はどこ知っていますか?

In the last two sentences (both embedded questions), the word ”だ” could be inserted before the ”か”, though that is used a little less in my experience and has a certain rough feeling to it.

In the above examples, the some detail about a topic is being asked so the question word (どこ) at end end of the embedded question, right before the か. However, if question is about who/what/which was the subject of an action or had a certain characteristic, you would use a question word followed by が at the beginning of the embedded question.

  • I know who ate the cookie.
  • 誰がクッキーを食べた知っています。
  • I don’t know which is good.
  • どれがいい分かりません。

The same pattern applies when there is no question word used. In English words like “if” or “whether” would be employed, but in Japanese none such are necessary.

  • I don’t know if it’s cold.
  • 寒い知らない。

You can, however, use the pattern “かどうか” if you want to emphasize you don’t know whether something is true or not. Alternatively, you can use “(positive statement) + か + (negative statement) +か”, though I feel this is extra verbose and less commonly used. For example:

  • I don’t know if it’s cold or not.
  • 寒いどうか知らない。
  • 寒い寒くない知らない。

You can use two or more embedded questions by placing them one after another, like in this example:

  • I don’t know whether he is sleeping or awake.
  • 彼が寝てる起きてる分からない。

In the above examples I have only used the verbs 知る (to know) and 分かる (to understand), but there are many other verbs that can be used after an embedded question, such as “考える” (to think), ”確認する” (to verify), and “迷う” (to be indecisive, can’t decide). In fact, verbs that don’t usually relate to doubt, consideration, knowledge, or understanding can be used. Here is one such example using 見る (to see).

  • Today, we are just going to see if there are any cavities.
  • 今日は、虫歯がないか見るだけだよ。

Here we can see an important pattern in Japanese embedded questions – when checking for something usually the negative form is used (虫歯がないか), which contrasts with English where the positive form is used (if there are any cavities).

Similies, where  one thing is compared to another using “like” or “as”, can be represented in Japanese using an embedded question followed by “のように”.

  • She really enjoyed the chocolate, as if it had been her first time eating it.
  • 彼女は初めて食べたかのようにチョコレートをすごく喜びました。

The “のように” can be omitted altogether for the same meaning, though I have mostly seen this usage in literature.


Japanese Book Review: ザ・ギフティッド 「The gifted」by 大川翔 「Sho Okawa」

It’s been some time since I’ve written an article about bilingual education, so I thought I would review “The Gifted”, a book published last year.

This book is about the Japanese boy genius Sho Okawa, who moved to Canada when he was 5 and was declared as “Gifted” at age 9. Only five years later, Sho passed the entrance exams for give distinguished colleges, each of which offered him a full ride.

This book was written entirely by Sho himself (except for a few quotes from other people including his family, and one chapter with explanations from his mother), and also contains some excerpts from his own blog.

“The Gifted” is interesting from a linguistic point of view because Sho knew practically no English upon arriving in Canada and was placed in a ESL program in school. Part of the book details his efforts to study and eventually graduate to the highest level reading group. His strategies to increase his reading ability (which included his parents hiring older children to read to him frequently) are not exactly what I would call creative, but his persistence for self-improvement is commendable.

Although it can be argued that his gifted status was due in part to a lucky combination of good genes, he details many factors that he feels contributed to his amazing learning ability. These include things like his father’s frequent talking to him since birth, learning the piano, and practicing karate. There is also a chapter on Canada’s educational system, plus one on speaking in front of people. As a parent, or a parent-to-be, I think these are all interesting topics and provide a great deal to think about.

This book is also quite useful to anyone studying Japanese, and through it you can learn many terms and expressions about education and life in general. Except for a few phrases which seemed a bit unnatural or overly simplistic, his writing seems quite good, especially for someone who was brought up in Canada since age 5. Besides his family, I’m not sure how many people in his immediate surroundings spoke Japanese with him on a daily basis, but his story is a testament that you can obtain a good level of fluency in Japanese without actually living on Japan (of course having both parents be Japanese is a big help). I’ve also heard from at least one Japanese person that is his writing style is quite well organized and easily to follow, and I  agree.

I haven’t read through the entire book, but it is structured with relatively short chapters and sub-sections, so that you can flip through almost any section and after reading a few sentences figure out what is going on.

Having said that, the Japanese isn’t exactly beginner level, and unless you are quite courageous and have much time on your hands, I wouldn’t attempt this book unless you’ve studied the language for a minimum 2-3 years. There happens to many places where English words are used throughout (probably because Sho is talking about specific phrases that are used in his daily life), although they aren’t frequent enough to act as a crutch if your Japanese ability isn’t up to par. One thing that makes this book extra tough is there is practically no Furigana (Kanji pronunciations shown above difficult or uncommon characters).

This book is marketed as being filled with hints to help Japanese people improve their English from a young age, but there is no reason you can’t just use this same knowledge to help you learn Japanese more effectively, at any age.


Shiritori: Japanese word game

Quickly getting bored with academic learning materials, I always search for new ways to use Japanese without actually living in Japan. Typically, the more fun the activity is the more positive feedback there is and the more likely it will continue.

One game which is entertaining and requires no physical props or materials is game of shiritori(しりとり). This game can be played with any number of people, though I’ve only done in a group of two.

The rules are simple. One of the players starts by saying a word of their choice, and the second person must say a word which begins with the last character of the previous word that was said. After this, the 3rd person must now do the same, thinking up a word whose first letter matches the last letter of the word said by the 2nd person. After all the members have done this once, the process continues with the first person who began the game.

The game continues at which point someone says a word which ends in the Japanese letter ‘n’ (ん), at which point that person looses. If there are more than 2 players, the remaining players can continue until only one person remains.

Now that you understand the rules I can explain the origin of the name. “shiri” (尻)means “butt” (more commonly as “oshiri” and sometimes “ketsu”) and here refers to the last character of the word. “tori” (取り) means to take, in this case taking the last character of the word and making a new word beginning with it.

Let’s look at a quick example game to make sure the rules are clear:

Person A: そ

Person B:

Person A:

Person B:

Person A: ンド

Person B:  (looses!)

Since Person B said らせん (spiral) which ends with ん, they loose and Person A is the winner.

It’s important to notice that loanwords (normally written in Katakana) are legal here as well.

While these are the basic rules, in fact there are many optional rules. One alternate way to begin the game is start with the word ”しりとり” itself. When I have played, usually it is bad to reuse the same word over and over again, so if you do this may be pointed out and you have a chance to pick another word.

Two interesting variations are only allowing words which belong to a certain category (like “all things that can fly”), or to force matching up the new word with the last two characters of the last word (リスク => スクリーン, etc.).

You may be wondering at this point why words that end with “ん” loose. The reason appears to be because there are almost no words that begin with ん in Japanese (though technically there are some African regions or city names which do begin with ん).

An interesting strategy to improve ones chances at winning are to memorize as many words as possible that begin with る, because they are relatively rare in Japanese. However since loanwords are legal, you can memorize words like ルビー (ruby). It is easy to find Japanese words which end with る (especially verbs such as たべる、くる、みる), and if these words continually are said the person who knows fewer words beginning with る is likely to loose. Conversely, if you have memorize many of these you could keep trying to give る-words to your opponent, hoping to knock them out early. These sorts of strategies may be the reason one of the optional rules is to constrain words to nouns only.

While I wouldn’t go as far to say it’s nearly as good a real conversation practice, for those who lack the sufficient grammar for extended conversations you can still try this game out, and practice recalling words. You can also learn new words when your opponents says a word you aren’t familiar with. Of course, even if you are fluent you can still enjoy this game and use it to keep you on your toes.


Tokio Heidi – Japanese children’s songs

One great thing about having kids is you get to see all the cutesy videos made for them. When my son was very young he was into the “Super Simple Learning” videos on Youtube, especially the “Twinkle Twinkle little star” one, which has great visuals and sound.

Bringing up my son bilingually Japanese, I also have the opportunity to see all the neat Japanese children’s videos. There happens to be is a Japanese version of the “Twinkle Twinkle little star” one which is great, but more recently he has been into a Japanese group called “Tokio Heidi” (東京ヘイジ).

The first video I saw from this group is “teku teku arukou” which has great visuals for kids, plus a super catchy theme song that I still catch myself singing now and then.

My latest favorite is “Welcome to the Snowman party!” (ようこそ!ゆきだるまのパーティへ!) which is actually more like a short story than purely song-based video.  It’s quite cute with a great surprise ending, be sure to check it out.

And if you’re one of the parents struggling to get your young child to brush his or her teeth (which is most parents, I think), their video on toothbrushing might be a good one to show your child.

These videos are all great resources for those studying Japanese because of their easily-understood pronunciation, Japanese subtitles (I recommend shutting off the English ones if you know basic Hiragana), and real-world topics related to everyday life.

“Onara” first person pronoun – followup

In my last post here I talked about a modern first person pronoun in Japanese, “onara”.

In the beginning of the post I alluded to the fact it was the first of the month, but in fact it was the first of April, which happens to be “April Fools Day” in America (I’m not sure if this is celebrated in any other countries).

In case you aren’t familiar with April Fools Day, it is a tradition to play pranks on that day to fool people. At some point you are supposed to reveal your naughty intentions by saying “April Fools Day!” and letting the other person know about the ruse.

So it’s about time for me to do the same – APRIL FOOLS DAY!

The reason being is that the post I just alluded to about the term “onara” was completely fictional. While it is true that Japanese has many first person pronouns, the word “onara” is definitely not one of them, though it sounds one since the below are all valid pronouns meaning “I”:

  • ore
  • ora
  • orya (meaning “ore wa”)
  • oira

The joke was a little more involved, since “onara” is actually a word that is still used in Japanese, though the talk about the origin of “onara” (related to “sayonara”, etc.) was completely fictitious.

It means…. it’s a bit embarrassing to say this…. “gas” as in the type that people pass.

Furthermore, the expression ”onara deta” is actually correct Japanese, except that rather meaning “I’m here!” it means… something else has “appeared” on the scene (:

I got a few comments from people so it looks like I managed to fool a few of you. I hope you don’t take it the wrong way – it’s just that I have been wanting to write a “serious” April Fool’s post for some time after getting a good laugh out of fake news stories I read on April 1 in the past.

Thanks to those of you who posted a serious comment about this article. In the sake of good sport I’ll leave those unapproved (:

From this point on I’ll be going back to serious posts, so no fear for the short term. But on April 1 2016, be ready for anything!

A modern first person pronoun in Japanese

As it’s now the first of the month, in this post I’d like to focus on a first-person pronoun I’ve been hearing alot lately. While modern English has pretty much only “I”, Japanese has many of these words including “boku”, “watashi”, “atashi”, and even “washi” (and that’s just getting started). First person pronouns are called 一人称 (ichinin’shou) in Japanese.

It’s always interesting how each new generation manages to use words and phrases in new ways, and sometimes completely new terms are introduced. I look at this as evolution of language, to match the changing times.

おなら(”onara”) is one of these new terms, a modern first-person pronoun used by mostly younger people. It’s origin is a bit unclear, though based on the formal suffix “お” plus the conditional “なら” you could call this “the honored ‘if'”, though that doesn’t quite make sense. One of the theories is that it somehow originated from the phrase “sayonara”.

“onara” can be used much like “ore”, and both terms have a strong masculine feel. The grammatical usage is quite straightforward. For example:

  • おならは日本語を勉強してる。
  • I’m studying Japanese.

One common phrase you hear with this word is “おならでたぞ” (onara deta zo), where ”でる” (出る) is the verb meaning “come out”. In this case it means something like “I’m here!”, as if you just arrived on the scene.

Keep in mind this pronoun is a bit informal, so I wouldn’t use it around your superiors. But if you try using it around someone in their early 20s, they will likely be impressed by your knowledge of this modern phrase. If they complement your Japanese, you can even say “おならはすごいでしょう!”, which means “I’m awesome, aren’t I?”

I was going to write some more about this phrase, but since it’s getting late I’ll save that for next post, so be sure to check that out one as well.