Monthly Archives: June 2015

Language learning technique: take things a bit beyond your comfort level, then dial them back

One technique I have found useful in language learning is to find some content, whether it be reading or listening, which is a bit beyond my comfort level in terms of difficulty, and practice with it for a period of time. For this to be effective I would say it should be for at least days, ideally weeks. Then I switch my schedule to something a bit easier and there the magic begins.

I’ve used this technique before, but I just remembered it recently because I had listened to a very difficult Japanese podcast  for some time for a period of weeks, and when I had listened to all of the available episodes I switched to a different podcast which was a bit easier. The second podcast was in a field where I knew more vocabulary (science) and also was more conversational, whereas the first podcast was dry economics news packed with difficult terms.

In this case the second podcast seemed really easy to me, such that I was surprised at how much I understood even on first listening, without even looking up many words in the dictionary. I think happened is that my brain was so used to trying to listen so carefully to the first podcast, so when I switched to the second it was relatively a breeze. Though I never got really comfortable with the harder content, that harsh training was enough to help me improve my comprehension on easier content.

Surely, part of what is happening is simply a perceived comprehension difference – in other words, it may be that my comprehension of the easier material didn’t change that much but just seemed to be easier in comparison. However, I strongly feel that it’s more than just perception – I am actually understanding the easier material much better than before.

Regardless of how much the gain in understanding is perceptual vs. actual, the great thing about this way of practicing is that it really gives great satisfaction, and a feeling of improvement.

Depending on your Japanese level, you can select your “hard material” and “easy material” for appropriate difficulty levels. For example, you can watch a drama which contains a lot of quickly spoken, unclearly enunciated Japanese, and then follow that by a Anime series where the characters speak much slower with clear tone. Just be careful with doing this for reading practice, since jumping from content packed with Kanji to one with mostly Hiragana might not work too well, especially if your recognition of hiragana is slow (I have this problem sometimes). You can probably get good mileage of this strategy if you can jump between Japanese with advanced grammar and not-so-advanced, given the ratio of Kanji and Hiragana is roughly the same.

It’s interesting that a similar technique is done in some other domains, including sports. For example, an athlete can wear small weights on their body during the day, such that when they take them off for training they feel much stronger and quicker. I’ve heard boxers do this but not sure how common of a practice it is.

Also, I remember one time I was playing drums for quite a while with earplugs in, and then took them out and hit a single cymbal with my drum stick. Not only did it sound loud, but I heard extra nuances of the sound I had never heard before because my ears were so used to straining to hear a muffled sound.

See if you can try to incorporate this two-step process into your daily language learning studies.

Three expressions in Japanese for “by the way”

The casual English expression “by the way” is used to transition from one conversation topic into another. In this post, I’ll go over three different ways to express this type of feeling in Japanese, each with it’s own unique nuance.

そういえば 「Sou ieba」

This phrase does not contain a subject and literally means something like “if you say that” or “if I say that”. It is a great way to transition to a new topic in a casual conversation.

  • P1: 今日、仕事どうだった?
  • P1: Today, how was work?
  • P2: まあまあ。そういえば君、テストなかったっけ?
  • P2: So so. By the way, didn’t you have a test today?

Strictly speaking, this expression is supposed to be used in the middle of a conversation. However, I think it’s ok to use it to start one, in the sense that “I just remembered something”.

If you want to add an extra causal flair you can drop in a “さ” after そういえば。

「そういや」is a shortened form of そういえば and has the same meaning.

A related phrase is 「そう言われてみれば」which means literally “If that is said to me”, but can be naturally translated to “Now that you mention it”.

ところで「tokoro de 」

This expression also means “by the way”, but is typically used before asking a question.

  • ところで、お手洗いはどこですか?
  • By the way, where is the bathroom?

It literally means something like “at this point”, and has a much more formal feel than “そういえば”, so I would not recommend using it for casual everyday conversation.

Be careful to not confuse「ところで」 with 「ところが」, because the latter means “But” or “However”.

ちなみに「chinami ni」

This phrase literally means something like “in a related matter”, though could be translated as “by the way”. It can be used when you thought of something related to the current conversation and want to discuss that topic.

  • ちなみに、 僕はアメリカ人ですよ。
  • By the way, I am an American.

This also has a somewhat formal ring to it, and I have seen it much more often in written Japanese than spoken.

This phrase can also be written 因みに and the verb 因む (chinamu) means “to be related”. Another expression with similar meaning is “それに因んで”, though it feels even more formal to me and I have rarely seen that in common use.

Japanese grammar: The pattern 「〜上で」

The Japanese character 上 has a basic meaning of “up” or “above”, and is pronounced “ue” when written by itself. In Kanji compounds, it is often pronounced as “uwa” (上着, uwagi) or “jou” (上陸, jouriku).

“上” does have some other usages, and this time I’d like to discuss the expression “〜上で”. This can be used to mean result of something, given the condition specified by the “〜” part. This is explained in the Japanese dictionary as “…を条件に入れて, …した結果”.

Here is one such example of that usage:

  • しっかり勉強した上で判断したい。
  • I want to decide after properly studying it.

You also can use の上で after a noun to express a similar meaning, although there are a few set phrases that this pattern is commonly used with. Here is one:

  • 承知の上でやったことです。
  • It’s something I did with full understanding.

My translation above is somewhat literal, you could also say “purposefully” or “intentionally”

Another use of ”〜上で” is similar to “when”. It is commonly used when you want to talk about something that is necessary or important when doing something.

  • 生きていく上で大切なことは一つだけ。
  • In life there is only one important thing.

You can also use 上で to modify another noun with の.

  • 使用する上での注意点。
  • Thing(s) to be careful about during usage。 (sentence fragment)

上 can also be tacked on after some nouns, to represent some action that takes place “on” them. A common usage of this is ネット上, where ネット (netto) is a short form of “internet”

  • ネット上でできないことってあるの?
  • Is there anything you can’t do on the net?


The art of 独占 (a puzzle game for iPhone)

Some of you may have noticed my rate of posts going down the last few months, and one of the reasons for that is I’ve been working on a side project. The project is actually an iPad game, which I recently released on the Apple App Store as a free app.

The game is called “Dokusen”, which is written in Japanese in 独占 and means “monopoly” or “domination”. It is a casual puzzle game that has some influence from the game of Go (囲碁) which I wrote about recently here.

If you have enjoyed this blog with 250+ entries on Japanese- and Japan-related topics, please consider downloading my game as a token of your appreciation (:

For those interested to learn more about the game or download it, you can check out it’s app store page here:

Also if you want to read more about the game, or game development in general,  you can check out this blog entry on another of my blogs:

iOS Simulator Screen Shot Jun 4, 2015, 9.14.25 PMiOS Simulator Screen Shot Jun 4, 2015, 9.15.04 PMiOS Simulator Screen Shot Jun 4, 2015, 9.14.47 PM

断る(kotowaru): an important Japanese word with two nearly opposite meaningshe first mea

The verb ことわる in Japanese, written in Kanji as 断る, is notable in that it has two meanings that are nearly opposite to one another. As usual in cases where a word has more than one definition, you need to use context to tell which is being used.

The first meaning, and perhaps the more common one, is to mean “decline”, as in declining an offer. If specified, thing is that being declined or refused is prefaced by the direct object particle を (pronounced close ‘wo’).

  • 招待を断った
  • I declined the invitation.

If you want to be use a more politer expression, you can say the following:

  • お断りします。
  • I regretfully decline your offer.

The “regretfully” part is not literally in the Japanese sentence, but I added it to try and convey the feeling of politeness.

The second meaning, which is confusingly different from the first, is when you ask someone for permission to do something.

  • 僕もやってみたいけど断らなければならない。
  • I’d also like to try that but we have to get permission first.

Here it is obvious that the speaker is not trying to say “we have to refuse”. You could use a similar expression like ”断らないとだめ” or “断るべき”.

There are a few other meanings of this word but the above two are the most common in my experience.


Japanese 手(hand) : usages and expressions

In Japanese, the word for ‘hand’ is written as 手 and pronounced close to the English “te” sound from “tell”. In this post I’ll talk about a few words that use this character, plus other meanings of it.

To start with, in baby-speak the word “お手手” (otete) is often used to mean “hand”.

The word for “wrist” is “手首” (tekubi) which is literally “hand neck”, and if you think about it the neck is sort of the same shape as the wrist. Ankle is “足首”(ashikubi).

Another meaning of 手 is “plan” or “method”. For example:

  • そういうもあるね。
  • That’s one other way to do it (literally: “there is also that method”)

手 can also be used to mean a “move” in a game like Chess or Japanese Chess (将棋, shogi). So the first move would be called 一手目(itteme), the second 二手目 (niteme), and so on. In both games, when your king is under attack you would say “王手” (oute), which literally means “king hand” and corresponds to the phrase “Check!” in English.

The word 手強い refers to being strong (like an opponent), and although it can be pronounced as “tezuyoi”, I think it’s more commonly pronounced “tegowai”. This is ironic since it sounds a little like “yowai” (弱い) which means “weak”.

The word 大手 (oote, literally “big hand”) refers to something of large scale, for example 大手会社 would be a large-scale company (like Apple Computer).

手 can be used at the end of word to mean someone doing an action, similar to the ending “-er” in English. For example”

  • 話し手 (hanashi te) – speaker
  • 聞き手 (kiki te) – listener
  • 売り手 (uri te) – seller
  • 買い手 (kai te) – buyer

There are many Kanji compounds that use 手 and refer to the number of hands or type of hand.

  • 片手 (kata te) – one hand (either)
  • 両手(ryou te) – both hands
  • 右手 (migi te) – right hand
  • 左手(hidari te) – left hand

In some cases 手 is pronounced as “shu” in compounds:

  • 手裏剣 (shuriken) – throwing star
  • 入手 (nyuushu) – get, obtain, purchase

The expresions 手に入る (te ni hairu) and 手に入れる (te ni ireru) literally mean something come into the hand or is put into the hand, and correspond to something being obtained or obtaining it actively.

  • その車はなかなか手に入らないよ。
  • That car is very hard to get a hold of.
  • 手に入れたいものがある。
  • There is something I want to obtain.

Japanese vocabulary: Business/Economics terms

These days I’ve been listening frequently to NHK’s 「社会の見方・私の視点」 (Societal perspective / My point of view), which is a news podcast that talks about a diverse set of topics including government, economics, world politics, business, industry, and many others.

Needless to say, the Japanese is extremely high level and there are many words that you would not normally hear in daily conversations. But one of my goals is to learn to understand Japanese fluently, regardless of the topic, so I’ve persistently listened to these with that in mind.

If you listen to 10 or 20 episodes, you’ll notice there are some words that appear fairly often, so I’ll make a list of a few that come to mind. This is by no means exhaustive, and native-level comprehension of these topics would take not just learning thousands of words, but understanding the interworkings of the Japan government and economy. Also, having a good understanding of these words in English would really help you quickly learn the Japanese ones, and if you are not knowledgable in this topics in English you’re going to have a pretty hard time following.

  • 賃金(ちんぎん): wages
  • 年金(ねんきん): pension
  • 投資(とうし):investment
  • 企業(きぎょう): company
  • 大企業(だいきぎょう): large sized company or enterprise
  • 中小企業(ちゅうしょうきぎょう): small or medium-sized company
  • 物価(ぶっか): (commodity) prices
  • 株価(かぶか): stock price
  • 価格 (かかく): price
  • 上昇(じょうしょう): increase
  • 低下(ていか)・下落(げらく): fall, drop (of a price, etc.)
  • 暴落 (ぼうらく): sudden drop (of a price, etc.)
  • 石油(せきゆ): oil
  • 原油(げんゆ): crude oil
  • 市場(しじょう): market
  • 輸出(ゆしゅつ):export
  • 輸入(ゆにゅう): import
  • 交渉(こうしょう): negotiation
  • 懸念(けねん): worry, concern
  • 需要(じゅよう): demand
  • 供給(きょうきゅう): supply
  • 農業(のうぎょう): farm
  • 農家(のうか): farmer
  • 国家(こっか): nation or country
  • 関税(かんぜい): customs duty, tariff
  • 税金(ぜいきん):
  • 自治体(じちたい): self-governing organization or government
  • 地方(ちほう): region
  • 見込み(みこみ): hope, promise (as in a strategy with promise)
  • 作戦(さくせん): strategy
  • 選挙(せんきょ): election
  • 政治家 (せいじか): politician
  • 政府(せいふ): government
  • 経済(けいざい): economy
  • 財政(ざいせい): finance
  • インフレ: inflation (as in overall increase in prices in a country)
  • デフレ: deflation (reverse of inflation)
  • 円高(えんだか): Strong yen (when the yen is higher than other currencies such as the dollar)
  • 円安(えんやす): Weak yen
  • 所得(しょとく): income
  • 富裕層(ふゆうそう): the wealthy, or group of people with high net worth
  • 国内(こくない): internal to the country in question
  • 海外 (かいがい): external to the country in question (overseas)
  • 工場(こうじょう): factory
  • 生産(せいさん): production
  • 付加価値(ふかかち): added or unique value
  • 機構(きこう): system or organization
  • 高齢化社会(こうれいかしゃかい): “aging society”, where a low birthrate causes an imbalance between younger and older people.
  • 情報(じょうほう): information
  • 不況(ふきょう): (economic) depression
  • 指標(しよう): (economic) indicator
  • 平均(へいきん): average
  • 土地(とち): land (which has or can have a building)
  • 国債(こくさい): government bond
  • 権限:(けんげん): authority, power
  • 投資信託(とうししんたく): mutual fund
  • 株(かぶ): stock
  • 銀行(ぎんこう): bank
  • 倒産(とうさん): bankrupt
  • 赤字(あかじ): (budget) deficit, “in the red”
  • 黒字 (くろじ): (budget) surplus
  • 創業(そうぎょう): establishment of a business
  • 組織(そしき): organization (don’t confuse with 葬式(そうしき) – funeral)
  • 陰謀(いんぼう): conspiracy
  • 産業(さんぎょう): an industry
  • 生産性(せいさんせい): productivity
  • 資産(しさん): assets, property, (ones) fortune
  • 負債(ふさい): debt, liabilities
  • 予算(よさん): budget
  • 支援(しえん): aid, support
  • 追い風(おいかぜ): favorable wind (used to refer to an economic or business advantage)
  • 傾向(けいこう): tendency
  • 消費(しょうひ): consumption
  • 消費者(しょうひしゃ): consumer
  • 年齢(ねんれい): age
  • 安定(あんてい): stability
  • プラスになる: to be an advantage or merit
  • 国民(こくみん): a nation or people of a nation
  • 途上国(とじょうこく): developing nation
  • 貧困の差(ひんこんのさ): gap between the rich and the poor
  • 再生可能(再生可能): renewable (as in 再生可能エネルギー)
  • 議論(ぎろん): debate
  • 情勢(じょうせい)・状況(じょうきょう): situation

Expressing a state with「でいる」

In Japanese, you may have learned that the “ている” form can be used to express a state rather than an ongoing action, like ”壊れている” (broken).

There is another way to express state using a noun or na-adjective, plus “でいる”. The “で” is the “te” form of “だ” (is), and “いる” is the same as in “壊れている”.

This pattern is commonly used to express emotional state, as in the following example:

  • 僕は何があっても平気でいる
  • No matter what happens I’ll remain calm.

You could, however, remove the でいる from the above sentence (or replace it with だ) and the meaning wouldn’t change that much.

Another way to use でいる is by conjugating いる into it’s negative potential form, いられない. The resultant expression “でいられない” means one cannot maintain a certain state.

  • 宝くじが当たったら冷静でいられないでしょう。
  • If you win the lottery I bet you won’t be able to stay calm.

You can also use it with the positive potential of the form, as seen in this expression (it’s a sentence fragment):

  • ほろ酔いでいられるお酒の量。
  • The amount of alcohol to stay buzzed.

The combination of 自分 (oneself) plus でいる means “to be oneself” and can be used in the following way:

  • 彼女といると、自分でいられる
  • When I am with her I can be myself.

You can even use the “tai” form (to want to) of いる, resulting in ”でいたい”

  • ありのままの自分でいたい
  • I just want to stay who I am.

“でいる” doesn’t really match up directly with any English expression, though you can sometimes make a natural translation on a case-by-case basis. Because of this, it can be a little difficult to understand at first. But once you start to get a feel for it, you’ll be thinking of new ways to use it no time.

Update: I originally had an incorrect title on this post. Sorry for the confusion.

Go (囲碁): An ancient asian board game of deep strategy

Go is a two-player board game which originated in China over 2,500 years ago, and is now popular in other countries including Japan and Korea. In Japanese it is written as “囲碁” (“igo”).

The game board contains a grid which is typically 19×19, though sometimes smaller sized grids are used for beginners (9×9 or 13×13). Game pieces are small round shapes similar to the popular candy “M&Ms” (though not edible), all black for one player and all white for the other. The game rules are fundamentally simple, where each player plays a piece (or “stone” as they are called) on a legal square, and after a piece is played there is a possibility one or more of the other player’s nearby pieces are removed from the board. The basic rule for which pieces are removed is if they have no empty spaces next to them. There are several more advanced rules, however, which I won’t be going into detail in this post.

Instead of playing a piece, each player has the option to pass and play no pieces. The game ends when both players pass in succession. The winner is determined by a scoring system where the number of encircled pieces plus the number of captured pieces is added together for each player, and the higher score wins. This concept of “encircling” can be seen in the first Kanji for the Japanese name of the game: “囲”, present in the verb 囲む (kakomu) which means “to encircle”.

I’m a huge fan of Chess, but to me Go seems more pure (with less rules), and yet much more complex. Last time I researched, because of the huge number of possibilities, computers were also significantly worse than the better human players, which is much different in Chess where the best computers can beat almost any player.

I bought a board some years ago (similar to this product), but because games typically take several hours I have only used it a few times. I’ve only briefly researched strategies about this game, but it seems there is a wealth of books and other resources for learning everything from the basics to move advanced tactics.

Traditional boards are called “goban” (碁盤)and are square shaped with legs, often made out of wood. You may have seen one in movies like “Pi” (not “The Life of Pi”) or “The Beautiful Mind”, and there is even a brief appearance of one in an anime movie I recently reviewed, Summer Wars. You can also check out the Manga “Hikaru no go” which is based heavily on playing go competitively.

It’s a pretty fun game, so if you ever have an opportunity you might want to try learning it.


(Featured image credit:

Using the Japanese particle で (de) to explain a reason

The Japanese particle で is one of the first particles that is typically taught, because it’s usage to mean where an action takes place, or “by means of” is pretty easy to understand. Here is one example of each:

  • 僕は部屋テレビを見た。
  • I watched TV in the room.
  • 僕たち、バス海に行った。
  • We went to the beach via bus.

One meaning that is a bit more advanced is when で is used to explain the reason for something. This is may be a bit tricky to use for beginners at first, but once you grasp it you’ll be using it no time.

  • 女の子が病気倒れた。
  • The girl collapsed due to an illness.
  • 彼はショック口がきけなくなっちゃった。
  • He fell silent (unable to speak) out of shock.
  • 昨日、不安眠れなかった。
  • Yesterday, I was so anxious I couldn’t sleep.

It’s important to understand that で doesn’t literally mean “because of”, rather it is closer to just “and”, and can be seen as a shortened form of ”であって”. So the last sentence above is literally “Yesterday I was anxious and couldn’t sleep”. However, when things are connected via で (or a verb in the “te” form like して) there can be an implied causation.

If you wanted to rewrite the last sentence using an explicit “because”, you would end up with this:

  • 昨日、不安だったから眠れなかった。

While this is technically correct, it sounds unnatural to me and the original one (using で) sounds much better.

Another interesting fact is that the word “ので”, when used to mean “because”, is really just の being used to change the prior verb into a noun, and で to connect this to the following sentence in the sense of “and”. Or at least that is my interpretation of it (:

One final note: strictly speaking, in some of the above usages for で one could argue that rather than the particle ”で”, the “te” form of the copula (”だ”, meaning “is”) is being used. I’m not sure which is correct, but ultimately how you categorize the grammar isn’t too important, as long as you understand the meaning and how to use it.