Monthly Archives: September 2015

(Foreign) Language fluency at work

Although I’m gradually getting the hang of day-to-day Japanese conversation, I don’t any experience using that language in a work environment. My current workplace doesn’t have many Japanese people, so there isn’t much opportunity to attempt it, either.

However, that doesn’t stop me from thinking about what it would be like to attempt using Japanese while working with a team of people at a job. I happen to work with people from many different cultures and sometimes I try to imagine what if I was them, using a foreign language at the workplace.

One major difference of using a foreign language at work compared to among friends is that you have much more pressure to communicate effectively, with your boss being less forgiving of mistakes and risks associated with not meeting expectations.

But more than that, this got me thinking to what it really means to be fluent in a language while at work. In addition to basic conversation skills, you may have to learn a bunch of technical or domain terms. There’s also a good chance you’ll have to give presentations as well as read and write many emails. In Japanese, you also have to have to worry about the various politeness levels, adjusting your speech and writing depending on the audience.

There is a big difference between being able to do everyday work things, and being able to do them close to native-level. For example, your reading speed may severely limit how fast you get work done, and time looking up words will delay things even further. In conversations, having to explain things a roundabout way due to insufficient ability to express yourself efficiently will also take more time, and potentially frustrate the listener who is looking to get back to work.

There is also the social angle. When I work with someone, the more fluent they are in English generally the easier it is to get along with them. For the cases where a coworker has a strong accent or makes common grammar mistakes, it will take a little more effort for me to follow their conversation, and there will be a higher chance of miscommunication. The more fluent someone is, the more opportunities they will have to make a joke or interject a friendly “unnecessary” comment which helps people to work together easier. At my current level of Japanese, I could probably communicate much of what I wanted to say, but only with great concentration and effort. I wouldn’t have the time (or as they say in Japanese, yoyuu) to even think about making jokes. Of course, there are some people who are fluent (either natives or non-natives) and just don’t make jokes because it isn’t their personality.

Fluency at work, besides having an impact on your efficiency accomplishing assigned tasks, also influences what jobs are open to you, or which you would be good at. In companies I’ve worked in, almost everyone at the management level had pretty good communication skills in English. And the higher you get, the more necessity there is for fluency. Even for jobs like software design architect which are very technical, you are required to efficiently listen to people’s opinions, device an appropriate architecture, and then communicate that verbally and via written documentation. Without the ability to quickly comprehend and respond in an intelligent fashion, you can’t get your job done. Even in one’s native language effective communication can be a challenge, and for a foreign language it’s that much harder.

Working with people also trains your people skills, like is learning what drives each individual and how to most effectively communicate with them. There is some of this in personal relationships, but the difference here is you generally cannot choose who you work with, so there is a bigger chance of having to deal with personality conflicts.

This highlights one of the great things about learning a foreign language – the opportunity to put a microscope on all those things you were taking advantage of in your native language. The more you uncover about what you were unconsciously doing all along, the more this thing called language amazes you.


How I learned to read in Japanese, and retain Kanji

Recently a fellow blogger asked me about what study methods I used to study Kanji of retention, so I thought I would write a post about what methods I used to learn to read, including how I learned Kanji.

When talking about study methods, it is difficult to state conclusively that a certain way is best or most efficient because of individual differences in students. So the methods that worked for me may not work for others. However, I hope that as a success story of someone who was able to learn to read Japanese my opinions and experiences can be useful to others.

When studying Japanese, I generally take the stance that I am trying to solve some great puzzle, an intellectual challenge that requires much thought and effort to overtake. So while some people may be frustrated by the number of Kanji required to read adult-level texts, I generally took it in stride with the attitude “ドンと来い!” (don to koi!) which means something like “come attack me!” or “try me!”. While the ability to comprehend Japanese writings is an achievement in itself, I generally enjoy the act of learning, so for me half of the fun is getting there.

In my first few years of studying Japanese, I read nearly all the Japanese textbooks I could get my hands on, including Youkoso which gave me good fundmanentals. I also gave an extra focus to learning as much about grammar possible, including grammar-specific dictionaries like this book. Nowadays you can look up expressions that you don’t understand on google, but back over 10 years ago when I was learning it was easier to just read through these types of books and memorize as many of the grammar patterns as I could. Since one of my original personal goals was learning to read Japanese novels (like Murakami Haruki books), I have balanced my studies between both listening and reading practice.

For Kanji specifically, I dedicated myself to learning the first few levels of Kanji characters (a few hundred), and did so by creating my own flashcards which were hand written. Though it took a good bit of time, during this process I forced myself to look up the proper stroke over of each character, and practice writing it a few times if needed. Though my writing is pretty rusty, I feel that I still remember many of the basic stroke orders. I also put an emphasis on learning the meaning of as many radicals as possible, things like the water radical in the left of the character 泳(”sui”, used in the word for “oyogu” – to swim). This really helped me memorize and understand the characters much faster.  I used the Kodansha Learners Dictionary heavily for learning stroke order, related words using each Kanji, as well as for it’s convenient lookup system in the back of the book. There are some websites that have other convenient lookup systems like this one. Without a way to quickly look up Kanji it’s easy to get frustrated and loose interest.

As for retention, I think two major factors here are one’s interest in the subject matter, plus your age and inborn memory abilities.   If you are really into learning Kanji, you’re more likely to remember it in a few months, just like if you happen to be young with a superb memory naturally. However these things are not something you can change.

In addition to my attitude towards learning Japanese, I think what helped me progress was that I tried to practice recognizing the Kanji in context. At first, this was just exercises in textbooks, but I forced myself to move onto books that had more advanced content with assistance like this, and then I gradually moved onto real novels. One of the first real novels I read was Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen (キッチン), which was not only short but had relatively simple Japanese and Kanji.

I nearly always force myself to go the extra step and learn how to pronounce words that contain Kanji, which helps you use those words in your own speech, writing, and be able to recognize them when listening to someone else’s speech. I know Japanese people can read through a sentence with a word for which they don’t know they exact spelling, but have a good intuitive feel of what it means because they are familiar with the Kanji comprising it. This is a good skill to build up yourself, but I still suggest always knowing the pronuncation of all words you come across when reading.

As I ramped up to more difficult books sometimes I would spend several minutes per page looking up Kanji and thinking about how the grammar fit together. But I usually pushed through to the end of the book, with only a few cases where I gave up and moved onto a different book.

Eventually, I got to the point where I mostly stopped reading novels in English (one of my major hobbies) and moved exclusively to Japanese novels. My reading speed is still frustrating slow at times but it’s gradually improved over the years.

Although I did use flash cards intensively for a short period, I only used them as a crutch to get me to the point where I could find things to read where I understood a good portion of the characters, and didn’t have to look up every single one, a process too tedious even for me. I have seen people who have gotten frustrated from low retention rates when over-focusing on tools like Anki, so I think the gradual switchover to actual reading is critical to improve retention and reduce burnout.

While Anki or similar flashcard-style practice methods are easy, quick, and may help short-term retention, inherently it’s a process with little context that is boring, and without interest and contextual information the mind looses interest quickly. Contrast that to discovering new Kanji you an interesting novel or manga you are really into. There are certain Kanji that I still remember where I originally saw them. Characters, like words, are not just made from simple definitions, they are part of a complex network of connections to other characters, words, feelings, and emotions.

If you are jut trying to “pass the class” or “get the credit”, then methods like Anki may work for the short term, though you may have to struggle through lack of retention between successive classes if they are months apart. But if you are into Japanese for the long run and really want to learn to read, make it a habit to read a little bit of ‘real’ Japanese every night, even only for a few minutes. Much of this discussion applies equally to writing and speaking, but those are much harder to practice, especially when studying on your own. Take advantage of the fact there are thousands of interesting Japanese novels and manga out there, and if you can’t afford buying books you can find millions of pages on the internet for reading practice.









Japanese grammar focus: particle “sa” and related words (saa, sate, satetto) 「さ、さあ、さて、さてっと」

In this post I’m going to go over the Japanese particle “さ” (sa) and a few related words.

さ is something that took me quite some time to understand, partially because it wasn’t emphasized in any of the textbooks I originally learned Japanese from. I understand authors deciding to avoid this word because it not used very frequently in polite language, though you may hear it pretty often in informal situations.  Another reason it was difficult for me was because there isn’t any exact equivalent in English.

Let’s start from a simple example:

  • 俺は男だから
  • Because I’m a man!

The general feeling I get from さ is something I would describe as rough and informal, even a bit masculine, though some women do use this word. This example sentence contains several elements in addition to さ which have a connotation of masculine (俺, ore) or informal (だから, since it is not a polite form).

There is really no way to directly translate the さ here, but because of the sentence’s content I think the simple English translation above is sufficient to convey the informality and manly-ness. There are also some who say the particle さ can have an implicit feeling of refutation or rebuttal(反駁).

さ can be used after a verb directly, or after the word “の” (no).

  • 僕は王様になるの
  • (someday) I’ll be king!

My intuitive feel for a sentence like this is the さ is attributing a sense of toughness, or trying to brag about something. I think it would be more correct to say it adds a feeling of assertion.

さ can also be used in the middle of a sentence, sometimes multiple times. The below example uses さ once within the sentence and once at the end.

  • 、思ったんだけど。。。
  • So I was thinking… (literally: “I thought”)

In this usage, there is always a pause after the “さ” in the middle of a sentence, hence the comma. Here, it is said to help the speaker adjust his or her tone (語調を整える) as well as to indicate there is more to be said after. I also get the feeling the speaker is a male speaking informally, somewhere between a teenager and middle age, though there are definitely people outside of this age group that use the expression.

Again, it is hard to literally translate さ’s usage here into English, though I think we have some expressions such “you know”,  “you see”, and “right” which can be injected into informal sentences and share some of the nuances of さ。(ex: “So, there was this guy, right….and he starting running…”)

The particle ね (ne) can be used to a similar fashion to さ, however I feel it has a much less strong, more friendly tone (possibly feminine depending on the situation). (i.e. “僕、負けたんだ”)

さ can also be placed at the beginning of a sentence, where it is used to invite or urge a person to do something. You often see it used like this:

  • さ、始めよう!
  • Alright, lets get started!

I think the “Alright” here captures the tone pretty well, and could be replaced by “ok” as well.

For this usage, you can extend the “a” sound to “saa” (さあ or さ〜). Another common phrase is “さあ行こう!” (Alright, lets’ go!)

The phrase “さて” (sate) and equivalent “さてっと” (satetto) have a similar meaning to “さあ”. While they can be used to get attention of another person (さて、やってみよっか), I more often hear this pair used when talking to oneself.

  • さてっと。。。どれにしようかな。。。
  • Alrighty now…. Which of these should I choose…

さあ also has another meaning (not usually associated with さ) which is to express a lack of caring about something or disinterest (“どうでもいい”)

  • P1: どうして助けてあげないの?
  • P1: Why don’t you help him/her?
  • P2: さあ。。。
  • P2: Who cares…. (or  [shrug])

This carries a pretty cold, uncaring feeling, so be careful who you use it with. P2 in the above short dialog sounds like a real asshole to me. I’ve been told that saying “さあ。。。わからない” is a little bit less harsh. I think this is because that at least directly answers the question whereas さあ seems like more of an evasion.


The are even more uses of さ which I haven’t covered, like when it replaces the final い of an i-adjective to change that word to a noun, as in 嬉しい (happy  [adjective]) =>嬉しさ (happiness [noun])

There is at least one regional dialect (方言) where さ has a different function. For example, in Yamagata dialect the following can be said:

  • どごいぐの?

This can be expressed in Tokyo (common) dialect as:

  • どこに行くの?

In addition to さ being used to mean に, the sound く is represented as ぐ and こ as ご.




Japanese grammar highlight: Word order in Japanese

According to a poll I’ve been running since August 2014, the number one thing people would like more from this blog is information about Japanese Grammar.

Writing about grammar is tricky since there are are many good books and websites about it, and I like to try and avoid duplicating content that is available elsewhere. So I try and wait until I can think of topics where I can contribute something unique, or pick single words (or groups of words) and give an extra-detailed treatment with them, including a bunch of example sentences. In spite of the fact there is so much material out there, people still find it hard to learn Japanese grammar – so I try my best to make things a little bit clearer for those seeking understanding.

This time I’ve decided to take on the topic of word order in Japanese, which when people say “Grammar” is one of the top things they are probably thinking about (along with things like particles and maybe conditionals). In other languages, conjugation, tenses and conjugations can take quite some time to get the hang of, but in Japanese those are relatively simple with only a few tenses. (English, on the other hand, has all sorts of annoying things like “have gone”, “had gone”, “would of had gone”, etc.)

Basic word order (語順) in Japanese is where the subject (主語)is followed by the direct object (直接目的語), which is followed by the verb(動詞). This can be abbreviated as “SOV”. Let’s take an example:

  • Subject + Object + Verb
  • 僕がバナナを食べた。

English has the second two elements reversed, so that the object is at the end. Writing the same sentence in English we get,

  • Subject + Verb + Object
  • I ate (a) banana.

In Japanese, other things like the direction or location of an action are also generally in the same location, in front of the verb.

  • Subject + Location of action + Verb
  • 僕が日本で勉強した。

In English we have,

  • Subject + Verb + Location of action
  • I studied in Japan.

Though this may seem like a straightforward thing, it’s actually one of the biggest hurdles to understanding and speaking Japanese, at least initially. This is because if you’re native language is English, your brain is used to processing things in a certain order, and shifting this order makes everything take that much longer. Where you could just speak quickly in English in a stream-of-conscious fashion (without deep thought), in Japanese you have to think “I need to say the object *before* the verb” for quite some time until that pattern sticks. When reading, you may have to re-read sentences over two or three times until you get a good grasp of the word order. I think that understanding Japanese also requires more short term memory, since we need to read or hear more of the sentence before we can digest it.

From the previous example sentence, we can see another way Japanese is different than English – the placement of things that modify nouns. For example, in English we put the preposition “in” before a location, but in Japanese we put the particle “で” (de) after the word. For describing the direction of an action in English, we use the preposition “to” before the location (ex: “I went to Japan”), but in Japanese the particle is after the location (“僕は日本へ行った”). Even though particles are not the exact same things as prepositions, there are many similarities and this order difference is another thing that takes longer to digest when learning Japanese grammar.

Fortunately adjectives in Japanese are placed in front of the nouns they modify, just like in English. (This is reversed in Spanish)

  • 赤いリンゴ。
  • Red apple.

But don’t celebrate yet – Japanese switches things around again when there is a phrase or clause describing a noun, as if it were an adjective.

  • 僕が買った本。
  • The book (that) I bought

Here the preposition “that” is optional in English (though it may be better to include it in some cases), but there is no corresponding word needed in Japanese. Similarly “The place where I was born” would not need any connecting word in Japanese (“僕が生まれた場所”, where が could be replaced with の)

If we put this rule together with the the basic SOV pattern we talked about above, we can already start getting a pretty complex sentence.

  • 先生が言ってくれたことを聞いてなかった。
  • I wasn’t listening to what the teacher told me.

(Note: The 僕は part is technically the topic, not the subject because は is used instead of が, but I’m not going to go into that detail here. See this post for more information.)

For those still learning the basics of Japanese grammar, this sentence may be a little hard to parse, because the word order is so different from English. It’s almost like a mini puzzle. I’ve highlighted the words “I” and  “teacher” in both sentences to see how their placement is so different.

One trick I use in my head to parse these types of sentences is to separate the describing phrase from the rest of the sentence, as if I was adding parenthesis like this:

  • 僕は (先生が言ってくれた) ことを聞いてなかった。

Another time word order is reversed in Japanese is when there is an embedded phrase inside of a sentence is referred to. For example in English we say

  • [Something that describes the phrase] + [the phrase]
  • I think it will rain.

I call this quoting because you can think of it like this:

  • I think “it will rain”.

Essentially, the phrase “it will rain” is being described as being thought about.

In Japanese, this is reversed with the phrase coming first.

  • [the phrase] + [Something that describes the phrase]
  • 雨がふると思う。

Here the “I” part is omitted from the Japanese phrase, which is very common in natural speech and writing. I wrote about this here previously.

Though it would be perfectly natural to omit the “I”, it is grammatically correct to specify it. Here we come to another important aspect of Japanese word order, the flexibility to shift things around. For example, the following two sentences are both correct.

  • 僕は雨がふると思う。
  • 雨がふると僕は思う。

Although these have pretty much the same meaning, the second one (with the 僕は near the end) sounds to me a little bit like “I don’t know about you, but this is what *I* think”. Also I think that form would be more natural if you had a long phrase, so the 僕は and と思う parts were kept close together. Having said that, for the average case I think saying 僕は (or omitting it completely) is safest.

Japanese word order is flexible in other ways too. For example, sometimes the topic or subject is actually put at the last of the sentence.

  • なんだこりゃ?「=なんだ、これは?」
  • What is this?
  • 何やってるんだ俺は?
  • What am I doing?

Both of these are commonly said phrases and completely natural. The reason for doing this seems to emphasize the first part of the sentence (“what”) instead of the topic or phrase. Another example of this is “バカ、お前は”。

However, I recommend beginner students to stick with the basic SOV order as much as possible.

A final case of flexible word order is where Japanese can sometimes use OSV form, as in the following sentence.

  • Object + Topic + Verb
  • それを、僕たちが調べる。
  • We are going to research that.

This is something I see much more common in written Japanese (especially novels) as opposed to spoken. As in the above sentence, sometimes commas are used in Japanese to set certain elements apart and make the sentence easier to understand.

You could even put the それ(を) at the end of this sentence, though it sounds more colloquial there, as if it is an afterthought.(僕たちが調べる。。。それ). (Note: I think adding ”んだ” (short for のだ)after 調べる makes these sentences more natural, but I’ve omitted it to simplify things)

There are some cases where Japanese and English word (or phrase) order is similar. For example in conditionals, the “if” is typically followed by the “the” in both languages:

  • If clause + Then clause
  • 試験は勉強すれば、合格できるよ。
  • If you study for the test, then you’ll be able to pass it.

This also applies to the order things are done in, for example:

  • 箱を開けたらびっくりした。
  • When I opened the box I was surprised.

Here, in both languages the phrases are in temporal order, such that the action in the left part of the sentence occurred before the right part. This may feel like common sense but I can’t guarantee there aren’t languages with a different ordering here.

I hope this post has made word order in Japanese a bit clearer. If you have any questions, or any other areas of Japanese grammar you’d like me to go into, please let me know.



Manga Review: Hyakumanjou labryinth (百万畳ラビリンス)

There is something adventurous about picking up a book in a bookstore which you know nothing about except the title and cover page. It feels like you were dropped in the middle of an unknown country without a map, with nothing to go on but your own sense of direction.

This is much how I discovered Hyakumanjou Labryinth (by Takamichi, published by Young King Comics) in a bookstore in Japan, where the intriguing cover page immediately caught my attention.

Coincidentally, the story also involves a similar journey into the unknown, in the form of a mysterious labyrinth that two girls stumble upon one day. These two, who work for a game company and live in said company’s dorm, are about as polar opposite as you can imagine. Reika is about is cute as you can get, with long, silky black hair and slim frame, and Youko is chubby with short hair and a face that only a parent could love (she even calls herself a ‘do-busu’). Reika is curious and inquisitive, Youko more realistic. The only thing they share is a real love for video games, and this is what brings them together in this story, as they struggle to work together as a team to figure what has happened to them.

Though there are many girls who actually enjoy video games, Reika’s case is a little… let’s say extreme, so to enjoy this story you’ll have to check your disbelief at the door. This manga has some elements of fan service which means adding elements for the express purpose that fans will enjoy them. Depending how it’s done, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I’ll let you decide if you like it or not. Without giving much away, I’ll just say that I don’t recommend this book for children due to full nudity in one or two parts.

One reason I loved this comic is the way the world is designed – the well-designed labyrinth is the biggest character of this story, much like it is in the movie Cube. In no way is it your average maze, and some of the parts even awed me with their creativity.

Unfortunately, there only appear to be one more book in the series, and it’s already been released.  I’m definitely going to check it out. So far, I haven’t seen any English version yet, which is only natural since it just came out this August (2015).

Linguistically this book was really useful, since the two girls use mostly slang-laden informal speech which I am always eager to pick up. Another contrasting thing about these girls is their style of speaking: Reika’s language is pretty typical of a girl her age, but Youko’s is very harsh and manly at times, containing things like the sentence-ending particle “zo” that is not too commonly used by women. The dialog is less dense than a few other manga I’ve read, and I’d say of medium difficulty, though without a good grasp of Japanese grammar and Kanji you’re continue to have a rough time.

It may be my inner gamer speaking, but I’ll say this is a must-read, one of the most interesting and entertaining I’ve seen in some time. My only hope is that they turn this into a movie with a big budget, or somehow make a continuation.

Note: the word “hyakumanjou” (百万畳) from the title means “1 million tatami“. Tatami mats are common in traditional Japanese houses and are often made of rice straw.  I think the standard tatami size may differ between regions in Japan, but I’ve heard that in some places it is 1.8 meters x 0.9 meters.  This refers to both the large size of the labyrinth, plus the fact there is actual Tatami in some of the locations (you can tell the latter from looking at the back cover of the comic).



Need something translated from Japanese to English?

In the process of writing this blog, one thing I’ve discovered is that I enjoy the challenge of translating from Japanese to English.

To that end, I’ve decided to put out a call for translation requests. I’m open to translating anything including portions of Manga, TV dramas, movies, novels, or newspapers. The only requirement is that you can provide the source material to me. For text, something that I can cut and paste is best, but photographs are fine as long as they are clear enough to see the details of all characters.

For now let’s keep things short, to only a few paragraphs of text, pages of Manga, or a minute or so of audio.

Although I don’t have any professional credentials, I’ve been doing this long to enough so I can do at least a decent job on simple translation, although if it is a domain I am not too familiar with (for example, medical literature) I might have some difficulty translating it properly.

I prefer Japanese to English, but if you really need something in English translated to Japanese I am open to making the attempt, though I cannot guarantee 100% natural Japanese in this cases.

If you are interested please feel free to respond to this page, or you can email me directly at selftaughtjapanese (at) For the purpose of spam protection I’ve added an extra ‘m’ to the second part of the address (gmmail), please remove that before sending.

Based on my free time, I’ll tackle requests I receive in a first come, first serve, basis, and will post the results on my blog so others can learn from the translations.

While there are many automated translation services available that can do this type of work, I’ll do my best to have the results in natural, clear English which is something computers aren’t quite able to achieve yet.

Japanese band highlight: Jizue (ジズー)

Jizue is a Japanese instrumental band originating from the city of Kyoto which combines elements of rock, comtemporary jazz, and other genres. They were formed in 2006 and have released 4 albums between 2010 and 2014. The band consists of the following members, all who have been there from the start except the piano player who joined in 2007.

  • 山田剛(Gou Yamada) – Bass
  • 井上典政(Noriyuki Inoue) – Guitar
  • 片木希依(Kie Katagi) – Piano
  • 粉川心(Shin Kokawa) – Drums

As to the band’s style, I think the blurb on the band’s profile page sums it up pretty well:


(The band’s) sound is a perfectly balanced composition of a soul-shaking power influenced by rock and hardcore music, a sense of swing inherited from Jazz, and sweet lyrical melodies.

Most of my listening experience of this band has come from their second album, Novel, which has several complex, up-beat songs performed brilliantly by these four skilled musicians. One of my favorites is “kotonoha” (which means “words” or “language” in Japanese), and is one of their few songs with a vocal track. Another of my favorites, this one a bit slower tempo, is “Pray” which features Kie’s beautiful piano melodies which dance between melancholy and bright moments. You can hear the entire album on YouTube here, or find it on the Apple Music service.

One of my only gripes with this great band is that they are apt to break out mid-song into what I call ‘jam-mode’, where they adopt a more less structured, more repetitive style that almost sounds like Jazz-Techno at some points (not necessarily a good thing). Once or twice I was strongly reminded of similar jams in the classic bluegrass/fusion band Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, though overall I feel Bela’s team is more skilled. Check Jizue’s song “Sun” for an example of this. At around three minutes into this song I was ready to press the ‘next’ button, though the end partially redeems itself with a return to a more melodic sounds (only after some more tedious riffs and a few quirky key changes). The band calls their approach to this album innovative (革新的) and I’ll give them credit since this mixed style is innovative.

Jizue is written in Japanese as ジズー which would be written in romaji as “Jizuu”. In an interview the band reveals their name comes from the famous French soccer player Zinedine Zidane’s nickname “Zizou”. It’s an especially fitting name since the band members were all childhood friends who played soccer together. The full text of the interview is here, and this makes for good Japanese reading practice if you are interested.

In spite of the tedious moments, Jizue (especially their Novel album) is overall a great listening experience, especially if you are into instrumental music like I am. From what I have seen, this band is more about enjoying the creative expression process as opposed to making money, which is a trait that has become harder to find lately.

If you like this band, consider checking out “Gesu no Kiwami Otome” which I reviewed previously here. They are a group with strong instrumentalists and vocals, and have some similarities with Jizue.

Image credit: the image was taken from their website’s biography page (


Can one increase conversation fluency in Japanese without a language partner?

I recently got a question from one of my readers about how to increase conversation fluency in Japanese (会話力) without having someone to actually practice with.

I don’t mean to dodge the question, but in all honesty without a conversation partner (話し相手)it is very difficult to reach any level of fluency. Before I go into my suggestions for this tricky situation, let me tell you how you can get a language partner.

Assuming you have an internet connection, you can use Skype or some other voice chat tool to talk to anyone around the globe, whether it’s another person studying Japanese as a foreign language, or a native Japanese person in Japan. Doing a little searching around came up with a few websites such as thisthis, and this, with many more waiting to be found. However, I have not personally used any of those sites so cannot vouch for them.

In my early stages of learning Japanese I found a few Japanese penpals on sites like this, and after developing a relationship with them over Email I would eventually suggest trying out text or voice chat. As part of my conversation-partner searching efforts I even put up flyers in some nearby grocery stores, and discovered two or three Japanese natives living in the area to sit and talk with me for a small fee (roughly $7 an hour if I remember correct). Of course,  the feasibility of finding people locally depends on what country you live in and how close to a big city you are. In America, it seems the closer you are to the West coast the more Japanese people there are, although there is a good bit of them in New York as well.

You can also meet people who can eventually become conversation partners on Japanese social sites like Mixi, where I met my wife-to-be. I was maintaining a blog in Japanese for the purpose of meeting new people (as well to brush up my writing skills), and she stumbled upon it and realized not only was I American, but living within driving distance of me. The rest is history.

If you do live in a city with a relatively large Japanese population, you may be able to find Japanese-speaking people at Japanese restaurants, and you can offer to pay them a small fee to talk to you in Japanese. If you are opposite sex they might become hesitant, so consider meeting them in the same restaurant after they get off work as opposed to a different, unfamiliar place. I haven’t done this myself but in think it’s worth trying out.

If you are going one of these routes, I suggest keeping things small and simple, sticking to only a handful of people at any one time. The more deeply you get to know someone they more they will open up, and the less chance they will have of just disappearing or loosing interest in you. Having a pretty large number of penpals over time, I know that often the beginning of the relationship is the same stuff over and over again (reason to learn Japanese/English, hobbies, etc.), and it’s not until you really get to know them that you are able to branch out into different topics. If you are concerned about safety, the longer you exchange emails with them before jumping to voice chat, the more confidence you can have in them being an innocent person.

Ultimately, if you really want to find a Japanese language partner and put in enough effort, I am positive you can find one.

Now, back to the real question – what if, for any reason, you just can’t find a conversation partner now?

There is a bunch of things you can do to prepare yourself, at least set things up so when you do find someone you can hit the ground running. All conversation is two-way, including both speaking and listening, so improving your listening skills will have some benefit to your conversation ability. The key here is to find the right materials – try to aim for anime, TV dramas, or movies which have a setting close to real life, not some far-future story on a distant star, where giant robots run rampant. As a general rule, stories that are less fast paced and less domain-specific (meaning it isn’t a show about doctors filled with medical terms) will probably help you learn more words that you can use in your own conversations. One good example is the movie “Like Father, Like Son” which I blogged about here. You can also try Podcasts, which I talked about here.

Reading can also improve your vocabulary, including common phrases, and give some benefit to your conversation skills. Again, picking proper material is key here – reading a book full of snappy lines from a famous detective isn’t necessarily going to give you much useful information. For a good example, the Manga “Nana” comes to mind. I remember one of my friends (who had lived in Japan for one year) telling me “the Japanese in this manga is like what you hear in real life”.

Make sure you don’t force yourself to read something you don’t like just for the sake of learning – a story that doesn’t hold your interest means you’ll likely quit partway through. If you have the time, just read anything you can get your hands on (and is within your reading level) and you’ll gradually pick up little bits to use in your own speech.

There are some techniques you can use to practice speech without a partner, including talking to yourself in a mirror or recording a monologue into a voice recorder. There is some value in these, especially for learning the formulate sentences quickly and getting your mouth to shape the right sounds, but the results you can achieve with them is limited. There are two major reasons for this. One is that when you are speaking a real live person in real time, there is a sense of tension or nervousness which makes it harder to say what you mean, especially if this person is a stranger. There are other emotions which may come into play – like worrying about whether they are understanding your speech or whether you’re making a fool out of yourself. I’m sure this differs person to person, but practicing in front of a mirror doesn’t help me overcome this sort of thing. The only thing that helps is real experiences speaking.

The second thing is that, except for the simplest of conversations, you never know what the other person is going to say. You can memorize 1000 different phrases, and ways to answer certain questions, but something unfamiliar is said you get lost. Listening exercises will help you get over part of this, but the act of processing what you heard, determining it’s meaning, determining what you want to say (conceptually), and then formulating the right word order is a difficult process that also requires real practice to become good at. Tools like Skype won’t give you the full experience of actually speaking to a person in front of you, but it’s close enough.

I want to emphasize it’s good to do all these things – listening practice, reading practice, and real conversation practice – in frequent alternation. In other words, don’t read for a few months and then switch to conversation practice. The reason is that during a conversation, words you heard or read in the recent past will start bubbling up to your conscious, and when you try to employ them yourself (even if the usage isn’t perfect the first time) you’ll remember them better and pay even more attention next time you hear the same word. If there is a large span of time between your conversations and other study activities you’ll less likely to easily recall what you’ve learned. Because of this, even if you have an abundant supply of conversation partners (for example, if you live in Japan), I recommend to make sure you get a good daily dose of listening to others’ conversations.

And for myself? I’ve gotten pretty good at basic day-to-day conversation through speaking with my wife and son in mostly casual Japanese. However, my conversations with strangers, or friends I see infrequently, still leaves much to be desired. So I am always looking out for opportunities to practice speaking with others.

Kendama (けん玉): a traditional Japanese toy for training the mind and body

Kendama is a traditional Japanese toy consisting of a ball (玉, tama) and cross-shaped base (usually made out of wood) which are connected via a thin, long string (糸, ito). In addition to the handle, which can be held comfortably with one hand, the base contains three small indented areas of various sizes (called “皿”, or plates) plus a pointy top called the “けん先” (sword tip). In Japanese “kendama” is written most commonly as “けん玉”, though there are other variations including 剣玉. The name is a combination of the words for “sword” plus “ball”.

It is said there are from 300 to 50,000 different techniques (技, waza), but the easiest and most basic is to use motion of your wrist to flip up the ball to land in one of the three dishes. This is called “皿系” (“saraito”). Though the construction and techniques are quite different, I feel there is some similarity between the kendama and the popular yo-yo toy.

Historically, there is records of similar devices made of a ball, cup, and string existing from long ago, in use by the Ainu people of Japan as well as native American tribes near the great lakes in America. Around the 16th century, a similar toy called the bilboquet was popular in France with not only only children, but also nobles and upper-class citizens.

In Japan, the first recorded evidence of a device similar to the kendama was around the early 19th century, and in the early 20th century something very similar to the modern-day kendama was said to be in existence.

The Japan Kendama Association (日本けん玉協会) maintains the current kendama rules, issues official rankings, and also helps promote kendama. There are tournaments where people come from all around the world to participate, including those who might consider themselves “pro” kendama athletes. In the video at the bottom of this article you can see the winner of a kendama event doing some very advanced techniques that would take quite a bit of practice to acquire.

Having said that, performing basic kendama maneuvers is within the reach of anyone with average hand-eye coordination, and I’ve seen videos of a 3 year old Japanese boy doing some of these. If you do decide to buy one for your young child, be cognizant of their maturity level and watch them at all times when using this toy, since the hard ball can cause injuries to both themselves and nearby people and objects.

Though at first the kendama may appear to be a simple toy, it is said that proper practice using this can train both the mind and body, increasing endurance and concentration ability. When attempting a kendama technique, the line between successful execution and failure is usually very clear, and this is said to help children learn the process of striving to achieve a specific goal, something that can be applied to sports or studies.

In recent years, kendama has become popular in many other countries throughout the world. In America, for example, it’s fairly easy to find it in toystores, and of course you can find many variants on online sites such as Amazon.

In 1998, the toy company Takara (what is now Takara Tomy) released a digital version of the kendama, called in Japanese “電子けん玉”  (or shortened as dejiken). It uses sound and lights to respond to success or failure, and has several different play modes.

I own one of the simple wooden ones, and after a few hours of practice am able to execute the basic “saraito” around 30% of the time. If you find one of these at a toy store I recommend picking it up, you might find yourself addicted in no time.


Image credit: the featured image was taken from the Japanese wikipedia entry about Kendama.



Japanese grammar: the word ‘無し’ [なし, nashi] and related terms

The Japanese word “なし” (romaji: “nashi”, Kanji: “無し”) is one that I have come across now and then, but really didn’t have a thorough understanding of. So I decided to do some research and in this post I’ll report my results. (Note: I am not talking about 梨 (nashi), which means ‘pear’).

“なし” has a very similar meaning to the common word “ない” (nai) which means something does not exist or is not present, as in the sentence “スイカはない” which means “There is no watermelon”. Technically, both なし and なし are adjectives (形容詞), which may be surprising since the opposite of “ない” is “ある” (aru) which is a verb. “ない” follows the common pattern of having a い at the end of adjectives in modern Japanese. But there are a few adjectives like “なし” which end in し instead, such as “よし”(yoshi), and these are said to be leftovers from Middle Japanese, a form of classic Japanese used between the years of 800-1600.

Despite the fact that なし is an adjective, it is treated more like a noun. Let’s start with a few simple example sentences.

  • 問題ない。
  • 問題なし。
  • No problem。

Here the meaning is pretty much identical, and the way these two words are used is the same. Another phrase I like to use is “文句無し” (monku nashi) which means “no complaints”.

An opposite for なしwith similar classical nuance is 有り(あり, ari), so you can say  “問題あり” (mondai ari)  to mean there is a problem.

For the most part, you are not going to see なし used as an general-purpose replacement for ない. Instead, なし is used in a few set phrases that are good to memorize. Here is one.

  • それは無しにするよ。
  • I’ll forget about that for you.

Literally, this sentence means something like “As for that, I’ll make it into nothing”. I’ve heard this used when someone is forgiving another person for something they did wrong, but it can be used for other things as well. Here we can see that なし (nashi) is not being conjugated into ”なく” but instead a に is added after it, as if it was a noun.The equivalent expression with ない would be “それは無くするよ” though I’ve never heard that in real use.

One of the most useful ways to use なし is in combination with で to make “なしで” (nashi de), which means “without”. For example,

  • 僕はお酒なしで楽しめるよ。
  • I can have fun without alcohol.

This can also be used for people.

  • 大人なしで行こうよ。
  • Let’s go without our parents.

“なしに” (nashi ni) can also be used to mean “without”

  • それなしには生きていられない。
  • I can’t live without that.

Notice the “は” after ”なしに”, which implies “I can’t live without that, but there are other things I can live without”.

By the way, if you wanted to express the idea of “without” regarding a certain action, you can add で to the end of a verb in the negative form (i.e. しない + で = しないで (shinai de)):

  • 歯を磨かないで寝ちゃった。
  • I went to sleep without brushing my teeth.

An expression with similar meaning is ”verb + こと+なく”.

  • 怒ることなく生きていきたい。
  • I want to live without getting upset.

There are several compound words which contain なし at the end of them and are considered nouns. For example

  • ろくでなしが来た。
  • The loser is here.

“ろくでなし” (roku de nashi) means someone who is good for nothing and doesn’t do anything useful.

Two other words in this category are “文無し” (mon nashi) which means “penniless”, and “人でなし” (hito de nashi) which means “inhuman”.

The word “台無し” (dai nashi) is used when something is wasted or becomes useless or valueless.

  • デザートが台無しになっちゃった。
  • The dessert went to waste.  (= The dessert went bad without anyone eating it)

The expression “こともなし” (koto mo nashi) is used in the translation of the famous poem ‘Pippa Passes’ by Robert Browning. Here are the two relevant lines, first with English and then one possible Japanese translation.


God’s in His heaven

All’s right with the world!




Here, we can see that こともなし is used to mean something like ”問題なし”.

Interestingly, I heard this line in the first episode of the classic giant robot anime Rahxephon, which I highly recommend.


  1. 無し is usually pronounced close to ‘nash’, with no ‘i’ sound or a very subtle one. The ‘a’ here is similar to the vowel sound in ‘rush’, except it has a deeper sound. Imagine opening the back of your throat and saying ‘aaaahhhh’ to get a feel for this, except your lips should only be open a tiny bit.
  2. “無き” (naki) has similar meaning to 無し, however it is used even less frequently. There are a few expressions that use it like “無きに等しい” (equal to nothing) and “名無き” (nameless).