Monthly Archives: October 2015

A few tricks for increasing your reading speed in a foreign language

When studying a foreign language, one of the more difficult things to achieve is a reading speed close to that of your native language. Unless you were lucky enough to begin studying the foreign language at a very young age, processing and understanding each sentence will take much more effort and time, even assuming you know the meaning of all the words you come across. For each unfamiliar word or grammatical pattern, extra time will be required to either look up the meaning, or to try and infer what it might mean from context.

In the beginning, learning as much grammar, characters (in the case of languages like Chinese and Japanese with thousands of them), and vocabulary words will the fastest way to increase your reading speed, since having to look up words frequently will slow you down significantly. However, once you build your lexicon to a certain point you’ll reach a plateau where it’s harder to further increase reading speed without significant effort. Simply reading more will also increase your speed, but only to a point.

Here are a few suggestions to help you increase your reading pace even more, especially for those who have plateaued out.


Picking a certain genre and reading a few books exclusively from that genre will help increase the rate at which you read since you’ll start seeing similar words again and again. For even more effect, choose a single author and read a bunch of their works. For example, I read a a bunch of mystery novels by Keigo Higashino, and by the fourth or fifth one I was reading much faster than I was initially.

Gradually increase difficulty

Whatever your level is, there will always be some books which are hard enough to make reading them a chore, whether it’s because of unfamiliar words or complex grammatical constructions. It’s possible to force yourself to get through these, but you’ll probably retain less by the time you are done, and enjoy the story much less.

Instead, gradually ramp of the difficulty of what you read so that you can avoid this trap. It may take some time to find works with the perfect difficulty, but once you do this you’ll learn much faster than forcing yourself to read overly difficult ones.

As mentioned above, you can pick a single author and read a few of their books until things start to feel easy,  then move onto someone else.

Read to the end

A rule I’ve followed pretty strictly since I was young is to always finish a book, and I have tried to carry that over to my foreign language reading as well. Besides being able to appreciate the story, you have a better chance of getting in ‘the zone’, where your speed quickly increases once you adjust to the author’s writing style and begin to predict where the story will go. For novels, this jump generally happens for me after the first 20-40 pages or so. If you get frustrated and quit after only a few pages, you are giving up on the possibility of this happening.

Another rule I follow before buying a book is to read the blurb on the back of the cover. Since that is often at a higher level than the actual book itself, it’s usually a good idea to read the first page or two as well. This will help you avoid getting stuck in the situation where you force yourself to read a book that is too far above your level.

A corollary of this is that reading longer books is generally better.

Optimize the lookup process

Even if you are an advanced student of the foreign language you are reading in, there will always be times you have to look up a word, phrase, or grammatical construction. There are many ways to do this, including a paper dictionary, online website, mobile app, or a special-purpose electronic dictionary. Whatever method you choose, make sure you can enter in a word as quickly as possible, ideally only in a few seconds. Since you’ll be repeating this process again and again, the more you optimize this the faster your overall reading speed will be. Consider reading books in digital form, since often they allow you to look up a word quickly by simply touching the word.

You also have the option to look up each word as you come to it, or save the words you don’t know until the end of the paragraph, page, or even chapter. Looking up words in a group is more efficient, but you have the trade off of forgetting where they were, plus the context around them. If you don’t mind marking up your book you can use a highlighter or pencil to quickly annotate the trouble words and come back to them later. Some e-book readers or applications may allow you to highlight words as well.

Don’t overdo tracking your reading speed

At times I’ve been tempted to keep a log of each time I read, with number of pages read and total time. While this might yield interesting data, I feel that if I get too focused on reading speed I either read slower (since I am thinking about the fact I have to read faster), understand less, or both.

Maintain a well-balanced study schedule

I feel that a well-balanced foreign language study schedule, with elements of reading, writing, listening, and speaking, will help improve reading speed more than just focusing blindly on reading. In particular, listening practice will help with reading dialogue since you will start to see common lines repeated. Also, using words in spoken or written conversation that you picked up in a book or magazine will help you remember those words better, so next time you come across them you don’t get tripped up.

Read with a goal in mind

Reading simply for pleasure is great, but if you have a more concrete goal established I think you’ll more likely to learn to read quickly with better understanding. Examples of this are reading the email of a friend, whose content you are very curious to know, or reading a manual for a product for which you need assistance with.

For example, if you have one or more children, consider reading a book on child upbringing in the foreign language you are studying, since you will have a stronger motivation to efficiently read, understand, and retain that information.

With a goal like this you are also more likely to read to the end and not give up midway.

Read out loud to someone

Reading at loud adds extra difficulty because you have to pay attention to how words sound, and in some languages like Japanese you may understand the meaning but not know how to say the word.

However, when someone is listening there is the natural motivation to read mistake-free, and at a consistent pace. Once you get more advanced at this, you can add inflection based on the flow of the story, just as you would in your native language.

I don’t recommend doing this too frequently, but once in a while is it is a good exercise. At first, try this with children’s books.

Apply other speed-reading techniques

There are many techniques touted to increase your reading speed in your native language, and many ways to learn these including books, online videos, and classes. Such techniques include learning to skim when it is appropriate and using your peripheral vision to avoid having to constantly move your eyes back and forth. I haven’t applied these too much myself, but I feel that are worth investigating to see which techniques fit well with you.

Anime movie review: Patema Inverted (サカサマのパテマ)

I decided to buy this movie after seeing the preview for Patema Inverted on Amazon Prime. I hadn’t seen an anime movie in a little while, and it looked to have great potential. Unfortunately, this movie was a pretty big letdown.

The premise of this movie is a bit hokey, if not comedical: It’s boy-meets-girl with a 180 degree twist. The girl is from another world where gravity happens to be upside down, and this means she will fall ‘up’ if she isn’t holding onto something, or standing on the inside roof of some sort of structure. While there is some mild romantic connotations, in general the story revolves around the connection between their worlds, and a dictator-type guy who is in control of his world.

To cut the story short – this film was a letdown on many levels: character design, story, music, effects, voice acting, and a general sense of being derivative. This film clearly was heavily influenced from the classic Ghibli great Laputa: Castle in the Sky, not just because of a similar premise, but also some similar scenes and even a handful of lines that were similar if not identical. I may be overthinking things, but even the name “Patema” seems oddly close to “Laputa”.

I won’t go into all the bad points, but I’ll name a handful. First, the visuals were not nearly as polished as I expected for an anime movie of this type released in 2014. There was a strange blur effect used a few times that nearly gave me a headache, and little noticeable use of good quality CG. While some of the scenes were beautiful, they didn’t compare to Makoto Shinkai-level quality (Voices of a Distant Star, etc). One of the songs played several times in the film was a super cheesy tune which is hard to describe, except that it sounds like lounge music from the 80s. I felt the character’s visual design was overly generic and the voice acting also seemed B-quality. The ending, while interesting, also felt underdone.

If you have an opportunity to watch this film for free and have the time, go ahead and watch it – you might even enjoy it. But if you want to see a great viewing experience, see something like Summer Wars (reviewed by me here).



A tale of two Japanese “because” words: “node” (ので)vs “kara” (から)

Recently one of my readers asked about the difference between the Japanese expressions “node” (ので)and “kara” (から), so in this post I’ll go over that.

Both of these words are roughly equivalent to the English “because” when used in the following patterns:

  • [dictionary form verb/i-adjective] + から             (ex: 食べるから、寒いから)
  • [noun/na-adjective] + から    (ex: 男だから、りっぱから)
  • [dictionary form verb/i-adjective] + ので             (ex:食べるので、寒いので)
  • [noun/na-adjective] + ので    (ex: 男なので、りっぱので)

The way you use them grammatically is nearly identical, except for [noun/na-adjective] cases where you use “だ” with から and “な” with ので.  You can think of “な” as meaning “だ” here.

Let’s look at two more example sentences using these terms.

  • 僕は男だからそんなことしないよ。
  • 僕は男なのでそんなことしないよ。
  • Because I’m a guy, I’d never do that type of thing.  (I’m a guy so I’d never do that type of thing)

Even though all the above examples can be translated as “because” or “so” in English, there is a major difference in the nuance between “kara” and “node”. If you are speaking in a informal situation, “kara” would be more appropriate, whereas in an formal situation “node” would probably be better. Examples of when to use “node” are in a presentation at work or in a formal document. It has a cold, functional feeling to it.

Keep in mind that formal is not the same thing as polite, so “node” doesn’t always have to be used along with keigo (desu/masu form) even though it is commonly. Conversely, “kara” can be used with keigo in some situations.

There are some set expressions which use “kara” which just wouldn’t sound the same with “node”, for example:

  • いいから!
  • いいので!
  • Come on!

The first of these is natural and while it literally means “because it’s good”, it can be used to try and cajole someone into doing something, not unlike the English phrase “Come on”. Swapping out “kara” for “node” just sounds weird here.

Generally, the “no” in “node” can be abbreviated as a “n”, resulting in things like “寒いんで” or “男なんで”. The meaning here is technically the same, though it feels a bit more casual to me and slightly closer to “kara”.

Having said all that, regardless of which of these you use your meaning will likely get across, so I wouldn’t worry about it too much. If you are in doubt, I would recommend just going with “kara”.

We could leave it at that, but let’s look a bit deeper into these two words.

As you may already know, “kara” is also used to mean “from”, as in the below sentence:

  • ゲームは友達からもらった。
  • I got the game from a friend.

Notice that 友達 (tomodachi) is a noun, so for the above rules I gave you would use “友達から” if you want to express “because”. However, there is no “だ” used here, so it is clear “from” is the intended meaning.

Even though “from” and “because” have different meanings, if you think about those words you can see a connection. For example, in English we could say: “From his clothes I could tell he was homeless”, where “from” actually has a meaning similar to “because” (in this sentence it could be replaced by “Because of” and retain the overall meaning).

What about “node”? First, let’s remember the ~noda /~n’da pattern:

  • へ〜、新車を買っただ。
  • Wow, you really bought a car?

Here the ん is short for の, and the addition of this is a form of emphasis that feels a bit like “the fact is that ~”. You can read more about this pattern in my article here. Also, it’s good to remember that の after a verb turns it into a noun.

Putting these things together, you can see that the expression “node” is made from the same “no” plus a “de”. The word “de” has many uses, but can be used as the “-te” form of “da”, meaning “~ is and ~”, as in the following sentence.

  • あなたは日本人、僕はアメリカ人です。
  • You are a Japanese person and I am an American.

Things are getting a bit complex here, but if you understand the above you can see “node” in a new light, as meaning “the fact is ~ and”. For example,

  • 仕事が終わったので帰ります。
  • My work is done so I am going home.

Can be seen as:

  • The fact is “My work is done” and I am going home.

This explanation something I’ve come up with myself, but it is consistent and helps you connect various pieces of grammar in a logical way. One could argue that it also goes towards explaining why “node” is more formal.

Like “kara”, “node” also has a usage where it looses the meaning of “because”. If you remember, the particle “no” can also be used to express possession, as in “僕のゲーム” meaning “my game”. You can even say “僕の” which translates to “mine”.

Let’s remember one of the other meanings of the “de” particle, which is when we want to express the location of an action or something we are using to complete the action. For example:

  • 勉強しています。
  • I am studying with a book.

Now if we put this together with the possessive “no”, we can end up with “node”.

  • お父さんので勉強しています。
  • I’m studying with my dad’s.

This sentence is a bit contrived and by itself is a bit vague and would make more sense in a context where the object being discussed is known. Honestly I don’t see this pattern very often, but I wanted to show it is a grammatically correct example of using ので for a case other than because. Note that just like with the から example used to mean “from”, this example doesn’t follow the rules in the beginning of this post. To use “node” after a noun to mean because, we would use ”お父さんなので” instead of “お父さんので”, so it’s easy to distinguish these uses.

Another way you can see ので used is when の is used to refer to an object which a verb acted upon. For example,

  • 昨日買ったので遊ぼう。
  • Let’s play with the one we bought yesterday.

Here is more more case where ので is not used to mean “because”:

  • そんなことを言ったのではない。 (can be abbreviated as そんなことを言ったんじゃない)
  • I didn’t say such a thing.

Here, the “no” is used to turn the previous sentence into a noun, and the “de ha nai” is just negating that. Literally we end up with “It isn’t the fact that I said such a thing”.

Finally, in closing let’s look at an two expressions which use elements of both “node” and “kara”. Here is a an example using the first.

  • 子供なんだから寝なければいけないよ。
  • Because you’re a child you have to go to sleep.

Here “nan dakara” (short for “nano dakara”) contains the “nano” from “nanode”, plus “dakara”. This is a stronger version of “because”, and literally means something like “Because of the fact that ~”.

The second expression is the reverse of this, with the “dakara” before the “nano”, although an addition of “da” at the end allows shortening “nanoda” to “nanda”.

  • あ、だからなんだ
  • Oh, so thats why!

Literally, this expression means something like “It’s the fact that it’s because of ~”.

If you ever have any questions about Japanese grammar, feel free to ask! Articles based on readers’ requests are always the most enjoyable to write.

Using online searching to uncover natural expressions in a foreign language

Learning the basics of a foreign language, while a time-consuming activity, is generally relatively straightforward: memorize the alphabet(s), pronunciations, grammar rules, and of course loads and loads of vocabulary words. With these fundamentals under your belt, you’ll surely be able to express a great many things in that language.

The challenge comes when you want to say something for which you have insufficient grammar or vocabulary knowledge. Especially when speaking, you have no choice but to try and use what you know to get your point across, even if that takes a extra time and some stumbling.

I go through this myself somewhat often in Japanese, since not living in Japan makes it hard to fill in all the gaps and express anything that comes to mind in Japanese without difficulty.

Even if I am able to get my point across, sometimes I am left with a feeling of doubt that what I said may not have been natural. After all, if the listener understands what you said they will probably not point out mistakes you’ve made, unless they are a good friend or a teacher.

In the remainder of this post I’d like talk about how I use internet searching to uncover natural phrases in Japanese. I’ll be using a specific example of something that happened to me a few days ago.

I was trying to tell my wife how I discovered that the Apple Watch would give navigational information when using the iPhone’s Maps application. To keep this discussion simple, I’m going to focus on the concept “Apple Watch displays navigational information”.

First, I’ll wanted to check if the product name for Apple Watch was more commonly written using English characters (“Apple Watch”) or with Katakana script (“アップルウオッチ”). Doing a search for the latter on Google (using double quotes) gives around 200,000 entries. Make sure you advance a few pages since sometimes the first number given by Google is not accurate otherwise. Doing the same for the English name (plus a “は” character to try and separate to Japanese pages only), I get around 97 million. This is what I expected but it’s always good to verify.

Next, I know that car navigation systems are called “navi” (ナビ), and also the phrase “dete kuru” (でてくる) which is an informal way to say something appears. Putting all this together, I end up with the following phrase:

  • apple watchにナビ情報がでてくる

Generally, you’ll find that the longer sentence you try to search for, the less likely to find an exact match, even if the grammar is correct. In this case I got 0 hits which is also somewhat expected.

Next, I wanted to verify if “ナビ情報” was a natural expression. A search for that revealed over 300k hits, so no problems there. I checked “ナビの情報” as a possible candidate, but ended up with only a few hits after I advanced a few pages in the results. This is always a good test to run since sometimes whether or not the particle の is used can be unclear.

It may be that my “dete kuru” verb combination isn’t that appropriate in this case, or that there is a more natural turn of phrase. To figure that out, I tried doing the following search: (make sure you include the double quotes, they are important)

  • “apple watch”  “ナビ情報”

The very first hit is this:, which has the following sentence:


If you look at this sentence in context on the page, it is actually referring to a Garmen product, not an Apple Watch. The only hit for “Apple Watch” is actually on the right banner for a separate page. However, this gives us the very useful 表示 (hyouji), which means “to display”, and along with “sareru” this means “to be displayed”. I had known this word but didn’t think of employing it here.

So now we can refine our phrase to the following:

  • Apple Watch にナビ情報が表示される。

However this didn’t satisfy me as I really wanted to see some real Japanese talking about the navigational-helping capabilities of the apple watch. After a few random searches I tried this one:

  • “apple watch” マップ

Which gave me this page, which is a goldmine of information:

Rather than fixate only on how to say exactly what you were searching for, you can learn many words and phrases related to the topic through pages you find during searches like this. This is invaluable for next time you want to talk about something similar in the future.

For example, I saw the words 経路 (keiro) and ルート, both of which were used to be mean ‘route’. Although this isn’t the first time I saw these either, it was a good reminder. Near the bottom part of the page there is a set of two screenshots, with the navigational screen on the right (where to turn next), and the nearby map on the right. Below that is this text:


Here we can see the word ナビ (bolded by me) to describe exactly what I was trying to say in the original conversation with my wife. So this confirms the word ナビ is appropriate for the navigation screen of an Apple Watch. From this sentence we can learn a few other useful words, such as 切り替える (kirikaeru), which means “to switch”, and is used in the potential form here.

The most important thing when doing this kind of research is just to have fun and learn as much as you can about the subject at hand. You even can take notes on some words you think might be useful in the future. When you are writing in Japanese yourself, you can leverage these kinds of searches to improve the chances of ending up with a natural result.

Keep in mind that this process will never replace listening to live Japanese (or any other foreign language) in real time, since you will have extra context, plus a sense of urgency, which will help you learn and retain things better.

Japanese children’s book review: “It might be an apple” 「りんごかもしれない」by Shinsuke Yoshitake

Me and my wife stumbled on this book in a Kinokuniya bookstore (either New York or San Jose, I forget which), and decided to purchase it to read to our son who we are raising bilingual Japanese/English.

This book is based on a simple premise – imaging up various possibilities for a apple which the narrator, a young boy, happens to stumble upon one day.

Is the apple really made up of a fish wrapped up tightly? Or will it gradually grow, such that you can nibble away pieces of it and create a large house? Or is it simply a normal apple? Does the apple have any relatives, and if so what would their names be?

We were pleasantly surprised by the author’s creativity in stretching out this theme across over 30 pages while keeping things interesting until the very end. Like many famous children’s books (for example several of Dr. Suess’s masterpieces), the results are absurd and wacky, and these are the very reasons young ones will become interested, asking you to re-read again and again.

I could not find an official recommend age range, but my guess is this would be most appropriate for elementary school children. However, the simple but skillfully-drawn illustrations filling each page make it appropriate for younger children as well. As always, the listener’s enjoyment is influenced by the passion of the person doing the reading.

Despite the fact that this work seems to be written for a young audience, it takes a good amount of knowledge of Japanese to fully understand it. There are some words like 調節 (chousetsu) and 装置 (souchi) which are not likely on your average Japanese 101 vocab lists, though there is Furigana reading hints used for much of the Kanji to help out those unfamiliar with it. Another reason “It might be an apple” has increased challenge is because some of the text is written in a handwritten script which can be difficult to decipher for those unfamiliar with handwritten Japanese. However, despite the difficulty level, I think most if not all the words used in this book are applicable to daily life, so it’s a good way to beef up your lexicon while enjoying a good story. Grammatically, there are few if any sentences that are particularly long, or expressions which are hard to comprehend, given you have a dictionary to look up words you aren’t familiar with.

You can get the book on Amazon Japan for around 1500 Yen (roughly $12 as of the time of this writing), and there is an English translation as well in case you want to buy both and study side-by-side. While I haven’t read the English version, assuming the translation was done well I’m sure this book is a great read even for those not interested in learning Japanese.


Expressing sameness and similarity in Japanese (onaji, niru, etc.)

In this post I’d like to go over a few ways of expressing in Japanese that two things are the same or similar.

To begin with, the word 同じ (onaji) is one of most basic ways of saying “the same”. Sometimes in spoken language it can be pronounced as “おんなじ” (on’naji).

This word is a bit odd grammatically because it functions somewhat like an adjective when placed before another noun, and yet it neither ends with an “~i” or uses “na” like normal adjectives. It can also function on it’s own without a word after it to modify. Here are two examples of these usages:

  • 同じ車が欲しい。 [onaji kuruma ga hoshii]
  • I want the same car.
  • 本の色は同じです。 [hon no iro ha onaji desu]
  • The colors of the book(s) are the same.

If you want to say “the same thing”, it depends on whether you are talking about a physical object or a more abstract thing like an experience. For a physical object, you would say 同じもの [onaji mono] or 同じの [onaji no], whereas for an abstract thing, 同じこと [onaji koto] would be appropriate. Here is an example of the latter:

  • 僕は同じことをやってみたい。[bokuha onaji koto wo yatte mitai]
  • I would like to try doing the same thing.

If you want to talk about the concept of sameness itself, as in two or more things being the same, you can just use 同じ as a noun.

  • 友達と同じがいい [tomodachi to onaji ga ii]
  • I prefer being like my friend(s)  (literally: the same as friend(s) is good).

As you can see from the above example, you generally use the particle “to” after the thing that is being compared to, though sometimes “ni” is always used for this purpose.

You can use ”ような” (you na) after 同じ to express either sameness or similarity.

  • 同じような本を読んだことある。
  • I’ve read a similar book.

同じ is treated like a noun (or na-adjective) when at the end of a sentence, because a “da” would be preferred in the below case:

  • 同じだよ [correct, standard neutral language]
  • 同じよ [also technically correct, but is women language]
  • It’s the same.

(In the case of an i-adjective, the “da” would not be needed (or permitted). For example, “大きいよ” is correct.)

The word 一緒 (issho) is commonly used to mean “together” (ex: 一緒にいこう, “let’s go together”). However it can also be used to mean two things are the same:

  • 親の年齢は一緒だ。
  • My parent’s ages are the same.

When talking about the appearance of two things being the same or nearly indistinguishable, the word そっくり (sokkuri) is appropriate:

  • 髪型もそっくりだった。 [kamigata mo sokkuri datta]
  • Even their haircuts were identical.

The word “等しい” (hitoshii) is a bit more formal way of saying “the same”, or “equivalent”. It isn’t used that often in daily conversation, and is more likely to be used for scientific of mathematical things. (Note: be careful to not confuse this verb with 愛しい [itoshii] which has a completely different meaning)

  • 容量が等しいようです。[youryou ga hitoshii you desu]
  • The capacities are apparently equivalent.

This word is also used in the set phrase “なきに等しい” [naki ni hitoshii] which means nothing or close to nothing.

変わらない (kawaranai, “will not change”) and 違わない (chigawanai, “is not different”) are two other words that can be used to express sameness.

The expression 相変わらず (aikawarazu) is similar to the above two, however has more a nuance of “the same as always”.

  • 君は相変わらずせっかちだね。
  • (I see that) you’re impatient as always.

To indicate similarity, the verb 似る (niru) is frequently used. When the verb is used at the end of a sentence and referring to something that is still similar, the “~te iru” form is commonly used:

  • この二人が似ている
  • These two people are similar.

Here, the similar can refer to appearance, personality, or something else.

As with 同じ, you can generally use the particle と or に after the thing you are comparing to.

  • 飼い主はペット似てる。
  • The owner is similar to the pet.

When “似る” is used in the middle of the sentence as an adjective, it is often in the past tense and used together with “〜ような”.

  • 僕も似たようなことを言ったよ。
  • I also said something similar.

酷似 (kokuji) is a word which means “extremely similar”.

似 (ni) can also be used after a person, usually a relative, to say that someone “takes after” them, in the sense that some attribute was inherited from that person.

  • 君はお父さんですね。
  • You take after your father.

The expression “似た者同士” (nita mono doushi) refers to two people who are very similar with regards to something.


Book review: Etiquette Guide to Japan (by Boye Lafayette De Mente )

When studying a foreign language on your own, it’s easy to get fixated on linguistic things like vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation, because those are your fast-track to being able to actually communicate in that language. But without the well-structured program of a formal class, you may be missing out on some areas like cultural practices and etiquette which are very important to be able to live within a society that speaks that language.

For me personally, I definitely a have blind spot regarding Japanese culture, and this is one of the reasons I decided to check out Boye Lafette De Mente’s book “Etiquette Guide to Japan”. I read the third edition which was edited by Geoff Botting, and came out less than two months ago from Tuttle Publishing, in September 2015. The original edition was written 25 years ago in 1990!

Overall I really enjoyed this book and learned a great deal about Japanese culture, including many things I probably should have learned years back but never got around to it. There is a whopping 40 chapters on nearly everything you can think of, from dining etiquette, dating, wedding customs, and even a few chapters about business and the workplace. Each chapter is very short (most are around 2-5 pages), which increases readability and adds the convenience of being able to finish a chapter even for those who read in short bursts due to limited time.

The material is, for most part, very well-written and researched, which is not surprising given the extensive experience of both the author and the editor. De Mente has been involved with Japan since the late 1940s, and was one of the first people to introduce many Japanese terms to the west, including words like “wabi-sabi” and “kaizen”. Botting, the editor, is a journalist who has lived in Japan for over 25 years. Both of them have authored or co-authored several other books about Japan. After only 40-50 pages, it was already clear these guys had a great grasp of Japan and it’s culture, so I decided to just sit back and enjoy the ride, worrying little about mistakes. Their writing exemplifies a certain type of professionalism which is absent in many informal blogs on Japanese culture.

My favorite part about this guide is that the author connects many of the current customs to Japan’s history, going back decades if not hundreds of years. He acknowledges these cultural traditions have been evolving at an increasing pace, and in one place even states that should you ask a Japanese friend to learn the right thing to do in a certain situation.

I hate to be picky about a book that has so many strong points, but there was one major thing that bugged me about this work, and a few other minor ones. If you’ve read some of my other reviews you might see this first one coming –  several problems with the notes on Japanese language in the book. Here is list of some of the Japanese-related problems I found in the book.

  • In the Japanese language notes (starting on Pg. 8):
    • “-e” ending sounds are described using english words that end with “-y”. For example “se” is pronounced as “say”. This is a good rough approximation, but to my ears ends up more like “sei”, due to both the length and the fact that “y” words have a vowel sound that changes near the end.
    • For description on combined syllables, it says to run the syllables together, and yet uses notation like “re-yuu”, which is a bit confusing to me (why not just say ‘ryuu’?). Furthermore, I feel that using the word “Beulah” isn’t the best choice for a pronunciation example. It may be familiar to a certain generation, but I’ve never seen it before and didn’t know it’s proper pronunciation in English.
    • Even though it says on page 12 that low vowels are indicated by a straight line above the letter, this convention is not followed for several words (for example, page.99 has “shogatsu” without a line above the “o”)
    • There is no mention about the small “tsu” (that effectively creates a pause in a word), even though some of the words use it (i.e. Appuru on page 186). Nonetheless, “Bread” is written as buredo (It should be bureddo, though I don’t think this is a very common loanword).
  • There are several places where a word’s pronunciation is blatantly incorrect. For example, “haiden” (from 拝殿) is said to sound as “hi-dane” (pg. 126), whereas this should have been something like “hi-den”. Pronouncing “hi-dane” normally would lead to something like “haidein“, no matter how fast you say it. Also, “matsuri” is written with two different sounds on the same page (pg.101): one correct (“mot-sue-ree”) and one incorrect (“mot-sue-re”). Pg. 186 also lists denshi (“den-shee”) for battery, which should have been denchi.
  • Pg. 133 recommends westerners learn the word “yugen” (referring to 幽玄) to mean something like “mystery” in reference to Japanese things such as arts and religion. However when I asked a Japanese person about this, she said this word is not common and quite old-fashioned, and didn’t recommend to use this word with Japanese people.

I’ll admit that some of these criticisms are minor and a few have a subjective element. But overall I feel this many problems should not be present, especially in a book in it’s 3rd edition. Please note that in pointing out these errors, I am not suggesting anything about the authors, who I am sure could run circles around me in terms of Japanese language and culture. These just reflect careless mistakes, and a focus on what is most important: the culture itself, which they have done a superb job describing.

On to the minor complaints. First, given the experience of the authors I think this book could be made a bit longer (again considering it is a third edition). After all there is less than 200 pages. Although the book bills itself as being a guide on etiquette, in reality a part of the book focuses on history (related to etiquette, which is fine), and other topics that are very loosely related (“people watching”, “arts & crafts”, etc.). I’d prefer either removing the non-etiquette chapters and adding a bit more content about etiquette, or changing the title (or subtitle) to reflect the broad stance taken.

Another somewhat minor point: a large part of the book is written from a neutral stance, but the more I read through the more I felt the author’s bias towards Japan, with expressions like “Japanese are the best at this”, or “Japanese logical thinking is evident in that”. To be honest, I think it’s almost impossible for someone who knows a country this well to write without any bias, and in a way his subjective opinion is educational in it’s own way. So I guess I can’t really count this against the book.

Finally –  and this one is really minor – I found it confusing that the book’s correct publishing date didn’t appear to be listed anywhere. I checked both the front and back covers several times, but the only dates I found were 2008 and 1990. While reading, I stumbled on a chapter that referred to 2013 after which I did a double take, and looked up the book online to find out the date for the 3rd edition is supposedly 2015. So I guess it’s just a minor printing/editorial mistake that this was omitted from the book itself (or it’s hidden somewhere where I haven’t been able to find it).

So in summary, despite all the nitpicks I have towards this book, it’s a great read and highly recommended to anyone, except those who have lived in Japan for an extended time. My biggest issue (the Japanese language mistakes) is ultimately mostly irrelevant because nobody is going to become fluent from reading this book. Eventually they will study with a proper textbook and discover these mistakes themselves.

It’s pretty easy to find this book, and you can get it at the usual places like Amazon or Barnes & Noble, in both print and digital forms. It’s a great deal at under $10. Here is another review of a book on Japanese design by the same publisher.


Japanese word “koso” (こそ) explained in detail

The word “koso” in Japanese, usually written in Hiragana as こそ, isn’t exactly a frequent word in Japanese, nor is it necessary in order to express most things in the language. However, there are a few common usages which are good to learn, regardless of your level, and you may even be able to employ a few of these in your own speech and writing.

Looking up the word in an Japanese->English dictionary gives a few sample sentences, some which are pretty useful, but it doesn’t give any overall meaning, leaving that for your imagination.

If you try to get daring and check out the meaning in the Japanese->Japanese dictionary, you’ll see there are several meanings and quite a bit of explanation to wade through. Fortunately much of that is for uses that are not all that common (or archaic) which the average person doesn’t need to bother with.

Generally, “koso” is used after a noun in order to emphasize it in some way. Saying “emphasize” is a bit vague though, so let’s look at some common phrases with this word in them.

  • こちらこそどうもありがとうございます。  (Kochira koso doumo arigatou gozaimasu)
  • *I* am the one who should be doing the thanking.

Here the word “kochira” stands in for the first person pronoun, and refers to the speaker. The word “koso” is effectively like adding italics to the word “I”, and in English would be expressed via a change of tone on that word.

This expression would typically be used after some one thanks you, and you want to be extra polite and say “No, it is *me* who should be doing the thanking”. Note that this is a very non-literal translation, since the concept of “should” is not explicitly in the Japanese sentence. However it does capture it’s intended meaning pretty accurately.

  • そっちこそ、どう思う? (Socchi koso, dou omou?)
  • So what do *you* think?

This expression is very similar to the previous one, except for that it is informal and the emphasis is on the listener, not the speaker. Here “socchi” is a shortening of “sochira” which refers to the listener, in other words “you”.

You can use this phrase in response to someone asking what you think about a matter, and it essentially means “You tell me first”.

Another common phrase is when you add “koso” after “dakara” (“that is why”) to end up with “dakara koso”. Again, “koso” serves to emphasize the word before it, and in this case it often implies that the reason for something is unexpected, possibly even the opposite of what someone thought.

  • そう、誰しもいつかは死ぬ。だからこそ生きる意味があるんだ。 (Sou, dareshimo itsuka ha shinu. Dakara koso ikiru imi ga aru n da)
  • Yes, everyone will die eventually. That is the very reason that there is meaning to our lives.

The reason “dakara koso” is a perfect fit here is because some people might say “We are all going to die, so life is meaningless”. The speaker is acknowledging that and saying that it’s actually the opposite, it is only because we die that life has meaning.

Besides the above specific usages, you can always just add “koso” after a noun to emphasize it. However, I feel that “koso” has sort of a literary, intellectual connotation to it, so if you go around randomly overusing this word you might get some strange looks. In the right situation the phrase “日本語こそ難しいよ!” (Nihongo koso muzukashii yo) could work, but I think you would rarely hear the word used in such a way in a typical conversation. I have heard the phrase “sore koso” to stand in for an emphasized *that* once in a while, however.

While researching this word to make sure I got my facts straight, I discovered something interesting – the word “youkoso” is actually derived from “yoku koso”, which is a shortening for something like “yoku koso kite kuremashita”. Here, it is said that the “yoku koso” imparts a meaning of thanks with respect to the act of someone arriving. Thats why “youkoso” is often translated as “Welcome”. (You can see a long post about this here, in Japanese).

By the way, the words “kosodate” (子育て, raising a child, “ko + sodate”) and “kosokoso” (being sneaky about something) have no relation to the word “koso” which I discussed here.

Now hopefully next time you come across this word you’ll have some idea what it means.

** Japanese Read & Answer series ** (Introduction)

With a near limitless amount of material online for studying Japanese, one of the challenges with this blog is to find fresh ways to teach Japanese while providing insights that I’ve learned myself over the years. I’ve also recently begun posting on Twitter, so finding effective ways to use that service is another goal I’ve given myself.

Today I’ve decided to start a new series for those studying Japanese: “Japanese Read & Answer”. It is built on the time-tested concept of giving a dialog or passage to read, followed by one or more questions which tests the reader’s understanding.

I’ll start out simple with the passage in Japanese, question text in English, and then answers to choose from in Japanese. As the series evolves I’ll experiment with different types of passages, numbers of questions, and other variations like free-form answers. Initially I’ll also start with very simple sentence structure and vocabulary, so that those with only a few months of study (either class or self-study) can participate, and eventually make things more advanced. The difficulty will be specified via a level, where 1 is the easiest and 10 is the hardest.

There aren’t too many rules when doing these, though I highly recommend to read the passage and think about the answer yourself before reading the correct answer. The more you actively think about these exercises the more you will get out of them. Depending on your level, feel free to look up any words you don’t understand, though I may give hints before or after the passage.

For the answer, I will probably give these in the post initially, though I may experiment with using a separate post or holding off until everyone has some time to think about the answer. A that point, I’ll explain any tricky grammar points, if needed.

Ultimately, in addition to helping everyone learn Japanese, one of my goals with this series is to facilitate interaction with my readers, so I am always interested to hear your answer and will help clarify why a certain choice is right or wrong. In addition, I’m always open to feedback about the series format and content itself.

I am planning on posting much, if not all, of the dialog and questions on Twitter, in little chunks. I’ll probably keep the final answer only on a blog page, but we’ll see how things go.

Japanese phrase: “yokatta” (よかった)

Oftentimes, words and phrases break out of the boxes that define their literal meanings and become something more.

“Yokatta” (よかった) is the past test of the word “ii”, which means “good”, and therefore “yokatta” means “was good”. Since subjects are often omitted in Japanese this phrase can mean “it was good” or can refer to some other implied subject including a person. Here is an example where the topic is specified so there is no ambiguity.

  • 今日の天気はよかった。 (kyou no tenki ha yokatta)
  • Today’s weather was good.

As I alluded to in the first paragraph, this phrase is actually used for more than the basic “was good” meaning. In fact, it is used to express being happy or glad about something, particularly after you hear good news. Here is a simple example:

  • Person 1: テスト受かったよ!  (tesuto ukatta yo!)
  • Person 1: I passed the test!
  • Person 2: よかった!  (yokatta!)
  • Person 2: Thats great!

Notice that in English we use the present tense for this type of sentiment, and saying “That was great!” here would be awkward. You could also translate the second line above as “I’m glad to hear that”.

If you want to put extra feeling into this phrase, you can extend the last vowel so it dwindles out slowly, which could be written in Japanese as よかった〜.

You can add “ne” after “yokatta” if you want to add a mild sense of asking for confirmation from the other party, whereas with just “yokatta” it is as if you are simply stating your feelings. But be careful, because “yokattta ne” can also be used in a sarcastic sense, depending on the tone employed.

“yokatta” is also used frequently after a verb in the potential form to express the speaker was glad something was accomplished.

  • 流星がみれてよかった (nagareboshi ga mirete yokatta)
  • I’m glad we were able to see a shooting star.

Another use of yokatta is after the ~eba (conditional) form, where it can be used to express regret about something which did not occur. The particles “no ni” can be optionally added after “yokatta”.

  • 連絡してくれればよかったのに。
  • I wish you would have contacted me. (Or: “It’s too bad you didn’t contact me”)

Here, even though subject and object of the verb “renraku” (“to contact”) is omitted, since the “kureru” form is used it is pretty clear that the implication is the listener doing a favor for the speaker.

There are many other phrases which normally have “ii” in them and can be changed to past tense by converting “ii” to “yokatta”. For example the phrase “dou demo ii” (どうでもいい), which expresses a lack of interest, can be put in the past tense as:

  • 車の色はどうでもよかった
  • I didn’t care anything about the car’s color.