Monthly Archives: February 2016

Japanese novel review: “Downtown Rocket” (下町ロケット, shitamachi roketto)by Jun Ikeido (池井戸潤)

In this post I’ll be reviewing the Japanese novel “Downtown Rocket” by Jun Ikeido, which was published in 2010 by Shogakukan (小学館). Like I sometimes do with Japanese books, I picked this without doing a great amount of research aforehand, more as a impulse buy when I was in Japan last year. There were two things that drew me to this book: the title (I like rockets, and I like the concept of “downtown”), and the fact it had recently been made into a TV drama starring Abe chan who is one of my favorite Japanese actors.

Ironically, I started watching said drama before I got more than a few pages into the book, but I stopped after the first hour. One reason was because I didn’t enjoy the story and pacing of the it that much, but I think a bigger reason was because I wanted to read the book first. To be honest, one of the main reasons I sort of made myself read the book was because I had just started working part-time as a Gengo translator, and this would be a convenient way to brush up my business-related Japanese.

Since I’m already talking about Japanese, I’ll discuss about my linguistic experience before I move to the rest of the review. As I expected (based on the hour of the drama I’d seen), there was a great deal of business Japanese involved, and I feel it really did help me learn some phrases that I applied to my Gengo work. The downside is that my reading speed was even slower than it usually is, as I read carefully and ingested sentence by sentence. With some books, after a few pages I get used to the author’s style and my reading speed jumps up a notch or two, but for this novel it took me about a quarter to halfway through until I felt that kick. I think one of the reasons is because of the legal terms used in the first half of the book, in addition to the already challenging business Japanese. While there is some everyday conversations between the main character and his family, they are few and far between.

One reason that you should probably stay away from this book until you have a few years under your belt (besides the difficult business, legal, and manufacturing terms), is that there is a lack of polite Japanese in certain scenes that is surprising. I actually did some research about this and am considering doing another post on it, so I won’t go into details now. But I’ll just say some of the interactions are far from what you’d find in a textbook.

One advantage of the novel having been remade into a TV show is that depending on your preferred learning style, you can use these together to improve the chances of retaining new words. By that I mean you can watch the drama first (possibly with subtitles), and then when you read the novel you’ll already have some context, so it will be a bit easier, and you’ll be re-using words you learned in the drama which will help you retain then, and hopefully use them yourself someday.

As for the story, it’s about a company that produces a special valve system, with a CEO who was previously a researcher until his career got cut short by a certain incident. As things proceed, his company interacts with several other companies, related to legal, business, or financial issues (I’m being purposefully vague here to avoid spoilers). The title refers to the fact this company is only a “downtown” company in the sense that they are not a massive corporation, and yet they can do some amazing things technologically.

One interesting theme of the book is respect for the ardent efforts of workers who assist in manufacturing with a manually intensive task (like sanding), using skills they have refined over many years. While there are expensive machines (that only the ‘big companies’ can afford) that may seem to do better, in fact sometimes humans still have an edge.

Another key theme, this one even more predominant in the work, is doing what you think is right to achieve your dream, without selling out for the sake of cold hard cash. This means that sometimes you have to stand up to the “big companies” and hope to somehow survive against incredible odds.

I really enjoyed these types of themes, and think they were woven pretty well into the story. The popularity of this book (including the fact it was made into a TV show with a top actor, which I heard got very high ratings near the end) goes to show that it has somehow hit a nerve in the Japanese populace. Maybe it’s because there are so many people working at smaller companies and wish they too could stand up against the big corporations? Whatever the reason is, this book is a enlightening study into the modern Japanese mindset and culture.

One other nice thing about this book is that the author will take pauses periodically to explain advanced business concepts, which is great if you are new to these things. Unfortunately, these weren’t as frequent as I had hoped.

The plot itself did have some issues, like how it was too predictable at some points, and also that the pacing somehow didn’t match my expectations. For example, some events I thought would get resolved quickly took a long time to get solved, or vice versa.

Because the nature of the story is more event-based (than emotion-based) and focuses on technology and business, I think the writer’s dry, objective style was somewhat fitting. Having said that, I felt that there was just not enough visual description throughout, except for a few places where a character looks out the window while in thought.

Despite some of it’s weak points, I highly recommend this book for those who have advanced-level Japanese skills and want to see how this mid-sized business fares against the big guys, or like me just want to brush up their business terms. Unfortunately I don’t know of any plans for an English translation, though there is chance I would experiment with trying to translate chapter or two as an exercise myself.

During the process of verifying some things for this article, I realized that the author of this book was actually the same person who wrote “オレたちバブル入行組” (made into a drama titled “半沢直樹”), one of the last novels I had read. You can see my review of it here. While these books share much in common at a thematic level, the domains (finance vs manufacturing/legal) were different enough that I was pretty impressed the same author had written both. If you are deciding between these two I actually recommend “オレたちバブル入行組”, since for me it was much more enjoyable (though the Japanese was equally difficult). I think one of the reasons for this is it focused more on a single person as the main character, whereas in “Downtown Rocket” the company itself felt like it was the main character, despite the fact the CEO played a big role.

You can get 下町ロケット on Amazon Japan here, where they have paperback (Bunko), hardcover, and Kindle versions.

Update: it looks like a follow-up book came out late last year “下町ロケット2 ガウディ計画”. You can get it here.

Update: I’ve translated the prologue of this book into English here.

Japanese particle combination での (de no)

Mastering Japanese particles can be difficult, especially when you have to worry about various combinations of particles as well as individual ones. Some time ago I wrote about the combination ならではの which is one of the tricker ones.

This time I’d like to talk about the combination of で (de) and の (no), namely “での” (deno). While this isn’t the most frequent particle combination (では is much more common),  it’s good to learn it in case you come across it. It’s meaning is actually not that hard to grasp if you have a good handle on both of these particles individually, because the meaning is roughly just the composite of the two.

I won’t cover either of these particles in detail here, but one of the main ways で is used to show where an action takes place, for example:

  • 男の子は部屋勉強をしている。
  • The/a boy is studying in the room.

で can also be used in the sense of “by means of”, for example in the following sentence.

  • バス行きたい。
  • I want to go via bus.

Another common use you will encounter frequently, especially as a beginner to the language, is when you use で after a language to describe doing something (speaking, reading, etc.) in that language.

  • 二人は日本語おしゃべりをした。
  • The two people chatted in Japanese.

The の particle also has a few different uses, but the one we are most concerned here is when it is used to help one noun modify another.

  • 日本語教科書を買った。
  • I bought a Japanese textbook.

So now lets put these ideas together, and see how での can be used to help one word modify another word, where there is more attention to the fact some action is occurring with (or via) the first word, than the word itself. This sounds a bit confusing at first, but let’s start with a simple example:

  • 日本語での授業を受けたい。
  • I want to take a class that is taught in Japanese.

Here, the “日本語での” part is modifying “授業” (class) to specify which type of class. At first, you might wonder why we even need the で here, as in:

  • 日本語授業を受けたい。
  • I want to take a class in Japanese.

I’ve purposefully written the English sentence to show the ambiguity of the Japanese sentence. “日本語の授業” can be a class “in” Japanese (like a math class where everyone speaks in Japanese), or it can be a class “about” Japanese (where people focus on just learning Japanese).

Now another example sentence:

  • 電車でのマナーの質問です。

Can you guess what this means? Here we have a での early in the sentence and a の a little later, so there is a chain of words modifying 質問 (question).

In the phrase “電車でのマナー”, “マナー” (manners) is being modified by “電車での“, which has to do with something on the train, not the train itself.  In English this could be translated as “Manners on the bus”.

Like the previous example, the で within the での removes vagueness. If you remove で you get “電車のマナー” which means something like “manners of the train”, “train manners” or “(the) train’s manners”. While you could probably tell from context you are not talking about the train’s manners (i.e. the train is making too much noise), adding the で clarifies you want to talk about “Manners on the train”.

Since this entire phrase is modifying 質問, we get something like:

  • This is a question about manners on the train.

One more example:

  • 今から公園での会議が始まります。
  • The meeting in the park is starting now.

If we remove the で, we get 公園の会議 which could mean “meeting about the park” (a meeting whose subject is the park), whereas 公園での会議 clarifies the meeting is being held in the park. Of course, if you literally want to talk about the meeting being held in the park, you would just use で not での:

  • The meeting is being held in the park.
  • 会議は公園開かれる。

Here 公園 is not being used to directly modify 会議, so の is not used. Rather, it is specifying the location of the action 開かれる (to be opened or to be held).

Lego Ninjago Anime on Youtube – in Japanese

I’ve been a huge fan of Legos ever since I was a child, and fortunately my son has grown quite found of these great building blocks as well.

But it was some surprise when I saw him watching a Lego “Ninjago” cartoon in Japanese.  One of the reasons is like “Ninjago” isn’t exactly accurate with respect to Japanese culture; it rehashes things through a lens of a generic concept of what a “Ninja” is, with mistakes like saying “Spinjitsu” instead of “Spinjutsu“.

The biggest surprise, however, is the quality of the Japanese voice acting. Though I can’t claim to be unbiased and would have to be completely bilingual to give an accurate judgement, my overall feel is the the Japanese voice acting is the same, if not better quality than the English voice acting. If you are used to watching alot of Japanese then you might notice some interesting similarities, like how some characters seem to sound strangely like Yakuza bosses. But that’s part of the fun.

To be honest, I haven’t watched too much Ninjago in either English or Japanese, so I can’t comment on the story, but the visuals at least look nice enough to make this an enjoyable way to practice Japanese listening. As with much anime dialogue, the character’s enunciate much clearer than real life, so it’s pretty easy to figure out what is being said. Of course, the dark side of this is that you’ll end up hearing alot of expressions that are not necessarily used in daily life, but that is the tradeoff when watching fantasy in any language.

If nothing else, just check out one of the Japanese-dubbed Ninjago videos on Youtube, as there seem to be a great many of them. They are easy to find by searching for “ニンジャゴー” on Youtube. Here’s one example:

While I have seen a little bit of negative feedback related to one of these videos, in general these videos seem to have a large number of views, which I guess isn’t such a surprise since Lego has been popular in Japan for some time now. And just because something isn’t authentic doesn’t mean it isn’t fun.

Long live a combination of two great things: Legos and Japanese!


Japanese Language Stack Exchange – forum for asking question about Japanese language

Forums (also called “message boards” or “question and answer sites”) are one of the great things about the internet since they allow fast, global discussion about nearly any topic you can imagine. Discussions on foreign languages for learners is no exception, and there are many things to ask about: word meanings, grammar, what sounds “natural”, culture, etc.

Because they are so useful and easy to set up, foreign language (and other) forums are a dime-a-dozen on the net, which includes those for Japanese. I’ve frequented a few in my years of studying the language, though lately I’ve gotten by mostly with Google searching, asking Japanese speakers, and Oshiete Goo’s forums (in Japanese).

Just the other day I stumbled upon yet another forum for Japanese study, “Japanese Language Stack Exchange” (JLSE), when I found a few references to it in the view statistics from this blog because someone had linked to a page of mine to help explain a point. While the general functionality of it isn’t much different than all the others, I think the sites usability and a bunch of little features make it one of the better ones out there. It’s actually part of the Stack Exchange Q&A community,  which contains the popular site Stack Overflow (SO) site, one of the more popular places to get information about software development. JLSE shares much of the functionality as well as the look-and-feel of SO and other sites in that community, so if you are used to using one the others are very easy to pick up.

If you’ve used one of these sites and haven’t yet tried JLSE, you’ll probably just want to check it out immediately. But I’ll touch on some of the cool things about these sites for those that are less familiar. There are features such as keywords to tag posts, up/down voting, moderation by admins, and the ability to link your account with places like Google accounts. There is also a concept of ‘reputation’ where you get points for doing good things like answering questions or getting your questions or answers up-voted. You can even earn badges when you’ve achieved certain goals (for example if one of your questions gets favored by 25 users), and use your reputation to place an award on a question where you really need an answer fast.

JLSE was started in 2011 so it isn’t exactly new, though SO began a few years previously in 2008. The number of questions is relatively few, with only ~8k total, compared to several million on SO (according to this link which says SO gets around 2.6 million a year, based on 2013-2013 data).

From what I’ve seen the JLSE community is nice, with a good mix of Japanese learners of various experience levels, as well as some native Japanese speakers that are fluent in English and answer questions pretty often. I haven’t participated too much yet, but hoping to peruse it once in a while for both my own knowledge, and to help out others when I am familiar enough to contribute an answer. Regardless of your experience level, I’m pretty sure you’ll be able to learn something things at a site like this.