Monthly Archives: March 2016

A discussion on problems students face with the common Japanese verbs もらう、くれる, and あげる (translated from a textbook)

Recently I posted a review of the book “Teaching methods based on student native language, English edition” by Kazuko Nakagawa, which provided some important insights on mistakes English-speakers typically make when learning Japanese. I wanted to translate at least a short portion of this book to give a feel what the content is like, and also to help round out my experience translating various styles of Japanese.

I chose pages 39-40 of the book, which is part of the chapter “日本語と英語の違いからの問題” (Problems stemming from differences between Japanese and English). This short section starts off with an example of incorrect Japanese spoken by a student, and proceeds to discuss about how to correct it, and what this type of mistake indicates about how best to teach the common Japanese words “あげる”、”もらう”、and “くれる”. I can really empathize with this since I had difficulty understanding these words myself when I first learned of them.

In this section I left most of the examples in Japanese in their original untranslated form, since converting them to English wouldn’t make sense. Words in Katakana (i.e. アゲマシタ) are used for emphasis (similar to italics in English), and I have left these as they were in the original text.



Section 13: [お金をおとしました。友達はお金をアゲマシタ] 

Both “あげる”  and “くれる”  are expressed in English using “to give”.


Judging from the above passage, it is not possible to determine who has dropped the money and who has received it. What is known is that the speaker or someone else has dropped money, and a friend has given money to someone other than the speaker. Trying to force a certain interpretation does not yield anything concrete. But what if the final verb was changed from “アゲマシタ” to “クレマシタ”? By swapping this single word, it becomes very clear what the student was trying to express.

While both “あげます” and “くれます” refer to the same fundamental action or act, the direction of that differs (whether it is towards the speaker or away from the speaker). In English, there is emphasis on the action itself, and “to give” can be used regardless of who is on the receiving side of the act. Even though students whose native language is English may have a logical, academic understanding of the differences between these two Japanese verbs, in practice they frequently mistakes such as the one seen above.

Furthermore, when the verb “もらう” is introduced with a first-person subject, students can become even more confused because of the similarity between “もらう” and “くれる” . This can be seen by the fact that “田中さんは(私に)本をくれた”and  “(私は)田中さんに本をもらった“ technically express the same action. However, “くれる” has the nuance that the action of “田中さん” was done actively and with good intentions, irrespective of the will of “私”, whereas conversely “もらう” has the passive nuance that “田中さん” is responding favorably to the will of “私”. It appears that foreigners, especially European students, have an affinity to “くれる” because it is easier than “もらう” for them to use. It seems that to them, sentences of the form “Someone performed an action” more clearly specify the situation as compared to sentences of the form “An action was done for someone as a result of another person”, and as a result they prefer to use the former type of construction. This preference is also related to a way of thinking inherent to English speakers.

As we have seen, the relationship between the words “あげる”, “くれる”, and “もらう” can be quite complex, so it will most likely take students some time to fully comprehend them if all three are taught at once. One option is for the teacher to break up these words into two opposing groups (“あげる” vs. “くれる” and “あげる” vs.“もらう”) and introduce each of these groups separately, or to initially introduce only “あげる” and “もらう” with a first person subject (“私”). If all three words are introduced at once, a diagram should be shown which clarifies and visualizes the relationship of these words. Placing an emphasis on how the relevant particles (は,を, に, etc.) change with respect to the verb, doer, and receiver of the action, will also help students understand sentences containing these three words.


Translators note

While replacing ”あげました” with “くれました” yields a passage which makes sense (“お金をおとしました。友達はお金をくれました”), it still has the awkward nuance of a beginning Japanese student. A more natural sentence would be as follows:

  • 僕はお金を落としましたが、友達がお金を拾ってくれました。


Vocabulary list: Chess in Japanese

Though I really enjoy studying Japanese, it’s that much better when I can combine Japanese with one of my other hobbies, like Legos or fiction novels. Another one of my hobbies is Chess, and lately I’ve been noticing a lack in my vocabulary when trying to express some of the basic chess concepts to my son, who is beginning to show interest in the game.

Although the basic piece names (ルーク, etc.) and some of the board Notation (C3, etc.) are expressed based on loanwords derived from English,  when you get into the details there is alot of interesting words to learn which can be applied to more than just chess.

As with my other vocabulary lists, I will be focusing on words that I have a good understanding of and possibly have used in my own speech, as opposed to just putting any random words down that are related to Chess.

  • チェス: Chess
  • チェス盤 (chesu ban): Chess board
  • 番 (ban): player’s turn (ex: 僕の番 = “It’s my turn”)
  • 試合 (shiai): match/game
  • 入門: an introduction, primer, guide  (ex: チェス入門)  [sometimes called ガイド]
  • ルール: rules (how to play the game)
  • 駒 (koma): piece (of chess of another similar game)    [sometimes called ピース]
  • 手 (te): a chess move  [also used to count number of movies, for example 10手 (juute) = 10 moves]
  • クロ: player playing with black pieces
  • シロ: player playing with white pieces
  • とる (toru): to capture a piece
  • とりかえす (torikaesu): to re-capture a piece (which has just taken another piece)
  • 展開する (tenkai suru): to develop a piece
  • ビショップ: Bishop
  • ルーク: Rook
  • ポーン: Pawn
  • ナイト: Night
  • キング: King
  • クイーン: Queen
  • チェック: “check” (said when you attack the opponent’s king)
  • チェックメート: “checkmate” (said when you attack the opponent’s king and they have no defense and you have won)
  • 交換 (koukan): exchange (pieces) [can be used with する to act as a verb]
  • (駒が)動く (ugoku): to move (a piece) [intransive]
  • (駒を)動かす (ugokasu): to move (a piece) [transitive]
  • アンパサン: en passant (capturing a pawn that has just moved with another pawn)
  • プロモーション(also 昇格): promotion of a pawn to another piece (queen, etc.)
  • キャスリング: Castling (swapping rook and king on either side of the board)
  • 圧力をかける (atsuryoku wo kakeru): To apply pressure (to an area of the board)
  • マス (also written as 升): square on the board (count with 1マス (hitomasu), 2マス (futamasu), etc.)
  • 一歩 (ippo): one step (i.e. referring to the fact the king can only move one step/square at a time)
  • 配置 (haichi): arrangement (of pieces on the board, etc.)
  • 並べる (naraberu): to line up (pieces on a board, etc.)
  • 空間 (kuukan): space (as in dominating space in the center of the board, etc.)
  • 支配する (shihai suru): to dominate
  • 局面 (kyokumen): the overall position or state of the board
  • 序盤 (joban): early game
  • 中盤 (chuuban): middle game
  • 終盤 (shuuban): endgame
  • 攻撃 (kougeki): attack [also used as a verb with する]
  • 反撃 (hangeki): counter attack [also used as a verb with する]
  • 棋譜 (kifu): record of a game (of chess, go, etc.)
  • 解説 (kaisetsu): commentary (of a game, etc.)  [also used as a verb with する]
  • 選手権 (senshuken): championship, title (used for chess and other sports)
  • 戦略 (senryaku): strategy
  • 戦術 (senjutsu): tactics


If you want to learn more, here are two links with chess in Japanese and a good video discussing basic principles using a historical game.


Unofficial translation of the prologue of Jun Ikeido’s “Downtown Rocket” (Japanese -> English)

Lately I’ve been making it a point to translate a small portion of each Japanese novel I’ve finished reading, for the purpose of polishing my Japanese to English translation abilities. I’ve already had some success doing translation on the side using Gengo, but much of that work is more everyday/functionali stuff (business emails, etc.) as opposed to creative translations which I enjoy more.

Around a month ago I finished Jun Ikea’s “Downtown Rocket” (下町ロケット) which I reviewed here, and from the start I knew that I had to try translating the prologue which was especially exciting. One thing that is nice about translating the first chapter or beginning part of a novel is that often the author will put in extra time to make that part just perfect; after all, that is what will often determine if people will actually buy their book, whether they were browsing using a physical book or an E-book.

While the prologue does contain a few technical terms (like 振動数超過, which you are unlikely to hear in daily conversation), these were actually not as difficult to translate as I originally thought. The reason is that it isn’t the technical details that matter, it’s the character’s feelings and the meaning of the events that transpire. For example, I spent a great deal of time just on the phrase ”(彼の) 胸は緊張でいまにも張り裂けんばかりだった” which is used to describe a character’s emotional state, because this doesn’t have a direct parallel in English that doesn’t sound cheesy (literal but awkward: “His chest felt as if it was about to burst from nervousness”). 

This relatively short chapter only took me a few hours to do an initial draft translation, but I ended up iterating again and again to round off the rough edges and make the phrasing more natural. I think by the end I had went through the entire text at least 8 times. I also took several day-long breaks between some of these iterations which gave me a fresh perspective on things.

Just to make it clear, this is a completely unofficial fan translation, in no way endorsed by the author Jun Ikedo or Shogakukan. If you like this and know Japanese (or are studying it), please consider buying the novel here. I don’t know of any plans for an official English translation, but it seems possible given how popular the book and drama has been, and the fact a sequel has recently been released.

While I seriously doubt I would ever translate this whole book (unless by some miracle Shogakukan asked me to do this), if you are really interested in reading a little more let me know by leaving a comment or liking this post, and I will consider translating another chapter or two.

I won’t be putting any of the original Japanese text here, but if you want to get a feel for the Japanese you can see this link where someone has put the first page online.

(Note: as I may come back and revise portions of this in the future, please do not excerpt any of the translated text)


 “Downtown Rocket” (Jun Ikeido): Prologue
“It’s almost time. Wow, my heart’s starting to beat like crazy.”

Takashi Mikami’s strained voice stood out in the tense air of the launch control tower.

Mikami’s colleague Kouhei Tsukuda glanced at the live feed of the launch pad on the monitor, checking the wind speed displayed along its right edge. The strong winds hadn’t let up, maintaining a speed of 15 meters a second.

“Eight minutes to liftoff. Initiating countdown. Transitioning to automatic countdown sequence.”

Shortly after this announcement blared on the speakers throughout Tanegashima Space Center, the countdown began: “T-minus 480 seconds, 479, 478…” Kensuke Motoki, head of Japan’s Space Science Exploration Agency, took up position in the control tower’s last row of seats. Motoki, serving as both rocket scientist and professor for The University of Tokyo’s Institute of Aeronautics and Space, was the mission manager for this experimental satellite launch.

They all stared at the monitor in silence. The skyward-facing rocket resting on the launch pad looked almost too perfect, as if it was a prop from the set of a Godzilla monster movie. Tsukuda gazed at the rocket, a tightness in his chest making it difficult to breathe.

The countdown continued.

“408, 407…Launch systems are go,” Motogi’s voice overlapped the automatic countdown. “First liquid oxygen systems ready……Second liquid oxygen systems ready.”

“It’s finally time to put things to the test, Tsukuda,” said Mikami with a hint of excitement in his voice, eyes glued to the view of the launch pad on the monitor. “Now be a good girl, Siren, and make this a great launch.”

“Siren” was the codename of the newly-developed engine for this experimental satellite launch rocket. Taking its name from a sea creature of Greek mythology, Siren was a large-scale hydrogen engine with a new control system onboard. It was no exaggeration to say Siren was the embodiment of all Tsukuda’s hard work in the research lab.

Development of this engine had taken him a total of seven years in college, plus an additional two years after he became a researcher for The Space Science Exploration Agency. Siren, the result of much trial and error, was a key benchmark being tested at this launch that would hopefully pave the way towards realization of a commercial rocket.

However, the politics involved in getting this engine onto the rocket was no trivial matter. Even as a research vehicle, launching a large rocket into space costed upwards of a hundred million dollars. Because this entire amount was funded by the national budget, a hypothetical failed launch would likely incur the wrath of the tax-paying public.

There had been some concern because an abnormally high frequency was observed during two of the eight engine combustion experiments conducted. One could make the point that this was after all an experimental device, and this type of behavior wasn’t unheard of for a rocket engine. Nevertheless, for whatever the reason, if the engine failed on launch day Kazuyoshi Oba, the one who made the decision to use it despite these abnormal test results, could very well be held responsible.

But Oba strongly believed in Tsukuda’s passion for this hydrogen engine and–more importantly–the technology behind it.

Wanting to meet Oba’s expectations was only one of the reasons Tsukuda couldn’t afford to fail. He needed to make this experimental launch succeed at all costs.

Tsukuda pushed aside the many fragmented thoughts running through his head and became aware of the countdown again.

45, 44……

Less than a minute remained before launch. On one of the monitors which had just switched camera angles, evaporated liquid oxygen began to flow around the base of the rocket like a white cloth.

T-minus 32 seconds, 31……

The countdown announcement felt as if it permeated deep into Tsukuda’s skull.

“Commence water curtain spray.”

After the announcement, the beginning of the water discharge was visible on the monitor.
The countdown had already passed the 10-second point by the time Tsukuda, eyes pressed tightly shut, heard the announcer’s voice say “Flight mode on”.

9, 8……

“Drive battery power on.”

7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2……

“All systems go.”

At that instant, Tsukuda opened his eyes.

“Main engine start. Igniting SRB……Lift off!”

Just as the announcer’s voice–monotone up until now–suddenly became animated, flames burst out of the first stage rocket engine with a terrible roar.

Siren, we’re counting on you!

Tsukuda said a silent prayer. Fly baby, fly!

Siren emitted bright orange flames as white smoke billowed around the launch pad and the 30-ton rocket was propelled upwards.

“Go! Go!” Mikami balled his fist and let out a yell.

As Tsukuda watched, the rocket distanced itself from the launch pad and quickly became a mass of flame as the camera tracked it upwards. From there, the rocket continued on its scheduled path into the southeastern sky above Tanegashima, gradually shrinking to a tiny point.

“Siren’s initial flight angle is 99 degrees, 15 kilometers southeast above the Pacific Ocean, altitude 17 kilometers.”

Tsukuda quickly gave up following the rocket with his naked eyes and shifted his gaze to the flight path trajectory shown on the radar screen.

“Thats right, atta girl!” Mikami screamed with excitement. He and Tsukuda intently stared at the rocket’s trajectory as they prayed for a good flight.

The monitor now displayed the number of seconds since launch. 170, 171, 172……

That was when Tsukuda realized something was wrong. The printout spewing out of the main plotter indicated the rocket had begun to deviate from the planned trajectory.


Mikami’s face turned pale and he scrambled to check the data on another plotter. In the midst of the control tower’s growing uproar, Tsukuda stared speechless at Siren’s abnormal trajectory coming out of the plotter.

“Abnormal flight path detected!”

The researchers rushed to their respective stations.

“Second stage engine igniting!”

Amidst the commotion, the voice coming from the speakers continued with the scheduled flight plan.

Tsukuda’s mind went blank and before he knew it, his hand was gripping the intercom control tightly. Oba was on the other end, several kilometers away in the central command tower.
“Sir, we have a flight abnormality!” Tsukuda screamed into the microphone.

“Predicted peak altitude is approximately 17 kilometers. We have a serious problem. Ignition of the third stage may be impossible.”

Oba would have already been watching the rocket’s abnormal trajectory on a monitor in the central command tower even before Tsukuda had reported the problem to him.

The post-launch counter displayed in the top right of the nearby monitor continued to rise.

187, 188, 189…… By now the rocket, having lost control due to insufficient altitude, was flying nearly horizontally above the Pacific Ocean at close to the speed of sound.

A thick silence hung in the room only for a brief moment before it was broken by Oba’s calm voice.

“Order emergency sequence stop. Invoking security command…”

There was no time to consider the implications of his announcement, let alone get absorbed in feelings. This was a self-destruct order.

Oba’s announcement was broadcast simultaneously on the intercom and the speaker system, and the final command sent only an instant later via the safety management team’s communications system.

The countdown on the monitor’s screen stopped, engulfing the control tower in a dead silence.

212 seconds after launch, Siren returned home–to the sea.


Book Review: “Teaching methods based on student native language: English Edition” by Kazuko Nakagawa

On a recent trip to Portland, Oregon, we stopped by a Powell’s books to see what they had to offer. Besides having an amazing selection of many types of books, they actually had a section of Japanese books, most if not all which were used books. It was no Kinokuniya, but as you may know the number of bookstores in the USA which actually contain any Japanese books at all is extremely limited.

A quick glance at the available Japanese books revealed many old ones, and not too much that I felt was worth purchasing. However for some reason a certain book caught my eye, and I pulled it off the shelve to flip through. It was by published in 1990 by Babel Press (バブル・プレス), written by Kazuko Nakagawa (中川かず子) with a long, difficult title:


Here is my rough translation of this:

Teaching methods based on student native language (English Edition) Notes on instructing English speakers – Teaching Japanese 1

After skimming through the book for just a minute or two, I decided to purchase it, and would go on to read the first half of the book in the next few days, with a good portion of that progress being made on the several hour flight back to the East coast.

At first you may be wondering what is so interesting about this book. Although I do have an interest in teaching Japanese (as I guess you can tell from this blog), that isn’t the main reason I enjoyed it. The reason is because much of the content of this book actually applies to Japanese learners (like myself), assuming you have sufficient reading level to be able to figure out what the book is saying (and the level is pretty high).

A large portion of this book is taken from the author’s experiences in teaching Japanese to English speakers and her research in related teaching methods. For example, the first of three chapters is “日本語と英語の違いからの問題” (“Problems stemming from differences between Japanese and English”).  This chapter is divided into three sub chapters, “音声” (pronunciation [literally “voice”]), “文法・構文” (grammar and sentence structure) and “語彙・表現” (words and expressions).

Examples of the “pronunciation” sub chapter is why English-speakers have trouble with the Japanese pitch accent and why they have problems with other areas of Japanese pronunciation (like properly saying the pause in the middle of “言った”). The “grammar and sentence structure” subchapter talks about items such as like the differences between English “yes”/”no” and Japanese “はい”/”いいえ”, and why some sentences like ”将来何になるか、まだ知りません”  may seem correct to English-speakers, but are in fact unnatural.

As I was reading through the first two-thirds of this book, I was really amazed by much of the content since I had never read an analysis this detailed about common problems in learning Japanese for English speakers. While I think I’ve figured out maybe 30-40% of these things on my own, in some cases it took 5-10 years for me to realize them without being told explicitly. There was also alot of great cultural nuggets here (that is what the 2nd chapter is about), like how verbs can be more emphasized in Japanese, whereas the doer of the action is more often emphasized in English.

But alas, this book does suffer from a few problems. One of them, not at all the fault of the author, is that the book is now over 25 years old, and I think there has been some changes in what makes truly “natural” Japanese in that span of time, as well as changes to English.

Another issue is that some of the English is unnatural or borderline incorrect in the book, though to be fair that is only a relatively small part. Also, I feel some of the examples chosen by the author to illustrate or prove her point were a bit cherry picked. For example, she might say “Saying XXX is unnatural in English, therefore…”, but when I thought about “XXX” it actually wasn’t that unnatural. Again, some of this could have been the fact that the language has changed over time. There even was a few examples where the Japanese, or the interpretation of it, seemed a bit unnatural (which I confirmed by asking a Japanese person), but again that could be due to the generation gap between now and then.

The third chapter focused on talking about various teaching techniques, and was a bit dry and hard to plough through, partially because there was some heavy usage of educational terms I was not very familiar with, and also because some of it was about survey data that was now over 25 years old.

I mentioned above that the book’s Japanese was difficult, and while this is true, because I actually had a good intuitive grasp of many of the items discussed, it was pretty easy for me to fill in the blanks. Having said that, unless you have at least 4-5 years of heavy Japanese study, I wouldn’t recommend this book.

Despite the some of the problems with this book, overall it was a great read which was extremely satisfying. I hope to someday be able to find a more modern book written about similar topics.

I was thinking about translating some of the more useful lessons from this book into English so that a wider audience could appreciate them, but as I have so many other things I want to translate I’ll have to figure out when to get to it. But if you are interested in me translating any part of this book please leave a comment.対象言語別教授法%E3%80%88英語篇〉英語話者指導のポイント-日本語を教える-中川-かず子/dp/4931049400

Japanese Movie Review: “Eternal First Love”

“Eternal First Love” is  Japanese romance film from 2010 starring Saki Aibu and Takashi Tsukamoto. We originally decided to try watching it since it was free on Amazon prime. Interestingly, the original title is “恋するナポリタン 世界で一番おいしい愛され方” which is a pretty long,  awkward title, and I actually like the English title much better, which is very rare.

This movie is a mix of several pretty generic elements found in several other Japanese movies and dramas, including memory loss, coincidental accidents, mysterious soul-stuff, unnecessary shots of Tokyo Tower, cooking, Italy, and of course love. To make matters worse, both the cinematography and music (except for one song) is pretty mediocre, and even the acting is weak in parts. So let’s just call this a B-movie and get to the more positive part of the review. (Keep in mind this is from a person that has seen hundreds of Japanese dramas and movies, so if you haven’t then your milage may differ)

However, given all of the cheesy elements, I think the story as a whole is still entertaining to watch, and there is even a good twist of two. If you are a fan Saki Aibu then this movie is even more bearable.

One good thing about this movie is much of the Japanese is pretty straightforward and often spoken at relatively slow speeds (compared to real everyday conversations), so if you have a year or two of serious Japanese study you might catch a good amount of phrases, especially simple ones like “僕は君が好き” which appears at least once in the movie. I picked up the word 達観 (takkan) in this movie, which is used in the phrase “達観してるなぁ” and means something like “That’s pretty philosophical”

Although I wasn’t focusing on them the entire time, from what I saw the English subtitles were pretty well done, with one exception: there was a few phrases a character says in Italian (like “Bueno”) which are translated into English without explaining that the person is speaking in Italian. Personally I think the should have just been subtitled as-is without changing them into Italian, although some people might pick that up from listening. Note that I am not talking about the one conversation in this movie that is all in Italian.

In summary, if you are looking for a cheesy second-rate romance that has some good redeeming parts to it, or just want to practice listening to Japanese, this may be a good movie for you to try out. Especially if you have amazon prime (:

Bye to Google Adsense

Sometimes you just have to try something yourself to see what will happen, even if you’ve heard from people who have done it themselves.

Putting ads on this blog is one such thing. I had done some research and determined that there was a chance I could make at least a few dollars  a month based on my current number of hits, so I decided to try setting up Google Ads. This was a bigger task than may seem, since I had to switch from to a self-hosted site, which not only adds cost but extra maintenance burdens.

So after around 5 months, how much did I make? A measly $15 bucks, give or take a few cents.

While this number is actually somewhat within the calculations I did originally (though a bit on the low side), I guess part of me secretly hoped I would make significantly more than expected.

I could just leave the ads running, since after all the few dollars would still help go towards the self-hosting costs (though only a fraction of them), and eventually if I keep putting out good content my payback should gradually rise.

But after some consideration I decided on removing the ads, at least for the time being. Besides making my blog look cleaner and giving more space for actual content, it will hopefully give readers a better image to this site, since I know whenever I see ads on a site I often think “oh, they are just trying to make a buck”. Also, I’ll no longer have to worry about checking how much money I’ve made by ads and be disappointed every time I do so.

Also, I need to be honest with myself. Though it would be nice to make even a little money off this site, I’m primarily doing this because I enjoy it and think I can give back to the community somehow. Now if I can eventually increase my readership and someday roll out some other way to make income (say, pay more for extra content or access to tests, etc.), that would be nice, but I’m not really focusing on that now.

Besides the hosting fees, the other loss of switching to self-hosted is that I think I lost being listed in the category search. I could try to migrate back to where I was before, but I am not sure if it is worth the time and lack of configuration options I’ll loose in doing that.

I’d be curious to know if there was any other bloggers who went through this same experience as me.

Book Review: “Tokyo: Capital of Cool” by Rob Goss

“Tokyo: Capital of Cool” is a travel book published last year by Tuttle which focuses on one of the most famous and well-known parts of Japan – the city of Tokyo. Since there are probably hundreds of books out there which provide travel information about Tokyo, a book has to be pretty unique in some way in order to stand out among the crowd.

This work eschews the trend to make smaller guide books packed with information and instead devotes at least half of it’s space to a wide array of stunning photographs of Tokyo, using a larger form factor similar to art books. A majority of the pictures were taken from stock photo and other similar sources, with only a few actually taken by the author. However that isn’t a problem because the author’s real expertise lies in his writing, and he has done a great job in selecting photos that really show you many unique and beautiful scenes from Tokyo. I only found a few very minor problems with the visual aspects of this book, including one or two pictures which I felt were over-edited, and a few places where the layout was a bit awkward. For example, some photographs straddled the centerline only an inch or so which was a distraction. I wish the author would have either made those either larger to avoid ending near the center, or shorter to fit on a single page.

Let’s be honest, finding great photographs of Japan is relatively easy via a quick Foogle search or by perusing through a photo site such as Flickr. Fortunately, the descriptions of the various areas of Tokyo are extremely well written, and include a nice mix of history and modern culture to satisfy nearly any reader. Goss’s prose is quite polished even to the point where I would like to study it to improve my own writing and translation, however I do feel on occasion his sentences do get a bit long and in rare cases I had to re-read a sentence from the beginning to make sure I understood completely. But I think your opinion on his sentence complexity will depend on what types of stuff you typically read. In any case, if you just want to relax you can just skim the text as needed and focus on the pictures.

One other thing I liked about this book is that it doesn’t attempt to teach you any Japanese apart from telling you place names and other necessary travel information. Some books try to interject random Japanese phrases, or have an index in the back with helpful words, and while I am not strictly against that I have seen places where there are errors since the author isn’t completely fluent or has just gotten loose on editing that part. I am not sure of Rob Goss’s Japanese abilities (I’d imagine he is fluent), but he’s kept this book focused on only one thing – Tokyo and what’s so cool about it.

In terms of content, the book covers many of the basics you would expect like Omotesando and Shibuya, as well as some places in the surroundings of Tokyo like Nikko. Though by no means I would call it a comprehensive coverage, I think the set of locations chosen fits the book’s theme well. I’m not sure what the author has planned, but making a follow up book in the same style that showcases some of the less known parts of Tokyo could be an interesting idea as well.

“Tokyo: Capital of Cool” is a great introduction to Tokyo for those who want to learn more about this amazing city, or even enjoyable for those like me who have been to Japan several times.

The only real drawback of this book is the cost involved. No, I don’t mean the price of the book itself (that’s a reasonable $10-$13 at the time of this article), but rather the cost of trip to Japan that is bound to happen after reading it and becoming enamored (even more) in Japan’s diverse and interesting culture.

You can find it on Barnes & Noble and Amazon. There is both a hardcover edition (what I read) as well as several E-book editions (Nook, Amazon, etc.).




Lack of polite Japanese in certain parts of the novel “Downtown Rocket” (下町ロケット)

The other day I wrote a review of the Japanese novel 下町ロケット (“Downtown Rocket”), where I alluded to something about the usage of polite Japanese in that book. In this post I’d like to talk about that matter in some detail.

When reading this novel, I was surprised by several scenes where one person from a company spoke to a person in a different company using non-polite Japanese. For example I remember the phrase “やめたほうがいい” was used with the implication that someone should stop acting in a certain improper way (normally, I would expect at least やめたほうがいいです, or something even less direct). In most, if not all, of these situations, one company was trying to bully another company into doing something they didn’t want to do. I’m not going to go into the exact dialogue and plot line here too much, because it isn’t as important as the fact that non-polite Japanese was used.

The concept of one Japanese person speaking to another Japanese person who is neither a relative nor a friend in a non-polite form goes against everything I have learned about Japanese culture, including knowledge from textbooks as well as real-world experience. This especially true when you consider that both people in the conversation were representing a relatively large company. In Japan, from what I understand politeness is *extremely* important in business, as well as daily life.

To help figure out if I had some fundamental misunderstanding about how Japanese polite language (i.e. 敬語) was utilized in real life, I decided to post to a forum I have been frequenting these days, Japanese Stack Exchange (which I reviewed here).

I ended up getting a well-written, detailed answer (in Japanese) which put my fears to rest about such a misunderstanding. In summary, this person said that use of non-polite language in this book was, for the most part, too blunt and very unrealistic, and such a conversation would be difficult to imagine occurring in real life. He guessed that was done not just for dramatic effect, but also in order to help the reader easily distinguish which of the two sides was on a “higher” level (the one which was not using polite Japanese). Even though some of the companies involved in this story are small to medium sized companies, they still make hundreds of millions of dollars a year, and any business of that size would likely use much more business-like, professional speech.

However, at the end of his answer he also mentioned that real “country” (田舎) companies which are part of closed communities would be more likely to use Japanese that correlates with that used with family or friends, which means less polite forms.

For more details, you can see the full post here.

This was a great lesson for me in linguistic differences between Japanese as it is used in the real world, and Japanese as it is represented in fiction. While I have known for some time that I needed to be careful not to blindly adopt Japanese from fiction (especially more extreme media like anime) in my own speech, this really helped to confirm that.


Richmond Elementary School: one of the few true Japanese immersion programs in the US

We recently went to Oregon to visit some friends and decided to check out a special school we had recently discovered: Richmond Elementary School (which I’ll abbreviate here as RES). Richmond, for those of you not familiar with the area, is a neighborhood of Portland in the southeast part of the city.

Japanese immersion programs are relatively rare in the U.S., with over half of the states lacking one. While RES’s Japanese immersion program is technically a “partial immersion program”, the great thing about this school is that they do a full half day in Japanese, taught by Japanese teachers. From what I understand, other immersion programs will start with a much smaller fraction of the student’s time learning Japanese, possibly only 10% when they start in Kindergarten. Besides the teachers themselves, they also have assistants who are from Japan, and other facilities to help with learning Japanese including a library with a pretty large section of books in Japanese. The 5th graders even have the option of going on a class trip to Japan, which we were told is usually around 2 weeks and allows them to really see Japanese culture up close.

They do a full spectrum of reading, writing, listening, and speaking in Japanese during half of the day, and the other half is done in English. One thing we were told is that the school tries very hard to make sure the students’ English abilities don’t fall behind, which is a problem encountered in other similar programs. Some ways they do this is by having a shorter lunch break (only around 20 minutes), a pretty heavy homework load, and less extracurricular activities that are not directly related to increasing Japanese or English skills. While they do have some things like gym class, you won’t find as great as a variety of activities as other schools. The students’ test scores seem to prove their abilities are still competitive with other schools, so it looks like the mix that RES has formulated is working well.

One other great thing about RES is that it is actually a public school, so the tuition is completely free (though this does not include some optional activities like the trip to Japan which we were told could be pretty expensive). However, due to a limitations on the number of students they can accept, they hold a lottery each year for kindergarten enrollment, which I believe begins around March, and the results are reported sometime around May. The kindergarten class this year has roughly 118 students, though is actually 4 independent classes. From what we understood from talking to school’s staff, roughly one-third of those who applied last year were allowed to get in. While this number be high compared to some schools (and could change year by year), having any amount of uncertainty in your child’s future is not necessarily a good thing, especially regarding education. The good news is that there are a few classes of people who get higher priority for the lottery or automatic entrance, including younger siblings of children already enrolled, those who live in Portland (you can apply from a different city of Oregon and still have a chance to get in, however), and those children who speak Japanese at home as their first language. Even if you don’t make the lottery you also have an option to get an special exception for your child (if any slots are available), and the better you can prove this school is right for your child, the better chances you’ll have to be excepted in.

While I believe they may let in a few students enroll starting at 1st or 2nd grade, after that it would be difficult for a child to join because of all the catchup required for the Japanese material missed in previous grades.

While the school facilities itself are quite old (this is not necessarily a bad thing), the teachers and staff we talked to all seemed to put the children’s education as first priority, and looked very competent and caring. While we only spoke with the principle for a few minutes, she also seemed very genuine and knowledgeable.

There are generally two classes of parents that want their child to attend a immersion program for a foreign language: those who want them to do it to increase their future opportunities and broaden their education, and those where one or both parents speak that language and want their son or daughter to be brought up learning more about their home country. Of course, some parents can also be a mix of these two categories.

Based on what I have seen of this school, I think it would be a great fit for either type of parent. However, I would like to caution that your child may not necessarily become fluent in Japanese after graduating from this school. Though this is totally my opinion, just based on touring the school and briefly viewing a few of in-session classes, I got the feeling that kids are not exactly forced to speak in Japanese, except maybe for certain presentations and assignments. For example, we observed some students speaking English in one of the Japanese immersion classes, though we were told by one parent that the teacher will respond to students in Japanese if they are asked in English. Like anything at that age, children often do what their parents say, without their full consent or understanding, and this type of immersion program is no different.

Ultimately, what will determine if the children become truly fluent is the their motivation to learn and attraction to Japanese and Japan’s culture, which is influenced by the content taught in the classes, but also by their parents. I think students who graduate this school can be broken into two categories: those have an mechanical grasp of Japanese grammar, reading and writing, but no real desire to keep learning the language, and those who are really into the language and want to truly master it, or at least keep learning it just because it’s fun to do so.

If children really like Japanese, there is the chance to move onto a special middle school and later a high school which both provide a continuation to the Japanese immersion program. While the language exposure stops being 50/50 after elementary school, you can make the argument that a majority of the student’s communication skills are learned in elementary school.

Because of this, if your child already knows Japanese and attends this school, there is a good chance that he or she will have stronger Japanese skills than many of the the other students. This means your child may not be learning as much as the other students in a sense, but compared to a non-immersion school which is 100% English, it is a great way to keep their Japanese ability. Over time, I have talked to enough parents where one or both of them came from another country, but their child had difficulty keeping up with their family language as they got older.  Ultimately, true fluency has to be a choice of the child him or herself, but I feel that an immersion school like this gives children much better odds to carry their foreign language skills into adulthood and make them a permanent part of their lives. Also, students that already know Japanese would have opportunities to help their classmates out more with that language, and take more lead roles in certain situations.

For more information about Richmond Elementary Schools and the other schools that continue the Japanese immersion program, check here: