Monthly Archives: June 2016

Portland Japanese Garden: a delightful experience not to miss (with photo gallery)

A few weeks ago we moved to Portland, Oregon, with the expectation of being to experience more Japanese culture than where we came from, South Florida. One of the most famous Japanese things in Portland is the Portland Japanese Garden (Japanese: ポートランド日本庭園), and we took a trip there as soon as we had time.

Although I had pretty high expectations, I must say they were pleasantly met and I took the chance to pull out my old Nikon DSLR and take some pictures on something other than a iPhone. Some of the pictures came out nicely so I’ve made a little picture gallery here for you to check out.

To tell the truth, we actually went here twice in the last two weeks. The first time, it was so hot, so sunny, and so crowded that we just didn’t enjoy ourselves, and left after 30 minutes or so. Fortunately we had chosen to buy a family membership in advance, which at the current price of $75 is actually a great deal, and children under 18 are free. If you are a photographer, it’s good to know they have photographer memberships, which for around $155 allow you to freely sell your pictures of the garden (see this page for details).

While the garden was extremely beautiful and sufficiently large, there was a few minor annoying points: unsightly construction (though I’m sure it will be great when it was finished), many steps (this part was very like Japan), a bunch of “employees only” areas (understandable, but still a little frustrating), and worst of all the terribly gaudy displays that were used for the Bonsai plants. I didn’t include a picture of these, but just imagine giant, light-brown wooden fingers with black joints enclosing the precious, aged plants. No offense to the artist, I think these contraptions were interesting and artful in their own way, but they just didn’t fit with the Bonsai plants very well, standing more out than the plants themselves.

One final tricky part about the gardens is the parking. If you go at a peak time (which for us was around 11am on a day with warm weather) then you may have to drive around until you finally find a spot, and then hope your parallel parking skills are up to par. Fortunately there is a pretty easy solution to this. If you become a member you can visit the park for special member-only early hours, and when we did this we practically had the place to ourselves for an hour or so. Also, paying the parking fee becomes easier if you use their mobile app, which even alerts you when your time is almost run out. And they do give tickets there (we didn’t get one, though we saw another person or two get a parking ticket).

Also, there are a few other fun places around, like an arboretum, a rose garden, and an extra-sized playground, some within walking distance of the Japanese gardens.

If you do decide to go, there may be changes to the appearance of the plants depending on the season, so you might want to check in advance.  In early June, at least this year, everything seemed to be in spectacular full bloom.


A response to a reader’s comment about Gengo, quality, and rates for translation

Recently I received a long, interesting comment from scalesoflibra, a reader and fellow blogger on one of my posts about the translation service Gengo. You can see that person’s full comment on the previous link, but I’ll give a brief summary of it here:

Gengo charges around 5 cents for a standard level translation job, which means that the translators are making only a fraction of that, and as a result (depending on the amount of research required) they can end up making $10 an hour or even less, reaching minimum-wage. This brings up a few dilemmas: Should translators really work such a low rate? Does that push wages of the industry down? And do the clients giving out the work have a responsibility to choose standard level only when appropriate, and upgrade to Gengo’s “pro” level (which clearly has a higher level of entry for translators) when the material warrants a more natural, accurate translation, or when a specialized domain (such as medicine) is involved?

And now for my response:

First, while I haven’t done any extensive research, I’m pretty certain that Gengo standard-level translations have some of the lowest prices for their relative level of quality, and clearly provide better translations than any automated translation software, at least for Japanese->English which is my specialty. Becoming a translator at Gengo seems to be a bit easier than with other companies since there is no special credentials required, although several tests must be passed meeting their acceptable quality standards. A key point here is that anyone who is bilingual and can write reasonably well in one of the languages has the potential to become a Gengo translator, which of course is a great double-edged sword.

So onto the first question – should translators really work for peanuts, in other words rates that can reach $10 per hour or below?

The financial feasibility of such word clearly depends on the person. For example, if you happen to be a kid who just graduated high school but have a good grasp of two languages (say, you were brought up bilingual), than any amount of money may be a blessing for you. As a side job, Gengo has the major advantage that it can be done completely from home (which could be anywhere), and one can work somewhat at their own times (though this partially is limited by the time zone of the county(s) where that language is spoken, and some time periods during the day may have many more jobs than others). On the other hand, if you already have a reasonably well-paying job and little free time, then Gengo probably isn’t the best thing for you.

However, as I mentioned in at one of my other posts, to me the great thing about Gengo as a translator is it lets you get your foot in the door in the translation business. I haven’t determined whether putting “Gengo” on a resume will help me get any translation jobs, but even excluding that possibility there is so very much to learn: how to manage your time, research effectively, interact with the customer, and of course the art of translation itself. While you can do random translations for no pay on your own time (and you’ll know I do if you’ve read this blog much), it just doesn’t quite have the same imminency to it, and as a result I think there is less to learn from, especially in the area of time management and working with the customer.

Having said that, once you get to a certain point where you are more comfortable with your translation skills, I’m sure many translators reduce their work on Gengo to occasional jobs only when they no other work, or leave the site completely. But it’s going to be hard to get the convenience of being able to find a translation job to fill a free hour somewhere else.

Next question – does working at such a low rate pushesthe wages of the industry down, and lower the respect for translating as a profession? I know some would present a counterargument to this, but I’m going to go with the stance that regardless of whether you do this or not, enough other people will, and as a result no single person will able to really influence how the industry evolves. In fact, my prediction is that these types of “quick, human, but not perfect” translations will get even cheaper gradually as time progresses, until eventually computers catch up to us and can do quality translation without human intervention (for certain languages like Japanese I feel, or hope this will take a while).

But if someone says their don’t want to work at Gengo because they think it’s not the right thing morally, I won’t try to dissuade them.

To me, the profession of translation has started to transform in some ways parallel to how the profession of photography has. In recent years, technology has it made it easier and easier to take photos that look good on the surface (due to higher resolution, higher range, and lower noise cameras becoming much less inexpensive). Sometimes, an amateur may even get lucky (though with some skill) and take a great, award-winning photograph. But nevertheless, no matter what equipment you have, a professional photographer will take better photos consistently which have much more depth and creativity to them, though just like with translation there is an element of subjectivity about what is quality and what isn’t.

Now on to the final question: do clients have a responsibility to select the right level (“standard” or “pro” at Gengo, or another translation company altogether) in accordance with their content it’s context?

When I first started working at Gengo, I was surprised that certain clients would not choose the higher “pro” level for their material, and for certain situations the staff at Gengo will strongly suggest, if not force this for certain types of content like legal documents. But, with a few exceptions, I’ve come to accept that this is mostly the decision of the customer, and I shouldn’t really have any say in it.

To give another example, there is a certain amount of marketing related translation jobs on Gengo, and it’s easy to make the argument that the client’s products, services, or whatever, will likely sell more if they had a person who not only knows two languages, but has some background in marketing and sales. However, it’s hard for me to say how much a difference it will have, and the “pro” level is significantly more expensive (as it should be given the quality you get). But again, it’s not my business to tell the customer “You know, you really might sell more of your product if you get a professional marketing translation”. They’ve choose their level, and if I accept the job it’s my responsibility to do my best, within reason for what I think “standard” quality. I agree with scalesoflibra’s comment that it makes sense to stop and avoid over-researching something which is standard level.

To be sure, there will be times where I think “this isn’t standard level material” or “I can’t do this in a reasonable amount of time”, and I will just simply not accept those jobs. In rare case I may accept a job and change my mind midway through, and that is OK with Gengo as long as I don’t do it too frequently. But just like my answer to the previous question, if I don’t accept the job, somebody else likely will, and the (moral) difficulty there is they might even do a worse job than me. So if I really feel that a job is not appropriate for standard level, then I feel I do have a moral obligation to note that, although historically most of the time somebody has already marked the job as recommended for pro level by the time I got to it.

Also, keep in mind we don’t know how the customer is going to actually use the translated text. It may simply be just a rough translation, which they plan to send out to a more experienced translator once they get the final text finished. They may have it proofread by a native speaker of the target language, or even double checked by a bilingual speaker. I’ve had Gengo clients that are well versed enough in both languages to make intelligent criticisms, and I think that’s great. And sure, there are probably times where the customer just puts out the text somewhere without reviewing it.

But ultimately, I feel it’s completely the client’s responsibility as to how they use the text. It’s just that for certain areas like medical or legal, there is too much risk (somebody’s life or life savings could be on the line), so it makes sense to push back on those regardless of the exact content.

As a final note, I’d like to say that I’m still pretty green as a translator, and as I get experience my opinions on the above matters may very well change. In any case, I’m always open to hear other people’s opinions about this stuff.

The “〜くある” (~ku aru) form for Japanese adjectives

Recently I saw a post on Japanese Language Stack Exchange about the 〜くある  (~ku aru) form of adjectives (ex: 美しくある), and there was no good answer so I did some research. By the time I was ready to post, the question had been deleted, so will make a make a post here with my findings.

To review, let’s look at example of the basic usage of adjectives in Japanese. We’ll use the word 美しい (utsukushii), “beautiful”.

  • 美しい            [beautiful]
  • 美しくない    [not beautiful]

I think that this (along with the noun form, i.e. 美しさ) covers 90-95% of how adjectives are used in Japanese. (Notice I am excluding “na” adjectives like 立派 (rippa) here)

However, let’s look at a few other ways to used an adjective which you may be less familiar with:

  • 美しくある
  • 美しくはある
  • 美しくあるまい
  • 美しくあるべき
  • 美しくあろう

So the question is which of these is correct grammar, and what meanings do they have? Let’s look at them one at a time.


The ”〜くある” form by itself is almost never used in Japanese, and the above phrase would be considered incorrect grammar as-is. So if you said something like  “その犬は可愛くあるよ” you would probably get funny looks.

However, I was told by a Japanese native that this expression conceptually means “美しい状態で存在する”, which translates to “existing in a beautiful state”.


To understand this phrase, let’s look at one of the usages of the particle は:

  • お金あるけど、忙しくて時間が全然ない。  [I do have money, but I’m busy and don’t have any time.]

Here, the は particle gives the feeling that what follows will apply to “money”, but there may be something else which doesn’t apply. Similarly, saying “チョコレートは好きだけど。。。” has the nuance of  “I like chocolate, but….[I don’t like XXX]”.

The main reason for using “〜くはある” is when you want to apply the same feeling to an adjective.

  • このデザイン、美しくはあるが、機能的ではない。 [This design is beautiful but not functional.]


Just as the phrase “あるまい” means “ない”, “美しくあるまい” is another way to say “美しくない” (not beautiful).


“べき” is generally used when you want to express something “should” happen, like “〜するべき” which means “should do ~”.

Here, “〜くあるべき” means something should exist in a certain state. For example:

  • 女性は美しくあるべき。   [Women should be beautiful.]


Here, あろう is the volitional form of ある, just like 食べよう is the volitional form of 食べる. It’s roughly equivalent to “Let’s ~” in English, though it doesn’t always have to involve another person (it can be more inward facing, showing the intention of someone).

So “美しくあろう” means “Let’s try to stay beautiful”. Here is a page which uses this phrase.



This is a post I made to verify that 美しくある is not commonly used on it’s own:

This is a post which similarly explains how “〜くある” is not natural by itself:


問題 (mondai): a very problematic word in Japanese

In this post I’d like to talk about the Japanese word 問題 (mondai), a very useful word which has several meanings.

The first meaning, possibly the most common, is “problem” in the sense of something that is not going according to plan.

  • A: 大丈夫ですか?             [Is everything OK?]
  • B: ええ、問題ないです。 [Yes, I’m fine.]    literally: [Yes, there is no problem.]

You can also use the phrase 問題なく (mondai naku, “without problem”) as an adverb to describe something going smoothly.

  • 全て問題なく終わった。 [Everything finished without any problems.]

問題 can also be used to refer to a problem on a written test, like one taken at school.

  • 正しい単語を選ぶ問題3問題ありました.  [There was three problems where you have to choose the right word]

From the above  example sentence, you can see that these types of problems can be counted with the suffix ~問 (~mon), as in:

  • 1問  [ichimon]
  • 2問 [nimon]
  • 3問 [sanmon]

You can use the verb ”解く” (toku) to describe solving a problem.

  • 僕は試験で問題を解くのが遅いです.  [I’m slow at solving problems on tests]

問題 can also be used in a slightly different sense as something which is being debated or considered, which you could express in English as “issue”, “matter”, or  “question”.

  • バレるのは時間の問題だ。 [It’s only a matter of time until it is found out].
  • これはモラルの問題です。  [This is a question of morals.]

One very useful phrase is “そういう問題じゃない” (sou iu mondai ja nai), which literally means “It’s not that problem”, and can be used in a conversation where you feel the other person is speaking off topic, or not quite getting what you are saying.

  • A:毎日、漢字を徹底的に勉強すればいい。                               [Just study Kanji exhaustively ever day.]
  • B: そういう問題じゃない。勉強しても身につかないよ.     [That’s not the problem. Even if I study I can’t learn them.]

One expression which can be confusing is 問題にならない, which at first look seems to mean “Doesn’t become a problem”, or “Isn’t a problem”. However, the meaning of this is actually quite different, because 問題 is used here in the sense of “something to discuss”.

Let’s look at part of the description of this phrase in the Japanese Goo dictionary:

論議や比較の対象として取り上げる価値がない   [Doesn’t have enough value to be raised as an object of comparison or debate.]

Example: その提案は問題にならないよ。 [That proposal is out of the out of the question]

There is a bunch of other sample expressions using 問題にならない here.

The above dictionary entry also mentions a similar phrase, “話にならない”, which can be understood to roughly mean “not worth talking about”.

問題 can be used in a sense similar to “cause”:

  • 彼の行動が問題だった。  [His behavior was the cause]   Literally: [His behavior was the problem]

Note that が is used here because the emphasis is on “what was the problem?”, which is 行動 (actions).

A final usage of 問題 is 問題にする, which literally means “to make into a problem”.

  • こんな些細なことを問題にするなんて信じられない   [I think it’s crazy to make a big deal out of such a small thing]


There are also a bunch of compound words that contain 問題. Here are a few I’ve seen used before:

  • 問題外 [mondaigai]: out of the question (similar to 問題にならない)
  • 問題児 [mondaiji]: problem child
  • 問題点 [mondaiten]: point in discussion
  • 大問題 [daimondai]: a big problem


Japanese Writing Lab #2: Why did you start studying Japanese?

This is the 2nd assignment for a program I have started in order to help myself and others improve their writing in Japanese. For details about the program, see this post. Also see this post for a list of all assignments.

The topic of this writing assignment is to discuss why you started learning Japanese. The ideal length is a few  paragraphs, but for beginning students a few simple sentences is fine.

If you are having any difficulty thinking of what or how to write it, feel free to check out my submission below for ideas. Don’t worry if your writing is significantly shorter or simpler than mine, this isn’t a contest–it’s more about each of us improving our respective writing abilities. If you don’t know very much Kanji but still want to participate, it’s OK to use just Hiragana with some Katakana here and there if you know it.

Also, don’t be afraid to do Internet searches to check for how natural certain phrases or word combinations are. I do that pretty frequently when writing, and though it is very time consuming, it makes the end result a bit more natural (I hope!).

Once you finish this writing assignment please post it via one of the two following methods:

  1. For those who have a blog (WordPress or anywhere else is fine): post it on your blog, and post a comment on this article including a link to your post. I also suggest adding a link on your post back to this article, so people who find your post can follow it to read other people’s submissions.
  2. For those who don’t have a blog: simply post it as a comment to this article with the text you’ve written. [Note: creating a blog is pretty easy and free on many sites, so if you have a few minutes I’d just consider just trying to create a blog. Several people have already done this in order to participate in this program]

My submission

This is a topic very close to my heart and I really enjoyed writing this. I probably could have written a few pages worth, but I tried to keep it relatively short.  While writing this, I realized that I really do need to brush up on my writing skills more!






Linguistic debate on the existence of subjects in Japanese (from three points of view)

Recently I came across this interesting post by fellow blogger Moaz Elgabry. For only having studied Japanese a few years, his Japanese writing skill is quite impressive, and I’m curious to see his thoughts on different topics.

His post discusses whether the Japanese language really needs to have a grammatical subject and how such a subject should be defined (for example, where is the subject in the sentence ”像は鼻が長い”?). It is well researched with quotes from a few Japanese scholars with his own English translations for some of them. This topic struct a chord in me since I had actually written a post about subjects in Japanese over 2 years ago here, and to this day I still feel that how subjects are handled in Japanese is one of the bigger challenges for English-speaking learners.

At first, I was going to write a brief comment to Moaz’s post with some of my opinions on this matter, but then I realized it might get long so I decided to make a whole post out of it. I also realized that rather than just focusing on subjects in Japanese, I wanted to talk about how this type of  linguistic discussion can serve different purposes depending on what your relation to the language is. So, I’ll be writing some commentary from three points of view: Japanese learner,  linguistic expert, and Japanese teacher.


POV: Japanese Learner

From the point of view of a Japanese learner, the two most important things are being able to fully comprehend what is heard and read, and being to express oneself in writing or speech. This is very utilitarian, and rightly so.

While perfect grammar is important, it is secondary, not just because these main two priorities can be fulfilled to a certain extent without perfect grammar, but also because the “rules” of grammar are a bit uncertain to begin with. In fact, for nearly all languages the “rules” we know are actually reverse engineered from how natives actually speak. This process is often done by native scholars, but it can be done by fluent foreign speakers as well. In English, we have rules like “I before E except after C”, which help us memorize proper spelling, however these were made after the fact when someone “discovered” this rule. Contrast this to something like a programming language, where humans have created every single rule from the bottom up, and those who write programs in that language must follow the grammar and syntax letter-per-letter.

A critical point here is that not only do we have to discover these grammar rules, but that they are not all that consistent once discovered. English and Japanese are both full of these, whether it’s irregular verb conjugation (pretty common in English) or just how a word sounds vs. how it is written (very irregular in English). These inconsistencies get even worse when you cross into conversational language, where things can get shortened or words dropped completely (ex: “you up for it?”)

Anyway, back to the Japanese student who is working his or her ass off to learn Japanese grammar rules. It’s definitely a good idea to learn these, but you always have to supplement your learning with a dose of “native-ness” to see how the language is really used. After all, grammar rules on their own don’t tell you which combination of words is necessarily the most natural. This brings to mind something my favorite Aikido teacher told to me, which is that “You have to learn rules in order to break them”. Although he said it in reference to learning formalized patterns in martial arts which could be then changed to apply to real-world situations, I think this also applies to learning grammar rules for a language. You learn the major rules which have the most applicability, and then you learn places where it’s safe to break these rules like in informal conversation.

On the matter of whether Japanese has, or should have subjects: the fact that (according to Moaz’s article) various academic figures disagree on what exactly defines a “subject” (主語) in Japanese is good evidence that this is an esoteric, abstract argument. Whether you call it a tuh-MAY-to or tuh-MAH-to matters little to the person eating it, as long as it’s red, juicy, and fresh. Similarly, whether the sentence “像は鼻が長い” has a subject or not is mostly irrelevant to learners of Japanese as well as native speakers.  If we translate it to the English sentence “Elephants have a long noses”, I think it’s hard to refute that it does have a subject (“Elephants”), at least if we are thinking in English terms. But once the concept of what “subject” means is open to discussion, anything is possible.

As long as a Japanese learner keeps in mind that subjects, or rather words in general, are much more frequently in Japanese than in English, I think they will be on the right path to fluency.

POV: Linguistic Expert (or someone interested in linguistics)

To a person into linguistics, grammar holds a special place as the nuts and bolts of how a language is made, how the words interact, and how to construct valid sentences. Areas where there is no clear agreement among experts can make for great debates, maybe even thesis or book material. It’s these treasure troves of possibility where grammatical rules and other concepts have not been defined yet, or at least not in a satisfactory way.

The debate on how subjects work in Japanese, and how this has evolved over time, is one of these great topics that some linguistic academics seem to be spending a great amount of thought on. I’ve studied some linguistics in my own time (here is one book I’ve read long back), and I can totally appreciate the interest and passion these people have for things like this, though I haven’t actually read the books referred to in Moaz’s article.

Having said that, I have some doubts about to what extent new revelations on this matter will impact learners of the language. Ultimately, this may end up being a “机上の空論”, a Japanese expression that refers to topic that may be fun to think about, but have little usage in the real world.

POV: Japanese Teacher

Although I am not doing any formal teaching of Japanese at present, I do have some teaching experience in other areas and hope someday I can help others learn this challenging language. I guess this blog is partially fulfilling that dream, but being able to interact with students in person will be even more rewarding. In any case, I enjoy thinking about the process and methods of teaching Japanese.

I feel that how things are defined and what terminology is used are very important elements of any foreign language learning program. When I first started learning Japanese, I read that words like 食べ and 飲み are in what is called the “pre-masu form”, and to this day that term still comes to mind when describing Japanese grammar to someone. It is both easy to understand and remember, especially after you have learned the words 食べます and 飲みます.

However, there are some Japanese teachers that instead use the technical term 連用形 (renyoukei) which amounts to the same thing. If you are planning on becoming a linguist (as in the previous POV I discussed), then surely it would benefit you to learn this and other similar terms. But is there any reason to prefer this over the more easily understood “pre-masu form”?

As I mentioned earlier in this post, it’s undoubtably important for students to learn the basic grammar rules, which includes when it is appropriate to use a sentence of the form “AはBがC” (which our example “像は鼻が長い” fits nicely into), and how the various pieces fit together gramatically.  The way I learned it was that “A” would be the “topic” and “B” would be the “subject”, although the latter of these disputed in Moaz’s article. To be honest, I don’t really like the terms “topic” and “subject” that much, since they feel so similar semantically, though if I think about it I can remember the differences (“topic” is more broad, and “subject” is talking about the do-er of a specific action).

While I’d like to find less confusing ways to describe these parts of a sentence (especially the “subject” term), Moaz’s description of が as “functioning as a modifier to add more information about its preceding word“, while it may be correct to a certain extent, could be confusing for basic learners of the language.

Ultimately, unless you’re going to become a linguist, the terminology is just a way to help transfer the concepts into your head (essentially a crutch), after which you can reformulate things in your own thoughts. It’s just a bunch of rules to make so you can forget (and break) them later, as you hopefully become fluent and develop an intuitive sense for what is natural and what isn’t.

Regardless of what terminology a teacher chooses, he or she must strive to keep students interested and focused on the material. This means that introducing the complex questions of “Is a subject really needed in Japanese sentences?” or “What is the actual subject of this sentence?” may confuse beginner to mid-level students and cause a lost of interest. In particular, bringing up how scholars are still debating on what a subject means with respect to Japanese grammar is likely to have them running for the hills. A skilled educator should know how to obscure, or at least not overly focus on certain things until the students are ready to fully appreciate and understand the more advanced material. This is one reason having two parents have an argument in front of a little child isn’t usually lauded as a good idea, since it will just confuse the child who is in such a naive state.

There is an important connection between the academic linguistic field and teaching a foreign language, which is when discoveries in the former lead to more effective methods in the latter. For example, one could look at the Japanese subject debate and decide to avoid using the word “subject” altogether in the classroom due to it’s vague and overloaded meanings.

On a final note, compared to over 20 years ago when I started learning Japanese, now we have the Internet with it’s nearly unlimited foreign language learning resources. I would argue that it’s harder to keep students in the dark about the ambiguities of languages, since if they do enough searching around they can find any material a teacher tried to steer them away from, just like giving an iPad to a small child carries risks of exposing undesirable information. The best we can do as educators is to let the self-learners do study freely as they like, and try to make sure our methods are tailored to provide proper support to those who lack the interest, time, or resources to study a language on their own. For that reason, we still have to be careful about the teaching methods we employ in our classroom, whether it is a physical classroom or virtual space online somewhere.

In closing

I feel that there is a bit of each of these point of views inside me, and it’s interesting to view a topic from multiple angles. Or should I say subject? (:

As always, I’m open to any comments or anything, or suggestions for articles.