Japanese expression: “年は年だから” (toshi wa toshi dakara)

By | January 11, 2021

This time I’d like to go over the expression “年は年だから” (toshi wa toshi dakara), and some related topics. I chose this since this expression is a little tricky to understand, especially if you are thinking about it from an English point of view.

First let’s look at a short, real-world dialogue using this:

  • Person A: お爺さんは運転できないの? (ojiisan wa unten dekinai no?)
  • Person B: 年は年だからしかたないよ。 (toshi wa toshi dakara shikata nai yo.)

On the surface, “年は年だから” sounds like it means “Because the year is the year,” which is no help in understanding what it really means.

The first important thing to know is that while “toshi” does mean “year”, it also means “age”. A more specific word for “age” is 年齢 (nenrei), but that feels a bit formal and I think is less commonly used in daily conversation. But even with this, we end up with “Because the age is the age”, which is pretty cryptic.

The extra element here is that Japanese typically omits elements that are understood from context. For example, the word “妻” (tsuma) is used for one’s wife, usually not “僕の妻” (“my wife”). In the above dialogue, “ojiisan” (grandpa/grandfather/old man) sets the context for the next statement.

Now we have “Because grandpa’s age is grandpa’s age” which is a little clearer. But this still doesn’t match with what we would say (or think) in English. More natural phrasing would be “Because his age is what it is”, though there are other ways to translate this. Here’s one non-literal way to translate the entire dialogue:

  • Person A: Grandpa really can’t drive?
  • Person B: He’s old, what do you expect?

The reason I chose “What do you expect?” is because the “よ” at the end of “しかたないよ” gives an extra feeling of emphasis.

”年は年” can be used in other ways, for example “年は年だし” which has a similar meaning to “年は年だから”.

In fact, the “AはA…” pattern is what I really wanted to talk about in this article, I just began with “年は年” as an example of it. Other examples would be “性格は性格だから” (“because his/her personality is what it is.”) or “値段は値段だし” (“and the price is what it is.”)

Even though the “AはA…” pattern may sound strange at first, after becoming used to it I find it more logical than English’s “what it is”, and it has a nicer ring too.

Another somewhat common pattern is “AはAで” which literally means “A is A and…”, and is used to contrast “A” with some other group and to emphasize that A is unique.  (Here is an explanation in Japanese) For example:

  • 彼は彼でとても無口です (kare wa kare de totemo mukuchi desu.)
  • He, on the other hand, is not very talkative.

My translation is just one way to express this, there may be better ways depending on the context.

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