Love is in the air! きゅんきゅん!

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and that means we should brush up on our romantic Japanese language skills (right?).

As all good JETs know, Valentine’s Day in Japan is usually when women give chocolates to men.  But, before you get too excited, make sure that you know what kind of chocolates you’re getting.  ぎりチョコ (giri choco) is the chocolate women give to men out of social obligation, usually to bosses or co-workers.  本命チョコ (honmei choco), however, are the real deal and are given to your true love interest.

If you do get honmei choco from a lady friend, how do you tell her that you love her?  Well, the most direct way is 私はあなたを愛しています (watashi wa anata o ai shite iru), literally I love you.  In Japan, however, that’s a little too direct, and you may want to simmer down a bit and settle with a simple 私はあなたの事が好きです (watashi wa anata no koto ga suki desu), or the more macho 僕はきみの事が好きだよ (boku wa kimi no koto suki da yo).

For more expressions and grammar, check out Maggie Sensei’s blog.

For a fun review of handy words and expressions (including what “きゅんきゅん” means), check out this little video about falling in love in Japan:

If you want some “next level” expressions to impress your special someone, try:

  • 昔の恋は錆びない (mukashi no koi wa sabinai):  Old love does not rust.
  •  惚れて通えば千里も一里 (Horete kayoeba senrimoichiri):  Who travels for love finds a thousand miles not longer than one.
  • 愛はすべてに打ち勝つ (Ai wa subete ni uchikatsu):  Love conquers all.

But wait!  Why do men get all the goodies on Valentine’s Day?  Well, fear not.  The world of love is fair, and men reciprocate on White Day, giving cookies, jewellery, or…wait for it…lingerie.


The Ainu Influence on the Japanese Language

When most Japanese language learners think of Japan’s “borrowed words”, words in English, French, Portuguese, and German spring to mind.  Less common, and less commonly considered, are the words of some of Japan’s First Nations population, the Ainu.

“Ainu” means “human” in the Ainu language.  The origins of the Ainu are unclear, but the consensus seems to be that they are the historical residents of parts of Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and the Kuril Islands, dating back over 800 years.    For a summary of their origins, check out this link, or this able explanation by Tofugu.


The origins of the Ainu language – or rather of the Ainu languages (or dialects) – are similarly unclear.  Interestingly, no genealogical relationship between Ainu and any other language family has been demonstrated, making it a language isolate like Basque or Korean.  Ainu has no system of writing, and is often represented by Japanese kana, or in romaji.  It is an endangered language, with reports of fewer than 100 Ainu speakers still in existence, with some reports of as few as 15 “native” speakers.

There are a number of Ainu loanwords which now reside in the Japanese language.  More common examples include:

  • シシャモ:  A smelt (fish), that is rightly popular and delicious.  The word is said to derive from the Ainu word susam, which is supposed to be derived from a compound of Ainu susu “willow” + ham “leaf”, hence its name in kanji ((柳葉魚).
  • ラッコ:  An otter, which derives from the Ainu word rakko (meaning, you guessed it, “otter”).
  • トナカイ:  A reindeer, which derives from the Ainu word – tunakai – for the same animal.
  • ホッキ貝:  A clam, also known in Japan as ウバガイ.  The term comes from the Ainu word poksey.
  • コマイ: Saffron cod, from the Ainu word komai.
  • ハスカップ:  A honeysuckle indigenous to the northern hemisphere, including Hokkaido.  The word comes from the Ainu word haskap.
  • エトピリカ:  A tufted puffin, from the Ainu etu pirka.

This is just the tip of a very large lingustic, cultural, and historical Ainu iceberg.  I would encourage you to learn more about this important and fascinating people, and appreciate their impact not just on the Japanese language and history.

Haiku and Kanji

An old English professor of mine offered each student extra marks for memorizing 16 lines of Shakespeare.  The impetus for this, he claimed, was not because it would necessarily enrich us, but because it would impress people at dinner parties(!).  Ulterior motives aside, much is to be gained from memorizing great literature, and the works of master poet Matsuo Bashō (松尾 芭蕉) certainly qualify.  His poems are a pithy way to: (a) learn new vocabulary in context; (b) learn new kanji; and (c) impress people in the process.


Bashō was born in 1644 and would grow to become one of the most famous poets of the Japanese Edo Period (1603-1868).  He was originally trained as a teacher, but then removed himself from his urban existence and travelled throughout Japan composing remarkable works of poetic magic (for more about his life, click here).  He is famous for his haiku poetry (then known as hokku) – a poem characterized by (a) the juxtaposition of two images or ideas; (b) three phrases of 5, 7, and 5 syllables; and (c) the use of kigo, Japanese seasonal words drawn perhaps from a saijiki (a dictionary of seasonal words, many of which are found here).

Bashō was prolific, as can be seen from this collection of all of his haiku.  This being winter, I thought a few snowy excerpts may whet your appetite to learn them – including their vocabulary and kanji – and deepen your understanding of the Japanese language and culture.


First winter shower, even the monkeys would want, a straw raincoat. 
Here we have a classic kigo (shigure or winter shower), and the unusual 蓑 kanji (a raincoat made of straw).


First snow, falling, on the half-finished bridge.
Hatsuyuki (first snow) is an early winter kigo.


Hailstones, glancing off the rocks, at Stony Pass.
This haiku uses the 霰 (hail) kanji, and the unusual “tabashiru” verb (rain down).  It is said that Bashō was caught in a hailstorm while visiting the ishiyama temple in 1690, inspiring this poem.  The poem, in turn, inspired the creation of the “tabashiru” treat, which is a bean filled sweet (which can be viewed, and purchased, here).  Incidentally, this is not the only sweet inspired by a haiku.

So, with that, you have much to look into:  The kanji in a haiku, the vocabulary in a haiku (including the concept of kigo), and the intersection of food and poetry.  Isn’t Japanese grand!?!

Instagram as a Japanese Language Learning Tool

Social media is a great tool for the budding learner of Japanese, and there are a number of excellent blogs and websites that laud the benefits of Twitter as a language learning tool (see JETAABC’s post about Twitter here).  There are fewer tips about using Instagram to learn Japanese.

An example of a photo/account found using the #ハイキング hashtag.

To be sure, Twitter and Instagram share a lot in common:  They are essentially media to share short bursts of information – the former in the form of 140 characters or less, and the latter in the form of photos and comments.  Though Twitter does feature photo sharing options, the fact that Instagram necessarily involves photos and allows over 140 characters per comment gives it that extra dimension.  A learner can not only read the comment and respond to it, she can also get more information about the post from the photo.

Using Instagram as learning tool is dead simple – much like using Twitter.

First, (after getting your own account set up) start looking for themes or topics you’re interested in.  This can be done by searching by hashtag, or by randomly using the screen in which Instagram suggests people/accounts you might like based on the sites that you are already following.  I personally enjoy mountain sports (hiking, skiing, camping…etc), and following people who live in some of my (old or current) stomping grounds (Fukuoka, the French Alps, Vancouver and the Pacific Northwest).  The ability to choose topics that interest you should give you that extra incentive to learn.

Once you’ve populated your account with people and things you’re interested, start surfing away.  Many accounts I follow post at least 1 photo per day, and some provide a comment/explanation of what the viewer is looking at.  Here is where the study/work comes in.

If you can read and understand the entry, you’re now able to maintain your Japanese level via the comments.  You can also comment on the photos, invite the people to come follow you, and actually develop a following of Instagram friends.  There are even some very active Instagram communities, i.e., groups of aspiring (and extremely talented) Japanese photographers who meet up every once in a while to take photos and get their Instagram on.  If you feel your Japanese is up to it, why not join in?

Even if you can’t read the comments right away, fear not.  A quick screen shot, followed by Google Translate (or a similar app) will translate the words you don’t know and allow you to grow your vocabulary in areas you are interested in.  Leave comments, ask questions, or just enjoy learning about people who share the same interests as you in Japan.

Though some may poo-poo social media like Instagram as shallow and a waste of time, I’ve found it an incredibly rich environment to learn about (and get to know) people living in Japan (or Japanese speakers living outside of Japan) who share my interests.  It’s also a great way to learn about amazing places you’d like to go, gear you’d like to get, or adventures you’d like to try.  So, with that said, make Instagram part of your New Year’s Japanese learning resolution!

Happy New Year…of the Sheep!

Photo: The Winter 2015 JETAABC Japanese Language Course is a GO!  Our hard-working students had their first class, got to know each other, and revealed their New Year's resolutions via nengajou (New Year's Cards).Happy New Year everyone!  We are pleased to report that the Winter 2015 JETAABC Japanese Language Course has started in this, the year of the sheep.  During our first class, we were asked to write a “nengajou”, and in the process the question arose about why there seem to be two “sheep” kanji for the year of the sheep, i.e., 羊 and 未.  This is what I’ve been able to come up with.

The 未 kanji is one of the building blocks of the Chinese sexagenary cycle (also known as Stems-Branches), a cyclic numeral system of 60 combinations of the two basic cycles, i.e., the ten Heavenly Stems and the twelve Earthly Branches.  In order to represent a year, one Heavenly Stem and one Earthly Stem is combined.  The specifics of this fascinating system are outside of the scope of this entry (you can learn more here).  The important part is that the 12 animal signs are associated with the twelve Earthly Branches.

  1. Rat:  子 (Earthly Branch) / 鼠 (Animal Sign)
  2. Ox/Buffalo: 丑 (Earthly Branch) / 牛 (Animal Sign)
  3. Tiger:  寅 (Earthly Branch) / 虎 (Animal Sign)
  4. Rabbit/Hare: 卯 (Earthly Branch) / 兎 (Animal Sign)
  5. Dragon: 辰 (Earthly Branch) / 竜 (Animal Sign)
  6. Snake: 巳 (Earthly Branch) / 蛇 (Animal Sign)
  7. Horse: 午 (Earthly Branch) / 馬 (Animal Sign)
  8. Sheep: 未 (Earthly Branch) / 羊(Animal Sign)
  9. Monkey: 申 (Earthly Branch) / 猿 (Animal Sign)
  10. Chicken/Rooster: 酉 (Earthly Branch) / 鳥 (Animal Sign)
  11. Dog: 戌 (Earthly Branch) / 犬 (Animal Sign)
  12. Pig/Boar: 亥 (Earthly Branch) / 猪 (Animal Sign)

The question then becomes:  How did this association take place?

There are a number of myths to explain the selection and order of the 12 zodiac animals. According to one version of what is arguably the most popular myth, the great Jade Emperor decided that he wanted the people of China to have a way to measure time in 12-year increments.  He told all animals about his plan, and the cat and rat decided to ride on the back of the speedy ox to win the race.  Along the way, however, the rat pushed the cat off and jumped ahead of the ox to become the first sign of the zodiac.  The myth also goes into details about the order of the animals that came next.  The cat, reeling from his fall, came in 13th, and thus never made it into the calendar.  It is said that this is why cats chase rats.

Another version of the story has it that the cat asked the rat to wake him up before the race.  The rat, however, did not and the cat failed to make it in time to be included in the years of the Chinese zodiac.  Yet more explanations are offered here.

For all you cat lovers out there, fear not.  The good people of Vietnam have their own legend in which the cat does make it into the calendar, albeit at the expense of the rabbit.  Again, the reasoning is not clear, but an explanation is offered here.

So, there you have it!  With all that said, JETAABC wishes you all a happy year of the sheep!

The Ubiquitous Fish Mug and Japanese Fish Words

We’ve all seen it, whether in Japan or Canada:  The ubiquitous tea cup with the kanji for dozens of fish written all over it.  Ever wonder what all those fish are, and are there way to cheat and guess as to the meaning of some kanji to know they stand for fish?  Well, this post should go some way in assisting in answering these questions.

TEC-F70_FK_TTFirst off, and most obviously, the “cheat” is to recognize the fish radical:  魚.100px-魚-order  One account of its etymology claims that the kanji is and alteration of older uo, appearing from roughly the Heian period, while another account posits that it is a compound of Old Japanese elements (saka, sake, rice wine) +‎ (na, side dish).

Whatever the source, its utility on an island nations is immeasurable to the new learner of Japanese.  Once you know it, you can at least recognize it as a left-hand radical, and know what section of the menu you’re looking at.  You can also start rolling up you sleeves and start learning the different kinds of fish (and impress your native Japanese speaking friends with your knowledge of arcane kanji).

So, where did each kanji come from?  According to Yukari Sakamoto of the Japan Times: “Fish names, as they are spoken, existed before the introduction of kanji to Japan (beginning from the middle of the sixth century). The kanji names were chosen based on the characteristics of the fish — its appearance, how it swims, where it is found or when it is harvested — and bear no relation to the spoken form — for which the meaning has long been lost.”  In short, you can use fun mnemonic devices to help you know which fish is which.  Examples of common fish include:

  • Saba (鯖) – blue mackerel, which can have a blue back and thus combines the kanji for “fish”, and the kanji for “blue”.
  • Tobiuo (飛魚) – flying fish, which combines the kanji for “flying” and “fish”.
  • Iwashi (鰯) – sardines, which combine the kanji for “fish” and “weak” because they die soon after being caught.
  • Karei (鰈) – flounder, a flat fish that combines the kanji for “fish” and “leaf” (which, like the flounder, is flat).

Yukari Sakamoto also provides a story for extra kanji-geek points, when he writes that yellow fish (buri – 鰤) that are harvested in December, are paired with the old kanji for December to make shiwasu (師走).

Armed with these “hacks”, you are in good stead to go to one of the most awesome restaurant chains ever – Za Uo – where you catch your own fish and choose how to eat it!

Like all radicals, the fish kanji can be a false friend, so beware!  Some examples include the kanji for “fresh” (鮮), which combines the kanji for “fish” and “sheep”.  Huh…  Another false friend is whale (鯨), which is not a fish at all, but a mammal, despite combining the kanji for “fish” and “capital”.

If you really want to super-charge your Japanese fish knowledge, consider learning these fish proverbs:

  • 腐っても鯛 (kusatte mo tai), which means that even a rotten tai fish has worth.
  • 海老で鯛を釣る (ebi de tai o tsuru), which means to gain a big profit with little effort.
  • 鯉の滝登り (koi no takinobori), which means to have great success in life.  Remember the koi flying on Children’s Day?

Spooky Japan: Ghosts

With Halloween quickly approaching, this week’s blog entry is about the scary world of ghosts, ghouls, and grammar.

Though Halloween is a recent import to Japan (some say it only came to the country 10 years ago), the country is no stranger to ghosts and ghost stories.  According to this article by Linda Lombardi on Tofugu, ” When they were first written down in the Heian period, at the same time as the classic Tale of Genji, there were enough to fill a 33-volume collection. When the first printing press appeared in Japan around 1600, ghost stories were among the best-sellers.”  Her recent article can be found here, and is a great starting point for ghost lovers, as is this website, which explains the story behind 10 famous Japanese ghosts.

Even early foreign visitors got in on the ghost story-telling action, of them the famous Lafcadio Hearn and his two works:  Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, and In Ghostly Japan.  These ghosts continue to be exported in the form of Japanese horror movies that continue to scare the bejeebers our of audiences, like The Ring.

There are a number of sites to help you brush up on your Japanese Halloween vocabulary, including this helpful site that has a list of common creatures.  For those hungry to take your Japanese to the next level, check out some expressions involving the term “oni” (monster) or the “kappa” monster, including:

  • Oni ni kanabou (鬼に金棒):  To be invincible or unbeatable.
  • Oni no inuma ni sentaku (鬼のいぬまに洗濯):  When the cat’s away, the mice will play (literally, when the monsters are away, do laundry…).
  • 河童の川流れ (Kappa no kawa nagare): Even professionals fails sometimes (literally, even kappas drown from time to time).

Incidentally, that “kappa” is the same creature as the one referenced in the ubiquitous “kappa maki”.  Apparently, cucumbers are the only think that the dreaded kappa likes to eat more than children.  Food for thought…