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.


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!

Ins and Outs of Opposite and Interchangeable Kanji Pairs (熟語 Jukugo)

Sometimes I think that kanji have a life of their own, and like all life forms, you get some odd ducks.  I’m thinking specifically about those kanji pairs made up of opposing characters.

A number of examples (adapted from Mary Sisk Noguchi’s excellent article) of these peculiar combinations include:

  • 出入 – deiri (coming and going, respectively):  Which you may see in signs prohibiting entry onto private property.
  • 出欠 – shukketsu (present and absent, respectively):  This is a word for “attendance”, e.g., class attendance.
  • 兄弟 – kyōdai (older brother and younger brother, respectively):  This is the term for siblings or family.
  • 親子 – oyako, (parent and child, respectively):  This means, well, parent and child.  You may have come across this at a home-style cooking restaurant in the form of “oyako-don”, which involves the parent (chicken meat) and child (egg).  Come to think of it, it’s a rather dark name…

For a great, robust list of these eccentric kanji, check out this blog.

As if opposite kanji were not interesting enough, Japanese is also home to kanji pairs whose meaning differ depending on the kanji character order.  To wit:

  • 魚雷 – gyo rai (Torpedo) versus 雷魚 – rai gyo (snakehead mullet)
  • 社会 – sha kai (society) versus 会社 – kai sha (a business)

Some of these reversible devils even have different pronunciations depending on their order:

  • 凸凹 – dekoboko (rough; uneven) versus 凹凸 – ou totsu (unevenness; uneven)
  • 力学 – rikigaku (mechanics, dynamics) versus 学力 – gaku ryoku (scholarship, knowledge, literary ability)

A nice little list of reversible kanji words can be found here.

Identifying such patterns allows you not only to up your Japanese game, but avoid potential pitfalls of thinking you understand a word, when in fact you’ve just reversed the kanji.  Imagine the confusion you may cause when you order a torpedo rather than a delicious snakehead mullet, or suggest to your partner in a letter  that you will be heading to the open sea (外海) rather than to a foreign country (海外).  There’s probably a comedic song or drinking game somewhere in here…


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?

Imported Words – Gairaigo (外来語)

Though Japanese can seem daunting at first, most English-speaking learners of Japanese may take solace in the fact that they can cheat.  Yes, I’m talking about the Japanese vocabulary we anglophones didn’t know we had:  Gairaigo (外来語).

Gairaigo is Japanese for “loan word” or “borrowed word”, and indicates a transliteration (or “transvocalization”) into Japanese.  According to this wikipedia entry: Most, but not all, modern gairaigo are derived from English, particularly in the post-World War II era (after 1945). Words are taken from English for concepts that do not exist in Japanese, but also for other reasons, such as a preference for English terms or fashionability – many gairaigo have Japanese synonyms.  Click on the Youtube link below for a quick overview of the concept of gairaigo.

For the most part, English-speakers can pretty much guess (sometimes after saying the word out loud a number of times) what the meaning of the word is because of its phonetic resemblance to its English counterpart.  Some examples are: アイスクリーム (ice cream) or アルコール (alcohol).

Other words are less intuitive, and resemble a truncation of the “original” English word, like , アパート (apartment) or デパート (department store).

Moving further away from 1:1 resemblance are the wonderful family of gairaigo that are based on English words, but that’s where the similarity stops.  I’m thinking here of ドンマイ (“donmai”, which is short for “don’t worry about it”), ファミコン (“family computer”, i.e., video game system), ゲーセン (“game centre”, i.e., video arcade), or my personal favourite, タイムスリップ (“time slip”, i.e., time travel).  Most English-speakers have been befuddled when a native Japanese speaker has used one of these gems thinking (quite reasonably) that the word is English.

Then, there are the non-English based loan words, which may lead to confusion.  Few English speakers will know what バイト (“baito”, short for “arubaito” or part-time job), ブランコ (“blanco”, Portuguese for “swing”), ゴム (“gom”, Dutch for “rubber”, but also meaning eraser in Japanese), トナカイ (“deer” in Ainu) or the ubiquitous パン (“pan”, which is Portuguese for bread) mean.

Rather than being a burden, however, I see these loan words as artefacts in the wonderful history of Japanese.  It’s also a reminder of the fact that most languages cross-pollinate.  For a more robust list of gairaigo, click here.

Lang-8: Free Japanese Correction Community

This is a brief post to let you know about a website where its community of native language speakers correct your writing for free!  It’s called Lang-8.  I haven’t used it yet, but if anyone out there has please share your thoughts in the comments section below.  Here’s a short video that Lang-8 has put together explaining their site.

I’ve done a bit of due diligence, and the consensus is that it’s a great resource, though one that intermediate and advanced students may find more fruitful than beginners.