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…

Giongo (擬音語), Giseigo (擬声語), and Gitaigo (擬態語): Japanese Onomatopoeia

You don’t have to be in Japan long to start to hear them.  Those funny sounding, repeating words that sound both funny and foreign to the uninitiated.  I’m talking, of course, of giongo (擬音語), giseigo (擬声語), and gitaigo (擬態語).

Though there is some overlap between the terms, they can arguably be defined in the following terms:

  • Giongo refers to sounds made by inanimate objects.
  • Giseigo refers to sounds made by living things.
  • Gitaigo, a more abstract class of expression, refers to words that depict psychological states or bodily feelings, or non-auditory senses.

Though one can wax poetic about the differences, I prefer to focus on the fun of these expressions, such as the sound of a heart beating (どきどき), sparkling (ぴかぴか), giggle (くすく), smile (にこにこ), or sleeping soundly and snoring (ぐうぐう).

Though some of these words have a repeating quality to them, it is not necessary.  Take, for example, the words to describe the sound of an explosion (ドカン) or the sound of a hard blow (ズガ).  Another interesting example is the “sound” of silence (しいん).  There is no end of fun words, as this short video explains:

It is said that there are some ways to guess at the general meaning of some giongo, gitaigo, or giseigo.  For example, one site posits that a useful rule of thumb when dealing with Japanese onomatopoeias is that expressions beginning with a hard ‘g’ sound (が, ぎ, ぐ, げ, or ご) are typically used to describe lethargic or otherwise undesirable states.

For more examples of onomatopoeias, check out the pages on website here, here, here, or here.

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.

Free Podcasts – Level Up Your Listening Skills

It’s all well and good to read and write, but Japanese listening skills pose their own challenges – especially for those of us who are not in Japan.  One way to polish those Japanese skills on the go is to listen to podcasts dedicated to Japanese language learning.

The new learner can try out Japanese101, which provides a number of free shows that offer a range of topics and comprehension levels. They also have some pretty good beginner lessons on Youtube (which is strictly speaking not a podcast,  but its useful to know nonetheless…).  Here’s an example of one of their Youtube lessons:

Another great resources is japancast.net, which offers a vlog/video podcast that you can subscribe to.  Learnjapanesepod.com (which I’ve mentioned in another post) also offers a great collection of podcasts.

As with all resources of this type, the number of podcasts are legion, and their scope and quality varies, but these three should get you started.  So…get out there, sign up for some of these free podcasts, and start listening!


During class today, we were discussing the difficult and interesting parts of Japanese.  We placed “counters” in the “difficult” category.  That said, there are ways make learning counters – and how to use them – easier.

Nihonshock has a good page that will get you started in terms of common counters, and how to use them.  This is especially handy to get down the three main pronunciation constructs, as well as those pesky exceptions (e.g., the “ji” or “ch” sounds).

Tofugu, a trusted and entertaining source of Japanese learning knowledge, provides good advice, as well as a link to a Japanese counting e-book.  A functional list of counters can also be found here, at the Japanese page of about, and one including a list of rare counters can be found here – including the counter for chopsticks (膳 – “zen”), pills/tablets (錠 – “jo”), and bonsai trees (鉢 – “hachi”).

This level of dedication to counters, however, may backfire.  A friend of mine was often met with eye-rolling or looks of confusion when he used the chopstick counter at our favourite izakaya.  He remains, to this day, undeterred.

Finally, what good is a lesson without a good song.  Below is a YouTube video of a song (“ippon demo ninjin”) used by kids – and me – to learn about counters.  Educational and catchy.