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.

Fall, Water, and Rain: Expressions and Vocab

Autumn in Saga PrefectureFor Vancouverites, the end of summer ushers the start of rain.  Rather than dwell on the loss of our flawless, bluebird days, I’d rather use the climatic change as a springboard for learning more about expressions of the fall, rain, and water.


It has been said that the Japanese language at 50 words for rain.  This may be an exaggeration, but you’ve got to admit that there are a lot of them, including: 雨 (あめ – rain); 降雨 (こう – rainfall), 弱雨 (じゃくう – weak rain), 煙雨 (えんう – misty rain), and 大雨 (おおあめ – heavy rain).  For a great list of many rain-related permutations check out this site.

For those who are keen to up their autumn vocabulary game, check out this great article in the Japan Times about fall and the “changing of the leaves”.

If you really want to “wow” people, however, you can turbo-charge your Japanese by learning some fun rain- and water-related expressions, such as:

  • 雨降って地固まる (ame futte chi katamaru):  After a storm, things will stand on more solid ground than they did before, or “adversity builds character”.
  • 水に流す(mizu ni nagasu):  Forgive and forget; water under the bridge.
  • 晴耕雨読 (seiko udoku):  Farm when it’s sunny, read when it rains.
  • 覆水盆に返らず (Fuku sui bon ni kaerazu):  It’s no use crying over spilled milk (water).

As for autumn-inspired expressions, try 秋茄子は嫁に食わすな (akinasu wa yome ni kuwansuna): do not let your daughter-in-law eat autumn eggplants, a reference to the traditionally poor relationship between a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law, whereby the former would not squander eggplants in their prime on the latter.  Let it never be said that Japanese is a boring language.

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.

School’s In! JETAABC Alumni Japanese Class Starts on September 16, 2014.

The art of the jiko-shokai, as demonstrated by our alumni.

Welcome to all of our new students, and welcome back to all of our returning Japanese-language enthusiasts!

Our first lesson, this past Tuesday, September 16, was a blast, and I hope that you’re looking forward to a fun and fruitful term.  Stay tuned to the blog for entries, and please advise the course organizer of any topics you’d like to see here.

Wishing you all the best on a great class. Yoroshiku, ne!

Fall 2014 Japanese Course

JETAABC is pleased to announce that it is organizing the Fall 2014 JET Alumni Japanese language course! If you are interested and want to take free Japanese lessons, read on and then sign up at http://goo.gl/TOLFAk bySeptember 5, 2014.


The Fall 2014 course will be 10 classes-long and run on Tuesday evenings from 6pm to 8pm. Classes are scheduled to begin in the middle of September (exact start date TBD).

The course is scheduled to take place at the Japanese Consulate in Vancouver (Suite 900-1177 Hastings St West, Vancouver, BC).

The level will be determined based on the proficiency of the applicants.

The classes are a great way to reconnect with the JET community, and to dust off those old nihongo skills.


The classes are free. As part of our proposed funding agreement, however, our generous sponsors require that there be at least 10 students per class.

In order to encourage attendance, each student must provide a $150 deposit the first day of class. Each student is entitled to three “free” absences during the 10-class term. Each further absence entail a $20 “absentee fee”.  Any outstanding absentee fees will be due on or before the last day or class, and any absentee fees may be deducted from your $150 deposit. Thus, if you attend 7 or more classes, you entire deposit will be returned to you.

Students may be asked to pay for copies of lesson materials.  The class also features a JETAABC Japanese Language Course blog, which we invite you to check out http://goo.gl/cxSwf1.


To confirm your participation in this fall’s JET Alumni Japanese language course, please fill in the sign-up sheet available at the following link: http://goo.gl/TOLFAk.

The application deadline is September 5, 2014.


Once you have filled in the application form, and once our funding has been confirmed, we will contact you to confirm that the class will take place and to provide you with more information. In the meantime, if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact the course coordinator at phil@jetaabc.ca.

We look forward to receiving your application and to another great JET Alumni Japanese language class!