Japanese language

Easy Japanese Manga Recommendation: Assassination Classroom/ Ansatsu Kyoushitsu

Today’s easy manga recommendation for Japanese learners is Assassination Classroom/ Ansatsu Kyoushitsu (暗殺教室), a manga series created by Yusei Matsui.

Quick Facts

Author: Yusei Matsui (松井優征)

Genre: Comedy, sci-fi

No. of volumes: 21

Recommended for: JLPT N3/ intermediate

Furigana: Yes

Anime/ drama/ film adaptations?: Yes, anime and live-action film adaptations

Plot Overview

Class 3E at Kunugigaoka Junior High School is a group of misfits who have been given a rather important task. They must kill their teacher, who has already destroyed part of the moon, in order to save Earth. Unfortunately, this is no ordinary teacher; he is actually an octopus-like monster who can move at super speed and regenerate his body parts. Worst of all, he is actually a good teacher who helps them with all sorts of life lessons. He is given the nickname Korosensei (a play on the Japanese: Korosensei is a contraction of 殺せない先生/ korosenai sensei = unkillable teacher). Will the class be able to kill Korosensei and stop the world from being destroyed?

Why do I recommend the manga?

The premise might be off-putting to some, but after I started to read I felt like the manga was more about the pupils’ growth more than anything. Class 3E are the underdogs; they have the worst grades in the year and are widely expected to not achieve much in their lives. This task, however, begins to give them more confidence, even though regularly fail.

The class contains a variety of characters and from the outset are pretty creative in their attempts to kill their teacher. Korosensei is interesting too; rather than the menacing villain you might expect, he actively helps his students improve themselves both in and out of the classroom. It’s a lot of fun to read and has plenty of comic moments.

Recommended Japanese language level

In terms of language, I think that this manga is suitable for someone around JLPT N3 or intermediate level (JLPT N4 learners should certainly be able to follow quite a lot of the plot). As there is a high school setting, it helps to be familiar with casual forms of Japanese. However, there isn’t as much of this as you might expect, which makes it a bit more accessible compared to other manga in the genre.

Not only that, there aren’t many lots of long sentences to read which makes it easier to understand even when there is a lot of action happening. Furthermore, as with other Shonen Jump manga, this has furigana to help you look up words faster.

You can read a sample of this manga on the EbookJapan website by clicking the ‘無料立ち読み’ button.

If you do try reading any of the recommendations, please let me know how you get on the comments. I am always on the hunt for beginner friendly manga, so if you have any suggestions please let me know!

Happy Reading!

PS. There is an anime and live-action film adaptation of the manga.

Tadoku Tuesdays (5) What I’m reading in May 2019

Tadoku Tuesdays are back! As I did in the last post (which was something like 8 months ago!), I am going to write about a couple of books I have been reading, as well as any new additions to my book collection.

The Novel I’m Reading: 君の膵臓を食べたい/ I Want to Eat Your Pancreas by 住野よる/ Yoru Sumino

I’ve heard a lot about this novel, not least because of its unusual title. I bought the book last year but I only started reading it about a month ago.

The main character (who I only know as boku) finds out that his classmate Sakura is suffering from a terminal pancreatic disease. This secret brings together two characters who are very different; whereas Sakura is sociable and cheerful, the boy prefers solitude. As they spend more time together the boy learns Sakura’s approach to life brings its own rewards.

I am only about a quarter of the way through the book, but unfortunately I haven’t been captivated by it just yet. I want to like this novel more but the idea that boku is an anti-social high school boy feels like a very familiar trope. I will finish the novel as I want to see if the story develops into something a bit more interesting.

The book has been pretty straightforward to read so far, especially as there has been lot of dialogue between the two main characters. Based on what I have seen, it seems pretty accessible for JLPT N3 learners.

There are also manga, live action film and anime film adaptations of the novel which I would like to watch when I have finished with the novel. The anime film seems to have a lot of positive reviews so I will probably watch this first.

The Novel I Recently Finished: 三毛猫ホームズのクリスマス by 赤川次郎/ Jiro Akagawa

This is a collection of short stories by famous author Jiro Akagawa. Every so often I find myself wanting to read a mystery, but I am not always interested in tackling a whole novel (especially if I am focused on reading another novel). Jiro Akagawa has written a huge amount of books, with the Calico Holmes series being the biggest and most well known. I happened to buy the book before Christmas and chose this one based on the title (only the last story is related to Christmas though).

Despite the title, we read the story from Yoshitaro Katayama’s perspective. Yoshitaro Katayama is a detective who probably isn’t a natural fit for the job – he isn’t good with dead bodies or talking to women.

Together with his sister Harumi, they often find themselves involved in some strange situations which call upon their investigative skills. Whenever the Katayama siblings are stuck, their cat Holmes usually helps point them in the right direction. There are also a few other returning side characters who also provide support as well as comic relief.

I enjoyed the variety of stories and the relationship between the Katayama siblings. Yoshitaro and Harumi often make up for each others’ shortcomings, even if they do bicker a lot. I was surprised that Holmes wasn’t really the main character but I think his role in the stories works really well. From a language perspective, the writing style is easy to follow too. I’d recommend this for JLPT N3 level learners who like mystery stories that aren’t too demanding.

I found out this week that there is a live action drama adaptation which I am interested in watching, although reviews seem to be mixed.

Books added to my To Be Read pile:

Again I am staying focused on my goal of buying fewer books, but I did pick up one eBook a couple of months ago as it was on sale – ペンギン・ハイウェイ/ Penguin Highway by 森見登美彦/ Tomohiko Morimi.

This novel was released back in 2010, however a manga and film adaptation was released last year. I know that the novel is about a boy who wants to find out why penguins have suddenly started appearing in his town. Since the main story is about a young boy, the language used seems to be pretty simple with short sentences.

I’m looking forward to reading it as it seems like an odd but charming story. I’ll probably follow it up by watching the anime film adaptation at some point too.

So that’s it for today’s post – you can take a look at these books on the ebookJapan website and read the previews (look out for the “試し読み” button) if you are interested in checking them out.

What are you reading at the moment (in Japanese or otherwise)? Do you have any recommendations for me? Let me know in the comments!

Where to find and buy Japanese music online

Following my post on 15 Easy Japanese Songs, I realised that finding Japanese songs from outside the country can be pretty difficult.

Unlike music from other parts of the world, the Japanese music industry is a little bit more old fashioned, and so it can be difficult to find some music online due to copyright issues. This is less of a problem with contemporary artists, which have generally been embracing more modern platforms.

I hope this post will help give you some ideas on where to find your next favourite Japanese song.

Places to discover Japanese music

The Oricon Music chart will give you an idea of what is popular in Japan right now. Although all in Japanese, the website is pretty easy to navigate. If you are into pop/rock or idol music, you will most likely find a couple of artists to listen to just from the charts alone.

YouTube

No matter what genre of music you prefer, YouTube is a pretty great place to start looking. The YouTube channels for major Japanese record labels include:

Spotify

Spotify helps to fill in some of the gaps left by YouTube. The playlist feature is a great way to be exposed to different types of music based on what you already like.

Here are some of Spotify’s own Japanese music playlists to get you started:

There are plenty of user made playlists too – search ‘Japan’ or ‘Japanese’ to find them! If you are lucky to be based in Japan then you will be able to access a much larger library of music.

Deezer

I’ve also tried Deezer which has also some Japanese songs (although I feel they are a bit trickier to find compared to Spotify). The user created playlists are a great place to start looking, though there are a few official ones too.

I noticed that on Deezer it is possible to view the lyrics to some Japanese songs, although it seems to be a Premium feature.

Japan Top 10 Podcast

Another place to keep up with Japanese music is the Japan Top 10 podcast. Japan Top 10 iis a regular Japanese music podcast showcases a variety of music. Their artist spotlight posts are a good way to find out about popular artists both past and present.

Where can you buy Japanese music?

Once you have an idea of what music you like, the next step is actually purchasing it.

I live in the UK, but I have found that you can often find Japanese music on most digital music platforms. If you prefer physical music then you still have a range of options (though I suggest you buy a few CDs at a time to make shipping costs more economical).

Digital music

iTunes, Amazon Music, Google Play Music

iTunes is undoubtedly your best bet if based outside of Japan – it definitely has the widest range of Japanese music.

If you don’t have iTunes, it is possible to find some Japanese songs on Amazon Music and Google Play Music. Compared to iTunes though, this is often limited to artists who are fairly well known and may only be part of their discography.

For most of the artists I looked at, songs that are available on Amazon Music are usually available on Google Play Music.

OTOTOY

There’s also a Japanese website called OTOTOY, which is Japanese music-focused but is also internationally oriented (you can view the OTOTOY website in English, Japanese, French or Traditional Chinese). There are interviews and news features on the website, although these are all in Japanese. Most importantly, you can download Japanese music digitally which can be paid for in a few ways including (international) credit cards and Paypal.

I’ve found the range of music includes a greater range of up and coming artists, although you can find music by popular artists such as Aimyon, Sekai no Owari, Greeeen and Shiina Ringo too.

The main downside to OTOTOY is that the costs of digital downloads is noticeably higher than what I pay for Western music. I normally pay 99p ($1.29) for one song, but OTOTOY charges 250 yen ($2.30/ £1.77).

Physical music

Physical CDs are still super popular in Japan, and whilst brand new CDs can be expensive, second-hand CDs can be bought fairly cheaply.

I also recommend checking out Amazon Japan, CD Japan, HMV Japan and YesAsia (all links take you to the English language versions of their website). Buying in bulk is a good idea not just for shipping costs, but the potential import fees you may have to pay.

It’s always worth checking out eBay – you never know what second hand bargains you might find!

I have a Japanese Music Mondays series on the blog’s Instagram and Facebook pages, with the aim of introducing Japanese music to a wider audience. I try to cover different genres – if you have any suggestions please let me know!

What is the difference between てから and たあとで?

Today’s post is about how to use grammar points てから and たあとで. Both てから and たあとで are JLPT N5 grammar points, used to show the sequence of two events.

A (verb) てから B

After A, B; B happens after A

A (verb) たあとで B OR A (noun) のあとで B

After A, B; B happens after A

Both of them allow you to link two phrases each other, although they require slightly different conjugations.

Let’s look at two actions that we want to link together in one sentence.

Action A is going to be 本を読みました/ ほんをよみました = I read a book

Action B is going to be 寝ました/ ねました = I went to sleep

With てから, you conjugate the verb at the end of action A into the て form and add the word から, and then add action B.

よみます (よむ in plain form) becomes よんで in the て form. Therefore the sentence becomes:

ほんをよんでから、ねました.

To use たあとで, you need to conjugate the verb into the た form and add あとで before adding action B. If you’ve mastered the て form, then the た form is super easy – just replace the て with た.

Action A can also be a noun, which can be linked to あとで by using the possessive particle の in between.

Using the same example above:

よみます (よむ in plain form) becomes よんで in て form and therefore よんだ in た form. Therefore this time the sentence is:

ほんをよんだあとで、ねました

What is the difference between te kara and ta atode?

てから

てから is used when the second action (B) is going to happen straight after the first (A). In a lot of A てから B sentences, action B is only possible after completing action A. For that reason, it is useful when you want to express actions that take place in a specific order, such as in your daily routine.

A good way to remember this is to think of how the word から can be used on its own to mean ‘after’, ‘since’ or ‘from’ in English.

Further examples:

  • コンビニで買物(かいもの)をしてから、うちに帰(かえ)りました。
  • 毎朝(まいあさ)おきてからオレンジジュースを飲(の)みます。
  • きっぷを買(か)ってからおんせんに入(はい)りましす。
  • しごとが終(お)わってから、昼ご飯(ひるごはん)を食(た)べました。

たあとで

たあとで on the other hand, contains the word あと (the kanji is 後) which means later, behind, or after. たあとで is used to show that action B takes place after A, but it might not be immediately afterwards.

Taking the example sentence we used before:

ほんをよんでから、ねました

= I went to bed after reading a book

ほんをよんだあとで、ねました hon wo yonda atode, nemashita.

= I went to bed after reading a book (but between reading and going to bed I did other things, eg. brushed my teeth)

たあとで can also have the nuance of emphasising the fact that action B takes place after A (and not before). It’s good to remember that this grammar point uses the た form, which is the past tense in plain form.

ato de jlpt n5 japanese grammar

For instance, there is a famous book/ live action drama/ film called 「謎解き(なぞとき)はディナーのあとで」(The After-Dinner Mysteries). Using あとで emphasises that solving mysteries only takes place after dinner.

Further examples:

  • しゅくだいをしたあとで、ケーキを食(た)べましょう。
  • じゅぎょうのあとで、先生(せんせい)に質問(しつもん)をします。
  • 高校生(こうこうせい)になったあとで、ピアノを習(なら)いました。
  • ひらがなを勉強(べんきょう)したあとで、カタカナを勉強(べんきょう)します。

Vocabulary list:

本・ほん book

宿題・しゅくだい  homework

食べる・たべる  [godan verb] to eat

授業・じゅぎょう lesson

先生・せんせい teacher

質問・しつもん question –> 質問をする to ask a question

高校生・こうこうせい high school student

習う・ならう [godan verb] to learn –> ピアノを習う to learn (how to play) the piano

勉強・べんきょう study  –> …を勉強する to study…

謎・なぞ mystery –> 謎を解く・なぞをとく to solve a mystery

買い物・かいもの shopping –> 買い物する to go shopping

切符・きっぷ  ticket

仕事・しごと work, job

I haven’t written one of these posts in a very long time – the last one was almost 2 years ago! I hope someone finds this useful. If you have any feedback, please let me know in the comments!

Duolingo Japanese Course Review

I see a lot of people asking: is Duolingo any good for learning Japanese?

From my perspective as a long time Japanese learner, I believe that it can be a useful place to start learning the language.

However, if you are serious about learning Japanese, do not make Duolingo your only resource. As great as the app is for allowing you to practice Japanese and many other languages, it does have some limitations.

About Duolingo for Japanese

Duolingo is a free app for learning various languages. The Japanese course is designed to help you learn the basics through a number of lessons. Each lesson covers a different topic and introduces relevant vocabulary.

People who are not new to the language can take a proficiency test to jump ahead to later lessons.

Duolingo has you practicing new words in a few ways. Often this is by translating them from Japanese to English or vice versa, writing or rearranging sentences and filling in the missing word.

Duolingo has a crown system. By completing all of the lessons within a topic, you level up a crown for that topic. As your crown level increases, the complexity of the sentences does too.


Advantages and disadvantages of Duolingo for Japanese

What I like about the Duolingo Japanese course

There are some obvious benefits to learning Japanese with Duolingo:

  • It starts from teaching Hiragana. Katakana and kanji are gradually introduced, and they doesn’t use lots of romaji, except at the beginning.
  • The audio is clear. You can repeat it as much as you need to, which is great for shadowing. There are also sometimes options to hear the audio a little bit slower if you need it, by clicking on the button showing a tortoise.
  • Vocabulary is introduced by theme. With a new language, the amount of vocabulary to learn can feel overwhelming at times (particularly with Japanese). Introducing words and phrases by topic gives learners a better idea of how to form sentences around that topic.
  • It encourages you to make language learning a daily habit. Doing a little bit each day is much more effective than once a week. I think the Duolingo streak is a fun way to try and stay consistent with your learning.
  • The Duolingo community is friendly and helpful. During lessons, you can click on the comments button to see discussions regarding sentence translations.
  • If you are competitive, it is easy to compete against friends or other learners on the Duolingo leaderboard.

What I don’t like about the Duolingo Japanese course

On the other hand, the disadvantages of the Japanese course as I see it are:

  • Grammar is not explained at all (in the app, that is). Duolingo relies on inference to learn grammar, ie. by seeing a sentence pattern repeatedly you will work out what it means. This is usually fine for languages with a similar structure to English. Unfortunately, Japanese grammar is so different from English that it is hard to pick up on the differences simply from observing phrases in two languages.

For example, when Duolingo gives you the sentence:

アメリカ人です

= I am American

I would want to know why the Japanese doesn’t include the word ‘I’.

Fortunately, the desktop version does have grammar notes, which can be viewed before you start a lesson.

I think that these explanations are clear and cover a lot of the basics. However, sometimes the sentence patterns change within the same lesson but lack any explanations on why this happens.

An example of this that is introduced in the Food lesson is the sentence:

ごはんは食べません= I don’t eat rice

I would be confused as to why は is being suddenly used rather than を. Even on the Desktop app, the notes prior to this lesson introduce を as an object marker and there is no mention of how は could be used at all. I think it would be particularly difficult to pick up particle usage from the course.

The comments section goes a long way in filling some of the gaps in grammar explanations.

Having said that, I would be a little wary of some of the comments. After all, they are from fellow learners who may unintentionally give out incorrect information.

This is why a lot of Japanese learners would benefit from using other resources for grammar alongside Duolingo.

  • When it comes to hiragana, katakana and kanji, the focus is on recognition. Together with the fact that most questions are multiple choice, it is easy to think that you have learned all the kana when you are not studying it on a deeper level.
  • The introduction of katakana and kanji feels abrupt without explanation (again, I am referring to the app). This would be very confusing to learners without any background on how the various writing systems work.

It would be good for the app to explain how the pronunciations of kanji can vary – for example, 何 kanji is introduced within the first few lessons, but it appears in example sentences as both なに and なん.

Similarly, some vocabulary needs explanations, especially since a lot of English words can correlate to a number of different words in Japanese. Sometimes water is 水, sometimes it appears as お水.

  • Example sentences and their translations can feel a little off.

Part of this is because some Japanese phrases do not have an English equivalent. I have seen a noticeable improvement in this since the Japanese course was first released in beta. This is because of the many people who have been reporting suggestions on what should be accepted, which Duolingo have then added to the course.

Of course, this is a tough issue to address, but Japanese learners should be aware that the phrase Duolingo tells them is not necessarily the definitive answer in all situations.

What I think Duolingo needs to continue improving on is giving greater flexibility when it comes to writing the right answer. Japanese can be quite ambiguous, so there are many ways to interpret even the simplest sentences.

duolingo-japanese-course-itadakimasu
According to the comments, there are a few acceptable translations including “bon appetit”

Overall impressions of Duolingo for Japanese

Overall I feel that Duolingo is a fantastic starting point for those who are interested in learning Japanese. However in my opinion, the cookie-cutter format that Duolingo uses isn’t really compatible with the Japanese language.

By completing the whole tree, you are going to cover a lot of basic Japanese vocabulary, kanji and grammar. The sentences that you cover do increase in complexity but you will most likely reach an upper beginner level (JLPT N5) by the end.

This is great if you are thinking of travelling to Japan in the future. In fact, the last lesson on the Japanese language tree (at the time of writing) is about the Olympics!

If you like the style of Duolingo, but want to try something that addresses some of the issues I raised above, then I recommend checking out Lingodeer. Lingodeer is an app which has a similar format to Duolingo, but is more tailored to East Asian languages. I wrote about the app in my post on the best 7 Japanese learning apps on Android.

By writing this post, I do not mean to discourage people from learning Japanese if Duolingo is their only option. The more people study Japanese, the better! Japanese is a relatively recent addition to Duolingo and there are updates and improvements being made all the time.

I do however think it is important to be aware of the limitations of the course as I see it at the time of writing. At least you can be aware of what things you may need to be careful of or learn via another resources.


What to do alongside or after the Duolingo Japanese course

If you do have a long term goal of learning Japanese beyond beginner level, here are my top tips on making the most of Duolingo Japanese.

1) Use the Desktop version of the course

The desktop version of the course is going to help you understand the structure of Japanese much better than trying to guess grammatical rules.

I do think that it is best to study basic Japanese grammar from other resources where you can. Sometimes grammar makes more sense when you can see the same topic explained in different ways.

When it comes to textbooks, Genki I will help you build a solid foundation in Japanese grammar and comes with a workbook to practice with too. Online alternatives to Japanese textbooks include Tae Kim’s Grammar Guide and Human Japanese.

2) Practice hiragana, katakana and kanji outside the app/ website.

For learning kana you can use apps such as JustKana, Japanese Kana Dojo (iOS, Android), Dr Moku (iOS, Android), RealKana (iOS)

Marvellous online resources for kanji practice include Kanji Study app and Kanshudo.

If learning to write Japanese by hand is something you want to do, then make sure you are practising this alongside apps or online resources.

There are also some books you can get that focus on learning kana and kanji, such as the Basic Kanji Book.

3) Review vocabulary regularly.

The spaced repetition in Duolingo will only help you so much, and with a wide range of topics it can get hard to keep track of everything you’ve learned.

Make your own flashcards based on the vocabulary you encounter in the app. Either physical flashcards or flashcards on a program like Anki both work really well.

Duolingo has a sister app called Tinycards which you can find the flashcard decks for the kanji and vocabulary introduced in the Japanese course. The app is one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen!

4) Get in some real world listening and speaking practice

You want your learning to be as active as possible. I recommend trying out the following things depending on your interests:

Listening – Netflix, YouTube, podcasts

Reading – Watanoc, Hirogaru, children’s stories

Speaking/ WritingItalki, Hello Talk, Japanese classes, language exchanges and meetups

I want to end this post by saying that I believe that the most important thing in language learning is consistency in your studies rather than what resources you use (although some are definitely better than others!).

My How to Start Learning Japanese page has a lot more resources for beginners.

There is going to be an update to the Japanese course on Duolingo very soon (known as Japanese 2.0). This update will significantly increase the number of skills, kanji learnt and grammar that you learn. I look forward to giving it another try when it is officially released!

Chrome Extensions for Japanese learners – Part 2

I wrote a post about some useful Google Chrome extensions for Japanese learners quite a while ago. Since then I’ve found some more useful extensions that others might be interested in.

Duendecat

Duendecat is similar to Mainichi, which I mentioned in my first post on Chrome extensions. This extension will show a random Japanese sentence/ hiragana/ katakana/ word/ kanji when you open a new tab.

Extensions that allow you to study when you open a new tab are a great way to get in a little extra practice. I’m a big fan of studying Japanese through sentences, so I really like that Duendecat has this option as the default.

Initially, the sentence will appear in Japanese on its own. However, clicking on the Japanese sentence will make the English translation appear. I’ve found that there is a wide range of sentences covering various levels of formality.

duendecat-chrome-extension-learn-japanese

As you can see, furigana is provided above each kanji. Hovering over the kanji gives you the onyomi and kunyomi readings as well as a short English translation. If you use Wanikani to study kanji, then this is even more useful. You are able to set the difficulty of the sentence to match your Wanikani level. To set this up, just go to the options and add in your Wanikani API key.

By the way, the Duendecat website works in a similar way to the extension. You can study a range of sentences that are within your Wanikani level.

I think that the extension is a good one for beginners as they master hiragana, katakana and move on to kanji. I highly recommend it if you plan on using Wanikani.

Yomichan (*also available on Firefox)

I am a big fan of the Rikaikun extension, but I have found it less and less reliable recently. Fortunately, there is an alternative, called Yomichan. Having switched to this, I can say that this is one of the very best Chrome extensions for Japanese learners to have installed.

Like Rikaikun, when the extension is enabled, you can hover over a Japanese word to get its furigana reading and English meaning. Yomichan requires you to hold shift and hover over a word.

yomichan-chrome-extension-learn-japanese

You can then click on any of the kanji you look up to learn more about it:

yomichan-japanese-learning-chrome-extension
The kanji lookup feature provides plenty of useful information

If you just want to look up a word, you can use the Search function to look words up and get the same information.

Yomichan has a few additional features that set it apart from Rikaikun. Firstly, native speaker audio is available for a lot of words. Secondly, Yomichan offers integration with Anki (using a plugin called AnkiConnect), allowing you to instantly create flashcards from the words you look up.

For Yomichan to work you need to install at least one dictionary from their website which is very straightforward. JMDict is going to cover the majority of words you might need to look up, and is available in a number of languages besides English. There are other kanji, slang and name dictionaries available to download too. You can also import your own dictionary files using Yomichan Import.

Clearly a lot of hard work has gone into making this extension and it is an amazing tool for Japanese learners. It happens to be free but donations can be made via the homepage if you are able to.

LLN: Language Learning with Netflix or Subadub

I’ve given two options here as both extensions are to do with Netflix and subtitles. Readers on the blog will know that I do like Netflix for Japanese TV shows and films.

Dual language subtitles are really useful because it allows you to compare the differences in structure between the two languages. I had wished that you could enable two sets of subtitles on Netflix, and now you can with LLN: Language Learning with Netflix. If you are familiar with Viki’s learn mode, then this is pretty similar.

Subtitles are given in your target language with a translation into English. There are a few other options which this short video describes:


LLN supports a wide range of languages. Unfortunately at the time of writing, the integrated dictionary available for other languages does not support Chinese, Japanese or Korean.

This leads me to my alternative recommendation, Subadub.

Subadub is a bit different from LLN since Subadub provides enhanced language subtitles for your target language.

subadub-chrome-extensions-learn-japanese

The subtitles in subadub are readable text, which means you can copy and paste them. You can also use this in tandem with Yomichan to look up vocabulary and then add it to Anki.

The subtitles can also be downloaded in full if you like to make flashcards to study with. I think Subadub is a great resource for an intermediate level learner as a way of getting used to only having Japanese subtitles.

So those are my latest discoveries when it comes to Google Chrome Extensions for Japanese learners. Are there any extensions that you find useful (related to language learning or not)? Please tell me in the comments!

Japanese words with a different meaning from their component kanji

As a Japanese learner, you’ve probably seen the news on Ariana Grande’s tattoo fail online. If not, I’ll briefly fill you in on what happened.


七 (seven) + 輪 (ring, circle) = 七輪 (barbeque grill)!?

The singer intended to get a tattoo meaning ‘7 Rings’ (the name of her latest single) in Japanese on her hand. She posted an image of her new tattoo on social media last week.

However she may have been relying a bit too much upon Google Translate, since the tattoo she ended up with doesn’t quite mean what she intended it to. It turns out that the kanji compound she opted for is read as shichirin, which is the name for the small barbeque grills you find at yakiniku restaurants.

Pictures from Instagram: left is the original tattoo, the right is the revised version

Soon after being shared online, a lot of her fans were quick to look up the meaning of the tattoo and were pretty confused. Ariana then quickly got her tattoo changed to try and get the meaning closer to ‘7 Rings’.

Aside from not giving her future tattoo a quick search online, I think a lot of people studying Japanese may have seen the tattoo and not immediately thought of a barbeque grill.


Why does this happen in Japanese?

One reason for this is ateji (当て字). Ateji is the name given to words borrowed from other languages (mostly Chinese), where the kanji for that word were chosen based on their pronunciation rather than their meaning.

This is mostly the case for older loanwords, as newer loanwords are usually written with katakana.

However, you may see it in relation to the names of various countries, particularly in newspapers. For instance:

KanjiKana/ RomajiName in Katakana/ RomajiEnglish
えい / eiイギリス / igirisuEngland
ふつ / futsuフランス / furansuFrance
どく / dokuドイツ / doitsuGermany
西せい / seiスペイン / supeinSpain
ごう / gouオーストラリア / oosutorariaAustralia
か / kaカナダ / kanadaCanada
いん / inインド / indoIndia
い / iイタリア / itariaItaly

Sometimes these ateji readings are used in words in literature and TV to give them an artistic flair. If this is something you want to learn more about, I recommend checking out BuSensei’s social media feeds as he regularly posts about interesting kanji usage.

Another reason for this is that modern words are contractions of old sayings or idioms, which there are some examples of below.

Seeing the story about Ariana inspired me to look up other words which have a different meaning to the sum of the component kanji.

Here’s a few other words in Japanese which fall into this category.


馬 (horse) + 鹿 (deer) = 馬鹿 baka (idiot)

This is probably the most famous example amongst Japanese learners (although often written in hiragana), since we see it so much in the media.

The etymology of baka is contested, but there are two main theories. Baka could be a word derived from an old Chinese idiom (meaning ‘to point at a deer and call it a horse’, ie. deliberately misleading someone) or a loanword from Sanskrit.

寿 (longevity) + 司 (administer; servant) = 寿司 sushi

Like baka, sushi is thought to have two different origins.

The first is that it comes from the word 久し (ひさし/ hisashi), meaning long lasting (as in 久しぶり). This is why the kanji compound is made up of the kanji for longevity and the kanji for servant.

The second (ateji origin) is thought to be from the word ‘酸し’, (すし, meaning sour) which refers to the vinegar mixed with rice to help preserve the fish it was served with.

皮 (skin) + 肉 (meat, flesh) =  皮肉 hiniku (irony)

The origin for this compound is said to come from a longer phrase 皮肉骨髄 (literally meaning “skin meat bones marrow”) attributed to Buddhism in ancient China. ‘Bones and marrow’ were thought to show essential understanding, in contrast to ‘skin and meat’ which represented superficiality.

Consequently, 皮肉 was used as a way to criticise those who were unable to understand the true nature of something. This then developed into its modern meaning of irony.


(spear, halberd) + 盾 (shield) = 矛盾 mujun (contradiction)

This word too comes from Chinese. There is a story of a man who was selling spears and shields. He said that the spear and the shield were the strongest of their kind; the spear could not be beaten by any shield, and the shield could not be beaten by any spear. One person then asked, “what happens when you use the spear against the shield?”, which the seller was unable to answer.

This Youtube video explains the origin of the Chinese word better than I can:

十八 (18) + 番 (number) = 十八番 ohako (one’s special talent, party trick)

There are a few different potential origins for this word, but one of the most popular is to do with kabuki. The 歌舞伎十八番 (kabuki juuhachiban, ”Eighteen Best Kabuki Plays”) were a collection of plays chosen by the famous Ichikawa Danjuro line of kabuki actors. These were stored in a box to keep them safe, which is where the modern meaning is said to stem from. The number of plays is significant as eighteen is also thought to represent ‘a great number’ of things.

I remember hearing this word in a variety show and having no idea what it really meant. At the time, I assumed it had something to do with karaoke as the artist being interviewed went on to talk about her go-to karaoke songs. It makes a lot more sense now that I’ve learned more about the word!


猫 (cat) + 車 (vehicle) = 猫車 nekoguruma (wheelbarrow)

Again there are a number of different theories regarding the origin of this word. One is that the sound of a wheelbarrow moving is like a cat. Another is that wheelbarrows are long and thin, making them easy to move through relatively narrow spaces – something which cats are good at doing too.

Nowadays, 手押し車 (teoshiguruma) and 一輪車 (ichirinsha) are used as well as 猫車, which I think is a shame. The mental image of a cat wheelbarrow always makes me smile and sticks in my mind more easily!

In closing…

I think that this reiterates to learners of any language that putting two words together may just end up referring to another word with an entirely different meaning. I’m not a fan of Google Translate but I find that Google Images can be really useful for double checking the meaning of some vocabulary.

I am a bit late to the party with this post, but this is something I wanted to write about anyway. It’s been really interesting reading about the origins of words like this, which also led me to the useful Japanese website Gogen AllGuide. I think that these words having such unusual component kanji actually makes them a bit easier to remember!

Have you struggled with this type of word before? Let me know in the comments 🙂

Easy Japanese Manga Recommendation: Silver Spoon/ Gin no Saji

Today’s easy manga recommendation for Japanese learners is Silver Spoon/ Gin no Saji (銀の匙), a manga series created by Hiromu Arakawa.

Quick Facts

Author: Hiromu Arakawa (荒川弘)

Genre: Comedy, slice of life

No. of volumes: 14

Recommended for: JLPT N3/ intermediate

Furigana: Yes

Anime/ drama/ film adaptations?: Yes, anime and live-action film adaptations

Plot Overview

Yuugo Hachiken is a boy used to city life in Sapporo, Hokkaido. After failing to get the required grades for high school, he enrolls at a school called Oezo Agricultural High School.  

At first, Hachiken immediately stands out from his classmates as he doesn’t have any real desire to work within agriculture. Not having farming experience, the early mornings and plentiful homework come as surprise to him.

As Hachiken gets used to life at the school, he learns about the realities of working in agriculture. His classmates become a welcome source of support and through this he realises the importance of strong friendships.

Why do I recommend the manga?

Hiromu Arakawa is probably best known for her manga Fullmetal Alchemist. After completing Fullmetal Alchemist she intended to challenge herself with a different type of story. Silver Spoon is partially based on her own experiences growing up on a dairy farm in Hokkaido.

I think the manga does a great job at being entertaining whilst introducing information on a topic that is not known by most people. Since Hachiken knows nothing about farming, we learn about a variety of things as he does. This is helped by the easy to understand explanations – perfect for tricky pieces of vocabulary!

Some scenes are hilarious to read and they blend in seamlessly with the informative and heartwarming parts of the manga. Silver Spoon is very much a coming of age story. Fortunately Hachiken is a very likeable lead character, always going to great lengths to help out his classmates. You can’t help but root for him as he adapts to his new way of life and how he grows as a person because of it.

I am a little biased towards Hokkaido but it was nice to see a bit of Hokkaido dialect in the manga (eg. the ~べさ ending). Fun fact – the name of the school is also a reference to Hokkaido. The word (Y)ezo (蝦夷) is a Japanese word which was the previous name for Hokkaido and refers to the islands north of Honshu.

Recommended Japanese language level

I would probably recommend this to someone about JLPT N3 or intermediate level. As there is a high school setting, it helps to be familiar with casual forms of Japanese. For example:

マジっか = まじ (です) か? You serious?

There is some specialist farming vocabulary (although a lot of it gets explained). Fortunately, there is furigana so looking up words is a breeze. As mentioned earlier there is some Hokkaido dialect but this is pretty easy to understand as Hokkaido-ben is pretty similar to standard Japanese.

You can read a sample of this manga on the EbookJapan website by clicking the blue ‘無料立ち読み’ button.

The Silver Spoon anime is available to stream at places like Crunchyroll. There was a live action film released in 2014 – the Japanese trailer is below:

If you do try reading any of the recommendations, please let me know how you get on the comments. I am always on the hunt for beginner friendly manga, so if you have any suggestions please let me know!

Happy Reading!


Guest Post: Learn Japanese Food Through Guru Navi’s Dish of the Year (今年の一皿)

Following on from my post on Unseen Japan, I’m super excited to be publishing the first ever guest post on this blog, written by head writer Jay. This is a great post for foodies and Japanese learners alike!

Learn about the beautiful diversity of Japanese food through some of its more recent variations.
Rights attribution: よっちゃん必撮仕事人 / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

One of the things I’ve learned over the years of studying Japanese is how much more rich and diverse Japanese food is than I first thought.

As an American, my primary exposure to Japanese cuisine is through the small subsection that’s become popular in America – namely ramen, udon, sushi (primarily 巻き寿司 (maki-zushi), or rolled sushi) and Japanese curry. So when I first arrived in Japan, I received quite a shock.

I wasn’t accustomed to the serving style of washoku (和食), where a number of small dishes are artfully prepared and presented. I didn’t realize that tofu could be prepared so many ways. I had no inkling of the numerous ingredients that were specific to Japanese cuisine – such as kamaboko (蒲鉾), a rolled fish paste, and konnyaku (コンニャク; 蒟蒻), a gelatin made from potatoes.

And I hardly knew just how popular Japanese takes on Western food were.

As diverse as Japanese food is, its diversity intensifies every year as creative food bloggers and restaurants invent new spins on old favorites, or adopt Western dishes to suit the Japanese palette. The smartphone app company Guru Navi (think of them as the Yelp of Japan) recognizes these innovations every December by naming a “Plate of the Year” (今年の一皿; kotoshi no hitosara).

In this article, I’ll give you, gentle reader, a tour of Japanese cuisine by way of some of its most recent innovations, as well as some of the tantalizing runners-up. Hopefully, this short introduction to Japanese cuisine will not only help you understand not only the richness of Japanese food, but some of the unique vocabulary associated with it as well.

2015: Onigirazu (おにぎらず)

learn-japanese-food-onigirazu
Making onigirazu is simple, and should appeal to the lazy person in all of us.
Rights Attribution: marrmya(画房マルミヤ) / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

This is one of my favorite past winners, if only because it’s such a great way to remember a Japanese grammatical construct!

Most Japanese learners who’ve been to Japan know of onigiri, a rice patty treated with sushi vinegar (寿司酢; sushi-su) and wrapped in seaweed (海苔; nori). The term itself consists of the honorific o- married to the noun form of the verb 握る (nigiru), meaning “to grip”.

Onigirazu is a variation on onigiri. The word is made by using the -zu grammatical construct, which means “without doing”. (E.g., the –zu form of 思う (omou), “to think”, is 思わずに, “without thinking”.) So onigirazu literally means “without gripping”. And that’s exactly what it is: a sushi “sandwich” made by lightly folding the nori wrapper around the sushi rice, and then cutting it in half like a sandwich. Some sort of filling – egg, meat, spam, or fish – is inserted into the rice to add flavor and nutrition, and to help the dish look pretty as all heck.

Guru Navi cites several reasons for choosing onigirazu for its 2015 winner. First, with an increasing number of tourists coming to Japan, onigirazu is a great way to get people talking by offering a new spin on a traditional favorite. Second, the popularity of onigirazu in 2015 spread beyond the Japanese home, and found its way onto various restaurant menus, making it a new culinary phenomenon. Third, with people in Japan eating less rice than ever before out of health concerns, onigirazu is a good way to encourage consumption of one of Japan’s oldest national food products.

2015 Runners-Up

Five other dishes were nominated for 2015, including but not limited to:

  • Japanese whiskey (ジャパニーズウイスキー). Thanks in part to clever advertising and the resurgence of the Japanese highball, the Japanese whiskey industry experienced a huge boom that continues to this day.
  • Nodoguro (のどぐろ). A well prepared fish makes for a great Japanese meal, and in 2015, the rare and expensive blackthroat seaperch was the culinary sensation of the nation.
  • Superfood (スーパーフード). Given Japan’s health conscious focus, it’s no wonder that foods such as goji berries and quinoa made their presence felt in 2015.

2016: Cilantro Cuisine (パクチー料理; pakuchii ryouri)

learn-japanese-food-pakuchii-cilantro
If your taste buds hate cilantro, then I apologize for this picture.
Rights Attribution: マーボー / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

My Tokyo-born wife, who insists that cilantro (a.k.a. coriander) tastes like lukewarm dish soap water, was probably none too happy about 2016’s selection.

Once primarily a staple of ethnic food in Japan, in 2016 cilantro crossed over into mainstream cuisine. One of the most popular variations was the cilantro salad (パクチーサラダ), which can be made many different ways, but always features a big heap (山盛り; yamamori – “mountain-sized portion”) of cliantro as the main ingredient. But the ingredient also found its way into traditional nabe (鍋; hot pot) recipes, as well as into cocktails and even candy.

The word pakuchii is a loan word (外来語 gairaigo) from Thai (ผักชี). Part of its appeal is, not surprisingly, its influence on health and wellness: the Vitamin K and calcium in cilantro fosters blood coagulation and healthy bones. The ingredient gained such popularity in Japan that it spawned a neologism: パクチスト (pakuchisuto), or “Cilantro-ist”. There are still festivals (パクチーフェス; pakuchii fesu) celebrating the food. (Here’s a video tour by Japanese vlogger Ayano, just in case you think I’m pulling a fast one.)

Video: Vlogger Ayano takes viewers on a tour of a Cilantro Festival

2016 Runners-Up

Some of the 2016 also-rans include:

  • Japanese Wine (日本ワイン; nihon wain). Japan continued to booze it up in 2016, with locally produced wine finally finding respect in the marketplace.
  • New Style Gyoza (進化系餃子; shinkakei gyouza). What’s wrong with gyoza? Nothing! But in 2016 restaurants and home cooks began experimenting with new and unique ways they could make delicious bites with gyoza wrappers. Check out some of the deliciousness for yourself here.
  • Roast Beef Bowl (ローストビーフ丼; roosuto biifu donburi). The classic donburi bowl got a makeover in 2016 when someone discovered that piling it high with roast beef and topping it with a raw egg tasted as good as it sounds.

2017: Chicken Breast Cuisine (鶏むね肉料理; tori mune niku ryouri)

learn-japanese-food-chicken-breast
In 2017, health-conscious Japan fell in love with lean chicken breast.
Rights Attribution: NikDonetsk / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Sometimes I think the Japanese are just smarter than us Americans. Exhibit A: chicken. While chicken has been a staple of the Japanese diet for years, Japanese cuisine traditionally uses the chicken thigh (もも; momo), which contains fat and, you know, flavor.

In 2017, however, Japan caught up with the West and began introducing chicken breast (むね; mune) into dishes in a big way. As usual, of course, Japan put its unique spin on the ingredient.

Chicken breast by itself tastes about as inviting as a cardboard and sandpaper sandwich. Additionally, as anyone who’s cooked it knows, it’s easy to dry out. Japanese chefs overcame this problem through various techniques, such as marinating the breast in shiokouji (塩麹). Shiokouji is a pickling solution that’s a variation on the traditional sagohachitzuke (三五八漬け); whereas sagohacitzuke uses salt, rice malt, and rice in a 3:5:8 ratio, shiokouji uses just rice malt, salt, and water.

Others took a play from another popular American trend and used sous vide – cooking in water in vacuum sealed bags – to cook the meat evenly without drying it out. And still others just fried the stuff, karaage style – which definitely takes it out of the realm of health foods, but puts it in the realm of firmly delicious.

2017 Runners-Up

  • Japan Tea Sweets (日本茶スイーツ; nihoncha suiitsu). Some clever bastard discovered that sencha, matcha, and houjicha taste wonderful when combined with sugar, fat and flour, and it was off to the races.
  • Neo Sake (Neo日本酒; neo nishonshu). Once facing extinction as a drink of the past, distilled rice wine got a shot in the arm from young sake makers who weren’t afraid to try new twists on old recipes.
  • Cheese Ribs (チーズタッカルビ; chiizu takkaribu). That’s just what it sounds like: barbequed ribs dipped fondue-style in cheese. This South Korean delicacy became a hit in Japan for 2017 for reasons that, I must confess, escape me.

2018: Saba (鯖)

learn-japanese-food-mackerel
“You can’t eat me! I’m ADORABLE!”
Rights Attribution: masa / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

As an island nation, it should be no surprise that Japanese cuisine is rich in seafood. But Japan is also an island plagued by natural disasters. And 2018 was a particularly trying year: from the killer heat to deadly floods, from the Hokkaido earthquake to Typhoon Jebi, it seemed like the Land of the Rising Sun had become the Land of the Sinking Ship.

This year’s disasters inspired Guru Navi’s choice of mackerel, or saba (鯖), as its Dish of 2018. Beset by disaster, people in Japan became more concerned with stockpiling canned foods that would last even if the power were out for a long time (as it was last year in Sapporo after the earthquake, and in the Kyoto area after the floods). Saba is also something of a natural culinary treasure – one that Guru Navi is hoping can be disseminated outside of Japan as well. There are no less than 20 major national brands of saba. Additionally, many small coastal towns are selling their own saba in hopes of helping revitalize areas that have seen their young move off to major cities.

The selection of seafood for 2018’s Dish of the Year is especially poignant in light of the historic shuttering of the Tsukiji Fish market, which just a few months ago moved to its new home in Toyosu. With so much attention on the Japanese fishing industry, it’s an ideal time to remind the world just how amazing Japanese 海鮮料理 (kaisen ryouri; seafood) can be.

2018 Runners-Up

  • High-End White Bread (高級食パン; koukyuu shokupan). If you haven’t eaten white bread made at a Japanese パン屋さん (panya-san), you just can’t understand.
  • “Numbing” Cuisine (しびれ料理; shibire ryouri). Featured in the show The Solitary Gourmet (孤独のグルメ; kodoku no Gurume), available on Netflix, Japanese foodies went wild this year for this side of Szechuan cooking (Japanese: shisen ryouri; 四川料理) that’s so spicy, it literally numbs your face.
  • Made in Japan Lemons (国産レモン; kokusan remon). Tired of eating lemons coated with anti-molding agents used to help them survive the trip, people in Japan helped quell the summer heat this season with lemons grown primarily in Hiroshima Prefecture.

Conclusion

Guru Navi’s award winners are an interesting mix of foreign influence, variations of traditional favorites, and a re-discovery of classic recipes. Even the 16 food and drink items mentioned here, however, barely skim the surface of Japanese cuisine. As you expand your Japanese skills, try diving into a few Japanese restaurant website menus online, and accustom yourself to the unknown terms and kanji you’re sure to encounter.

About the Author:

Jay Andrew Allen is the head writer and publisher of Unseen Japan. He holds an N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and is currently studying for Level 3 of the Kanji Kentei. Jay lives in Seattle with his children and his wife, Aya. 

Have you tried any dishes mentioned above? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.

Of the dishes I have tried, I really like onigirazu which I first learned about from reading Cooking Papa!

Difficult Japanese words (for me to pronounce)

It is said that Japanese pronunciation is easy for native English speakers, but I think that this can make them complacent. Whilst a lot of sounds in Japanese also exist in English, there are still lots of differences between these sounds. This means that there are still quite a few difficult words to say in Japanese.

After reading this SoraNews24 article on the hardest Japanese words to pronounce, I had a think about the Japanese words that I find difficult with. My list is as follows:

暖かい あたたかい/ atatakai = warm 

笑われた わらわれた/ warawareta = was laughed at 

現れる あらわれる/ arawareru = to appear 

恋愛   れんあい/ ren’ai = love, romance 

範囲 はんい/ han’i = extent, scope 

全員 ぜんいん/ zen’in = all members 

婚約 こんにゃく/ kon’nyaku = engagement 

雰囲気 ふんいき/ fun’iki = mood, ambience 

遠慮 えんりょ/ en’ryo = hestitation, restraint

旅行 りょこう/ ryokou = travel 

料理 りょうり/ ryouri = cooking, cuisine 

This was actually a useful exercise for me, because it got me thinking about the types of sounds I need to keep working on to improve my pronunciation.

I then came across the following video by JapanesePod101 which brought up a lot of similar sounding words to my list.

I’m assuming a lot of these words are trickier for those that only speak English. However, I think 暖かい -> 暖かくなかった would be on most people’s lists – I can never remember if I have said enough た’s!

That word aside, I can pretty much characterise my difficult Japanese words into about three rough categories:

Words which mix w- and r- sounds:

  • 笑われた わらわれた was laughed at
  • 現れる あらわれる to appear

As a child, I always used to struggle with differentiating w- and r- sounds in English; for instance, I remember pronouncing “rainbow” as “wainbow” by accident quite a lot! This is quite common with young children and you usually grow out of it.

For some reason when it comes to Japanese I get tongue tied when I have to quickly switch between w- and r- sounds!

Words that have ‘n’ as a consonant in the middle

  • 恋愛 れんあい love
  • 範囲 はんい extent, scope
  • 全員 ぜんいん all members
  • 婚約 こんやく engagement
  • 雰囲気 ふんいき mood, ambience

‘N’ often sounds like its English counterpart, but depending on its position within words it can sound more like a ‘m’ or a ‘ng’.

This difference in sound reflects how the Japanese ‘n’ is more nasalised following certain sounds.

In addition, the other thing that I find difficult is not blending the sounds together when ‘n’ is followed by a vowel. For example, ‘renai’ should be pronounced so that the sounds ‘ren’ and ‘ai’ are separate – unfortunately it often comes out as ‘ren nai’ or ‘re nai’.

Words which have lots of r sounds, especially include ‘rya’/ ‘ryu’/ ‘ryo’

  • 旅行 りょこう travel
  • 料理 りょうり cooking

My pronunciation of the Japanese R has improved with some practice, but I struggle a lot with the ’rya’ and ‘ryo’ sounds in particular.

Words with ‘n’ followed by ‘r’

  • 遠慮 えんりょ reserve, constraint

Further examples – 心理 しんり/ state of mind, 管理 かんり/ management, control

The word 遠慮 combines two of my biggest pronunciation difficulties! Fortunately, Dogen explains how to pronounce this particular sound combination in this clip from his excellent pronunciation course.

Tips for tackling difficult Japanese words

As this is very much a work in progress for me, I am still looking at various methods to improve my pronunciation. There are a couple of things that I think are helping so far.

Train your ears and your mouth

Firstly, I’ve been reading about how I should be making the sounds in terms of mouth shape and tongue movement. When I listen to spoken Japanese now, I pay more attention to how the sounds are made, especially for difficult Japanese words.

I think that this ear training is an important first step in making your pronunciation more accurate. Dogen’s course mentioned above covers this in a lot of detail and is helping me a lot. I’ve also been dedicating some time to shadowing, which I am intending to write about in another post. I’ve been using Japanese tongue twisters as a warm up exercise!

Record myself and listen back to it

One thing I might do more often is to record myself speaking – as embarassing as it feels to do this, it is much easier to pick up on your own mistakes this way.

I’ve been learning Japanese for a relatively long time and so these bad pronunciation habits are probably ingrained into how I speak. For this reason, I am not expecting quick results and intend to focus on developing a regular pronunciation practice routine in order to improve how I sound in Japanese.

Remember, just because you find certain words difficult now doesn’t mean that you will never be able to pronounce them more accurately!

japanese-pronunciation

I imagine that a lot of these words will be much easier for speakers of other languages. I often hear that Japanese pronunciation is easy for Spanish speakers.

Which words do you find difficult to pronounce? Do you think the languages you already speak help you with Japanese pronunciation? Let me know in the comments!

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