Japanese language

‘Unlocking Japanese: Making Japanese as simple as it really is’ Book Review

I always like reading content that really tries to break down how the Japanese language works for learners. Having previously read and reviewed Making Sense of Japanese by Jay Rubin on this blog, I picked up Unlocking Japanese: Making Japanese as simple as it really is (2016) by Cure Dolly in eBook format. Unlocking Japanese is clearly influenced by Rubin’s book, but Cure Dolly’s approach is slightly different. It was inevitable that I made comparisons between the two books, but I have tried to evaluate Unlocking Japanese on its own merits.

Cure Dolly is the pen name for the author of the Japanese study website Kawaii Japanese, or KawaJapa for short. On both the website and in this book, Cure Dolly takes the view that thinking about Japanese grammar first requires a change in mindset. They focus on the importance of getting used to the nature of Japanese grammar by understanding it but not necessarily relating it to English grammar structures.

The book applies this thought to a few common aspects of Japanese which confuse learners. The book has sections on topics such as particles (particularly は, が and を), adjectives, the passive form and the uses of そう.

What I liked about the book

Firstly, I like the flow of the chapters – I think each of the later chapters builds nicely upon the ones before it. In addition, I also appreciate the emphasis that Cure Dolly puts on the fact that every sentence has a subject, even if this is omitted from the sentence itself (the same is true for Rubin’s book).

I think it is a useful book to read for helping to understand fundamental Japanese grammar, though like Making Sense of Japanese it assumes you are generally familiar with how to conjugate verbs and adjectives. As a result, whilst the book would be most useful to beginners, I can’t recommend it to people who have just started learning the language.

What I disliked

Unlocking Japanese’s strengths and weaknesses are rather similar to Making Sense of Japanese in my opinion. I found it harder to read the parts where there are anecdotal stories and less relevant rambles (eg. How other textbooks do not cover certain aspects of the Japanese language), which is quite frequent throughout.

I also found some chapters a little repetitive in the points being made, which is quite noticeable as the book is pretty short. Furthermore, the book wants its readers not to rely on romaji, but all example sentences in this book have romaji transcriptions!

Overall thoughts

Honestly, I find Cure Dolly’s approach to Japanese quite refreshing. Some Japanese learning material tends to be fairly similar in style – a bit stiff and old fashioned. I do think there are some useful insights covered in Unlocking Japanese. However, I don’t think the style in which it is written will appeal to everyone.

Cure Dolly has a YouTube channel with videos covering some of the main themes of the book as well as learning Japanese in general. I think watching these would be a better way to learn about the useful stuff in this book (if you can put up with the very odd voices). I recommend reading the sample to see if the style and content is something you like before purchasing.

Have you read this book, or used any of Cure Dolly’s videos to help you study? Please let me know what you think in the comments!

Overcoming a language learning plateau

Hitting a language learning plateau can be stressful. When you first start learning a language, you can often feel your progress at the end of each study session. Knowing that you are picking up new information so quickly is an amazing, almost addicting feeling.

Sadly, this sense of rapid progress doesn’t last forever and no matter what level you are, you might reach a point where your proficiency remains the same. I’ve definitely been feeling a bit stressed from the feeling stuck recently, especially when trying to set myself some goals for the year.

Image by Makalu from Pixabay

So how do you deal with hitting a plateau – when all your hard work doesn’t seem to be resulting in any progress at all?

Getting out of the language learning plateau 

Hitting a plateau is incredibly common, but sometimes our perceived lack of progress is exactly that – a perception. Excessively worrying about perceived lack of progress is a waste of time, so use the plateau as an opportunity to make positive changes. With that in mind, here are a few things that have helped me improve my language learning mindset:

Set a new goal or challenge for yourself

We can end up in a rut where we have achieved past goals and might have subconsciously gotten too comfortable at our current level. The solution is to keep working towards new goals that you need to strive for. Is there an aspect of the language you’ve been avoiding? Time to tackle it!

For example, with Japanese I was so anxious about learning keigo (formal/ honorific language). I knew I needed to tackle it but I was lacking confidence at first. Fortunately, a couple of lessons focused on keigo helped me feel a lot better about studying it on my own. Not only that, it led to a huge improvement in understanding Japanese at shops and restaurants as well as in more formal situations.

Similarly, you could set yourself a challenge such as:

  • learning a new hobby through your target language
  • read a certain number of books in a month/ year
  • write a short story or essay 
  • give a speech on a certain topic

I’ve written a bit about language learning challenges on the blog. I even made up my own 30-day Japanese writing challenge as a way to push myself!

Sometimes at an intermediate level the amount of vocabulary you know makes a huge difference, so you might need to change your focus a little bit. This leads me nicely on to my next suggestion:

Change up your learning routine

The language learning plateau can be a result of boredom, where we end up doing the bare minimum. Try prioritising different skills for a few weeks at a time to keep things fresh. 

You can also look at other ways to refresh your language routine, such as studying at a different time or place than usual. Similarly, the resources you are using could be limiting your potential. Carry out a mini audit of what you use currently. Is it time to replace a resource with something else?

It might seem counterintuitive, but you might just need to give yourself a break. Intense study for long periods of time can lead to burnout. Make sure you are taking regular breaks and that you also have a good balance of studying grammar/ vocab with more fun activities in your target language.

Reach out to others

Hitting a language learning plateau can be really difficult to deal with on your own. Talk through your language routine with someone else – they may be able to point out a gap in your learning that you hadn’t noticed before.

The other benefit of doing this is to help stay motivated. Sometimes just one conversation can remind you remember why you started learning a language in the first place. Social media is really useful for this when you don’t know any local language learners! If you haven’t been interacting with native speakers much, reach out to someone on Hello Talk or iTalki.

When we fall into a routine it can become harder to spot potential areas for improvement. The language learning plateau is a scary place to be, but it is important not to get discouraged and keep going. The changes you make when you feel you are plateauing are key to your future success. Keep going and you will eventually break through!

Have you experienced a plateau or dip recently? Comment down below with how you managed to overcome it 🙂

An Update

It’s been a while – ひさしぶり!

Sorry for the long unexpected hiatus – like many people 2020 has not turned out the way we had hoped. Having to do everything that comes with running a blog felt very overwhelming for a large part of this year, so I had to take a break. I consider myself very lucky to still have a full-time job and healthy friends/ family. However, I’ve still struggled to process everything that has happened this year. Getting through the year in itself feels like a huge achievement.

Even though I’ve been away, I can see that lots of people are still taking the time to read the blog. I am honestly very happy if my blog has helped anyone in what has been a very strange year.

I am working hard to get back into a regular posting routine and update older posts. Who knows what will happen in 2021 – I plan to take one month at a time and focus on small goals. Let’s stay positive!

In the meantime, if you have any suggestions or resources you’d like me to review please let me know.

Decade Challenge: Japanese Learning Resources Edition!

It’s 2020 – あけましておめでとうございます!

The previous decade seems to have gone by so quickly, and so many things have changed. Whilst I haven’t been studying Japanese intensively for some time now, I can still confidently say that my Japanese is much better than it was 10 years ago! 

I first started looking online for Japanese study resources in about 2007, although that was still a while before I became serious about learning the language. By 2010 I had a few go-to resources that I used before, and just after I started to study Japanese at university in 2010. I thought it would be interesting to look back to the start of the decade and look at what resources I found useful. At the time, I was probably an upper beginner (probably JLPT N4 level) in terms of vocabulary and kanji with an admittedly shaky knowledge of Japanese grammar.

Funnily enough, all of these resources still exist in some form today! So in no particular order, here are 10 resources I was using 10 years ago.

1. Tae Kim’s Guide to Japanese Grammar

This website hardly needs any introduction to Japanese beginners. Unlike the textbook I was using at the time, the clear explanations of Japanese grammar just clicked better when reading Tae Kim’s guide. I was also a big fan of the mini vocab lists and example sentences which saved me having to consult a dictionary every 5 seconds. I still highly recommend this website to beginner learners.

2. Basic Kanji Book

I had to use Basic Kanji Book volumes 1 and 2 as part of my university Japanese classes. Each volume teaches you 250 essential kanji split over 20 or so chapters, with stroke order, common compounds, and radicals. I found Basic Kanji Book easy to follow and its clear layout gave me a good idea as to how to structure my kanji learning when I moved on from the books.

Sadly, I’m not sure if this book is still in print now. There are of course many more kanji learning resources out there today; this is not a flashy book by any means but I still look back on my time using it with great fondness.

3. Oxford Learners Japanese-English dictionary

Sometimes larger dictionaries contain too much detail and are simply overwhelming. This dictionary was recommended to me as a supplementary resource to use for simpler explanations aimed at Japanese learners. Unlike other Japanese dictionaries available to me at the time, this dictionary uses hiragana/ katakana rather than romaji.

For an A5 sized book, this dictionary packs in a lot of content. Aside from dictionary entries, there is also a grammar section including a verb conjugation table and notes on Japanese culture.

4. Coscom

Before I knew about NHK News Easy, this was my go-to website for simple Japanese reading practice. Not all content is free, but the stuff that is available is still very useful for beginners, especially if you are interested in the news. 

Each article has audio and it is possible to toggle between romaji, kana or kanji & kana. There’s also sentence by sentence breakdowns and vocabulary lists too. The website does look a bit dated, especially 10 years later but the quality is still there.

5. The Japanese Page

This may have been one of my favourite Japanese learning websites 10 years ago. I particularly liked the easy Japanese grammar explanations and vocabulary related posts such as this one on Thanksgiving. I don’t use it now but there are some useful articles for beginners.

6. iKnow

Studying with sentences was a relatively new concept to me back then, and iKnow was my first introduction to learning Japanese in this way. iKnow is a website designed for Japanese learners where you learn new vocabulary with sentences and pictures. I learned a great deal of vocabulary by studying for a few minutes every day.

In 2010, iKnow was a free service but soon after this it became a monthly subscription service. There are free alternatives out there (namely Anki) where you can import the Core 2000 decks.

7. Lang-8

Ten years ago, Lang 8 was the place to get your writing corrected by native speakers. I tried to keep a weekly diary on Lang 8 but I stopped when I had my own essays to write at university. The community on there was great and I always got quick, useful feedback from other users.

Whilst Lang-8 is still around, the no longer accepts new account registrations (the company has pooled its resources into HiNative instead). Nowadays HelloTalk is probably the best alternative out there.

8. Japanesepod101

The in your face advertising was and still is offputting, but the content on the JapanesePod101 website was extremely useful to me 10 years ago. I used to like listening to the podcast on my MP3 player for grammar points covering aspects that I found tricky. The short episodes meant that the lessons were engaging without getting information overload. 

JapanesePod101’s YouTube channel remains a useful resource for all sorts of things relating to learning Japanese.

9. JMDICT, aka Jim Breen’s J-E dictionary

This online dictionary doesn’t have the slick interfaces that we largely expect nowadays, but it is definitely one of the best quality Japanese to English dictionaries on the internet. Jim Breen’s was my go to dictionary when I began to read online, which I found really useful for names in particular. The dictionary was made at a time when it was a struggle to display Japanese on Western computers, something that I like many other learners have probably never thought about before. I am very thankful that Jim managed to build this essential resource!

10. Rikaichan browser add on

As useful as JMDICT is, Rikaichan was truly a game changer for me. 

Rikaichan allows you to look up the meaning of a Japanese word just by hovering over it.  10 years ago I used Firefox as my main internet browser, and Rikaichan was an add on that you could download and use for free! It made reading any sort of material online a much easier and more enjoyable process, which I will always be grateful for.

When Firefox upgraded to Firefox quantum a couple of years ago, a new add on called Rikaichamp was created to replace it. I use Google Chrome now, and use a similar browser extension called Yomichan for the same easy lookups.

How has your approach to language learning changed (if at all) since you first started? Let me know in the comments!

Yasashii Nihongo – help or hindrance?

Japan is seeing an increased influx of foreigners, both to work and visit for events such as the recent Rugby World Cup. In order to meet these needs, Japan has been working on ways to communicate important information for visitors. With a number of natural disasters like Typhoon Hagibis, やさしい日本語 or yasashii nihongo has been highlighted as an essential lifeline for non-fluent speakers of Japanese in Japan. 

Some places have used pins like these to encourage the use of yasashii nihongo (the left is for foreigners and the right is for Japanese people)

What is yasashii nihongo?

Yasashii Nihongo is a form of Japanese that caters to people who come to Japan but are not fluent in the language. Many people will try to learn some of the language before travelling or living in the country, but the Japanese language has a few hurdles which make the language difficult to understand even if you know the basics.

As it happens yasashii nihongo is a pun since it can be interpreted in two ways (regular readers will know that I appreciate a good Japanese pun!). The word やさしい has two separate kanji, which have separate meanings.

優しい Kind, gentle, nice

易しい Easy, simple, plain

The following Youtube video is aimed at Japanese people but is a nice introduction to yasashii nihongo: 

The benefits of simpler Japanese are obvious in emergency situations, but it can play a positive role when it comes to other areas such as the workplace, healthcare and tourism. As you might expect, local governments are playing a leading role in helping their new citizens live more comfortably.

As outlined in the video, the three main differences between standard and easy Japanese are:

  1. Speak concisely
  2. Speak in complete sentences
  3. Don’t use keigo/ honorific language (use polite desu-masu form instead)

Essentially, yasashii nihongo aims to convey information in the shortest, simplest way possible. 

Speaking in complete sentences with frequently used words eliminates the ambiguity that the Japanese language tends to have. In particular, the use of honorific language is a huge barrier for people learning Japanese – it is generally something you learn once you have a solid foundation in the language but is used in a lot of common situations.

Other ways to simplify Japanese often include:

  • Adding furigana to all kanji used 
  • Putting the most important information at the start of the sentence
  • Not using loanwords or onomatopoeia*
  • Avoiding double negatives
  • Only one piece of information per sentence

Japanese learners may already be familiar with NHK News Easy, which are newspaper style articles written in yasashii nihongo

Types of yasashii nihongo

Yasashii nihongo comes in many forms. You can see this in how different cities and prefectures in Japan publish official information for visitors.

On the one hand, the City of Yokohama writes using common kanji with furigana, and defines more difficult words in brackets.

In contrast, some prefectures only use hiragana with spaces between words, such as in this tweet from Nagano prefecture:

Why is it controversial?

The truth is, one version of yasashii nihongo does not fit all, which has caused some debate in the wake of typhoon Hagibis.

Some groups will find certain types of yasashii nihongo easier to understand. For example, the use of loanwords written in katakana might seem like a good idea – however some loanwords are false friends* or pronounced so differently in Japanese that it would not be easily understood. On the other hand, heavy use of kanji would help someone with knowledge of Chinese, but would likely be a disadvantage to others.

Similarly, depending on your current language level, certain types of yasashii nihongo may feel more difficult to read than others. Having spaces between words might really help newcomers to Japanese, but more experienced learners may find that the spaces disrupt their flow of reading.

In my opinion, any form of Japanese that avoids keigo and ambiguous language would make a huge difference for learners. However just looking at the examples I found above, there is so much variation in what is considered ‘easy’ that some yasashii texts might be just as difficult as standard Japanese! 

After the typhoon, I saw a lot of people online who were annoyed at some prefectures’ use of all hiragana. I found this strange, since ultimately in emergency situations, information needs to be made as simple as possible so that it benefits the greatest number of people.

What do you guys think? Let me know in the comments!

Monthly Favourites: November 2019

After a 3 month break from blogging (oops), I wanted to switch things up a little bit and talk about resources or Japanese media that I enjoyed last month. You might find them useful!

A Podcast: 4989 American Life

This podcast had been recommended to me a couple of times, but I finally got around to listening to it.

The podcast is hosted by Utaco, a Japanese woman who now lives in the USA. She talks a lot about her experiences moving countries and seeing American life and culture from a Japanese perspective.

It’s a good choice for Japanese learners since she speaks very clearly and at a comfortable pace (not too fast, not too slow). I feel that the podcast’s casual conversational vibe is a nice way to relax, or listen to whilst doing chores.

Note: the name of the podcast is interesting – the ‘4989’ could be read in Japanese as shiku hakku (4 = shi, 9 = ku, 8 = ha(small tsu), 9 = ku), or 四苦八苦 which is a 4 character compound (yojijukugo) meaning ‘to be in a lot of distress’.

An Anime: ハイキュー!!/ Haikyuu!!

A couple of weeks ago, I realised that Haikyuu!! (taken from the Japanese word for volleyball, usually written in kanji as 排球) had been added to Netflix’s growing collection of anime shows. Haikyuu follows junior high student Shoyo Hinata who dreams of becoming a volleyball player despite his short height. His first official match goes horribly, but he is still determined to take his team to the top.

I wouldn’t consider myself a fan of volleyball at all, but I found myself hooked after watching the first episode. This is very typical of the shonen genre but that is not intended as an insult. Haikyuu’s message of friendship and hard work is helping to keep me motivated with my Japanese studies!

Although there are obviously some sporting and volleyball specific terms, the language used in Haikyuu is pretty straightforward. 

A Novel: ぼくたちは神様の名前を知らない by 五十嵐貴久

Takahisa Igarashi writes across a variety of genres, from romcom to horror and suspense. Some of his works have been adapted into dramas, including a Freaky Friday style drama called パパとムスメの7日間 which I watched over 10 years ago! Even so, this novel seems to be quite a departure from his other works but I am still finding the novel an engaging read (I am almost finished reading it).

A group of friends meet up in Hokkaido upon hearing that a member of their group has died in strange circumstances. It turns out that the friends were all connected to the March 2011 earthquake disaster, and all ended up being separated from each other as a result. The novel explores how the disaster affected each character but also how we change in our teenage years. The plot reminds me of Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day (Japanese title あの日見た花の名前を僕達はまだ知らない), which I have also been reading recently in manga form.

Language-wise, it is fairly easy to read, given that the characters are all middle schoolers. You can find the novel in eBook format in the Amazon Kindle Store (at least in the UK) if you want to read a sample.

PS. I’ve always thought Igarashi (五十嵐) was a super cool family name – literally ‘50 storms’! 

What resources or media have you enjoyed recently? Let me know in the comments!

Easy Japanese Manga Recommendation: Yuzu no Doubutsu Karute/ Yuzu’s Medical Records of Animals

Today’s easy manga recommendation for Japanese learners is Yuzu’s Medical Records of Animals/ Yuzu no Doubutsu Karute (ゆずのどうぶつカルテ), a manga series created by Mingo Ito.

Quick Facts

Full title: ゆずのどうぶつカルテ〜こちらわんニャンどうぶつ病〜

Author: Mingo Ito (伊藤みんご)

Genre: Comedy, slice of life

No. of volumes: 7

Recommended for: JLPT N4/ upper beginner

Furigana: Yes

Anime/ drama/ film adaptations?: No

Plot Overview 

Yuzu Morino is a young girl who has to move in with her uncle, Akihito after her mother is hospitalised. Akihito is a veterinarian who runs the town’s animal practice. Yuzu is not really a fan of animals and so doesn’t enjoy staying with Akihito at first. But her experiences of helping at pets (and their owners) soon begins to have a positive effect on her.

Why do I recommend the manga?

This is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a shoujo manga, but I don’t mean this in a negative way. Together with the art style, this makes for a nice enjoyable read which is well suited for Japanese learners.

There’s a good balance of drama and comedy: both Yuzu and her uncle have their comedic moments. However, even from the very beginning, the manga doesn’t shy away from more serious topics like bullying, illness, and loss. 

The volumes are split into four separate stories, each focusing on the story of a pet and their owner who visit the veterinary practice. Whilst all pets get a diagnosis and appropriate treatment, the manga is more focused on the relationship between animals and humans. It’s interesting to see what Yuzu learns from her various encounters as the manga progresses.

Recommended Japanese language level

I would probably recommend this to someone about JLPT N4 or upper beginner level. 

There are some animal and medical terms that you may need to check in a dictionary, (but the vast majority of it gets explained). Fortunately, you have furigana over the kanji so looking up any word should be straightforward. Overall this manga is easy to follow. Yuzu is only in her first year of middle school so whilst there is some slang used, grammar tends to be pretty simple.

Side note: カルテ is a loanword from German (Karte) meaning medical record or patient chart – always a useful word to know!

This manga is pretty recent (the first volume was released back in June this year), but I think it’s worth a read. There is also a novel version of the story if you prefer that format.

You can read a sample of this manga on the EbookJapan website by clicking the blue ‘無料立ち読み’ button – at the time of writing, the first volume is available for free!

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!

Punctuation in Japanese

Since there are no spaces between Japanese words, punctuation  (Japanese: 約物/ やくもの “yakumono”) is a really helpful way of breaking sentences down. If you’ve mastered hiragana or katakana, then you’ll already have come across some important symbols that affect pronunciation (such as and ). This post is more focused on the punctuation and symbols used in the written language.

Fortunately, it seems that generally, Japanese punctuation is pretty similar in usage to English. This is likely because punctuation wasn’t used in the Japanese language at all until it was imported from the West during the Meiji era.

However, there might be a couple of things you encounter when you first start to read Japanese that may be unfamiliar.

Most Common Punctuation

Full-stop/ period (Japanese: 句点/くてん or 丸/ まる)

Unlike English, the full stop is a little circle (hence the word まる, literally ‘circle’). The full stop sits in the bottom left; despite being so small it still takes up the width of a regular character due to the space that comes after it.

Comma (Japanese: 読点/ とうてん – note the reading!! or just 点/ てん)

The comma is at a different angle to English, but is pretty much used in the same way.

In my opinion, the comma gets used a lot to add a pause in sentences (and that’s coming from someone who is quite fond of using a lot of commas).

Interpunct (Japanese: 中点/ちゅうてん, 中黒/なかぐろ)

This is used to separate words written in katakana, particularly for foreign names (for instance John Smith would be written as ジョン・スミス). More generally, it is used to separate items in lists.

Question mark (Japanese: 疑問符/ ぎもんふ)

No explanation needed?

Exclamation mark (Japanese: 感嘆符/ かんたんふ)

No explanation needed!

Ellipses (Japanese: 三点リーダー/ さんてんリーダー)

If you are familiar with anime or manga, then you’ll know that this is used a lot to indicate silence.

Quotation marks (Japanese: かぎ括弧/ かぎかっこ)

Like in English, you have single quotation marks (「」) and double quotation marks (『』). Double quotation marks are usually used to indicate the name of a book, TV show or film.

Brackets (Japanese: 括弧/ かっこ)

This includes the various types of brackets including curly brackets ({},中括弧/ ちゅうかっこ) and ([], 角括弧/かくかっこ).

Wave dash (Japanese: 波ダッシュ/ なみダッシュ)

The wave dash is interesting since it can convey a few different things.

  • Similar to a normal dash in katakana words, the wave dash can be used to elongate the preceding sound. For example, ですよね〜 has more of a colloquial or whimsical feel compared to ですよね.
  • I’ve often seen the wave dash used to show a range, such as opening times 5時〜6時 which would be read using から (and まで).
  • Japan seems quite fond of using the wave dash in the titles of songs, TV shows and movies. In this context, the wave dash is used to indicate a brief synopsis or summary.

Other Punctuation

There are a few other punctuation marks that you might come across. I’m not certain if these have official names in Japanese, so I’ve given them my own names:

Iteration marks 々 andゝ

There are two types of marks which indicate this: and. Simply put, this symbol indicates that you repeat the previous sound. Some examples are:

  • 時々 (ときどき) sometimes
  • 様々 (さまざま) various 
  • 人々 (ひとびと) people

As you can see from the above, the repeated syllables often have a sound change.

I mentioned the second one of these in my post about the author Kaneko Misuzu (written as 金子みすゞ), which is more uncommon.

Small katakana ‘ke’ ヶ

Confusingly, this is a small katakana ‘ke’ but is actually read as ka (or ga). This is most commonly used when counting a number of months, eg. 四ヶ月 よんかげつ

You might also see this in place names too:

関ヶ原 せきがはら Sekigahara

自由が丘 じゆうがおか Jiyuugaoka (the name of a neighbourhood in Tokyo)

Emphasis mark (Japanese: 傍点/ ぼうてん, ‘side dot’)

One piece of punctuation of sorts which you are likely to encounter in novels looks a lot like a comma. 

I see a lot of people asking about these marks online. They are used to show emphasis in the same way we might use bold or italic font. 

Book Review: Making Sense of Japanese by Jay Rubin

I have a lot of Japanese related books on my bookshelf, and Jay Rubin’s Making Sense of Japanese (2002) is one I have been meaning to read for some time. Well, I finally put some time aside to read it and I am glad I did.

Jay Rubin is an American academic and translator, who is probably most famous for his translations of Haruki Murakami’s works into English. Rubin intended this book for Japanese students who are just beginning to read native materials, as a way of helping them better understand the Japanese language.

The book is a series of short essays which each focus on an aspect of the Japanese language. The topics covered include:

  • は vs が
  • Verbs used for giving and receiving (くれる, もらう, あげる)
  • Passive form, causative form and the passive-causative form
  • から, わけ, のだ sentence endings
  • 知る vs わかる
  • ため
  • つもり
  • ある vs である
  • How to tackle Japanese sentences

Over the course of the book, he busts a few myths about Japanese and takes the view that Japanese is not actually a vague language at all. He makes an important point about pronouns – when it is obvious what the subject of the sentence is, the pronoun is omitted.

What I liked about the book

Near the start of the book is an explanation on は vs が, a particularly sore point for Japanese learners. I must say that this a particularly strong essay – not just because the subject matter is so important for understanding Japanese, but because I think the differences between the two particles are explained in a way that is easy to understand. This essay, along with most essays, is backed up with lots of example sentences to help illustrate his points.

The other essay that was a highlight for me was the one regarding how to tackle sentences in Japanese, particularly longer sentences that use plenty of relative clauses. The method Rubin describes is very similar to what I was taught when I formally studied Japanese and has been extremely useful to me ever since.

I feel that the book builds a strong case for why the grammar-translation approach can be effective in learning how to tackle reading in Japanese. His approach in these essays is highly focused on comparing Japanese and English and the nuances that learners need to be aware of when translating or simply trying to make sense of Japanese.

What I disliked

The main drawback of this book for me is the use of romaji. This might be a dealbreaker for some, but almost all Japanese in the book is written in romaji. At first, I thought that this might have been due to some sort of publishing issue, but then the last essay mixes romaji with kanji and kana when writing in Japanese. I found this a little bit distracting and felt that had the same sentences been written in kana (with furigana and romaji readings), I would have been able to understand them more easily. I know that the book is intended to be accessible to people with varying levels of Japanese, but the inconsistency in the use of romaji seems like a really odd choice to me.

With the book being a collection of essays, there are a couple that feel weaker than others. For example, there is a short essay which is about how being able to read something in Japanese does not automatically make it a good piece of writing. I think that this is a very valid point, but I couldn’t help but feel that this essay stood out as being less relevant and of practical use compared to the others. It was also the one which felt overly anecdotal

Overall thoughts

The book covers a range of topics that Japanese learners commonly struggle with, but are not covered in textbooks. I found his approach to these topics both informative and engaging, thanks to the relatively lighthearted tone of Rubin’s writing.

I highly recommend it to learners of Japanese who are at an upper-beginner level (about JLPT N4 or so), but I think learners at a higher level may also find it useful as a refresher due to the wide range of topics covered. I personally wish I had read this sooner, as there are quite a few things I could have learned from this book instead of from trial and error (nothing wrong with that of course!).

I don’t necessarily think this is a book that needs to be read from start to finish. The book is very short at just 130 pages, and most of the essays are pretty short. I think it makes a great reference book and you can always go back to read the essays that are most relevant to your current studies.

Have you read this book? What did you think? Let me know in the comments 🙂

The many uses of かける in Japanese

かける is one of those verbs that seems to have an endless number of uses. I remember looking up this verb in the dictionary when I first started learning and just feeling utterly overwhelmed. 

This is a screenshot from Jim Breen’s WWWJDIC:

With verbs like this, you might read the dictionary definition and stress about having to learn all of the individual meanings. 

Fortunately, the best way to deal with verbs like this is to break down the various meanings into easier chunks, so let’s do the same here.

Breaking the verb down by kanji

Firstly, as you can see from the above, かける has different kanji indicating different meanings.

欠ける to lack, to be insufficient, be broken

駆ける to run, dash

賭ける to gamble, bet on

However, this post focuses on かける which has the general meaning of ‘to hang’. This is normally written in hiragana but can be written in kanji a few different ways, usually 掛ける.

シャツをハンガーにかける = to hang a shirt on a hanger

Common collocations with かける

It’s important with words like this not to assume that the only English meaning of かける is ‘to hang’ as you will see. The following are some of the most common set phrases that use かける, which I’ve split into different groups:

To put on, put on top of something else:

  • 眼鏡(めがね)をかける to wear glasses 
  • ネックレスをかける to wear a necklace
  • 腰(こし)をかける to sit down, take a seat (literally ‘to hang one’s hips [on a chair])

To engage something mechanical:

  • 電話(でんわ)をかける to make a phonecall
  • アイロンをかける to iron (something)
  • エンジンをかける to turn on an engine
  • ラジオをかける to put on the radio 

More figurative uses:

  • 声(こえ)をかけるto greet, call out to; get in touch with
  • 迷惑(めいわく)をかける to cause trouble/ inconvenience for someone else

Other closely related verbs

かかる is the intransitive version of かける and works in much the same way:


to take time

Finally, you might see かける as part of a compound verb such as 出かける (でかける/ to go out) and 話かける (はなしかける/ to start a conversation). This generally adds a nuance of ‘to be about to, to start doing something.

So that is a very brief overview of the common verb かける. I have far from covered the verb’s many meanings. The English meanings given here are only here to give you a rough idea of how the verb is used (although if anything is clearly incorrect please let me know!).

My tip for verbs like this is to learn the general meaning of the verb to start with (ie. that かける generally means ‘to hang’). Then focus on learning the specific meanings of certain phrases/ collocations as and when you see them in context. For example, learn アイロンをかける rather than アイロン and かける separately. I also prefer this method as you also learn what particle you should use.

If you know the general meaning, you might well be able to guess the correct meaning from context anyway.

Have you got any tips for tackling tricky verbs? Let me know in the comments!

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