Katakana misses

In a recent post, I mentioned the Japanese word Yシャツ (roughly pronounced “why shahtsu”), which comes from “white shirt” and means a man’s dress shirt. This reminded me of a blog post that highlights a few other words that came from English—but the meanings in the two languages don’t quite correspond.

The words are written in katakana, the phonetic writing system that’s generally used for words of non-Japanese origin.

The words from the post that I think are most interesting include:

  • バイキング (baikingu). “Viking.” Meaning in Japanese: a buffet (think smorgasbord)
  • マンション (manshon). “Mansion.” Meaning in Japanese: a big apartment building
  • マキャッチコピー (kyacchi kopi-). “Catch copy.” (I’ve never actually heard this term in English) Meaning in Japanese: a brand’s slogan or catch phrase

Some other words are listed in the post, plus a few more loan words for which the meaning came across more “equivalently.”

Another word that I would add is メモ (memo). In English, I think that “memo” has a more specific meaning of an inter-office announcement or official statement, whereas in Japanese, it means any note in general. So if you say you’re taking or writing a memo, it just means writing a note or reminder for yourself or another person.

And finally, I just have to mention again my favourite Japanese word ホッチキス, which comes from Hotchkiss. It means “stapler”, named for an early stapler company.


Origins of hiragana

Just a quick share.

Japanese writing consists of two phonetic systems (hiragana and katakana), as well as Chinese characters (kanji). The phonetic systems were actually developed as simplifications of Chinese characters. This cool video shows how the many-stroke kanji were transformed into simple hiragana.

For reference, here are all the hiragana characters.

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Original creator : Karine Widmar https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Table_hiragana.jpg

Hood coat exclusive

Since I’m aiming to become a translator someday, I’m interested in cases of translation gone wrong.

The other day, I went to a market / mall with indoor shops and outdoor eating spaces. I staked out a table while a friend went to buy food and spotted the following sign on our table:

My eye went to the English bit, and needless to say, I was confused. However, my friend and I both had coats with hoods, so I figured we were ok.

Later, upon consulting the Japanese, I realized the source of the confusion: フードコート. Japanese doesn’t have the sound “hoo”, or rather the single sound “foo” as in Fuji is somewhere between how “foo” and “hoo” are pronounced in English. For any linguists out there, the relevant phoneme in Japanese ɸɯ, and English fu and hu don’t exist.

Also, when English words are represented in Japanese, American/Irish/etc. hard “r”s are often omitted. So car is written in a way that makes it pronounced kah, party is pah-ty, etc.

So, it turns out that both hood coat and food court can be transliterated as フードコート (f/hoodo cohto). Ah ha. So the seats were reserved for people eating food purchased at the shops’ food court. No outside food allowed.

I’m still a bit confused by the “prohibited on board” wording, but my guess is that the phrase was copied from some other setting where food or something else is prohibited on some mode of transportation. Regardless, it gave us a little giggle.

Alas, I can’t comment on the accuracy of the Chinese and Korean translations.

JLPT again

I posted last December about preparing for and taking the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). I should have added an update that I passed, and went on to take the next level (N3, or the third level of five) in July. I received my results online last week and by mail today: I passed! (Although my score wasn’t super-great.)

The experience was similar to the last time, although at least the test site was slightly closer and I got to catch up with some folks I met in a previous Japanese class. Still, I was away from home for about 6 hours for 2 hours and 20 minutes of actual test. The most annoying bit is how the exam administrators count all of the test question books and answer sheets after each section of the test. Every test taker has a unique number, we’re seated in numerical order, all of the papers are labelled with these numbers, and they’re picked up one-by-one. However, the exam administrator still counts every sheet of paper (for 150ish participants), and in my classroom, the administrator kept losing count or miscounting. I guess this reveals my lack of patience, but still, it’s an excruciating 10-15 minutes post-test to sit and watch someone count, unable to touch one’s bag, phone, or water. Overall, it’s a very Japanese experience—precisely organised, but not particularly efficient!

Let’s talk about kanji

Back in January, I started studying Japanese more seriously, going to a language school for 3 and a half hours every weekday. My first goal is to improve my speaking skills, but the classes focus more on grammar, vocabulary, and reading—which makes sense given that most students aim to go on to further studies (trade school or university) in Japan and therefore they need to take lots of exams. I actually really like studying grammar and have been inspired to think about becoming a translator (someday…).

One very daunting challenge for any Japanese language learner is reading and writing, which explains why I’m studying during any free moment rather than writing on this blog!

Japanese has two phonetic alphabets, hiragana and katakana, which are not too difficult to learn, although I’m still pretty slow at reading katakana (which is mainly used to write words of foreign origin). And, there is kanji (Chinese characters).

To compare:

“Japanese language” (Nihongo)
Hiragana: にほんご
Katakana: ニホンゴ (this would never be written in katakana, but just for the sake of comparison)
Kanji: 日本語

So my goal in this post is to explain why I agonize so much about learning kanji.

To “learn” a character, you have to memorize:

  • How to write it: the strokes go in a particular order. You also have to know how many strokes there are if you want to look it up in a print dictionary!
  • The readings. Most kanji can be pronounced in at least two different ways, although often there are three or four or more.
  • The meaning. Sometimes a single character has a meaning, although sometimes they only represent a pronunciation in a particular context.
  • Combinations. Beyond the basic kanji, you can’t really learn the characters on their own. You have to learn them in combination with other kanji to make words.

So here is an example.

水 = water みず (mizu)

水着 = bathing suit みずぎ (mizugi), with the second kanji meaning “wear”

So far so good. Then:

水曜日 = Wednesday すいようび (suiyoubi)

水準 = level, standard すいじゅん (suijyun)

水泳 = swimming すいえい (suiei). Yes, the ei part 泳 looks very similar to 水!

Then 泳

泳ぐ = to swim およぐ (oyogu)

Then another similar (but different!) kanji 永, also ei but a different meaning:

永続 = permanence, continuation えいぞく (eizoku)

Another famous example is:


“Sangatsu tsuitachi wa nichiyoubi de shukujitsu, hare no hi deshita,” which translates into “March 1 was Sunday, a holiday, and a sunny day.”

The character 日 (day) is pronounced: tachi, nichi, bi, jitsu, and hi in that sentence. There’s no way of knowing which reading to use other than by memorization.

There are 2,136 “regular use” kanji that a person with basic literacy should know, and I’ve studied about 500 so far, although I don’t know all of the readings of those. But again, “knowing” involves knowing words in context as well as the various readings. That is, even if you memorize all possible readings, you still can’t automatically “read” the kanji when it’s combined with others. According to Wikipedia, a “total of 13,108 characters can be encoded in various Japanese Industrial Standards for kanji.”

It’s really fascinating to learn kanji and start to unlock the mysterious symbols around you (literacy = empowerment!), but it takes so much work, essentially memorization, that can go on for a lifetime.

Some homework

JLPT Day Follow-up


I thought I better give a follow-up on my big test adventure on Sunday. I left home at 10am, took a bus, then a train, then another train for a journey of about an hour and 45 minutes. At the station near the test site, a large swarm of gaikokujin (foreigners) rose bodily from the train and fell into a long marching line toward the university. Some kind of uniformed personnel (cops? transport authority? security guards?) kept the mass moving and out of traffic. Upon arriving at the university, we fell into a queue that snaked around through a few switchbacks leading into the building, where we then dispersed into our assigned rooms. I was in lecture hall with 154 other people (yes, I had time to count), and I would estimate there were maybe a thousand people overall at my test site. There were multiple sites in Tokyo, across Japan, and across the world. Go JLPT!

So I got into the classroom just after 12:00, and then the test instructions reading began at 12:30, including handing out of answer sheets and turning off of phones. We had to put our phones in clear plastic bags and then put it our own bags on the floor (not sure why exactly). Then, at 12:45, the vocabulary part of my test began. It ended at 13:15. Then the answer sheets were collected and counted (yes, all 155) for another 15 minutes. Then we had a break for another 15 minutes. Then, 15 minutes of instruction reading and paper distributing and watching the clock until it reached the official start time. Then 60 minutes of test, followed by 10 minutes of paper counting and a 20 minute break. Then 15 minutes of instructions and distribution, and 35 minutes of test. Then the final counting.

And then the journey home, beginning with the test-taking hoard’s collective walk to the train.

So, final tally: 9 hours away from home, for 2 hours and 5 minutes of actual test. (Just over 4 and a half hours in the testing site itself.)

And how did it go? I feel pretty confident about the whole thing, except the very last section: listening. I feel like my listening skills have improved dramatically and I practiced a lot specifically for the test. But the very last section is rapid-fire: you hear one sentence from a conversation, like “Oh, this bag is heavy”, and then you hear three possible responses to this statement by another person, e.g., “Thank you”; “Can I help you”; “Can you help me”. Or something along those lines. The tricky thing for me is that I need a little bit of time to think about who was speaking in scenario and who would answer, which has grammatical implications. But there’s no time to think before the next one begins. And after having been there for 4 and a half hours, my brain was not working particularly fast. I well may have failed that section, which would make me fail the listening section, which would make me fail the whole test. Well, we’ll see what happens, but regardless, I’m plowing ahead to the next level in July!

JLPT day


I’m taking a short break from last minute studying to quickly remark on today’s activity: I’m taking the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). Honestly, it’s not much of an accomplishment for me to be taking this level of the test considering how long I’ve been studying, but, well, it’s hard.

I love the official description of the listening competency for my level:

“One is able to listen and comprehend conversations encountered in daily life and generally follow their contents, provided that they are spoken slowly.”

Yes, that’s about right!

In some ways, I think jumping through the right hoops is also part of taking the test. I signed up three months ago, but just found out two weeks ago the actual time and location of the test. Despite living in a city of more than 3 million people and a decent-sized population of foreigners, I have to take the test in a particularly inconvenient spot in Tokyo and will be leaving 2 and half hours before the test begins. The test itself is 2 hours, but there are a couple of breaks and official time for reading the instructions, so I’ll be there for 3 to 3 and half hours. And then home again. It’s an all-day event! But I’ve got my sharpened HB (#2) pencils packed, plus snacks, so I’m ready to go. Onward!

Edit: oh yeah, and I should mention that although the test is all multiple choice, I won’t get the results until February! Well, regardless of whether I pass, I’m determined to take the next level in July.

Encouraging sayings

If you’ve ever read Japanese manga (comics / graphic novels) or watched anime, particularly those targeted at female viewers, you may have heard phrases of “encouragement” that don’t really sound natural in English. As a native English speaker, for example, I don’t think I tend to say things like “let’s all try hard and do our best together to share happy memories.” But that would be a perfectly normal sentence for a teenage girl to say in a manga translated to English.

Similarly, food, shopping bags, toiletries, household items, etc. frequently have “encouraged sayings” printed on them, often in English or French. The more mundane the item, the more I love the encouragement! Here are a few examples (click to enlarge):

Pharmacy shopping bag
Inspiring toilet paper
Encouragement from the laundry basket

Hotchkiss and other interesting vocabulary

Japanese, like many languages, has incorporated rather a lot of foreign words into its lexicon. Many of these are from English, and often the adoption renders them unrecognizable to English speakers.

One of my favourite examples is the word hochikisu (like hotchkiss). I first learned this word from a Japanese teacher who gave a charming account of going to an office supply store in Canada and being so embarrassed at the staff’s puzzlement when she asked for the hotchkiss section. That’s when she learned that a hochikisu is called a stapler in English.

Mental Floss has a good list of some common terms that might confuse English speakers (or at least most are common: Y has never heard #5 and #11 on the Mental Floss list). I’ve made a little quiz, and you can click through to Mental Floss for more information about some  of them.

Click to go to the quiz
Click to go to the quiz

Pronunciation notes for those not familiar with the transliteration conventions:

ai = as in “my”

e = as in “pace”

i = as in “piece” or “keep”

ei = as in “grey”

The Shindo scale


I’ve felt three earthquakes over the last few days, as shown on the alerts on my phone. They were minor occurrences for Japan, but even though I know how common quakes are here, my heart always starts pounding like crazy and my only thought is instinctive panic when I feel a tremor.

But for those who are interested in earthquakes more objectively and scientifically, you might be interested to know about the Japan Meteorological Agency seismic intensity scale, which uses a unit called shindo to measure the intensity of an earthquake. It’s different from the Richter scale, because it represents what an earthquake feels like to people on the ground, which, let’s be honest, is what we really care about.

A table from the meteorological agency explains the experience of an earthquake with examples from a human perspective as well as for structures (and I admit that it’s pretty scary). The shindo 4 earthquakes this week (which fortunately were not that close to me and therefore felt less intense) had the following effect indoors: “Hanging objects such as lamps swing significantly, and dishes in cupboards rattle. Unstable ornaments may fall.”

The screenshot below shows alerts I received after the terrifying succession of earthquakes in Kumamoto a few months back. From bottom to top, my phone shows an alert for a low shindo 6, a tsunami warning, two high shindo 5s, a high shindo 6, and then a low shindo 5. To paraphrase, people have trouble standing during a high shindo 6, buildings can collapse, and everything falls over.  The Great East Japan earthquake in 2011 was a shindo 7 at the epicentre. Um, in case you were wondering.