Skip to main content

Full text of "Making Sense Japanese"

See other formats


What the Textbooks Don't Tell You 
Jay Rubin 

Tokyo ■ New York ■ London 

Previously published in the Power Japanese Series under the 
titles Gone Fishin' (1992) and Making Sense of Japanese (1998). 

Distributed in the United States by Kodansha America, Inc., 
575 Lexington Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10022, and in the United 
Kingdom and continental Europe by Kodansha Europe Ltd., 
Tavern Quay, Rope Street, London SE16 7TX. 

Published by Kodansha International Ltd., 17-14 Otowa 
1-chome, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 112-8652, and Kodansha America, 

Copyright © 1992 and 1998 by Jay Rubin. 

All rights reserved. Printed in Japan. 

First edition, 1998 

First trade paperback edition, 2002 

ISBN 4-7700-2802^ 

04 05 06 07 08 09 10 10 9876543 


Preface 7 
# 9 

Introduction: Learning the Language of the Infinite 1 1 

Part One: Who's on First? 

The Myth of the Subjectless Sentence 25 

Wa and Ga: The Answers to Unasked Questions 3 1 

The Invisible Man's Family Reunion 50 

Giving in Two Directions: Yam, Ageru, Sashiageru; 

Kudasaru, Kureru 51 
Receiving in One Direction: Morau, Itadaku 54 
The Causative, with and without Directionals 56 
Passives, Passivication, and the Passive-Causative 63 
The Natural Potential 72 

The Explainers: Kara Da, Wake Da, No Da 75 

Part Two: Out in Left Field 

The Johnny Carson Hodo 89 
Kanji 92 

Shim and Wakaru: To Know You Is Not Necessarily 

to Understand You 94 
Taming Tame 99 

Tsumori and the Vanishing Beefsteak 101 
You Say Kimeru and I Say Kimaru 105 
Warning: This Language Works Backwards 106 

The Pleasures of Reading Japanese 1 10 
The Unbelievable Complexity of Being: 

Am vs. De Am 112 
Go Jump in the Lake, But Be Sure to Come Back 115 
Fiddlers Three = Three Fiddlers? 1 16 
Eating in the Wrong Direction 1 1 7 
Anticipation, or: Progressive Simplification, 

or: Analyzing Upside-Down Sentences 1 1 9 

Notes 130 

h— ' 



Preface ? 


This book was called Gone Fishin' in its first incarnation, and 3 
though it has prompted more enjoyable feedback than anything 
else I've ever published, the editors tell me they are tired of re- 
sponding to readers complaining that the book concentrates too 
much on Japanese grammar and not enough on trolling for 
salmon. They have come up with a title that supposedly gives a 
better idea of the book's contents, while my own contribution 
to this edition is limited to a new section on analyzing difficult 
sentences. A number of typos have been fixed as well. 

I had a great deal of fun writing this book — perhaps too 
much fun for some tastes, but being neither a grammarian nor 
a linguist, I felt free to indulge myself in the kind of play with 
language that I have enjoyed over the past twenty-odd years of 
reading, translating, writing about, and teaching Japanese lit- 
erature and the language in which it is written. 

My approach may not be orthodox, and it certainly is not 
scientific, but it derives primarily from the satisfaction inherent 
in the use of a learned foreign language with a high degree of 
precision. If nothing else, I hope to share my conviction that 
Japanese is as precise a medium of expression as any other lan- 
guage, and at best I hope that my explanations of perennial 
problem points in grammar and usage will help readers to 
grasp them more clearly as they progress from cognitive ab- 
sorption to intuitive mastery. 

As much as I enjoyed the writing once it got started, 1 must 
thank several people for making me put up or shut up. My 
wife, Rakuko, was the first to urge me to write down some of 
the interpretations I was teaching my students at the University 
of Washington, such as the Johnny Carson hodo. Many of the 
students themselves were helpful: Jody and Anne Chafee, now 
much more than former students, who will never again trans- 
late active Japanese verbs into English passives; John Briggs and 


Veronica Brakus, among others, who provided new terminology 
and materials. Sandra Faux of the Japan Society offered a 
sounding board in her newsletter, and Michael Brase of Ko- 
dansha International was the one who made me believe that a 
bunch of disconnected chapters could be shaped into a book. 

I almost hesitate to thank Michio Tsutsui and Chris Brock- 
ett, two ordinarily respectable linguists whose reputations could 
be besmirched by association with this project, but they saved 
me from some howlers at several points and gave me more 
confidence in the validity of my analyses than I would have had 
without their help. Chris, in particular, both cheered and dis- 
appointed me when he informed me that others had beaten me 
to the invention of the central concept of Part One, the "zero 
pronoun." To this day, however, I remain innocent of what he 
calls "a very rich theory of zero pronouns in government and 
binding theory," a fact of which I should perhaps be ashamed, 
but my scholarly interests lie in other directions. Linguists may 
conclude, as he suggests, that I am merely reinventing the 
wheel or often "working in the dark, rather like a nineteenth- 
century engineer arguing against phlogiston," but students of 
the language are the ones I am writing for, not linguists, whose 
technical lexicon keeps most of their no-doubt useful theories 
effectively hidden from all of us. Talk about phlogiston! 

I would strongly urge anyone who has found the book 
worth reading to send me corrections or suggestions for more 
and better example sentences or additional topics in need of ex- 
plication should a revised version become a possibility some 
time in the future. While the above-named individuals were im- 
measurably helpful in the development of this book, errors of 
fact and interpretation are entirely the responsibility of Pro- 
fessor Edwin A. Cranston of Harvard University, to whom 
complaints should be addressed. 

If the format of this series allowed for a dedication page, it 
would have bome a fulsome tribute to my daughter, Hana, 
whose good sense, adaptability, intelligence, and patience made 
me very proud of her during the often trying months in which 
much of this book was conceived and written. 


h— 1 



* ? 


h 3 ftimW-KOixmftztdZ n fro 

b^mfr-tzmftk^^frti Lttfcvv, LfrL, dco^CEoT 
#T- i> & v > t WS L X v > 6 J; (c , ifffi ^#±iMS £ %.m* Z> m 

>ML*.%frb, mmu Htt^u^mzm 

z.xz\ t}titzZtitx<n&%k<oq>frt>, s!t;:#o fj ^;H;:i£i- j e 

T^o^l)(C, nm$^\ l >xm'3tz<DfrZ<D%i£zfrbX'$>2>o 

Bxmzmmttz&miit, t *>-ra t B*mnz\t%ht>fr 

fz^i><DX\ mzmSi-it-riziilz.Zfrbtzo iaii4-?Lf:5 
8-Ri>%Uz [~frt>?z] tteAsfzfr, Xit [~frt>tz] f~Mf 
tz\ [~<ntz\ Ki±t'(D i: n i£M^fr$>Z><r>tz?> 7 fro $>z.xc\ti 

b<Dmm.iitit)m*-tz < %z*<D i gmz\±z<n z. ? bismfrm^ 
x^z><r>tzh*)fro \t>frh\ t [bfr^x^z,], r&aj t m 
o-Cv^J teb'^MnOtz^ofro TftSJ ztt [t>fr&l c\t 

l±t'7&7<Ofz?> ; )fro 

&MfrB*m* r&i&J tztblz^ i&!r>m%*%\h&WfribZ>o 

^n\t&^£c\t\z, B*mfrm$xiibt), -(sjw^@fti^< : t 
&m&mz^xLiz.z>frt,x'&&o *<n&M&i%m\±, raj 
t \fr\ <nm^»i,ffzo n±j iz&3iMtttm, [fri (;i±*t£n 
&t%£m<Dmm < &<'), i>*j <it&*#uzmmm.x~tb&tmt>tix 


1. "What did you do?" "I went." 

2. "And now you, Mr. Yamamura. What did you do?" 
"Me? I went." 

3. "Who went?" "/ went." 

"Making Sense of Japanese: What the Text Books Don't Tell 
You" li. WffiWffifiS, *iS3*»fllLfc*#rt«. 

j§f). lift LT^^v^H^wffiS 5 ^fiat'^S 



Learning the Language of the Infinite 

Japan's economic magnetism has attracted unprecedented 
crowds of students to Japanese language courses in recent 
years, but still the number of Westerners who have for- 
mally studied Japanese must fall miserably short of the 
number who have been charmed by the language lesson in 
James Clavell's Shdgun. The heroine of the novel, Mariko, 
introduces the language to the hero, Blackthorne (Anjin- 
san), as follows: 

"Japanese is very simple to speak compared with 
other languages [she tells him]. There are no articles, 
no 'the,' 'a,' or 'an.' No verb conjugations or infini- 
tives... Yukimasu means I go, but equally you, he, she, 
it, we, they go, or will go, or even could have gone. 
Even plural and singular nouns are the same. Tsuma 
means wife, or wives. Very simple." 

"Well, how do you tell the difference between I go, 
yukimasu, and they went, yukimasul" 

"By inflection, Anjin-san, and tone. Listen: yuki- 
masu — yukimasu." 

"But these both sounded exactly the same." 

"Ah, Anjin-san, that's because you're thinking in 
your own language. To understand Japanese you have 
to think Japanese. Don't forget our language is the lan- 
guage of the infinite. It's all so simple, Anjin-san." 
(New York: Dell, 1975, p. 528) 


Of course, Anjin-san has the right idea when he mut- 
ters under his breath in response to this, "It's all shit." The 
implication of the scene, however, is that the hero will 
eventually wise up and immerse himself spiritually in "the 
language of the infinite." 

For all the current widespread awareness of Japan, the 
country remains mysteriously Oriental in American eyes, 
and the myths surrounding the language are simply one 
part of the overall picture. Japanese, we are told, is unique. 
It is not merely another language with a structure that is 
different from English, but it says things that cannot be 
translated into English— or into any other language. Based 
as it is on pictographic characters, Japanese actually op- 
erates in the more intuitive and artistic right lobe of the 
brain. The Funk and Wagnall's Encyclopedia tells us that, 
"Compared with the Indo-European languages, Japanese is 
vague and imprecise." 1 

Thus, it would seem, the Japanese sentence is subject 
more to rules of fragrance than of grammar. It is a delicate 
blend of incense. All that a particular grammatical form 
does is to change the blend in some ineffable way, adding 
a little sweetness or pungency here and there. We merely 
have to intuit the overall drift. 

Non-Japanese novelists and supermarket encyclopedias 
are hardly the exclusive source of the idea that Japanese is 
fundamentally "vague" in contrast to Western languages. 
Japanese themselves promote the myth, and sometimes 
with the aid of so venerable a medium of truth as National 
Public Radio. Once NPR carried an interview with a mem- 
ber of the Tokyo String Quartet, who asserted that the 
original members of the ensemble were able to communi- 
cate more clearly with each other now that they had begun 
speaking in English among themselves, the switch in lan- 
guage having become necessary when a non-Japanese vio- 



linist joined the troupe. Japanese, he concluded, is vague, h— 1 

while English is more precise. QJ 
While he no doubt sincerely believes this, he is wrong. N 
The Japanese language can express anything it needs to, ^ 
but Japanese social norms often require people to express q 
themselves indirectly or incompletely. When all members o 
of the Quartet were Japanese and speaking their native lan- |3 
guage, they undoubtedly interacted in conventional Japa- 
nese ways, which often must have required them to be less 
than frank with each other. The arrival of the non-Japanese 
violinist made it necessary for them to switch to English, 
introducing not only an atmosphere in which openness was 
more natural, but forcing them, too, to communicate in a 
foreign language in which they had far less command of 
nuance. They were both liberated from social constraints 
and handicapped by a reduction in the number of verbal 
mechanisms at their command. Apparently, they found the 
liberation more refreshing than the handicap limiting. And 
now they think that they are speaking in a more exact or 
precise language. 

Granting that social norms can influence linguistic 
usage in the direction of indirection, investigations into the 
historical or sociological sources of linguistic behavior can 
be useful and informative. Some have traced the apparent 
silent communication in Japanese society to the Tokugawa 
legacy of authoritarianism and geographical isolation. 

The Tokugawa period was an extremely repressive age, 
when the commoners were at the mercy of the samurai 
class, and any misbehavior could be severely punished. 
Japan was substantially cut off from the rest of the world, 
and the people had two and a half centuries to learn how 
to interact with one another free from outside interference. 
Under such conditions, people had little difficulty in in- 
ternalizing the stringent rules of social behavior. If, as a re- 



suit of the Edo legacy, Japanese today seem to know what 
other Japanese are thinking without recourse to words, it 
is not so much because they "distrust" words and have 
highly refined abilities in ESP but because everybody 
knows the rules. 

Another all-too-often-cited source of Japanese nonver- 
bal communication skills is Zen and the value placed on 
"silence" by the teachings of that religion. 2 One scholar 
who has bought into such a view whole-hog tells us that 
the Japanese "are suspicious of language itself. Silence is 
prized." He further states: 

The Japanese distrust of language, written language in 
particular, comes from many years of having to express 
their ideas in the hieroglyphic characters that originated 
in China. Interestingly, the Japanese of earlier times be- 
lieved that an idea would lose some of its value the 
moment it was verbalized. Hence arose the conviction 
that words, written ones in particular, cannot convey 
the truth. One byproduct of centuries of such discred- 
iting of language is a vast quantity of empty words that 
reflect neither social reality nor one's true inner inten- 
tion. In other words, the praise of silence and the 
prevalence of meaningless words are two sides of the 
same coin. 3 

Granted, there are a lot of meaningless words that go 
into making the Japanese publishing industry one of the 
world's most productive, but the fact remains that there 
are few peoples in the world who so love things to be ex- 
plained in words — words both spoken and written. You 
can't sit in a beautiful Zen garden in Kyoto without being 
harangued over a tinny loudspeaker about the history and 
symbolism of every rock and bush. You can't pick up a 



paperback novel without being told at the end in some au- 
thontative commentator's kaisetsu what the book is sup- 
posed to mean and how it relates to the details of the 
author's life. You can't watch a simple music video on TV 
without the location of every natural scene being labeled at 
the bottom of the screen-often in those omnipresent Chi- 
nese "hieroglyphs" the Japanese supposedly don't trust. 

It is true that medieval aesthetic concepts in Japan fa- 
vored the unspoken, the subtly suggested, the "beauty of 
the half-revealed" that is strongly associated with a Bud- 
dhist belief in the illusory nature of the physical world and 
a Zen focus on a nonverbal experience of the profound 
Nothingness of the universe. But the medieval period 
ended a long time ago, and Edo lies much closer to hand 
that age in which arose the garrulous Kabuki theater' 
where a character could plunge a dagger into his guts and 
go on talking for half an hour about all the social and eco- 
nomic factors that had led him to choose death and how 
he wanted his family to carry on after he was gone. 

The great heyday of vague Japanese was, of course, the 
Second World War, when Japan's military leaders were 
touting the divinity of the emperor and his troops, and 
promising that the Japanese spirit and Japan's unique "na- 
tional polity" would defeat the shallow materialism of the 
West. Not even then did all Japanese believe the myths. 
One canny journalist declared that his magazine "simply 
had nothing to do with this kind of 'lofty' thinking, which 
probably could not be understood by the people of any 
other nation in the world, even in translation (if, indeed 
translation of such 'ideas' is possible), and which cannot 
be understood by us Japanese, either." 4 

No, Japanese is not the language of the infinite. 
Japanese is not even vague. The people of Sony and Nissan 
and Toyota did not get where they are today by wafting in- 



cense back and forth. The Japanese speak and write to 
each other as other literate peoples do. If Japanese is 
"unique," that is because it possesses vocabulary and gram- 
matical constructions and idioms that occur in no other 
language— but of course that is what makes all languages 
unique. 5 

Undeniably, Japanese is different from English. The lan- 
guage is different, the people are different, the society is 
different, and all of these are enormously interesting pre- 
cisely for that reason. The Japanese do so many things 
"backwards" from our point of view. A Japanese sentence, 
with its verb coming at the end, is not only backwards but 
upside-down. One of the most satisfying experiences a 
human being can have is to train his or her mind actually 
to think in a foreign mode-the more nearly upside-down 
and backwards the better. But we must never let its ap- 
parent strangeness blind us to the simple fact that Japanese 
is just another language. And we can increase the precision 
with which we understand that language if we do away 
with some of the mystical nonsense that continues to cling 
to it even in the age of the computer and the electric nose- 
hair trimmer. 

The nonsense that surrounds Japanese would be little 
more than a source of mild amusement to me as a teacher 
of the language, except that, year after year, I find my job 
made more difficult by the myth of Japanese vagueness, 
standing as it does as a positive obstruction to the learning 
of the language. If students are convinced from the start 
that a language is vague, there is little hope they will ever 
learn to handle it with precision. If you believe a language 
to be vague, it will be, with all the certainty of a self-ful- 
filling prophesy. 

None of this should be taken to mean that Japanese is 
not difficult for speakers of English to learn. Japanese 



grammatical forms are difficult for us, but that is simply 
because they are structurally so different from their cor- 
responding English expressions, not because Japanese 
works on a different spiritual wavelength or in a different 
part of the brain. The US government itself knows just 
how difficult Japanese is. When the government wants to 
teach its employees Class One (i.e., easy) languages such 
as French and Spanish, it puts them through twenty-five 
weeks of concentrated study at thirty hours per week, for 
a total of 750 hours, at the end of which students have at- 
tained what is called "Limited Working Proficiency" in 
reading and speaking. The government knows exactly what 
it means by "Limited Working Proficiency." In reading, 
this means: 

Sufficient comprehension to read simple, authentic 
written material in a form equivalent to usual printing 
or typescript on subjects within a familiar context. Able 
to read with some misunderstandings straightforward, 
familiar, factual material, but in general insufficiently 
experienced with the language to draw inferences di- 
rectly from the linguistic aspects of the text. 

The description goes on from there, but it's too de- 
pressing to quote. Even more depressing is how long it 
takes the government to bring students to "Limited Work- 
ing Proficiency" in Class Four (i.e., killer) languages such 
as Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. Instead of 
twenty-five weeks, students have to study for forty-seven 
weeks at thirty hours per week, for a total of 1,410 hours, 
following which they are sent to their choice of health spa 
or mental hospital for another forty-seven weeks of re- 

At five hours per week, thirty weeks per year, a fairly 


typical university language- learning pace, students would 
have to stay in college five years to receive the same num- 
ber of hours as government students in order to attain 
mere Limited Working Proficiency in French, and to do so 
in Japanese would take them 9.4 years. 6 

If, then, universities want their students after two or 
three years of study to be able to deal with sophisticated 
material, some corners must obviously be cut. 

What happens is that we forge ahead with our fingers 
crossed, hoping that, through a combination of homework, 
determination, initiative, and adult intelligence, students 
will compensate in part for not having learned the lan- 
guage as children. By the third year, we may have them 
dealing with some pretty challenging written material, but 
they are often doing it more "cognitively" than intuitively. 
At least part of the time, they have to use their brains and 
analyze sentences and think— in English— about what the 
text means— in English. Just as it is a mistake to expect 
students to master a language by translating it into their 
own, it is also a mistake to exclude translation from the 
classroom entirely. And unless students do learn to check 
the accuracy of their understanding in terms of their own 
language, they will probably end up joining the misguided 
chorus that proclaims to the world the vague, mysterious 
wonders of Japanese. 

Faced with such seemingly intractible problems, most 
sensible people would simply throw up their hands in de- 
spair. Instead, I have taken the undoubtedly misguided 
step of writing this book, the purpose of which is to 
demonstrate how certain difficult Japanese constructions 
can be understood— fully and precisely— in terms of En- 
glish constructions that perform similar functions. The 
most difficult Japanese constructions would not be quite so 
difficult if, at the very outset, textbooks and teachers 



would make one thing clear: namely, that, like other sen- |_ i 
tences the world over, Japanese sentences consist of com- QJ 
plete statements about people and things. They have N 
subjects and predicates, though often, when the subject is ^ 
known from context, it may not be specifically mentioned 
within the sentence. ^ 
All too often, however, students are subtly encouraged ^ 
to think that Japanese verbs just "happen," without sub- 
jects, deep within some Oriental fog. In the world repre- 
sented by Japanese, actions "occur," but nobody does 
them. It is no coincidence that the linguistic structures that 
cause students the most trouble generation after generation 
are related to the problem of the subject. This is true both 
for the eternally mystifying wa and ga, which are known 
to all beginning students, and for such complex verbal 
agglomerations as yasumasete itadakimasu, with its 
"causative" followed by a humble directional verb of re- 

Of course, the ideal is to reach a stage of mastery in 
which comprehension through the medium of another lan- 
guage becomes unnecessary. Like all language-learning 
books, this one is designed to make itself obsolete as you 
move more and more into the language itself and use 
fewer and fewer language-learning crutches. Unlike other 
books, however, this one by rights ought to be obsolete be- 
fore you use it. A lot of what it explains has already been 
explained to you more thoroughly and systematically in 
your textbooks, though often with chewy jargon and airy 
theorization that, when you first read them, put you to 
sleep faster than Moby Dick. I am often going to tell you 
to go back and look at those explanations again after I 
have shown you how to grasp concretely what is going on 
in the Japanese by finding familiar parallels in English. 
That way you should be able to stay awake longer. 



The point of this book is to help students of the lan- 
guage think more clearly about the structures of Japanese 
that give them headaches year after year, generation after 
generation. The emphasis is on written texts, but the gram- 
matical structures treated here occur commonly in speech 
as well. (If you want to be a literate speaker of a language, 
you have to know its literature.) Rather than specifying 
which "year" or "level" this book is designed for, I would 
suggest that it can be of most use to students moving out 
of the closely controlled pattern-mastery stage into the less 
predictable area of reading texts written for Japanese read- 
ers rather than those manufactured for textbooks. 

In the early stages of the study of any language, virtu- 
ally every utterance you encounter is presented as an ex- 
ample of how the language's grammar works. Each is a 
pattern to be memorized and mimicked and taken as holy 
writ. Once you get to a more advanced stage, though, and 
especially once you begin reading actual texts from news- 
papers and books, it is important to realize that not one 
single sentence you read has been written to illustrate a 
grammatical point. Each sentence is there not to teach you 
a grammatical structure but to tell you something the au- 
thor wants to get across. The author wants you to know 
more after reading the sentence than you did before you 
read it. This may seem so ridiculously obvious as to be not 
worth mentioning, but it has revolutionary implications for 
the way you deal with the material. 

As you begin to read more and more actual texts, you 
will see how important context can be. No longer can you 
deal with sentences in isolation rather than as parts of a 
developing argument. One of the worst things I see stu- 
dents doing when they start to translate texts is numbering 
their sentences. They take a perfectly sound paragraph, in 
which the author is trying to develop a thought, and they 



surgically slice it up, writing the translation of each sen- 
tence separately in their notebooks as if it had no rela- 
tionship to the others. Especially in a language like Japanese, 
with its frequently unnamed subjects, it is crucial that you 
take each sentence within its context. 

Part One is a series of interrelated essays on aspects of 
the one most challenging problem presented by Japanese: 
the subject or, more precisely, keeping the lines clear be- 
tween subject and predicate. The culprit here, we see, is 
the Japanese pronoun, which causes difficulties in keeping 
track not only of subjects, but of objects and other all-too- 
volatile elements of the sentence. Since the later pieces as- 
sume an acquaintance with the earlier, the reader is urged 
to approach them in order. 

Part Two is a compendium of perennial problems both 
major and minor, and although they have been arranged 
according to the ancient principles of association and pro- 
gression found in the imperial anthologies of poetry, they 
can be read at random with no great loss of significance. 


Who's on First? 

i— 1 


The Myth of the Subjectless Sentence ? 


The very first time they present an apparently subjectless 3 
sentence, all Japanese language textbooks should have large 
warnings printed in red: 

Jim Are ${010 "Entering the TuMight Zone 

It is here, more than anywhere else, that' the language 
suddenly begins to melt into that amorphous mass of cer- 
emonial tea and incense and Zen and haiku, where dis- 
tinctions between self and other, I and Thou, subject and 
object, disappear in a blinding flash of satori. Now the stu- 
dent sees that the phenomenal world is but an illusion, it 
is all within you and without you. Absorbed into the great 
Oneness (or Nothingness; take your pick), we enter into 
the true Japanese state of mind, and we experience first- 
hand what makes the language vague. 

Meanwhile, the Japanese themselves go about their 
business, commuting and shopping and cooking and rais- 
ing their kids' math scores to some of the highest in the 
world and making super color TVs and cars, using un- 
named subjects — and objects and everything else — all over 
the place, utterly unaware that their language makes it im- 
possible for them to communicate precisely. 

Enamored of their vaunted "uniqueness," the Japanese 
have been as eager as anybody to promote the illusion that 
their language is vague and mysterious. Not all of them 
buy into the myth, of course. Take the linguist Okutsu Kei- 
ichiro, for example. "Japanese is often said to be vague," 


he notes, "partly because subjects and other nouns are 
often deleted, but if the speaker and listener are both 
aware of the verbal or nonverbal context in which the ut- 
terance takes place, all that is really happening is that they 
don't have to go on endlessly about matters they both un- 
derstand perfectly well. In fact, Japanese is an extremely ra- 
tional, economical language of the context-dependent 

The greatest single obstacle to a precise understanding 
of the Japanese language is the mistaken notion that many 
Japanese sentences don't have subjects. 

Wait a minute, let me take that back. Lots of Japanese 
sentences don't have subjects. At least not subjects that are 
mentioned overtly within the sentence. The problem starts 
when students take that to mean that Japanese sentences 
don't refer in any way to people or things that perform the 
action or the state denoted by their predicates. The same 
goes for objects. They disappear just as easily as subjects 

What Japanese doesn't have is pronouns — real, actual 
pronouns like "he," "she," and "it" that we use in English 
to substitute for nouns when those nouns are too well 
known to bear repeating. And that's all that we use pro- 
nouns for: because we don't want to hear the same things 
over and over, whether subjects or objects or whatever. 
Can you imagine what English would be like without pro- 
nouns? Look: 

Cloquet and Brisseau had met years before, under dra- 
matic circumstances. Brisseau had gotten drunk at the 
Deux Magots one night and staggered toward the river. 
Thinking Brisseau was already home in Brisseau's 
apartment, Brisseau removed Brisseau's clothes, but in- 
stead of getting into bed Brisseau got into the Seine. 


When Brisseau tried to pull the blankets over Brisseau's 
self and got a handful of water, Brisseau began scream- 
ing. 2 

No one could stand that for long. Now let's try it with 
pronouns, as in the original: 

Cloquet and Brisseau had met years before, under dra- 
matic circumstances. Brisseau had gotten drunk at the 
Deux Magots one night and staggered toward the river. 
Thinking he was already home in his apartment, he 
removed his clothes, but instead of getting into bed he 
got into the Seine. When he tried to pull the blankets 
over himself and got a handful of water, he began 

What a relief! But Japanese is even less tolerant of re- 
peated nouns than English. Let's see the passage looking 
more like Japanese, without all those repetitious pronouns: 

Cloquet and Brisseau had met years before, under dra- 
matic circumstances. Brisseau had gotten drunk at the 
Deux Magots one night and staggered toward the river. 
Thinking already home in apartment, removed clothes, 
but instead of getting into bed got into the Seine. 
When tried to pull the blankets over self and got a 
handful of water, began screaming. 

Of course this sounds "funny" because of what we're 
used to in normal English, but the meaning is perfect- 
ly clear. Once it is established that Brisseau is our subject, 
we don't have to keep reminding the reader. This is 
how Japanese works. (And, in certain very explicit situa- 
tions, so does English: "Do not bend, fold, or spindle," 


"Pull in case of emergency," etc.) 

There is only one true pronoun in Japanese, and that is 
nothing at all. I like to call this the zero pronoun. The nor- 
mal, unstressed way of saying "I went" in Japanese is not 
Watashi wa ikimashita but simply Ikimashita. (In fact, 
strictly speaking, Watashi wa ikimashita would be an in- 
accurate translation for "I went." It would be okay for "I 
don't know about those other guys, but I, at least, went." 
See "Wa and Ga: The Answers to Unasked Questions.") 

Instead of using pronouns, then, Japanese simply stops 
naming the known person or thing. This doesn't make the 
language any more vague or mysterious, but it does require 
that we know who is doing things in the sentence at every 
step of the way. This is not as difficult as it may sound. 
After all, take this perfectly unexceptional English sentence: 
"He mailed the check." 

To a beginning student of English, this sentence could 
be very mysterious indeed. Speakers of English must seem 
to have a sixth sense which enables them to intuit the hid- 
den meaning of "he." How do we native users know who 
"he" is? 3 Well, of course, we don't — unless he has been 
identified earlier. Again, the same goes for objects. "He 
mailed the check" could be "He mailed it" (or even 
"Mailed it") in the right context, and nobody would bat an 
eyelash. I recently caught myself saying, "He's his father," 
and the person I said it to was not the least bit confused. 

On the matter of unexpressed subjects, Eleanor Jor- 
den's excellent Japanese: The Spoken Language notes that 
"A verbal can occur as a complete sentence by itself: there 
is no grammatical requirement to express a subject." Les- 
son 2 contains a strongly worded warning to avoid the 
overuse of words of personal reference, noting how often 
Japanese exchanges avoid "overt designation of 'you' or 
'I.'" The explanation offered for this is socio-linguistic: 


This avoidance of designation of person except in 
those situations where it has special focus is a reflec- 
tion of the Japanese de-emphasis of the individual, and 
the emphasis on the occurrence itself rather than the 
individuals involved (unless there is a special focus)." 4 

I would be the last to argue that Japan's is a society of 
high individualism, but I do think it takes more than a 
glance at the society to explain why not only human beings 
but pencils and newspapers and sea bream can and do dis- 
appear from linguistic utterances when reference to them 
would be considered redundant. In the beginning stages of 
language learning, especially, example sentences are often 
thrown at students outside of any context, which can cause 
more bewilderment than enlightenment when dealing with 
grammatical points that make sense only in a context. 
Imagine a Monty Python character walking up to a 
stranger on the street and suddenly blurting out, "He 
mailed the check." He'd probably get a good laugh— and 
just because of the lack of context. 

If you have learned such words as watashi, boku, 
anata, kimi, kare, kanojo, etc., you probably think I'm for- 
getting that Japanese does have pronouns, but those are 
only adapted nouns originally meaning "servant" or "over 
there" or the like, and they are not used simply to avoid 
repetition as English pronouns are. If you tried putting 
kare or kare no in for every "he" and "his" in the Brisseau 
passage, you would end up with Japanese just as stilted 
and unnatural as our first version above. (One way that 
certain Japanese authors— Akutagawa Ryunosuke comes to 
mind— give their prose an exotic "foreign" tone is to use 
more "pronouns" than are strictly necessary.) It's true that, 
when these pseudo-pronouns are used, they are standing in 


for other nouns, but Japanese uses these things only as a 
last-ditch stopgap method of keeping the discussion clear 
when the zero pronoun threatens to evaporate. As long as 
the writer or speaker is confident the referent is clear, the 
only pronoun is zero. 

I said above that Japanese unnamed subjects require 
that we know who is doing things in the sentence at every 
step of the way, and without a doubt the most important 
single step is the verb that the subject is doing (or being). 
Subjects may drop away, but verbs rarely do. 5 In fact, sub- 
jects are subjects only when they do something or are 
something: otherwise, they're just nouns hanging in space. 
"Ralph" is not a subject until we give him something to 
do or be: "Ralph croaked." What did Ralph do? "He 
croaked"— or, in Japanese, "Croaked" (Nakimashita). 
"Ralph is a frog." What is Ralph? "He is a frog"— or, in 
Japanese, "Is a frog" (Kaeru desu). 

I repeat: All Japanese sentences have subjects. Other- 
wise, they wouldn't be sentences. True, as Jorden says, 
"there is no grammatical requirement to express a subject," 
but just because we don't overtly refer to it doesn't mean 
the subject isn't there. Subjects and verbs do not exist in 
separate universes that float by chance into positions of 
greater or lesser proximity. They are securely bound to one 
another, and unless we insist upon that, our grasp of the 
Japanese sentence becomes more tenuous with each more 
complicating verbal inflection. 

The need to keep track of subjects becomes absolutely 
crucial when the material you are dealing with contains 
verbs in some of the more complex transmutations that 
Japanese verbs can undergo: passive, causative, passive- 
causative, and -te forms followed by such delicious di- 
rectional auxiliaries as kureru, ageru, yam, morau, and 



It's one thing to say that the need to keep track of sub- 
jects is crucial, but quite another to say how to do it. One 
extremely effective method can be found in the now dis- 
credited language-learning technique of translation— ex- 
tremely precise translation in which you never translate an 
active Japanese verb into a passive English one, in which 
you carefully account for every implied "actor" in a 
Japanese verbal sandwich, in which you consciously count 
the number of people involved in an expression such as 
Sugu kakari o yonde kite yarasero. 6 

The next two chapters go into more detail on the re- 
lationship between the subject and the rest of the sentence. 

Wa and Ga 

The Answers to Unasked Questions 

I don't suppose many of you remember the "Question 
Man" routine on the old Steve Allen show. Steve would 
come out with a handful of cards containing "answers," 
which he would read aloud, and then, from the depths of 
his wisdom, he would tell us what questions these were 
the answers to. For example: 

Answer: Go West. 

Question: What do wabbits do when they get tired of 
wunning awound?' 

Oh, well. The funniest thing about the Question Man 
was not so much the routine itself as when Steve was so 
tickled by a joke that he couldn't stop cackling. The pro- 


ducers of "Jeopardy" have effectively circumvented this 

Which brings us to the eternal mystery of wa and ga. 
If the Japanese are going to insist on using a postposition 
(or particle) to mark the subjects of their sentences, why 
can't they make up their minds and choose one instead of 
switching between two (not to mention occasionally sub- 
stituting no for ga)? Which is it, finally— Watashi wa iki- 
mashita or Watashi ga ikimashita? Both of them mean "I 
went," don't they? So which one is right? 

Well, that depends upon what question the statement is 
an answer to. (In fact, for a plain, simple "I went," both 
would be wrong, but let me get back to that in a minute. 
Note here, too, that I am ignoring such strictly conversa- 
tional forms as Watashi, ikimashita.) 

The difference between wa and ga depends entirely on 
context. Neither is automatically "correct" outside of a con- 
text, any more than "a dog" is more correct than "the 
dog." Their use depends entirely upon what the author as- 
sumes you know already and what he feels you need to 
know. They function primarily as indicators of emphasis. If 
at any point in your reading you are unsure where the em- 
phasis lies, one of the best things you can do is ask your- 
self, "What question is this sentence the answer to?" 

In the case of Watashi wa ikimashita and Watashi ga 
ikimashita, each is the answer to a question. But let's not 
forget the sentence Ikimashita, either. In figuring out what 
the implied questions are, this could help you in both in- 
terpreting texts and deciding which form to use in speech. 

The Answers 

1. Ikimashita. "I went." 

2. Watashi wa ikimashita. "Me? I went." 

3. Watashi ga ikimashita. "I went." 



The Questions 

1. Do shimashita ka. "What did you do?" Or: Iki- 
mashita ka. "Did you go?" 

2. Soshite, Yamamura-san wa? Do shimashita ka. 
"And now you, Mr. Yamamura. What did you do?" 

3. Dare ga ikimashita ka. "Who went?" 

I've included number 1 here because that is the way to 
say "I went" in the most neutral, unemphatic way, em- 
phasizing neither who went nor what the person did. 
That's why I said above that for a plain, simple "I went," 
both the other forms would be wrong, because it is pre- 
cisely to add emphasis that they would be employed. 
When we say "I went" in English, we're assuming that the 
listener knows who the "I" is. And when we assume that 
our Japanese listener knows who did the verb, we just say 
nothing for the subject. Speakers of English are so used to 
stating their subjects that it takes a lot of practice for them 
to stop using either form 2 or 3, but perhaps becoming 
more aware of what they are actually saying could help 
break them of the habit. 

Wa is a problem for English speakers because it is 
doing two things at once. It differentiates the subject under 
discussion— or, rather, the "topic" (more later)— from 
other possible topics, and then it throws the emphasis onto 
what the sentence has to say about the topic. Let's deal 
with the first function first. 

Early on, we are usually given "as for" as the closest 
English equivalent to wa, which it indeed is, but after en- 
countering wa several thousand times and mechanically 
equating it with "as for," we forget the special effect that 
"as for" has in English, and it simply becomes a crutch for 
translating Japanese into a quaintly Oriental version of En- 



glish before turning it into real English. Watashi wa iki- 
mashita = "As for me, I went" = "I went." The last equa- 
tion in this sequence is wrong. 

Sure, we have the expression "as for" in English, but 
sane people use it much more sparingly than do students 
of Japanese. Take Patrick Henry, for example: "I know not 
what course others may take, but as for me, give me lib- 
erty or give me death!" Now, there's a man who knew his 

The next time you are tempted to say Watashi wa iki- 
mashita, stop and think about whether you really want to 
proclaim to the world, "I know not what course others 
may have taken, but as for me, I went!" Your wa differ- 
entiates you as a topic of discussion from other possible 
topics ("I don't know about those other guys, but as far as 
/ am concerned . . .") and then, after building up this 
rhetorical head of steam, it blows it all into the rest of the 
sentence ("Yes, I did it, I went\"). Notice that wa builds 
suspense, arousing curiosity in the reader or listener about 
what is to come. If the speaker were to pause at the wa, 
the listener's brain would whisper subliminally, "Yes, yes, 
and then what?" After having differentiated the named 
topic from implied other potential topics, wa dumps its 
emphatic load on what comes after it. This makes it very 
different from ga, which emphasizes what comes before it. 

Have you ever stopped to think about why you were 
taught never to use wa after interrogative words such as 
dare, nani, and dore? Because ga puts the emphasis on 
what immediately precedes it, and when you use those in- 
terrogative (question-asking) words, they are precisely what 
you want to know: "Who went?" "What came out of the 
cave?" "Which one will kill it most effectively?" And just 
as ga points at exactly what you want to know in the ques- 
tion, ga will always be used in the answer to emphasize 


the information that is being asked for: Dare ga ikimashita |_i 
ka I "Who went?" Watashi ga ikimashita I "I went" or £D 
Yamamoto-san ga ikimashita I "Miss Yamamoto went." N 
This is why you don't want to say Watashi ga ikimashita & 
for a simple "I went," because what you are really saying is 
"/ went," to which the proper response is "OK, OK, calm 9 
down." ^ 

Notice how the same information can be requested ei- 
ther before ga or after wa: Dare ga ikimashita ka I "Who 
went?" or Itta no wa dare desu ka I "Who is it that 
went?" To both of these, the ga-marked answer will be 
Yamamoto-san ga ikimashita I "Miss Yamamoto went" 
(she seems to get around a lot). 

It is because ga emphasizes the word before it that this 
subject marker is frequently softened in modifying clauses 
by replacing it with no, a modifying particle that throws 
your attention ahead. Shimizu-san no hirotta saifu wa 
koko ni arimasu I "The wallet that Mr. Shimizu found is 
here." Ga can be retained, however, if we want to em- 
phasize the subject: Shimizu-san ga hirotta . . ." gives us 
"The wallet that Mr. Shimizu found is in here." 

Unless we see the direction in which ga focuses our at- 
tention, a Japanese sentence can seem to be belaboring the 
obvious. Take the definition of "crucifixion" from the En- 
cyclopedia faponica, for example. After pointing out that 
the punishment had long been practiced among the Jews, 
Greeks, and Romans, it goes on, Omo ni Kirisuto-kyo no 
hakugai ni mochiirare, Iesu Kirisuto no haritsuke ga 
yumei de aru, which, without due care given to the ga 
could be interpreted, "Primarily used in the persecution of 
Christianity, and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is famous." 
The ga indicates, however, that the point is not that 
Christ's crucifixion was famous; rather that the crucifixion 
of Jesus Christ was famous among crucifixions. Hence, 



"Primarily used in the persecution of Christianity, the cru- 
cifixion of Jesus Christ being the best known example." 2 
Students sometimes get the impression that wa appears 
in negative sentences and ga in positive. This is simply 
false. There is a strong tendency for wa to appear in neg- 
ative sentences, but that is because wa is being used in 
these cases to do what it always does, and that is to throw 
the emphasis onto what comes after it — that you're not 
going, that it isn't the one you want, that there aren't any 
left, etc. Compare Ikitaku nai I "I don't want to go" with 
Ikitaku wa nai I "I don't want to go (though I might like 
to hear how it was)." But look at how the wa does exactly 
the same thing in positive constructions: Nihon-jin ni mo 
fuman wa am no da I "Japanese people do have their dis- 
contents, too." , Mayaku wa tashika ni kutsu o kanwa shi 
wa shita ga, sono kawari ni kimyb na genkaku o mo- 
tarashita I "The narcotics did ease the pain, but they also 
gave rise to strange hallucinations." 4 (To emphasize the dif- 
ferentiating function of wa, we might more wordily para- 
phrase Ikitaku wa nai like this: "As far as wanting to go is 
concerned (in distinction to other possible reactions to this 
situation), I don't. Fuman wa am can be paraphrased, "As 
for discontents (in distinction to other sorts of feelings), 
they exist.") 

Our verb "to do" can be another handy tool for con- 
veying in English translation some of the emphasis that a 
wa often throws on the verb. Compare Okane ga am I "I 
have money" with Okane wa am I "I do have money (but 
I don't have time to spend it, or I owe it all to the gov- 
ernment, or some such implication owing to wa's usual 
differentiating function)." 

The whole question of emphasis in language is involved 
with the question of what is known information and what 
is new information. There is no need to accentuate the ob- 


vious. It 1S for this reason that there are often correspon- H 
dences between wa and ga in Japanese and "the" and "a" ^ 
in English. "The man" {Otoko wa . . .) is someone we ^ 
know about and are now going to get new information on, . 
whereas "a man" is someone new who has just entered the q 
scene (. . . otoko ga haitte kita). (That is why "the" is O 
called the "definite article": we know just what we are re- 3 
ferring to, while we use "a," the "indefinite article," when 
we're not so sure.) 

In his encyclopedic Japanese Language Patterns, Al- 
fonso has noted these correspondences and wisely chosen 
not to dwell on them. The fact remains, however, that 
there is a good deal of overlap in linguistic function be- 
tween Japanese wa and ga and English "the" and "a." 
Since both have to do with unspoken assumptions con- 
cerning how much speaker and listener know, both convey 
some of the subtlest nuances of their respective languages, 
and both are extremely difficult for foreigners. Even the 
most accomplished Japanese speaker of English will con- 
tinue to make mistakes with "the" and "a," and native 
users of English will probably always have some degree of 
difficulty with wa and ga. This is surely one of those in- 
tuitive areas of language that can only be fully mastered in 
early childhood. 5 

In the days of his youth (though well past his child- 
hood), a sharp-tongued colleague of mine once had a se- 
rious falling-out with his Japanese employer over "the" and 
"a." He was working in Japan as a translator at the time, 
and his boss suggested that they were paying him too 
much because English was so full of these useless little def- 
inite and indefinite articles. Since he was being paid by the 
word, the employer suggested they ought to omit all the 
the's and a's from the word count. The prospect of a pay 
cut did not set well with my colleague, who somewhat im- 



petuously replied, "Better yet, you do the translations, and 
you can pay me to put in the the's and a's." For this im- 
politic thrust at one of the most insecure areas of Japanese 
knowledge of English, he was fired on the spot. 

Ga, we can fairly safely conclude, is a lot simpler than 
the double-functioning wa. Ga marks the grammatical sub- 
ject of an upcoming verb or adjective, but wa marks the 
topic — not the topic of a verb, but the topic of an up- 
coming discussion. This topic-subject distinction can be 
more confusing than helpful until you see what a word is 
the topic of or the subject of. For more on this, pay close 
attention to the next paragraph. 

Ga marks something that is going to have a piece of 
grammar — a verb or adjective — connected to it, but wa is 
far less restrictive: it marks something that is going to have 
a remark made about it, but it gives absolutely no clue as 
to what kind of remark it's going to be. Wa merely says, 
"Hey, I'm going to tell you about this now, so listen." Ga 
says "Watch out for the next verb that comes by: I'm most 
likely the one that will be doing or being that verb." Ga al- 
ways marks the subject of a verb or adjective, 6 and if that 
verb is the main verb, that means ga is marking the sub- 
ject of the sentence. Wa never does this. 

Wait a minute. Did I just say that wa never marks the 
subject of a sentence? Yes, and I mean it. Wa never ever 
marks the subject of a verb and so it never marks the sub- 
ject of a sentence. Wa only marks a topic of discussion, 
"that about which the speaker is talking." And, as Anthony 
Alfonso so sensibly remarks, "Since one might talk about 
any number of things, the topic might be the subject of the 
final verb, or time, or the object, or location, etc." 7 

Alfonso gives lots of good examples of each type of 
topic in a passage that is well worth studying. As a time 
topic, he gives Aki wa sora ga kirei desu, which can be 



translated "The sky is clear in autumn" or, more literally, I— 1 
"Autumn, well, the sky is clear," or "As for autumn (as op- ^ 
posed to the other seasons), the sky is clear," etc. One ex- ^ 
ample of an object topic that Alfonso gives is Sono koto . 
wa kyo hajimete kikimashita, "I heard that today for the q 
first time," or "That matter, well, today for the first time I O 
heard it," or "As far as that matter goes, I heard about it B 
today for the first time," etc. 

Alfonso's remark about the possible contents of a topic 
suggests that a wa topic can be the subject of a sentence, 
but I am still going to insist that it never is. Let's expand 
on those cases in which the iwz-marked topic seems to be 
the thing or person that does the verb. One good example 
of this is our old Watashi wa ikimashita. 

Earlier, I translated Watashi wa ikimashita as "Me? I 
went." Doesn't this look suspiciously like those double sub- 
jects your first-grade teacher told you never to use? "My 
uncle, he's a nice man." "My family and me, we went to 
New Jersey." "Mistah Kurtz— he dead." In each case, you 
name the topic of your upcoming remark, and then you go 
ahead and say a sentence about it. The subject of the verb 
in each sentence is not "my uncle," "my family," or "Mis- 
tah Kurtz" but rather the following pronoun. And notice 
that all the redundant subjects are pronouns. Once you've 
established that it's your uncle you are talking about, you 
can demote him to pronoun status when you give him a 
sentence to do. Likewise, in Japanese, once you've estab- 
lished the topic you are going to be talking about, you can 
use the Japanese zero pronoun when you give it a verb to 
perform. And that's just what is happening in Watashi wa 

Our old standby "as for" can help clarify this a bit fur- 
ther. "As for me, [I] went." The "I" is in brackets here be- 
cause it is present in the Japanese sentence only as an 


unspoken subject. Wdtashi is not the subject of ikimashita 
and is not the subject of the sentence. It is simply the topic 
of the upcoming discussion. The wa tells us only that the 
following discussion is going to be about watashi as op- 
posed to other possible people. The subject of the verb iki- 
mashita is not watashi but the silent pronoun that follows 
it. In other words, when you used to make up sentences 
with double subjects in the first grade, you were trying, in 
your childish wisdom, to use wa constructions in English. 
You could have mastered wa at the age of seven, but that 
pigheaded Mrs. Hawkins ruined everything! 

Take a second and look back at the example of a wa 
object from Alfonso, Sono koto wa kyo hajimete kiki- 
mashita, "I heard that today for the first time," or "That 
matter, well, today for the first time I heard it." Notice 
that the actual object of the verb kikimashita is not the 
wa-topic koto but the zero pronoun, which we have to 
translate as "it" when we start getting literal. 

We cannot repeat too often that wa NEVER marks the 
subject of a verb. It doesn't mark the object, either. And it 
certainly doesn't unpredictably "substitute" for other par- 
ticles such as ga and o. All wa ever does is tell you, "I 
know not about others of this category we've been talking 
about, but as for this one . . ." Wa tells you nothing about 
how its topic is going to relate to the upcoming informa- 
tion: it only tells you that some information is coming up 
that will be related somehow to the topic. In fact, the only 
way that you can tell whether wa marks an apparent sub- 
ject or object (or anything else) in a sentence is in retro- 
spect. But language doesn't work in retrospect. 

When a grammarian tells you that wa can mark the 
subject of a sentence, he is able to say that only because 
he has seen the rest of the sentence and knows how it 
turned out. But when real, live Japanese people read or 



hear a wa topic at the beginning of a sentence, they have 
absolutely no idea what's coming. Look at Alfonso's time 
topic example on the clear autumn sky, Aki wa sora ga 
kirei desu. The only reason Alfonso was able to use this 
sentence as an illustration of a time topic is because he 
had read it to the end and could go back and analyze the 
relationship of aki to the statement made about it after the 
wa. When a Japanese person hears or sees Aki wa, though, 
he has no idea what's coming (aside from any hints he 
might have picked up from the larger context). It could be 
daikirai desu I "Autumn— I hate it!" or ichiban ii kisetsu 
desu I "Autumn — it's the best season," making it in both 
cases an apparent subject (in Japanese, if not in English 
translation), not a time expression. It could even be an ap- 
parent object if the sentence went on tanoshiku sugoshita 
I "The autumn: we passed it pleasantly" or "(The other 
seasons aside,) the autumn at least we passed pleasantly." 

Whatever its various apparent functions, marking sub- 
jects or objects or time expressions or locations, these 
functions can be labeled only after the fact, as the result of 
analysis. Again, the trouble with wa is that it always per- 
forms its double function: it distinguishes known topics 
from other topics, and it signals you to look for the im- 
portant information that is about to be imparted in the 
upcoming discussion. When it does that, it puts no gram- 
matical restrictions on what those discussions can be. 

If you stop and think about it, "as for" works in the 
same way. After Patrick Henry set up his topic with "as 
for me," he had to mention the "me" again to make gram- 
matical sense: ". . . give me liberty or give me death." The 
subject of the main clause here is an understood "you" or 
"King George" or whoever it is that is supposed to give 
"me" either liberty or death. And "me" is not even an ob- 
ject: it's what we call an "indirect object." The direct ob- 



jects of "give" are "liberty" and "death." In other words, 
"as-for" topics in English are as grammatically flexible as 
wa topics in Japanese: "As for the men, we paid them and 
sent them home." "As for the time, she arrived around two 
o'clock." "As for her mother's future, Mary Wang still 
wonders what lies ahead." 8 "Madame Bovary, c'est moi " 
Notice how, in the English examples, the degree of dis- 
tinction that "as for" sets up between the topics it marks 
and other implied topics is quite variable. The same is true 
for wa. Depending on the situation, the amount of contrast 
can vary from quite a lot to nearly none. 

Here is a sobering anecdote to illustrate how potent a 
little w can be in differentiating a topic from implied oth- 
ers. The topic in question happens to be a time expression 
not an apparent sentence subject, but the differentiating 
function is the same. 

I and a few other American scholars were at a partv 
and one of us tried to compliment our Japanese host by 
saying, Konban wa oishii mono ga takusan arimasu ne 
By this he intended to say, "What a lot of tasty dishes 
you re serving us tonight." The host laughed and remarked 
You mean I'm usually stingy on other nights?" By put- 
ting wa after "tonight," my colleague had in effect said 
Tonight for a change, you're serving us a lot of tasty 
dishes. Although our host seemed to take this in good 
humor, he unobtrusively committed seppuku later as the 
rest ot us were drinking cognac. 

On the other hand, as we shall see below, wa can ap- 
pear to have virtually none of its differentiating or con- 
trastive function when we encounter it at the beginning of 
a text, especially in fictional narratives 

of p^T ? St realiZed ' in th0Se ^ murk y stings 
of English and Japanese, that wa is like "as for," had a 

brilliant insight. As nearly as I can tell, the credit for that 



particular phrase should go to Basil Hall Chamberlain, the 
great nineteenth-century Japanologist to whom so much of 
our knowledge about Japan and Japanese can be traced. 
Profiting from some earlier remarks by W. G. Aston that 
drew parallels between wa and certain Greek and French 
constructions, Chamberlain went on to note the usefulness 
of "as for" perhaps as early as 1888. 9 The only problem 
with "as for" nowadays, as I mentioned earlier, is that we 
tend to stop interpreting it properly in English when we 
encounter so many wa's in Japanese. Understood correctly, 
"as for" is an excellent device for helping us analyze a 
Japanese sentence, but when it comes to translating 
Japanese into real, bearable English, it is usually best dis- 
posed of. 

So much for the general principles of wa and ga. Now 
let's look at a famous sentence in which we find both a wa 
and a ga: 

Zd wa hana ga nagai. 

As literally as possible, we can render this: "As for ele- 
phants, (their) noses [i.e., trunks: the Japanese don't hap- 
pen to have a special word for trunk; it's nothing to laugh 
about] are long." That is to say, we first note that our 
topic is elephants, and concerning this topic we formulate 
the grammatical construction "trunks are long," in which 
"trunks" is the subject and "are long" is the predicate. 

So now we have "As for elephants, their trunks are 
long." What do we do with it? What does it mean? How 
do we make it real, live English that someone other than a 
language student could love? Does it simply mean "Ele- 
phants have long trunks?" 

Maybe we should look at the Japanese. When would 
anyone ever really say Zd wa hana ga nagai except to 



make a point about how odd Japanese is? Isn't this sen- 
tence about elephants really just a red herring? Its only 
conceivable real-life use is for teaching a small child the 
distinguishing characteristics of various animals. It would 
have to come in a list, probably while the speaker was 
turning the pages of a picture book: Giraffes have long 
necks, lemurs have big eyes, minks have nice fur, tapirs 
have huge rumps, and as for elephants, well, they have 
long noses. 

This is not to say there are not genuine Japanese sen- 
tences of the Zo wa hana ga nagai pattern. They are, in 
fact, quite common. Here are a couple more: 

Aitsu wa atama ga amari yoku nai nee. I "That guy's 

not too bright, is he?" 
Oyaji wa atama ga hagete kita. I "The old man's lost 

a lot of hair." 

But such sentences don't exist in a vacuum (except in 
classrooms and grammar books). There is always a larger 
context implied. This is true primarily because of the func- 
tion of wa in differentiating the known topic from other 
topics and directing the attention of the listener to the im- 
portant information that follows. "The man? Well, he's in 
Washington." "The woman? She disappeared." Notice the 
use of "the" here, implying a certain amount of under- 
standing already established between speaker and lis- 
tener—a context. You wouldn't say Otoko wa Washinton 
ni iru except as the continuation of a discussion that has 
already established the existence of the man and now im- 
parts more information about him. The same principle is at 
work in news reports. A story about a new appointment 
made by the American president may begin, Busshu Bei- 
Daitdryo wa . . . , going on the assumption that everyone 


knows about him and the office he holds. A close equiva- 1—1 
lent of the Japanese phrase would be "US President Bush ^ 
. . . ," which makes the same assumptions about what the ^ 
reader knows as does "George Bush, THE President of . 
THE United States . . ."A report on doings in the Diet O 
will start out, Kokkai wa . . . I "THE Diet . . ." Where the O 
existence of a less well-known entity must be established, 3 
though, we will often find a ga at work: Hdbddo-dai no 
sotsugyd-ronbun ni 'Fuji Santard' nado Nihon no sarari- 
iman manga o toriageta Beijin josei Risa Rosefu-san ga, 
Tokyo no terebi-kyoku de bangumi-seisaku no kenshu-chu 
da I "Lisa Rosef, an American co-ed who did a study of 
'Fuji Santaro' and other such salaryman comics for her 
Harvard graduation thesis, is presently on an internship for 
program production at a Tokyo television station.'" 

Another famous grammatical red herring involves eels: 
Boku wa unagi da. Literally (no, not "literally," but per- 
versely), this would seem to mean "I am an eel." But it's 
just a sentence that Japanese with some consciousness of 
their own language like to chuckle over. If Sore wa pen da 
means "That is a pen" and Are wa kuruma da means 
"That is a car," how can Boku wa unagi da not mean "I 
am an eel"? Before we answer that, it's important to note 
that "That is a pen" is not the same as "It's a pen." When, 
aside from some kind of grammar drill in an ESL class, 
would we actually say, "That is a pen" in English? The 
customer, pointing through the glass, mistakenly asks to 
see "this mechanical pencil, please," and we, the clerk, 
must point out to her that "That is a pen." The real an- 
swer to "What is this I'm holding?" is the non-sentence, 
"A pen," or, for those abnormally addicted to speaking in 
complete sentences, "It's a pen," but certainly not "That is 
a pen." 

Likewise, Sore wa pen da (or desu, since we are polite 


in the classroom) is mainly an obedient language student's 
answer to the teacher's question Kore wa nan desu ka. A 
natural answer to the question would be Pen desu. The 
full Sore wa pen desu means "That one [as opposed to an- 
other object the teacher is holding] is a pen." But notice 
that, even here, while pen may be the topic of the sen- 
tence, it is not the grammatical subject of desu. The sub- 
ject of desu is, as noted earlier, the unspoken "it": "As for 
that, (it) is a pen." All the wa does is hold up the topic 
and distinguish it from other possible topics, and then it 
tells you that the important information on the topic is 
about to follow. If the context has established that we are 
talking about long, slender objects or objects that people 
happen to be holding, the unspoken subject is easily and 
automatically equated with the thing that sore refers to. 

If, however, the context has established that we are 
talking about what the various individuals in a group want 
to eat, the slippery unspoken subject can easily adapt to 
that: "(I know not what others may take for this course, 
but) as for me, (what I want to eat) is eel." The topic of 
Boku wa unagi da is boku, but the subject of the verb da 
is "what I want to eat."" 

The one place where a wa topic might seem to mate- 
rialize out of a vacuum is the opening sentence of a fic- 
tional narrative, but in fact what is going on here is that 
the wa is being exploited by the author to give the Active 
impression of a known context. 

Natsume Soseki's novel Mon (The Gate), for example, 
starts out, Sosuke wa sakki kara engawa e zabuton o 
mochidashite ..." A reasonably readable translation of 
this might go: "Sosuke had brought a cushion onto the ve- 
randa and ..." This looks so unexceptionable both in 
Japanese and in English that we can easily forget how 
much literary history lies behind our being able to begin a 



third-person fictional narrative with the narrator estab- 
lishing such apparent instantaneous intimacy between him- 
self and his character on the one hand and himself and the 
reader on the other. A nineteenth-century reader might 
ask, "Who is this Sosuke fellow? When was he born? 
Who were his parents? What does he look like? Where 
does he live? When did this happen? This can't be the be- 
ginning of the story. What happened to the introduction? 
It seems to start in the middle of things." 

Of course, that is exactly the point. Many modern nov- 
els and stories purposely try to give the impression of 
being direct observations of real life — events and people 
that existed before the narrator started telling us about 
them. The effect is even clearer when the first character 
we encounter doesn't have a name, as in the opening sen- 
tence of Soseki's earlier novel, Sanshird: Uto-uto to shite 
me ga sameru to onna wa I "He drifted off, and when he 
opened his eyes, THE woman . . ." 

Jack London opens The Call of the Wild (1900) with 
the observation that "Buck did not read the newspapers." 
We know better than to ask, "Buck who?" Hemingway's 
"Indian Camp" begins, "At the lake shore there was an- 
other rowboat drawn up," and his "Cat in the Rain" starts 
out, "There were only two Americans stopping at the 
hotel." As modern readers, we have learned not to ask 
"Which lake shore?" or "What hotel?" It's the hotel, the 
one we and the narrator know about. We enjoy the im- 
pression of journalistic immediacy conveyed by this clipped 
style. And perhaps we get impatient when Henry James 
begins the 1880 Portrait of a Lady: "Under certain cir- 
cumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than 
the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon 
tea," etc. etc. 

James' garrulous narrator, who even refers to himself as 



"I" and tells us that he is "beginning to unfold this simple 
history," is but the most subtle permutation of the tradi- 
tional storyteller, who might inform us that "Once upon a 
time, in a certain kingdom, there lived a girl with long, 
golden hair." The Japanese formula for opening a fairy tale 
is Mukashi, am tokoro ni, ojiisan to obaasan ga sunde 
imashita I "Long ago, in a certain place, there lived an old 
man and an old woman." 

We can almost hear the storyteller clearing his throat 
as he stands before us and invites us to imagine the exis- 
tence of a self-contained, make-believe world inhabited by 
an old man and an old woman, whose existence must first 
be established in the form of ga-marked subjects before the 
tale can unfold. The implied question to which this is the 
answer is "Who lived in a certain place once upon a 

The modern author, by contrast, more often wants to 
give a strong impression of the pre-existence of the ele- 
ments in his fictive world rather than calling attention to 
the voice of the narrator and the mere existence of his 
characters. In English, he does this with "the," and in 
Japanese, wa serves the purpose. Murakami Haruki, for ex- 
ample, begins a 1985 novel, Erebeta wa kiwamete kanman 
na sokudo de josho o tsuzukete ita I "The elevator con- 
tinued its ascent at an extremely sluggish pace." 12 The same 
thing is going on in the Soseki novel cited earlier: "(I know 
not about other people, but) as for Sosuke [the one we all 
know about], he had brought a cushion onto the veranda 
and ..." The implied question behind this opening sen- 
tence is "What was Sosuke doing?" Translated into the 
corresponding English medium, we get nothing more com- 
plicated than, "Sosuke had brought a cushion onto the ve- 
randa and . . ." It would be laughable to imagine a 
modern, introspective novel like Mon starting out "In 



Tokyo, there lived a man named Sosuke," which would, of 
course, have a ga-marked subject in Japanese. The impli- 
cation of the wa marker is that we know Sosuke — at least 
as well as we knew President Bush in the news story men- 
tioned above. 

First-person narrators will always refer to themselves at 
the outset with wa since, of course, they do not have to es- 
tablish their own existences ("Once there was a me"). In- 
deed, part of what makes such narrators feel so powerfully 
real and present is their implied existence, diarist- like, out- 
side their texts. 

Now, don't go out and exult over finding a ga-marked 
subject in the opening sentence of a piece of modern fic- 
tion. More than likely it's the subject of a iva-marked sub- 
ordinate clause like this: Veda Toyokichi ga sono furusato 
o deta no wa ima yori oyoso nijunen bakari mae no koto 
de atta I "It was some twenty years ago that Ueda Toyo- 
kichi left his native village." Or: Tomimori ga sono onna 
o roji no yama no waki ni am ie ni tsurete kita no wa, 
hachigatsu mo haitte kara no koto datta I "It was already 
after the beginning of August when Tomimori brought the 
woman to the house by the ghetto hill." 13 

All of this business about narrators is meant to illus- 
trate that you do not have to learn a lot of different func- 
tions for wa. It is completely consistent in its double 
function, differentiating the known topic it marks from 
others and throwing the emphasis on ahead in the sentence 
to what really matters. 


The Invisible Man's Family Reunion 

If the invisible man married the invisible woman and sev- 
eral generations later their offspring decided to have a fam- 
ily reunion, this would not only pose a terrible problem for 
the photographer, but choosing partners for the three- 
legged race could waste the entire day. 

This is not as irrelevant as it may seem. Izanagi and 
Izanami, the creators of the Japanese islands, were proba- 
bly invisible before they descended to earth, where they ac- 
quired physical bodies. We can be fairly certain that it was 
this original invisibility that gave rise to the zero pronoun 
in Japanese.' 

When they contain just one invisible subject or object, 
Japanese sentences are easier to keep track of, but things 
start to get tricky when directional verbs of giving and re- 
ceiving enter the action, and by the time you get to 
causatives, passives, passive-causatives, and causatives com- 
bined with directional verbs, the number of zero pronouns 
running around the Land of the Reed Plains can be posi- 
tively overwhelming. 

The following is intended to help you work backwards 
from what you might find on the page, operating on the 
assumption that you have already come through the ma- 
terial in the other direction. 

The best advice I can offer you is to go back to the 
textbook. It's all there and it's probably all clearly ex- 
plained in terms of both direction and levels of respect. 
When you study it this time, though, don't worry so much 
about politeness as direction. The most important thing is 
to keep track of who initiates the action. Because the 
verbs themselves make it perfectly clear who is doing the 
giving or receiving or causing or doing of an action, there 


is often no need to mention the parties involved overtly. 
Whether mentioned or not, they are always there. 


Yarn, Ageru, Sashiagem; Kudasaru, Kureru 

First, the giving-away verbs: yam, ageru, and sashi- 
agem. I have listed them in ascending order of respect, but 
they all mean the same thing, "to give," and they all indi- 
cate giving that moves away from the speaker. Whether 
that giving is down and away, up and away, or up-up and 
away, the crucial thing is that the speaker describes the 
giving as being done by himself or someone he identifies 
with (if only momentarily). 

X o ageta, then, is usually going to mean "I gave him 
X" or "I gave her X" or "I gave them X." If the giver is 
not the speaker but a third-person member of our group, 
it could mean "He gave him X." It will never mean "He 
gave me X" or "They gave us X," because that would have 
the direction wrong. The giving never moves toward us: 
we are the ones who initiate the action of the giving. Agem 
is especially clear in this regard, because it literally means 
"to raise up" — to raise something up to someone who is 
above you in the hierarchical Japanese view of social rela- 
tionships (though in fact this may not be true: the impor- 
tant thing is the direction away). 

The direction remains fixed whether the verb of giving 
takes a noun object (Seta o ageta I "I gave him a sweat- 
er") or is used as an auxiliary verb after another verb in its 
-te form (gerund) to indicate the "giving" of the "doing" of 
the verb to someone else, as in Kaite ageta I "I gave her 
[my doing the] writing," "I wrote it for her"). 

Notice it's / gave her my writing. "I" does both the 
writing and the giving. You'll see why I emphasize this in 
a minute. 


Kudasaru and kureru also mean "to give," but the di- 
rection of the giving is always from the other person to 
the speaker or someone in his group, exactly the opposite 
direction of ageru etc., but still "giving" and not "receiv- 
ing." The speaker describes the giving as being done by 
someone else-someone outside his group-toward him 
X o kureta, then, is usually going to mean "He gave me 
X or "She gave us X" etc. It will never mean "I gave 
him X," and perhaps more importantly, it will never 
mean "I got X from him." The other person is the sub- 
ject, the doer, the giver, the one who initiates the action 
of giving. 

Notice what you're doing when you politely say kuda- 
sai to someone. You are actually ordering that person 
to do the verb kudasaru-Wtemlly, to "lower" something 
down to you, the direction opposite to agent's "raising up " 
(Kudasai is an imperative evolved from the regular im- 
perative, kudasare). Because the verb implies that you are 
grovelling down here in the dirt, waiting for the exalted 
other person to take the initiative to "lower" whatever it is 
you want down to your filthy place, you can get away with 
issuing such a command. It is ALWAYS the OTHER per- 
son who performs kudasaru and the less polite kureru 
which places the other person at a less elevated altitude' 
thus preventing nosebleeds. 

Be very careful here, though. When textbooks or teach- 
ers say that kudasaru and kureru mean "someone gives to 
me," this does not mean "someone-anyone-some float- 
ing, unspecified person gives to me," but either "the stated 
subject gives to me" or "the unstated but known subject 
gives to me." In English, known subjects are not called 
someone," they are referred to by pronouns-he, she, you 
they. ' J ' 

As with ageru, kureru can follow a -te form to indicate 



the "giving" of the action described by the -te verb, but of |— 1 
course the action is initiated by the other person for "me." QJ 
Inu o aratte kureta without a stated subject does not mean N 
"Someone washed the dog for me," and it especially does ^ 
not mean "The dog was washed for me." It means "He (or q 
she, etc.) washed the dog for me." The direction of the q 
giving is fixed, always from the other person. Thus, even ^ 
though no subject may be stated within the Japanese sen- 
tence, we know from the meaning of the verb that it is 
somebody else, and we know from the particular context 
whether it is "he" or "she" or "you" or "they." "Someone" 
is always wrong as a translation for a known but unstated 
subject, though it may be okay as a paraphrase, as in 
"Someone pledges allegiance to the flag of the United 
States of America. ..." 

Be as vigilantly on guard against translating such a sen- 
tence into the passive voice as you would against com- 
mitting murder. If you translate a Japanese sentence that 
means "He washed the dog for me" into an English sen- 
tence, "The dog was washed for me," you kill the invisible 
subject of the original Japanese sentence. "He" simply dis- 
appears in the translation process and fails to show up in 
English, even as an agent— "The dog was washed for me 
by him." What's worse, he is replaced as subject by a dirty 
dog, which in the original was an object. The action didn't 
just happen. We know who did it, and we are telling. 

Now, here is something really important, so pay at- 
tention. Notice that, when we are trying to figure out 
who's doing what among a bunch of verbs consisting of a 
-te form followed by one of these directional auxiliaries, we 
start with the subject of the verb that comes last. In a -te 
kureru construction, kureru is the final verb, and in -te 
ageru constructions, ageru is the final verb. The final verb 
forms our base of operations. 


When verbs of giving — in either direction — are used as 
auxiliaries after a -te form, the same person does both the 
-te verb and the auxiliary, whether I ageru to him or he 
kureru's to me: 

Tegami o kaite kureta. I "He wrote a letter for me (or 
to me)." 

Tegami o kaite ageta. I "I wrote a letter for him (or to 

With verbs of receiving, however, there will be a split. 
Let's move on to the next section and see what that is all 


In one sense, verbs of receiving are simpler than verbs 
of giving since receiving happens in only one direction. 
Whereas one set of verbs of giving means "I give to him" 
and the other set means "He gives to me," morau means 
only "I get from him" (as is true, of course, for its humbler 
equivalent, itadaku, to which all comments on morau 
apply). There is no form for "He gets from me." Third-per- 
son descriptions of receiving will always mean "He gets 
from him/her/them," never "He gets from me." 

In spite of its single direction, however, when morau is 
used an auxiliary after -te, it causes students much more 
trouble than ageru because there is a crucial split between 
the doer of the -te verb and the doer of the auxiliary of re- 
ceiving. In -te morau constructions, "I" is the subject of the 
final verb (the morau), while the one who does the -te 
verb is the other person. You can't receive from yourself 
the doing of a verb: Inu o aratte moratta I "I had him/ 
her/them wash the dog for me." 

As with verbs of giving, the final verb, the morau, 


forms our base of operations in keeping track of which in- 
visible actors are doing what. A literal translation of a -te 
morau construction will always begin with the subject of 
the final verb, "I" (or we, or Taro, if he is one of us): "I 
get from the other person his doing of the -te verb." 

Notice how the same situation can be described from 
two points of view: Kaite kureta and Kaite moratta. In 
Kaite kureta, the subject initiating the action is the other 
person: "He wrote it for me." In Kaite moratta, "I got him 
to write it for me," or "I had him write it for me." While 
Inu o aratte kureta is "He washed the dog for me," Inu o 
aratte moratta is "I got him to wash the dog for me." 

Notice, too, how the identity of the doer of morau or 
kureru limits the possible uses and meanings of certain 
everyday expressions. You can, for example, ask another 
person if he/she will kureru for you, but since you are the 
one who morau's, you can't ask him if he will morau from 
you, and since only you can take the initiative to morau, 
you can't ask him if you will morau from him. So these 
are possible: Kaite kuremasu {kuremasen I kudasaimasu I 
kudasaimasen) ka I "Will you please write it for me?" But 
you can't ask, Kaite moraimasu (moraimasen I itadaki- 
masu I itadakimasen) ka I "Am I going to take the ini- 
tiative to get you to write it for me?" which sounds a little 
like the soggy camper's lament, "Are we having fun yet?" 
You can, however, ask the other person, Kaite moraemasu 
(itadakemasu) ka I "Can I get you to write it for me?" = 
"Will it be possible for me to get you to write it for me?" 

Again, since you are the one who does morau, you can 
add the subjective ending -tai, expressing desire, to it and 
make the subjective statement that you want to morau as 
in Kaite moraitai I "I'd like to receive from you your writ- 
ing this for me" = "I'd like you to write this for me." But 
because the other person is the one who kureru's, you 


can't say something like Kaite kuretai, which looks as 
though it should translate "I'd like you to write it for me" 
but which is in fact impossible because — even if you are a 
clairvoyant — you can't say "I feel that you want to give me 
your writing of it." 

The warning about murdering your subjects by trans- 
lating -te kureru constructions into the passive applies with 
even greater urgency to -te morau constructions. You 
would only see Inu o aratte kureta in situations where the 
identity of the subject of the final verb kureta is quite 
clear. But since you are the subject of Inu o aratte 
moratta, there can be less emphasis on the doer of the 
washing, so you might use the expression in contexts 
where the washers are not clearly specified: "I had them 
wash the dog for me," which slides all-too-easily into a 
passive such as "I had the dog washed." Beware of English 
"equivalents" for such forms that resort to the old "some- 
one," too: "I had the dog washed by someone." This is not 
what's going on in the Japanese. The actors involved are 
present as zero pronouns: "I had him/her/them wash the 
dog for me." This may sound terrifically picky, but I guar- 
antee that if you resort too uncritically to the passive and 
"someone" at this stage, a real someone in the text or con- 
versation is sure to get bumped off when you have to deal 
with more challenging material. 2 

There'll be more on this later under the discussion of 
the passive. 


Besides -te itadaku and -te morau, another way one 
person can get another to do something is with the 
causative. Usually, this is not a very polite way to go about 
getting people to do things because if you talk about caus- 
ing people to perform actions, as if they are entirely sub- 


ject to your will, there can be a good bit of arrogance im- | — i 
plied. A -te morau construction at least implies that, al- Qj 
though you initiated the receiving of the action, the other N 
person did it of his own free will for your benefit. & 

Since we had people signing autographs in the above * 
paragraphs, let's keep the verb "to write" as our illustra- q 
tion. This time, it's kakaseru, in which I (or another ^ 
known subject, but let's keep it "I" for now) either "make" 
or "let" somebody else write something. In English trans- 
lation, we choose either "make" or "let" depending on 
whether the person wants to do the writing or not. The 
causative form in Japanese, however, makes no such fine 
distinctions regarding the will of the person we are "caus- 
ing" to do something, though context and meaning will 
usually make it clear enough. For example, if the verb is 
yasumu, made causative as yasumaseru, it's not likely we 
are going to force someone to rest against his will. (More 
on this tantalizing concept later.) Japanese people often 
fumble with "letting" or "making" people do things in En- 
glish, precisely because the distinction is missing in the 
Japanese verb form. 

The form may not tell us anything about whether the 
other person wants to be "caused" or not, but it does tell 
us that there are two people involved, one causing the 
other to perform the verb to which the causative ending 
has been added. Your textbook no doubt tells you that the 
person who is caused to do the action will be indicated 
with a ni or o, but more often than not, there won't be 
any overt mention of anybody since it's all clear from the 
context and from the verb forms themselves. Even when 
the causative is itself put into the -te form before a kureru 
or morau, the zero pronoun is often all that's given. As far 
as I'm concerned, this is where the real fun begins. 

So far, we've been talking about situations in which 



Mr. A makes Mr. B write something: kakaseru. What's 
going on in kakasete kuretal Remember that in the kaite 
kureru type of construction, the other person does both the 
final verb of the clause or sentence, kureru, and the action 
in the -te verb form for us. In kakasete kureta, the other 
person does the kureru for us as always but he only does 
the causing for us in the -te verb form: he causes someone 
else to do the writing. Here, you can have either two or 
three people involved. "He gave me his causing to write" 
does not specify who does the writing, but the context will 
make this clear. If we've been talking about Sally, it could 
mean "He gave me his causing Sally to write" ("He did me 
a favor and got Sally to write it," "He kindly had Sally 
write it for me"), but if only the two of us are involved, it 
could mean "He gave me his causing me to write" ("He 
did me a favor and let me write it," "He kindly allowed 
me to write it"). In any case, "He," the subject of our final 
verb kureru, does not do the writing; he only does the 
causing, and he does it for me. 

"He" doesn't do any writing in kakasete moratta, 
either. You should recall how, in -te morau constructions, 
"I" do the receiving but the other person does the verb in 
the -te form. In kakasete moratta, "I" do the morau as al- 
ways but the other person only does the causing: he still 
causes someone else to do the writing. "I got from him his 
causing to write" can mean either "I got from him his 
causing me to write" ("I got him to let me write it") or (in 
actual usage, the far less likely) "I got from him his caus- 
ing Sally to write" ("I got him to let Sally write it," "I got 
him to make Sally write it.") The Japanese want to know 
what's going on just as much as you do, so they will not 
use forms like this unless the verbal or real-world context 
makes it clear who is involved. As long as you realize how 
many players the verb forms require and you look for 



them, you'll find them. 

Here are a few examples of causatives with auxiliaries 
of giving from the speaker rather than to the speaker. No- 
tice that they suggest situations of dominance or familiar- 

Itai me ni awasete yatta. I "I gave him the causing of 
him to meet up with a painful experience." = "I put 
him through a tough time." = "I kicked his butt." 

Kakasete yatta. I "I (showed him who's boss and) 
made him write it." 

Tomodachi ga komatte ita no de, watashi no jisho o 
tsukawasete ageta. I "My friend was in a pinch, so 
I let her use my dictionary." 

Kakasete ageta. I "I let her write it." 

Tard-chan ni chotto yarasete agete kudasai. I "Please 
let little Taro do it (try it, play baseball, etc.)." 

Let's look at some texts, starting with an example that 
uses the causative by itself without any directional verbs. 
This is from an essay (zuihitsu) by Watanabe Jun'ichi, in 
which the writer describes his own angry outburst at a Si- 
cilian innkeeper. Watanabe had asked the man to combine 
the room's two single beds into a double, but there had 
been no move to accommodate him. When Watanabe 
asked for the fifth time, he was told the "person in charge" 
(kakari) was at lunch and would do the job tomorrow — 
which was the day Watanabe would be checking out. At 
this, Watanabe blew up and yelled (among other things), 
Sugu kakari o yonde kite yarasero? 

Yarasero ends with a blunt imperative (-ro), making it 
a command to the listener, i.e., the innkeeper at the front 
desk. Here, Watanabe is ordering the innkeeper to cause 
somebody to yarn, which in this context means "to do," so 


together it means "make him (or her) do it." The sentence 
could be translated, "Go get the person in charge and 
make him do it." Altogether there are three people in- 
volved: the speaker issuing the command, the listener at 
the front desk, and the room clerk whom the listener is 
supposed to make put the two single beds together. Unless 
you take the zero pronoun into account, you might end up 
with translations such as these actual examples by certain 
unnamed acquaintances of mine: 

"Call the room attendant right away." "Go call and get 
the person in charge quickly, goddammit!" "Call the per- 
son in charge immediately and have him come." "Imme- 
diately go and speak to the person in charge." "Hurry up 
and get the duty person!" "Go and tell the room clerk 
immediately, then come back!" "Call the front desk right 
now and make him do it." "Go get ahold of the attendant 
right now (literally, 'Call him, come back, do it!')-" "Go 
get the person in charge and tell him to do it (yarasero is 
'I cause you to tell him yaro')" (In fairness to these trans- 
lators, it must be pointed out that there is an idiomatic 
usage giving them some difficulty. See "Go Jump in the 
Lake, But Be Sure to Come Back.") 

Now here's a very short text with a causative in the -te 
form followed by itadaku, which differs from morau only 
in being more polite. The single sentence is engraved on a 
narrow, foot-long white plastic sign that I bought long ago 
in a Japanese department store to hang in my office. Its 
graceful black characters proclaim to anyone who can read 
it my shameless determination to have the day off: Hon- 
jitsu wa yasumasete itadakimasu. The wish it expresses is 
genuine enough, but that's not why I bought it. I bought 
it— and still love it— for its verb forms. (No kinkiness in- 

At the time I bought it, I suppose I was feeling pleased 


with myself that I could actually understand a verbal ex- 
pression so different from anything in my native tongue, 
Lower Slobovian. As I've said elsewhere, one of the great 
pleasures in learning Japanese comes in those moments of 
reflection after you have spoken or understood one of 
these strange expressions automatically, and you realize 
that you have learned to make your mind work in ways 
your mother never could have imagined. Even now, after 
more years at this business than I care to count at the mo- 
ment, such verbal agglomerations still have the power to 
fascinate me, and whenever they come up in class, I like to 
pause over them to make sure the students are getting the 
idea of just how outrageous Japanese can be. 

Honjitsu wa yasumasete itadakimasu. Two verbs. No 
subjects, no objects, no agents, nobody. And the Honjitsu 
wa tells us only that these two incredible verbs are hap- 
pening "today." Despite this, the sentence is both complete 
and perfectly clear. As the great Zen master Dogen himself 
might have translated it, "Gone fishin'." 

Is that all it means?! Well no, not literally, but it is just 
as much of a cliche in its culture as "Gone fishin'" or 
"Closed for the Day" might be in ours. It can be a lot 
more fun, though, if we look at it closely. 

The final verb of the sentence is itadakimasu, which 
tells us that the unnamed subject is going to humbly re- 
ceive something from someone more exalted. And what 
the subject is going to humbly receive is the exalted per- 
son's doing of the causative part of the -te form verb that 
immediately precedes the itadakimasu. 

So, what's going on in this yasumasete that the more 
exalted person is going to do? Yasumu is the verb mean- 
ing "to rest," and it is in the causative form, which means 
that our exalted individual will cause someone else to rest, 
i.e., he is going to let the humble receiver do the resting. 


If we go back to our final verb and call the unknown 
subject of that X and the exalted other person Y, we've 
got something like "X will humbly receive Y's letting X 

Now, who are X and Y? How can a sign like this, with 
no surrounding text, mean anything to anybody? Here, the 
context comes from the real world. The sign hangs in a 
shop window and the would-be customer finds the place 
closed, the sign telling him that "(We, the shopkeepers,) 
humbly receive (from you, the exalted customer,) (your) 
letting (us) rest today." 

This is all phrased in tremendously polite language, but 
the fact remains that the shop owner is telling the cus- 
tomer that, whatever the customer may think of the mat- 
ter, the owner is closing the shop for the day. Itadaku is 
performed by the subject, at his own discretion, and it car- 
ries the message "I take it upon myself in all humility to 
get from you . . ." It's like those signs "Thank you for not 
smoking," which always impress me as having an under- 
lying growl that makes them even more intimidating than 
a plain "No Smoking." 

A completely naturalized translation for the sign might 
simply be "Closed," though that way we lose the interest- 
ing cultural difference. Perhaps "We thank you for allow- 
ing us to have the day off" or "We appreciate your 
permitting us to have the day off would begin to convey 
some sense of the respectful tone of the Japanese in natu- 
ral-sounding English. But make no mistake about it: the 
owner has gone fishin'. 

Now, give this one a try. It comes from a story by the 
writer Hoshi Shin'ichi. A door-to-door salesman has just 
been told by the lady of the house that, since her husband 
isn't home, she can't buy the automatic backscratcher he 


I— 1 

has been trying to sell her today. He gives up and says, De Qj 
wa, chikai uchi ni, mata o-ukagai sasete itadaku koto ni N 
itashimashd. 4 In the o-ukagai sasete itadaku, who does the & 
ukagai part, the sasete part, the itadaku part? 

Start from the itadaku, the final verb of the clause Q 
modifying koto. The speaker is the only one of the two y 
present who could do itadaku, which the other person 
never does. Thus, he wants to get her to cause him to do 
whatever comes before the causative. Ukagai comes from 
ukagau, to humbly visit — again, a humble verb that only 
the speaker would do. A painfully literal translation of the 
phrase might be: "I shall humbly receive from you your al- 
lowing me to humbly visit you." A less painful version 
might be, "I will call upon you again if I may," which re- 
tains some of the force of the speaker's initiative implied 
by the itadaku. 

Unless you keep track of the zero pronouns performing 
the parts of the sandwich, you might come up with such 
"literal" translations as these: "Please make yourself stop by 
for me," or "May I cause you to receive my visit again?" or 
"I will cause you to receive my calling on you (honorable 
person)," or "Perhaps you will give me letting me visit 
again soon," or "Please allow me to cause another visit," or 
"Perhaps I'll visit again, since you've caused me to (by not 
buying the product)." 

There are some real problems here. If you recognize 
them, take a hard look at your textbook. 


The biggest problem surrounding the Japanese passive 
comes not so much from the form itself as from the 
overuse of the English passive to interpret active Japanese 
statements, a bad habit that can be developed long before 



the textbook ever gets to the passive. 

I spend so much energy warning my students not to 
translate active Japanese verbs into English passives that 
one bright young fellow named John Briggs invented a 
grammatical term for my own exclusive use: "passivica- 
tion." (He was so pleased with himself for coining the 
word that he grew a moustache.) Now, what is wrong 
with passivication? The answer is almost shockingly sim- 
ple. If you make an active verb passive, you tend to forget 
that the active verb had a subject. In fact, getting rid of 
that subject is precisely what we often use the passive for 
in English. In a fit of modesty, an author may tell us in his 
preface, "This book was written during the Klench Re- 
bellion," making "book" the subject, rather than coming 
right out and admitting that "I wrote this book" himself. 
This is the same process that killed off our subject when 
our dog was washed for us above in the discussions of 
kureru and morau. 

An English verb is in the active voice when its subject 
is the actor, while a verb is in the passive voice when the 
subject receives the action. "Melvin ate his french fries" is 
active, while "Melvin was eaten by his french fries" is pas- 
sive (if not tragic). 

Note here that it is the relationship of the subject and 
the verb that determines the difference. Let's look at a few 
more. "Laura was arrested." Laura is the subject, and the 
verb is being done to her, so it's passive. If we further 
specify that "Laura was arrested by the police," Laura is 
still the subject, and the police are the agents, the ones by 
whom Laura has the verb done to her. "The police ar- 
rested Laura." Now it is the police that are doing the verb, 
so they are the subject and Laura is the object. If the sub- 
ject is doing the verb, it is an active verb. We should also 
note that if the subject is doing the verb to something, the 


verb is not only active but transitive: the police didn't sim- 
ply "arrest," they arrested Laura. If, when they came for 
her, "Laura ran," she would have been doing an intransi- 
tive verb: she wouldn't have been running something, just 

In English, only a transitive verb can become passive. 
Japanese is a little different, but we don't have to go into 
that yet. The important thing to remember is that, both in 
English and Japanese, transitive verbs always have subjects 
and objects: "Cameron slugged the intruder," "Baskin mar- 
ried Robbins," "Bob got it," "It got Bob," "Iwata killed 
Terry," "She counted them," "They met her." The one big 
difference, of course, is that in Japanese those pronominal 
subjects and objects won't be mentioned in the sentence. 

Almost invariably, when a student has trouble finding 
the subject of an active verb, he or she will panic and 
quickly transform the verb into an English passive to make 
the problem go away. And when the all-important con- 
nection between subject and verb is lost, the sentence en- 
ters the twilight zone. 

Just to confuse things further, Japanese has a different 
kind of passive, using the same passive ending, rareru, 
often somewhat misleadingly called the "suffering (or ad- 
versative) passive," in which the subject does not have the 
verb done to it but "suffers" the doing of the verb. Al- 
though the form is often used in unpleasant situations, 
genuine "suffering" is not inherent to it, and in fact the 
distress usually has to be explicitly expressed with an ad- 
ditional komatta or hidoi me ni atta or some such com- 
plaint. The important thing is that the subject gets pas- 
sively rareru'ed, but it doesn't get acted upon by the rest of 
the verb. This is tough because there's nothing quite like it 
in English, but we just make it that much tougher on our- 
selves when we lose track of the unnamed subject. Let's 


see how this works by stealing a suitcase. 

1. Kaban o nusunda. I "X stole the suitcase." 

2. Kaban ga nusumareta. I "The suitcase was stolen." 

3. Kaban o nusumareta. I "X suffered the Y-stole-the 

Number 1 contains an ordinary active transitive verb 
and it makes complete sense only in a context that tells us 
who X is. As a transitive verb, nusumu must have both a 
subject and an object. Here, the sentence doesn't name the 
subject because it assumes we already know who the sub- 
ject is. This is a typical unstressed statement using the 
silent Japanese zero pronoun. This could be "I, you, he, 
she, we, you-plural, or they stole the suitcase," depending 
on the identity of the perpetrator (i.e., the subject). 

Number 2 is like the English passive (and, in fact, the 
widespread knowledge of English in Japan has probably 
contributed to the acceptability of the form). The subject is 
named, marked with the subject marker ga, and the whole 
verb is done to it: "The suitcase was stolen." 

Number 3 is an example of the Japanese "suffering pas- 
sive," a form that can be used with both transitive and in- 
transitive verbs, and thus one that is very different from 
the English passive. The subject is the one who gets 
rareru'ed whether the passive Japanese verb is transitive or 
intransitive. For example: Ame ni furarete komatta I 
"Being fallen on by rain, I was distressed" = "Damn, I got 
rained on." The passive is working the same way in sen- 
tence number 3. Marked by o, however, the suitcase is 
labeled as an object, and this means it cannot be 
rareru'ed (or, here, for phonetic reasons, mareru'ed): only 
a subject can be rareru'ed, and kaban cannot be a subject 
when followed by o. For this reason, the sentence can- 


not mean "The suitcase was stolen." 
So, what was stolen? 

Well, as a matter of fact, the suitcase was stolen. 

So why don't we just translate it "The suitcase was 
stolen" and be done with it? 

Well, if your suitcase had been stolen and the police 
didn't try to find it for you, you'd not only be very re- 
sentful, you'd probably never get your suitcase back. The 
suitcase itself may have been stolen, but the victim of the 
crime was you, and the use of the Japanese passive tells 
you that, whether it is mentioned or not, there is a subject 
who is "suffering" the doing of the verb. Used with a tran- 
sitive verb, the passive is a neat way of saying that the vic- 
tim/subject "suffered" the doing of the verb by someone 
else (the agent, marked with a ni when mentioned, though 
often a zero pronoun) to something else (the object, 
marked with an o when present, also often a zero pro- 
noun). The subject remains you (or whoever else the con- 
text has established as the subject), so you get rareru'ed by 
somebody, but you don't get stolen. 5 

"Pardon me, officer, but I've just been rareru'ed," you 
say to the policeman. 

"Oh, sorry to hear that, sir, but what were you 

"1 was rareru'ed somebody's having stolen my suit- 

"How's that again?" 

"I was stolen my suitcase!" 

"What an odd way to put it!" 

"Of course it's odd. I'm Japanese, and that's how we 
phrase these things when our English is a little shaky!" 

As the officer says, your expression may be odd, but 
it's perfectly clear. From it, he knows that you are the vic- 
tim, that someone did the stealing, and that the someone 



stole your suitcase. Kaban o nusumareta, then, is a clear 
statement involving you, the robber, and the suitcase, 
though only the suitcase is actually mentioned. 

In translating a sentence like Kaban o nusumareta, 
don't resort to something like "The suitcase was stolen and 
I was distressed." The suitcase was not passively stolen: the 
unmentioned "I" was the one passively affected. Much 
closer to the original would be a "literal" equivalent such 
as, "I was unfavorably affected by someone's having stolen 
the suitcase," or "I suffered someone's stealing my suit- 
case." These are pretty awkward, of course, and not for 
consumption beyond the walls of the classroom. Since "I 
was stolen my suitcase" is probably even worse, you might 
finally want to go as far as "Oh, no, they stole my suit- 
case!" or "Damn! The rats took my suitcase!" or any num- 
ber of other expressions of dismay befitting the overall 
tone of the translation. 

Here, by the way, is an example in which the "suffering 
passive" implies no suffering. The narrator of Murakami 
Haruki's "Tony Takitani" informs us that Tony's father was 
a somewhat widely known jazz trombonist in the prewar 
days: Kare no chichioya wa Takitani Shozaburo to iu, sen- 
zen kara sukoshi wa na o shirareta jazu-toronbdn-fuki 
datta I "His father was a jazz trombonist by the name of 
Takitani Shozaburo who 'suffered' the knowing of his 
name somewhat from before the war." 6 

Much of the trouble with the passive, as I have said, 
starts long before it ever makes its appearance in the text- 
book. Let me add a word here to Japanese language teach- 
ers on this matter while the rest of you leave the room. 

If students have been arbitrarily translating active 
Japanese into either active or passive English depending 
upon whether the subject is more obvious or less obvious, 
they will not see that the introduction of the Japanese pas- 



sive voice allows them to say things in a whole new way. 
One good method to prepare students for the coming of 
the Japanese passive is to demand that all translating in the 
course before the passive is introduced, even at the most 
elementary level, be done into the English active voice, 
passive translation being called to their attention as an 
error or, when unavoidable, as a poor compromise. (This 
will also provide grammar-starved students with some 
grounding in what the passive is before they have to deal 
with it in Japanese.) 

This might put some strain on the naturalness of the 
translating, but it would help students to remember that 
active verbs always have doers. Even something as natu- 
rally passivized as the verb iu should be kept active. 

All right, students can come back in now. Japanese: 
The Spoken Language says "The verbal iu has two basic 
meanings: 'say' and 'be named' or 'be called,'" but one il- 
lustration further down the page gives a good approach for 
avoiding such misleading passivication: Kore wa, Nihongo 
de nan to iu n desu ka I "What is it you call this in 
Japanese?" 7 

Who, we might ask, is the "you" in this translation? 
Certainly it isn't the person being addressed by the 
speaker. It's people in general, the same ones who show 
up in "They say that falling in love is wonderful," where 
they are called "they." By now, of course, we know that 
"they" in Japanese is the zero pronoun, and that is exactly 
who is doing the verb iu. They do it again in the phrase 
ltd to iu hito, which most of us (or at least those of us 
who had seen the movie "A Fish Called Wanda") would 
translate "a man called Ito," but which, in the original, is 
closer to "a man they call Ito." Better to get away from the 
Japanese entirely with something like "a man by the name 
of Ito" than to passivize. 


Probably the most widely known passivized translation 
from Japanese is one that has been made from the in- 
scription engraved on the monument in Hiroshima to those 
who were killed by the atomic bomb." The original in- 
scription, which contains what may be the most broadly 
inclusive zero pronoun, is a sobering one, with far greater 
impact in the Japanese original than in its weakened En- 
glish translation: 

Yasuraka ni nemutte kudasai. Ayamachi wa kurikae- 
shimasenu kara. I "Rest in peace, for X will not 
repeat the mistake.'"* 

This has been rendered, "Rest in peace, for the mistake 
will not be repeated," which is far less problematical than 
the original. "Who will not repeat the mistake?" people 
wanted to know when the monument was unveiled. "And 
who made the mistake in the first place — the Americans 
when they dropped the bomb, or the Japanese when they 
started the war?" The transitive Japanese verb in the active 
voice calls for a subject — a responsible actor. The pas- 
sivized translation makes far less stringent demands. With 
its unnamed subject, the Japanese sentence seems discreetly 
to avoid placing the blame on anyone, but it is far more 
thought-provoking than the English translation would sug- 
gest, for the inescapable conclusion to the unavoidable 
search for a subject is "we." 

Many intransitive Japanese verbs present another type 
of problem, more one of translation than understanding. 
These verbs often demand the English passive for natural 
translation. Someone can "straighten up" a room with 
katazukeru, but in Japanese we can also speak of the room 
as "becoming straight," katazuku, without reference to 
who does the straightening, even as a zero pronoun. Then 



it is difficult to avoid saying something like, "The room has 
been put in order." Naoru is another tricky verb, easy to 
translate when used with people— Naotta I "He got well," 
but hard to avoid passivizing when describing broken ra- 
dios, which in English we do not characterize as having 
"gotten well": Naotta I "It got fixed" = "It was repaired." 

Another form that is virtually impossible not to pas- 
sivize in translation is a transitive verb inflected with -te 
am. Mado ga shimete am (or Mado o shimete am, 
putting more emphasis on a person's having done the 
deed) may literally mean "The window is in a state of 
someone's having shut it," but the passive is unavoidable 
if we are going to keep the window as the subject in a 
normal English translation: "The window has been shut." 
Otherwise, to make the translation natural, we would have 
to turn the window into an object, "Someone has shut the 
window." The trouble here is that this particular Japanese 
construction focuses on the state of things after someone 
has performed an active verb, something we just don't do 
in English. It is neither passive ("The window was shut") 
nor active ("Someone shut the window"), but it forces us 
to choose one or the other in English. Again, in prepara- 
tion for the eventual appearance of the true passive, stu- 
dents should be informed when this construction appears 
that it is not passive and that they are being allowed to 
passivize it in translation only as an expedient. 

And finally, some good news. If you've got the caus- 
ative and the passive down, the passive-causative is easy. 
The form is mainly used in complaints by the speaker that 
he was forced by someone to do something, so the subject 
is almost always "I." "I" is the one who gets rarem'ed, and 
of course someone else does the causing. 

Being fired from a job, for example, is commonly de- 
scribed by the firee in terms of his having been forced to 


quit, yameru ("to quit") becoming yame-sase-rareta ("I suf- 
fered X's forcing me to quit"). If the president of the com- 
pany is to be named as the one who did it, we get Shachd 
ni yamesaserareta, but his participation is implied even 
without such specific reference. In the case of a transitive 
verb like torn ("to take"), made into the sentence Torase- 
rareta ("I suffered X's forcing me to take it" = "I was 
made to take it"), not only "I" and the one who forced "I" 
but also the thing "I" took can be present only as zero pro- 
nouns. Keeping score of the players works the same way 
in third-person narratives. 


I said in the introduction to this book that, "All too 
often, students are subtly encouraged to think that Japa- 
nese verbs just 'happen,' without subjects, deep within 
some Oriental fog. In the world represented by Japanese, 
actions 'occur,' but nobody does them," and I've said a lot 
since then to lay to rest such "twilight zone" notions about 
the Japanese language. Now I take it all back. There really 
is a twilight zone in Japanese, and the "natural potential" 
is it, that misty crossroads where the passive and potential 
intersect, where things happen spontaneously or naturally. 
Another term for the "natural potential" (shizen hand) is 
the "spontaneous passive" (jihatsu ukemi). 

We encounter this form most commonly when an es- 
sayist, after supposedly regaling us with objective facts, 
suddenly ends a sentence with kangaerareru or omowareru 
or omoeru, any of which would seem to mean "it is think- 
able" or "it is thought," but not "I think." What is he 
doing? Ducking responsibility for his own ideas? 

"Passive and potential forms are sometimes used in a 
way which might strike the English speaker as strange," 
says Anthony Alfonso. "When something is left, or thought, 


or even done involuntarily or naturally by a person, the ac- 
tion is described in an OBJECTIVE manner and by means 
of either the potential form or the passive form with a po- 
tential meaning." 10 

Take, for example, this somewhat spooky recollection 
of a childhood incident by the narrator of a story called 
"Man-Eating Cats." The day his cat disappeared into the 
garden's pine tree, he says, he sat on the verandah until 
late in the evening, unable to take his eyes off the upper 
branches of the tree in the brilliant moonlight. Tokidoki 
sono eda no naka de, tsuki no hikari o obite neko no me 
ga kirari to hikatta yd ni omoeta. Demo sore wa boku no 
sakkaku ka mo shirenakatta. "Every now and then, the 
cat's eyes seemed to be flashing in the light of the moon. 
Maybe it was just a hallucination of mine."" The italicized 
phrase translates the natural potential expression yd ni 
omoeta, which certainly does not mean "I was able to 
think that ..." and certainly does mean something more 
like "It seemed that . . . ," "One couldn't help feeling 
that," "One could not but think that . . . ," etc. 

I'm not sure if such a description is entirely "objective," 
but it does seem to be removed from the observer's ex- 
clusively subjective domain, perhaps floating somewhere in 
the middle between pure subjectivity and pure objectivity. 
The implication is that the environment naturally leads the 
speaker to think or feel something. These forms don't 
translate properly as either passive ("It was thought by 
me") or potential ("I could think that"). 

A few more examples: When a sad occasion brings 
forth an involuntary gush of tears, the verb naku, "to cry," 
is routinely inflected as a potential, nakeru, as in Nakete 
kichatta I "I just couldn't help crying." When a Japanese 
fisherman pulls a fish out of the water he doesn't take the 
credit for it as English speakers do. Instead of shouting 


"I've got one!" he inflects the verb tsuru (to fish) with the 
potential ending and says Tsureta! I "It has spontaneously 
caught itself on my line!" And when a Japanese writer 
talks about the successful completion of a novel, he will 
often say Shosetsu ga kaketa, meaning not boastfully "I 
was able to write it," but far more modestly, "It was 
writable," "It wrote itself." 
Good luck with this one. 


Here is a chart summarizing the forms treated in this 
chapter. These are all complete sentences, with implied 
subjects, objects, and agents, using the transitive verb kaku 
(to write), which appeared prominently in the explanations 
above, and supplying a tegami in two cases to illustrate the 
different uses of the passive. I have put all the verb forms 
into the perfective -ta form as you would most likely en- 
counter them, in statements about actual actions having 
been performed by known people, and translated the ex- 
amples using first-person singular subjects and masculine 
third-person singular pronouns for simplicity, employing 
the feminine at two points to indicate the presence of a 
third party. The emphasis here is on the number of players 
involved and direction of the action, not levels of respect. 


Kaite yatta/ageta. 
Kaite kureta/kudasatta. 
Kaite moratta/itadaita. 

Kakasete kureta/kudasatta. 
Kakasete moratta/itadaita. 

I wrote it. 
I wrote it for him. 
He wrote it for me. 
I got him to write it for me. 
I made/let him write it. 
He did me the favor of mak- 
ing/letting her/me write it. 
I got him to let me write it, or 


Kakasete ageta/yatta. 

Tegami ga kakareta. 
Tegami o kakareta. 


Kaite atta. 


I got him to make/let her 
write it. 

I let/made him write it. 
It was written, or I was ad- 
versely affected by his having 
written it. 

The letter was written. 

I suffered the consequences 

of his writing the letter. 

I was forced by him to write 


It had been written, (false 

It successfully wrote itself. 

The Explainers 

Kara Da, Wake Da, No Da 

Notwithstanding their reputation as lovers of silence, the 
Japanese do an awful lot of explaining. Sometimes it seems 
as if they try to explain everything. They certainly do a lot 
more explaining than we do in English, even to the point 
of explaining when there's almost nothing to explain, just 
to give the impression that they're explaining objective re- 
ality when in fact they're just stating their personal opin- 
ions like everybody else. Now, after having given you an 
opening paragraph like this, I've got an awful lot of ex- 
plaining to do myself. 

What I'm talking about are those little phrases that 
seem to pop up at the ends of sentences or clauses to tell 


you that what you are reading is an explanation of what 
the author said in the sentence before, or that what you 
are hearing is an explanation of the real-world situation for 
those who are standing in it: kara da, wake da, and no da. 
(Of course, there are differences in nuance among these 
forms, but they all "explain" what came before. Note, too, 
that all da's can be interchanged with desu or de am — or 
even dropped — depending on style.) Let's start with an old 
standby: Kore wa pen desu I "And this: it's a pen." We 
have to get this basic building block straight before we 
start wrapping whole little sentences like this around big- 
ger ones. Be sure to read "Wa and Ga" if you don't know 
why the translation isn't simply "This is a pen." 

In Kore wa pen desu, the subject of desu is not kore 
but the zero pronoun that Japanese uses instead of "it." If 
we just want to say "It's a pen," we drop Kore wa and get 
the complete sentence, Pen desu. "It's a dog" = Inu desu, 
"It's a desk" = Tsukue desu. In other words, in the basic A 
wa B desu I A = B construction, the A wa part is often 
going to disappear, so when you see a sentence in the form 
of "Noun desu" (or "Noun da" or "Noun de am"), that 
noun is the B part of an A wa B desu construction. 

When you find a sentence ending with a final verb or 
adjective + kara da ("It's because") construction, the kara 
is acting just like the B noun in an "(A wa) B da" sen- 
tence. 1 Instead of Nemui kara hayaku neru I "Since I'm 
sleepy I'm going to bed early," you could have: Hayaku 
neru. Nemui kara (da). I "I'm going to bed early. That's 
because I'm sleepy," or Hayaku neru. Naze nara, nemui 
kara da. I "I'm going to bed early. Why? Because I'm 
sleepy" or any number of variations in which the expla- 
nation follows the main statement. The subject of the da 
here is the zero pronoun "that" or "it"; i.e., the fact that 
I'm going to bed early. Here is a straightforward example 



from a story by Murakami Haruki about the mysterious 
disappearance of an elephant: 

Sono shogakusei-tachi ga zd no saigo no mokugeki-sha 
de, sono go zd no sugata o me ni shita mono wa 
inai — to shinbun kiji wa katatte ita. Naze nara rokuji 
no sairen ga nam to, shiiku-gakari wa zd no hiroba no 
mon o shimete, hitobito ga naka ni hairenai yd ni 
shite shimau kara da. 

These pupils were the last eyewitnesses, and no one 
had seen the elephant after that, according to the arti- 
cle. This was because the keeper always closed the 
gate to the elephant enclosure when the six o'clock 
siren blew, making it impossible for people to enter. 2 

Notice how naze nara and kara da work together as a 
pair ("Why is this? It's because . . ."). I've conflated this 
common construction in the phrase "this was because." 
For more on this pair and pairs in general, see the chapter 
"Warning: This Language Works Backwards." Notice, too, 
that these explanatory expressions, being comments upon 
something said earlier, powerfully imply the presence of 
a human mind doing the commenting. The construction 
shows up in situations in which someone is evaluating or 
judging or preaching, and in positive statements there is a 
strong presumption that the speaker or writer has a better 
grasp of objective reality than the listener: "Look, it's this, 
it's this, it's this, this is what you should do, I'm telling 
you the truth." 

Here are a couple of examples of kara da from essays 
by the novelist Mishima Yukio, who was always convinced 
of his tightness and who used the form so frequently that 
he finally lost his head. The first concerns his feelings at 
the time he wrote his first "novel" (the irony is his), 



Kamen no kokuhaku (Confessions of a Mask): 

. . . sukoshi nen-iri ni jibun no shinpen o aratte mitai 
ki ga sum. Naze nara kono "shosetsu " to, sore kara 
sunen-go no saisho no sekai-ryoko to de, watashi no 
henreki jidai wa hobo owatta to kangaerareru kara de 

I would like to examine my private life here in 
some detail. That is because my years of wandering 
would seem to have come pretty much to an end with 
this "novel" and with the world tour I made a few 
years later. 3 

This next one doesn't use naze nara but sets up a wa- 
topic to be explained: 

"Hanazakari no mori" shohan-bon no jobun nado 
o ima yonde mite iya na no wa, . . . nan-wari ka no 
jibun ni, chiisa na chiisa na opochunisuto no kage o 
hakken sum kara de am. 

That I feel sick now when I read such things as the 
preface to the first edition of [my] "Hanazakari no 
mori" . . . is because I discover in a certain part of my- 
self the image of a petty opportunist. 4 

One sentence in the old Hibbett and Itasaka textbook 
that always threw students for a loop was this one at the 
beginning of a paragraph written by Funahashi Seiichi: 

Iin no daibubun ga, Nihon-jin no seikatsu kara kanji o 
nakushite shimao to iu kangae no hito bakari de atta 
kara da. 

The majority of the committee members were made up 


only of those who wanted to eliminate kanji from the |_, 
life of the Japanese once and for all kara da. 5 Qj 


The problem was always what to do with that kara da £D 
hanging on the end. Well, if we see that kara da means 
"It's because," we have to start looking for the zero pro- O 
noun subject of the da. The antecedent of the "it," then, § 
has to have been established somewhere before this sen- ^ 
tence, but since this is the first sentence in the paragraph, 
that forces us into the previous paragraph. With a horrible 
wrenching in the gut, we come to realize that Funahashi 
Seiichi has purposely thrown a paragraph break in just 
where it can best disrupt the logical connection of his 
ideas. In the last sentence of the previous paragraph, he 
tells us that he was always viewed as something of a 
heretic on the committee, and he continues in the new 
paragraph, "That's because the majority of the committee 
members . . . etc." 

This teaches us a couple of things. First, never trust 
Japanese paragraphing (or punctuation) to work as it does 
in English. Second, never ignore those kara da's at the 
ends of sentences because these are the very things that are 
going to connect a sentence to what came before it. In 
fact, the kara da IS the sentence, and everything leading 
up to it is just a modifier. The main clause of Iin no 
daibubun ga, Nihon-jin no seikatsu kara kanji o nakushite 
shimao to iu kangae no hito bakari de atta kara da is 
nothing more nor less than kara da, which becomes, in 
English, "That is because," the main verb of the sentence 
being da and the subject of da being the zero pronoun 
pointing back to the previous sentence. Don't let this 
throw you, it's really very simple. When a long sentence 
ends with a "That's because," it means "That [i.e., what 
was just said in the previous sentence] is because of ev- 


erything in this sentence that precedes the kara da." 

All of these little explainers at the ends of sentences 
work this way. They are the main sentence, and everything 
else modifies them. 

In one sense, wake da and no da are even easier to un- 
derstand than kara da because wake and no are clearly 
nouns (as kara is not), and they are being modified by 
what precedes them just as surely as fusen is modifed by 
akai in the phrase akai fusen I red balloon. Akai fusen da 
I "It is a red balloon." 

Unlike no, which is an element of grammatical struc- 
ture (probably evolved from the noun mono, "thing"), 
wake is an independent noun, defined by Kenkyusha with 
such terms as "meaning, sense; reason, cause, grounds." 
Sore wa do iu wake desu ka I "What do you mean by 
that?" and wake o hanasu I "to tell the reason" = "to ex- 
plain" are examples of this usage. Coming at the ends of 
sentences, both wake da and no da mean "the reason for 
that is" or, more simply, "it means" or "that means," or 
"it's that" or "it's not that" (in the sense of "It's not that 
I'm a big fan of Van Damme or anything; it's just that I 
like the music in his films") with the "it" or "that" being a 
zero pronoun pointing to what has been said in the sen- 
tence before or something in the objective situation ob- 
servable by both speaker and listener. Kenkyusha gives us 
some good examples of the negative usage: 

Warui imi de itta no de wa nai I "It's not that I said it 
with a bad meaning" = "I meant no ill will." 

Betsu-ni fukai imi ga atte so itta wake de wa nai I 
"It's not that I said so with a deep meaning" = "I 
didn't mean anything serious when I said so." 

These, interestingly enough, are to be found under the 


definition of imi, which means "meaning." Notice that 
these two sentences are basically saying the same thing, 
and that the no and wake are perfectly interchangable. (It 
would be unnatural but understandable to replace either of 
them with the word imi itself, since both are commenting 
on the "meaning" or "significance" of what was, by im- 
plication, said before: "The meaning of what I just said is 
not that so-and-so but such-and-such.) 

In speech, no da (contracted to n da or n desu or sim- 
ply no in feminine speech) endings often refer not to any- 
thing that has been said but to the objective situation, 
there for both speaker and listener to observe. Anthony Al- 
fonso illustrates this vividly with the following contrasting 
pair, both members of which could be translated "Is it in- 
teresting?" Omoshiroi desu ka is a question you would ask 
a person about a book he owns. Omoshiroi n desu ka is a 
question you would "ask of someone [reading a book] 
whose attention is visibly absorbed, or who has broken 
into a smile or a laugh." 6 

N desu ka is a question — a complete, self-contained 
sentence implying "Does our shared experience mean . . . 
?" In texts, the "shared experience" is the context that has 
been established to that point, usually in the preceding sen- 
tence. Everything preceding the n or no is a dependent 
clause modifying the noun no. It is a mistake to call no da 
an "extended predicate," as if it were an extension to the 
predicate, just a little more information about the subject 
with which the sentence started. By the time you get into 
the no da, the subject has changed. For example: 

Sono toki mo, watashi wa tabun kokoro no naka de 
sono ki to hanashi o shite ita no dard to omou. I "I 
think I must have been conversing with the tree in my 
heart that time, too." 7 



Much more literally: "That time, too, as for me, (I) 
probably in my heart was doing a conversation with that 
tree (it) probably is, (I) think." Whether or not you agree 
with me about zero pronouns, "I" is clearly the subject of 
shite ita ("I was doing a conversation") but that is where 
the predicate about "I" ends, and we enter a whole new 
sentence, "It is," following which the wa-topic re-emerges 
to comment, "(I) think." 

The main verb of a sentence ending no da is da, and 
the subject of the da is not the subject of the clause that 
modifies no. The subject of da is the zero pronoun refer- 
ring to the established context, whether the context is a 
statement or a real-world situation shared by speaker and 
listener, or an earlier statement shared by writer and 

This is true even of so brief an utterance as Omoshiroi 
n desu ka I "Is it [your laughing, snorting, drooling] that 
it [the book] is interesting?" Omoshiroi, which modifies n, 
has its own subject, the zero pronoun standing for the 
book, while the subject of desu is all those unseemly ac- 
tions noted in the brackets, equally unverbalized. (Lest 
there be some confusion, note that the desu in Omoshiroi 
desu ka is simply a polite lengthener after the adjective, 
while the one after the n is the copula, "Does A = B?" 
When we take away politeness, Omoshiroi? and Omoshi- 
roi ka are as blunt as we can make the question Omoshi- 
roi desu ka. Omoshiroi no ka and Omoshiroi no? are 
blunt or familiar versions of Omoshiroi n desu ka. Here, 
the copula is routinely dropped, but it shows up again in 
macho positive statements: Omoshiroi n da.) 

I recently came across the following forbidding, no da- 
studded passage in a list of rules for Japanese high school 
students studying in America: 


Moshi, mina-san ga Amerika de wa di-ni asobimakutte 
yard to iu kangae dake de kita no deshitara, Amerika 
ni ite wa narimasen. Amerika e wa Eigo no benkyo, 
Amerika-jin no kurashiburi, Amerika to iu kuni no 
bunka o manabu tame ni kita no de atte, asobi ni kita 
no de wa arimasen kara. 

If it [the meaning of your being here] is that you have 
come to America only to have a good time, then you 
should not be here. Because it's that you are here to 
study English and learn about American culture, it's 
not that you are here to play. 

Interestingly, this was translated into Japanese from an 
English original that had no such overtly explanatory or di- 
dactic elements but which were felt to be necessary by the 
Japanese translator. The English original read simply: "If 
you have come here only to have a good time, then you 
should not be here. You are here to study English and 
learn about American culture, not to play." In the Japanese 
text, the authoritarian writer is there, judging, explaining, 
and wagging her (yes, "her"!) finger at the hapless high 
school kids who probably do want to study English but 
ought to be able to have a little fun, too. 

One highly explanatory paragraph from Murakami 
Haruki's story about the disappearing elephant provides us 
with some fine examples of these usages (and a couple of 
tame's for good measure; see "Taming Tame" for more). 
The passage is a little long, but it demonstrates the struc- 
tures in a developing context: 

Zd ga machi (tsumari boku no sunde iru machi da) ni 
hikitorareru koto ni natta no mo, sono rorei no tame 
datta. Machi no kdgai ni atta chiisa na dobutsu-en ga 


keiei-nan o riyu ni heisa sareta toki, dbbutsu-tachi wa 
dbbutsu-torihiki chukai-gybsha no te o tdshite zenkoku 
no dbbutsu-en ni hikitorarete itta no da ga, sono zb 
dake wa toshi o torisugite iru tame ni, hikiuke-te o 
mitsukeru koto ga dekinakatta. Dono dobutsu-en mo 
sude ni jubun na dake no kazu no zb o shoyu shite ita 
shi, ima ni mo shinzb-hossa o okoshite shinde shi- 
maisb na yoboyobo no zb o hikitoru yb na monozuki 
de yoyu no am dbbutsu-en nante hitotsu mo nakatta 
no da. Sonna wake de, sono zb wa nakama no 
dbbutsu-tachi ga minna ippiki-nokorazu sugata o 
keshite shimatta haikyo no gotoki dbbutsu-en ni, nani 
o sum to mo naku — to itte mo motomoto toku ni 
nanika o shite ita to iu wake de wa nai no da 
keredo — sankagetsu ka yonkagetsu no aida tatta hitori 
de inokoritsuzukete ita. 

The elephant's advanced age is what led to its being 
adopted by the town (the town I live in). That is to say 
that, when the little zoo in the suburbs suffered the 
closing of its doors due to financial problems, the ani- 
mals were taken in by zoos throughout the country 
through the mediation of an animal dealer, but because 
that one elephant was too old, it was impossible to find 
anyone to take it in. That is to say that the zoos all 
had plenty of elephants, and there was not one single 
zoo that had the wherewithal to take in, on a whim, a 
feeble, old elephant that looked as if it might die of a 
heart attack at any moment. For that reason, the ele- 
phant stayed alone for nearly four months in the de- 
caying zoo from which all of its companions had 
without exception disappeared, with nothing to do — 
though saying this, it is not that I mean that it espe- 
cially had anything to do before. 8 


This is a grammatical translation that not only forgoes 
any sense of style in the English but also raises the ques- 
tion of what all those explanations are doing there — some 
of them sounding rather forced. To be sure, a stylistically 
smoother English version is probably not going to leave 
much sign of the explanatory phraseology. For example: 

The elephant's age is what led to its being adopted by 
our town. When financial problems caused the little 
zoo in the suburbs to close its doors, an animal dealer 
found places for the animals with zoos throughout the 
country, but no one wanted to take such an old ele- 
phant. The zoos all had plenty of elephants, apparently, 
and not one of them was willing to take in a feeble old 
thing that looked as if it might die of a heart attack at 
any moment. And so, after all of its companions had 
disappeared, the elephant stayed alone in the decaying 
zoo for nearly four months with nothing to do — not 
that it had anything to do before. 

Granted, I may have smoothed over more than I had a 
right to, but what has happened to those overt verbaliza- 
tions of explanation? Well, often, we just don't say such 
things in normal English. Who needs 'em? Remember that 
I said before that both Omoshiroi desu ka and Omoshiroi 
n desu ka could be translated, "Is it interesting?" Typically, 
in English, we don't distinguish verbally between the two 
situations, at least not by such a subtle shift in phraseol- 
ogy. Omoshiroi n desu ka might come out "Interesting, 
huh?" or "Hey, I see you like it" or "Jeez, Frank, you're 
making a mess of that shirt," but Japanese is routinely 
going to both ask for and offer explanations of contexts far 
more often than English does. 


No da or no de am shows up frequently in texts, es- 
pecially expository texts in which the writer is trying to 
convince you he has a handle on the truth. Some writers 
will bombard you with them, telling you at the end of vir- 
tually every sentence, "The objectively true explanation of 
what I just said is ..." No da is not functioning in such 
cases as some kind of amorphous emphatic additive but al- 
ways with its explanatory function, whether there is really 
anything to explain or not. I.e., it is functioning as a 
rhetorical device. Thus, when a writer of fiction gives us a 
narrator who speaks as an essayist or anthologizer or clip- 
per of newspaper columns, such as the narrator of Mu- 
rakami's story of the vanishing elephant, we get a lot more 
no da's than in a descriptive piece by the same author — or 
a descriptive passage in the same piece — in which, say, a 
little, green monster burrows its way to the surface of the 
heroine's garden. The no da's are constant reminders of 
the presence of the narrator: observing, questioning, judg- 
ing, and often subtly hinting to us that he or she knows 
more than we do. So watch it. 


in Left Field 

The Johnny Carson Hodo 

The day that Johnny Carson retired from late-night televi- 
sion was a sad moment for the teaching of Japanese — or at 
least for the teaching of the use of the quantitative nouns 
hodo and kurai in positive expressions. Students seem to 
catch on to the use of these words in negative sentences 
("There is no straight man as overweight as Ed MclVIa- 
hon," etc.), but when Carson went, that may have ended 
our only hope for a clear conceptualization of the positive 
uses of hodo. 

All About Particles (Power Japanese, p. 66) provides 
examples of both kinds of usage. For the easy negative 

Kotoshi wa kyonen hodo samuku nai desu. I "This 
year is not as cold as last year." 

For the harder positive type we find: 

Kyo wa benkyo ga dekinai hodo tsukareta. I "Today 
I'm so tired that I can't study." 

Extensive research has demonstrated that the soundest 
illumination of this second usage was offered at irregular 
intervals by Johnny Carson, normally early in the show, 
during the monologue. At some point, Carson would make 
a statement involving an extreme condition, such as how 
hot or cold the weather was or how bad the economy was, 


to which the well-trained audience responded, for example, 
"How cold is it?" or "How bad is it?" Carson's answer il- 
lustrated the extent to which his original statement was 
true. When the audience asked about the economy, "How 
bad is it?" he might respond with such an allegedly clever 
rejoinder as, "It's so bad that Organized Crime had to lay 
off ten judges," or "It's so bad that oysters are producing 
fake pearls." 1 

"So . . . that . . ." is the key to interpreting positive 
statements of extent using hodo (or the virtually equivalent 
gurai or kurai). 2 Try to break the habit of mechanically 
using the word "extent." 

If we apply the Carson method to clarifying the sen- 
tence in which the student tells us how tired he is, we can 
ask, like the audience, "How tired are you?" To which he 
answers like Johnny, "I'm so tired that studying is impos- 
sible"— not a particularly amusing rejoinder, but scarcely 
inferior to the fake pearls. 

The important point is to note first what the central 
statement is without the hodo construction. If we throw 
out the hodo and the clause that modifies it, we end up 
with a simple positive statement, Tsukareta I "I'm tired." 
(The subject of tsukareta is, of course, "I" [the zero pro- 
noun in Japanese], not kyd I "today," which is a time 
topic.) The hodo signals us to ask the speaker, "How tired 
are you?" To which he has already replied, "I'm so tired 
that I have this modifying clause hanging on me"— no— 
"I'm so tired that I can't study." 

Thus, when you encounter a hodo expression followed 
by a positive statement and you have trouble figuring out 
the exact relationship of the parts before and after the 
hodo, put yourself into the place of Johnny Carson's au- 
dience and ask, "How much did you do your final state- 
ment?" Then quickly switch to Johnny and answer, "I 


did it so much that what-I-said-before." 

Here are some examples, several with negative endings 
before the hodo but all with positive final statements: 5 

1. [Yasumu hima ga nai hodo] hatarakimasu. He 
works. How much does he work? He works so 
much that he has no time to rest. 

2. Kono shigoto wa [kodomo de mo dekiru hodo] 
yasashii desu. This job is easy. How easy is it? It's 
so easy that even a child can do it. 

3. [Yoru nemuru koto ga dekinai hodo] shinpai shi- 
mashita. I worried. How much did I worry? I wor- 
ried so much I couldn't sleep at night. 

4. [Oba mo iranai hodo] atatakai desu. It's warm. 
How warm is it? It's so warm you don't need an 

5. [Nakitai hodo] komatta. I was upset. How upset 
was I? I was so upset I wanted to cry. 

6. Ano hito wa [tsukaikirenai hodo] kane ga am. He 
has money. How much money does he have? He 
has so much money that he can't possibly spend it 

Now, just in case I assumed too much regarding hodo 
with negative statements, let's apply a similar approach to 
a few examples: 

Mizu wa [biiru hodo] oishiku nai. 

Take the hodo clause out, and you have the main 

Water is not good-tasting. 


In other words, we're talking about "water" first and 
foremost, and are comparing it with the thing in the hodo 

Once you've isolated the main clause, the hodo signals 
you to ask the un-Carsonesque question: As good-tasting 
as what? 

To which the answer is: Water is not as good-tasting 
as beer. 

A couple more examples, including one to go with the 

Migi no me wa [hidari hodo] akaku nai. The right eye 
is not red. Not as red as what? The right eye is not 
as red as the left. 

Konshu no shiken wa [senshu no hodo] muzukashiku 
nai. This week's exam will not be difficult. Not as 
difficult as what? This week's exam will not be as 
difficult as last week's. 

[Sore hodo] omoshiroku nai desu yo. It (zero pronoun) 
is not interesting. Not as interesting as what? It is not as 
interesting as that. This can work like the English idiom, 
with no clear antecedent to either sore or "that": "It's not 
all that interesting." "Say, how was that flick, 'Double Im- 
pact'?" "Oh, it wasn't that interesting." 

Kanji are tough. Kanji are challenging. Kanji are mysteri- 
ous and fun and maddening. Kanji comprise one of the 


greatest stumbling blocks faced by Westerners who want 
to become literate in Japanese. But kanji have nothing to 
do with grammar or sentence structure or thought patterns 
or the Japanese world view, and they are certainly not the 
Japanese language. They are just part of the world's most 
clunky writing system, and a writing system cannot cause 
a language to be processed in a different part of the brain 
any more than it can force it to some other part of the 
body (excepting, of course, Lower Slobovian, which is 
processed in the left elbow). 

George Sansom had the right idea back in the thirties 
when he noted that the sounds of Japanese, 

simple and few in number, are very well suited to no- 
tation by an alphabet, and it is perhaps one of the 
tragedies of Oriental history that the Japanese genius 
did not a thousand years ago rise to its invention. Cer- 
tainly when one considers the truly appalling system 
which in the course of the centuries they did evolve, 
that immense and intricate apparatus of signs for 
recording a few dozen little syllables, one is inclined to 
think that the western alphabet is perhaps the greatest 
triumph of the human mind. 1 

To this, I can only add that banana skins provide one 
of the best surfaces for writing kanji if one is using a ball- 
point pen. Since this book is intended to help with an un- 
derstanding of the Japanese language, it will have nothing 
further to say about kanji. 


ShirumA Wakaru 

To Know You Is Not Necessarily to Understand You 

Believe it or not, one of the first instructors I had when I 
was a sincere, impressionable beginning student of Japa- 
nese at a great educational institution that shall remain 
nameless but which is situated very close to the shores of 
Lake Michigan in a very windy city, once told me that the 
reason the Japanese say shitte iru rather than shim for "to 
know" was to avoid the embarassment of having to say 
shirimasu, containing the shiri that means "backside" (in 
the sense of "butt" or "tush"). Even more amazing than 
the fact that she told me this was that I BELIEVED HER! 

What's that? They told you the same thing? 

No, impossible. Any decent textbook will give you the 
straight dope early on, complete with the information that 
it's okay to say shiri in shirimasen when you have to tell 
someone you don't know something. 

Well, if shirimasen is okay, why not shirimasu? 

Obviously, there is something more going on here than 
delicate avoidance of an anatomical feature — especially 
among the Japanese, who are far less delicate than we are 
in discussing physical matters. 

The fact is that shim does not mean "to know." It 
means "to come to know" — "to find out," "to learn." 

As the Japanese conceive it, "knowing" consists of find- 
ing out about something and keeping it in your brain. 
When you want to say "I know" in Japanese, you have to 
say "I have found out about that and I still have it up here 
where it belongs," or, "I am in a state of having found 

Shitte iru is very common, but you won't hear shim 
being used very often in conversation. Unless you realize 


that shim. doesn't mean "to know," however, it could seem 
stranger than it actually is when you encounter it, as more 
often happens, in written material. Thus, when Nakamura 
Mitsuo tells us that the Japanese mazu gaikei no moho ni 
yotte kagaku o shiri [blush] etc., he is saying they first 
learned about science through the imitation of external 
forms, not that they knew science — and certainly not in the 
biblical sense. 

When you want to say "I don't know" in Japanese, you 
need to say "I haven't found out about it yet" (shirimasen) 
rather than "I am not in a state of having found out about 
it" (shitte imaseri), which, if you could get away with it, 
would sound more like a declaration of ignorance to be 
maintained: "I intend to remain in a state of not having 
found out about it," and although this may, in fact, reflect 
your own personal conviction, it would sound very strange. 

Aside from these problems of meaning and form, shim 
is not too mysterious. It is transitive, taking direct objects 
the same way that "know" does in English: Ano hito o 
shitte imasu ka I "Do you know him?" For speakers of 
English, however, wakaru is much trickier. 

Wakaru, when it causes trouble, does so through a 
combination of back-translation and misunderstanding of 
wa. Because "understand" is a transitive verb in English ("I 
understand that"), students tend to think of wakaru as a 
verb that people do to things (Watashi wa sore o wakaru: 
wrong). Under ordinary circumstances, wakaru does not 
take an o-object. People don't wakam things; things them- 
selves do wakam: they "are clear" or they "are under- 
standable," and if we happen to be in the neighborhood, 
they are clear to us. Notice I said to us. If we are going to 
put people into a sentence about things being clear, they 
are usually followed by ni, as in Watashi ni wa waka- 
ranai. When the people in the sentence are not followed 


by ni, you should think of this as a kind of contraction: 
Watashi wa wakaranai is short for Watashi ni wa 
wakaranai I "To me, it is not clear." 

The trouble probably starts with those contracted 
forms. Watashi wa wakaranai looks awfully close to the 
transitive English "I don't understand (it)." If you've read 
"Wa and Ga: The Answers to Unasked Questions," how- 
ever, you realize that a wa-topic is never the subject of a 
verb. And if you've read the paragraph before this one, 
you know that people don't do wakaru: things do it them- 
selves, so for that reason, too, watashi can't be the subject 
of wakaru. Kenkyusha gives us Share ga wakaru as "to see 
[i.e., understand, or get] a joke" and Share ga wakaranai 
as "miss the point of a joke." In both cases, you are saying 
that the joke itself (subject marked by ga) wakaru's or 
doesn't wakaru. If we put "me" into the latter sentence, 
we get a form that looks like this: 

Watashi ni wa sono share ga wakaranai. 

Let this be our model for a "full" expression in which 
the understander and the understandee are both named in 
a sentence using wakaru. A natural English version of this 
model would be "I don't get that joke," but of course it is 
a good translation only because it avoids any attempt to re- 
flect the Japanese structure, which is something like "To 
me, that joke doesn't clarify itself." Perhaps better would 
be: "That joke doesn't make sense to me." 

So you think, Hey, that's easy! The subject of wakaru 
is going to be marked by ga! No problem! 

Uh, not so fast. Sometimes it'll be ga but often it'll be 
wa, too. 

And this brings us to another source of vagueness re- 
garding wakaru. It seems to be drowning in wa's: some- 


times the understander is marked by a wa, and sometimes 
the thing the person is understanding or not understanding 
is marked with a wa instead of a nice, clean ga. Let's look 
at some of the examples from Kenkyusha's long definition 
of wakaru. 

Kimi ni wa koko no imi ga wakaru ka I "Can you 
make out the meaning of this passage?" This corresponds 
to our "full" model and should be no problem — unless 
you're not friends with the speaker, who is being far from 

Watashi no iu koto ga wakarimasu ka I "Do you un- 
derstand what I'm saying?" Here, the "you" is understood 
from context, but otherwise we're still with the model. 

Sonna koto wa watashi ni wa chinpun-kanpun de 
wakaranai I "It's all Greek to me." Here, the "to me" 
looks familiar, but the "matter" that we are not under- 
standing is marked by wa and comes at the beginning of 
the sentence. If you've read "Wa and Ga" and "The Myth 
of the Subjectless Sentence," though, this shouldn't be 
much of a problem. "As for matters such as that: to me, 
they [zero pronoun: actual subject] are nonsense and un- 

Kimi no iu imi wa wakatte iru I "I know what you 
mean." "As far as the meaning of what you're saying goes, 
it [zero pronoun] is in a state of having become clear." 
(More on wakatte iru later.) 

Kare ni wa sono share wa wakaranakatta I "The joke 
was lost upon him." Wait a minute, here's the same dic- 
tionary that gave us share ga wakaranai now suggesting 
share wa wakaranai. Why can't they be more consistent? 
Actually, with a negative verb like this, wa would be more 
common than the ga of the model sentence, merely be- 
cause in a negative sentence you usually want to throw the 
emphasis ahead to the negative verb. With wa, it's more 



"He didn't get it." With ga, it's more "He didn't get it." 

Sore o wakaraseru koto ga dekinakatta I "I could not 
get it across to them." This might look like an o-object 
with wakaru, but with the causative, you're causing some- 
body to act upon something. Plain vanilla wakaru does not 
take objects — except (there's always an exception), as 
Makino and Tsutsui point out, "when 'non-spontaneous 
comprehension' is involved ... in which the experiencer 
makes a conscious effort to understand something," e.g., 
Jakku wa Rinda no kimochi o wakard to shinai I "Jack 
does not try to understand Linda's feelings." 

And finally a word on permutations: wakaru, wakatta, 
wakatte iru: "It is clear," "It has (just) become clear," and 
"It is in a state of having become clear (some time ago)." 
In English, we might say for these, respectively, "I under- 
stand," "Oh, now I understand!" and "Alright already!" 
Wakatte iru is a way of shutting someone up: "Look, that 
was clear to me long before you opened your mouth" = "I 
know." Of course, if you politen it up, wakatte imasu, it's 
a bit softer. Wakarimasu tells people you are understand- 
ing what they are now telling you. "Is it clear? Yes, it's 
clear." Wakarimashita denotes instantaneous understand- 
ing of something you hadn't seen before: "I see!" 

If you read Makino and Tsutsui's neat little article on 
wakaru, meaning "the [spontaneous] process of figuring 
something out," in contrast to shim, meaning "to get some 
raw information from some outside source," you, too, will 
doubtless find yourself saying, Aa, wakarimashitaV This is 
another instance in which English tends to fudge distinc- 
tions that Japanese keeps clear. We say "I know," both 
when we mean "I comprehend that concept" and when we 
mean "I am aware of that fact." So the answer to "What 
are you going to do tonight?" is "I don't know yet," mean- 
ing "I haven't figured it out yet"/ Mada wakarimasen, not 


"I have not come to know that fact yet" / Mada shiri- 
masen. JSL 1:10:280-81 also offers some enlightening anal- 
yses and the useful contrasting pair: 

Tanaka-san o shitte imasu ka I "Do you know Mr./s. 

Michi ga wakarimasu ka I "Do you know the way?" 

Taming Tame 

The word tame can be confusing because it seems to have 
two entirely different — in fact, virtually opposite — mean- 
ings. Sometimes it seems to mean "because so-and-so hap- 
pened," and at others it seems to mean "in order to make 
so-and-so happen," which is sort of close to "for the sake 
of," another common interpretation. How can we tell the 
difference? By far, the easiest way is to ask the author. 
Failing that, we are left with our old friend, G. D. Context. 
One clue that will not work is the presence or absence of 
ni after the tame. Either kind of tame can have a ni after 
it, so don't expect a mechanical approach to work. Look at 
these pairs: 

Shiken no tame (ni) benkyo shita I "I studied for the 

Shiken no tame (ni) ikenakunatta I "Because of the 
exam, I couldn't go." 


Sakana o taberu tame ni tsuri o shite iru I "He is fish- 
ing in order to eat fish." 


Sakana o tabeta tame ni tsuri o shite iru I "He is fish- 
ing because he ate the fish." 

Tame means "because" or "owing to" when it follows 
a structure implying a completed action or unalterable 
state; it means "for the purpose of" when it follows a 
structure implying an incomplete (i.e., future) action. No- 
tice that, even though both of the sentences about exams 
describe past events, the exam was still a future event in 
the first case: the studying was done for the upcoming 
exam. Likewise, the eating of the fish has yet to occur in 
the first sentence about fishing: he is fishing for the sake of 
being able to eat a fish. In the second exam sentence, the 
exam itself may not have taken place when the person be- 
came incapable of going (on the picnic, say), but it was an 
unalterable fact that caused him to become unable to go. 
In the second fishing sentence, the fisherman seems to 
have given in to his temptations and eaten an earlier- 
caught fish, so now he has to replace it with a new one 
because of that. 

In defending the use of kanji against left-wing critics 
who want to get rid of them, Funahashi Seiichi says, "Yes, 
it's true that there was a high-pressure selling of the kanji 
for 'loyalty' and 'filial piety' [chii-kd] in prewar education," 
but, he goes on, Shikashi, sono tame no kanji no haishi 
wa, mubo na shbdo-senjutsu ni suginai I "But getting rid 
of kanji because of that is sheer overkill," and he contin- 
ues, Chuko sono ta, ichibu no kanji no haishi no tame ni, 
zen-kanji teppai-ron ni nam koto wa, gyokuseki-konko de, 
issai no kako to no danzetsu de am I "Advocating the dis- 
carding of all kanji in order to get rid of just a few such as 
chu and kd is to confuse jewels with stones and represents 
a complete break with the past." 1 The same author using 
the same tame in the same paragraph is using it in its two 


"opposite" senses. The first, sono tame, refers to an ac- 
complished fact in the past, the prewar high-pressure sell- 
ing of the suspect kanji. The haishi of the second 
occurrence hasn't taken place yet, so haishi no tame 
means "for the sake of getting rid of" or "in order to get 
rid of." Haishi no tame could just as easily mean "because 
they got rid of in a context that made it clear that the 
"getting rid of was something that had already been done. 

Tame, then, signals purpose for future actions and 
cause for past actions or unalterably established facts. (Or 
was it cause for future actions and purpose for past actions 
or unalterably established facts? Future for actions that 
have been caused on purpose, and past actions for future 
facts that have been altered to protect the establishment! 
You get the point.) 

Tsumori and the Vanishing Beefsteak 

Edward Seidensticker is such a magnificent translator of 
Japanese fiction that I can probably be forgiven for gloat- 
ing over catching him out at a little flub he made in what 
happens to be one of his best translations, that of my fa- 
vorite Kawabata Yasunari novel, The Sound of the Moun- 
tain. All in the interest of pedagogical accuracy, of course. 

The error occurs in one of the key scenes of the book, 
the moving night passage in Chapter 2, when the aging 
protagonist hears the mysterious "sound of the mountain" 
that seems to augur his approaching death. It goes like this 
in English: 

Then he heard the sound of the mountain. 


It was a windless night. . . . Not a leaf on the fern 
by the veranda was stirring. . . . Shingo wondered if he 
might have heard the sound of the sea. But no — it was 
the mountain. . . . Thinking that it might be in himself, 
a ringing in his ears, Shingo shook his head. 

The sound stopped, and he was suddenly afraid. A 
chill passed over him, as if he had been notified that 
death was approaching. He wanted to question himself, 
calmly and deliberately, to ask whether it had been the 
sound of the wind, the sound of the sea, or a sound in 
his ears. But he had heard no such sound, he was sure. 
He had heard the mountain.' 

We might wonder why Shingo "wanted to question 
himself" about the three possible sources of the sound, 
since he has just done exactly that. Something is wrong. 
The Japanese original says, Kaze no oto ka, umi no oto ka, 
miminari ka to, Shingo wa reisei ni kangaeta tsumori 
datta ga, 2 which might better be translated, "Shingo felt 
certain that he had questioned himself" etc. or "believed 
(or knew) that he had questioned himself." 

As I said, it's just a little flub, and it doesn't materially 
change the impact of the passage. The culprit here is a 
usage of tsumori that never seems to get explained quite 
right. Most of the textbooks introduce the word as fol- 
lowing non-past verbs with the meaning of "intention": 
Ashita iku tsumori desu I "I intend to go tomorrow." They 
rarely go on to discuss the use of tsumori after perfective 
verbs, where we see that the word means something more 
like "belief or "mind-set" than intention. Makino and 
Tsutsui give a good example: Yoku yonda tsumori desu I 
"I'm convinced that I read it carefully." 3 "I am of the 
tsumori that I read it carefully [no matter what you may 


Of course, someone less fully convinced of his own ac- 
curacy might say Yoku yonda tsumori deshita I "I was 
convinced I had read it carefully [until you showed me my 
mistake]." Alfonso says, "The basic sense of tsumori can 
be considered to be 'conviction,' that is, a state of mind 
free from doubt," 4 but doubts can of course be inserted af- 
terward. In a -ta tsumori construction, one is often de- 
fending one's convictions in the face of evidence to the 
contrary (a situation that can call forth humor, as we shall 

Kenkyusha is extremely generous in offering definitions 
that illustrate the broad range of meanings that tsumori 
can encompass, but it gives only the most inscrutable, tan- 
talizing hint concerning tsumori with the perfective, and 
that in the form of a kanji compound, tsumori-chokin, 
which they translate, using none of their definitions, as 
"self-denial savings." This translation can only be under- 
stood if you realize that it is possible to say something in 
Japanese like this: Bifuteki o tabeta tsumori de kane o 
ginko ni azuketa I "I put my money in the bank with the 
tsumori that I had eaten a steak." Well, where's the steak? 
It has vanished. Or rather, it never existed. I denied myself 
the steak, told myself that I was being good and doing the 
right thing by saving my money instead. I mentally enjoyed 
the imaginary steak to compensate for the unexciting act of 
handing my money over to the teller. Sigh. A few more 

Mo yatchatta tsumori da kedo. I "I assume I already 

did it all, but . . . [am I wrong?]" 5 
Isshokenmei yatta tsumori desu. I "I believe I did 

my best." 6 

Shinda tsumori ni nareba donna koto de mo dekiru. I 
"If you tell yourself 'I have died' [Oh, well, the 



worst thing that can happen to me is I'll get killed], 
you can do anything." 7 

Perhaps I ought to add that it's not so much the me- 
chanical combination of -ta + tsumori that does the job as 
the use of tsumori after something that implies an ongoing 
condition or accomplished fact rather than futurity. A 
noun-no-tsumori or adjective + tsumori can work just as 

Ano ko wa mo otona no tsumori desu ne. I "That kid 
thinks he's a grownup already, eh?" 8 

Ano ojiisan wa mada wakai tsumori nan desu yo. I 
"That old man considers himself still young." 9 

Given the right situation, tsumori can be a source of 
ironic or self-deprecating humor. A lively lady brought 
some homemade sweet bean pastries (manjii) to a party at 
my house earlier tonight and was asked by a wry gentle- 
man, Manju desu ka I "Are those manjii?" He obviously 
knew what they were but was gently kidding her about 
their slightly unorthodox appearance. Without batting an 
eyelash, she answered, Manjii no tsumori desu kedo I 
"Well, in my humble opinion they are manju." She got a 
good laugh, and you can, too, next time someone asks you 
something that is fairly obvious: 

Amerika no kata desu ka I "Are you an American?" 
Amerika-jin no tsumori desu kedo . . . I "Well, I was 
the last time I looked. . . ." 

Here, for extra credit, is a wonderful, long sentence 
using tsumori from an interview with the novelist Mu- 
rakami Haruki, in which he denies that he ever consciously 


sought to be at the forefront of a new "urbanization" 
movement in literature: Boku wa kesshite so iu mono o 
motomete ita wake de mo nai shi, ima de mo motomete 
nai shi, jibun no kakitai koto o jibun no kakitai yd ni 
kaku to iu itten ni ishiki o shuchu shite yatte kita tsumori 
nan desu keredo ne I "I never was striving for anything 
like that and I am not striving for it now; I believe that 
what I have done all along is to concentrate my attention 
on one point, and that is to write about what I want to 
write about in the way I want to write about it." 10 

You Say Kimeru and I Say Kimaru 

Keeping this particlar transitive/intransitive pair straight 
can be more difficult than you'd imagine. See if this 
scheme helps: 

X o kimeru: to pick a category (Heya o kimeta I "We 

decided on a room"). 
X ga kimaru: a category gets picked (Heya ga kimatta 

I "A room has been decided on"). 


X ni kimeru: to pick an individual (Kono heya ni 
kimeta I "We decided on this room"). 

X ni kimaru: an individual gets picked (Kono heya ni 
kimatta I "This room turned out to be the one"). 



This Language Works Backwards 

As usual, official policies of the United States toward Japan 
are totally misdirected. Instead of pressuring the Japanese 
into lowering trade barriers or taking a greater share of the 
responsibility for their own defense, we should be urging 
them to bring their verbs from the ends of their sentences 
into second place, right after their subjects, where they be- 
long. Unless we accomplish this, the rest of our foreign 
policy is so much tofu. 

If you think you have trouble with Japanese verbs being 
withheld from you until you get through all the intervening 
time expressions and modifying clauses and whatever else 
the writer decides to put in your way, don't worry: the 
Japanese have the same problem themselves. They know 
their language works backwards, but they persist in keep- 
ing it that way as a matter of national pride. 

Of course, some writers, such as Kabuki playwrights, 
have capitalized on the perverse placement of the verb at 
the end. The theater is charged with suspense as the re- 
tainer, center stage, slowly, tantalizingly intones the lines, 
"As to the question ... of whether or not this severed 
head ... is the head of my liege lord, the mighty general 
Kajimura Saburo Mitsumaru . . . known throughout the 
land for his brilliant military exploits . . . beloved by the 
people of his domain for his benevolence towards even the 
lowliest farmer ... I can say, here and now, without a sin- 
gle doubt clouding my mind . . . that although the throngs 
gathered here before us may wish the truth to be otherwise 
. . . and the happiness of his entire family hangs in the bal- 
ance . . . this my master's head . . . is . . . NOT!" More 
often, though, instead of enjoying the delicious dilemma of 


having to wait to the end, users of Japanese give each 
other and expect to be given little hints along the way of 
what lies in store for them. 

Take conditional expressions, for example. In English, 
we know we're getting a conditional right from the start: 
"If you buy it today, you can save fifty percent." Since 
most Japanese don't want the unpleasant surprise of find- 
ing a ba or tara ("if) ending attached to a verb they ex- 
pected to be a straightforward statement, they'll flash each 
other the adverb moshi, which we also translate "if," early 
in the sentence, often at the very beginning. Kenkyusha 
gives us, Moshi tenki ga yokattara ashita undd-kai ga am 
I "If the weather's good, tomorrow there will be an ath- 
letic meet." We don't translate the moshi and the tara sep- 
arately; they work together as a pair, which we represent 
as a single "if." 

Japanese has lots of other such pairs consisting first of 
an early-warning element and second the construction that 
does the actual work, usually as an inflection of the verb 
or some other expression associated with the verb and 
therefore held off until a later point in the sentence. Like 
moshi and ba, they work together and do not call for sep- 
arate translation. The following are some examples. 

Maru-de is an adverb meaning "entirely" that often 
warns you a comparison is coming, as in Maru-de shachd 
mitai ni mieru I "He looks as if he were the president of 
the company" and Maru-de kichigai no yd da I "He looks 
as if he's mad" (both from Kenkyusha). We could throw 
in a "just" for the maru-de, but it isn't necessary. Maru- 
de kdri no ue o subette iru mitai da I "It's just like skat- 
ing on ice.'" Maru-de etsubo o irodoru kin-iro no e-no-gu 
no yo ni, taiyd no hikari ga ie-ju ni shitatari-ochite ita I 
"The sunlight dripped over the house like golden paint 
over an art jar." 2 


Expressions such as naze nam or naze ka to iu to or 
doshite ka to ieba ("if you ask why") warn you that an ex- 
planation is coming, probably with a construction such as 
kara da ("it's because") at the end. For example, Taka- 
hashi Kazumi tells us it would be useless to look for the 
key to a novel in the facts of the writer's life, and then he 
remarks, Naze ka to iu to 'jijitsu' to iu mono wa, 
shosetsu-ka ga naizai sasete iru katto no inshi o shigeki 
shi, sozo to shiko no undo o okosaseru koto wa dekite 
mo, sono katto no kdzu sono mono o keisei sum koto mo 
hen'yu sum koto mo dekinai kara de aru I "The reason 
for this is that while 'facts' may be able to stimulate the el- 
ements of turmoil that the writer has within himself and 
set his imaginative and thought processes in motion, they 
are incapable of either forming or transforming the com- 
position of the turmoil itself." 3 See the kara da section of 
"The Explainers" for several more examples. 

Tada, an adverb, and dake, a postposition, both of 
which can work independently and which are usually trans- 
lated "just" or "only," often work in pairs, with the tada 
warning you that the dake is coming. Tada ironna koto ga 
sono jiken o sakai ni yukkuri to henka shite itta dake sa 
I "It's just that all kinds of things gradually started to 
change after that incident." 4 One "just" will do for the pair. 

A much heavier-sounding version of tada . . . dake is 
hitasura . . . nomi. Hitasura, an adverb meaning "in- 
tently," and, by extension, "concentrating solely upon" or 
just "solely," turns out to be nothing more than a fancy 
written-style version of tada, likewise anticipating dake 
(or nomi, a written-style dake), as in Kenkyusha's 
Kanojo wa hitasura naku nomi de atta I "She did noth- 
ing but cry." Hitasura Nihon-jin dake wa risuku o sake, 
kiken kara tdzakatte itai I "The Japanese want to be the 
only ones who avoid all the risks and keep a distance 


between themselves and danger." 5 

The rest of the examples are of this latter sort: more 
literary in nature and less commonly heard in speech. 

Tatoe (tatoi) is an adverb meaning "even if or "even 
supposing" that warns you that you are going to get a -te 
(-de) mo, which also means "even if or "even supposing," 
as in Kare wa sonna tokoro e tatoe iku koto ga atte mo 
goku mare da I "Even if he does go to such places, it's 
very seldom" (Kenkyusha). Tatoi dotoku-teki hihan o ku- 
dasu beki bunshi ga konnyu shite kuru jiken ni tsuitemo 
kore o tokugi-teki ni kaishaku shinai de, tokugi to wa 
maru-de kankei no nai kokkei to nomi miru koto mo 
dekiru I "Even supposing it is in regard to an event into 
which some small element deserving moral censure be- 
comes commingled, we can choose not to interpret this 
ethically but to view it as entirely comical and having noth- 
ing to do with ethics." 6 

Aruiwa, an adverb meaning "maybe" or "perhaps," an- 
ticipates an expression of the same meaning, ka mo shire- 
nai, as in Aruiwa so ka mo shirenai I "It might be so." 
Sakura no mori no mankai no himitsu wa dare ni mo ima 
mo wakarimasen. Aruiwa 'kodoku' to iu mono de atta ka 
mo shirenai I "Even now, no one knows the secret of the 
cherry forest in full bloom. Perhaps it was what we call 
'solitude.'" 7 

Iyashikumo ("even a little") . . . ijd (or kara ni wa) is 
a pair that, together, means "insofar as so-and-so is the 
case" or "as long as you're going to do so-and-so." Ken- 
kyusha and my mother give us Iyashikumo yam kara ni 
wa yoku yare I "If you do it at all, do it well," and 
Kenkyusha Iyashikumo tatakau kara ni wa akumade 
tatakae I "If you do fight, fight to the finish." Jiddsha no 
nai mukashi wa iza-shirazu, iyashikumo hatsumei sarem 
ijd jinrikisha wa jiddsha ni makenakereba naranai I 



"Leaving aside the question of the old days before the 
automobile existed, now that it has been invented, the 
rickshaw will inevitably give way to the automobile." 8 

In general, these early warnings, which give aid and 
comfort to English speakers, are more characteristic of 
written than spoken Japanese. When Japanese people speak 
English, though, you sometimes hear them making sen- 
tences that work much like these matched pairs. They'll 
start out with normal English thought order, "Maybe so- 
and-so," but toward the end of the sentence they instinc- 
tively feel the need for inserting the "maybe" again where 
it "belongs," so you hear, "Maybe they couldn't make it, 
maybe," or "I think I'll go now, I think." Please don't do 
that when you are translating such pairs from Japanese. 

The Pleasures of Reading Japanese 

I often warn my literature students, especially those whose 
language skills have reached the stage where they can han- 
dle new texts with some degree of independence, that, as 
they read, they should try to maintain a distinction be- 
tween literary pleasure afforded by the work itself and 
what might be called "linguistic pleasure" stimulated by the 
sheer satisfaction of making their way successfully through 
an orthographical garden, the gathering of whose fruits is 
only becoming possible for them after years of disciplined 
study. For the fact is that Japanese, especially for those of 
us who have learned to read it after childhood, never loses 
its exotic appeal; each page turned reveals to the eye a new 
spectacle of outlandish squiggles that momentarily takes 


the breath away. And written in those squiggles or spoken 
by the people who were raised in the language are equally 
outlandish syntactic structures — not only passives but causa- 
tives and passive-causatives and fe-forms with oku's at- 
tached or morau's and itadaku's and zu's that make our 
minds work in ways that can never be conveyed to those 
who do not know the language. There is a thrill in realiz- 
ing that you can process this stuff with your very own 

I have long been convinced that, as we speak — but es- 
pecially as we read this foreign tongue— just beneath the 
threshold of consciousness, a voice continually shouts, 
"Look, Mom, I'm reading Japanese!" And these subliminal 
cries arouse in us a pleasure that can easily be confused 
with the satisfaction of reading a good story or book. In 
fact, there is a danger that the simpler the style of a work 
and the less challenging its content (which is to say, the 
easier a piece of writing is to "understand" on the purely 
lexical level) the more likely it is to grant us that instant 
gratification of having read something of exceptional in- 

For years, I assumed that this was a handicap unique 
to the foreign reader of Japanese literature. Some months 
ago, however, at the request of a scholarly journal, I trans- 
lated an essay on contemporary economic problems that 
had all too obviously been ground out in response to the 
insatiable needs of Japan's publishing industry. The more 
I struggled to find English equivalents for its journalistic 
hyperboles, its catchy neologisms intended to startle and 
stun, the more convinced I became that the Japanese read 
their own language the same way we do. 

The woman who wrote the piece is quite the media fig- 
ure these days, in demand as much for her ravishing good 
looks as for her fresh pronouncements on the contempo- 


rary scene. I couldn't help feeling that there was an in- 
escapable connection between that and the clever manner 
in which she combined Chinese characters to manufacture 
new concepts — or at least concepts that sounded new and 
looked new on the page. Perhaps she has something im- 
portant to tell her readers, but there can be little doubt 
from the way she puts her words together that her first in- 
tention is to entertain them, to make them feel as if they 
have just read something new and important. And, having 
struggled year after year to learn the thousands of char- 
acters needed to read and write modern literate Japanese, 
her readers respond with a thrill of satisfaction, and per- 
haps with their own subliminal shouts: "I understand what 
this beautiful, brainy woman is telling me! Look, Okaasan, 
I'm reading Japanese!" 

The Unbelievable Complexity of Being 


Shakespeare posed the problem most memorably and suc- 
cinctly: "To be, or not to be — that is the question." There 
can be no doubt about what "to be" means here: certainly 
not "to be" an onion or "to be" green, but simply "to be," 
to exist, as in "I think, therefore I am." If Descartes had 
wanted to use the kind of "to be" meaning "equals," he 
would have written, "I think, therefore I am Rene." The 
"to be" meaning "having the quality of might have yielded 
"I think, therefore I am cool." Let's face it, English is a 
hopelessly vague language which fails to make even the 
simplest distinctions. 


Not Japanese, however. It ignores the picky difference 
between "equals-be" and "having the quality-be," but it has 
two different kinds of "to be," the "equals" type and the 
"exists" type, and it keeps them completely separate. This 
is such a fundamental feature of the language that care- 
lessness in this area can — and far too often does — lead to 
major misunderstandings. 

Now, wouldn't it be nice if we could say that one type 
of "to be" in Japanese is am and the other is orohonpo: no 
one would ever get them mixed up. Unfortunately, one is 
am and the other one often takes the form de am, the 
written equivalent of the spoken da or desu, and non- 
Japanese get them mixed up all the time. To make matters 
worse, the de and the aru can be split up within a sen- 
tence. Most of the time, this is done by a wa, so as to put 
more emphasis on the positive aru: 

Watashi wa neko de aru. I "I am a cat." 
Watashi wa neko de wa aru ga . . . I "I am a cat, but 
. . . (that doesn't mean I like to eat mice)." 

The most widely separated de and aru I have seen oc- 
curs in the novella Ku no sekai (World of Pain) by Uno 
Koji after the hero's common-law wife accuses him of 
being a dweeb and he reflects: Ikujinashi! Soshite mattaku 
sono tori de watashi wa atta no da I "A dweeb! Yes, I 
was that — exactly!" 1 

The distinction between the two kinds of "being" is an 
old one, and it shows up in the famous poem by the Heian 
poet Narihira, in which nai, the modern negative of am, 
appears as aranu, and instead of modern de wa nai we 
find naranu: 

Tsuki ya aranu Is there not the moon? 


Ham ya mukashi no And is not the spring 

Ham naranu The spring of old? 

Waga mi hitotsu wa My self alone 

Moto no mi ni shite Remaining as it was . . . 

The implication being that if everything is the way it 
was in the old days, why isn't my mistress here any more? 
Much of the wild variation among English translations of 
this poem has to do with the degree of the translators' fi- 
delity to the difference between am and de am (ancient ari 
and nari). 

The poem illustrates, too, that the difference between 
"exist-be" and "equals-be" applies to the negative forms as 
well, the negatives of am and de am being nai and de wa 
(or ja) nai. 

Here's a useful pair to keep in mind: nanimo nai and 
nandemo nai. 

The first one means "There isn't anything," "We have 
nothing," etc. The second one means "It's nothing." Thus, 
nanimo nai tokoro is a place where there exists nothing: 
they don't have any furniture or entertainment or anything. 
Nandemo nai tokoro is a nothing place, a place that's 
nothing at all, a worthless, boring dump. 

Somewhat less problematical than the distinction be- 
tween am and de am is that between am and im. Snow 
shovels and toothpaste tubes am, while people and leop- 
ards im. Pen ga aru I "There's a pen here," but Kita- 
batake-san ga iru I "Ms. Kitabatake is here." The biggest 
challenge with this is simply remembering to use am with 
inanimate and iru with animate subjects. Sometimes, 
though, when speaking of people in the abstract, you can 
use am: Ototo ga am I "I have a younger brother." 

One of the highly un-English things that iru does is to 
act like a volitional verb (the strain of trying to use "to be" 


this way is what makes the opening of Hamlet's speech 
startling). When the police take Mume's father away to 
Sugamo prison and she chooses to stay on the island, she 
declares tearfully to her teacher, Sensei, atashi koko ni im 
I "Sensei, I'm going to stay here!" (in the film Setouchi 
shonen yakyudan I "MacArthur's Children," 1985). 

By the way, orohonpo is a real word in the Saga dia- 
lect, and it means "I'm not too crazy about it," which is 
probably how most students feel about having to keep 
track of aru and de am. 

Go Jump in the Lake, But Be Sure to Come Back 

The idiomatic Japanese way of saying "Go do so-and so," 
is "Do so-and-so and come." Instead of "Go jump in the 
lake," a Japanese would say, "Jump in the lake and come." 
Such commands should be issued to literal-minded for- 
eigners only in outdoor settings. Native Japanese don't say 
go jump in the lake, so the form poses no inherent danger 
to your carpet with them. Here, though, are some authen- 
tic examples of the form: 

Yattsukete koi. I "Go get the bastards!" 

Sanpo de mo shite atama o hiyashite koyd. I "I think 

I'll take a walk and try to cool down." 1 
Okane o moratte kite kudasai. I "Please go get the 


Yasai ni mizu o yatte kite chodai. I "Go water the 
vegetables, will you?" 


Fiddlers Three = Three Fiddlers? 

Old King Cole called for "his fiddlers three" mainly be- 
cause they rhymed with "soul was he." If questions of 
rhyme and meter hadn't entered into the picture, he could 
just as well have called for "his three fiddlers," who, we 
know from the "his," were a unit of some sort. If we 
wanted to keep them as a unit in Japanese, however, we 
couldn't be quite so indifferent about word order. 

Old King Koroku would have Sannin no baiorin-hiki o 
yobiyoseta rather than Baiorin-hiki o sannin yobiyoseta. 
The second version would mean "He called for three fid- 
dlers," three chosen at random rather than the self-con- 
tained string band he was used to. 

The normal place to put counters is after the noun in 
question, where it functions as an adverb telling to what 
extent the verb is to be performed. Enpitsu o sanbon ku- 
dasai means "Please give me three pencils"— any three 
pencils out of a larger supply. Sanbon no enpitsu, with the 
counter now modifying the noun itself, means "Please give 
me the three pencils." 

. Kurosawa's movie about a group of "seven samurai" is 
called Shichinin no samurai. If someone singlehandedly 
killed that famous group, he would have Shichinin no 
samurai o koroshita, but if, in his wanderings, he hap- 
pened to kill seven guys who were samurai, he would have 
Samurai o shichinin koroshita. 

Ito Sei had far less dramatic doings in mind when he 
wrote: Watashi-tachi ikkb shichinin no Nihon-jin wa, asa 
hayaku Tashikento o ta[tta] I "Our seven-member Japa- 
nese group left Tashkent early in the morning." 1 


Eating in the Wrong Direction 

Long, long before you ever heard of directional verbs of 
giving and receiving and realized that because of its fixed 
directionality the verb itadaku could be used in the kind of 
complex constructions discussed in the "Invisible Man" 
chapter, you probably learned it as the polite formula you 
utter before eating, Japan's answer to saying grace: Itadaki- 
masu, meaning more or less literally, "I humbly receive." 
{Literally, it means to place something on your head or 
hold something over your head, a gesture intended as a 
humble expression of awestruck gratitude, but don't do 
this with your food.) 

Then you probably learned itadaku as the normal hum- 
ble verb for eating and drinking, to be used in place of the 
more neutral taberu and nomu. You learned, too, that 
there is an honorific verb, meshiagaru, to be used in ref- 
erence to the eating and drinking of others to whom you 
are speaking politely. You yourself can never meshiagaru, 
only honored guests and the like can do that when you are 
speaking to or about them. 

If, indeed, you have learned all this, then you would 
have been just as surprised as I was the other night at a 
Seattle sushi bar when the young sushi "chef (itamae-san, 
the man in front of the cutting board), a recent arrival 
from Japan, politely asked me at the end of the meal, 
Orenji itadakimasu ka. 

In his mind, no doubt, this was the "polite" way of ask- 
ing me whether I wanted to eat an orange for dessert. It 
was, indeed, "polite," but in the wrong direction: it wasn't 
honorific toward me but a humble verb that could only 
properly be used to describe his humbly receiving some- 
thing from his listener. What he was really asking me was, 


"Would you like most humbly to receive an orange from 
my lofty self?" I blinked and smiled and got a sweet, juicy, 
and cleverly sliced orange in return. 

I was tempted to chalk this one up to the increasingly 
scandalous unfamiliarity of the younger generation with 
proper modes of speech that one hears and reads com- 
plaints about, mostly from the older generation. Then it oc- 
curred to me there was something familiar about this, 
something that went all the way back to the immediate 
postwar period. 

In 1947, Dazai Osamu (then 38) published his novel 
Shayo (The Setting Sun), which was a sensational best- 
seller and bequeathed its name to a generation of declining 
aristocrats. Unfortunately for Dazai, one writer who iden- 
tified strongly with those aristocrats, Mishima Yukio, 
ridiculed the book for its utterly uninformed portrait of the 
upper crust. His most damning piece of evidence was 
Dazai's use of itadaku where he should have used meshi- 

Dazai Osamu was one of the great stylists of modern 
Japanese fiction, and much of his humor derives from the 
way he plays with levels of speech and diction. Had he not 
committed suicide in 1948, he might be 83 today and 
complaining about the younger generation's ignorance of 


Anticipation, or: Progressive Simplification, 
or: Analyzing Upside-Down Sentences 

Let's face it, no matter how much progress you make with 
the spoken language, you are always going to run up 
against written Japanese sentences that aren't immediately 
clear the first time through and that require you to do 
some conscious analyzing if you want to understand them 
precisely. At such times, it's a good idea to keep in mind 
the title of an article in Part 2 of this book: "Warning: This 
Language Works Backwards." The early-warning system 
that applies there to certain paired expressions can be ap- 
plied to entire sentences: things that come earlier in the 
sentence clue you in to what is coming later. 

The single most important element in analyzing a 
Japanese sentence is anticipation. We almost always know 
how a sentence is going to end before we actually get to it. 
And I do mean "we." Anticipation is crucial for the effi- 
cient functioning of all languages. Imagine how slowly we 
would have to read — or how slowly people would have to 
speak — if, no matter how far along we got in a sentence, 
we still had absolutely no idea where it was — 

I don't have to finish that sentence because you have 
probably supplied the missing word or words already. 
"Headed"? "Heading"? "Going"? "Going to go"? Did you 
already have a word echoing in mind? Or are you a more 
efficient reader who doesn't sub-vocalize? In any case, this 
is what I mean by anticipation, not a feature unique to 
Japanese, though Japanese seems to tolerate more suspense 
than English as it moves along, leaving more judgements 
and distinctions suspended in anticipation of later clarifi- 
cation, than English would allow. 

How have the Japanese people been able to put up 


with all that suspense in their language without going 
crazy? Well, at first they couldn't. There were so many 
loonies locked up in cages that, by about the middle of the 
seventh century, the Emperor, who still wielded actual 
power then, made a rule, maybe the one rule that really 
works in the language and never gets broken: "From this 
day forward, subjects will always come before their verbs. 
And, just to keep things neat, modifiers will always come 
before what they modify." Never in all these centuries have 
there been any exceptions— at least not in normal syntax. 
(Of course, in fragmented speech, things get reversed all 
the time: Tsukareta no, atashi I "I'm tiredV But here I'm 
talking about the kind of grammatically correct sentence 
structures that are required by the written language.) 

There shouldn't be any problem with the idea that sub- 
jects come before their verbs. Without that rule, there 
would be confusion between predicates and modifiers: Zo 
wa shometsu shita is "The elephant vanished"— a complete 
sentence. Shometsu shita zo is "The elephant that van- 
ished"— a fragment, just a noun with a modifier in front of 
it. By putting it before the zo, we've changed the shometsu 
shita into a modifier. I'm going to go way out on a limb 
here and call anything that modifies a noun an adjective. 
Shometsu shita zo (literally, "vanished elephant") works ex- 
actly the same way as utsukushii zo ("beautiful elephant"). 

If we're going to call all noun-modifiers adjectives, we 
can call all verb-modifiers adverbs. Nan no maebure mo 
naku, zo wa shometsu shita I "Without any forewarning, 
the elephant vanished." After the naku, you have to hold 
your breath until you get to the verb you've been signaled 
to search for. Whether adverb or adjective, the modifier 
comes before what it modifies and anticipates it. For our 
purposes, an adjective is any modifier that makes you look 
for a noun to release the grammatical suspense it has built 


up, and an adverb is any modifier that makes you look for 
a verb for similar grammatical completion. (Don't forget, 
"real" adjectives, like yasashii, are just verbs in disguise.) 
And fortunately for us, once the anticipated element shows 
up, the modifier runs out of energy and ceases to function 
any further down in the sentence, so we don't have to 
think about it any more. 

As we move along through a Japanese sentence, we 
find that smaller units turn out to be parts of larger units. 
This does not make things more complicated, but rather 
the reverse: the sentence reduces itself to larger and sim- 
pler units as it goes along. It gets progressively simpler, 
rather than more complicated. No matter how long it is, 
and no matter how many nouns and particles and whatnot 
it may contain, any modifying clause is just an adjective if 
it ends up modifying a noun or an adverb if it ends up 
modifying a verb. 

Let's look at some concrete examples. I'm going to pull 
a book off the shelf and go through the first sentence 
without peeking ahead, looking for nouns, adjectives, 
verbs, and adverbs and trying to analyze what the earlier 
parts of the sentence lead us to anticipate about the later 
parts. Here's the opening sentence of the Preface to Ienaga 
Saburo's Taiheiyd senso I The Pacific War (Tokyo: Iwa- 
nami Shoten, 1968), p. iii. I have read this before, I admit, 
but years ago, and I recall the book as having been written 
in a lucid, interesting style, which should give us some 
meat to chew on, but really, I don't know what's coming. 
We'll also have a published translation to check it against. 
Both books are right here on my shelf. Since the passage is 
the first thing in the book, we don't have to worry about 
a missing context. It starts out like this: 

/£#<7) Honsho no I "This book's": Obviously, this is a 
modifier for some noun that's coming. In isolation, the 


word honsho is a noun meaning "this book," but the no 
immediately turns it into a modifier of some other noun. 
So for our purposes it's an adjective because we have been 
signaled by it to anticipate a noun. (By the way, if you're 
dying to see the whole passage in Japanese right away, 
you'll find it at the end of this section.) 

i&^i shomei I "title" is the noun that Honsho no an- 
ticipated, so Honsho no has run out of energy and has 
nothing else to do in the sentence, giving us "This book's 

But then the noun shomei is followed by the verbal ex- 
pression tLX toshite I "as." The phrase "As this book's 
title" anticipates a verb that's coming (toshite is adverbial, 
not adjectival; you'd need "toshite no" to modify a noun). 
The author has undoubtedly chosen or considered some- 
thing as the book's title. The expression also logically "an- 
ticipates" the words of the title that he is going to suggest, 
but, grammatically speaking, the only thing an adverb an- 
ticipates is a verb. Notice how the adjective honsho no and 
the noun shomei have now been absorbed into the adverb 
phrase, and so far the whole sentence is nothing but one 
big adverb waiting for a verb. Is that verb what comes 
next? Knowing that verbs come at the ends of sentences in 
Japanese, it's most likely we'll get the words of Ienaga's 
title before we arrive at the verb. 

&¥#SB#- "Taiheiyd senso" I "Pacific War": Well, 
that's not our verb, obviously. More likely (especially as we 
know from having seen the cover of the book) it's the title. 
We have to keep going. 

iv>"5 to iu: Theoretically, iu ("to say" or "call") could 
be the verb we've been looking for, but most students ap- 
proaching a text like this would have enough experience to 
see that that wouldn't make much sense (Yes, making 
sense is allowed and even encouraged!) and that to iu is 


simply acting here as verbal quotation marks the way it so 
often does. And besides, the sentence keeps going: 

j&f-WWtfP-k^l&te "Taiheiyd senso" to iu na o I "the 
name 'Pacific War'": The to iu makes Taiheiyd senso 
modify the noun na ("name"), which is then marked as an 
object by the particle o. This object-marker tells us to an- 
ticipate some kind of transitive verb meaning "give" or "at- 
tach," so now we know more about the verb that the 
toshite anticipated: it's going to be transitive. 

Jflv>£: mochiita I "used": Aha! It's transitive, but not 
the one I expected. So far, we've got: "As the title of this 
book, [I have] used 'The Pacific War,' " but still the sen- 
tence hasn't ended. For one thing, there's no period after 

31ft Sr riyu o I "reason": We haven't reached the end 
of the sentence but have reached the end of a modifying 
clause: Honsho no shomei toshite "taiheiyd senso" to iu 
na o mochiita riyu o I "The reason [I have] used 'The Pa- 
cific War' as the title of this book," all to be taken as a 
noun functioning as the object of yet another transitive 
verb, as signalled by the o. The earlier particle o has been 
exhausted by mochiita, so now we've got a new object in 
need of a new transitive verb. Mochiita itself has used up 
its energy and will not be functioning any more in the 
sentence either. By this point in the sentence, things have 
gotten ridiculously simple. All those little adjectival and ad- 
verbial and other elements can now be seen to be part of 
one large noun, and that unit is going to be the object of 
a transitive verb. We've really got nothing more compli- 
cated than Omoshiroi hon o ("interesting book"-object) and 
are waiting for a verb to do something to the object, which, 
in the case of hon, would be something like yonda or 
katta ("read" or "bought"). This is the principle of progres- 
sive simplification: small parts get absorbed into larger ones. 



£ -f mazu I "first": This is an adverb, anticipating a 
verb, most likely a verb such as tell or explain, to be used 
on the earlier-mentioned "reason" that's going to be the 
object of a transitive verb: the author is going to tell or ex- 
plain the reason, and do it "first." 

Ill hfrliZ LTfc § akiraki ni shite okitai I "[I] want 
to make it clear" (before going on with the rest of the 
book, as indicated by the use of oku, which implies doing 
something for future purposes or to get it out of the way, 
or simply "first"; here, it is working with mazu). This is 
the verb we had to have following the noun with object 

So now we've been through the whole sentence: Hon- 
sho no shomei toshite "taiheiyd sensd" to iu na o mochi- 
ita riyu o mazu akiraka ni shite okitai I "First, I'd like to 
clarify the reason I used 'The Pacific War' as the title of 
this book." If we strip away all modifiers, we find that the 
core of the sentence is riyu o akiraka ni shite okitai I "I'd 
like to clarify the reason," which is no more complicated 
than Hon o kau I "I'm going to buy a book." When ana- 
lyzing a sentence that gives you difficulty, you should al- 
ways strip it down to its core this way to see how simple 
it really is. 

Here's how Frank Baldwin did this opening sentence 
for publication: 

The title of this book, The Pacific War, requires a 
brief explanation.' 

Well, it's not a "literal" translation, but for an opener 

it's crisp and clean. 

Let's see what comes next in Ienaga's paragraph: 

c: £ "C Koko de I "Here": Adverb, telling us we're 

about to get a verb that is to be done here. 


tv^roii> taiheiyd sensd to iu no wa, I 
"As for saying 'The Pacific War'": Iu is the anticipated 
verb, and the whole clause turns out to be a noun, all of 
which is offered as a topic of the sentence: "As for saying 
'The Pacific War' here ..." The wa signals that, at least 
until another topic comes along, the entire sentence that 
follows is going to be about using the expression "The 
Pacific War." 

W *f*WF h |if Vi ic v > tz h £ X' CD ^ ryujoko jiken kara 
kdfuku made no, I "the from the Manchurian Incident 2 to 
the surrender": This is an adjective because of the no at 
the end, and it anticipates some such concept as "period" 
or "time," as in "the time from A to B." I tacked a "the" 
on at the beginning of the translation of this part to indi- 
cate that we're still waiting for something to come along. 
We should be grateful that the author has used a comma 
at the end of this modifier to indicate that it will not be 
modifying what comes next; many writers are not so kind. 
In any case, the no demands a noun of some sort, but the 
comma suggests it won't be what comes next. Let's see 
what we do get: 

H^tlf^lltWjiML^ Nihon to sho-gaikoku to no 
renzoku shita, I "the Japan and foreign countries' contin- 
ued": This also ends with a comma and demands a noun, 
so we're still in a holding mode, waiting probably for a 
single noun that's going to be modified by this adjective. 
Again I've put a strange "the" in to keep us in suspense. 

— SPFbT^tW — ichiren fukabun no — / "one series in- 
divisible": The suspense only builds as we get this added 
adjective anticipating a noun, and a plural noun at that: if 
something is an indivisible series, it's plural. But then the 
author throws us a dash — what's going to happen now? 

fli^Tlt^it** t#x.rv^— watashi wa so 
kaisu-beki de aru to kangaete iru — / "I think that we 


should interpret it this way": The author parenthetically 
tells us that this pile of modifiers reflects his interpretation, 
but we're still waiting for the noun. This is an instance of 
a final verb form happening within a sentence but not 
modifying a noun to come. It's a complete sentence within 
the sentence, and thanks to the influence of English punc- 
tuation, the author has set it off in dashes. 

I&fyi £1" senso o sasu I "indicates the wars": At last, 
we've got our noun! "War," made plural by the modifier 
"one series indivisible," is modified by all those adjectives 
hanging suspended, the energy of which is now exhausted, 
so we won't have to worry about them any more. Does he 
really mean "wars," though, or "battles"? He seems almost 
to be using the noun as singular and plural at once, for the 
overall "war" and the smaller parts thereof. Hmm, we'll 
get back to this. Senso is the object of the transitive verb 
that immediately follows, sasu I "indicates", but that is im- 
mediately followed by: 

<7>"C**> IJ node ari: The verb sasu doesn't end the sen- 
tence, but instead it modifies the noun no of the explana- 
tory expression no de am (=no da), which is there to 
explain why Ienaga is using the title he chose. The verb 
part of no de am is in its continuative form de ari ("is 
and"), indicating that the sentence is going to go on. This 
shouldn't complicate things, though. What we have here is 
a simple A is B statement with an explainer tacked on. 
We've reached the end of something that started with the 
topic "As for saying 'The Pacific War' ": "As for saying 
'The Pacific War' here, [it=zero pronoun] is to indicate." 

So far the whole thing adds up to: "As for saying 'The 
Pacific War,' it is to indicate Japan and foreign coun- 
tries' continued one-series-indivisible wars— I think that we 
should interpret it this way— from the Manchurian Incident 
to the surrender and . . . ." Of course, the author is not 


through having his say about the topic he gave us at the 
beginning of the sentence; the non-final de ari says we 
have to keep going. 

flffc^fcli genmitsu ni wa I "strictly, at least": Adverbial. 
A verb is coming, probably something about saying or 
defining something "strictly." 

+ Tj. if- m & t X & ^ § t> <D X' h Z> jugonen senso to 
yobubeki mono de am I "is a thing that we ought to call 
the Fifteen Year War." Whew! End of sentence! At least 
that last part was short. 

The "core" elements of this sentence are: No wa no de 
ari, mono de am: Noun wa noun de ari, noun de am, 
which is 100% structurally equivalent to: Horiuchi-san wa 
ha-isha de, supotsuman desu I "Mr. Horiuchi is a dentist 
and a sportsman." 

Putting it all together: "As for saying 'The Pacific War,' 
it is to indicate Japan and foreign countries' continued one- 
series-indivisible wars — I think that we should interpret it 
this way — from the Manchurian Incident to the surrender 
and, strictly speaking, it is a thing that we ought to call the 
Fifteen Year War." This is almost English. One way to 
smooth it out: "The use of the term 'The Pacific War' 
refers to what I see as the unbroken series of hostilities be- 
tween Japan and other countries that continued from the 
Manchurian Incident to the surrender. Stricty speaking, 
this should be called the Fifteen Year War." Here's how 
Frank Baldwin did it for publication, beginning with the 
opening sentence: 

The title of this book, The Pacific War, requires 
a brief explanation. The term "Pacific War" covers 
the period from the Manchurian Incident in 1931 
to the unconditional surrender in 1945 and en- 
compasses the whole series of Japan's military 


clashes [plural!] with other countries. In my view, 
these events are inseparable, all parts of the same 
war [singular! Clever exploitation of this simulta- 
neously singular and plural noun]. Precision might 
be better served by the term "Fifteen Year War," or 
by a title which referred to that part of World War 
II in which Japan was involved. 

Wait a minute, where did that business at the end 
come from? The translator has done a fine job of adapting 
the passage for an American reader who might not im- 
mediately know the important dates, and he has worked in 
Ienaga's somewhat awkward parenthetical sentence so that 
it reads very smoothly, but perhaps he is padding too 
much. Back to the next sentence of the original: 

£>&v>t± aruiwa I "Or": Oh, Ienaga had more to say. 
He may have ended the previous sentence, but this link 
serves to restart it. OK, we've got a scholar here trying to 
define something ever more precisely. 

^— fcVkft-kMV) 1 ) *>X- Dainiji sekai taisen no uchi 
de I "in the course of the Second World War": This is ad- 
verbial, anticipating a verb: something is going to occur in 
the course of the war. 

H$W#5&nL;fcg&5rS: Nihon no sanka shita bubun o I 
"the part that Japan participated in": So we have sanka 
shita, the verb anticipated by the previous adverb, but that 
verb modifies a noun, bubun, which is then going to be 
the object of a transitive verb because it is followed by o. 
Somebody's going to do something to the part (or parts) 
that Japan participated in during the Second World War. 

fi-f sasu I "indicates": No subject has been mentioned 
here. We really are in a continuation of the previous sen- 
tence. Whatever was doing the indicating back then is 
doing it again here. Our topic Koko de Taiheiyo senso to 


iu no wa is still functioning: "Saying The Pacific War here 
indicates ..." 

t MM LX i> =fc v Wo rikai-shitemo yoi I "It's OK to un- 
derstand it as": So Mr. Baldwin was not padding after all, 
though in conveying the overall sense he has been rather 
free. "Or else it's OK to understand it as indicating the 
parts that Japan participated in during the Second World 

I used to have students analyze a Japanese sentence by 
identifying the main verb, which is usually easy to find at 
the end, then going back to search for the subject and ob- 
jects and so forth in a game of ping-pong between the sen- 
tence's beginning and end, with unpredictable bounces in 
the middle — a real decoding process if there ever was one. 
See Makino and Tsutsui's appendix, "Improving Reading 
Skill by Identifying an 'Extended Sentential Unit,'" pp. 
612-18, for a good, if complicated, example of that 
method. I'd like to think the approach I've outlined here, 
emphasizing anticipation, does less violence to the struc- 
ture of the Japanese. 




1. "Japanese Language," Funk and WagnaU's New Encyclopedia, 
27 vols. (New York, 1975) 14:158. 

2. See Helmut Morsbach, "Words are Not Enough: Reading Be- 
tween the Lines in Japanese Communication," Japan Society 
Newsletter (New York, March 1989) for both of these views. 

3. Irie Takanori, review of Injurious to Public Morals: Writers and 
the Meiji State, by Jay Rubin, in Japan Quarterly (October-De- 
cember, 1984), pp. 459-60, and expanded remarks in Japan 
Quarterly (January-March, 1985), p. 113. 

4. Hatanaka Shigeo, quoted in my Injurious to Public Morals: 
Writers and the Meiji State (Seattle: University of Washington 
Press, 1984), p. 261. 

5. See Roy Andrew Miller's The Japanese Language (The Uni- 
versity of Chicago Press, 1967), pp. ix-x, for a strong dose of 
common sense. 

6. Paul Aoki, Director of the Language Learning Center, Uni- 
versity of Washington, has kindly shared these facts and figures 
with me. The definition of "Limited Working Proficiency" comes 
from a government document called "Interagency Language 
Roundtable Language Skill Level Descriptions" (p. 9). This doc- 
ument says nothing about the forty-seven-week recovery program, 
which is a closely guarded secret. 

The Myth of the Subjectless Sentence 

1. Okutsu Keiichiro, "Boku wa unagi da" no bunpd (Kuroshio 
Shuppan, 1978). 

2. Adapted from Woody Allen, "The Condemned," in Side Effects 
(New York: Ballantine Books, 1981), p. 15. 

3. Certain grammarians believe that "he" was originally Sir 
William Snodgrass of Ramsgate Heather, Surrey. 

4. Eleanor Harz Jorden with Mari Noda, Japanese: The Spoken 
Language (JSL), 3 vols. (New Haven and London: Yale Univer- 
sity Press, 1987) 1:59. 

5. They suddenly acquire this nasty habit in one of the types of 
text that students most want to read: newspapers. 

6. The answer is three: the speaker, the listener, and the person 
in charge, whom the listener is supposed to make do "it," an ac- 


tion that can be known only from context. In this particular pas- 
sage, the action called for is putting two single beds together to 
make a double. From Watanabe Jun'ichi, "Nihongo de okoru," 
Chuo Koron (January 1989), p. 39. 

Wa and Ga 

1. Steve Allen, The Question Man (New York: Bellmeadows 
Press, 1959), pp. 27-28. This rare source also includes A: "He 
shot down ten Japanese planes." Q: "Why was Suki Yamamoto 
kicked out of the Japanese Air Force?" 

2. "Haritsuke," Encyclopedia Japonica / Dai Nihon hyakka jiten, 
23 vols. (Shogakukan, 1967-72) 14:721. 

3. Watanabe Jun'ichi, "Nihongo de okoru," Chuo Koron (January 
1989), p. 39. 

4. Murakami Haruki, Hitsuji o meguru boken (Kodansha Bunko, 
1985) 1:182. See the translation by Alfred Birnbaum, A Wild 
Sheep Chase (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1989), p. 115: 
"The narcotics eased the pain all right, but they also resulted in 

5. I blame my colleague John Treat for this discouraging obser- 
vation. Neither he nor I believe, however, that the difficulty of wa 
and ga is any more than that: a linguistic difficulty, much of 
which, with proper training and conceptualization, can be over- 
come. See Alfonso, 2:967-993, for an excellent series of wa and 
ga drills. Notice that Alfonso does not attempt the definitive com- 
parison and contrast until his thirty-third lesson, after students 
have had a great deal of experience with the language, and then 
he devotes twenty-seven pages to this thorny problem. 

6. For another view, see Susumu Kuno, The Structure of the 
Japanese Language (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1973), pp. 

7. Anthony Alfonso, Japanese Language Patterns, 2 vols. (Tokyo: 
Sophia University L. L. Center of Applied Linguistics, 1966). 

8. "Eli is Home," Journal American (June 12, 1989), p. 1. 

9. Basil Hall Chamberlain, A Handbook of Colloquial Japanese, 
fourth edition revised (London and Yokohama: Crosby Lockwood 
and Son and Kelly and Walsh, Ltd., 1907), pp. 85-86. The pref- 
ace to the fourth edition says (on p. i) that the book is little 
changed from the earlier editions of 1888, 1889, and 1898. See 
also W. G. Aston, A Grammar of the Japanese Written Language, 
second edition (London and Yokohama: Triibner & Co. and 
Lane, Crawford & Co., 1877), p. 132, which suggests such En- 



glish parallels for wa as "with respect to," "in the case of," "in so 
far as regards," and "at any rate." Clay MacCauley, An Intro- 
ductory Course in Japanese (Tokyo: Shueisha, 1896), a book far 
inferior to Chamberlain's for clarity of exposition, gives "as for" 
and also notes in the preface that the author has "freely used" 
Chamberlain's Handbook. See pp. Ill, 166-67. Rudolf Lange, A 
Text-book of Colloquial Japanese, English edition by Christopher 
Noss (Tokyo: Methodist Publishing House, 1903), a generally 
muddled presentation of Japanese grammar, does distinguish wa 
from ga by reference to the questions they answer (p. 3), but the 
book inexplicably omits any reference to Steve Allen. 

10. Asahi Shinbun March 12, 1989, p. 17. 

11. Of course the da here can be viewed not as a copula but as 
a shortened substitute for ni sum or ga tabetai, much as "do" can 
be substituted for longer verbal structures ("Who wants to be the 
first one on his block to own a Captain Video decoder ring?" "I 
do."). Since we're dealing with unspoken ideas, it doesn't much 
matter whether we interpret them as verbs or nouns; personally, 
I like to treat da as a consistent copula, with the context doing 
the flip-flops. Okutsu Keiichiro sensibly points out that the flex- 
ibility of da is another feature of Japanese (along with the fre- 
quent disappearance of nouns, as discussed in the previous 
chapter) that prompts people to call it a vague language, but that 
people communicate just fine using these structures within both 
verbal and nonverbal contexts. See Okutsu Keiichiro, "Boku wa 
unagi da" no bunpd (Kuroshio Shuppan, 1978), pp. 12-13. 

12. Murakami Haruki, Sekai no owari to hadoboimdo wan- 
darando (Shinchosha, 1985; Shincho Bunko, 1988) 1:11. 

13. Kunikida Doppo, "Kawagiri" (1989); Nakagami Kenji, "Mizu 
no onna," Nakagami Kenji zen-tanpen shosetsu (Kawada Shobo 
Shinsha, 1984), p. 630. 

The Invisible Man's Family Reunion 

1. By contrast, the concept of original sin helps explain the West- 
ern fixation on who did what, when, with whom, and using 
which paraphernalia. 

2. Beware the note on morau in John Young and Kimiko Naka- 
jima-Okano, Learn Japanese, 4 vols. (Honolulu: University of 
Hawaii Press, 1984), 1:181, which glosses the word as "get or re- 
ceive (something from someone)" or "is given." 

3. "Nihongo de okoru," Chud Koron (January 1989), p. 39. 

4. Hoshi Shin'ichi, "Kata no ue no hisho," in Akuma no iru ten- 



goku (Hayakawa Bunko JA9: Hayakawa Shobo, 1973), p. 104. 
Actually, the speaker is not the salesman himself but his robot 
parrot. I am not making this up. 

5. One other possible interpretation of Kaban o nusumareta is 
that the passive is being used for purely honorific purposes: "He 
most exaltedly stole the suitcase." I am not discussing here the 
use of passives and passive-causatives for mere politeness, in 
which the rule of thumb is the more syllables, the politer. If the 
Emperor stole the suitcase, you could have Tennd-heika ni 
okaseraremashite wa kaban o o-nusumi ni naraseraremashita, in 
which a mere one-syllable wa is stretched to ten syllables. Usually, 
the context will tell you that the writer is using the passive for 
honorific purposes. 

6. Murakami Haruki, "Tonii Takitani," Murakami Haruki zen- 
sakuhin 1979-1989, 8 vols. (Kodansha, 1991) 8:227. 

7. JSL 1 :323. Diacritics omitted here. 

8. Thanks to Michio Tsutsui for bringing this to my attention. 

9. See "The Explainers" for a discussion of the kara at the end. 

10. Alfonso, Japanese Language Patterns 2:952. 

11. Murakami Haruki, "Hito-kui neko," Murakami Haruki zen- 
sakuhin 8:270. 

The Explainers 

1. Don't confuse this with a kara da following a verb in the -te 
form, which will mean "It was after so-and-so," not because. Be 
sure you understand the difference between Itta kara and Itte 
kara. This footnote looks like a conveniently obscure place for me 
to mention that I have no explanation for the whereabouts of the 
zero pronoun when the copula disappears as well: Hayaku neru. 
Nemui kara. 

2. Murakami Haruki, "Zo no shometsu," in Murakami Haruki 
zen-sakuhin 1979-1989, 8 vols. (Kodansha, 1991), 8:40. 

3. Mishima Yukio, "Watakushi no henreki jidai," Mishima Yukio 
bungaku ronshu (Kodansha, 1970), p. 322. Again the translation 
conflates Naze nara and kara de am. For an interpretation of 
kangaerarem, see "The Invisible Man's Family Reunion: The Nat- 
ural Potential." 

4. Mishima, op. cit., p. 307. I have omitted the parenthetical com- 
ment, sono naka no jibun no zenbu ga so da to wa iwanai ga I 
"I'm not saying that the whole of me in it is that way, but," an 
unnecessary complication here. 

5. Howard Hibbett and Gen Itasaka, Modem Japanese: A Basic 



Reader, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967) 

6. Japanese Language Patterns 1:405. 

7. Murakami Haruki, "Midori-iro no kemono," Bungakukai Spe- 
cial April Issue (April 1991), p. 30. 

8. Murakami, op. cit., pp. 40-41. 

The Johnny Carson Hodo 

1. These examples have been taken from alert journalist Dave 
Barry's column in the Seattle Times (July 22, 1991), p. A-6, and 
do not necessarily represent the opinions of Johnny Carson, Ed 
McMahon, the NBC television network, or anyone else for that 
matter, including Dave Barry. 

2. See Alfonso 2:700 ff. for a full comparison. Occasionally the 
kanji compound teido is used. 

3. Alfonso 703, Kenkyusha: hodo 1 :2, Seiichi Makino and Michio 
Tsutsui, A Dictionary of Japanese Grammar (Tokyo: Japan Times, 
1989), 136, etc. 


1. G. B. Sansom, Japan: A Short Cultural History (New York: 
Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1931, 1943), p. 136. 

Sbiru and Wakaru 

1. Makino and Tsutsui, pp. 529-31. 

Taming Tame 

1. In "Kokugo mondai to minzoku no shorai," Chub Koron (May, 
1961), pp. 48-56. 

Tsumori and the Vanishing Beefsteak 

1 . Yasunari Kawabata, The Sound of the Mountain, tr. Edward 
G. Seidensticker (New York: Knopf, 1970), p. 8. 

2. Kawabata Yasunari zenshu, 14 vols. (Shinchosha, 1969) 

3. P. 504. 

4. Alfonso, Japanese Language Patterns 2:860. 

5. JSL 2:20:203. 

6. Alfonso 2:859, but poorly translated there as "I intended to do 
my best." 

7. From Kenkyusha, under shinu, p. 1,564, which translates the 



sentence, "Nothing is impossible to one who does not fear, death." 

8. Alfonso 2:859, translation slightly altered. 

9. Alfonso 2:861. 

10. Kawamoto Saburo, "'Monogatari' no tame no boken: Mura- 
kami Haruki," Bungakukai (August 1985), p. 40. 


1. Murakami Haruki, "Nemuri," Bungakukai (January 1989), p. 46. 

2. F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Ice Palace," tr. Murakami Haruki, Mai 
rosuto shitii (Chuko Bunko, 1981), p. 81. 

3. "Bonnd-suru mi toshite," in Mainichi Shinbunsha Gakugei-bu, 
ed., Watakushi no shosetsu saho (Sekkasha, 1966), p. 210. 

4. Murakami Haruki, "Pan'ya sai-shugeki," Pan'ya sai-shugeki 
(Bunshun Bunko, 1989), p. 21. 

5. Ito Ken'ichi, "The Japanese State of Mind: Deliberations on the 
Gulf Crisis," Journal of Japanese Studies 17:2 (Summer 1991), 
p. 281. 

6. Natsume Soseki, "Bungei to dotoku," SZ 11:378:11. Soseki is 
speaking in this ponderous language about the moral dilemma 
created by a lecturer who farts loudly before his audience. 

7. Sakaguchi Ango, "Sakura no mori no mankai no shita," 
Gendai Nihon bungaku zenshu, 100 vols. (Chikuma Shobo, 1967), 
p. 166. 

8. Natsume SSseki, "Gendai Nihon no kaika," SZ 11:332. 

The Unbelievable Complexity of Being 

1. In Nihon gendai bungaku zenshu (Kodansha, 1964) 58:233. I 
use "dweeb" here in the sense of "gutless wonder" rather than as 
the precise equivalent of "dork." 

Go Jump in the Lake, But Be Sure to Come Back 

1. Jeffrey G. Garrison, "Body" Language (Tokyo: Kodansha In- 
ternational, 1990), p. 17. 

Fiddlers Three = Three Fiddlers? 

1. Ito Sei, "Bibihanun e no seppun," ltd Sei zenshu, 24 vols. 
(Shinchosha, 1974), 12:444. 

Eating in the Wrong Direction 

1. Mishima Yukio, "Watakushi no henreki jidai," in Mishima 


Yukio bungaku-ron shu (Kodansha, 1970), p. 315. 

Anticipation, or: Progressive Simplification, or: Analyzing 
Upside-Down Sentences 

1 . Saburo Ienaga, The Pacific War, tr. Frank Baldwin (New York: 
Pantheon Books, 1978), p. xiii. 

2. Ryujoko jiken was the railway bombing on the night of Septem- 
ber 18, 1931, that gave rise to the more general "Manchurian In- 
cident" / Manshii jihen, a term better known in the West. 

($11) B*m®wm 

Making Sense of Japanese 

2002^ 1 ft %\ BJJStT 

2004^ 1 ft is 3 wsm 
mm fflifX* 

mm mm^y^-i-v^i-ibm,^ 
t 1 1 2-8652 mm-somm® 1-17-14 

mm 03-3944-6493 (11*35) 

03-3944-6492 (BM® ■ mSS) 

iST*. aT*BIBX»JSaS9BE(D3Jt. asStt-r > 5> — ^ 5^ 3 J- J USSi58a35B 

r<D8nu*t>ttis. mmsmcmaiwc^?. ^mammmwoa-i 

© yi-r -jl — tr> 1992 

Printed in Japan