Japanese: もったいない

Following on my past linguistic posts (see Japanese Resources page for more of that), I’m going start periodically introducing fun words and phrases that you might like to use in Japanese. 一緒に勉強しよう!*


Kanji (rarely used in this case): 勿体無い
Romaji: Mottainai
Meaning: Wasteful; Regret related to waste

もったいない is an interesting concept. Literally, it means a lack of the natural dignity of a thing. In modern Japan it’s used as either an exclamation or an adjective. It refers both to physical waste, such as throwing away something that can still be used, and to things like wasted talent, wasted effort, or even a mentality that leads to waste. From what I understand, it was kind of outdated for a while, but in recent years it’s become popular again.


もったいない! –> What a waste!

捨てるのはもったいない/Suteru no ha mottainai –> It’s wasteful to throw it away.

This is a hard term to fully render in English, but you will definitely run into it if you spend some time in Japan and I think it’s fascinating. What about you?

*Let’s study together!

On Japanese Part Three: Strategies

Unlike the other two posts, this last part of my mini-series on studying Japanese is kind of broad and general: fun, and somewhat obvious, strategies for working on your Japanese when you’re sick of staring at textbooks.

Assorted Japanese songs. All excellent, by the way.

Most people interested in Japan are already here, but mix Japanese music into your listening habits. It’s easy, it’s fun, and it allows for both active and passive learning. Song lyrics are actually pretty hard to translate, but it can be a good exercise just to try. And, on a more basic level, regularly listening to music in your target language is a good way to develop your feel for the pronunciation and cadence.

Watch movies and TV shows in Japanese. If you’re at at a beginner level, use English subtitles at first, but really pay attention to what you’re hearing. Later on, switch to Japanese subtitles; even when you don’t know all the kanji, you can start making connections. Also, watch kid’s shows. The vocabulary and grammar are much simpler and you’ll be surprised at how much you’ll understand without help.

Read books (or manga, if that’s your preference) in Japanese. Stick to things you’ve read in English, so you’ll be able to gauge your comprehension. And, like with the movies and TV shows, start with stuff meant for kids. Kid’s books have furigana, which makes it easy to look up unknown words. It will be the slowest you’ve ever read, but I promise you’ll get better.

Obvious? Of course! But it really never hurts to reiterate this sort of thing. And I will leave you with a very pretty, simple Japanese song, courtesy of YouTube: Okitegami (おきてがみ) by Maaya Sakamoto (坂本真綾).

On Japanese Part Two: Resources

The other day I started off my Japanese study series with a little glossary of basic Japanese study terms. And now I’m back with my personal guide to Japanese study resources.

Kanji flashcards! In Instagram form because it saved me the trouble of taking a new picture.


なかま: Japanese Communication, Culture, Context (Houghton Mifflin, 1998):
My first two years of Japanese used Nakama 1 and then Nakama 2 and they aren’t terrible. They also aren’t great. They do introduce hiragana in chapter 1 and katakana in chapter 3, which is good, and they have some useful appendices, but the grammar explanations aren’t very clear and there’s a lot of clutter in the form of semi-relevant bits of Japanese culture. It also relies pretty heavily on having a class, so if you’re going it alone look elsewhere.

My Rating: 5/10

みんなの日本語/Minna no Nihongo (3a Corporation, 2008):
I used Minna no Nihongo during my study abroad and I vastly prefer it to Nakama. The exercises are great, it skips the cultural stuff, and you learn a lot of vocabulary in every chapter. Each level has two books, one in Japanese and one in English to supplement it, and you need both. It’s not good for an absolute beginner, but if you’ve got the kana down check it out.

My rating: 8/10

An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese (Japan Times, 1994):
This is actually the third book in the Genki series, but I’ve never used Genki 1 and 2. There’s some cultural information, as well as multiple example conversations in each chapter, which is all great. The grammar explanations are pretty good and I also can’t complain about the vocab lists. The reading sections don’t come with translations, which I actually like, but I will admit that they’re kind of boring. Basically, it’s a solid book, but you might struggle if your reading comprehension is weak.

My Rating: 7/10


Remembering the Kanji (James Heisig, 2001):
The dreaded Heisig. I’m torn where this series is concerned. On the one hand, there is definite value in using mnemonics, narrowing your focus to learning meanings first, and getting away from rote memorization, but I do think there are problems. The pace the book sets is somewhat unreasonable, the stories he comes up with are annoying, and it doesn’t produce literacy, so it’s definitely just a starting point. In short: I think RTK is worth looking into, but flawed.

My Rating: 6/10

Kanji Cards (Tuttle Flashcards):
These are the flashcards in the picture. They include all the relevant info and they’re perfectly functional, but the readings are printed in romaji, not kana, which I actually think is more of a problem if you’re a beginner. It’s not ideal, but I can work with it. You can also find them cheap online, which is a bonus; I got volume 2 secondhand for $5 shipped.

My Rating: 8/10

Essential Kanji (P.G. O’Neill, 1987):
This is basically a reference guide to the jouyou set, in the official MEXT-sanctioned order. It’s outdated now, since the changes implemented in 2010, but it’s still a good book to have on your shelf for the 1,940 characters that stayed the same. Keep in mind that it isn’t a textbook, but it is a good secondary resource.

My Rating: 8/10

Grammar and Vocabulary:

A Dictionary of Basic/Intermediate Japanese Grammar (Japan Times, 1989):
These dictionaries (there’s also an advanced that I don’t have) are awesome and exactly what it says on the tin. They aren’t textbooks, so I don’t recommend trying to use them that way, but they are clear, comprehensive, and amazingly useful supplements to learning Japanese. If you’re already studying by other means, definitely try to pick these up. They’re expensive, but I love them.

My Rating: 10/10

The Complete Japanese Verb Guide (Tuttle, 2001):
This book is mediocre. There are over 600 verbs with conjugations and other relevant info, like whether a verb is transitive or intransitive. However, it’s all in romaji (except the headings, which are in kanji). I can deal with the romaji in the flashcards, because it’s only the readings, but in this book even the example sentences are romaji. There are other verb guides on the market, so check those out first.

My Rating: 4/10

How to Tell the Difference Between Japanese Particles (Kodansha, 2005):
Buy this book. Particles (at, in, on, etc.) are one of the hardest things to learn. Japanese has a lot of them and they’re very easy to mix up. This book is short, concise, and easy to understand and use. An excellent resource to have on hand.

My Rating: 10/10

Essential Japanese Grammar/Vocabulary (Tuttle, 2012/2011):
These books are pretty good. They aren’t the best, but I don’t regret buying them, either. They’re basically dictionaries with extra information (Grammar explains what Japanese clauses are, for example). I don’t know how much good they’ll do you if you’re an absolute beginner, but if you’ve studied a bit they’re a decent investment.

My Rating: 7/10


Japanese-English English-Japanese Dictionary (Random House, 1997):
My preferred student dictionary. It’s pretty extensive, has kanji, kana, and romaji, and if you’re looking for a paperback dictionary to go with your studies this is a good choice. There are more comprehensive dictionaries out there, obviously, but this one is easy to use and does its job.

My Rating: 9/10

To get a lot out of this site, you probably need to pay for a subscription because the free content is limited, but I just have Basic ($4/month) and that’s enough. Basically, it’s Japanese learning podcasts, with lesson pdfs and study resources. The podcasts are pretty extensive, ranging from absolute beginner to advanced, and, while some of the banter between the hosts is kind of forced, the lessons themselves are good.

My Rating: 8/10

jisho.org (Denshi Jisho):
An excellent online Japanese-English English-Japanese dictionary. I use it all the time. Also: free!

My Rating: 10/10

I actually have more than this, but some of it is pretty specialized or advanced, so I’m not going there. Instead, I hope these more basic/general resources are helpful and, if you have something you think should really be included (or blacklisted), let me know!

On Japanese Part One: Terms

I’ve developed a bad habit with this blog: post a few times, vanish, rinse and repeat. I’m sort of just treading water right now, so blog motivation is low. But since Japanese is one of my things, and I see people going the self-study route online all the time, I’m back for a nuts and bolts language series. I’ve got six years of experience behind me, so I might as well share, right?

My Japanese shelf. Not pictured: flashcards.

And I’m going to start things off by covering some relevant terms! Some of it’s extremely basic. I meant it when I said “nuts and bolts”.

文部科学省 (Monbu-Kagaku-Shou/MEXT): The Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology. They decide all the things.

かな (kana): The phonetic scripts. Hiragana (ひらがな) and katakana (カタカナ) are the two currently in use: hiragana for native Japanese words and katakana for foreign words. Romaji (ローマ字) is romanized Japanese.

漢字 (kanji): Characters imported from China. Before the initial introduction of written Chinese in the 1st century, Japan didn’t have any writing at all and, for several hundred years, all Japanese texts were written in Classical Chinese. Then they started adapting the Chinese characters to go with their own language and what we know as written Japanese [awkwardly] came to be.

常用漢字 (jouyou kanji): Common-use kanji/the jouyou set. It’s the list of 2,136 characters that Japanese people learn in school. From 1981 to 2010 there were only 1,945 but then MEXT decided to eliminate 5 and add 196 (thanks).

Kanji Readings: Pronunciation. There are two types of readings: On (音読み) and Kun (訓読み). On is based on the Japanese approximation of Classical Chinese. There are four types and a single character can have more than one. Kun is the native reading, assigning a Japanese word to a character with a roughly equivalent meaning. There can also be more than one Kun reading, but some kanji don’t have a Kun reading at all. Yes, it really is this convoluted.

国字 (kokuji): I will likely never use this term again, but kokuji are kanji that were invented for words and concepts unique to Japan.

ふりがな (furigana): Small kana printed under, over, or next to a kanji, so you know how it’s pronounced. You usually see furigana in children’s books and with kanji that are rare or ambiguous.

送り仮名 (okurigana): Kana suffixes attached to kanji in words. Example: 読む (yomu/to read). The first character is kanji, the second is hiragana, and the suffix indicates verb tense. You never see okurigana with On readings because, to oversimplify some linguistics, you can’t modify Chinese in Japanese.

Radicals: Common components used to organize/identify kanji. There has to be some method to this madness.

Stroke Order: The order in which a character is written. There are exactly two instances when you really need to care about this: calligraphy and trying to look something up with a touch screen dictionary.

Heisig Method: James Heisig’s kanji study method, detailed in Remembering the Kanji. Heisig decided that the traditional tactic of rote memorization, learning readings and meaning simultaneously, sucks. Instead, he recommends using mnemonics and not learning the readings until after you know all the kanji by meaning alone. Some people hate him, some people swear by him, and my strategy stops at being inspired by him, though I do have the books.

JLPT (日本語能力試験/Nihongo Nouryoku Shiken/Japanese Language Proficiency Test): A standardized test, issued twice a year in Japan and once a year in other countries, that certifies Japanese proficiency. MEXT overhauled it in 2010 to fix the difficulty gap between the old levels 3 and 2, so now there are 5 levels instead of 4. Level 1 (N1 now) is the most difficult and if you can pass it chances are you know Japanese better than most Japanese people.

And that is… not everything, but it is a pretty good start. Mostly I just tried to hit terms that get thrown around a lot like everyone already knows what they mean. And, if you didn’t, now you do! I might go back and talk about some of the linguistics in more detail later, because rules are all fine and good but ultimately it’s important to also understand why. But that’s more than the casual language learner is signing on for, so I’m setting it aside for another day.

Next up: books and other resources you should (or shouldn’t) use.

Review: Kotoba! App

About three weeks ago (three? I think it was three) I bought an iPod Touch. This was not because I needed a new iPod (my 60GB classic iPod is going strong), but because I am weak for shiny new technology that can do shiny things. But I didn’t buy it for what might be considered a normal reason, no, I bought it to help me study Japanese. I’ll say that again: I bought an iPod Touch to help me study.

You see, I do not have an electronic dictionary (電子辞書) and have often felt the lack. But a really good one, the kind with a touch screen and stylus so you can write the kanji you want to look up, is very expensive and comes laden with features that I would likely never figure out how (or why) to use. You can get a simple, basic one for around $100, but kanji are my eternal stumbling point and I need the ability to search by copying them down and finding the right one. Enter the iPod Touch, or iPhone if you have one of those instead, which has a brilliant app called Kotoba! The exclamation point is part of the name, by the way.

Kotoba!’s logo, found via Google Images.

Kotoba! is a multilingual Japanese dictionary that comes with extra features I will, and do, use. The dictionary is embedded, which means you don’t need an internet connection to use it, and while the primary function is Japanese-English, and the reverse, it does have a pretty decent selection in other languages. You never know, at some point I could need to know how to say, I don’t know, dictionary in German. It could happen. Each entry also has example sentences and breaks down the kanji for you, and you can search both by text input and by writing the kanji on the screen with your finger.

Did I mention it’s also free?

The other function that I’ve been obsessed with this week is the kanji study tools. It has all of the JLPT kanji, divided up by level (on the old system, so only four), as well as kanji as taught by grade level in Japanese schools. Each kanji entry has all the readings, the meaning in English, the radicals, the number of strokes, a bunch of information I have no use for, and an animation in the top corner showing the order and direction of the strokes. This is important because stroke order actually does matter. I mean, it doesn’t really make them look different unless you’re doing calligraphy, but you are supposed to know them.

Honestly, it’s a fantastic app. I’m really happy with it. The one potential negative is stroke order related: when you try to look up a kanji by writing it on the touch screen, if the stroke order is messed up it can’t find it. So it can be frustrating trying to find a kanji when your guess as to the order it’s written in is wrong. But arguably that can be a good motivation to actually memorize that sort of thing, which is easier said than done. When you have almost 2,000 characters to learn, in order to achieve literacy, you start to resent the little nit-picky bits pretty early on.

So, yes, if you have an iPhone or iPod Touch, and want a good Japanese dictionary, I recommend Kotoba! Like I said, it’s free, so how can you go wrong?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be off using my iPod for the other purpose it was clearly designed for: Angry Birds.

Best examples ever

You remember those Japanese grammar dictionaries I talked about? Well, I’ve been flipping through them and these guys put together the best example sentences ever. The English assistant at one of my visiting schools and I couldn’t stop laughing at the bizarre assortment they came up with to demonstrate how to use what is actually fairly complex grammar.

Here’s an example, for だらけ (darake), which means full of, filled with, or covered with:

病院に担ぎ込んだ時、その男の顔は血だらけだった (byouin ni katsugi konda toki, sono otoko no kao ha chi darake datta): When we carried him into the hospital, the man’s face was covered with blood.

Because that’s a sentence I’ll be using in the near future.

And here’s a good one for 以上 (ijou), which means since, now that, once, and other like words:

もらった以上は、あなたが何と言おうと、私の物です (moratta ijou ha, anata ga nan to iou to, watashi no mono desu): Now that you have given this to me, it’s mine no matter what you say.

I don’t know about you, but that’s just the sort of thing I wish I knew how to say in my second language on a fairly regular basis. And now I do, so next time the situation arises, I will be well prepared.

And, one more, from the section on rhetorical questions, we were given:

彼にそんな難しいことが分かるはずがないじゃない (kare ni sonna muzukashii koto ga wakaru hazu ga nai jya nai): How could you expect him to understand such a difficult thing?!

For those times when you really want to point out that your conversation partner has been talking to some very stupid people.

Maybe I’m just really easily entertained, but the fact that these dictionaries go out of their way to provide examples that are more interesting than usual textbook fare is pretty awesome. There’s stuff about cancer, your pets dying, being rejected when you propose to your girlfriend, nuclear armament (I couldn’t find it quickly enough, but there is totally a sentence involving nuclear weapons somewhere in this book), and all sorts of other creative uses for new grammar. I applaud the authors of this series for taking the time to construct something this enjoyable.