Archive for the ‘日本語 (Japanese)’ Category

Seven Grass Porridge

2013年 1月 7日

Today is the Seventh of January which is the traditional day to eat nanakusagayu (七種粥・七草粥). Seven Spring greens are gathered and cooked into a rice porridge. Traditionally these greens are:

  1. seri (芹・セリ) – Japanese parsley, dropwort
  2. nazuna (薺・ナズナ) – Shepherd’s purse
  3. gogyo (御形・五形・ゴギョウ), also called hahakogusa (ハハコグサ)
  4. hakobera (繁縷・ハコベラ) or hakobe (ハコベ) – Chickweed
  5. hotokenoza (仏の座・ホトケノザ) – from the Chrysanthemum family
  6. suzuna (菘・スズナ) – Turnip greens
  7. suzushiro (蘿蔔・清白・スズシロ) – Japanese radish greens

As I wrote last year, the flavor is very grassy and not so popular with children. I think this is one tradition that is slowly vanishing. Even my wife, who had to maintain these traditions for the children under her care, has forgotten it this year.

Perhaps we really need to find ourselves a plot of land to grow things. Had I been preparing these in the garden and talking about them, surely it would be on her mind.


Much to My Chagrin

2012年 9月 6日

Every March, when the school year comes to a close, it is common to receive trophies, letters, or other presentations from the students. Sometimes spontaneous movement of the children’s hearts prompts it. Other times, teachers assign it to get pupils to unwittingly practice their language arts skills. Regardless of origin they are always enjoyable to read: first, because they are moving; and second, because they are cute.

Definitely, children say the darndest things and one sadness is that I can’t afford to store all the cards, letters, and presents for posterity: partly for fire safety reasons.

Last Spring, at one of my favorite schools, each second grade class had a representative write a letter for everyone. Instructions from the teacher indicated that group opinion – rather than personal – should be expressed. I included one letter here from a boy who couldn’t resist slipping in a sentence about his regrettable memory from my class. He placed it in the middle and the teacher, busy wrapping up the school year, didn’t catch it; but we had some laughs when I showed it to her.


Dear Erik, thank you for always teaching us so much more than English, like pronunciation and many other things. Your slightly ‘unconventional’ games are also very fun. “Recently when we played the board game, much to my chagrin, I came in fourth.” When you read picture books to us we really enjoy it. Everyone feels that when we play games or you read to us, those are the most enjoyable times. From Second grade, class 1

Sunday Soundcheck 74

2012年 1月 8日

Until the latest column of the syllabary there were always five sounds (if archaic characters were included), but the last column of three is threatening to throw off our symmetry. Because the last row is a bit of a hodge podge anyhow, I will take the liberty of adding a couple of special characters this week and next.

First is the Vowel Elongation Mark, written as ‘ー’ (essentially a long dash). As is probably obvious at this point, most Japanese syllables are a consonant sound followed by a vowel sound. Each of these is getting one beat of time. Adding length to the vowel is actually changing the spelling and meaning in Japanese, unlike English were we can elongate or shorten sounds just to express feeling. In hiragana, vowel sounds are elongated by adding one of the vowel only characters which can be seen in Sunday Soundchecks One, Two, Three, Four and Five. Of course this is a little complicated by the fact that ‘o’ sounds are often elongated by adding ‘u’ which leads a lot of learners to the wrong pronunciation.

Katakana however has a simple method to elongate vowels simply by adding the elongation mark. Naturally it never appears at the beginning of a word, but here are a couple words using it:

Kontorooru (コントロール) from the English word ‘control’ used in many of the same ways as the English word.

Enerugii (エネルギー) from the English word ‘energy’ used in the sense of personal energy, not electric power or such.

Full of Tradition

2012年 1月 7日

Japan is a country full of tradition. After living here almost eight years and seeking out culture and tradition, I am still constantly amazed by serendipitous appearances of more traditional activity. Tradition being over-abundant has its downside: in our ever-busier lives, the tedium of preparing for, executing and passing on tradition is causing many to disappear or become only shadowy forms of what they were.

Perhaps this is just one more reason that my wife was delivered into my life. Working in a home for children removed from abusive or neglectful situations, she was charged with providing them plentiful access to tradition. I sometimes tease her about not respecting various traditional arts; however, she has a much deeper knowledge than me. For that matter, I would guess it is much deeper than the average citizen; and it often just comes out naturally, as a matter of practice.

January Seventh is one of five important seasonal festival days called Nanakusa (七種、ななくさ). It is a time to celebrate the passing from winter into spring. Tradition is to make a rice porridge with seven types of young greens in it. There is definitely a strong grassy flavor to it, so I would probably not choose it everyday; however, it was an enjoyable way to celebrate the coming fruitfulness.

When she made this for the children at the home, the flavor was not invited by the young ones: definitely a taste for a mature palate. I imagine this is one reason the tradition is not broadly practiced. Also, most housewives are extremely busy the last week of December and the first few days of the new year taking care of other traditions, so they probably aren’t anxious to put effort into another special day.

Supermarkets sell small kits with the seven essentials in them, so it still carries at least enough popularity to support that business. Finding the greens – especially in the small portions needed – would be a chore without these packages, so they are definitely a nice aide.

Sunday Soundcheck 73

2011年 11月 6日

As promised, this week is a simple one: today’s sound is n, written in hiragana as ん and katakana as ン. It sounds pretty much like one might expect; however, in the middle of words it is more like an ‘ng’ sound with the ‘g’ being weak.

So why would this week be so simple? The answer is that this sound never appears at the beginning of a word in Japanese. Sunday Soundcheck lists words commonly used, but not commonly found in language texts which start with whatever character we are discussing. Okinawa dialect varies dramatically from common Japanese and there is an amusing souvenir shirt which lists words starting with n.

Interestingly, I found a foreign word Njamena (ンジャメナ) which is N’Djamena, the capitol of Chad, formerly Fort Lamy.

There is a game in Japanese called shiritori (尻取り) in which players – usually children – take turns making words which start with the last character of the previous person’s word. The game has a natural end when a player accidentally says a word ending in n, earning that player a bad point.

Active Things

2011年 11月 1日

In the course of secondary language education all manner of intriguing points come up because of differences in language and culture. Many people over the past year or so have been shocked to discover that English nouns are also often verbs. Japanese language allows for turning one part of speech into another; however, something is always added to it in order to signify the change. Whereas, in English we can just use the word as it is.

Some people are so shocked by the discovery that they can’t fathom how the meanings are associated, but others start to grasp the connections after a little explanation. When the conversation comes up, I generally give them a number of examples from things visible in their immediate surroundings.

  • Let’s table this issue for now.
  • Who will chair the meeting if you are absent.
  • If I tell you this news, I’m sure it will floor you.
  • When you hold the hamster cup your hands carefully.

At this point, it seems to them that every noun is a verb, so they start throwing out words to test it and are shocked: plate, spoon, fork, tree, dog, cap, shoe, …

Naturally there are many nouns we don’t yet use as verbs, but there are quite a few. Some are very special or rare, but some are very common. Still I search for a similar occurrence in Japanese, but there is always some particle or verb ending added to change parts of speech. Anyhow, I first was surprised that people found this strange, but now I am wondering why we always thought it was normal.


Sunday Soundcheck 72

2011年 10月 30日

Today will be a simple day because there are no words beginning with this character. Today’s character is o, sometimes written as wo to differentiate from the character in Sunday Soundcheck 5. We write the character as を or ヲ in hiragana or katakana respectively. The main use of this character is to mark the direct object of a verb, it is placed after the object and before the verb.

We did find an alternate spelling of otaku in katakana as ヲタク which is a word used to describe someone desperately fanatic about something in an unattractive manner. Typically this is used to describe shut-ins who are obsessed with animated characters and have trouble interacting with real people.

Next week will also be a short post.

Sunday Soundcheck 70

2011年 10月 9日

We’ve reached the end of another column in the syllabary. The R column ends with the sound ‘ro’. We write it as ろ or ロ in hiragana or katakana respectively.

There are so many choices of good words but two jumped out at me this time.

Roudou (ろうどう・労働) is Japanese for labor which is in the news a lot lately.

Roke (ロケ) is actually short for rokeeshon (ロケーション) which means ‘location’ in English. During camera society meetings we use roke a lot.

Today’s post is a little short, but it’ll have to do; in the early morning I will be helping carry the mikoshi (神輿) from the local shrine around the neighborhood for the Tsu Festival.

Speaking of Differences

2011年 10月 3日

Saturday afternoon I gave a speech for a group in Kyoto. Every month they get a speaker to talk about something unique. I once went to hear about a special type of lily which had almost gone extinct, but thanks to one man’s efforts had been saved. Next month will be a high school calligraphy prodigy. This month was just me… they wanted me to talk about my perspective on Japanese life and culture.

When it was first requested, I tried to explain to the organizer what a dangerous topic this is. Japanese people often ask very straight questions about how their society compares or is different to others. Many times: what did you find most shocking?; what is the most difficult point of living here?; and more of that ilk are thrown out as questions. But, quite understandably, people don’t really want to hear that their society is shocking or difficult. Personally, I think Japanese are particularly sensitive about this issue, so it seems inconsistent that they would ask this type of questions so often.

Anyhow, he laughed at me for being ‘overly concerned’; reassured me that my discussions are always ‘amusing’; and within an hour was offended by one of the potential talking points we were kicking around. Over the last week, I was tossing ideas around with my wife to flesh out the speech. I consider it a mark of pride that we have gotten to this point, because early in our marriage there were a few altercations which started when I used the words “In Japan…” to start a sentence. Some of these flare-ups weren’t even negative or stressful points, but she tensed up out of reflex at the beginning.

In our filtering through the dangerous topics there were a number to which see saw the amusing quality and wanted me to use them, but I showed her a few of the traps and she understood why I wanted to slash them.

On the day of the event, my topics were just enough to cover the time alotted (although, I forgot a couple points I really wanted to cover because I didn’t clarify them in my notes). At least a couple members were interested in almost every point and each member showed interest in at least a few points. I guess Lincoln would be proud, since I can’t expect to keep everyone interested in every point.

We broke for tea and desserts and then had open discussion and questions. This section went very well, with general enjoyment. One member asked some tough questions about Zazen (座禅) – a type of Buddhist meditation – which almost got me in trouble. I’m a big fan of meditation, but Buddhist belief structure doesn’t mesh with mine. We managed to get through that with some tact.

For me, the most stressful point was that I rarely practice formal speech patterns in Japan and it would be inappropriate of me to use the more casual forms in this type of speech. I caught myself slipping into habit many times, but afterwards everyone (including my wife) insisted that they never noticed. (I think they were being polite.)

Sunday Soundcheck 69

2011年 10月 2日

Time for a second week of Sunday Soundcheck. Internet should be connected at the new house late this week, making it easier to keep Sunday posts up to date. So, the sound for this week is ‘re’, which we represent as ‘れ’ or ‘レ’ in hiragana or katakana respectively.

So, let’s throw a string of katakana words out today. These all have similar sound, but are very different words. Early on, I was often confused, but have most of these down now.

  • Reesaa (レーサー) is a racer or race car driver.
  • Reezaa (レーザー) is a laser. This word is getting used more and more as this technology finds it’s way into more public contact.
  • Rezaa (レザー) is leather.
  • Rezaa (レザー) is a razor. Yes, it is identical to the previous word. Japanese people will accent it to discriminate the two; however, let context be your guide. After all, one rarely hears about someone being cut with leather in a fight or buying a car with razor seats.
  • Rejaa (レジャー) refers to leisure activity.
  • Ressaa (レッサー) is lesser. This one is in very common usage because to the popularity of the red panda in Japan. In contrast to the giant panda, they refer to the red panda as the lesser panda, or ressaapanda (レッサーパンダ)

And for the hiragana word, let’s go with reigai (れいがい・例外) which refers to an exception. As a teacher of English, I often need this word when I am explaining English spelling or grammar ‘rules’. “Generally, we spell things <this way> but in this case there is an exception.”