Japanese Media as a Study Tool

When you get to a certain point in your Japanese studies, you’ll begin to look towards authentic material to aide your progress. Not only is it a fun alternative to the standardized textbooks, you get a glimpse into the culture and thought process of native speakers.

At the same time, you don’t want to jump into to your local Hikone newspaper and undoubtedly be discouraged by the sheer amount of Kanji.

That being said, what sorts of material should you use to help your studies? This quick list may give you some suggestions on what you could be using.

Children’s Books & Manga

Children’s books are a great resource for any level learner and can aide you in numerous ways. Since these books are designed for children, the vocabulary and grammar used is not too hard, but not easy enough to simply breeze through. It’s a healthy medium in which you can learn about some of the cultural themes expressed through the literature as well as some tango (vocabulary) you may not have known.

If you’re feeling drained reading books meant for 5 year olds all day, as a substitute try reading your favorite manga (Japanese comic book). The pictures included help guide the story in case you don’t understand everything. Assuming your manga of choice is one you’re familiar with, following the plot shouldn’t be an issue either.

Video Games

I recently started playing through the newly released Pokémon Sword on my Nintendo Switch. It has options for kanji text or simply hiragana. Although it’s a slow, note filled process, playing through on one my all time favorite series in another language is a fulfilling activity.

Other games I’d recommend you try out are the Persona games, Earthbound, and any other text-heavy RPG.

Anime/Reality TV

Anime (Japanese cartoons) and reality TV shows give you unfiltered, native speed Japanese to help your listening skills.

The drawback to anime in particular is that the Japanese used may not always be conversational or grammatically ‘correct’. For example, a character in One Piece or Naruto may have a catch phrase that might garner some stares if said in normal conversation. As such, this method isn’t recommended for you if you’re a beginner as you may pick up bad habits.

My suggestion is to watch with Japanese subtitles, allowing you to read and process what you hear. Netflix’s Terrace House and other original Japanese-Netflix series have the option for both Japanese audio and captions.

I hope you’ve been able to expand your approach to language learning and realize that the experience is what you make it. Take it slow and have fun! がんばってくだい (ganbatte kudasai)! Do your best!

Japanese Emoji: Explained

Did you know that the word emoji doesn’t have anything to do with emotions like it seems like it does in English? Emoji is actually a Japanese word, 絵文字, which means “picture letter”. Emoji evolved from kaomoji, 顔文字, which means “face letter”. These kaomoji are called emoticons in English (which actually is related to the word emotion!), and are the typed faces like :-), =D, and 😦 and the Japanese (>_<), (*^^)v, and (;一_一).

Emoji can now be found everywhere online, but there are so many of them that it’s hard to know what they all mean! Emoji first started in the late 90’s in Japan by a man named Shigetaka Kurita. The first emoji were inspired by people out and about, which is why there’s a lot of emoji for signs and with kanji! We’re going to go through those emoji, as well some (relatively) newer emoji that originated from and are culturally relevant in Japan.


  • 🙇‍♂️🙇‍♀️🙇 Dogeza: Translated as “to prostrate oneself”, dogeza is kneeling down as a deep apology or to ask a big favor. There’s a couple dogeza poses, but the head is usually facing the ground.
  • 🙅🙅‍♂️🙅‍♀️ Batsu: The Japanese word for an X (×) denoting an incorrect answer or “no”. The arms are crossed to create the cross shape.
  • 🙆🙆‍♂️🙆‍♀️ Maru: The Japanese word for a circle (○) denoting a correct answer or “okay”. The arms are making the shape of a circle.
  • 👹 Oni, or ogres: Mythical beings similar to demons, and, in some regions of Japan, are used on holidays such as Vernal Equinox Day to scold children who’ve been naughty.
  • 👺 Tengu, or goblins: Another type of mythical being that was akin to demons, but are now seen as destructive yet protective. Their signature feature is their long nose, which used to be a beak as tengu were thought to be birds of prey.
  • 🙈🙉🙊 The Three Wise Monkeys: You’ve probably heard the phrase “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”, and these macaques embody the maxim. Their names are Mizaru (“see not”), Kikazaru (“hear not”), and Iwazaru (“speak not”), which are puns on the Japanese word for monkey, saru.
  • 🙌 Banzai: Yelling “banzai” is a traditional celebratory cheer in Japan, and the celebrators raise their hands as shown in the emoji.


  • 🥋 Keikogi: If you practice judo you’ll know this one. It’s a keikogi, or dōgi, the traditional martial arts uniform used in judo, kendo, aikido, etc. In English we usually just call it a gi.
  • 👘 Kimono: You definitely know this one, the national attire of Japan. Or… is it a yukata, the more relaxed version for warmer weather? Depending on what device you’re on, it might be different!
  • ⛑️ Construction helmet: The red cross on the front is used in Japan as a safety reminder.
  • 🎒 Randoseru: This emoji looks like a backpack, and it is! But it’s a particular type of backpack called randoseru, which was borrowed from the Dutch word “ransel”. They are firm, made of leather (or fake leather), and are used by Japanese elementary school students.


  • 🍱 Bento: Boxed lunch, usually eaten at school, work, or while traveling.
  • 🍘 Senbei: Senbei is a rice cracker, eaten as a snack with tea. This one looks like it’s soy sauce flavor and wrapped in a piece seaweed.
  • 🍙 Onigiri: The famous rice ball! Onigiri are usually wrapped in seaweed and either have a tasty filling or use flavored rice.
  • 🍛 Curry Rice, or kare raisu: Curry is usually associated with India, but curry & rice is extremely popular in Japan where it has its own unique Japanese-y flavor.
  • 🍢 Oden: A tasty, wintry dish made of various foods like konnyaku (a plant jelly), fish cakes, daikon (a radish), and eggs, all cooked in dashi (a fish and/or seaweed broth). Sticks of the cooked foods can be bought at convenience stores or street vendors.
  • 🍣 Sushi: Everyone’s favorite seafood dish! Depending on your device, the emoji will either be two nigirizushi (rice topped with raw fish) or one nigirizushi with one makizushi (rolled sushi wrapped in seaweed).
  • 🍤 Ebi-furai: Tempura fried shrimp, often found in bento.
  • 🍥 Narutomaki: A type of kamaboko, or fish cake, naruto (the abbreviation for narutomaki) is a white flowery shape with a pink maki (swirl or roll) in the center. They are named after the Naruto Whirlpools between Tokushima and Hyogo, which is also what the anime character Uzumaki Naruto is named after.
  • 🍡 Dango: A type of popular dessert rice ball. There are many types of dango, but the type the emoji depicts is called botchan dango, which are colored with red bean, egg, and green tea.
  • 🥟 Gyoza: Also called dumplings or pot stickers, gyoza are delicious steamed meat and veggies wrapped and sealed in thin dough.
  • 🍧 Kakigoori: Similar to a snow cone but with thinner ice, kakigoori is a popular summer treat that can be bought at food stalls. It’s often covered with sweetened condensed milk in addition to the flavor syrup.
  • 🍮 Purin: Also known as flan or caramel custard, purin (from the English word “pudding”) is a very popular dessert in Japan. This caramel-covered custard can be found everywhere, from convenience stores to conveyor belt sushi restaurants.
  • 🍶 Sake: While we call this Japanese alcohol made from rice sake in English, it’s called nihonshu (Japanese liquor) in Japanese, as sake is just the generic term for alcohol. The emoji shows the a traditional set of bottle (tokkuri) and cup (choko), but there are many traditional sake-drinking items in japan, like a small plate and a wooden box.

Items & Things

  • 🎎 Hina-ningyo: These two are traditional dolls put on display during Hinamatsuri, usually known as Girls’ Day in English. The dolls represent the Emperor and Empress in ceremonial court outfits. They are often found with many other dolls representing court attendants.
  • 🎏 Koinobori: Koinobori, or carp streamers, are used in Childrens’ Day celebrations. Traditionally, each carp represents a different member of the family.
  • 🎐 Fuurin: A Japanese wind chime – though it is often mistaken as a jellyfish.
  • 🏮 Lantern: These paper lanterns can be found all throughout Japan, with these red ones often being hung near izakaya.
  • 🌸 Sakura: A cherry blossom, the spring symbol of Japan. Sakura are celebrated in Japan and people often go on hanami (flower viewing) in the spring, looking at the beautiful flowers while drinking with friends.
  • ⛄☃️ Yuki-Daruma: Snowmen! Did you know Japanese snowmen are made of two balls of snow instead of three?
  • 🎋 Tanabata Wish Tree: Tanabata is a traditional celebration of the meeting of two stars in July. People write their wishes on strips of paper and tie them on bamboo, which is what the emoji depicts.
  • 🎍 Kadomatsu: Decorations made from bamboo that are placed outside of homes during New Year. Kadomatsu are said to welcome ancestral spirits into their homes to bring good luck for the next year.
  • 🌊 The Great Wave off Kanagawa: While depicted as a large wave on most devices, Apple’s design of the wave emoji is of the wave in the famous Great Wave off Kanazawa woodblock print by Hokusai.
  • ⛩️ Torii: A Japanese gate found at the entrance and within Shinto Shrines. Torii gates signify the border between the ordinary world and the sacred.
  • 🚅 Shinkansen: Slightly different than the other train emoji (🚈🚅), the famous shinkansen are known as bullet trains in English. They can get up to 200 miles per hour.
  • 🚥 Shingo: Traffic lights – but the setup of the lights might be different than you’re used to in the U.S.
  • 🎑 Tsukimi: Literally meaning “moon viewing”, tsukimi are celebrations usually held in September and October to honor the autumn moons. The emoji shows the full moon along with grass and dango, which are traditional decorations for tsukimi.
  • 🎇 Senko-Hanabi: A type of Japanese sparkler that is held firework-side down instead of up. They are lit last among other fireworks, and are said to make the watcher suddenly aware of the beautify and briefness of everything.


  • 🗻 Fuji-san: Fun fact: did you know Mount Fuji is an active volcano?
  • 🏣 Japanese Post Office: There are two different emoji for post office; this one with the 〒 symbol is the Japanese type. 〒 is the postal mark in Japan, which is a stylized テ (te) and is short for teishin, meaning “communications”. This mark can be found on the 🔣 emoji, too.
  • 🏪 Konbini: A convenience store! These can be found all over the world, but, according to my math, there is 1 konbini (the Japanese abbreviation for convenience store) every 3 square-miles in Japan, while the US has 1 convenience store every 30 square-miles. I’ve never walked longer than 5 minutes to find a konbini in Japan.
  • 🏯 Castle: This one probably looks familiar, especially if you’ve seen Hikone Castle. Japanese castles were more like fortresses than palaces, and the architecture is very different from a European castle (🏰).
  • 🗼 Tokyo Tower: The second tallest building in Japan. While the tower may resemble the Eiffel Tower, Tokyo Tower is actually a radio/communications and observation tower. That’s why it’s painted international orange to follow air safety regulations.


  • 💮 Well Done Flower: If you’ve taken Japanese classes in high school or at university, you may have seen this symbol. This cherry blossom is drawn or stamped onto school assignments that have a good score. The Apple version (as well as some other devices) says 大変よくできました (taihen yoku dekimashita) which means “well done”.
  • 💢 Anger: If you’ve watched anime or read manga, you’ve seen this symbol before. It often appears on a character’s head to depict their veins popping out from frustration.
  • ♨️ Onsen: Hot springs, or onsen, are found all over Japan. This is the symbol that is used on maps to show where onsen are.
  • 🎴 Hanafuda: Meaning “flower cards”, hanafuda are a type of Japanese playing cards used for many traditional card games.
  • 🀄 Mahjong Tile: Mahjong originated in China, but Japan has their own version that is very popular. This tile has the 中 (pronounced chun here) character on it, which makes this the red dragon tile.
  • 📛 Name Badge: While this emoji looks like a sign of some sort, it’s a name badge. This shape of name badge is very common in Japanese kindergartens.
  • 🔰 Shoshinsha Mark: Shoshinsha means “beginner driver”. Drivers in Japan must have this mark on their car for a year after receiving their drivers license to show that they’re a new driver.
  • 〽️ Part Alternation Mark: This lopsided M is actually a mark used in traditional Japanese music for plays or spoken poems. The mark is used to signify where the singer begins to sing.
  • 🅰️🆎🅱️🅾️ Blood Types: It may be obvious that these emoji represent the different blood types, but it may not be obvious why these emoji exist. In Japan (and other places like South Korea), blood types are believed to determine someone’s personality, much like a zodiac sign. People in Japan may ask you what your blood type is in the same way they’d ask your age or where you from, and it’s not uncommon to see someone put their blood type in their social media bio.
  • 🆖 NG: Stands for “no good”, so this emoji is the opposite of 🆗. Bloopers and outtakes of movies and TV shows in Japan are often called NGs.
  • 🈁 Here: Pronounced koko on it, which creatively means “here” in Japanese.
  • 🈂️ Service: Short for サービス (saabisu, service), which means free of charge. For example, if they knowingly give you an extra nugget at McDonalds, that’d be saabisu!
  • 🈷️ Month: 月 means “moon” or “month” in Japanese and Chinese, but this emoji is supposed to represent “monthly amount”.
  • 🈚 Free: 無 means “don’t have” on its own, but this emoji is short for 無料 (muryou), which means “free of charge”.
  • 🈶 Not Free: The opposite of 🈚. 有 means “have”, so this emoji is short for 有料 (yuuryou), which means “has a charge” or “not free”.
  • 🈯 Reserved: Short for 指定 (shitei), which means “reserved” or “assigned”. A reserved seat on a train would be 指定席 (shitei-seki).
  • 🉐 Bargain: Means “to aquire” or “profit”, but in this case means something is a “good bargain”, likely short for 買い得 (kaidoku).
  • 🈹 Discount: Denotes “discount” because 割 (wari) means cut, as in cutting the prices.
  • 🈲 Prohibited: Short for 禁止 (kinshi), prohibition or ban, and 禁じる, to prohibit.
  • 🉑 Acceptable: Pronounced ka on its own, 可 is used in words like 可能 (kanou), possible/feasable. It is used in everyone’s favorite word kawaii (可愛い), which literally means “can love (adj)” or “lovable”.
  • 🈸 Application: 申 (mou or shin) has a few meanings in Japanese, mostly used to mean “application” or “to request”. It is used to signify requesting information.
  • 🈴 Pass: Short for 合格 (goukaku), this emoji means “to pass (an exam, etc.)” or “success”.
  • 🈳 Vacant: 空 (sora) usually means “sky” on its own, but in this context it means “vacant” or “empty” and is pronounced “kara” or “kuu“. You’ll see the character on this emoji on empty taxis, open parking spots, and hotels with vacant rooms.
  • 🈵 No Vacancy: 満 (man) is the opposite of vacant; this emoji means “full”.
  • ㊗️ Congrats: 祝う (iwau) means “to celebrate” and is used for festivals, holidays, and when wishing someone a happy birthday or congratulating them on something.
  • ㊙️ Secret: Short for 秘密 (himitsu). Further explanations of this emoji’s origin story are confidential.
  • 🈺 Open for Business: 営 alone means “business” or “work”, and this emoji means 営業中 (eigyou-chuu), or “open for business”.

What’s the deal with ように?

If you’re learning Japanese, you’ll undoubtedly haunted by the phrase ように (yō ni) at some point in your studies. ように is one of the most common, yet difficult phrases to master.

But why? The reason lies in its versatility.

Broadly, ように can mean “in order to” or “so that”. However, the context of the sentence it’s in can change its meaning entirely. For example, ようになる (yō ni naru) translates to “is now possible”, ようにする (yō ni suru) is “to do so that”, and のように (no yō ni) is “in the same way”.

Here are some examples of the different uses of ように. Notice how it changes in meaning depending on what words are by it:

1.) 明日早く起きるようにする
Ashita hayaku okiru yō ni suru.
I’ll try to wake up early tomorrow.

2.) それから、家に帰って子供のように寝ちゃった。
Sore kara, uchi ni kaette kodomo no yō ni nechatta.
Then I went home and slept like a child.

3.) 日本語が話せるようになりたいな。
Nihongo ga hanaseru yō ni naritai na.
I want to become able to speak Japanese.

4.) これはチョコレートのように見えるけど、消しゴムだから、食べないでください。
Kore wa chocorēto no yō ni mierukedo, keshigomu dakara, tabenaide kudasai.
This looks like chocolate, but it’s an eraser, so do not eat it.

It is often compared to ために (tame ni), which can also mean “to do” in many cases. However, ために expresses aims, benefits, and causation, whereas ように expresses ideal situations:

〇 お金を集めるためにコンサートをした。
okane wo atsumeru tame ni consāto wo shita.

× お金を集めるようにコンサートをした。
Okane o atsumeru yō ni consāto o shita.

JCMU's official mascot, Hiraku the Swan with a question mark above his head.

Confusing, right? A good way to think about it is to consider the meaning of ように as “towards a certain state”. Looking back at ようになる, you can see that it is changing something from impossible to possible.

To make a long story short, ように can be a very useful phrase if used correctly. However, it can quickly become frustrating due to its nature. But as challenging as it may seem, don’t be overwhelmed with the learning process! You can do it!

Sore de wa, obenkyō, gabatte kudasai~
And with that, good luck with your studies~

An animated raccoon character exclaiming, "Do not give up!" in Japanese

Understanding the Kansai Dialect

When I was first in Shiga, I could barely understand what people were saying. I thought it was just because I’d only taken a year of Japanese by this point, so I didn’t think much of it. This was certainly a factor, but my Japanese friends told me I was at a bit of a regional disadvantage, too: according to them, the Japanese students in the U.S. are taught is different from the Japanese spoken in Shiga and the rest of Kansai (southern-central region of mainland Japan).

Label on a package of sardines found in a supermarket in Kyoto. Reads いわしを食べなあかん! (iwashi o tabena akan!, “You must eat sardines!”)

Most foreigners are taught a variant of Japanese called 標準語 (hyōjungo), or ‘Standard Japanese’. Hyōjungo is based on a Tokyo-area dialect, much like how Standard American English is based on the Midwestern dialect. However, if you go to different parts of Japan, people will speak a slightly different language. The problem for students studying Japanese is that we aren’t usually exposed to any other types of Japanese, so when we travel to Japan it’s very likely we will run into words and grammatical patterns that we’ve never heard of.

Shiga Prefecture is located within the Kansai region of Japan, which has its own type of Japanese called 関西弁 (kansai-ben), or Kansai dialect. Kansai-ben is one of the most common and well understood dialects throughout Japan. This means that someone from Kansai and someone from Kanto can have a conversation in their respective dialects and understand each other fine, much like how someone from Michigan and someone from Alabama can understand each other even though they speak different types of American English.

We’re going to go through some basic parts of kansai-ben so that you have a higher chance of understanding the locals when you’re in Shiga. Keep in mind that these vary depending on where you are in Kansai, i.e. kansai-ben in Osaka, Kyoto, Shiga, Wakayama, etc. is slightly different.


[Bold letters indicate pronounced or stressed sounds.]

The first thing you may notice about the dialect is that some sounds that are devoiced (i.e. unpronounced) in hyōjungo are pronounced in kansai-ben. For example, the u in です (desu) or します (shimasu) is devoiced in Standard Japanese, being pronounced like des and shimas. However, this u is voiced in Kansai. So, desu is actually pronounced like desu and shimasu like shimasu. You will often hear shopkeepers say arigatō gozaimasu!

Accent and pitch is also different in kansai-ben. In Tokyo, はし (hashi, chopsticks) has stress on the first syllable and is pronounced like hashi; kansai-ben is the reverse, where it is pronounced like hashi. To make things more difficult, hashi (bridge) is the exact opposite of hashi (chopsticks) in both dialects. Hashi (edge) in Tokyo is pronounced the same as hashi (bridge), so you can’t tell them apart, but hashi (edge) is pronounced differently from hashi (chopsticks) and hashi (bridge) in kansai-ben. Confused yet?




Some words that contain a short vowel are pronounced longer while those containing long vowels are pronounced shorter. For example, 目 (me, eye) might be pronounced めぇ (mee), and そう (sou) might be pronounced as just ほ (ho -why an h? Keep reading!). People from Kansai also sometimes roll their r sounds, which makes people outside of Kansai think of ヤクザ (yakuza)!

ICOCA train card featuring its platypus mascot

Fun fact: The rechargeable ICOCA card for the JR West rail (you can buy one at Hikone Station for 500¥!) is a pun in kansai-ben. Technically standing for IC Operating CArd, it’s pronounced the same way as 行こか (iko ka), which is how 行こうか (ikō ka, “Shall we go?”) is said in Kansai.


The most common difference in grammar I’ve noticed in kansai-ben is the use of へん (hen) as a way to negate a verb. This happens because the s sound in some kansai-ben changed to h (e.g. さん [san] may be pronounced はん [han]). The s in ~ません (~masen) changed to h at some point, but this mostly happens for verbs in short form.


A similar pronunciation change happened with the copula (a connecting verb, basically ‘to be’) だ (da). In fact, many sentence final particles have a different Kansai version:

だ / だった
や / やった



で / わ*
の / んだ


[note: the kansai-ben わ (wa) is different from the ‘feminine’ わ (wa) most of us are taught]


A sign near JCMU reads: おいでやす彦根市へ

In addition to pronunciation and grammar, kansai-ben has its own words and phrases for things. Keep in mind that some of these, especially greetings, are mostly used by older generations.

ダメ / いけない
(ohayō gozaimasu)
(ohayō san)
(oyasumi nasai)
(oyasumi yasu)
(doumo arigatō gozaimasu)
(erai ōkini sunmasen)
いらっしゃいませ / ようこそ
(oide yasu)

[note: If you want to check out more, visit this page of kansai-ben vocab!]

*Like lots of words from other dialects, めっちゃ (meccha) has spread throughout Japan and is used in many places outside of Kansai.

**Be careful using アホ (aho) and バカ (baka): it is said that using baka in Kansai sounds much more rude than aho and is less likely to seem like a joke. On the other hand, outside of Kansai aho is much more rude than baka. If you’re not sure which to use, it’s best not to say either.

Kansai-ben has a reputation of sounding rough, direct, and slurred, but people who speak it are also known for sounding lively, fun, and expressive. While the older generations use more kansai-ben, with the younger generation adopting some Standard/Tokyo dialect with a Kansai twist (sometimes called a neo-dialect), it’s important to learn about the local dialect of wherever you are in Japan in order to understand everyone on a deeper level.

There are plenty facets of kansai-ben that we haven’t covered here, including Kyoto-specific honorifics (yikes!), so keep your ears open when in Kansai! For now, let’s put everything we’ve went over together and check out some common phrases:

StandardKansai-benEnglish Meaning
(hontō da yo)
(honma ya de)
it’s true!
(hontō ni)
(honma ni)
(ii yo)
(ee de)
it’s good; okay
(ii yo)
(ee wa)
no thanks
(ii ne)
(ee na)
it’s good, right?
(ii no)
(ee nen)
is it okay?
(ja mata)
(hona mata)
see ya
(chigau yo)
(chau de)
no!; isn’t it?
(sō da)
(ho ya)
that is so
(dame yo)
(akan de)
don’t do that
(mō ii yo)
(mō ee wa)
that’s enough
[No equivalent]なんでやねん
(nande ya nen)
what the heck?!

Sound it Out II: Rendaku

We are back to the Japanese sound system, but instead of the phonetic inventory, now we are going to talk about rules.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s say in any language sounds can be organized by a series of predictable patterns. For example, English has the rule where “a” becomes “an” if it’s before a vowel. Japanese (and all other languages) also has such rules.

Today, I want to focus on well known one: rendaku. Even without knowing Japanese, English speakers know some words that demonstrate this rule. Let’s look at one word in particular: origami. Origami is the Japanese art of folding paper into decorative shapes and figures. It is a compound word made of roots ori (‘to fold’) and kami (‘paper’). That all makes sense, but how did kami become gami? The thing that causes that is rendaku.

Why origami instead of orikami?

Rendaku is a disassimilation process in which the first consonant in the second part of a compound word becomes voiceless if another consonant in the second part of the compound is voiced.

That’s a lot of information to handle at once, so let’s unpack that one piece at a time:

  • Disassimilation is a phonetic process that is the opposite of assimilation. At its core, this process is about making similar sounds more different. In the case of rendaku, the consonants are changing to sound different from each other on the basis of voicing.
  • Sounds can either be voiced or voiceless. For example, the English letters [t] and [d] are the exact same sound except for voicing. [t] is voiceless, and [d] is voiced.
    • You can test this out yourself! Put a hand on your throat and make a [t] sound, and then a [d] sound, notice how the [d] makes your throat vibrate? That’s your vocal cords vibrating!
  • So, the disassimilation process in rendaku change consonants that match because they are both voiceless and makes the first one voiced.

Let’s look at origami again.

Before rendaku, the word looks like ori-kami. However, [m] is a voiced consonant, which triggers the disassimilation process on voiceless [k]. This means that [k] becomes its voiced counterpart [g], so origami! There is a lot more to this rule, but at its heart, that’s why sometimes parts in compounds change. They always switch to the voiceless counterpart!

And that’s today’s look in to the Japanese sound system. As with all rules this is a generalization, and might not necessarily account for everything. Let me know if there is anything else you would be interested in learning about!

Just drop it: Let’s talk particles

Particles falling out of the sky

If you have started your Japanese language journey, you have probably heard of something called ‘particles’.  They are everywhere in Japanese. Well, except for when they aren’t.

That’s right, you just worked so hard to learn all those weird little markers, but some of them can just disappear in causal conversation! It seems that they just vanish without rhyme or reason, but that’s not quite true. Particles actually drop in a consistent fashion. But to explain when, you need to know their meaning.

To start, let’s cover some of the more frequent particles:

Particle English Meaning Linguistic Function Japanese Sentence Translation
ha(は) Topic Marker 人間 watashi wa ningen I am human
o(を) Object Marker コーヒー飲む koohii o nomu I drink coffee
ni(に) to Locative 図書館行く toshokan ni iku I go to the library
de(で) by Manner 行く kuruma de iku I go by car
to(と) with/and Conjunction 友達行く tomodachi to iku I go with my friends

You might have noticed that some of the particles don’t have anything written for “English Meaning”. That’s because only a few of the particles have any semantic meaning. Semantic meaning essentially means that a word has a concrete meaning that it adds to the sentence. A good way to test for this for particles is to see if it has an English equivalent; “to” means “with”, and it shows up in the English translation “I go with my friends.” What does “o” mean? There is nothing in the English translation that might give point towards its meaning. The short answer is there is no actual meaning, it just serves a grammatical function. It says “the noun I am attached to is an object” and doesn’t have semantic meaning.

It is in the distinction between semantic meaning and grammatical function that we can define which particles are “droppable”.

A generalization we can make is that particles are only dropped if they they don’t add meaning to the sentence. Without “to” in the sentence “tomodachi to iku“, the sentence means “my friend goes” which is distinct from “I go with my friends.”

The idea behind this rule is that if something doesn’t add concrete meaning, then the meaning can be inferred by other linguistic cues. Object marker “o” shows which noun in the sentence is the object, but word order can do the same thing; the noun before the verb is usually the object.

Learning all the particles in Japanese is hard enough on its own, but a part of learning a language is understanding rules the usage of different words and grammar structures. Knowing when to drop particles will help you to sound more casual in informal settings – just don’t go dropping particles when talking to your boss!

Good luck and keep studying~

Sound it Out: Japanese sound system

japanese ipa i guessWhen you start working through a new language, the first concern usually is grammar or vocabulary. While these are definitely major parts of the learning process, languages are more than just that.

If you know how to speak a language then you know a little bit about that language’s sound system. Today we will start with the smallest part of any language: sounds.

Every language has a phonetic inventory, or a set of all the sounds that are possible in it. These are made up of vowels and consonants.

Japanese has 5 vowels and 26 consonants. The vowels, in particular, are (almost) identical to some of English’s vowels. There is ‘a’, ‘i’, ‘e’, ‘o’, which are the same across both languages. The only minor difference is the Japanese ‘u’.  The English ‘u’ sound like in the word ‘fool’ is rounded, meaning the lips are in a little circle when it’s pronounced. With the Japanese ‘u’, the lips are unrounded.

Here’s what it sounds like:

Consonants in Japanese are a little more interesting. Japanese shares many consonants with English, but there are a few of them that are special:


This symbol, “phi” sounds like ‘f’ to English speakers. It shows up in words like “fuji”. The difference between this and English ‘f’ is ‘ɸ’ is in ‘ɸ’ the lips are rounded. To make this sound, try saying “foot” while keeping your lips from touching your teeth.


This c with a hook sounds like ‘h’ to English speakers. It shows up in words like “hito”. It is different from English ‘h’ because the air is more constricted. Essentially, it’s just a more noisy ‘h’.


This sound the initial consonant of “Tsunami”. It is an ‘s’,  but it starts off as a ‘t’. To make the sound, try making an ‘s’ and then put the tip of your tongue on the little ridge behind your teeth.


Japanese ‘r’ is not really an ‘r’. It’s called a ‘flap’. This sound is very similar to the English ‘l’ sound. In fact, there’s a common stereotype that Japanese people mix up the two sounds. To make this sound, pretend to be making an ‘l’, but instead of keeping your tongue where it is, just tap the roof of your mouth.

Learning a language is a long journey, and getting accustomed to the other language’s sounds is the first step. Good luck fellow intrepid language learners!

Recognizing Kanji: The Building Blocks of Language and a Good Meal

What’s the difference between a takoyaki and a taiyaki? What about teriyaki? And have you ever even heard of teppanyaki?

For non-native speakers learning Japanese, it can be hard to distinguish between words at first. It gets easier with time, but in the beginning, the second noun starting with shu sounds an awful like the first one you learned. Sometimes these sound similarities are a coincidence, but sometimes, they’re because both words contain the same kanji. This can make them harder to distinguish, but also gives a hint that the words are related. This is true in the case of all of the above –yaki words.



Yaki as a suffix comes from the verb for baking or grilling, 焼く (yaku). It becomes 焼き (yaki) when added onto a noun. That should already tell you what all the words using it have in common—they’re all types of grilled food. Takoyaki (たこ焼き ) is often described as grilled octopus balls, but without seeing them, you wouldn’t really know what that means! They’re little balls of savory dough with a piece of octopus tentacle inside each one. Tako means octopus, and because they’re cooked on a specialized griddle, they earn the suffix –yaki.

Taiyaki (鯛焼き) is a fish-shaped pastry filled with red bean paste or something similar. Again, tai is the kind of fish it’s modeled after, and -yaki comes from the way it’s cooked. There are many foods that are named similarly, such as okonomiyaki and monjayaki – both different types of grilled savory pancakes. And even though yaki is used as a prefix in the case of yakisoba, it still clearly describes a grilled noodle dish. Teriyaki and teppanyaki are more general terms describing the flavor and cooking method of dishes that are prepared on a flat grill. They’re all connected!

Image result for yakisoba

Yakisoba being cooked teppanyaki style

For another example, take 食 (tabe). Since 食べる (taberu) means “to eat,” you know 食 has something to do with food. If you also recognize the kanji for morning, noon, and evening, even if you’re seeing them for the first time, you will be able to understand the following words:

  • 朝食 (choushoku, breakfast)
  • 昼食 (chuushoku, lunch)
  • 夕食 (yuushoku, dinner)

And later, when you learn the kanji for “hall,” you’ll immediately know how to write “cafeteria,” 食堂 (shokudou). From then on, you’ll be on your way to recognizing even more food-related Japanese words in no time.

There are other words that came to be in similar ways. Take nabe, for instance. When a word has nabe in it, it usually means some type of boiled or stewed dish. There are exceptions, of course: don’t go to Minabe, Japan and expect a city of hot pot!

The real benefit of noticing patterns like this is that it applies to more than just food. The Japanese language is built on kanji, which act like building blocks inside words. Once you know that flower shop is hanaya and bookstore is honya, you can guess that a bakery is panya. The connection between them is obscured in English, but becomes clear via a shared suffix in Japanese.

As you pay attention to these patterns, it becomes easier to guess the meaning of a word and remember it. Once you learn the kanji for the repeated suffix or prefix, you can even read words you’ve never heard before. The path to fluency isn’t memorizing every word in the Japanese language, but rather, learning how to work around what you don’t know.

Making Sense of “Bikago”

If you’re learning Japanese, you’ve no doubt come across the honorific “o” and “go” prefixes attached to certain words. But how, exactly, are they used – or are there any hard rules governing their usage at all? Read JCMU Japanese language instructor Keiko Melville-sensei’s article below to find out!

Understanding bikago

Are you familiar with 美化語 (bikago)? If you’ve spent some time speaking Japanese, you’ve probably used them at one point or another. These are mainly nouns which use the honorific prefix “o” or “go” and to show politeness and grace.

Bikago are very common in Japanese – in fact, many of them are introduced in beginner’s textbooks, such as Genki I. As such, make sure to pay close attention to how they are used. Here are some examples:

Otera to jinjya ni ikimashita.
I went to a temple and Shinto shrine.

Jinjya de omiyage o kaimashita.
I bought some souvenirs at the shrine.

Omamori o kaimashita.
I bought a Shinto charm.


守り (omamori, lucky charm or talisman)

Otera no soba ni takusan mise ga arimashita.
There were many shops near the temple.

Soko de ocha to osake to okashi wo kaimashita.
I bought tea, sake and snacks there.

Gochisoo sama deshita.
Thank you for the meal.

Amari okane ga aimasen deshita kara, ohiru wa, konbini no obentoo wo tabemashita.
Because I do not have much money, I ate a boxed lunch that I bought at a convenience store for lunch.

Onaka ga ippai ni narimashita.
My stomach is full.

Gogo wa Sakura matsuri wo mi ni oshiro ni ikimashita.
In the afternoon, I went to the castle to see the cherry blossom festival

Oyatsu ni, omochi wo tabemashita.
I ate some rice cakes as a snack.

Gomeiwaku o kakeshite mooshi wake gozaimasen.
I sincerely apologize for the inconvenience.

Kono omatsuri no omochi wa oishikute yuumee desu.
The rice cakes of this festival are delicious and famous.


祭 (omatsuri, festival)

Bangohan ni, onigiri wo tabemashita.
I ate onigiri for dinner.

Ban, ofuro ni hairimasenn ga, asa, shawaa wo abimasu.
I will not take a bath at night, but I will take shower in the morning.

The rules of “o” and “go” (or lack of)

Are you wondering why some words in the previous sentences take the honorific prefix “o” instead of “go“? And do you wonder why some of the words don’t use any honorific prefixes at all?

Generally, “o” is used with wago (words with a Japanese origin) and “go” is used with kango (words that originally came from China). However this is only a loose rule, as there are many exceptions to this!


弁当 (obentoo, lunch box) is a kango word, but takes “o” instead of “go

For example, there are some kango that still use “o” instead of “go“, such as:

  • 菓子 (okashi, snacks)
  • 弁当 (obentoo, lunch box)
  • 天気 (otenki, weather)

For other words, there is no honorific prefix. 寺 (otera, temple) takes “o“, but 神社 (jinjya, Shinto shrine) does not use an honorific. 昼 (hiru, noon) takes “o“, but 朝 (asa, morning), 晩 (ban, evening), and 夜 (yoru, night) do not.

Some words, such as 茶 (ocha, tea), 金 (okane, money), and 餅 (omochi, rice cake) are commonly used with “o“. Technically, there is no difference in meaning when the “o” prefix is not used. However, when they are used without “o“, it sounds very crude and impolite.

Sakura mochi

餅 (omochi) and 餅 (mochi) both mean “rice cake”, but the latter sounds impolite

Some words that use the  prefix “o” or “go” such as 手紙 (otegami, letter), 荷物 (onimotsu, luggage), 挨拶 (goaisatsu, greetings) show respect or are used in situations when humility is in order.

住所 (gojyuusyo, address) has the same meaning with or without “go“, to whereas はん (gohan, rice) and ちそう (gochisoo, big meal) have no meaning at all without the “go” prefix. Some even change meaning, such as まえ (mae, front) and おまえ (omae, you).

For some words, the meaning changes depending on whether or not bikago are used. Without the “o”, にぎり (onigiri, rice ball) becomes にぎり (nigiri, nigiri sushi), まもり  (omamori, lucky charm or talisman) becomes まもり (mamori, protection), and しゃれ (osyare, well-dressed) becomes しゃれ (syare, joke).


にぎり (nigiri, nigiri sushi) becomes a different word entirely with bikago

Typically, “o” and “go” do not go with gairaigo (loan words borrowed from foreign languages) such as シャワー (shawaa, shower). However, even this isn’t a steadfast rule: when you enter some Japanese restaurants, you may hear gairaigo in which the prefix “o” is used such as トイレ (otoire, toilet), ビール (obiiru, beer), and タバコ (otabako, cigarette).

One last weird exception, the word ゆっくり (goyukkuri, take your time) is a wago that uses “go” instead of “o“. However, yukkuri itself isn’t even a noun, but an adverb!

Making sense of honorific prefixes

With all of these rules and exceptions to the rules, mastering “o” and “go” is a very tricky feat. This is true even for native Japanese speakers – even I’m still sometimes confused as to when I should and shouldn’t use these honorifics.

As with other aspects of language acquisition, the best way to learn how to utilize bikago is through familiarity with how they are used. When you hear words with the honorific prefix “o” or “go” in Japan, please pay attention as to who uses them and in what kinds of situations.

A Hands-On Lesson: Using “te” metaphorically in Japanese

Get a hand-le on your language studies! JCMU Japanese language instructor Ayumi Nagatomi, would like to introduce to you metaphorical uses for the word 手 (hand), exploring a new dictionary written by Dr. Seiichi Makino and Professor Mayumi Oka.


Last November, I introduced some expressions derived from 弓道(きゅうどう).

You may have noticed body parts such as 手(て) (hands) appear in them. Of course, we must maneuver our body to draw a bow and arrow. However, it is often the case that such body parts are used metaphorically.

As you encounter such examples, you may come to realize that there are similar figurative expressions across languages. Only each language’s culture-specific aspect of metaphors tend to be emphasized, but couldn’t we learn through what two languages share?

For those who want to learn more about metaphors and/or learn through them, I would like to introduce you to a newly published dictionary:


Makino, S., & Oka, M. (2017). A Bilingual Dictionary of English and Japanese Metaphors. Tokyo: Kuroshio.

Thanks to the generosity of the authors (牧野(まきの)先生(せんせい) and 岡(おか)先生(せんせい)), who spent almost 20 years completing this work, we can take a peek at some excerpts here:

(pp.290-291) 手(て) hand


the cards dealt to players in a card game



Kenta: Man, why do I always get such bad hands? I’ll never win.


Karen: You really think you can beat me at poker? Maybe in ten years.


Kenta: How are you always getting such good hands?


Karen: Um, rude! It’s not that I get good hands – I’m just that good.

(pp.552-553) (〜に)手(て)をつける 何(なに)かを始(はじ)めるto start working on something

(a)   父(ちち)はいったん手(て)をつけたことには、いつも最善(さいぜん)を尽(つ)くしていた。

My father always did his best at whatever he set his hands to.

(b)   やるべきことが多(おお)すぎて、どこから手(て)をつけていいのかわからない。

There are so many things to do that I don’t know what to set my hands to first.

As you can see, dialogues and example sentences make it easy for you to learn how each expression can be utilized in context. In addition, if you have friends who study English, you may be able to suggest they look into these English equivalents to build up a repertoire of words, too!



Why don’t you advise your friend, who has been trying to study using various means, as to where to start?



If you show them this dictionary, they may exclaim, “Why didn’t I think of that?”