Cultural Kotoba: Tanabata

cultural_kotoba_tanabata

Tanabata is just around the corner (in some parts of Japan anyway), and it might be one of my favourite celebrations in Japan.

Tanabata is not a national holiday, but it is widely celebrated around the country. To me, this festival is truly a sign that summer has arrived. I just love the colourful celebrations at Tanabata, so decided to write a bit about it today.

Where does Tanabata originate from?

One of the things I was curious about is why Tanabata is written in Japanese as 七夕. 七 is normally read as しち・なな (shichi/nana) and 夕 is normally read as ゆう (yuu), so where did the name Tanabata come from?

Actually, what we now know as Tanabata was a festival called Qixi originating in China and was brought to Japan in the 8th century. Tanabata is thought to originally refer to a special cloth (棚機・たなばた) offered to a god to pray for a good harvest of rice crops in a separate ritual. The timing of this offering coincided with Qixi, and so the two festivals merged. Once merged, the festival was still called tanabata but the kanji used was written as (七夕; meaning “evening of the seventh”) referring to the timing of the festival, which at one point was read as しちせき (shichiseki).

The timing of Tanabata is based on the traditional Japanese calendar; it is usually celebrated on the 7th night on the 7th month (ie. 7th July in the Gregorian calendar). However it can be celebrated during early August; during Japan’s transition from the Chinese lunar calendar to the current Gregorian calendar, the definition of the first month can vary by over 4 weeks and so August is sometimes treated as the 7th month in the calendar.

The Story of Tanabata

The Tanabata story is based on the Chinese folk tale “The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl”. Here is my rough summary of the story:

Orihime ((織姫・おりひめ), literally “weaving princess”) lives by the Milky Way and works everyday weaving fabric. Because of her work, she doesn’t really have time to meet anyone and so her father, the Sky King(also known as Tentei/ 天帝・てんてい), arranges for her to meet Hikoboshi ((彦星・ひこぼし), the cow herder) who works on the other side of the Milky Way. They fall in love immediately and get married, but they also begin to neglect their work duties.

The Sky King is angry about this and takes his daughter back to the other side of the Milky Way as punishment. Orihime is extremely upset and pleads with her father to let her see Hikoboshi. The Sky King then agrees that they can meet on the 7th day of the 7th month every year as long as Orihime works hard.

If you want to try reading the story in simple Japanese, you can find it on the children’s story website Hukumusume here.

The celebration is therefore of the one night in the year when husband and wife are allowed to meet. Having said that, it is thought that the star-crossed lovers can only meet if the weather is clear on July 7th!

How is Tanabata celebrated?

Laika_ac_Tanabata_Wishes_(7472067930)

By Laika ac from USA (Tanabata Wishes) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

It is customary to write wishes on small strips of paper known as tanzaku (短冊・たんざく) which are then hung on bamboo along with other colourful decorations. Bamboo is culturally significant because it is a strong and durable plant and therefore symbolises prosperity.

Other decorations include:

  • Paper cranes known as 折鶴 (おりづる・oridzuru) which represent longevity
  • 吹き流し (ふきながし・fukinagashi) – these are streamers meant to represent the threads that Orihime weaves.
  • 網飾り(あみかざり・amikazari) – decorations that represent fishing nets. These are used to wish for an abundance of fish.
  • Purse or pouch shaped origami to wish for good luck with money
TanabataFestival_-_Panoramio_55635202.jpg

By rinia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52729862

The city of Sendai in Miyagi prefecture is well known for its Tanabata celebrations, and lots of tourists flock there to enjoy the event. It is customary in Sendai to eat 素麺 (そうめん・soumen), a type of noodles usually served cold with a dipping sauce which makes it a refreshing meal in the summertime.

If you want to test your understanding of Tanabata in Japanese, JapanesePod101 have done a great video outlining Tanabata and its customs (recommended for intermediate learners and up!).

What is your favourite national holiday or festival (in Japan, or another country)? Please leave me a comment!

10 Japanese-English False Friends

As I’ve covered in a previous post, Japanese loanwords can be trickier than they initially seem. In that post, I wrote about ‘false friends’, where Japanese words that appear to be the same as English can actually have a totally different meaning in Japanese.

I find Japanese-English false friends extremely interesting, so I wanted to post about some of the ones I’ve come across. This is a mix of words that have completely different meaning in English, and words where the meaning has a different nuance to them.

 

1) マンション

Romaji: manshon

 

The word ‘mansion’ in English conjures up the image of a large house with more rooms than anyone would realistically need.

However, in Japanese a mansion is an apartment/ flat/ condominium (normally larger than what the Japanese call アパート).

Source: By アラツク [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

姉はお金持ちで、広いマンションに住んでいます。

あねはおかねもちで、ひろいマンションにすんでいます。

My older sister is rich and lives in a spacious apartment.

 

2) アバウト

Romaji: abauto

 

Like English, アバウト can mean ‘roughly’ or ‘approximately’. In Japanese, it can also mean ‘sloppy’ in regards to someone’s personality (ie. they are not particularly concerned with finer details).

彼はアバウトな性格です。

かれはアバウトなせいかくです。

Literally “he has a sloppy personality”, it could be translated as “he is not a meticulous person”.

 

3) サイダー

Romaji: saidaa

 

As a British person, discovering what Japanese cider really was a bit of a disappointment. In the UK, cider is a type of alcoholic drink normally made with apples (or sometimes using other fruits such as pears).

So imagine my shock when I saw saidaa in the non-alcoholic section of a bar menu! It turns out saidaa is a fizzy soft drink, which is best translated in English as ‘soda’.

 

Source: By Mj-bird [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

 

今朝コンビニでサイダーを一本買いました。

けさコンビニでサイダーをいっぽんかいました。

This morning, I bought a bottle of soda at the convenience store.

 

4) スマート

Romaji: sumaato

 

Like English, スマート can mean ‘stylish’ or ‘refined’ in reference to the way someone dresses or acts. However, it can also be used to mean ‘slim’.

彼女はとてもスマートですね。

かのじょはとてもスマートですね。

She is very slim, isn’t she?

 

5) コンセント

Romaji: konsento

 

Originating from ‘concentric plug’, コンセント refers to an electric outlet or plug socket.

テレビをコンセントにつなぎました。

I plugged the TV into the socket.

 

6) サービス

Romaji: saabisu

 

サービス does overlap with the English meaning ‘service’ as in ‘customer service’:

このレストランは、サービスがとてもいいです。

However, サービス can also be used to describe something given as a discount or as a special extra when buying something.

 

これはサービスです。

Literally “this is service”, when buying something at a store this would be used when you get an extra item for free, or a free service offered at a hotel.

 

7)トランプ

Romaji: toranpu

 

Whilst searching this word is quite likely to bring up a certain American president (he’s normally referred to as トランプ氏/ toranpu-shi), トランプ refers to playing cards.

トランプします = play card games

 

昨夜おおじいさんとトランプをしました。

ゆうべおじいさんとトランプをしました。

Last night I played cards with my grandfather.

 

8) Japanese: シール

Romaji: shiiru

 

Shiiru can mean the same as its English counterpart ‘seal’ but is more commonly used to mean ‘sticker’.

手紙に青い花のシールをはりました。

てがみにあおいはなのシールをはりました。

I put a sticker of a blue flower on the letter.

 

9) Japanese: サイン

Romaji: sain

 

サイン means signature or autograph in Japanese. It can also mean sign as in ‘signal’.

この書類をサインしてください。

このしょるいをサインしてください。

Please sign this document.

 

10) Japanese: タレント

Romaji: tarento

 

Talent refers to a TV personality or celebrity in the world of entertainment. There are tons of popular タレント on Japanese TV who are generally there to play games, tell the occasional joke and react to pre recorded material. They may also sing or act in addition to their variety show appearances.

妹は人気なタレントです。

いもうとはにんきなタレントです。

My little sister is a famous TV personality.

 

So that’s it for today’s post – here’s all of the words in today’s post summed up in one image:

As I wrote in my post, sometimes the easiest way to double check the meaning of loanwords is to use Google image search. If there is a different meaning or broader meaning in Japanese compared to its English counterpart, you’ll get a pretty good idea of this from looking at the search results.

I’m interested to know what is your favourite Japanese-English false friend? Let me know in the comments!

Japanese Loanwords (gairaigo): 5 things to remember

japaneseloanwordsgairaigo

 

Foreign words imported into Japanese (known as 外来語 gairaigo) is an increasingly large part of the Japanese language. Japanese loanwords are easy to spot, as they are written in katakana rather than hiragana or kanji.

The use of loanwords is often touted as a way for learners of Japanese to quickly increase their vocabulary. This is somewhat true and fortunately for beginners, common Japanese words are indeed borrowed from English.

 

Computer コンピュータ (Romaji: konpyuutaa)

Piano ピアノ (Romaji: piano)

Hamburger ハンバーガー (Romaji: hanbaagaa)

 

However, loanwords in katakana are not always what they seem and therefore can cause issues for some learners for a few reasons:

  1. Pronunciation differences
  2. Loanwords are not always from English
  3. Loanwords from English can be false friends
  4. Pseudo-Anglicisms
  5. Abbreviations

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

 

(1) Pronunciation differences

Japanese is a phonetic language, unlike English. This point can cause confusion for Japanese beginners, as items are written in Japanese based on their pronunciation, not their spelling.

For example, the country Cuba is キューバ not クバ.

 

(2) Loanwords are not always from English

English native speakers tend to think of Japanese loanwords as being from English, but this is often not the case.

Portuguese loanwords

パン (pan) bread

イギリス (igirisu) the UK

キリスト(kirisuto) Christ

コップ (koppu) cup

 

Dutch loanwords

コーヒー (koohii) coffee

ランドセル (randoseru) backpack used by Japanese schoolchildren

ゴム (gomu) gum; rubber

コッコ (kokku) cook

 

French loanwords

アンケート (ankeeto) survey, questionnaire

コンクール (konkuuru) competition

ズボン (zubon) trousers

エステ (esute) beauty salon

 

German loanwords

アルバイト (arubaito) part-time job

エネルギー (enerugii) energy

テーマ (teema) theme

カルテ (karute) a patient’s medical records

 

(3) Loanwords from English are often false friends

English loanwords do not always retain their meaning when used in Japanese. Some words take on additional meanings in Japanese, and others have completely different meanings to their English counterparts.

These so-called ‘false friends’ are fairly common, so make sure you check with a friend or refer to a dictionary when you come across new words.

 

Examples of Japanese-English false friends

ペンション (penshon)

The word pension refers to the payments one is entitled to after they retire, but in Japan a pension refers to a type of lodging or inn

 

ホーム (hoomu)

This is a shortened version of プラットフォーム means railway platform

 

カンニング (kanningu)

カンニング in Japanese refers to ‘cheating’ (ie. on a test) and is often used with the verb します.

 

(4) Pseudo Anglicisms/ Wasei-Eigo

Pseudo Anglicisms are words borrowed from English in other languages but do not actually exist in English in the way an English speaker would recognise or use. Japanese has a lot of these, known in Japanese as 和製英語 wasei eigo.

 

サラリーマン (sarariiman)

Literally ‘salary man’, this refers to a male office worker

 

ベビーカー (bebiikaa)

pram, stroller, pushchair

 

チャームポイント (chaamupointo)

‘Charm point’ is used by people when describing an attractive feature about themselves or others.

 

(5) Abbreviations

Abbreviations are pretty common in Japanese. For example, けいたいでんわ (keitai denwa 携帯電話) is the correct word for mobile phone, but it is usually shortened to just けいたい (keitai 携帯).

When some words are imported into Japanese they become quite long and so it makes sense to abbreviate them. Loanwords are often shortened to four syllables, which makes it easier to remember but on the other hand, makes it more difficult to work out what the original word or phrase was.

Japanese

English

Original Japanese word

パソコン PC, personal computer パーソナルコンピューター
コンビニ Convenience store コンビニエンスストア
デパート Department store デパートメントストア

 

So what is the best way to tackle Japanese loanwords?

This post isn’t intended to scare you from learning any loanwords, as they are incredibly useful.

It is best to treat loanwords as Japanese words, even if they sound similar to English. ‘Relearning’ words that are already familiar to you might sound counterintuitive but could save you from embarrassment later on.

Asking a Japanese friend or tutor is a good way to confirm the correct meaning of any word. Failing that, searching Google images (not Google Translate!) comes in really handy for checking whether that new katakana word means what you think it means.

‘Appy Mondays: Drops Japanese Review

appymondays

Welcome to my series of app reviews relating to Japanese language study. Today’s app review is of the Japanese version of the language learning app Drops.

Whilst I do make use of Anki for learning kanji and grammar, I have never personally found it as effective for studying vocabulary. I was looking around for other apps for learning vocabulary and came across Drops, a free language learning app that has a number of language options (28 languages in total!) including Japanese.

What sets Drops apart from other apps you may have tried is its highly visual interface which focuses on pictures to help you learn the vocabulary. Studying in the way feels like a more exciting way to study compared to your usual flashcard app.

How Drops works

 

Vocabulary is split into a number of topics such as family members, travel, shopping, and occupations. When you decide on a topic, new vocabulary is presented which you can drag downwards to study or upwards to skip if you already know it. The new piece of vocabulary is linked to a certain image which helps convey its meaning – you will also get the English but it will not be displayed unless you press and hold the image. All vocabulary comes with Japanese audio too.

The words you have studied are then added to a list known as Collections.By swiping across from the main menu, you can quickly check this list where the vocabulary you have learned is grouped by topic.

The app keeps track of your progress and will display this at the end of each study session. Keeping up a learning streak unlocks rewards such as extra study time.

The Options menu gives you some freedom to tailor your study to your language level:

  • Language mission: choose from enthusiast/ traveller/ business/ student/ romantic.
  • Skill level: beginner or advanced
  • Choose to set up daily practice reminders

 

The Japanese version of the app has options to study hiragana and katakana, in addition to the topics. You also have the ability to add romaji and turn kanji on or off if you like.

My thoughts on the Drops app

I’ve been using it for a couple of weeks and I think that as a vocabulary focused app, it does a pretty good job at testing your recall of vocabulary in different ways. The use of images to convey meaning is clever because it means that you spend less time thinking about the English equivalent of the word you are learning, and more about the Japanese.

While not a complaint, I found that sometimes it would have helped to see certain words in context. This was especially true when I was studying the ‘Emotions’ topic where a lot of the words which are usually adjectives in English are verb phrases in Japanese. For example, angry was taught as 怒(おこ)っている; if I was a newbie to Japanese I might not realise that 怒っている is not actually an adjective but a conjugated form of the verb 怒る. In these cases, having the context of how they are used within sentences is more important and therefore it is a good idea to look up how these words are actually used.

The app has a ‘freemium’ model, meaning that you have access to most of its features but free users are restricted to how long they can use the app for. There are 98 topics in total, and free members have access to a good amount of these. As a free user, you have 5 minutes to study the vocab, which you can increase by regularly using the app or watching advertisements.

The ‘Curious’ premium access grants you 15 minutes use of the app every day and costs £2.49 a month or £16.99 a year. The ‘Genius’ premium access for unlimited use of the app across all 28 languages will set you back £6.99 a month, £45.99 a year or you can make a one-off payment of £59.99 (discounted from £109.99 at the time of writing).

In my opinion, this is a lot of money for an app that is solely focused on vocabulary; you will also outgrow the app once you have covered all of the topics offered. For the free content though, I think it is a nice way of getting in 5 minutes of vocabulary practice and also offers a nice change from other flashcard apps. It also offers a good way to review hiragana and katakana if you are studying them currently.

If you are interested in checking the app out, it is available in the Apple store and Google Play store.

Cultural Kotoba: Sakura and Hanami, the mainstays of spring in Japan

Spring is nearly upon us (in some parts of the Northern Hemisphere at least), which could well be the most celebrated time of year in Japan. I recently learned a new word 春めく which reflects the early signs of spring:

春めく

(はるめく; verb)

to become spring like

Defined in Japanese as 春らしくなる; something becoming spring-like. For example in terms of weather, this could be the days getting longer or the temperature increasing.

I thought I would seize the opportunity to write about a couple of the most common words and phrases associated with spring in Japan. This post will focus on 桜 (sakura) and 花見 (hanami).

Spring in Japan = 桜 (さくら Sakura; Cherry blossoms)

sakurapavement.jpg

Whilst the arrival of 梅 (うめ ume; plum blossoms) happens earlier, the blooming of cherry blossoms, or sakura, is the event which truly indicates that spring has arrived in Japan.

There is a lot of anticipation for sakura as sadly, the blooms usually last for less than two weeks. As such, the sakura hold a special significance in Japan as they reflect the transience of life, a key teaching of Buddhism.

Additionally, in many areas of Japan, the blooming of sakura coincides with the start of the new academic year and is often the time when people begin new jobs. For this reason, the spring and sakura also represent a time for new beginnings.

There is so much art in various forms which have been inspired by the onset of spring. Personally, I’m always reminded of the song GLORIA by YUI, in particular, the following lyrics:

Screenshot 2018-02-25 at 14.00.47

Rough translation: wo~ when the cherry blossoms bloom, wo~ I’ll find a new me

The build-up to the blooming of sakura begins with the sakura forecast. The sakura forecast starts showing on TV alongside the weather forecast in February, indicating rough dates of when you can expect to see cherry blossoms depending on where you are in the country.

Knowing this in advance gives you as much time as possible to start making important plans, namely for 花見.

Spring in Japan means 花見 (はなみ Hanami; flower viewing) time!

The arrival of sakura is as good excuse as any to celebrate, and what better way to do so than to sit under the blossoms to eat, drink and be merry?

The practice of hanami is said to date back to the Nara period in the 8th century and was initially associated with the flowering of the aforementioned ume plum blossoms. Once a practice restricted to the imperial court, it later became commonplace for everyone to take part in. Hanami remains a popular tradition today, with people gathering early in the morning to lay down a tarpaulin and secure the best area at popular hanami viewing spots.

Hanami parties with friends, family or co-workers involve plenty of eating and drinking. Easily shareable food such as onigiri and yakitori are popular hanami choices, as well as beer and tea. It is a great time to enjoy bento and limited edition snacks only available in spring.

1024px-Hanami_dango_by_gochie-_in_Seiryu-cho,_Kyoto
By gochie* (花より・・・) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

These special springtime snacks include 花見団子 (はなみだんご Hanami dango), special Japanese style sweets related to もち. During hanami season, 団子 are available in the 3 colours commonly associated with sakura; pink, white and light green (also known as 三色団子 さんしょくだんご; three colour dango).

Unfortunately, spring in Japan has a slight downside. The arrival of flowers means the arrival of 花粉症 (かふんしょう kafunshou; hayfever. Those that are afflicted with hayfever will need to stock up to make sure they can make the most of hanami and the rest of the spring season.

So that is all for today. What is your favourite thing about spring? Let me know in the comments!

A Guide to the many “why” words in Japanese: どうして, なぜ and なんで

Japanese is so vocabulary rich that knowing when to use similar words and phrases can be a bit of a nightmare for language learners. どうして, なぜ and なんで can all be translated as ‘why’ in English but it is the level of formality which largely differentiates the three words.

なぜ Naze

なぜ orginated from the older term なにゆえ. It is the most formal of the three and is the word most often used in the written language rather than in speech.

なぜ日本語を勉強していますか?     naze nihongo wo benkyou shiteimasuka?

Why are you studying Japanese?

なぜ昨日のパーティーに来なかったの? naze pa-ti- ni konakatta no?

Why didn’t you come to the party yesterday?

 

どうして Doushite

In a lot of cases, どうして can be used interchangeably with なぜ, but is considered to feel less formal. The word is a contraction of an older term どのようにして, and therefore can sometimes be used to mean ‘how’ rather than why’ in English.

どうして知っているの? doushite shitteiru no?

How did you know?

どうして昨日そんなに早く帰ってしまったの? doushite kinou sonna ni hayaku kaette shimatta no?

Why did you go home so early yesterday?

 

なんで Nande

なんで is the most informal of the three terms. As you can imagine, this word tends to be used more by young people than other age groups.

なんで私が? nande watashi ga?

Why me?

なんでそんな所に行ったの? nande sonna tokoro ni itta no?

Why did you go to that place?

どうして is probably the word you’ll hear used the most and is therefore your safest bet for everyday use, but make sure to choose wisely depending on what setting you are in.