Making Sense of Japanese

I can’t remember when I last read a book on Japanese grammar and laughed in delight. Yes! Laughed! Most people consider grammar a rather dry topic and I’ve spent many years in the bowels of Eleanor Harz Jorden’s Beginning Japanese with its forbidding subtitle, The Essential Language Book for Serious Students. [emphasis mine].

Jay Rubin, however, is not a linguist. He is a translator (Haruki Murakami), a teacher (Harvard), and most importantly a lover of the Japanese language. I agree whole-heartedly when he says, “One of the most satisfying experiences a human being can have is to train his or her mind actually to think in a foreign mode.” I’m always quite pleased with myself when I think something in Japanese rather than translate it back into English. These little glimmers of awareness give me hope that someday I will cross the bridge from a beginner’s conscious grasp of the fundamentals to the intermediate learner’s more intuitive understanding.

Just the other day when I was reviewing the causative, I came across this headline on the Internet. 「世界を泣かせた写真の中の彼女」 which I understood without thinking about it. I get a thrill anytime I can read something in Japanese without first deciphering it. (By the way, the Internet makes looking up words in context so easy. If I wonder whether or not a word can be used or a verb conjugated a certain way, all I have to do is a Google search.)

I think you will get the most out of Making Sense of Japanese if you are an intermediate student. By then you will have faced many of the issues that Jay Rubin discusses. Teachers of beginning students will also benefit. Perhaps the reason I like Making Sense of Japanese so much is that I’ve been tutoring the two beginning years of Japanese using the Yookoso! textbooks (which I used when I was a college student). I have spent hours distilling its explanations and trying to show the connections between and the logic of the (what seems to me haphazardly) introduced grammar points. Jay Rubin is encouraging. He teaches many of the things I laboriously figured out on my own. I could not restrain a yelp of recognition and validation.

For example, in his discussion of wa and ga he points out that there is not grammatical rightness of using one or the other without knowing the context–anymore than you can decided whether “a dog” or “the dog” is the correct form without know the context. On the directional verbs of giving and receiving, he tells me to teach it just as I did. “The most important thing is to keep track of who initiates the action“. After two days of struggling over many examples in order to make a chart of all the interactions, that was what I’d figured out. And it worked! My student caught on in less than an hour a grammar point that had been so painful for me to learn that I dreaded teaching it. Jay Rubin is quite insistent that you don’t form the lazy habit of turning active voice Japanese sentences into passive voice English sentences–something I still grapple with when dealing with transitive-intransitive verb pairs. I sensed that this was a danger and I’m heartened to know I was right.

Jay Rubin also stresses the importance of studying sentences in context. Sample sentences in grammar books are written to illustrate a specific point. In the real world, sentences are written to communicate. The context in which that sentence appears determines which grammatical usages are appropriate. This is most apparent in the cases of wa versus ga in Japanese and “a” versus “the” in English. Like Professor Rubin, I also use questions to determine what question the sentence is answering; that is, where should the emphasis be placed? “John went to the store.” answers two questions. “Who went to the store?” and “Where did John go?” In Japanese, particles provide the clues to which question is being answered.

The style of this book is conversational and anecdotal. Reading it is like sitting down with your favorite teacher and having a great after-class discussion. It’s interesting and enlightening. It makes you think about language (both English and Japanese) in a different way. But it is also sometimes like listening to only half a conversation. Jay Rubin is tackling issues in teaching Japanese that I either haven’t encountered or that weren’t an issue for me. So sometimes I get lost in his discussions and become uncertain. Did I miss something big? Or was it something I already intuited?

For example, maybe it’s my overexposure to Powerpoint presentation and the Internet but I don’t think that English language natives have as much difficulty grasping the concept of the unstated subject as Jay Rubin thinks we do. English grammarians and textbook publishers, yes. But the rest of us? Not so much. The conversational style of writing on the Internet has recalibrated our ear. Tangent: Due to my training as a technical writer, the fact that I edit my posts to clarify subjects and state explicitly what I’ve implied, apparently gives my writing a very distinctive voice. Many people who know me only through my blogs consider me to me far more intellectual, scholarly, and serious than I am.

Nor has it been particularly impressed upon me that Japanese is a vague language; this is a misconception that Jay Rubin obviously spent a lot of time debunking. In reading the Japanese translation of Harry Potter, I’m often impressed with how much more specific Japanese is. In fact, I wonder how did the translator, Yuko Matsuoka, know what to emphasize, what would be significant later in the series? I love Japanese compound verbs like mottekite (I have it in hand and I’m coming) for “bring”. I love the particle markers, the guideposts in the sentence. They have no semantic value but exist only to tell you the purpose of words and their relationship to each other in sentence.

See the effect Jay Rubin has on me? He makes me go all lyrical about Japanese. I think I could listen to him talk about it all day. Because he is so enamored. And because it’s so difficult to find anyone to share my excitement when I figure something out. And because he gives me hope that I might someday be able to think in Japanese. He explains that the US government figures it takes 1,410 hours of study to bring their employees up to a “Limited Working Proficiency” in Japanese. Convert that to five hour per week, thirty week per year study of the typical college student and it works out to 9.4 years. Given that on average, I don’t devote nearly that much time a week to studying, my twenty years of playing around at Japanese doesn’t seem so extreme. In fact, I could argue that I didn’t really start studying Japanese until I took my first class nine years ago. And there have been long periods, months, years) when I didn’t study at all. Onward. Ever onward.


Thinking in Another Language


Thursday May 23, 1991

Postmark: Beppu

Dear BAB,
[Two paragraphs omitted]
We’ve had a cold damp spring. I’m still wearing sweaters although my kotatsu and my winter clothes have been packed away for months. I enjoy the coolness, but I miss sunshine.

It will be difficult to return, far more so than it would have been had I gone back for good last year. I have settled into my life here at last. I am always learning new and useful things that would have made my life easier had I known them in the beginning. As I said before, my brother’s visit demonstrated to me how much I had learned, In some cases, I found it difficult to place myself in the shoes of the uninitiated. I’d forgotten that I once learned these things, so second nature, so commonsensical do they seem to me now. This hard won knowledge now mastered, I dread beginning all over again and being plunged into the midst of confusion.

I have changed. It would be unthinkable to live abroad for two years and not change. If I came to Japan to lose or find myself, I’ve failed. What I have done is to learn to live with myself. By that I mean that I’ve learned to live without the approval or understanding of others. Of course, I still want to be loved and approved of and understood. But if I’m not, I know I can still love myself and take pleasure in my solitary life. No one…can ever make me doubt myself or subvert myself in order to lap up the spilt crumbs of their affection.
[Seven paragraphs omitted.]


September 24, 1990

Postmark: Kobe

Dear GG,
It’s hard to believe that I’m travelling again given that I left Austin a mere month ago. But, this being a 3-day holiday weekend, I asked myself, “Why not go shopping in Kobe and Kyoto?” I took the ferry on Friday, after work. It’s about $70.00 round trip.

I landed in Kobe at 6:50 Saturday morning, stored my bag in a locker in a train station and took a subway to Shin-Kobe station (terminal for the Shinkansen, “bullet train”). From there I walked 20 minutes up a very steep hill to see Nunobiki Falls, said to be one of the three most beautiful waterfalls in Japan. The wondrous thing was that no one else was there! Walking down from the falls, this little old man took me in hand, literally, and walked me back to Shin-Kobe station.

I was back downtown by 9:30, half an hour before any of the shops open. So I went to a German bakery and had some breakfast. I shopped from 10-4. During this time I discovered that I will never be able to go with you to Santa Fe. I get tired very quickly.

Maybe it was that I didn’t sleep well on the ferry because these two old men got into a drunken argument which ended only when one man threw up all over the place. He spent the rest of the night alternately snoring loudly or screaming from his drunken nightmare.

Or maybe it was the walk up to the falls. At the time I marvelled at how such absolute wilderness (well maybe it’s more like a hiking trail) could exist just minutes from the Shinkansen station.

Or maybe it was the fact that I resisted making reservations and didn’t know where I was going to stay. Suddenly, my adventurousness seemed more like stupidity. Especially after a few replays of Mary and Joseph and “no room at the inn”. However, I tried the main train station hotel and they had a room. It was a very small but clean Western style room with a bath, a shower and CNN. After a hot bath, I slept for two hours. Every muscle was throbbing and I had a bad headache, I think because I had lunch in Chinatown. I bet they’re liberal with the MSG! I felt better upon waking and walked around a little more. But I spent most of the evening staring blankly at CNN. The world’s in a mess. I’ve decided that it’s nice living in a world untouched by the world: near-war, recession, inflation, budget deficits. [...]

This morning I tried to take the train to Kyoto. Things were going well until I switched trains at Juso. Then I got on the wrong one, a fact I didn’t realize until I got to the end of the line and discovered I was in Kita Senri, not Kyoto! I took the train back to Juso and finally got to Kyoto at noon (only 2 hours behind schedule).

But my luck improved. After emerging on the street level, I immediately spotted this shop I had read about that makes Japanese combs and hair ornaments. It’s the most famous comb shop in Kyoto and there it was! I bought two barrettes made with lacquered Japanese paper (about $11.00 each) and a black wooden, I don’t know what you call it but it looks like 1 chopstick and you stick it in your hair to hold a bun. It was $25.00. I really like it because it’s Japanese in a subtle way. It’s not lacquered or painted like the ones you see in the geisha hairdos, so it doesn’t look like a tourist souvenir. It’s simply stained black. But its shape is obviously Japanese. I found the ukiyo-e handkerchiefs that Linda wanted and got one for each of you. I also bought two wooden dishes in the shape of leaves — only $3.00 each and very interesting. Also a bunch of books, a set of 5 chopstick holders, another set of 2 chopstick holders and some memento cookies for the guys in the office.

I really did enjoy shopping more today after a good night’s sleep. If you ever allow me to travel with you, we’ll have to plan half-day schedules for me. I don’t know — I thought I was getting stronger because I’ve been bicycling so much. I planned better and I travelled lighter, keeping everything but my purse in a locker. Hmm. I think another reason I felt better today was that I at Japanese food. Miso soup is warm and full of vitamins, minerals, and protein, but no fat. Sorry to go on and on but I wanted to share shopping with you. I thought of you the whole time.


Tuesday August 28, 1990

  • 15:00. Arrive in Osaka. Adventure with the little old man on the stairs helping me carry my Mac.
  • Take the last plane to Oita on standby and the bus to Beppu Eki. Take a taxi to the apartment. Plug in the Mac and it works. Best of all, I made it home without telling anyone, all on my own.

Notes from 2010

My “portable” computer was a Mac 512K with external floppy drive (bought separately). Our current server is tiny in physical size compared to that old Mac. I bought a special carrying case for it. It was too large to fit in the overhead bin on a domestic US flight. I could barely lift the bag and lug the Mac around.

At the Osaka airport I was standing at the bottom of a long flight of stairs, regaining my breath to drag it up along with my suitcases. A small elderly man offered to help. He grabbed the Mac and took off up the stairs. Even in Japan, I was alarmed–although part of me hoped for the best. When I arrived at the top of the stairs with my suitcases, the man and my Mac were both there. I think him profusely and he went on his way.

I was very smug about being able to manage to get back to my apartment without consulting anyone at my school or asking for their help.


Wednesday May 23, 1990

Postmark: Beppu

[Four paragraphs omitted.]
I feel less isolated now, owing more to a new VCR than anything else. There’s definitely the tendency to rebuild one’s old life with available materials. After trying to adopt the new and adapt to the different, one starts looking back to what was fun and comfortable in one’s old life. I hope I won’t turn into a pillar of salt. Maybe I shouldn’t view it as a pitfall as much as a test of what was really worthwhile in my old life, and what was not.
[Four paragraphs omitted.]


Monday April 23, 1990


¥100 postage: letter
¥1686 groceries
¥50 consumption tax
¥1836 Total

Postmark: Beppu April 23, 1990

Just thirteen weeks left! JQS is already saying, “I can’t believe we’re going home!” Yesterday was rainy, so we stayed home and spent a lot of the day assessing our experience.

[One page omitted.]

At first I had the vague notion that I’d learn Japanese and work as a translator. I realize I can’t learn Japanese and I don’t even want to live here any more. The real reason for coming has turned into a self-test. I needed to stir up my life; I was becoming too comfortable and too complacent. Sometimes I worry that after I return that the high point of my life will be in the past. At least I can say that I did something with my life but I don’t want to stop at that. I want to keep doing something.

Living here has forced me to examine my life and to redirect my energies. It’s been difficult but necessary. I have met a lot of nice people but I have no intimate friends, no one to hang around with or just to talk to. It was so great to talk to you. I could live here quite comfortably if I were able to talk to someone every day. I wouldn’t get so morose.

I always sound down when I talk about being here but it isn’t really like that. It’s not a vacation. We do the ordinary things of working and keeping house. It’s just weird enough to make us look at the ordinary differently than before. We don’t take our way of life for granted any more. That makes it worth it.

I have made a start at learning calligraphy, flower arranging, tea ceremony, and Japanese cooking and I want to carry those things into my life in America.


Thursday November 23, 1989

Postmark: Beppu November 23, 1989

For Thanksgiving dinner, we ate chicken, dressing (sans sausage), potatoes and giblet gravy. Coincidentally [today] was Thanksgiving/Labor Day here, so we had the day off.

We will have two weeks off for winter vacation and are going to Kyoto from Dec 23-28 with Ms. Murakami. I hope that JQS is up to a lot of sightseeing.

I’m looking forward to exploring Japan anew. One does begin to live life in an ordinary way after awhile. It becomes a routine of work and housekeeping. But I’m doing several things now that make it worthwhile to be here. I’m going to tea ceremony and flower arranging clubs at school. I enjoy the ritual of tea ceremony immensely and flower arranging enables me to have a new flower arrangement every week. I also go to school on Saturday morning so that I can take a calligraphy class from one of my fellow teachers.

The problem with all three of my classes, as well as with learning Japanese, is that I never have time to study. The year is 1/3 over and I’m not sure what I’ve gotten out of it. Sometimes, I just want to be in America. But when I think of all that I still need to see and do and learn, I can’t believe I’m 1/3 through the year.


Saturday October 21, 1989


¥3285 groceries
¥300 2 pieces of cake
¥6500 cylindrical lacquer vase
¥2500 small square lacquer tray
¥3000 2-tiered lacquer box
¥1800 men’s zori (sandals)
¥2000 bar and disco
¥520 consumption tax
¥19905 Total

Notes from 2009: Hita Lacquerware

I buy the lacquerware vase I saw at the train station shop the first time I was in Hita and two other pieces besides. I love lacquerware. Just as Westerners call porcelain “china” because China is so well known for it, we used to refer to lacquerware as “japanware” or say that a laquered item was “japanned”.

The vase is made of a hollow section of bamboo.

My Japanese coworkers warned that lacquerware often did not survive in the US because it prefers a constant, high humidity. Certainly in a dry climate like California they would suffer. Or in an overly heated or air-conditioned American house. But I’ve never had any problems except in this one piec that was cracked when I shipped all my goods back to Austin. It cracked vertically.


Tuesday October 10, 1989

Usuki Stone Buddha
1989-10-10. Usuki Sekibutsu. Dainichi Nyorai head.


¥300 Usuki sembe
¥500 Usuki poster
¥800 admission to cave
¥140 groceries: bread
¥4 consumption tax
¥3156 Total

Notes from 2009

Usuki Stone Buddha
I listen attentively to Tonai-sensei’s explanation. Unfortunately, I didn’t take notes.

It’s a national holiday, Sports Day (体育の日 Taiiku no Hi.) Tonai-sensei and his wife take me on another on a drive tour around Oita-ken. This time JQS begs off and stays home alone. This concerns the Tonais and, I believe, they were doing these tours mostly for his benefit. I don’t remember that they take me on any more after this. We visit a cavern and the Usuki Seki Butsu (Usuki Stone Buddhas).

Usuki Stone Buddhas

Usuki Stone Buddha
Furuzono Buddha. Head of Dainichi Nyorai 大日如来の仏頭

The Usuki Stone Buddhas are one of the National Treasures of Japan. I have some information in my scrapbook cut out of a brochure in Japanese that I can’t read. Wikipedia says that it is estimated that they were carved in the 12th century.

From what I can glean from a Google translated Usuki Sekibutsu homepage, this large head in the Furuzono 30 Group, also known as the Mt. Dainichi Group, collapsed and was restored on August 25, 1993. So my photos shows it on the ground in front of its body (I think), before it was restored. Here’s a better explanation in both English and Japanese with more photos.


Saturday September 23, 1989

Postmark: Beppu September 23, 1989

[Today is] a national holiday for the Autumn Equinox. Being Saturday, I didn’t have to work anyway. The Japanese don’t seem to have the custom of giving you the Friday before or the Monday after off if a holiday falls on a weekend–at least no one mentioned it to me. But JQS goes to school on Saturday morning and because it was a holiday for him, we decided to take a day trip to the southern reaches of Oita prefecture to the small town of Bungo Taketa.

The local train was so crowded that we had to stand, packed in so we couldn’t move at all, for the first hour and a quarter. Characteristically un-Japanese, I hadn’t the slightest idea of what there was to see or where it was. However, after buying a picnic lunch, we found a garden park at the top of a hill. Next to it was the restored house of some artist. [Tanomura Chikuden.] We paid the ¥500 admission to go in (about $3.50) and had the place practically to ourselves. We were allowed to wander all over the house and I just sat on the tatami and rested in one room that looked out onto a small lawn bordered by a steep hillside. It was so peaceful that I resolved right there to build a house that has a room with a view. JQS kept chattering at me so that I couldn’t maintain a peaceful spirit very long.

After exploring the town a little bit, and unsuccessfully because JQS’s feet and spirits were dragging, we went back to our garden on the hill. There was no one else there. That probably sounds simply like description but it is actually a statement of wonder. There was no one else there.

We stayed there an hour because neither of us felt like facing Japan again any sooner than we had to. I hadn’t realized how unrelaxed we’ve been since we’ve been here. People are constantly watching us. Although I tune them out most of the time, I tend to keep myself and JQS under a tight rein. We can’t really explore, or shop, or go to a restaurant, or ride the train without being on our best behavior. I had heard other foreigners complain about it before but it didn’t seem like a very big problem to me. Only the contrast of being in the garden unwatched made me appreciate how rare and wonderful it was to relax and be ourselves and enjoy Japan.

Notes from 2009

Too bad we didn’t do our homework before taking this trip. I’m not sure why we chose to go to Bungo Taketa. It’s a tiny town about the size of Mobberley. The main attraction is the ruins of Oka Castle. If we had only walked a mile in the other direction we would have been able to spend the whole day gazing down at a forested panorama.

Now I can look on the internet and see all the sights of Bungo Taketa that we missed when we were actually walking around it. I recognize some of the places: the old walled houses.

1989-09-23 Saturday


¥4180 Train: round trip Bungo Taketa
¥1810 groceries
¥100 machine drinks
¥500 Tanomura Chikuden house
¥680 coffee pot
¥2200 Johnny Walker Red
¥74 consumption tax
¥9544 Total