Writing essays in school isn’t, but writing them in a foreign language as a working parent of two? Even harder.
It’s a long story, but my kids go to an afterschool Japanese-language school, and we’re good friends with the family that runs the school. The teacher knew of my interest in Japanese history, and since I am not Japanese, but can speak some, she gave me a challenge to write an essay for the class. She felt it would be fun for the kids to hear from someone who isn’t Japanese describing why they like Japan and its history, as an inspiration for them.
So, that’s when I realized that I had never really written anything in Japanese since college and that was almost 20 years ago.
Fortunately, at some point in the past, I had picked up this delightful little book:
This is another book in a series featuring Chibi Marukochan, one of my favorite cartoons from Japan. I own the book on the Hyakunin Isshu1 and on speaking Keigo, but at some point I purchased this book on how to write essays in Japanese. The series of books is geared toward grade-school kids in Japan, not foreigners like me, but the easier Japanese, helpful explanations and fun characters make them really fun to read.
Japanese essays, or sakubun (作文) are normally written on special grid-like paper called genkō yōshi (原稿用紙), which looks like this (source: Wikipedia):
You begin writing your essay from the upper-right, downward. There’s some important rules to bear in mind as far as formatting goes, but I already covered this in a different post from a few years ago.
But the Chibi Marukochan book wasn’t focused on the format, it was focused on how to actually write an essay.
For example, the book helped explain that there are basically 3 types of sentences in Japanese:
- What something is doing, for example: まる子が歌う (maruko ga utau, “Maruko is singing”)
- What something is like, for example: 水が冷たい (mizu ga tsumetai, “water is cold”)
- A is B, for example: これは教科書 (kore wa kyoukasho, “this is a textbook”)
It’s important to recognize this, even if you know some Japanese, because it’s easy to forget. For example here’s a sentence from the book, slightly modified:
To a Japanese learner, this sentence might look right, but it’s actually not. This is a better version:
Both of these, if translated into English, would mean “the movie I saw during Winter Break was interesting”, but the second one is correct because it uses correct patterns consistently. The first pattern 私は、…思った (I thought, e.g. what something is doing) while the second pattern is 映画はとても面白い (the movie is/was interesting, e.g. what something is like).
A separate example is to not repeat the same words in the sentence, by using です to substitute. For example, this sentence is awkward (again, adapted from the book):
Where as this sounds more smooth:
Again, both of these in English mean “In the garden of my house is a tall tree.” The difference is that the first sentence uses the verb ある twice, where as the second sentence substitutes the second ある with です. More on using です can be found in the most excellent Japanese language guide by Tae Kim.
But also, I learned a lot of other useful tips that would work in English too:
- Decide on your topic ahead of time. It will help focus your essay more.
- Use your five senses to describe things, rather than just explaining them.
- Write the first draft out first, then edit. Don’t get bogged down halfway through trying to fix things.
- Don’t be afraid to proofread.
- Brevity is good; it’s OK to break up long, droning sentences into shorter ones.
So, how’d my essay go? Pretty good actually. The Japanese moms probably enjoyed the essay more than the kids did, but overall it went pretty well, even though I started speaking too fast (a perennial issue).
If you’re in the same boat, and looking for tips on writing essays in Japanese, hopefully this page will help. Once you get the hang of it, it’s not actually that hard, and is even kind of fun. There’s nothing quite like expressing your thoughts and feelings in a foreign language. 🙂
1 Which was a huge help in writing my other blog. 🙂