Writing An Essay In Japanese Language

Essay in Japanese

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:

  1. What something is doing, for example: まる子が歌う (maruko ga utau, “Maruko is singing”)
  2. What something is like, for example: 水が冷たい (mizu ga tsumetai, “water is cold”)
  3. 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. 🙂


Dogen and No-Self

Many Zen Buddhists, or just Buddhists in general, know Dogen’s famous quote about “studying the self”. It’s a popular reminder of what Buddhism is all about. I’ve seen various translations in various books, but I have yet to see an example of a bilingual translation until now:


I always like to see translations like this, because I’ve learned to distrust English translations of Buddhist texts that don’t include any references to the original language.  There are a lot of bad Buddhist quotes and translations floating around, and even something simple as the Buddhist “nembutsu” or reciting the Buddha’s name, gets mistranslated a lot. More on that in an old post.

Anyhow, I digress.  Looking at Dogen’s original writing, a few things I noticed as a language nerd:

  • Since this was written in 13th century, not the 21st century, it uses more archaic Japanese.
  • Similarly, the spellings are different: instead of saying toiu, it is spelled toifu, though it was probably pronounced the same.
  • Not surprisingly, Dogen uses some obscure Zen-Buddhist terms that even the Japanese language site above has to provide footnotes for, such as Goseki (悟迹) which means the period after Enlightenment.

Anyhow, regardless of the language, this quotation is still one of the best in Buddhism in my opinion.  Even Buddhists have to pause and remember to take stock about why they’re practicing Buddhism.  Contemporary history is rife with examples of Buddhist teachers who went off the rails, and of course this can happen to anyone, so it’s good to remember why we practice Buddhism.  Dogen’s words are a good reminder for us all.

Translating Japanese politeness

Japanese and English are pretty different languages, and although I’ve been studying it more or less for 10 years (essentially since my daughter was born), I am still fascinated by the differences.  Human feelings and sentiment are the same everywhere, but it’s intriguing how each language approaches how to express those sentiments.  In the case of Japanese, I find its polite expressions or keigo (more on keigo here thanks to Tae Kim) one of the more challenging aspects to translate.

Here are a couple examples I found on my last trip and often see.  These are kind of stock-phrases in Japanese, and while I have come to intuitively understand them, if you try to take apart and find English equivalents, it can be tough.

First example:

go-kyōryōku onegai-itashimasu

To me, the best way to translate this is “thank you for your cooperation”, and usually is found on plaques that warn pedestrians to be careful, or refrain from smoking at such and such place, etc. Basically, a polite and formal warning.

The phrase kyōryōku (協力) means cooperation. Easy enough. The “go” in front of it is an honorific that makes the noun more polite and respectful because they’re asking for your cooperation.

The verb onegaishimasu (お願いします) can mean something like “if you please” and is used in all kinds of polite circumstances like introducing yourself (yoroshiku onegaishimasu) or just when you’re formally asking a favor of something. You’ll often see in dramas where one character bows deeply to someone he’s asking for help and says “onegaishimasu!” in the process.

Except here, the verb is onegai-itashimasu. The itashimasu is not just polite, but also conveys deep humility. This is the sort of thing you might only use when talking to someone much higher ranking than you, or a very formal situation.

So, if you try to translate this literally, it’s more likely “we humbly ask for your cooperation.” That’s all well and good except Westerners just never talk like this because the sense of “humble” and “honorific” just isn’t as strongly expressed in English. Hence “thank you for your cooperation” is more than sufficient and probably more natural-sounding in English.

Another example that might be even harder is:

go-meiwaku ni narimasu no de go-enryo-kudasai

This lengthy phrase probably might be best translated in English as “please refrain from (annoying others by doing) X”.

Whoa, all that for 3 words in English?

Let’s break it down. First, the word meiwaku which means something annoying or a nuisance. Again, as we saw above, the leading particle “go” is added because they are speaking to you the customer, passenger, etc and therefore it should be more polite and honorific.

The next part of the sentence, ni narimasu no de, is just normal Japanese grammar meaning “because it becomes …” but the narimasu here also expresses state, so “because it’s a …”. In this case, “because it’s a nuisance…”.

The next part of the sentence, go-enryo-kudasai, is another phrase you see a lot in Japanese and just means “Please refrain from”. The word enryo means to refrain or restrain oneself and often times you’ll housewives and nice old ladies tell you something like “enryo shinakute ii” or something like that when offering treats. They’re telling you don’t be shy and help yourself. As with meiwaku and kyōryōku, this is a noun, you so can make it polite by prefixing it with “go” because of your target audience.

Kudasai is probably one fo the first things you’ll learn in Japanese and is one of many ways to say “please”, and one fo the most useful. In polite Japanese, when you’re suggesting something to someone, like “come into the house”2 or “take a look”2 rather than saying “please do X” like in English, instead you often say “go-(noun) kudasai” or sometimes “o-(noun) kudasai”. It has the same nuance as “please do X”, but is grammatically quite different because there’s no actual verb in the sentence.1As with the previous phrase we looked at, even if you translate literally though it doesn’t sound that natural in English where it is sufficient to say “please don’t do X” or more politely “please refrain from X”.

Anyhow, Japanese, like all languages, has its own internal logic, but that logic may be very different than one’s own native language, and so it can be hard mechanically translate things from one language to another.  The key is getting enough exposure to intuitively understand what is being said, because then you can find a suitable feeling or expression in your own language.

Good luck and happy language studying!

1 The word “kudasai” comes from the verb “kudasaru” (to oblige) but is not exactly in verb-form here. It basically is just another set-phrase.

2 These are o-agari-kudasai (お上がりください) and go-ran-kudasai (ご覧ください) respectively by the way. 😉

Where Does Namu Come From?

The term “namu” shows up a lot in East Asian Buddhism, for example in devotional chants such as:

  • Namu myōhō renge kyō – Praise to the Lotus Sutra which is a Japanese chant for Nichiren Buddhism.
  • Namu Amita Bul – “Praise to the Buddha of Infinite Light” in Korean.
  • Nam mô A Di Đà Phật – same as above, but Vietnamese.
  • Namu Amida Butsu – same as above, but Japanese.
  • Nā mó guān shì yīn pú sà (南无观世音菩萨||南無觀世音菩薩) – “Praise to Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva” in Chinese, with both Simplified and Traditional characters shown.

You can see how each language has a variation on the word “namu”: “nam mo”, “na mo”, etc.  What the heck is this?

This is actually from Sanskrit language, which I’ve been studying lately.  The original, vanilla term is namas (नमस्) which according to the Sanskrit dictionary means “bow, obeisance, reverential salutation, adoration” etc, etc.  This term is not limited to Buddhism either.  It shows up a lot in Indian culture, and even in Yoga when you say to one another “namaste”.¹

Now, here’s the funny part.  Sanskrit words frequently undergo sound changes called “sandhi”, which I’ve talked about here and here and here among other places.  This means that people don’t always say “namas this” and “namas that”.  Sandhi rules in Sanskrit allow for a sound to get ready for the next sound by changing a little to more accurately fit the position of the tongue in the mouth.

The word namas changes like so, depending on the following sound:

  • namo (नमी) if the following sound is a vowel, or a voiced consonant (j, jh, g, gh, d, dh, b, bh) or by nasal sounds (r, l, h, n, m).
  • namaś (नमश्) if the following sound is a c or ch
  • namaṣ (नमष्) if the following sound is a ṭ or ṭh
  • namas (नमस्) if the following sound is a t or th
  • namaḥ (नमः) if the following sound is a k, kh, p, ph, ś, s, ṣ or it’s the last word in the sentence.

So, for example in Buddhist liturgy to say “praise to the Buddha of Infinite Light”, the words before Sandhi would be namas amitābhāya but due to Sandhi rules become namo’mitābhāya.²  This is probably what got imported into China as Buddhism spread there.

From there, the “namo” was translated using suitable Chinese characters that phonetically sound the same.  In this case: 南無 which even today in Chinese is pronounced nāmó.

But also since Chinese and Chinese Buddhist liturgy were imported into other neighboring countries and given more local pronunciation. The Chinese characters would have been the same, but every country would read/pronounce them slightly different.

Thus “namo” became “namu” in places like Korea and Japan, but still “namo” in Vietnamese.

¹ Technically, namaste is a Hindi word, not Sanskrit, but Hindi is clearly derived from Sanskrit. The easiest way to understand this is that Sanskrit is to northern-Indian languages (Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali, etc) what Latin is to Western-European languages (French, German, English, Italian, etc).

² The apostrophe is because the “a” of the second word gets dropped.  This is a special rule in Sanskrit where aḥ/as + a changes to o ‘ .  Why?  It just does.

Sun and Moon: A classic Japanese haiku

Recently while watching the Japanese children’s show with my kids, nihongo de asobo, they showed this haiku poem:

菜の花や Na no hana ya
月は東に Tsuki wa higashi ni
日は西に Hi wa nishi ni

Which means something like “Ah, Rape Blossoms!¹ The moon is in the east, the sun is in the west”.

According to this website in Japanese, the poem was composed in the year 1774 by the famous poet Yosa Buson (与謝蕪村 1716-1784), when he was standing in a field of rape blossoms in what is now the city of Kobe during a sunset when the moon was also rising in the east.  The sunset cast a golden glow over the field of flowers, while the rising moon in the east cast a silvery glow too.

Pretty cool imagery, and one of those moments that stays with you your whole life.

¹ Also known its botanical name Brassica Rapa.

Japanese Romaji with Pitch Accent

One of the unspoken challenges of learning to speak Japanese properly is pitch accent. However, it is important and often overlooked. Afterall, the difference between hashi (箸 chopstick) and hashi (橋 bridge) is just a difference in pitch.

So what is pitch accent? Unlike languages like English, there is no stress on syllables. Each syllable is one beat, and equally weighted.  So a word like Yokohama is pronounced in 4 even beats:


However, the pitch of each beat can be either high, low or flat depending on the word.  Most words tend to have flat intonation, but a fair number of words have a high-pitched accent along with a low-pitched accent.  So for the example above:

  • Hashi (chopstick) – Ha (high) shi (low)
  • Hashi (bridge) – Ha (low) shi (high)

The trouble is is that there’s nothing in Japanese writing that tells you which one it is. Japanese language textbooks and educational resources seldom talk about it either, so the student is frequently on their until too late.  Native speakers of course just pick this up naturally.  If you live there long enough, you might pick it up, but until then, you’ll sound an awful lot like a foreigner.¹ ²

Thus, one of the challenges of learning to pronounce Japanese correctly is how to annotate pitch accent in textbooks or online resources. Romanization or rōmaji doesn’t have anything notation for pitch accent. That means you have to get creative.

I’ve tried to come up with my own way of noting where the pitch accent, if any, exists in a word, but haven’t found a perfect solution. My criteria are:

  • Avoid diacritics if possible.  They’re hard to type on some keyboards, and on smartphones.
  • Must be intuitive.
  • Easy to add into flashcards like Anki and such.
  • Can work with either Romaji romanization or maybe even Hiragana.

This has proven harder than I expected.  I searched for solutions online but didn’t find any clear consensus.

For example, one idea is to simply add an apostrophe to the high-pitched syllable.  For example, arigatou (thank you, ありがとう) would be ar’igatou.  The example above between “chopstick” and “bridge” would be h’ashi and hash’i respectively.

This kind of works, but doesn’t differentiate between high and low accents.  For example omoshiroi (interesting, 面白い) has a low-accent  at “ro”.  So, we would have to put another, different accent mark.  According to this site, the IPA notation would be a circumflex: ^.  So, omoshiroi would become something like omoshirôi.  But this sort of violates my rule using diacritics (which are hard for some keyboards to type), so we could simply do omoshir^oi.  That looks a bit awkward though easier to type.

A nicer, cleaner looking method might be to use acute and grave diacritics to denote high and low pitch accents relative to the flat tone:  For example, the bridge and chopstick might be háshi and hashí, or omoshiròi.  This poses other problems though as it can be harder to type (I had to use the “special characters” feature on my keyboard to type the previous sentence), and kind of confuses which are flat and which have a non-flat tone.  On the other hand, it looks a lot nicer.

There are other methods too, but to me, these two are the simplest and most convenient for flash cards, and such. Maybe even Japanese language textbooks mighy hopefully adopt something like this one day. 

For now, I prefer the simple, though ugly, use of notations like apostrophes and circumflex, but I am definitely open to other methods if anyone has suggestions.  

1 As someone who’s studied for a long-time, but never lived there, I still speak with a heavy accent.  My wife frequently misunderstands which word I am talking about because the pitch accent is wrong.

² I’ve been told that people with an ear for music are more likely to pick this up early. My daughter plays piano regularly and has a perfect Japanese accent.  I was always terrible at music, so not surprisingly I don’t.  ;p

Good To Have Companions

Another cool proverb I learned from the Japanese kids TV show, Nihongo de Asobo:


tabi wa michizure
yo wa nasaké

I couldn’t find a good, modern translation of this online, so I read some online dictionaries in Japanese.  Basically, this little proverb means that when traveling, it’s really good to have a companion.  Especially in the old days when travel was dangerous, having a friend or traveling companion would really make a difference.

Long story short, it’s always more fun to travel with friends.  🙂