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.  🙂

A Primer on Japanese Hiragana

My son is now three years old and is starting to learn to read. For various reasons we are focusing on speaking and reading Japanese first and that includes the Japanese kana writing system.

The kana system is actually two writing systems:

  • Hiragana (平仮名) – the core writing system in Japanese. 
  • Katakana (片仮名) – used for foreign words, sound-effect words and/or very young readers. 

Right now, my son is learning to read hiragana because that’s the most fundamental thing to learn when reading Japanese. Also, in comparison to English, it is much easier for a three year old to pick up.

Hiragana is not an alphabet, despite all appearances. It is a syllabary. What this means is that each character represents a unique syllable, and does not change sound. So, for example, the character か always represents the sound “ka”. The character も always presents “mo” and so on. The entire set of hiragana characters represent all the sounds in Japanese language.

Children learn Hiragana using a chart like so:

    w r y m h n t s k  


With a few exceptions, you can see that all of them arrange themselves in a nice grid. The character ん (n) will only appear at the end of a word, never at the beginning.1 Also a few others are pronounced slightly different than one would expect, but otherwise function the same.

There is a little more to the hiragana than this. For example some hiragana do change sounds a bit such as ふ (hu) ぶ (bu) and ぷ (pu) if they have a little mark attached to them. Also, sounds like shō (しょう) and shū (しゅう) require a few hiragana characters put together. But even so, it is still nice and predictable.

Typically, kids in Japan will recite them from the upper-left, あ (ah), vertically, then the next column か (ka) and so on.

My son only knows a few hiragana so far, but he’s very happy when he sees them in books. Since one character is one sound, it’s easy for him to pick out the characters he knows, and he knows how to say them right away. Sometimes he’ll shout “wani no wa!” while reading which means “wa (わ) as in wani (alligator)” which is very cute. 

My daughter, when she was at that age, had a little chart in her room, and slowly learned each hiragana character until she could read them all by age 4 or so.

Speaking from experience, the only way to really learn Hiragana is to simply memorize them and then practice reading enough until it becomes second nature. You only have to learn it once though, and from then on you can read anytime. 

Good luck to all you Japanese students out there. 🙂

P.S. Katakana, mentioned above, is basically an identical system; it’s just that the characters look different.

1 This is an important thing to bear in mind if you ever play a certain word-game called “shiritori” which is popular in Japan.

Pen Pineapple Apple Pen

On the lighter side of things, here’s this:

The video is self-explanatory… well, sort of.  Pikotaro (ピコ太郎), the guy who made this song, is a Japanese comedian/song-writer etc.  His official site is here.  The costume is based off of a character in the manga One-Piece (I have no idea which one).

My kids love this song and sing it frequently.  So much so, it is now stuck in my head, too.  We did watch a show in Japanese which interviewed Pikotaro and it was interesting when he tried to teach one of the hosts how to do the same dance. There is a surprising amount of detail in the choreography.  Like most successful comedians, Pikotaro is a lot more intelligent than his silly demeanor on screen would lead you to believe.

Some might compare this to the Korean song Gangnam Style, which I enjoyed a lot back then, but they’re kind of different to me.  Granted, they’re both unusual examples of Asian music making a hit in the West,¹ and both are comedic, but that’s about all that they have in common I think.

Anyhow, see how long it takes before this gets stuck in your head.  ;p

P.S.  Another Pikotaro song my kids like is this one.  For those who don’t speak Japanese kurai (暗い) means “dark” and akarui (明るい) means “bright”.  That’s about all you need to know.

¹ An interesting BBC article a couple months ago on why Kpop has tried, and yet failed, to penetrate the Western market apart from Gangnam Style.