“Overflowing with leftover goodness…”

I love to write about parts of Japanese that are almost always left out of the standard Japanese language curriculum. This usually applies to vocabulary that can be considered “inappropriate” for the classroom. I also like to talk about topics where the explanation is usually glossed over or oversimplified because the concepts are too difficult to explain in English. I say “bah humbug!” to all that, which is why you can come here after class to get the full, unadulterated version.

So when I thought back to Japanese 101 and the time the teacher told us to only use the negative with 「あまり」 I thought, “Hey, wait a minute!” I now know that you can use 「あまり」 with the positive, the only difference is that you get the opposite meaning of the negative version. Makes perfect sense, right? Of course things aren’t actually that simple, so read on if you want to get the full scoop on 「あまり」.

Sorry, we’re all out of whatever it is you’re looking for

「あまり」 is a pseudo adverb/adjective version of the verb 「あまる」(余る), which means for something to be left over. So, when you use 「あまり」 with the negative, you are essentially saying there is nothing left over. For example, 「あまりよくない」 literally means there is no “goodness” left over. Ok, so that doesn’t make much sense. A more natural definition would be the one we all learned in Japanese 101, “not very” or “not that much”. However, it is useful to know where 「あまり」 originally came from to see how the meaning changes if we don’t use the negative tense.

Those leftovers are excessive, man!

If the negative tense means there’s no leftovers, the opposite would obviously mean that there are leftovers. In other words, something is so excessive that there are leftovers you can’t deal with. As opposed to 「あまりよくない」、 「あまりにいい」 means that something is so good that the goodness is just overflowing with leftovers. For example, 「あまりにいい天気」 means “weather that is excessively good”. This is slightly different from 「天気がよすぎる」 meaning that the weather is too good, which has a negative connotation. 「あまりにいい天気」 just means that the weather is really, really good. It’s so good that the goodness is just overflowing and the leftover goodness is just strewn about all over the floor.

1) 天気があまりよくないので、散歩するのをやめた。
- The weather wasn’t very good so I quit going for a walk.

2) あまりにいい天気だったので、1時間も散歩をしました。
- The weather was so good that I took a walk for a whole hour.

You may have noticed the positive version uses the 「に」 target particle as in 「あまりいい」. This is normal because you need to use the target particle in order to make adjectives into adverbs such as 「上手に」 or 「簡単に」. The irregularity instead comes from the lack of any particles for the negative case. I first described 「あまり」 as a pseudo adverb/adjective because you don’t need to use any particles when using it with the negative tense. It is very similar to 「同じ」, which also doesn’t require any particles to use as an adverb/adjective. Words like 「あまり」 and 「同じ」 are difficult to categorize for this reason. However, with 「あまり」, when you are using it for the non-negative tense, the normal rules apply and you do need attach the 「に」 particle in order to use it as an adverb.

A) 日本語はあまり難しいよ。
- Japanese is so difficult, you know. (grammatic error)

B) 日本語はあまり難しい。
- Japanese is so difficult.

A) ほら、難しいでしょ!
- See, it is hard!

More fun with 「あまり」

Since we’re having so much fun, I thought I’d mention a couple other things related to 「あまり」. First, because the Japanese are always trying to come up with easier way to say things, we have the casual equivalents: 「あんまり」 and 「あんま」. I would say 「あんまり」 is used even more than 「あまり」 in conversational Japanese while 「あんま」 sounds a bit masculine due to it’s short length.

1) 時間があんまりないんだよね。
-Hmm… there’s not much time.

2) 時間があんまないんだよな。
-Hmm… there’s not much time.

As for using this slang for the non-negative case, while googling for 「あんまりに」 did yield a sizable number of results, 「あんまに」 didn’t turn up much so I suggest using 「あんま」 only for the negative tense.

Finally, 「余」, the kanji for 「あまり」 is also used in a some very useful words like 「余裕」 and 「余計」. 「余計」, in particular, is a word you’ll see all the time once you learn it. It’s very useful for when somebody says or does too much. Essentially, you can use it to tell people that it’s none of their business.

1) 余計なお世話だよ!
- None of your business! (lit: You’re unnecessarily taking care of me!)

2) 余計なことを言うんじゃいよ。
- Don’t say things that are none of your business. (lit: You don’t say unnecessary things, you know.)


As we have seen, there is a lot more to the word 「あまり」 than what is normally taught to beginning Japanese students. I suspect this is the case because 「あまり」 is most often used with the negative tense and covering any more would confuse the poor students. Apparently, Japanese students are very easily confused and should not be exposed to the scary parts of the language so that they can stay in their safe and comfortable cocoon of polite, “proper” Japanese (whatever that means) .

Lessons learned from 「本当」

Hi, it’s me again with (hopefully) another great post breaking down the intricacies of the hardest language on the planet (pats myself on back). This time we are going to take a deeper look at a word that probably every hard-core anime fan is already familiar with: 「本当」.

本当?!That’s 超 Awesome!! ← (Don’t ever talk like this)

Calm down. This is not a Japanese anime lesson like, for instance “Reiko-chan’s site“, a site so cool it makes me want to cry. Instead, I’m going to look at how the individuals characters 「本」 and 「当」 are used in ways you may not be aware of. You’ll see that these characters are used quite often in Japanese that is slightly more mature than Sailor Moon.

It’s the real stuff

「本」 is so useful that it’s probably one of the first characters everybody learns. You probably already know that it means, “book” by itself and is also part of the word for “Japan” (日本). You may even know that it’s a counter for bottles, something you’ll need to know if you’re a drunkard salaryman like me.

But did you know that 「本」 also means, “the real thing”? In fact, the word 「本物」 means exactly that as it uses 「本」 with 「物」, the character for object. Other examples include words such as: 本日、本人、本来、本場、本番、本音、本格的、本気、本名. The 「本」 in all these words act like a prefix indicating that it’s the genuine thing.

Let’s take a closer look at 「本日」 and 「本人」 and the role 「本」 plays in each word.


「本日」(ほんじつ) essentially means “today”, but why have another word for “today” when you already have 「今日」? The only difference, as you can see, is the use of 「本」 instead of 「今」. In other words, as opposed to the present day, 「本日」 means, “the real day” (the only “real day” being the current one).

- Thanks for coming today.

- I would like to thank everybody for coming today.

The only real, practical difference between 「今日」 and 「本日」 is that 「本日」 sounds more official, similar to the difference between saying, “at this point in time” versus saying just “now”. While the practical difference is a bit unrelated, knowing the precise difference between the kanji will help you get a feel for where this difference comes from.


「本人」(ほんにん) is a very useful word mainly because Japanese doesn’t have any pronouns. While you can say 「自分」 for oneself, you don’t have the equivalent for himself or herself. So if you wanted to say, “Talk to the man, himself”, 「本人」 is a handy way to easily refer to the real person in question. Here’s a quick example.

- When is Tanaka-san getting married?

- How about asking the actual person, himself?

In addition, expect to see this word used often in applications such as for visas or passports that need to describe what the applicant, herself, must do.

- When getting the passport, the applicant, herself, must come to the window.

This meaning of “genuine” is related to the original meaning of “root” (hence the tree character (木) with a line across the bottom of the tree). Also derived from the same meaning, 「本」 can be used to mean “main”. Examples of this usage include words like: 本体、本館、本社、本州、本文.

It’s the stuff in question

The second character 「当」 is just as useful as 「本」 and almost as common. The character by itself describes when something hits its target. For instance, the verb 「当たる」 is used to describe winning a raffle because you were successfully targeted from the random selection. The 「当」 character is similarly used in a variety of kanji compounds to describe the targeted time or location. This is very useful for talking about the time or location in question by using words such as: 当月、当日、当時、当社、当店、該当. Here’s a simple example.

-This ticket is only valid on the day of purchase.

In the example above, you could have simply described the day that the ticket was bought by saying something like 「買った日」 but it’s not as concise or as professional-sounding as 「発売当日」.

This type of usage is very useful because no matter what the actual time is, it refers only to the time in question. That means that if it’s understood by the context, you don’t have to go through the pain of describing exactly which time that is. Here’s another example.

-At that time, I didn’t have a driver’s license so I couldn’t go anywhere.

Here’s another example using a location instead of time.

-We do not handle products that are sold with hidden names at our stores.

「この店」 would also make sense in this sentence but since there may be more than one store and you’re not specifying a store at a specific location, 「当店」 is used to refer vaguely to the store in question.


We took at look at the kanji making up 「本当」, their real meanings, and how they are used in a variety of words. I hope this will help you easily understand a whole slew of new words that use the same kanji. Getting a true sense of what each individual kanji means in this fashion often gives you important clues and mnemonics for learning new words, which is one of the great benefits of using kanji.

Wait, so it’s the same word but not? When does the madness end??

When I was a naive little student earnestly learning kanji with glee, I remember thinking, “Yeah, now that I learned 「見る」, I now know the kanji for 「みる」!” Ha ha, if Japanese was that easy, I would have spend all that extra time not studying on training to become a professional StarCraft player instead like all the cool Koreans. Actually, what you learn later on is that some words may have more than one kanji with slight differences in meaning such as, “This kanji means that you are feeling blue but this kanji is used when you are feeling blue and you want to sneeze but it just won’t come out. It also implies that your right index finger itches.” Ok, ok, now I’m just trying to be funny… or am I? (Waggles eyebrows) Let’s see by taking a look at some alternative kanji for some common words and when to use them. Hint: It’s when you want to look “cool” and “smart”. (Emphasis on the quotation marks) For example, let’s look at alternatives for 「見る」 (to see) and 「聞く」 (to hear/to ask).

You can see it, my child, yes, but can you see it?

While 「見る」 is fine for just regular “seeing” (whatever that means), you might see 「観る」 instead for when you are watching things such as movies and plays. I have no idea what the exact distinction is but I can tell you that 「観る」 uses the same kanji as the one for 「観光」, which means “sightseeing”. A coincidence? I think not. Actually, I can’t complain about this too much because it’s easier than trying to explain the difference between the words, “to watch” and “to see”. Why don’t we try?

No, you can’t “see television”, you can only watch it. Yes, you can “see a movie”. Huh? Why, you ask? Hmm… I think it’s because native English speakers hate you. Yes, that sounds about right.

Moving on, if a doctor is examining you, you use 「診る」 instead, which uses the same kanji from 「診断」 meaning “diagnosis”.

Ask, hear, eh, what’s the difference?

In Japanese, 「聞く」 can mean either “to ask” or “to hear”. (After all, they are so totally related.) But if you want to be specific, you can use 「訊く」, which only means “to ask” or more accurately, “to inquire”. Also, when you are listening to music, you might use 「聴く」 instead. 「効く」 is also another alternative to mean that something is “taking effect”. It is often used in the context of taking medicine (or rather “drinking” in Japanese).

How do I figure out this madness??

So how do you figure this stuff out? Well, your best bet are Japanese-Japanese dictionaries such as 広辞苑 or 大辞泉. For instance, here is the definition for 「聴く」


2 (聴く)注意して耳にとめる。耳を傾ける。「名曲を―・く」「有権者の声を―・く」

Or better yet, if you use the Windows IME, the kanji selection menu will have explanations of the differences… in Japanese.

IME, the only Microsoft software I know of that doesn't suck (until they build a vacuum).

IME, the only Microsoft software I know of that doesn't suck (until they build a vacuum).

For bonus points, see if you can figure out the difference between:
1. 速い vs 早い
2. 取る vs 撮る vs 盗る
3. 飛ぶ vs 跳ぶ
4. 熱い vs 暑い
5. 彫る vs 掘る
6. 閉める vs 締める vs 占める
7. “Japanese” vs “A tongue invented by the devil to prevent the spread of Christianity”.
8. 止まる vs 停まる vs 泊まる

The subtler points of 「以」

」 (not to be confused with 「」)is a very useful character used in all sorts of words that compare time, space, or objects such as 以来、以降、以上、以下、以外、以内、以後、and 以前 . In all these words, the 「以」 essentially means “besides” and the second character indicates what to compare.

For instance, 「以外」(いがい) uses the 「外」 character for outside so it is describing anything outside of the thing we are comparing to.

- Is there person going, outside of Tanaka-san? (Is anybody going besides Tanaka-san?)

Notice how there is no particle between 「田中さん」 and 「以外」. While it is possible to insert 「の」 in between, in practice, it is more natural to directly attach the word to the end of the noun that is being compared. This applies to all the 「以」 words given above.

「以」 is an inclusive comparator

I think it’s important to mention that 「以」 means “besides [x]“, therefore, the thing that is being compared to ([x] in this case) is included in the comparison. For example, if we say 「三つ以上」, this means “three or more” and not “more than three”. Or when we say, 「明日以降」 this means “tomorrow or afterwards” not “after tomorrow”.

- Please select 2 or more cards.

In English, words for comparisons such as “more” and “less” implicitly exclude the thing that is being compared. People who are used to the English way of doing things need to make sure whether they need to do a little adding or subtracting before using any of the words covered here. For instance, if I wanted to say, “less than three”, I might change this to 「二つ以下」 or use some other expression such as 「未満」. Unfortunately, these comparators are not really systematic and it becomes a matter of learning vocabulary and learning when to use them based on practice.

- Children under 10 cannot go on the ride.

Here are other ways you might want to say “more than” and “less than“. Unfortunately, you can already see an inaccurate translation of 「以上」.

Sometimes, it might not be necessary to be that picky, but you should be aware of the difference for the times when it really does matter.

Finally, to prove I’m not lying, here is a similar page that explains the difference from a Japanese point of view.

The hardest kanji I know

This is a short post just for fun. Here are some of the hardest kanji I’ve run into over my years studying Japanese. If you learn these words, you can be confident in the knowledge that you’ve already tackled the hardest kanji (that I can think of).

躊躇(ちゅう・ちょ) – hesitation

朦朧(もう・ろう) – dim, hazy

憂鬱(ゆう・うつ) – depression

瀟洒(しょう・しゃ) – elegant; trim

The most difficult kanji is 「鬱」 with a total of 29 strokes. With a sufficiently small font size, it just looks like a black scribbly thing.

And here is my vote for the sneakiest kanji ever.

曰く(いわ・く) – to say

Fun stuff.

Kanji with different readings

There are a number of words that have more than one reading in Japanese. Sometimes, as shown by this webpage, it’s a matter of the reading changing over time. For example, I read somewhere that 「世論」 is supposed to be read as 「よろん」 but so many people misread it as 「せろん」 that it eventually emerged as an alternative reading. For words like this, choosing a reading is merely a matter of preference and depends on the popularity of the reading since the meaning is the same. However, some words have different readings and different meanings to go with them. We’ll look at two that I can think of right now (「頭」 and 「家」) and how you would identify the correct reading.

-I want to go home because my head hurts.

-In his house, there are 3 children, 14 being the oldest.

In the first sentence, 「頭」 is talking about the speaker’s head (the thing on your neck) and so we should read it as 「あたま」. However, in the second sentence, we are talking about the 14 year-old being at the head of the rest of the children. When we are using 「頭」 to mean “head” as in “chief”, or “the first”, we read it as 「かしら」. Amazingly, the English word for “head” also contains both meanings (though we don’t change the reading).

Finally, 「家」 can have two readings depending on whether the speaker is talking about his or her home or just a generic house owned by anybody. Your own home is read as 「うち」 which probably has something to do with 「内」(うち) meaning inside. The reading for a generic house is 「いえ」 (not to be confused with 「いいえ」).

So in order to figure out when to use which reading, 1) learn the difference in meaning, and then 2) look at the context of the sentence. So can you identify the correct readings for 「家」 in the examples sentences?

Katakana words with kanji

A small number of katakana words have kanji associated with them despite the fact that they come from a language that has never used Chinese characters. This use of kanji is called 当て字 where the reading or meaning of kanji is forced onto a word that originally didn’t have any. These words hark back to the days before katakana become the common script for foreign words and some of them come directly from Chinese like 「珈琲」. You can still see many of these 当て字 being used today such as street signs so learning them is not a waste of time.

Examples of 当て字
English Katakana Kanji
Cigarettes タバコ 煙草
Club クラブ 倶楽部
Page ページ
Coffee コーヒー 珈琲

You can see more examples of foreign words in kanji at this page.

Kanji for Countries
Many country names also have 当て字 associated with them that are rarely used. However, in newspaper headlines, the first character of the 当て字 is often used in an effort to conserve space. For instance, newspapers use words like 「訪米(ほうべい)」 for visiting the United States or 「日韓(にっかん)」 for news related to Japan and Korea. Here is a short list of the most common
country abbreviations and their full kanji versions.

Country Abbreviations
Katakana Kanji Abbreviation
n/a 日本 日(にち)
n/a 中国 中(ちゅう)
n/a 韓国 韓(かん)
n/a 北朝鮮 朝(ちょう)
アメリカ 亜米利加 米(べい)
イギリス 英吉利 英(えい)
イタリア 伊太利亜 伊(い)
ドイツ 独逸 独(どく)
スペイン 西班牙 西(せい)

的: A very useful ally

While the word 「てき」 usually means “enemy”, that’s not the word we’re talking about today. The word I’m going to talk about uses a completely different Kanji from the 「敵」 meaning “enemy” and is in fact a very useful and helpful ally.

If you’ve studied Japanese for a while, you’re bound to have encountered the 「的」 kanji. While this kanji by itself is read as 「まと」 and means a “target”, its usefulness really shines as a noun suffix. This kanji can be attached to countless number of nouns to easily change them to a na-adjective. In this case, you read the kanji as 「てき」 and you’ll see it all over the place: 一般的、圧倒的、感動的、習慣的、技術的、基本的、and on and on.

Let’s take the word 「感動」 meaning “deep emotion” and say we want to say the following sentence.

That movie was very moving.

Unfortunately, since 「感動」 is a noun, we can’t just say, 「あの映画はとても感動」 because the movie is not a deep emotion. So you’re going to have to say something complicated like the following:

あの映画を見て、感動した。- I saw that movie and I was moved.

But wait! We can just use 「的」 to make 「感動」 into an adjective!

あの映画は感動的だった。- That movie was very moving.

あれは感動的な映画だった。- That was a very moving movie.

What could be argued as even more useful is if you use the 「に」 target particle with 「的」, you can make the noun into an adverb! (Actually, this applies to all na-adjectives)

それは技術的無理です。 – That’s technically impossible.

朝ご飯は習慣的毎朝食べます。 – I customarily eat breakfast every morning.

In fact, without 「的」 there are just so many things that can’t be expressed. I would definitely put this kanji on my top ten 50 list.

アメリカでは、車で通勤するのが一般的だ。 – In America, people generally commute by car.

客観的な視点から考えたほうがいい。 – It’s better to think of it from a objective viewpoint.