The 10 year plan

It’s been almost a month since the the grammar guide has been on Amazon and you’ve been buying at least one copy everyday! Thanks everybody for your support! I’m so excited that I’ve decided to take all the royalties and put it away along with the Paypal account to contribute back into the site.

I have lots of bold plans and very little time but hopefully I can put the money to good use to make it even easier for people to learn Japanese. Here’s what I’d like to accomplish in the next 10 years.

  1. Finish writing the complete guide. I’ve been making good progress on this recently.
  2. Make more Youtube videos. I’d like to get some native speakers for the examples so it’s not just me.
  3. Start a lecture series at a local library and post on Youtube.
  4. Get audio for all the dialogues in the complete guide.
  5. Add Yonkoma comics to the site. Unfortunately, I have absolutely no art skills.
  6. Put everything above together in a monster, awesome, interactive eBook for iBooks.
  7. Start a podcast show for Japanese learners. I have some ideas on how to make an awesome show.

Unfortunately, I have to do all this in my free time so if you want to help me out, here’s how.


  1. Make a link to with the phrase “learn Japanese”. I want to be #1 on Google when you search “learn Japanese”.
  2. If you’re good at drawing, I’m looking for simple manga style drawings like あずまんが大王、ダーリンは外国人、 or even just stick figures like xkcd. Email me at:
  3. For native Japanese speakers, anybody interested in contributing audio or co-hosting a podcast show, email me at:

Buy the book (if you want one) or donate

I do not know what I’m going to do with the money specifically yet but it’s definitely going to be used to improve the site.

CreateSpace: It’s kind of hassle to order from and you have to pay for shipping but it will save about $5 on printing costs.

Amazon: They will take a bigger cut but you will get free shipping. Also if you like the book, I would love to see some reviews on Amazon.

Special thanks goes to Sven ($200), Sergey ($100), and Eric ($200) for their generous donations! (Eric bought the book too!)

It’s been about 10 years since I started this site in college and I hope to bring you more exciting stuff. Thanks for your purchases, donations, contributions, emails, comments, feedback, suggestions, and corrections. Here’s to another 10 years!

You think Japanese is hard, try LaTeX

I haven’t been posting lately because I’ve been trying to focus on my book which I’ve decided to call “Tae’s Complete Guide to Japanese”.

I’m having some hiccups because TeX, LaTeX, XeTeX, whatever the hell you want to call it SUCKS! The fact that you can’t even come up with a single name to identify what you’re talking about is a perfect example of the ass shit this monstrosity has become. This whole hodgepodge of crap is what you get when you have absolutely no API, no architecture, nor any sort of standard and instead have a bunch of people do whatever the hell they want. There’s all sorts of packages doing god knows what to each other with no sort of hierarchy, inheritance, black box protection, or namespace. Don’t even think about a single source of documentation. Documentation? Whoa, don’t get ahead of yourself with this fancy pants documentation. We ain’t gonna tolerate no stinkin document-thingy round here, boy.

Here’s what I’m struggling with. I can’t get bloody italics to show up in a Japanese font!

I’ve posted more details on my dilemma on a programming site here.

In the meantime, I’m going to try to reinstall my Tex package because I could have sworn my italics were working at some point. Was I seeing things again? Or did some other package just break it?

At least it’s not docbook, thank god!

On LaTeX, self publishing, and another dialogue

Though progress continues to be slow, the textbook project is finally turning into something I’m getting excited about. Lately, I’ve been thinking about layout and presentation.

Here is the second dialogue designed to demonstrate positive and negative state-of-being for nouns and adjectives. As usual, this deceptively simple conversation had a lot of thought put into it. This dialogue will be followed by pretty standard explanations of the conjugation rules and a brief description of よ and ね.

スミス: おはよう。
キム:  おはよう。
スミス: 元気?
キム:  あまり元気じゃない。
スミス: そう?
キム:  うん。最近、とても忙しい。
スミス: いいね。
キム:  全然よくないよ。
Smith: Morning.
Kim: Morning
Smith: How are you?
Kim: Not very good.
Smith: Is that so?
Kim: Yeah. I’m very busy lately.
Smith: That’s good.
Kim: It’s not good at all.
  1. おはよう [casual, exp] – Good Morning
  2. 元気(げんき) [na-adj] – lively, healthy
  3. あまり [adv] – not very (used with negative)
  4. そう [adv] – so
  5. うん [casual] – yes
  6. 最近(さいきん) [adv] – lately
  7. とても [adv] – very
  8. 忙しい(いそがしい) [i-adj] – busy
  9. いい [i-adj] – good
  10. 全然(ぜんぜん) [adv] – not at all (used with negative)

As you can see, it uses a two-column format for the Japanese and English translation. I debated on adding a kana-only version but couldn’t figure out how to fit it in. In the end, I decided if the vocabulary with the readings are right there, the reader shouldn’t have much trouble figuring it out. I’m still debating whether or not to add furigana however.

Though I had initially wanted to concentrate on the content only, I decided I should also think about the layout, presentation, and format. This is especially important for creating a printable book because I have to think about what size paper I want to use. And DocBook, as we know, deliberately leaves out any shred of formatting information. So I’m looking into setting up LaTeX and will see how that works out soon enough I hope.

I’m also looking into for self publishing. They even do audio CDs though they don’t currently package it with a book. Now all I have to do is figure out how to find other speakers besides myself for the characters and how to get some recording done with reasonably professional quality.

But first, I guess I should concentrate on writing the rest of the book. The next dialogue will cover the polite positive and negative state-of-being and the question marker 「か」 but that’s a topic for another blog post.

Random question, why do spell checkers keep telling me “dialogue” is misspelled? It is a word, isn’t it?

My textbook introduction and first dialogue

As indicated in my last post, after struggling with the traditional textbook approach, I’ve decided to scrap everything and start afresh. I thought hard about what I wanted from a textbook when I first started learning Japanese and came to the conclusion that I didn’t want any babying or hand-holding. If my target audience can learn trigonometry and calculus, they should certainly be able to handle Hiragana and Katakana without having it spoon-feed to them one lesson at a time. So with that, I came up with the following introduction.

The Introduction

Who is this textbook for?

The intended audience of this textbook is for adult English speakers from High School level and beyond. It is intended to be compatible with a classroom format as well as for self-learners. However, for reasons explained in the next section, a conversation partner or a way to interact regularly with someone who speaks Japanese is highly recommended.

How does this textbook work?

This textbook is guided by certain principles for learning any language and some specific to learning Japanese. Based on my own experiences and from observing others, it is my belief that using the language in each aspect of reading, writing, speaking, and listening is the only way to truly master it. In addition, it must be practiced just as it’s used in real life in order for the skills to transfer into the real world.

However, in the case of Japanese, there is a large amount of new concepts and writing systems that must be mastered before people new to the language can begin to learn real Japanese. This is particularly true for English speakers with no background with Chinese characters or particle-based grammar. Therefore, there is a fairly large amount of background material in the beginning of this textbook to acquaint the new learner to the fundamental aspects of Japanese before starting with the actual lessons.

It is my opinion that consolidating the background material in the beginning makes for a more comprehensive approach for adult learners as compared to spreading it out through the lessons all the while using crippled and unnatural Japanese until the key concepts can be adequately explained.

The basic approach of this textbook can be summarized in the following steps:

  1. Get a rough idea of the general concept
  2. Comprehend via input in Japanese with English translations (both audio and written)
  3. Practice output with writing and conversation exercises
  4. Get output checked and corrected for further expansion

The word “rough” in the first step is very important here, especially for the background material. While the first section might seem quite extensive, the goal is to get only a general idea and fine-tune it by jumping in the language. So don’t worry about fully comprehending the first section before starting the lessons. If you continuously refer back as you learn the language, you will eventually learn it all through practice.

In the first section, I intend to cover Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji similar to the beginning of my grammar guide. The only difference is more extensive practice exercises and plenty of audio. The Kanji section will be about how Kanji works and how to study it.

As for grammar, While I won’t go over specific grammar or conjugations until the lessons, I will provide a broad overview. I intend to cover what particles are, classifications of parts of speech, general sentence structure, and when to use the various politeness levels.

My first dialogue

I also spent a lot of time really thinking about the first dialogue. This dialogue was very important to me because I think it sets the tone for the rest of the book. And as I mentioned in my last post, I wanted to get the reader hooked on Japanese from the very beginning. After a great deal of thought, here’s what I came up with. (Any resemblance to persons fictional or real is purely coincidental.)

先生:  これは、本ですか?
クラス: いいえ、本じゃありません。それは、ペンです。

キム: このクラスは、簡単じゃない?
スミス: 私は、まだ難しいよ。
キム: 全然難しくないよ。
スミス: はい、はい。

先生: キムさん!
キム: はい!
先生: これは、なんですか?
キム: ええと・・・、紙ですか?
先生: はい、そうです。なんの紙ですか?
キム: ・・・はい?
先生: この紙は、キムさんの特別な宿題です。
キム: なんですか?

My goal in this dialogue was to cover the copula (or whatever you want to call it) and the negative tense for nouns and adjectives. I also wanted to have a good mix of polite and casual speech to show how each is used respective to the social position of the characters. I was really tempted to have Kim say 「わかりません」 in his second-to-last line but decided to hold off on negative tenses for verbs for now. I also wanted to write 「キムさんだけの特別な宿題です。」 but decided that was too advanced. See how hard this is? Actually, what I really wanted to write was 「この授業は、キムさんにとって簡単すぎるようなので、キムさんだけの特別な宿題を作りました。さぁ、喜んでください!おほほほほ!」

Personally, I think the best part of this dialogue is when Smith says, 「私は、まだ難しいよ。」 because it really shows that the topic particle is not the “subject” as we define it in English. Obviously, Smith is not saying she’s difficult since that makes no sense.

So that’s my first dialogue. It will, of course, have an English translation and a non-Kanji version for those who want to worry about the Kanji later. What do you think? I’m pretty happy with it but there will be lots more to come. Even though you really can’t tell yet, I already have an idea of what the various characters are like in my mind. I hope you will all eventually find out as I develop the story and finish the textbook!

Another approach to the textbook

I haven’t been spending as much time as I’d like on the textbook project and I think I’ve figured out the reason why. It’s just not turning out the way I like and therefore I don’t feel any excitement about working on it.

I’ve been approaching it the traditional style, basing the dialogue on lesson themes such as introductions and greetings. The problem is that it’s nearly impossible to make any kind of interesting dialogue with those kinds of themes. How many more books do we need with the same old dialogue as below?

A) おはようございます。おげんきですか?
B) おはようございます。はい、げんきです。Aさんは?
A) わたしも、げんきです。

I think I’m going to take time to think about another approach. One idea I had was to write all the dialogues first and based the book around them. Each chapter would break each dialogue down and work on practicing and expanding the concepts and grammar within the dialogue. Each dialogue would also build upon the previous one and grow more and more advanced. I know, it’s probably easier said than done, but I think my first goal should be creating a large selection of useful and interesting Japanese and less on the explanations.

Ultimately, my goal is to grab the reader and get him hooked from the very beginning. And what I have now just isn’t cutting it. Any suggestions for topics, characters, and story lines?

By the way, some of you may have noticed already but I added a new Feedback page. It’s currently empty but I hope to build it as a page for your feedback (duh).

DocBook sucks…

I wrote my original grammar guide in clean XHTML by hand. The beauty of XHTML validation is that it’ll easily catch your boneheaded tag errors automatically. Also, I was already comfortable with HTML, CSS, DOM, and Javascript and so I could easily tweak the content exactly how I wanted it including mouse-over popups and practice exercises. Finally, having it all in XHTML made it incredibly easy to move around and share. No database or language runtime to install, all you needed to do was put the files on a web server. The clean markup made it easier for others to modify for the language translations as well.

The only drawback is that it is not easy to port into other formats. The pdf version is not very good and RTF is pretty much out of the question. But it’s ok because it was pretty much built for the web anyway and that’s where it will stay.

For the textbook, I wanted it to be not just for the web but for a variety of formats, including (as the word “textbook” suggests) a printed book. That’s why I went with DocBook, which seemed to serve my purposes. Unfortunately, now I need an XSLT processor and have to mess with XSL to make any kind of major tweak which is a huge pain. Still, since the original document is XML, it’s still portable and shareable. I also really enjoy the ability to easily reorder content around because I’m still trying to figure out how to arrange everything.

Unfortunately, I’m finding some annoying issues with DocBook that lies with the purist mentality that absolutely no formatting should be in the document itself. Can you believe that there is no built-in support for freakin’ line breaks?? So when I want to write a dialogue, I either have to use “literallayout” which means I have to mess with the whitespace therefore completely ruining my prettily formatted xml or I have to add my own custom tag and XSL template, which means it’s no longer docbook and I have to carry around my customized XSL forever.

Another example is the complete lack of support for strike-through text. Apparently I should use subversion or something to track revision changes. This is a perfect example of purists thinking they know better than you. But have they considered that maybe I want to show readers what doesn’t belong in a sentence and should be deleted? Nobody can imagine all the uses people have for various formatting so they shouldn’t try to second-guess what you need them for.

For now, I’m not going to let it bother me and just concentrate on the content. Worst case, I can always port the stuff to whatever I want by hand. Or maybe I can just run a cleanup perl script at the end. I don’t even want to think about PDF conversion right now. I evaluated FOP at Hitachi when they needed documents with dynamic data and format customized for each company. I told them to forget about it and go with Big Faceless Java PDF Library. Even with a crazy name like that, it’s probably the smartest thing I ever did there. The funny part is that took a multimillion dollar company MONTHS to license something that costs several hundred dollars. We almost released the tax modules with “DEMO” written in large letters across the back of all the documents.

I don’t know. Maybe I should try LaTeX or something? I know next to nothing about it except that you have to compile your document!

Explaining the long vowel sound

In a previous post, I talked about the surprising complexity in explaining long vowel sounds. Since then, I’ve made a little progress and decided to separate the /ei/ and /ee/ long vowel sounds completely.

The decision finally came with a realization late in the night. (Yes, I probably spend way too much time thinking about this stuff.) I though about Katakana and its simplified system of using 「ー」 for long vowel sounds. I thought about words that are obviously long /e/ vowel sounds such as 「ケーキ」 versus /y/ vowel sounds such as 「メイク」. You see, the fact that 「メイク」 writes out the 「イ」 instead of using 「ー」 proves the fact that there is a significant and important difference between the two sounds. You can’t see this in Hiragana because 「ー」 isn’t used for long vowel sounds.

This convinced me that improved pronunciation was worth the little extra complexity it takes to explain this. But really it wasn’t that bad. Here’s what I ended up with.

Before we go any further, we need to revisit Hiragana to talk about a very important aspect of Japanese pronunciation: the long vowel sound. When a sound is followed by the corresponding vowel sound: 「あ」、「い」、「え」、or 「お」, the combination forms a single, longer vowel sound. It is very important to fully extend the vowel sound for correct pronunciation. The table given below illustrates what matching vowel sounds indicate a long vowel sound. The rows in grey are very rare combinations found in only a few words that will be pointed out as we learn them.

Table 1.6. Extending Vowel Sounds
Vowel Sound Extended by Example Pronunciation
/ a / まあ maa
/ i / いい ii
/ u / くう kuu
/ e / せい sei
/ e / ねえ nee
/ o / とう too
/ o / とお too

I plan to replace the ローマ字 with links to the actual pronunciations once I get to adding sound.

Now, this still glosses over the issue the combinations don’t always make a long vowel sound. You also have to consider how the sounds line up with the Kanji. For instance with 「経緯」, the long vowel sound is in the first character: 「けい」. In other words, it should be read as 「けい・い」 and not 「け・いい」. Another example is 「問う」, which obviously can’t be a long vowel since the 「う」 is outside the kanji. But given that I’m explaining long vowel sounds for the first time much less anything about Kanji, I have no choice but to skip the more intricate aspects. Besides, you better know some kanji if you’re advanced enough to actually use words like 「経緯」 and 「問う」.

Japanese textbooks: I may complain but I understand

I’ve complained about the the current state of most Japanese textbooks for quite a while now. My chief complaints include using ローマ字, teaching polite form before the dictionary form, and poor to no grammar explanations. But as I try to write my own textbook, it’s all too clear to me why this is the case. Writing a textbook that comprehensively covers vocabulary and grammar with context and practice is hard.

In fact, just like it is for learning, writing about Japanese is hardest at the beginning. I have a feeling that once I can get the first few chapters done, the rest would be quite easy. But for the complete beginner, where do you start? You have to explain the difference between polite vs casual form, the topic particle, sentence structure, and the incredibly tricky copula before you can even make the most basic of sentences. It’s just too much information at once and you just have to make shortcuts somewhere and not explain all the intricate details.

For example, even explaining all of Hiragana is a bit overwhelming. With my “learning by doing” approach, I want the reader to learn Hiragana by using it as soon as possible. But not only do you have to memorize all the characters, you have to learn the voiced consonants, long vowel sounds, and small や, ゆ, よ, つ. So if I want to push some vocab and grammar lessons without spending forever on every aspect of Hiragana, I have to make do without being able to use long vowel sounds or small や, ゆ, よ, つ. I can work temporarily without Kanji or Katakana but have you tried to make any sentences without long vowel sounds? It’s practically impossible!

And even when I do get to long vowel sounds, that topic itself is pretty complex. For instance, how do we categorize the えい vowel sound? It’s actually a slurred combination of the /e/ and /i/ sound that sounds more like the /y/ vowel sound. Therefore, a word such as ええ has a different sound from a word like 営業 (えいぎょう). But do I really want to go over this when my audience is still trying to learn Hiragana? Can you even really hear the difference anyway? Probably not. And besides, the only words with a true long え vowel sound I can think of off the top of my head is ええ and おねえさん anyway. So do I just simply treat えい as the long /e/ vowel sound and pretend that the true long /e/ vowel sound are exceptions? I can see why it’s just so much easier to give them ローマ字 and be done with it.

Writing the guide was much simpler because it is intended to be self-study material. I don’t care how long it takes to get to the level of being able to say anything meaningful. But when you want enable learners to use what little they know to provide context and practice, it’s really difficult when they don’t know anything.

Textbook writers, I understand your pain. But we can do better!

Till now and beyond…

Till now

I started writing the Guide to Japanese grammar… oh I don’t even really remember it was so long ago. Maybe about 6 years ago? I took me about 3 or 4 years to gradually cover most of the topics I considered most important. After that, I set up the forum, originally to discuss how to improve the guide but it turned into a great place to seriously discuss anything about Japanese. There are some great regular members and the general atmosphere of the forum is friendly and focused, just the way I like it. Around that time, I started getting offers for translations and thanks to the amazing work from many volunteers, the guide is available to some degree in 10 different languages.

I also started the blog on 3yen which has become the blog you’re reading right now, and started learning Mandarin about 2 years ago. All of this was done in my spare time while pursuing a career in software (primarily web) development. So where do I plan to go from here?

The Guide

The guide hasn’t been updated since September of 2006 and that’s because besides some minor topics that I still want to cover (such as 〜たまえ or 〜てから), the only major piece is to finish the practice exercises. However, while certainly useful, they can be produced by anyone and are no more than basic drills anyway. The other major piece, Kansai dialect, is a huge topic that I’d just rather not go into right now. I still do want to do the conjugation tables though but laziness and tedium is the major issue.

The Textbook?

I’ve always wanted to publish something but I have no idea how to go about it and putting stuff online is so much more accessible anyway. Especially since you can print it out yourself for a lot less money. (Well maybe not, how much is it to print 237 pages at Kinkos?)

However, a textbook is a different story because printing and binding several copies is not very convenient. And having a rough printout may not a big deal for yourself but you want a nice printed copy for others. In addition, while audio can be more easily integrated online, physical distribution has the advantage in that you don’t have to download potentially large amounts of data.

Writing a complete textbook for Japanese including vocabulary usage, grammar, and reading material has been a pet project of mine for a very long time. However, my vision of the textbook changed gradually in the process of writing this blog and interacting with readers in the comments. So far, I haven’t even finished the first chapter and progress is slow because it’s really hard. That’s because my vision of the ideal Japanese textbook facilitates learning by doing and learning how to teach yourself.

No Japanese textbook can ever be complete

Virtually every Japanese textbook I know of has a critical flaw. It tells you exactly what to learn and there is no discovery. This works great in most classes such as algebra where you can take a class and once you’ve passed, you can reasonably claim that you know algebra. However with languages, you need hundreds of hours of reading, writing, and conversation practice. You also have to memorize thousands of words. In essence, you have to learn a different version of everything you already learned in your lifetime. So it’s pretty presumptuous of textbooks to think they can tell you to learn this and that and you’re done at the end of the book. No language textbook can teach you everything you need to know.

As a result, the expectation ends up being, “You can learn some stuff in class but you’ll have to go to Japan to learn how to speak Japanese for real.” This is unfortunate because it’s not true and I know because I passed into the highest level of Japanese for my study abroad without setting a foot in Japan. All you need is somebody who can speak Japanese you can practice with on a regular basis. Here’s what you would need to do and how a great textbook can help.

Learn how to learn

Teaching somebody how to learn Japanese is relatively easy. Somewhere in the textbook, it should teach you how to use dictionaries and the new technologies available. Dictionaries have come a long way since the days of looking up each Kanji by guessing the radical and than guessing which readings are used in the compound before you can finally find the word. (In fact, I can’t even imagine how people learned with this method.) The textbook should also teach you how to learn Kanji because again, no class can ever cover every Kanji you need to know. At some point, you have to start learning them yourself.

It should also give you some advice and resources on how to find a Japanese language partner so that you can practice your conversational skills. Technology has given us options even if there are no Japanese speakers in your area. This can also help the teacher in finding conversation partners for the class by providing suggestions such as matching up with a Japanese class learning English via sites like Mixxer.

Think for yourself

The hard part is helping the learner to discover and explore the language. I plan to approach this in two ways. The first is by exploring key concepts in different contexts by continually expanding dialogues and readings throughout the book. In this way, the learner can learn by example how the core concepts are applied to express many different ideas.

The second is by suggesting exercises that require the learner to be creative. In my experience, the majority of workbook exercises tell you exactly what to do in the example. This type of exercise is virtually useless because you never have to actually think for yourself.

For example, this type of exercise might look familiar:

Conjugate to 「たい」 form.
Ex) ケーキを食べたい


But what about this instead?


You know why students hate these kinds of open-ended questions? Because you have to think and thinking is hard. But the biggest benefit to having a teacher is so that you can experiment and have somebody to guide you to the right path. Grading the first type of exercise is a complete waste of the teacher’s time which can be spent in far more productive activities. Teachers should be helping you select the most natural words and grammar to express your thoughts correctly. They should not be telling you what to say and how.

To cover conversation skills, you might have the following exercise.

In your next conversation session, discuss what you and your language partner would like to do on the weekend. Submit a summary of your conversation to the teacher.

In summary, the textbook will force students to learn how to read by reading (duh) material that continues to expand while incorporating old material in new ways. It will also force students to express their own thoughts in writing (with the guidance of a teacher) and also to apply their lessons in real conversations.

Other Projects

There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in terms of software, learning methodologies, and communities for learning Japanese. So I feel my best contribution to learning Japanese is to continue to write material that is helpful to Japanese learners. This, of course, means that I will continuing to write in this blog but I’d also like to expend more resources to create a truly great textbook the likes of which has never been seen. It might take a long (long, long, long) time but I hope it’s becomes something truly valuable to Japanese learners even more so than the original Grammar Guide. Now that’s something I would like to get published.

I’ll also continue to study Chinese of course. Not only for my personal enjoyment but also because it helps keep things in perspective and is a great reminder of how hard learning a language is when you’re not used to it.

What do you think?