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A Japanese guide to Japanese grammar

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The problem with conventional textbooks

The problem with conventional textbooks is that they often have the following goals.
  1. They want readers to be able to use functional and polite Japanese as quickly as possible.
  2. They don't want to scare readers away with terrifying Japanese script and Chinese characters.
  3. They want to teach you how to say English phrases in Japanese.
Traditionally with romance languages such as Spanish, these goals presented no problems or were nonexistent due to the similarities to English. However, because Japanese is different in just about every way down to the fundamental ways of thinking, these goals create many of the confusing textbooks you see on the market today. They are usually filled with complicated rules and countless number of grammar for specific English phrases. They also contain almost no kanji and so when you finally arrive in Japan, lo and behold, you discover you can't read menus, maps, or essentially anything at all because the book decided you weren't smart enough to memorize Chinese characters.

The root of this problem lies in the fact that these textbooks try to teach you Japanese with English. They want to teach you on the first page how to say, "Hi, my name is Smith," but they don't tell you about all the arbitrary decisions that were made behind your back. They probably decided to use the polite form even though learning the polite form before the dictionary form makes no sense. They also might have decided to include the subject even though it's not necessary and excluded most of the time. In fact, the most common way to say something like "My name is Smith" in Japanese is to say "am Smith". That's because most of the information is understood from the context and is therefore excluded. But does the textbook explain the way things work in Japanese fundamentally? No, because they're too busy trying to push you out the door with "useful" phrases right off the bat. The result is a confusing mess of "use this if you want to say this" type of text and the reader is left with a feeling of confusion about how things actually work.

The solution to this problem is to explain Japanese from a Japanese point of view. Take Japanese and explain how it works and forget about trying to force what you want to say in English into Japanese. To go along with this, it is also important to explain things in an order that makes sense in Japanese. If you need to know [A] in order to understand [B], don't cover [B] first just because you want to teach a certain phrase.

Essentially, what we need is a Japanese guide to learning Japanese grammar.

A Japanese guide to learning Japanese grammar

This guide is an attempt to systematically build up the grammatical structures that make up the Japanese language in a way that makes sense in Japanese. It may not be a practical tool for quickly learning immediately useful Japanese phrases (for example, common phrases for travel). However, it will logically create grammatical building blocks that will result in a solid grammatical foundation. For those of you who have learned Japanese from textbooks, you may see some big differences in how the material is ordered and presented. This is because this guide does not seek to forcibly create artificial ties between English and Japanese by presenting the material in a way that makes sense in English. Instead, examples with translations will show how ideas are expressed in Japanese resulting in simpler explanations that are easier to understand.

In the beginning, the English translations for the examples will also be as literal as possible to convey the Japanese sense of the meaning. This will often result in grammatically incorrect translations in English. For example, the translations might not have a subject because Japanese does not require one. In addition, since the articles "the" and "a" do not exist in Japanese, the translations will not have them as well. And since Japanese does not distinguish between a future action and a general statement (such as "I will go to the store" vs. "I go to the store"), no distinction will necessarily be made in the translation. It is my hope that the explanation of the examples will convey an accurate sense of what the sentences actually mean in Japanese. Once the reader becomes familiar and comfortable thinking in Japanese, the translations will be less literal in order to make the sentences more readable and focused on the more advanced topics.

Be aware that there are advantages and disadvantages to systematically building a grammatical foundation from the ground up. In Japanese, the most fundamental grammatical concepts are the most difficult to grasp and the most common words have the most exceptions. This means that the hardest part of the language will come first. Textbooks usually don't take this approach; afraid that this will scare away or frustrate those interested in the language. Instead, they try to delay going deeply into the hardest conjugation rules with patchwork and gimmicks so that they can start teaching useful expressions right away. (I'm talking about the past-tense conjugation for verbs in particular) This is a fine approach for some, however; it can create more confusion and trouble along the way much like building a house on a poor foundation. The hard parts must be covered no matter what. However, if you cover them in the beginning, the easier bits will be all that easier because they'll fit nicely on top of the foundation you have built. Japanese is syntactically much more consistent than English. If you learn the hardest conjugation rules, most of remaining grammar builds upon similar or identical rules. The only difficult part from there on is sorting out and remembering all the various possible expressions and combinations in order to use them in the correct situations.

※Before you start using this guide, please note that half brackets like these: 「」 are the Japanese version of quotation marks.

What is not covered in this guide?

The primary principle in deciding what to cover in this guide is by asking myself, "What cannot be looked up in a dictionary?" or "What is poorly explained in a dictionary?" In working on this guide, it soon became apparent that it was not possible to discuss the unique properties of each individual word that doesn't correspond well to English. (I tried making vocabulary lists but soon gave up.) Occasionally, there will be a description of the properties of specific words when the context is appropriate and the property is exceptional enough. However, in general, learning the nuance of each and every word is left to the reader. For example, you will not see an explanation that the word for "tall" can either mean tall or expensive, or that "dirty" can mean sneaky or unfair but cannot mean sexually perverted. The edict dictionary, which can be found here (mirrors also available) is an extensive dictionary that not only contains much more entries than conventional dictionaries in bookstores, it also often contains example sentences. It will help you learn vocabulary much better than I ever could. I also suggest not wasting any money on buying a Japanese-English, English-Japanese paper dictionary as most currently in print in the US market are woefully inadequate. (Wow, it's free and it's better! Remind anyone of open-source?)


My advice to you when practicing Japanese: if you find yourself trying to figure out how to say an English thought in Japanese, save yourself the trouble and quit because you won't get it right almost 100% of the time. You should always keep this in mind: If you don't know how to say it already, then you don't know how to say it. Instead, if you can, ask someone right away how to say it in Japanese including a full explanation of its use and start your practice from Japanese. Language is not a math problem; you don't have to figure out the answer. If you practice from the answer, you will develop good habits that will help you formulate correct and natural Japanese sentences.

This is why I'm a firm believer of learning by example. Examples and experience will be your main tools in mastering Japanese. Therefore, even if you don't get something completely the first time right away, just move on and keep referring back as you see more examples. This will allow you to get a better sense of how it's used in many different contexts. Unfortunately, writing up examples takes time and is slow going. (I'm trying my best!) But lucky for you, Japanese is everywhere, especially on the web. I recommend practicing Japanese as much as possible and referring to this guide only when you cannot understand the grammar. The Internet alone has a rich variety of reading materials including websites, bulletin boards, and online chat. Buying Japanese books or comic books is also an excellent (and fun) way to increase vocabulary and practice reading skills. Also, I believe that it is impossible to learn correct speaking and listening skills without a model. Practicing listening and speaking skills with fluent speakers of Japanese is a must if you wish to master conversational skills. While listening materials such as tapes and T.V. can be very educational, there is nothing better than a real human with which to learn pronunciation, intonation, and natural conversation flow. If you have specific questions that are not addressed in this guide, you can discuss them at the Japanese grammar guide forum.

Don't feel discouraged by the vast amount of material that you will need to master. Remember, every new word or grammar learned is one step closer to mastering the language!


Since Japanese is written in Japanese in this guide (as it should be and NOT in romaji) your browser must be able to display Japanese fonts. If 「こんにちは」 does not look like こんにちは (minus differences in fonts), then you need to install Japanese language support or use some kind of gateway to convert the characters. Links to instructions and a translation gateway are below.

Japanese Language Support
Translation Gateway (Considerably slower)

Also, please make sure you have a recent browser to enjoy all the benefits of stylesheets. I recommend Firefox.

Don't worry about having to manually look up all the Kanji and vocabulary. You can go to the WWWJDIC and paste all the examples there to quickly look up most of the words.

All the material presented here including examples is original except for some of the common terminology and when explicitly stated otherwise. I hope you enjoy this guide as much as I enjoyed writing it. Which is to say, frustrating and time-consuming yet somehow strangely mixed with an enormous feeling of satisfaction.

There are bound to be (many) small errors and typos especially since I wrote this in ed, haha, just kidding! (Sorry, nerd joke). I actually wrote this in Notepad which has no spellcheck, so please forgive the numerous typos! Please post any feedback, corrections, and/or suggestions at the Japanese Grammar Guide Forum

Well, no more chit-chat. Happy learning!

-Tae Kim

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This page has last been revised on 2005/6/8
Changed feedback from email to the forum (2005/6/8)