Japanese from Scratch 1.1.2 – Hiragana Vowels

If you’re new to this series, check out my previous posts under the “Japanese from Scratch” category.

The best way to practice writing is to use plain old-fashion pen and paper. You can download the Hiragana practice writing sheet here:

Here are the example words from the lesson with some additions for extra reading practice.

  1. あい – love
  2. あお – blue
  3. いえ – house
  4. うえ – above
  5. おい – nephew
  6. おう – to chase
  7. あう – to meet

Here’s a odd tidbit. Did you know what we call “green” for a green traffic light is called 「あお」 in Japan? Actually, it IS kind of blue in Japan depending on how you look at it so it’s not that strange.

The sound 「おう」 is also an interjection used to express an “informal affirmative response“. So next time somebody says, “Let’s do it!” You can respond 「おう!」 instead of “yeah!”. Practicing interjections in Japanese is a great way to start sounding and maybe even feeling a bit more Japanese.

Hungry for more? Check out my page on Hiragana.
My Youtube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/taekimjapanese

Japanese from Scratch 1.1.1 – Writing Systems

I am trying out a new series called “Japanese from Scratch” by making videos that go over Japanese in small steps in a quick, no-nonsense fashion. In this first video, I do a brief overview of the 3 writing systems in Japanese to give you some context before jumping straight into Hiragana. Post your questions, suggestions, and feedback here or on the video page for future videos.

My Youtube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/taekimjapanese

*I will be updating and re-posting the old posts in this category as I make the videos.

Saying more than this and that

One of the first batch of words that students of Japanese usually learn is the 「こ」、「そ」、「あ」、「ど」 series of words for things and locations.

  1. これ – this
  2. それ – that
  3. あれ – that (over there)
  4. どれ – which
  5. ここ – here
  6. そこ – there
  7. あそこ – over there
  8. どこ – where

Most will also probably learn the shortened version of 「これの」 etc. such as 「この」. And that’s usually about all that’s ever covered even though there’s a bunch more 「こ」、「そ」、「あ」 vocabulary that are really useful! So let’s look at a few.

Like this/that

You know how you’re not supposed to use the word “like” all the time. Well, we all do anyway because it’s so useful, right? The 「こう、そう、ああ」 series of words are arguably just as useful.

If somebody asks you how to do something, one common answer is “do it like this or that” and that’s exactly what 「こう、そう、ああ」 means. Now you see where 「そうです」 comes from.

A: この漢字はどう書くんですか?
A: How do you write this Kanji?

B: こう書きます。
B: You write it like this.

The real power from these words come when you combine them with 「いう」 to define what something is like. The English equivalent would be “this/that kind of thing”. It’s a great way to talk about abstract or complicated matters.


  1. そういう難しい話は、よくわかんないよ。
    I don’t understand that kind of difficult talk (topic).
  2. こういう時には、本当に何もする気がないんだよな。
    Really don’t feel like doing anything in times like these.

You can extend this further by attaching 「風」 (pronounced 「ふう」 in this case), to describe a certain way of doing things.

  1. この漢字はこういう風に書くのよ。
    You write this Kanji in this kind of style/manner.

This/that much?

Another incredibly useful series of words are: 「こんな、そんな、あんな」. Combined with the 「に」 particle, these words will allow you to say common things like “Are you that hungry?” or “Did you have to buy this much?”. You can also use them without the 「に」 particle but the meaning is a bit hard to explain and is not used as often (in my opinion).


  1. そんなにお腹が空いているの?
    Are you that hungry?
  2. こんなにたくさん買う必要があったの?
    Did you have to buy this much?


If you’ve learned the grammar for comparisons, you are probably already familiar with the phrase 「どちらの方が」. This literally means “which way” which you can obviously answer with “this or that way”. It can also be used for plain directions as well, of course.

  1. こちら – this
  2. そちら – that
  3. あちら – that (over there)


There are others like 「こいつ、そいつ、あいつ」 that I’m not going to discuss here. I don’t want to be accused of corrupting the pure and proper Japanese that is taught in most classes. 🙂

What I’m watching now

I was delighted to learn that one of my favorite shows 「ケロロ軍曹」 is available on hulu! (May not be available in your region). Of course, you should watch the subtitled episodes and try to avoid reading the subtitles as much as possible. I highly recommend!

It’s shocking how much Japanese learning material is available online now. When I was learning Japanese, I was stuck with just my crappy textbook from my Japanese class. (Going to my Japanese class was uphill both ways, by the way.)

It’s really annoying though that Netflix always streams the dubbed version of animes requiring you to get the DVDs. Personally, I can’t stand dubbed anime. I can’t put my finger on it but it just sounds wrong. I think most anime watchers prefer subtitles, wouldn’t you agree?

Explaining the explaining の

Here’s how I typically explain the explanatory 「の」 when I teach it to my students.

Question: I don’t understand the difference between the two:
1. 今日は授業があります。
2. 今日は授業があるんです

I fire back with another question: How would you say, “Isn’t there class today?”

「今日は授業がありませんか?」 simply means “Is there no class today?”

“Isn’t there class today?” sounds like the speaker is expecting to have class today and is surprised that that may not be the case. That’s what we call seeking an explanation, which requires using 「の」.

So the answer is:

The simple answer to such a question would be:

Similarly, 「今日は授業があるんです。」 is saying that there is class today as an explanation for something. For example, maybe you want to explain why you can’t go to lunch.

A-san: 昼ごはんを一緒に食べませんか?
B-san: すみません、今日は授業があるんです

It helps to figure out the difference by looking at a situation where you have to use 「の」 to say something. There is no way to say things like, “Isn’t there class today?” without using 「の」.

What I’m reading today

Ok so I lied when I said I wouldn’t be posting more of what I’m reading. I realized that all my previous posts were for very high intermediate or advanced levels. So today, I read a very cute children’s story about a baby snake. Children’s books aren’t great for learning Kanji and often don’t really engage adult readers but you know what? Maybe you have a child and you’d like to read a Japanese children’s book to him or her. Or maybe you’re a beginner and you want to be able to enjoy reading something in Japanese without having to spend weeks on the first page.

The site 「パブー」 has a bunch of other free stuff to read and it’s even available in PDF format.

Anyway, the one I read about the baby snake is really cute and it’s even got some Kanji in it. So it’s actually pretty awesome. Maybe I’ll load the free children’s books onto a tablet to read to my baby instead of buying them from Kinokuniya, which can get pretty expensive very fast (unless you have to buy the tablet).

Difficulty: 1/5
My rating: 5/5

Figuring out Chinese: 在 vs 着

Can anyone explain to me the difference between 在 and 着? I looked online to no avail. Here are the differences that I came up with. However, I have no idea if they’re correct and I’m sure I’m missing a whole bunch of other usages.

  1. 在 can be used to indicate location, 着 can’t.
    Ex: 我住在美国。
  2. 在 is used for a continuous action.
    Ex: 他在打电话。
  3. 着 is used for a one-time action that changes a state and remains in that state.
    Ex: 她手里拿着一本书。

The best I can figure out is that 着 is not actually an action but a description of a state resulting from the action, which explains why it comes after the verb. For instance, 下着雨 describes the condition as being rainy. This explains why dict.cn translates it as “rainily” which I don’t think is even a word. On the other hand, 在下雨 is the continuous action of rain falling. That’s why you can have what at first seems to be a crazy duplication such as 雨还在下着. It makes sense when you consider that it’s a continuous action of the “rainily” condition.

Yeah, no wonder I hate Chinese grammar. Next, I’ll try to figure out the difference between 一点 and 一些. Ow, my poor head!

There is no such thing as 「熱い水」

If you read the title of this post and thought, “How can Japanese not have hot water?!” then this post is for you. Those of you who are familiar with this topic will know that Japan has hot water, of course. How can the bath and tea loving Japanese not have hot water. It’s just the complete opposite, in fact. Japanese people love hot water so much that they have a completely different word reserved just for water that’s hot. In fact, they even put an honorific 「お」 on top of it to make sure hot water realizes how awesome it is.

お湯 – Honorific hot water who blesses us with its holy gift of tasty tea and relaxing baths

Cold water just gets the shaft because it sucks and is just 「冷たい水」 if you want to be specific or just 「水」 as coldness is often implied (remember, hot water gets its own word).

The moral of this post is that you should never take anything for granted in a new language. That’s why, when I try to say something I’m unfamiliar with, I always try to find some real world examples and usages using various dictionaries and Google. There’s also Lang-8 to get your work checked by other people.

I’ve compiled a list of some word usages that might seem odd to us only because of the way we’re used to saying it in English. Can you think of other examples that have caught you unawares in the past?

  1. 電気をつける/消す – Attaching and erasing electricity to turn the lights and electronic devices on or off.
  2. 傘を差す – Pointing an umbrella to open it.
  3. シャワーを浴びる – Japanese uses a special verb for showering, also used for basking in the sun.
  4. 量が多い/少ない – Amount uses discrete measurement adjectives of numerous and few. I’ve often made the mistake of using 大きい and 小さい.
  5. 背が低い – Height is low NOT short.
  6. 教える – You don’t have to be a teacher to teach. You can use 「教える」 just for telling someone something they don’t know.
  7. うそ – Not always used for fibbing, you can say “lie!” to express disbelief as in “no way!”

Learner/Beginner Dictionaries: The Ultimate Oxymoron

I’ve touched on this topic in an earlier post but it’s really sad to see the crappy resources we’re supposed to be using as English speakers learning Japanese. If you ever see me at a regular bookstore such as Barnes & Nobles going through the Japanese foreign language section, you’ll hear me mutter, “crap, crap, complete crap, crap, oooh! An utter piece of shit!”. I’m going to pick on the Kodansha Kanji Learners Dictionary because it has the word “Learner” in it but the same things apply to dictionaries commonly seen at most US bookstores. The first dictionary I bought (before I knew any better) was Random House Japanese-English English-Japanese Dictionary and it was also a complete piece of shit and a total waste of my precious and meager college money.

Anyway, going back to the Kodansha Kanji Dictionary, the product description on Amazon starts like this.

The Kodansha Kanji Learner’s Dictionary answers the urgent need for an easy-to-use kanji dictionary compact enough to be easily carried around, yet detailed enough to satisfy the practical needs of the beginning and intermediate learner.

The “detailed enough” is the ultimate oxymoron of all these resources “designed” for English speakers learning Japanese. Beginner and intermediate learners need the most complete coverage possible even more so than native speakers, not less! If a native or advanced student needs to find out about something, they can search on Google, Wikipedia, local bookstores, libraries, ask around, and a whole wealth of other sources in the native language that are not available for people who can’t speak the language! If you’re a beginner like I was and equipped only with these crappy dictionaries, your only options when it doesn’t have the word you’re looking for are:

  1. Say, “oh well” and quit.
  2. Feel sad or frustrated and maybe cry or punch something.
  3. Throw your crap dictionary at the wall and yell expletives at it.
  4. Take your dictionary back to the store and demand your money back.

My point is when you’re looking at some Japanese text and you have no idea what it means, the last thing you need is a dictionary that should have all the definitions but don’t. You also need lots of example sentences, related idioms, detailed definitions, and an easy way to look up Kanji. This is a huge contrast to native speakers who understand most of everything and can figure out the rest from context without even opening a dictionary.

For comparison, the Kodansha’s Leaner Dictionary has 2,230 characters compared to my 改訂新版 漢字源 which has 13,112. The Random House Japanese<->English Dictionary claims to have over 50,000 entries, which I assume is about half that since it has both Japanese to English and English to Japanese. Currently, I have ジーニアス英和大辞典 which has 255,000 entries and ジーニアス和英辞典 which has 82,000 entries. I admit the Japanese-English dictionary is a bit weak since my dictionary is for Japanese people but that’s still over 3x larger than the Random House dictionary and I also have 大辞林 which has 252,000 Japanese-Japanese entries. Overall, the difference is around a factor of 10. That’s a lot of information you’re missing out on!

Please, enough with the romaji!!!

Here’s the funniest quote in the product description for the Random House Dictionary.

The romanized entries are listed in alphabetical order, so no knowledge of Japanese is required.

So you don’t need to have any knowledge of Japanese to use a Japanese dictionary? Nice trick! What does it do, upload all the data directly to your brain Matrix-style?

And what is up with these romaji dictionaries? How the hell are you supposed to look up a word written in Kanji with a romaji dictionary?? For example, if I wanted to look up 「実際」, do I have to use a separate dictionary to look up 「実」 and 「際」 and THEN try a hit-or-miss guessing game at the reading? Ok, let’s try “jitsusai”, “jitusai”, “makotogiwa”, “mokotokiwa”, “minorikiwa”, “minorigiwa” and then proceed to the 4 options listed above. You MIGHT get lucky and find “jissai” with “jitsusai” because in this case, “s” comes right before “t” but what about 「間際」? In Japanese dictionaries, 「き」 is right next to 「ぎ」 so it doesn’t matter whether you look for 「まきわ」 or 「まぎわ」, they’re right next to each other. But in romaji, “k” and “g” are pretty far apart. The same goes for 「じつさい」 vs 「じっさい」. In fact, 「じつざい」 (実在) comes right after 「じっさい」(実際) while “jissai” is nowhere near “jitsuzai”. It’s hard enough in Japanese when words like 「時間」、「間際」、「間」、and 「眉間」 all use different readings for 「間」. They also expect us to deal with voiced consonants and small つ being all over the place, no thanks to romaji? No wonder people think learning Japanese is hard!

Do yourself a favor and copy-paste the characters into an online dictionary. Otherwise, I don’t know how you’re going to find words like 「生粋」、「仲人」、「気質」、 and 「行方」.

Why do the Asians have it so good?

Take a look at those Japanese kids learning English. You don’t see them using crippled J<->E dictionaries. I’m sure many of you have seen Japanese exchange students, tutors, or whatnot with fancy electronic dictionaries. Those things have Genius and Progressive J<->E dictionaries with almost 100,000 entries each! But for some reason, I have never seen these dictionaries in any bookstores in the US except at 紀伊国屋 (no surprise there).

Many of those Japanese electronic dictionaries even have regular Oxford and Longman English dictionaries that are just as good as the ones we use. Some are even designed for learning other languages such as Korean and Chinese. When I started learning Chinese, this time I knew better than to completely waste my money on crap like the Concise English-Chinese / Chinese-English Dictionary so I plunked down some serious change for a Canon G90. Oh, the little paper dictionary has more than 20,000 entries in both sections? My 講談社 C<->J dictionaries have a total of 163,000 entries and a 中日大辞典 that has 150,000 entries for Chinese to Japanese alone. Booyah!

To top it off, all of the dictionaries I mentioned owning are all in one tiny electronic device, which has a whole bunch of other dictionaries I didn’t even mention. I have used this dictionary for years and haven’t regretted buying it since. Almost every entry has examples sentences in both Chinese and Japanese. You can also use the stylus pen to write and search for kanji along with animated stroke order diagrams. These features are critical for learners that are simply unnecessary for advanced or native speakers and the Japanese makers understand that. My only relatively minor complaints are poor support for traditional characters (they’re in there but only as separate characters) and the dark screen.

So what’s the deal here? Why do I have to buy an J<->E dictionary from Japan to get anything decent? And even worse, why do I need to know Japanese to get a decent Chinese dictionary? I’ve already given up on the Pocket Oxford Chinese Dictionary, which is also on my G90 after it failed me one too many times. But I bet you can find great C<->E dictionaries in China. It’s almost too depressing.

But I’m too cheap to buy an expensive dictionary!

If you’re too cheap to buy an electronic dictionary that can cost several hundred dollars, you can use several online dictionaries for free!

However, if you’re really serious about learning Japanese, the extra money is totally worth it. You can get reasonably cheap ones with less features, you just need to make sure it comes with quality and beefy dictionaries. Personally, I prefer the Canon WordTank or Casio Ex-word brands.

Seriously, I feel sorry for those people who don’t know enough to actually waste their money on these crappy paper dictionaries perhaps unaware that you can get something infinitely better for free (minus cost of computer+internet). Lets spread the message that these things aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on and hopefully get some real dictionaries that are actually usable.

DEATH to the useless Learner dictionaries!!!

(Sorry, I recently watched eXistenZ. That’s one weird movie.)

What’s the stroke order of 【龜】? Who cares?

This is yet another post that’s been picking up cruft in my draft folder for over three years.

Stroke order is one of those things that might seem difficult at first but actually comes quite naturally with a bit of practice. You just have to make sure you learn the the correct order of the most important radicals such as 口 and 田. You should also pay careful attention to radicals like 厂 that have more stroke orders than you would think. (Hint: it’s more than 1.)

Once you learn the stroke order for the most common radicals, you can figure out the rest for most kanji by yourself with general principles like the following.

  1. Stroke orders generally go from top to bottom and left to right (from the top-left corner to bottom-right corner).
  2. Vertical lines that go straight through are written last as opposed to those that connect (十 vs 土).
  3. Stuff that encloses something else gets drawn first but closed last (回 and 団).

When in doubt or for weird kanji like 必, you can always check the stroke order on the WWWJDIC by looking up the kanji and clicking on the SOD link. You’ll get a nice animated gif like this one.

However, the problem with these animations is that it only gives you the order and not the direction of each stroke. If you’re confused about stroke direction, another site you might want to try is gahoh, which has animated .mov files with the direction and order. Here’s one for .

Their collection isn’t as complete as the WWWJDIC but it is useful for odd or crazy and complicated kanji like . The request page in particular has some of the odder and trickier kanji like 凸、凹、飛、 and 卵 so you might want to check it out and double-check your stroke order.

So how useful is it to learn the proper stroke order of 龜? Not very but hey it’s fun times for everybody, right? Right? Hello? ………anybody?