Semi-Informed Observations Concerning the Japanese Language

My adopted Japanese and my native English do not match. I once tried to illustrate this to my articulate father during a conversation regarding machine translations by taking a sentence he volunteered in English (“These pretzels are making me thirsty.”), writing out a simple Japanese translation, and putting it through the ringer to get English back.

“It is felt thirsty to this pretzel.”

Dennis loved it, and I felt validated. I carried out the test again years later (yesterday) with a simpler Japanese sentence, and a third time with the words a Japanese person would actually use to express the same thought.

“These pretzels are dry my throat.”
“Dry throat to eat this pretzel.”

On top of that exercise, I think of times I’ve been asked how to say a certain word like light, and had to first determine context in order to make a judgment and issue my translation. 日 (hi)? 光 (hikari)? 電気 (denki)? 明かり (akari)? Something else?

If translation were easy, it wouldn’t be so difficult, but it’s not, so it is. This incompatibility between two languages born of different worlds leads to a mystique around Japanese that, to me, seems more rooted in linguistic ignorance than in any inherent characteristic of the vehicle itself.

I’ve read a number of articles over the years written by folks professing to have amassed a collection of gorgeous words for which an English equivalent is nonexistent. These lists inevitably include not only multiple Japanese words (some of which being fairly legitimate examples), but invariably the distinctly non-English, non-Western concept of komorebi.

Komorebi could be artfully described through study and reflection as “sunlight leaking through trees”. Allow me to attempt to break down that interpretation of this uniquely Japanese “word”.

Komorebi is written 木漏れ日.

木 (ko in this case): trees

漏れ (more): leaking

木漏れ (komore): leaking from trees

日 (bi in this case): sunlight (depending, mind you, on context)

木漏れ日 (komorebi): sunlight leaking through trees

Another example would be the Japanese “word” karoshi. Karoshi is the concept of death from overwork. What an eccentric single unit of vocabulary!

過 (ka): exceed

労 (ro): working

死 (shi): death

Komorebi is about as much of a “word” as sunlight leaking through trees, it’s just that the language allows it to sound like a word the way English would if we illustrated that same image with words like treepasslight or perhaps perarbolux*.

This new classification of what constitutes a word sparked two notions in me. The first was that Japanese doesn’t so much have words as it has parts. Does “exceedworkingdeath” sound like one word to you? I’d found the secret to these unique Japanese words:

Japanese doesn’t have spaces!

Allow 食べ (tabe),  the verb stem for eat, to explain this to you. Here are some sentences made by conjugating that verb that don’t actually contain any additional words:

食べた (tabeta): I ate.

食べなかった (tabenakatta): I didn’t eat.

食べさせた (tabesaseta): I made/let them eat.

食べられた (taberareta): I was eaten./I was able to eat.

食べさせられた (tabesaserareta): I was made/allowed to eat.

食べさせられなかった (tabesaserarenakatta): I was not made/allowed to eat.

食べさせられてはいなかった (tabesaseraretewainakatta): I wasn’t necessarily being FORCED to eat it, per se.

As you can see, the two languages are completely different beasts working on totally separate operating systems. I would like some pizza right now. To examine Japanese language elements through the lens of English is misguided. That’s why learning Japanese appears to be so difficult from the outsider’s perspective or from that of the beginning student. You don’t learn, speak, or study Japanese based on your knowledge of English.

It’s fun and nice to pass off mononoaware as a single Japanese word, but it is literally a series made up of the word for things, a possessive particle, and the word for pathos or something like grief. The entertainment value isn’t lost on me. My grouse is with the intentional ignorance of the structure of the language. Mononoaware, karoshi, komorebi, and nomihodai are not individual words.

物 (mono): things

の (no): possessive particle

哀れ (aware): pathos

The second notion was that I wanted to compile a list of English “words” that don’t exist in Japanese in a manner as accurate and practical as the lists I’ve read making the point in the opposite direction. Without further adieu, the product of my worthless pursuit…

Five Beautiful English Words That Don’t Exist in Japanese:

HAVEANICEDAY – This single word is used to wish a companion well throughout the course of the current day. It is not an acknowledgement of hard work and it does not request a specific action like taking care or resting. It has a general implication similar to gokigenyo, but it is less about the mood of the individual than it is about the events of the day. There is no equivalent to haveaniceday in Japanese.

SELF-RESPECT – This means placing a value on one’s own being. This concept would possibly be described best in Japanese using the three symbols 自尊心 (jisonshin, self-respect).

GOODLUCK – Japanese tend to say ganbatte in cases in which a speaker of English may wish for their companion’s good fortune, for things to go their way. This Japanese phrase asks the person to do their best, or give it all they’ve got. You can wish somebody good luck in Japanese, but not quite with one word.

FOLLOWYOURHEART – It’s not fair to say this concept is absent in Japanese culture, because that would be bowing to perception and accepting stereotype, but there is no single word in Japanese that perfectly encapsulates the same idea.

HELLO – It’s a greeting similar to konnichiwa, but it does not refer to a specific point in time or situation. There are some interjections like oi that call attention to the speaker in a way similar to the English hey, but a standard greeting used to open a conversation or merely acknowledge another person in any social situation is absent. Modern Japanese doesn’t seem to have a hello.

*”perarbolux” first known usage May 2016 by blogger Steve Corbett in his article Semi-Informed Observations Concerning the Japanese Language