Published in Japanese

Well, it’s been a while since I wrote anything here. I’m not dead; I’m just busy at work, and I’ve managed to sustain daily posts to my Japanese blog, so this one has been a bit (OK, a lot) neglected. I wouldn’t put any money on this post being the start of a trend, either.

The point of this post is to brag.

There is a magazine for English teachers in Japan called 英語教育, which means “English Education”. It has run for years, and apparently can be found in virtually every school in the country. Thanks to an introduction from one of my students, I was asked to write a short article for it, and the article was published in the September issue. It introduces my favourite teaching materials, and I talked about the Guardian Weekly’s Learning English supplement, and the book that the Japan Institute of Logic has coming out from Kenkyusha (a Japanese publisher) later this year. I will be paid a proper rate for this article. (I may in fact have been paid already; I haven’t checked the relevant bank account for a few days.)

The thing that makes this not just another professional publication is the fact that I wrote the article in Japanese. It has been edited, and I need a lot more editing in Japanese than I do in English, but it has not been rewritten or translated. This is my first professional publication in Japanese.

Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about finding my next goal in improving my Japanese. I still need far too much editing.

In My Sleep

Yesterday, Yuriko told me I’d been talking in my sleep. Apparently, I told her that there was a blue light inside the light in our bedroom. When she said that, I remembered saying it, and seeing the light. It was like a bit of blue lightning, moving around inside the lampshade.

Of course, the really significant thing is that Yuriko told me that I told her that in Japanese. And, although communication was apparently a little difficult, I successfully told her what I wanted to say.

Thus, I can now, in all honesty, claim to be able to speak Japanese in my sleep.

Boil the Scrapings from Under His Fingernails and Drink Them

This is, apparently, a standard Japanese phrase: 爪のあかを煎じて飲む. It means “learn from him by imitation”. Yuriko suddenly used it last night, with reference to me, and it was the first time I’d heard it, so there followed a short clarificatory discussion. (“Why do they want to boil my fingernails? What have I ever done to them?”) Yuriko guessed that it might have something to do with the practices of traditional Chinese medicine, but it’s still a rather strange phrase.

The context was that she met some other Japanese mothers yesterday, and they were talking about their husbands. Apparently, most Japanese husbands still think that socks unball themselves and walk to the linen basket in the middle of the night, and are happy to watch the baby occasionally, as long as it doesn’t cry, or complain, or want to do anything. The idea that he might bathe the baby, or look after her for a whole day, seems to be regarded as plainly ridiculous.

This makes it very easy to be a comparatively good husband over here. It also probably explains why, in marriages between a Westerner and a Japanese, the Westerner is overwhelmingly male and the Japanese female. There are a handful of exceptions, but they seem to be very rare. The same bias does not apply to international marriages in general; there are a lot of Filipinas or Chinese women married to Japanese men, so it balances out, at least. But still, I suspect that there are very few Western women who would put up with a typical Japanese husband, so marriages that way probably only happen with exceptional examples. They do exist, and the culture is shifting in favour of the husband helping at home, but Westerners have at least a thirty year head start.


As people with a passing familiarity with contemporary Japan are probably aware, “otaku” is the Japanese equivalent of “geek” or “nerd”, or maybe “obsessive fan”. It tends to be applied to people who like geeky things, like science fiction, anime, computer games, or roleplaying.

This morning the caretaker at our flats addressed me as “otaku”.

However, this is not as shocking as it sounds. The etymology of “otaku”, so I have heard, is that it derives from a very polite form of “you”, and is used because it’s the pronoun that otaku use when addressing women, because they get very nervous and haven’t the faintest idea what to say. Since she immediately followed it up with “anata”, which is a more familiar, and more common, form of you, I’m sure that is what she meant. It was an interesting experience, because I’d never heard “otaku” used to mean “you”, so I wasn’t sure about the purported etymology. Now, while I know it might still be a false etymology, it does at least sound more plausible.

Incidentally, one reason I’d never heard it is that it is very, very rare for Japanese people to use the second person pronoun. “Anata” is almost exclusively used from wives to husbands, for example. The reason the caretaker used it this morning is that she wanted to ask about whether I was eating properly, whereas I thought she was asking about Mayuki. I mean, obviously, Mayuki is the most important and interesting subject in the world; why would people ask about me. But apparently I look like I’m not eating enough or getting enough sleep. This may be because I’m not eating enough and not getting enough sleep. Possibly. Anyway, I bought a lot of chocolate for today to try to offset it.

Normally, Japanese people use the surname to specify who they are talking about, but obviously that wouldn’t work in this case, because Mayuki and I share our surname. It’s quite possible that the caretaker can’t remember my given name, so she had to use the second person. So, first she was very polite, and then she used the more common one, probably in case I wasn’t familiar with the polite use of “otaku”.

Talking of Mayuki, she’s fine. She was quite lively yesterday, although she had a long nap in the middle of the day. She has finally started eating her weaning food enthusiastically, after a few weeks of being rather ambivalent about the whole business, and both her lower front incisors are now visible in her gums, and one is starting to cut through. Last night in the bath she was standing up from sitting on my legs, so in the near future we expect her to start pulling herself up around the house. She’s also, finally, rolled over a couple of times. She still doesn’t do it much, but she’s proved that she can. Maybe she just doesn’t see the point.

A Number of Firsts

It is true that a small baby in the home takes up quite a lot of time, even when your wife is doing most of the child rearing. This is my excuse for not writing very many English blog entries recently. However, Mayuki is growing up nicely, and she’s passed a number of really important milestones in the last week or so.

First, she’s said her first consonant. Up until now, she’s been saying “aaa” and “oo”, but a couple of days ago, after her bath, she managed “goo”. This is the first time I’ve actually heard a baby say “goo”, popular representations notwithstanding, which added to the amazement. She still prefers “aah” and “ooh” noises, though.

Second, she’s laughed for the first time. She’s been smiling for a while, but yesterday and today she actually laughed, complete with sound effects. Mind you, there didn’t seem to be anything obvious for her to laugh at, so I suspect she was just practising for the future. She will need to do develop that skill if she’s going to cope with Yuriko and me as parents.

Third, today I got to look after her for a whole day by myself for the first time. Yuriko has gone off to Ikea, and won’t be back until this evening. So far, it’s been fine. She slept after the iChat with America this morning, woke up to be fed, played for an hour or so, and then went back to sleep, which is her current state. Looking at the clock, she’s about due for another feed, so I’ll have to see whether she looks like she’s waking up when I’ve written this. Assuming she doesn’t make that entirely obvious before then.

While spending time with Mayuki is fun even now, I am looking forward to her getting a bit more responsive and interactive. It’s a bit hard to play with her, at the moment, since most of her play involves lying on her back and waving her limbs around while making noises (this is easily distinguished from the crying version of lying on her back and waving her limbs around by experienced parents — and I can tell the difference, too), or lying on her front and trying to do press-ups. She can’t quite manage that yet, but she can hold her head up for quite a while.

She seems to be doing that more than most babies her age, and I wonder whether part of the reason is that she is relatively light. She is over four kilograms now, though, and just creeps into the “normal” band on the graph we were given in the health record book. So, nothing to worry about, and maybe it’s a sign that she’s going to be naturally slender.

Changing the subject, there was one other first this week. For the first time, I started reading a Japanese magazine article without thinking. I do this with English all the time; my eye falls on some text, I read it, and then I realise that I should be doing something else. But until this week it didn’t happen with Japanese; reading Japanese required a bit of concentration, because otherwise the kanji didn’t become meaningful. Another sign of progress. I think my reading speed in Japanese is slowly picking up, but it’s still a long way behind English. Still, I’ve had a lot more practice in English. Maybe Japanese will catch up eventually.

What’s in a Name?

Quite a few people have asked me where Mayuki’s name came from, and Japanese names work a bit differently from Western ones, so I think it might be worth explaining here.

Japanese law only allows people to have two names, a given name and a family name. The family name is determined by the name on the family register. The given name is chosen by the parents, but once registered, it is very difficult to change, unlike England. In addition, there are limits on the characters you can use in a name. You may only use hiragana, katakana, and particular kanji. (The kana are the syllabic scripts, like alphabets, and kanji are the ideograms from China.) There are over 2,000 kanji to choose from, but you can’t, for example, use the kanji for “cancer” or “corpse”, if I recall correctly.

Within those limits, however, you have almost total freedom. What is more, if you write the name in kanji, you can choose the way that it is pronounced freely, because the pronunciation is not officially recorded, and thus not officially regulated. It is sensible to choose a pronunciation that naturally goes with those kanji, but that practice is not universal.

Thus, choosing a name for you baby is not a matter of choosing from a list of names. There are popular names, but creating your own is also quite common. Even for the popular names, you can choose the kanji you want to write it with; there are double lists of popular names, one for the pronunciation, and one for the written characters. It is not uncommon for a name to be in the top ten on one, but right down on the other. If a popular sound has a lot of possible, and sensible, kanji, its numbers might be evenly split six or seven ways on the written list. On the other hand, a moderately popular pronunciation with only one sensible set of characters could appear very high up the written list.

One side effect of this is that it always makes sense to ask someone how to pronounce or write their name in Japan. There are many names where you can make a good guess, particularly going from the written form to the spoken, but not always. For example, Megumi, a popular girl’s name, can be written 恵美 or æ„›, but the second character can also be read “Ai”, which is another popular girl’s name. Girls names, in particular, might be wholly or partially written in kana, because they are perceived as feminine. Yuriko writes her name with two kana, for the first two syllables, and then kanji for the final “ko”.

The other thing that some people consider is the number of strokes that it takes to right the name. There’s the practical issue of not requiring a young child to learn lots of highly complex kanji right at the start, but there’s also a form of fortune telling based on the absolute number of strokes, and the number fo strokes combined with the number in the family name. Some people apparently take it very seriously, to the point that baby name books include advice on getting round grandparents who don’t like the name you’ve chosen because it has the “wrong” stroke count. The best way, apparently, is to say that you’re relying on a different regional tradition, because there are lots of different rules for which combinations are good and which are bad.

Anyway, we completely ignored that one.

I wanted Mayuki to have a very Japanese given name, because she’s half Japanese and half English, but already has a purely English family name. Western-derived names, like Anna, are quite popular at the moment, but Anna Chart doesn’t sound at all Japanese. I finally managed to win Yuriko over on this point.

So, the next stage was to think about the sound we wanted. Obviously, it had to be something that English-speakers could pronounce correctly, and that would be fairly easy to spell, and have only one sensible English spelling. However, it also had to sound nice.

That left far too much choice, so we narrowed it down by looking at kanji. Because kanji are ideograms, they give the name its meaning. Thus, I wanted to give her a kanji name. I didn’t want a name ending in “ko”, even though that’s very common for Japanese girls’ names, because the kanji means “child”. Similarly, I wanted to avoid cute names like “Flower bud”, which are fine for young girls, but less appropriate when she’s fifty and trying to become the first female Prime Minister of Japan. For example. The kanji meaning “beautiful” is also a very common component of girls’ names, but I was a bit ambivalent about that. I mean, obviously she will be, but I felt I’d prefer a name that didn’t focus on appearance. For similar reasons, I wanted to avoid flower names.

So, I went through a drew up a list of characters I liked. One I really liked was 真, which means “genuine, real”, and, in names, is commonly read “ma”, which is the first syllable of my mother’s middle name, “Mary”. Yuriko decided that she wanted to include ç”±, which means “reason”, and is the first character of her mother’s name.

That gave us “ma” and “yu”. “Mayu” and “Yuma” are both possible, but we decided to play around a bit with the sounds. “Mayuko” has that “ko” character, so that was out. “Mayumi” is quite a common name, and has the beauty kanji last. “Mayuna” was another candidate; the “na” would normally be written with the “na” from “Kanagawa”, and is a very popular final syllable for girls’ names right now. But then we thought of “Mayuki”. We liked the sound, because it seemed somehow bright, and it manages to be a bit unusual without being strange. “Mayumi” and “Miyuki” are both common girls’ names, but “Mayuki” is not (yet). So, it sounds like a girls’ name, but not like one that everyone has heard a million times already.

When we looked at candidate kanji for the final syllable and discovered that we could use the kanji for “joy”, which is my father’s wife’s name, that settled it.

真由喜: “genuine reason for joy”.

Signs of Progress

A couple of recent events that suggest my Japanese may be making progress.

First, while we were on the Tohoku trip, a woman mistook me for a Japanese person. Admittedly, it was dark and I suspect her eyesight isn’t too good, but we did have a very brief conversation, and it was only a bit later, when she came a bit closer, that she suddenly realised I wasn’t Japanese.

Second, today I went to a lecture on Shinto in Shibuya (which was very interesting, incidentally). I’m the only non-Japanese-looking person in the room, so I rather stand out, and another of the attendees spoke to me afterwards. In the course of the conversation, she asked whether I was born in Japan.

A while back, I read a website list of “You know you’ve been in Japan too long when…” things. My favourite was “…people stop complimenting you on your Japanese, and starting asking where you got your eyes and nose done”.

Nearly there…

The Most Difficult Language in the World

I mentioned to my sister that Japanese would take at least four times as long to learn as French (which she has already studied), and she asked me where that was from. A quick Google turned up a webpage of language learning difficulties for English speakers. If we assume that these difficulties are roughly symmetric, it goes some way to explaining why the Dutch and Scandinavians speak such irritatingly good English.

The slightly surprising thing is that Japanese is the only starred language in Category III: that is, according to the experience of the US State Department, Japanese is somewhat harder to learn than Chinese, Arabic, or Korean.

Or, in other words, Japanese is the most difficult major language in the world for English speakers.

I have to say that I do not find this implausible.

Writing Japanese

I wrote a really long post for my Japanese blog today; about 2000 characters. The rough-and-ready conversion is that two Japanese characters equal one English word. Certainly, the number of times you have to hit the keys is around there. Thus, the Japanese post is about equivalent to 1000 words of English.

It took me a little over an hour to write. 1000 words an hour is what I reckon for my average productivity in English, although I can get up as high as 2500 when I don’t really need to think about what I’m writing. (Hmm, that must mean that I can type 40 wpm.) What that means is that my speed of writing in Japanese is very close to my speed of writing in English. Frankly, I find that deeply surprising. My reading is much slower, I think. (Although I may be using the wrong metric; Japanese is denser on the page, so I probably should be reading fewer pages-per-minute in Japanese than in English. That, however, I don’t yet have a good conversion for.)

I guess this post comes down to me gloating about my Japanese ability. Comments from people who read Japanese criticising the quality of the Japanese on my blog will not be welcome.

Hmm. I know! I’m not really gloating. I’m trying to encourage people who are still studying Japanese at the moment. Keep it up for long enough, and you will actually get good at it. It just takes longer than you might initially think. (I still remember my initial plan – go to Japan for a year to get from JLPT level 3 to fluent. Three and a half years after arriving, I think I can actually describe myself as fluent. It only took three times longer than I expected.)