Japanese words to understand the Japanese mind

We recently got back from a trip to Tokyo, and half of my heart is still there.

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We recently got back from a trip to Tokyo, and half of my heart is still there.

This was my third time in Japan and Theo’s sixth; between the two of us, we’ve explored most of the touristy metropolitans on Honshu, so we were content to just stay put in Tokyo, visiting museums and parks, eating soft serve, and making late-night trips to Family Mart.

Sunset over Setagaya Park.

People are always surprised when they find out that I keep going back to Japan though I only know the most basic of conversational Japanese, and yet I’ve only been to Korea once despite being fairly fluent in Korean (going on my ninth year of studying)!

The reality is, I’ve been your typical anime, manga, and (later) JRPG nerd for far longer than I’ve been studying Korean. I loved Pokémon in elementary school, watched English dubs of Rurouni Kenshin, and ate up the most ridiculous shoujo manga I could borrow from my friends. I taught myself kana when I was in high school and studied the language for a year in college — in a lot of ways, Korean was the interloper in my Japanese studies, heh.

That said, I’ve never been good at learning Japanese, even though I keep coming back to it. (I recently had an epiphany about this but that’s another blog post).

Learning Japanese through Korean (kinda)

As I got better at Korean, I wondered if things would stick better if I learned Japanese in Korean. To some extent, I was right; it did make learning grammar easier since there are a lot of grammar constructions that have a one-to-one equivalence between Japanese and Korean. But then I’d always feel like the two languages were competing for my time — and I would always choose Korean in the end.

When I told my Korean teacher about my upcoming trip to Japan, she asked if I wanted to spend a few minutes every class doing some basic Japanese, and I figured it wouldn’t hurt.

(As an aside, I’ve been taking private lessons in Korean for about a year now and my teacher is phenomenal. She’s done academic research in linguistics as well as technical translation work from Japanese into Korean, and she is trained to teach Japanese. She’s currently studying to get her TESOL certificate too. We have the nerdiest conversations about language and culture in Korean and it’s brilliant.)

In any case, I decided to show her some of my notes from a Japanese book I picked up on a whim when I was there in 2015.

My Japanese notes are in a mix of Korean and English.

Much like I’d started out learning Korean, I brute forced my way through the text, looking up every unfamiliar Kanji, unknown vocabulary word, and grammar point I didn’t know. I even made index cards to flip through on my commute to work.

But then my teacher suggested we try a more inductive approach to learning Japanese. So rather of meticulously going over grammar point by grammar point, this is what we do instead.

  • I read through the Japanese text on my own out loud (yes, stumbling over all the Kanji I couldn’t read)
  • My teacher then re-reads each sentence out loud, and then translates it into Korean.
  • We go over some key vocabulary and phrases in the text.
  • We discuss the text together in Korean.

Even though our discussion (and my comprehension) of the text is largely in Korean, I find my ear becoming more and more attuned to cadence of Japanese sentences; I’m even retaining more words and improving at reading. Most importantly, I feel myself getting better at Japanese, while also getting to practice Korean.

Two birds! One stone! I finally feel like I’ve found a sweet spot for learning both Japanese and Korean.

My teacher has been incredible; she basically lets me set my own curriculum and follows me patiently wherever my language whims take me. Obviously this wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for her. But! There’s something also to be said about this book I serendipitously picked up four years ago

日本人の心が分かる日本語: a mini review

I didn’t know anything about this book when I spotted it in the Japanese language section of Kinokuniya’s flagship store in Shinjuku, but the book’s subtitle caught my interest: “A book for foreigners wanting to read between the lines to see what the Japanese really think.”

The book is made up of short essays (3-4) pages on specific words related to Japanese culture and etiquette. Each essay is structured the same way:

  • A few introductory sentences defining the word and its origins
  • Several specific example scenarios, usually in the form of dialogue, illustrating different nuances of the word or the concept it represents
  • Each example scenario is followed by an explanation
  • Each essay has an additional section called もっと深くwhich goes deeper into the topic using more advanced Japanese
  • Finally, each essay ends with a list of key vocabulary words. These words tend to show up in subsequent essays.

I haven’t taken the JLPT exam, but the essays are probably at an intermediate to upper-intermediate level in terms of grammar. The vocabulary felt more advanced than the grammar, though the book does a great job of referring back to and reinforcing the key terms that were introduced in earlier sections of the book.

Here are just a few of the topics covered in this book:

  • しつけ
  • けじめ
  • 遠慮(えんりょ)
  • 気をつかう
  • がんばる
  • 無理
  • 空気を読む

So my teacher and I discuss these essays in a mix of Japanese and Korean, and the great thing is, I’m learning a lot of basic things about Japanese culture that I didn’t know before, while also using Korean to compare and contrast it with Korean and Indian culture. It’s stretching my brain in fun and exciting ways.

Speaking of brains, I think I’m feeling my mind sort of… unlock(?) itself to Japanese lately. It’s easier to learn and retain new things. I feel energized by studying Japanese — that’s something I used to only ever feel with Korean.

3 comments on “Japanese words to understand the Japanese mind”

  1. This is so fascinating! Also, I relate to your struggles with balancing Japanese and Korean SO much. I’m leaving to Japan for a trip next week but for some reason thought that now would be the best time to explore Korean literary translation…Best of luck in your Japanese adventures! :)

    Liked by 1 person

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