Category Archives: Japan

Why? Because Japan is cool of course.

The Origins of Ecchi

Foreign words are great. Sometimes we use them to soften or obscure the meaning of a traditionally vulgar or taboo word or subject. Other times they are used to add a certain flare to a subject, or to form a slightly different connotation than that of its literal interpretation. It seems that both the Japanese and the Americans, or at least a small otaku (nerd / anime and manga super enthusiast) subculture thereof, have been doing this with each others’ words and in some cases the words gets passed back and forth.

I recently ran into the word “ecchi” (pronounced like eh-chy with a slight pause in between) a few times on English-speaking sites, which I found really amusing because I know it’s a word that’s been tossed back and forth across the world a few times. Here is the gist of its lineage to the best of my knowledge:

It starts with the word hentai (pronounced like hen-tie) which is composed of two kanji characters, “hen” meaning “change, strange, odd, peculiar, eccentric, etc.” and “tai” meaning “state or appearance”. They come together to form the word hentai which means either “transformation / metamorphosis” or “abnormality / pervert”. In the many Japanese movies, shows, and cartoons that I’ve seen, this word is always used the same way we would use pervert. It usually applies to someone that is overtly sexual or somewhat sexually deviant. In anime (Japanese cartoons and animated shows), there is inevitably a scene where a girl enters a boys room for the first time and accidentally discovers his porno collection. She will then flip out and call him a hentai. It is not a nice word to call someone, of course, but it is a lot nicer than chikan (chee-kahn) which might also be translated as pervert but has more of the connotation of being a molester. If you have an odd porn collection or you like to sniff panties then you would be called a hentai. If you are trying to “accidentally” grope girls on a crowded subway car then you have crossed the line into chikan land.

Now we go back to The States where hentai takes on the meaning of x-rated. English speakers usually use it to refer to either pornographic Japanese manga (comics / graphic novels) or pornographic Japanese anime. As this genre progressed, hentai was shortened down to the prefix “H”, giving us H-manga, H-anime, and H-games (pornographic video games).

Somehow this “H” prefix made its way back to Japan where it was transliterated as ecchi, which is as close to “H” as their phonetic system can get. Here its meaning has softened to mean sexy, erotic, naughty, or simply to have sex or “mess around”. It is a playful word and I’m assuming it is used most often by children who would be embarrassed to use stronger language.

Now once again we come back to The States where ecchi gets used as a softer version of hentai and is applied once again to Japanese manga, anime, and video games to mean soft-core or slightly sexual. In other words, tits and ass only.

I wonder if this will ever end? I wonder if we will start to see the terms E-anime and E-games being thrown around? And if so, just how will the Japanese use “E”? Now that I think about it, I suspect that it will end at ecchi. I don’t see “E” becoming popular because people are pervs and will always favor “H”. Even if “E” became a thing here, it would be transliterated in Japanese as “ii” which already means “good”.

So now you know way too much about the word ecchi. Congratulations, you are well on your way to becoming an authentic otaku.

I hope you enjoyed this little cultural exchange lesson. I will keep my eye out for any other bizarro cross-nation repetitive language mutations.

 

The Toilets are Real!

Bio Bidet Electonic Toilet Seat

The toilets in Zero Calvin really do exist!

As most of you know, Zero Calvin was released in 2003. in it, I wrote about high tech toilets that wash and dry your bum for you. Here is some of what I wrote:

 

 

 

The toilet appeared to Calvin to be machined from one solid piece of aluminum. It had elegant carvings, or rather, it had elegant castings of vines, leaves, and flowers covering all available surfaces except the seat. The seat was smooth and contoured to fit the shape of a human’s bottom. The seat did not lift up, presumably to prevent conflicts over its recommended position while not in use. It was very elegant for a toilet, if not a little clinical.

Calvin sat down on the toilet and looked about the bathroom for a newspaper or magazine to read; there was none. He exhaled dejectedly and merely pretended to read a newspaper. After a few minutes, his business was complete. He looked about the small room for the toilet paper; there was none. He exhaled dejectedly and decided he was damned if he was only going to pretend to wipe.

He started to get up to search the room. The second his weight was off the top of the seat, two nozzles nestled deep inside the toilet shot his bottom with a mixture of precisely warmed water, gentle solvents, and light scents. This, needless to say, came as a shock to Calvin. He jumped forward with surprise. With his body still bent forward to facilitate getting off the seat, he nearly hit his head against the sink, which was watching all the action from the opposite side of the small room. The sink was very glad that Calvin did not hit his head against it — as was Calvin.

Calvin was recovering from the shock when a number of logical dots began connecting in his head. Hmm, he thought. No magazine, he thought. No newspaper, he thought. No toilet paper, he thought. No paper at all, he thought. The toilet is also a bidet, he thought. Yuck, he thought.

He took a number of deep breaths while working up his courage. He closed his eyes tightly and backed his way slowly toward the toilet again. With immense bravery, he sat back down on the offensive toilet seat. Milliseconds before his bottom connected with the seat, the nozzles took aim and fired again. At first, Calvin was embarrassed by the water being shot at his bottom. Then, he was even more embarrassed by the fact that it actually felt good to him.

Approximately ten seconds went by and the nozzles switched to the drying cycle, which produced a similar surprise in Calvin as the initial attack had done. He recovered and sat back down. Ten more seconds of warm air and his first intimate encounter with 216 K.B. technology was finished.

He stood up and began to pull up his pants. As he did so, the toilet began its cleaning cycle. Two more nozzles ejected from a point approximately six inches above the toilet seat while two long rubber blades appeared from a compartment just above the toilet seat.

Calvin laughed hysterically as the windshield wiper apparatus scrubbed the seat clean. He continued to laugh for over two minutes. As he did so, the nozzles and blades neatly hid themselves again and the toilet politely flushed itself. Calvin eventually had to stop laughing because his ribs were starting to hurt.

I swear that I had no idea that these things actually existed in the real world. At that point in my life, I was only vaguely aware of the classic English-style bidet. So imagine my shock when I encountered one in a Japanese hotel room in 2007! OK, they don’t have windshield wipers attached to them, but they do everything else and more. Here is video of me mucking around with one in Tokyo:

In fact, I was so “moved” by these things that I actually own one. The one I have is by a company called Bio Bidet (http://www.biobidet.com/BB1000_SupremeBidet.htm) and it has made my life so much more civilized. Seriously, if you are still smearing poo around your backside with pieces of tree, you are so in the stone ages. OK, they tend to be pricey – around $500 USD – but you can’t put a pricetag on quality of life. Here are some of the features:

  • Heated toilet seat (This is worth the money alone. So very nice in the winter time.)
  • Bidet (It washes your bum for you!)
  • Heated Dryer (Isn’t as useful as one may think, and I still end up wiping to dry myself.)
  • Exhaust fan (This is truly marvelous and the best feature of all, even better than the heated seat. Let’s face it, when we are young our “shit don’t stink”, but as we age, well, it can get a little nasty sometimes. The exhaust fan is excellent and works for me every time. I’ve had friends that have still managed to overwhelm it, though. I think they need to change their diets, personally. But I digress.)
  • Remote Control (Really, it has one. Mainly so that you can put the controls wherever you want. But it is also loads of fun when company comes over for the first time.)

So yes, you can actually have a Zero Calvin toilet seat and, in fact, I highly recommend it.

 

Cramer’s Guide to Visiting Japan

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Japan twice so far – once in 2007 and then again in 2008, both times with my friend Ryan. The following are my closing thoughts on our second trip as well as a few tips to anyone who wants to try visiting Japan for themselves. These are based on my experiences mainly in Tokyo and not necessarily Japan as a whole, so it is akin to judging all of America based on a visit to New York City. Still, I think my impression of Japan would be similar regardless of where I had gone.

Hmm, where to start? I guess by thanking the people of Japan for tolerating us two Americans who are largely ignorant of Japanese language, culture, and etiquette. Everyone we came across in Japan, save possibly one waitress, treated us with respect and politeness. One almost expects store clerks and hotel staff to be polite, which they were to the 10th degree, but I was amazed at how courteous and thoughtful even the general population was. I think this is largely the result of their traditional upbringing, which teaches them that to lose your temper or to be discourteous to others takes away from your honor, in other words you lose face. This idea of status and honor is exemplified by the Japanese language which has different levels of politeness that are used in different circumstances depending on how familiar you are with someone and your relative social status versus theirs. Status is usually determined by position in a company, education level, and age. I tend to call these politeness levels casual, polite, groveling, and ass-kissing. As a foreigner, it is highly recommended to stick with polite Japanese. There are circumstances where the other levels are more appropriate, but as long as you aren’t visiting on business you should be safe. Unfortunately, more polite equals more words or longer words. Most language courses and phrase books are going to teach you phrases based on this level of politeness.

My guess is that some of this politeness has to do with the fact than many Japanese are Buddhists, but most religions teach people to treat others the way that one wants to be treated, so I think that religion is a variable we can probably eliminate. I think it is more a matter is upbringing. It may also, to some degree, have to do with law; many of which are courtesy laws such as not smoking when walking down the street or not talking on your phone and shutting off the ringer when on the subway.

Speaking of laws, the people of Japan seem to be very law abiding even when it comes to “silly” things such as “Cross / Don’t Cross” lights at street crossings. I’ve witnessed many Japanese people waiting patiently to cross even small side roads that clearly had no traffic on them. I’ve even watched someone plainly in a hurry running down the sidewalk, only to wait for a light at a small side road. The light is the law, and they obey it. Not much jaywalking there. In fact, if you jaywalk you can seriously hurt people because they don’t expect anyone to do it, so when they see you crossing they will sometimes follow you under the assumption that it is safe, and then promptly get hit by a car. It may seem silly, but they must have their reasons so when you go to Japan, don’t be the ugly American – just wait for the light. Besides, traffic directions are reversed there so you may screw up and get hit by a car yourself by not expecting a car to come at you from the right as you step off the curb.

This pride, this honor, and perhaps law abidingness was also shown in the way the Japanese treat their environment. In all our travels through the mega-city of Tokyo, we very rarely saw any graffiti. I don’t think I ever saw litter. Whenever there was construction going on, the work site was surrounded by a white plastic wall for safety, and I never saw any graffiti on those walls. One time, I even saw pockets built into the wall which contained potted plants to make it look nicer. They also seem very keen on recycling, even more so than here in the States. If you eat at a fast-food joint like McDonalds or whatever, you will consistently see (a) a place to dump your unfinished drink and/or left over ice (b) a place to put your straw and the lid to your drink (c) a place for the rest of your (paper) trash. So the general protocol is take your lid off with the straw, put it in the plastic side, dump out your drink, put the cup and all other trash in the paper side, leave the tray on top. The hotels also have many signs and suggestion on conserving water, sorting garbage from recyclables, etc. Also, on the rare times that you see a garbage can in public, it will be accompanied by glass, can, and plastic recycling bins. Here is a tip, when you see the word PET on a trash can, it is not a place to store your dog or cat – It’s for plastics. As another side note, I think the reason for the lack of public trashcans is because public eating (while walking down the street) is considered rude or discourteous. There are, however, always trash cans or recycling bins wherever garbage can be generated, like next to a vending machine for instance. We even saw a place to put “indecent flyers” when we went to a crappy part of Roppongi. You will, however, find yourself carrying some trash from time to time. Man it up and don’t litter.

Eating in Japan is fun and daunting. It’s fun because you get to try new foods, but daunting because you are usually completely surprised but what you get because, of course, the menus are usually in Japanese. However, some (10%) of restaurants will give you an English menu. Most (90%) will have plastic renditions of the food they serve on display in front of the restaurant, or pictures of the food on the menus. This will do you some good but you are still usually guessing wildly at the ingredients. Also, portions are almost always smaller than American meals, so you will find yourself eating a lot more frequently. Ryan and I usually ate four meals a day with snacks in between because of the small portions and the amount of exercise we got from walking everywhere. In a pinch, there are some fast-food joints and the food is not half bad. You will be doing so much eating in Japan that I highly recommend that you focus your vocabulary and reading lessons on Japanese food. We didn’t, so it was often McDonalds, Wendy’s, or Burger King for us out of hunger and frustration. We also seemed to eat a lot of Italian-style food because it was easiest to figure out by pictures. It is easy to pass judgment and say one should take a chance at something new, but when you find yourself starving and needing quick relief, you may change your tune. Still, we proved that you can keep yourself fed in Japan just by pointing at pictures.

Speaking of eating, if you are going to learn any of the Japanese language, learn Katakana. This is a phonetic symbology that is usually used to spell out words borrowed from other languages, and is surprising prevalent and handy to know. For one, you can read fast-food menus. Even at other restaurants, some of the foods are written in Katakana. Also, many store/company names and some signs are written partially in Katakana. Since Katakana is phonetic and many words are from English, you can derive their meanings.

The trains, subways, and taxis in Tokyo are awesome. Trains and Subways work about the same. There will be machines to buy a ticket just before the entrance to the line that you are going. Over the machines there is always a big map showing all the lines of the station along with the stops that they make and the associated price to go to each stop. These are usually all in Japanese, so it is vitally important to bring an English subway map with you so that you can count the stops on the English map, and then count them off on the Japanese map to get the price. You then feed the money into the machine and push the button (or screen choice) for that price and it will spit out the ticket. Most machines will handle the reverse, i.e., pick your price first and then pay. The ticket consists of a machine readable magnetic side and a printed side for (Japanese) humans. You feed this into the gate as you walk up to it and keep walking. By time you make it to the end of the gate your ticket will be waiting for you further down (on top of) the gate. Take it! When you exit the subway, you will have to stick it in a gate again to get out. If you lost your ticket or didn’t pay enough, back up and take the ticket over to the guard that will be sitting at a both on one side of the gate or the other. He’ll look at the ticket and figure out what to charge you. If you lost your ticket, he’ll just ask you where you are coming from – it’s on the honor system for you to give him the correct answer. A couple of tips on buying tickets: Don’t pay twice as much and hope to use it for the return trip as the exit gate will always take the ticket and keep it. Also, don’t buy two tickets from the same station in hopes of using the second one for the return trip. The tickets are keyed to the starting station. The funny thing is, the system will let you in with the wrong ticket but it won’t let you out, and the guard guy will be very confused when you hand him a ticket originating from the station you are currently trying to exit – I know this from experience. Taxis are interesting. You will usually see them lined up in front of a hotel, along a popular street, or in front of a subway/train station (especially at closing time – most lines are closed from midnight to 5:00 AM) Always go to the taxi at the front of the line or you will be told to do so by whatever cab you pick – they have some sort of gentleman’s agreement to take turns. Also, the doors are usually automated, so watch your hands after you get in! Oh, and one last tip on taxis: Carry a book of matches or stationary with you from the hotel in which you are staying so you have something to show the taxi guy when you are drunk out of your skull from drinking too much at a “snack shop”.

This leads me to nightlife. Ryan has probably been more observant than I on this front, but I will give you my impressions. At some point you may find yourself in search of tits and beer, i.e. a strip club. Unfortunately, most of the strip clubs will not let a gaijin (other person, foreigner) into their establishments. Some will let you in if you can speak Japanese well. When you are turned down, be polite and leave without a fuss. It is just the way things are. As you walk in a frustrated funk down the seedier parts of Tokyo, you will be inundated with inquiries as to whether you would like to see tits and get some free beer. When you inevitably say yes, they will take you to a “snack.” These places are not just tourist traps, but many Japanese will go to them voluntarily. They are places where pretty woman stroke your ego, and maybe rub a few other parts over your clothes. Essentially, you are paying for a flirty date. You don’t actually pay the girls, though. And your drinks are free. But, the girls will ask you to buy them drinks, and being the gentleman (sucker) that you are, you will buy them one or two or five. You may even buy some champagne for the table, since you are Mr. Big Shot. Believe me, the woman are trained to make you feel like a high roller and then drain you dry. Egos can be expensive. Broke and frustrated, you will leave and be asked either directly (Do you want sex?) or indirectly (Do you want to come to my massage parlor?) if you want some, uh, release. We never went down that path, but I’m sure you could get some at a price. In fact, it might be cheaper just to start down that path to begin with. If you are feeling frugal, Ryan recommends Gaspanic, a famous bar with locations scattered around Tokyo in which the occupants must actively drink to stay in the bar, so morals get drowned rather quickly. You can probably hook up with someone for free there. A fun place if you can still handle hangovers with grace.

If you carefully avoid the trappings of tits and beer, you can spend some time burning out your retinas by walking around Shibuya, Shinjuku, and many other major sections of Tokyo. There are so many lights, neon signs, and television screens in parts of Tokyo that if you don’t look up you will swear that it is daytime. It is awesome and exciting. After some time in the city, however, you will probably get a headache because your brain is always scanning the signs that it sees and trying in vain to decode them.

During the day in Tokyo, you can throw a rock in any direction and hit a temple or a park or a park surrounding a temple or a park surrounding some other important building. Parks in Japan are more like gardens in that they are usually pruned, preened, manicured, landscaped, and always breathtakingly beautiful. I highly recommend checking some out. There is also plenty of shopping of all kinds. If you like looking like you are bat-shit crazy, I suggest going to Harajuku and buying some stuff there. If you are a high-level geek, you will absolutely love Akihabara, where you can find shops that sell just capacitors, or just switches, or just spy-cameras. Many other stores have comic books, or porn, or both. Tons of them have computers and other electronics. The prices aren’t great, but you are guaranteed to see the newest stuff on the market. Ryan and I made several trips to Akihabara, go figure.

Before you can buy stuff, you will need money. Japan uses the Yen, and it is very roughly equivalent to 1/100 of a dollar (please check current exchange rates). Think of a Yen as one penny. Yen comes in coins and bills. The coins are 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, 500 (equivalent to 1 cent, 5 cents, 10 cents, 50 cents, $1.00, and $5.00) Yep, a five dollar coin. You can pay for whole meals with pocket change. Bills are 1000, 2000, 5000, 10000 ($10.00, $20.00, $50.00, $100.00), although the 2000 yen note is a rare novelty like our $2.00 bill or our $1.00 coin. You can change in your dollars for yen at the airport, or you can simply use an ATM at the airport, some convenience stores, or a post office. I don’t think the associated fees for using an ATM are that bad, but I don’t have the hard numbers.

Lodging in Tokyo ranges from the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku to the Capsule Inn in Akihabara (no longer there I’m afraid), and Ryan and I stayed at both during our trip. Whatever your price range, you can find a place to stay. I would suggest that you don’t plan on staying at a capsule the whole time you are in Tokyo, but one night is interesting. You can read about the Hyatt and the Capsule in posts for Day 7 and Day 8. If you have God money, or massive hotel points, I highly recommend the Park Hyatt. Ryan and I also liked the Tokyo Bay Intercontinental and the Tokyo Intercontinental ANA, both of which you can stay at with Holiday Inn points if you have them. The Holiday Inn Nobu Narita is OK, but you will probably get cancer from the radar dish of the airport across the street.

Getting lost in Tokyo is a possibility for sure, but you have several options if you plan ahead a little. Before venturing out into the great unknown, you should take a second to remember the name of your hotel and what it looks like from the outside. You should also note the tallest building in your vicinity and any other interesting landscape feature such as an overpass or a certain shop, or a park. Take a digital camera with you – one with a screen on it. If you want, take a picture of the above just to jog your memory or maybe to show someone if need be. Also, remember the nearest subway entrance to your hotel and how to get to and from it from your hotel. The staff at your hotel can give you a map of the immediate surrounding that will contain this info. Get it and keep it with you. So, you are lost; what do you do? Don’t panic. You have some options. One is to look around for the tall building that you took note of. Another is to walk around a bit until you stumble on a map of the area, which are plentiful around Tokyo. The maps will have major landmarks on them, one of which may even be your hotel. Take a picture of the map! Use it to get you back to the hotel. If you have no luck with a map, you can walk until you find a subway or train station and take that back to your hotel. You did remember the nearest station to your hotel, right? If you don’t want to do that, you may also look for a cab. Ask him to take you to your hotel. You did remember the name, right? If not, you hopefully took some matches or stationary from it. Failing all of those options, Look for a police box (Koban). There is usually one every few blocks and the policeman inside is very familiar with his area and is more than eager to help you out. They usually have maps of the area right on their desks. Not all speak English, so you will have to get resourceful sometimes, but they will work with you. Ryan and I even found a small statue of Godzilla just be reciting some stock Japanese phrases for “Where is X?” to a policeman. A phrasebook is not a bad thing to have with you too.

Well, that’s probably enough info about Japan for now. I’d highly recommend that anyone with some spare cash and free time and a sense of adventure take a trip there at least once. Definitely don’t go to Japan for the first time alone, not because you will get mugged or something but because you will go nuts from not being able to talk to anyone and also so that you will feel a little more confident and willing to try new things. It just helps to have someone there to get through the tough parts, and also to share the good parts. To that end, I’d like to thank Ryan for being silly and adventurous enough to go back there with me, and also for burning all of his hotel points on our lodging! Arigatou gozaimasu, Ryan-san.

Easy Peasy Japanese Pronunciation Guide

Foreign words can often be intimidating since we English speakers have no frame of reference when it comes to pronunciation. This guide is intended to alleviate the intimidation when it comes to Japanese words. After reading this guide, you will no longer feel self-conscience when ordering at a Japanese restaurant, pronouncing a Japanese person’s name, or talking about your favorite anime.

Japanese pronunciations are actually a lot easier to deal with than English ones. Japanese sounds are far fewer and more pure than in English. English has some 8000+ sounds, in part because of all the glides from one sound to another. Japanese, on the other hand is much more strict about its language. The total number of discrete sounds in Japanese is…..110. Yep, just 110. Have you ever heard a Japanese song that had some English sprinkled in it and noticed that the Japanese part sounded nice but the English part sounded like it was sung by a deaf person? Well, now you know why. That’s the sound of English getting reduced to 110 discrete sounds. This is both good and bad news for us. The good news is it’s a tiny, tiny number of sounds to get right. The bad news is that your natural language instincts are going to want to throw in all sorts of extra sounds that just don’t belong.

Before we delve into this guide, let me give you a quick overview of the Japanese writing system. Japan has two “alphabets”, which are more accurately called syllabaries since each character stands for a complete sound. This differs from the English alphabet where each letter makes up only part of a sound (try pronouncing “k” by itself”) The first syllabary is called hiragana and is used for all Japanese-native words. The second one is called katakana and is used when writing loan words from other countries. Both syllabaries are character-for-character mirrors of each other, and many of the characters even look similar between the two syllabaries.

I sort of lied above when I said there were only two “alphabets” in Japanese. Japan also has Kanji, which are symbolic representations of words or ideas that the Japanese borrowed from the Chinese. Unlike hiragana and katakana, kanji do not represent discrete phonetic sounds. Most kanji have at least two pronunciations associated with them, on-yomi (the original Chinese reading, which has been forced into Japanese phonics) and kun-yomi (the Japanese reading). Kanji are the toughest part of learning Japanese for me because for every kanji you have to memorize not only the meanings but two or more pronunciations. And then it gets worse since most kanji are not strictly words by themselves, but general ideas. Many Japanese words consist of multiple kanji or, more frequently, a kanji with some hiragana tacked to the end. But let’s not get too bogged down with worrying about kanji right now. Just know that even kanji-based words have a phonetic pronunciation that can be represented using hiragana. In fact, young kids in Japan start learning to read and write exclusively in hiragana and katakana. Only later do they tackle learning kanji.

The wonderful thing about Japanese is it is completely phonetic. Each character always has the same sound no matter what other characters it happens to be next to. This enables us to translate hiragana/katakana into our (Roman) alphabet quite easily. The Japanese call this romanji. Here is a hiragana chart with romanizations:

Hiragana Chart

You’ll notice that most of the characters consists of a consonant + vowel sound, for example KA, KI, KU, KE, KO. It’s important to remember that even though they are represented in our alphabet as multiple characters, in Japanese they are single characters, each with a set sound. Remembering this will help tremendously with your Japanese pronunciations because it will allow you to split any Japanese word into easily pronounced bits.

OK, now lets get to the good stuff, the pronunciations. Let’s start with the vowels:

The Vowels

A – as in father. When the doctor asks you to say “Ahh” when looking into your mouth, that’s the sound we are looking for here.

I – as in machine. Yes, it’s a long “e” sound like the words “speed” or “read”.

U – as in “Jupiter”. It’s a double “o” kind of sound like “poo” or “you”.

E – as in “pen”. Enough said.

O – as in “hope”.

So our vowels sound something like ah, ee, oo, eh, oe. That’s it, just five vowel sounds. Please drill them into your head, as they are the essence of the language. Notice that there aren’t different versions of each vowel like in English. “A” in Japanese is always pronounced like it is in “father” and never like “apple” or “cape”. The same is true for the other vowels.

One interesting point is a few additional “English” vowel sounds can be approximated by joining together two Japanese vowels. For instance, using the guide above, say the sound for “E” and then the sound for “I”. It should sound like eh-ee. When said fast, doesn’t it sound like a long “a” as in “rain”? Ever hear of Seiko watches? We pronounce it “say-ko”, and this is pretty much bang-on. The only subtle difference is that in Japanese it is actually three syllables and not two. Now, using the guide above, say the sound for “A” followed by the sound for “I”. It should sound like ah-ee. When said fast, doesn’t it sound like the long “i” sound as in “high”?

I just want to stress that this is a cheap parlor trick. No real magic happens like it does in English. When you put two vowels together in Japanese, a new sound IS NOT produced. All that is happening is that two discrete vowel sounds when said right after each other are forming a complex sound that approximates a different vowel sound. “sei” might sound like “say”, but it’s actually two separate syllables “se” and ”i”. I know what you’re thinking… So what that they are two syllables?!?! When I say them together they sound like one so who cares?!?! Well, it turns out that the Japanese care. In Japanese, every syllable is given equal time when pronouncing a word. So we pronounce Seiko as say-ko, but the Japanese pronounce it seh-ee-ko. So in the true Japanese pronunciation it takes longer to spit out the “say” part. It may sound like splitting hairs, but it is an important distinction if you want to hone in your Japanese pronunciations.

OK, that horse has been thoroughly beaten. Let’s look at the other sounds.

The KA Series

KA, KI, KU, KE, KO – “K” sound plus appropriate vowel sound.

GA, GI, GU, GE, GO – The “K” series is able to take ten-ten marks (looks like quotes) which changes the “K” sound to a hard “G” sound as in “garden”.

The SA Series

SA, SHI, SU, SE, SO – “S” plus vowel sound. Notice our first hiccup… there is no such sound as SI (sounds like “sea”) in Japanese. Instead we get SHI (sounds like “she”).

ZA, JI, ZU, ZE, ZO – The SA series can also take ten-ten marks which changes the S sound to a Z sound (except for our odd-ball friend SHI who changes to JI).

The TA series

TA, CHI, TSU, TE, TO – “T” sound plus vowel. A few more oddballs here. There is no TI or TU in Japanese, only CHI and TSU. You’ll get used to it. To pronounce TSU (like the word tsunami) you hint at the T sound then go for the SU. Say “eat soup” fast and you’ll get the gist.

DA, JI, ZU, DE, DO – The “T” series can play with the ten-ten marks too. There is no DI or DU in Japanese and we have our first WTF moment. JI and ZU, didn’t we have them already? Yes, and they are pronounced the same. Occasionally, some Japanese words use the JI and ZU from the TA series instead of the SA series but it’s nothing we need to worry about since they look the same in romanji and are pronounced the same too. If you’re using a Japanese IME (Input Method), you can force it to make a JI from the TA series (CHI + ten-ten) by typing DI, and you can make a ZU from the TA series (TSU + ten-ten) by typing DU. If you have no idea what I just said, don’t worry about it – it has nothing to do with pronunciation.

The NA Series

NA, NI, NU, NE, NO – finally we get back to normal ground. Nothing odd here, and the NA series does not take ten-ten marks.

The HA Series

HA, HI, FU, HE, HO – OK, what the FUck is going on here? There is no HU sound in Japanese BUT the F in FU is a very windy sound. It’s really a hybrid between an H sound and a F sound. When we say FU (foo) in English we put our top teeth against our lower lip and break them apart as we say it. When we say HU (who) we keep our lips and teeth apart and use a lot of lung-work to get the sound out. To say the Japanese FU, we need to put our teeth and lips together like we want to, but them back them off slightly and say HU (who). The end result, as I said, sounds like a windy FU or a HU with some lip turbulence. Guys tend to make the sound more towards the “foo” sounds, and ladies tend to make it more like the softer, windier ”who” sound. Your best bet if you have trouble is to just say FU (foo) and be done with it.

BA, BI, BU, BE, BO – The HA series gets ten-ten which turns the H sound to a B sound.

PA, PI, PU, PE, PO – The HA series can also take a maru (circle) mark which changes the H sound to a P sound. This is the only series that can take the maru mark.

The MA Series

MA, MI, MU, ME, MO – Nothing crazy here, just an “M” sound plus a vowel.

The RA Series

RA, RI, RU, RE, RO – The “R” sound is a tricky one to explain and a little tricky to get correct even if you hear it. The “R” sound in Japanese doesn’t really sound like an English “R” in that it isn’t really formed in the throat. It is more sort of a trick of the tongue like creating a “D” or an “L”. In fact, the “R” sound usually comes out sounding more like a “D” or an “L” depending on where it is in the word. In the word “okaeri” (welcome home) the “RI” sounds almost like a soft “DI” sound or maybe even a light “TI” sound. The tongue only makes a quick, light touch on the roof of the mouth. Here is an example: Say the word “potter”. Now change the end of the word to “pottuh” like you have a Boston accent. This is almost identical to the Japanese word “para”. Most of the time, this is what an “R” should sound like. The only exception is when it begins a word, then it sounds a little more like an “L” sound as in the word “ringo” (apple) – which would sound like “lingo”.

The YA Series

YA, YU, YO – This is a short series. There is no YI nor YE in Japanese.

The Miscellaneous Crap Series

WA, WO, N – WA is pronounced as expected. WO is a grammatical particle and is usually pronounced the same as O. In Japanese sentences that have been transliterated into romanji, the WO is usually but not always written simply as O. N is a normal “n” sound and gets the honor of being the only Japanese syllable without a vowel. Sometimes this character sounds more like an “m” in some words, such as the Japanese word ganbatte, which means “do your best” and “hang in there”. This word sounds like gahm-bah-teh. Strictly speaking it is the “n” sound, but you’ll notice it’s hard to say it that way so in speech it comes out more like an “m”. So if you see an “m” hanging out by itself with no vowel behind it, don’t panic – it’s just an “n” that someone thought looked nicer as a romanji “m” since it’s pronounced more like one in that word. Just remember that if you are using a Japanese IME then you need to type it as an N and not an M.

Combinations – If you look at the hiragana chart, you’ll notice that there are all these funky combos! Essentially, anything in the “I” column (KI, GI, SHI, JI, CHI, NI, HI, BI, PI, MI, RI) can glom itself onto anything from the YA series (YA, YU, YO) to make several new sounds. If you’re interested in hiragana, notice that in the combos that the YA, YU, or YO is written half-height. Also note that these are single syllables. For instance, KYA is pronounced “kyah” not “kee-yah”. This makes sense when you see it in romanji, but looking only at the hiragana you might get fooled since it looks like two characters. That’s why they made the YA, YU, and YO half-height I guess.

Double Vowels – Simply hold the vowel sound for twice as long. Sometimes in romanji this is written as a vowel with a line over it. As stated before, every syllable in Japanese gets equal time. Holding double vowels actually makes a big difference. For instance, “shujin” means husband and “shuujin” means prisoner. Imagine asking a woman how her prisoner is doing – she might not like it, even if it might be accurate.

OU – This is one of those rare exceptions, OU is pronounced just like OO. In other words, an O held for two beats.

Double Consonants – Simply indicates a pause (equal to one beat). So the word I used before, “ganbatte”, sounds like “gahm-bah-(PAUSE)-teh”

When you have trouble with a word, break it into its phonetic parts. Say them slowly one at a time in a uniform amount of time for each syllable, and then repeat them quicker and quicker until you are at full speed. This is THE KEY to pronouncing anything in Japanese. Simply pronounce the vowels the right way and give each syllable its own time and Bob’s your uncle. Also remember that you don’t put an accent on any one syllable like you do in English – every syllable is pronounced with the same force and volume as its brothers and sisters. That’s all there is to it! If you think of Japanese as the language of an emotionless robot, it will help. Now, Native speakers do let some inflection/intonation come through from time to time, like raising the intonation at the end of a word to make it a question, just like we do in English, but mainly it’s the language of robots.

Try this one:

Kaeru – Break it down: ka/e/ru. Say each one separately, in its own time. Kah-eh-roo. Now say it faster and faster until it’s one word. Congratulations, you can now tell your friends to go home in Japanese. Kaeru!

If you are wondering how fast to speak Japanese, well, that comes with listening experience. Watch a lot of anime if you want to get an ear for it. In my approximation, each Japanese syllable is pronounced in approximately ¾ the time of an English one. It’s definitely slightly quicker. This means that double vowels are about 1 ½ the time of an English syllable. Many English loan words use double vowels because they would sound too sharp and quick without them, but the end result is often drawn out slightly longer than the English equivalent. For instance, the word for burger in Japanese is “baagaa”, which apart from sounding funny also takes longer to say. Since this is a loan word, it would be written in katakana, not hiragana by the way.

OK, lets try some more words:

Inu (dog) – i/nu pronounced ee-new

Neko (cat) – ne/ko pronounced neh-koe

Kuso (feces, shit) – ku/so pronounced koo-so

Great, lets try some harder ones:

Irasshaimase (Formal welcome often used in stores by the door greeter girls) – i/ra/(pause)/sha/i/ma/se pronounced ee-rah- -shah-ee-mah-seh. Note that the sha/i ends up sounding like “shy”. This might help with the pronunciation.

Benkyou (studies) – be/n/kyo/u pronounced ben-kyoe with the “o” sound at the end lasting twice as long. Remember that ou is the same as oo, so you get the double vowel action.

OK, now a few trick ones:

Desu (is) – de/su pronounced dess. Eh? Not deh-sue?

Ohayou gozaimasu (formal good morning) – o/ha/yo/u go/za/i/ma/su pronounced oe-hah-yoe goe-zah-ee-mah-ss. Where’d the -sue go again?

Suki (liking, fondness) – su/ki pronounced ss-kee. Huh? Wait, what? Shouldn’t it be sue-key?

OK, now we need to sit down and have a little talk. You know how I said that all syllables of all words are always pronounced the same. Turns out I was lying. Just like in English, people get lazy. Sometimes in Japanese, vowels are whispered; In other words they are barely audible or not said at all. This frequently happens to words that end is “SU” like “desu” and “gozaimasu” and sometimes in the middle of words like “suki”. A special thing to note about the word “suki” is that there is a short pause between the the “S” sound and the “KI” sound. It’s as if the “U” is still there but not really said aloud. That’s why they call ’em whispered vowels I reckon.

Another wispered vowel that you will often hear (well, I guess I mean often not hear) is the “I” in “SHI”. Take the ever popular Japanese phrase shikata nai (this basically means “Oh hell, this is going to suck really, really bad but I’m the only man for the job so I’m just going to have to roll up my sleeves and do what has to be done no matter how shitty it is, but often translated as “it can’t be helped”) for example. Since this breaks down as shi/ka/ta/na/i, one would expect it to sound like shee-kah-tah-nah-ee when in fact it is pronounced sh_ka-tah-na-ee (or if you blur the A and I at the end, sh_ka-tah-nie). Again, there is usually the tiniest of pauses where the whispered vowel should be, but not always.

So, the ten penny question is, how do you know when to whisper a vowel and when not to? And the answer is, I don’t know. According to learnjapanesefree.com (I don’t know anything about the site, it just came up in my Google search), “The vowels ‘I’ and ‘U’ come out as a whisper whenever they fall between the consonant sounds ch, h, k, p, s, sh, t, and ts or whenever a word ends in this consonant-vowel combination.” If you look at the above examples, this explanation seems to fit the bill. Me personally, I just got an ear for it from listening to hours and hours of native speakers. It’s also worth noting that you will sometimes hear people voicing those vowles, but it often sounds over-enunciated and snooty. The butlers and voice-over guys in all animes always voice every vowel – almost laughably so. The average Joe, however, normally whispers those vowels, even when speaking formally.

OK, while I’m messing with you, let’s try a few more:

Honda (as in the car) – ho/n/da pronounced hone-dah. Yep, strictly speaking, we all say it wrong. It should be a long “O” sound.

Toukyou (Tokyo, Capital city of Japan) – to/u/kyo/u pronounced toe-kyoe with each “O” sound lasting twice as long. Remember that OU = OO so these are double “O” sounds. Also remember that double vowels when written in romanji often get changed to a single vowel with a line over it? So Toukyou becomes Tookyoo becomes Tōkyō. And then out of laziness or the lack of special characters it becomes Tokyo. In terms of pronunciation, we say it wrong. We say “toe-key-yo”, but the Japanese pronunciation is “toe-kyoe” with the “O” sounds drawn out. On a stupid side note, “Toukyou” literally means East Capital, which makes sense since the old capital was Kyoto, and Tokyo is East of it. Speaking of which, Kyoto is “Kyouto” in Japanese so it’s kyoe-toe with the first “O” sound doubled. It isn’t key-yo-toe.

Whelp, you might not be a supreme overlord of Japanese pronunciation now, but at least you should get the gist of it. So now when you see a company name like “Yamaichi” you won’t freak out (like my boss did incidentally) and called it yama-goochi. I mean, there isn’t even a “g” anywhere, right? You and I know that it is ya/ma/i/chi pronounced yah-mah-ee-chee. Simple as pie.

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What the Luck?

Sai’s Horse – a Japanese Proverb

I ran across a Japanese proverb the other day that provides an interesting take on the good and bad events of our lives. The saying goes:

Sai's Horse

ningen banji, saiou ga uma

(Check out my Easy-Peasy Japanese Pronunciation Guide)

Which is translated something like “All human affairs are like Saiou’s horse”. Personally, I would translate it as “All Humans: Saiou is a horse” but I’m sure I’m wrong about that.

Anyway, this saying is obviously meaningless without the back story so here is the A.D.D. version:

During a period of war, Sai’s horse ran away into enemy territory. (bad luck?)

A while later the horse came back with a bunch of other horses. (good luck?)

With so many horses around, Sai’s son decided to learn to ride them, and promptly fell off one and broke his leg. (bad luck?)

The war then escalated and many young people from the area died in battle, but Sai’s son survived because he was home with a broken leg. (Good luck!)

So the moral of the story is: When something good or bad happens, you can never say for sure how it will turn out in the end. Some bad events turn out for the better, and some good events turn out for the worse. So it’s best not to party too hard when things are going your way, nor beat yourself up too badly when they are not.