Friday, March 31, 2017

Most Confusing Kanji for Beginners in Common Japanese Words

The Japanese language has many gotchas for beginners, some that will make anyone question everything they've learned so far about a single word, or, most likely, about a single kanji. In this post I'll warn you about some common words in Japanese that have kanji that will suddenly show up in completely different words of totally unrelated meaning which may leave you feeling lost and confused.

Kun 君 and Kimi

If you started learning Japanese because you like anime or manga you might have already known what the words kun and kimi meant before studying the language for real. That is, kun is an honorific suffixed after names, and kimi is a way of saying "you" in Japanese. Two very different words, with only one little thing in common... and it's not the letter k.

Both these words have the same fucking kanji! It's kimi 君 and kun 君, it's the same damn thing.

So, not knowing that, you might see the kanji 君 lying around in the middle of a phrase and spend 30 seconds figuring out if it says "you" or if some of the previous hiragana, katakana and kanji happened to be someone's name, which is totally possible because names of characters in manga can be literally anything.

Some authors will do you the favor of writing kimi キミ with katakana or kun くん with hiragana to save you the trouble, though most won't. And some manga will have furigana 振り仮名 to save you in these troubling times, though most won't either. So watch out.

(though rare, words like shokun 諸君, "ladies & gentlemen, "comrades," also exist)

Sama 様 and You

Okay, so kun 君 and kimi 君 are confusing because it-may-be-a-name-with-honorific thing, but, luckily, that sort of unfortunate mix-up only happens with those words and with that kanji, right?

lol no

You can almost hear a physical embodiment of the Japanese languages singing "fuck you baka gaijin" as it manages to create another diabolical mix-up: sama 様, the honorific, and you 様, the word usually written in hiragana that will show up as kanji one of these days to make you slip and fall on the floor to your ultimate demise.

In this case, you 様, uh... it doesn't mean "you." It's not like kimi, which is "you." you isn't "you." Anyway. In this case, you 様 is a complicate word that often refers to the way something looks. It's often preceded by an adjective and becomes an adjective itself through the na particle. Like this:
  • kono you desu このようです
    [It's] this way.
    [It's] like this.
  • kami no you na sonzai 神のような存在
    An existence like God.
  • kimi no you na hito 君のような人
    A person like you.

As you can see, you よう is often written with hiragana. But it just might show up as kanji one of these days without you knowing.

What's more, this word is like a bomb set up to trick beginners. Because manga aimed at children won't have it written with kanji, but manga aimed at at adults won't have the furigana you'd use to discern you 様 from sama 様. So it will indeed show up as you move from shounen to seinen manga.

Tachi 達 and Tassu 達す

So now we are done with honorifics, right? Yes, we are!

But not with suffixes.

The pluralizing suffix tachi 達 is that common Japanese word that turns one person into more persons. It makes "me," watashi 私, become "we", watashi-tachi 私達. It shows up all the time when you are reading and it's always, always to mean the pluralization.

'cept when it's not.

The word tassu 達す might look like a joke word. I mean look at this reading: たっ-す. The 達 kanji ends up having a reading with small tsu in the end, it makes no sense. It never happens like this. I'm not even sure I've ever found another kanji that's read this way. Anyway, tassu means "to reach," and it's also found in the form of tassuru 達する.

When you'll find this word in manga? Literally never. You only find this word next to words like tatsujin 達人. A tatsujin is someone who tasshita 達した, has "reached," something. That is, a tatsujin is a "master" that has "reached" a high level of kung-fu, karate, ninjutsu, beyblade, etc.

A more common word in the real word would be sokutatsu 速達, "express delivery," which ought to be harder to find in mangas than main characters with brains.

Mae 前, Ato 後 and Ushiro 後ろ

These two kanji. These. Two. Damn. Kanji. If you have ever needed definitive proof that you are not crazy, that the Japanese language is, indeed, absolutely, deliberating fucking shitting with you, this is going to be it.

Why, you ask? Well, it's because THESE TWO KANJI CONTRADICT THEMSELVES.

Holy shit. Whoever assigned these kanji to these words better have committed sudoku 数独 afterwards because this is titanic levels of screw up.


What happens is that 前 and 後 are about being forward and backward in time and space. Which sounds neat and all, and means there's one word for "after," one for "before," one for "behind," and one for "in front." All of them using these two kanji.

The problem is that mae 前 is "forward" physically, but "backward" in time! Likewise, ato 後 is "forward" in time, with ushiro 後ろ being "backward" in space!

Here, let me draw that for you.

The meaning of the words mae, ato and ushiro in Japanese, and their kanji: 前, 後 and 後ろ

And here are some examples of how they are used:
  • mae wo miru 前を見る
    Look forward. (pay attention! When driving, etc.)
  • neru mae ni ha wo migakinasai 寝る前に歯を磨きなさい
    Brush [your] teeth before sleeping.
  • sono ato dou suru? その後どうする?
    What [you]'ll do after that?
  • ushiro ni dareka iru! 後ろに誰かいる!
    There's someone behind [you]!

Why couldn't they make mae 前 mean "in front" and "after" instead?! That's be much simpler! Really. Why would anyone do this?! What's their reasoning?!

My best guess is that if you were in a race or something, the guy in "front" of you, mae, would cross the finish line "before" you, mae. Likewise, being "behind" him, ushiro, you'd cross it "after" him, ato.

Yeah, nah, screw that. These kanji make no sense.

omae お前

Oh, yeah, let's not forget the word omae お前, which means "you" in Japanese (too). Why the hell is the word for "in front" or "behind" part of the word for "you"? Well, it has some very obscure reason lost in history centuries ago, so let's ignore it.

分 Counter

This kanji probably takes the take as the most ambiguous symbol in the whole universe. How is it even possible for one single thing to have so many meanings?!

First off, fun 分, bun 分, pun 分 or bu 分, depending on the word, is a Japanese counter for counting things with the Japanese numbers.

Let me rephrase that: it is TWO Japanese counters, not one. One counter is for minutes of time (fun, bun, pun) and the other counter for parts of a whole (bu, bun).

So the word 1分 may be "one minute," because ippun 一分 counts minutes, but it may also be "one part," because ichibu 一分 counts parts! This, of course, goes on and on: nifun 二分, "two minutes", nibun 二分, "two parts," sanpun 三分, "three minutes," sanbun 三分, "three parts."

But wait, to clarify, how many "parts" are we talking about? Well, it might be one-tenth, one-hundredth, one percent, or one whatever, depends on context. It might even be talking about halves or thirds, dividing in N parts.

For exampe, sanbun no ichi 3分の1 would be "1 of 3 parts," or "one third." But sanbun 3分 alone means only "3 parts," so it might be interpreted as 3 tenths, 3 percent, or 3 whatever depending on context.

Jyuubun 十分

On top of that, on top of being two counters, the bun 分 part also has to show up in a very, very misleading word: jyuubun 十分.

Because this thing is written the kanji for "ten," jyuu 十, it looks like it might say "ten minutes" or "10 parts," and it actually does, in fact, mean "10 parts;" "10 minutes" being jippun 十分, a different reading. But the problem is: jyuubun 十分, sometimes jyuubun 充分, most of the time means something else: "plenty."

Yes, it's that common word. kore de jyuubun desu これで十分です, "(with) this is enough," or "this is plenty." It's the only jyuubun you ever hear!

After that, the bun 分 reading also appears in the common word jibun 自分, "myself" or "oneself," which has nothing to do with minutes either.

Wakaru 分かる, Wakeru 分ける, Wakareru 分かれる

Next we have verbs. Because just being not one, but two counters wasn't ambiguous enough, so let's be 3 verbs too! Because why not!

The most common of the three is obviously wakaru 分かる. It's everywhere: wakaru na, wakaru ne, wakaru no. Literally everywhere every time said by everyone. An extremely common word. It means "to understand," or, "to be known" since it's intransitive. (you can't wakaru something)

Then we have wakeru 分ける, which has absolutely nothing to do with the above. It means "to divide" or "to split." Of all things! It can also mean to "separate" or even "to tell apart." But it looks like a goddamn conjugation of wakaru! Who could have guessed that wakaru and wakeru are two completely different words?

So you're reading a manga, chilling, and all of sudden someone "understands an apple in two;" What does that even mean?!

And next, of course, there's wakareru 分かれる, which also means "to divide" like wakeru 分ける. The difference? Well, wakeru is transitive (someone wakeru's something) while wakareru is intransitive (someone wakareru). So it's used to say, for example, that a path "branches" into two. Because you don't say someone "branched" the path into two. There's no object in the phrase, so it's intransitive.

Ukeru 受ける and Ukaru 受かる

In a similar vein, the words ukeru 受ける and ukaru 受かる look like conjugations or even maybe a transitive and intransitive version of each-other, but they are no such thing.

The common word, ukeru, means "to receive," and it's common enough to show up in compound verbs like uketoru 受け取る, "to receive and pick (an item)," uketomeru 受け止める, "to receive and stop (an attack)," etc.

Then we have ukaru 受かる. It has a very, very specific meaning. So specific one'd wonder why there's even a verb for that. The word ukaru means "to pass an examination," like a college one. And no, it doesn't means to "receive" an examination. It doesn't mean you may fail it after having ukaru'd it. The verb ukaru is specifically for having passed it.

Of course you can conjugate that verb. If you didn't pass the examination, for example, you could say its past negative form: ukaranakatta 受からなかった, "didn't pass."


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  1. So for 'mae' this is a similarity to Chinese. The explanation is more about what happened first. If you look at time as a series of things happening and events are a stack of cards, the thing you see first in the stack is the earliest thing in the stack and so it should be at the front of the stack. So for your example, brushing your teeth is the first card, then the things happen after are behind it.

    1. Think of 前 as 'before' - someone standing before you means he/she is in front of you, whereas something in the past happened before the current moment.
      Apply the same logic to 後ろ by thinking of it as 'after'.

  2. You complain about Japanese being contradictory, but in the two articles I've read on this blog you've spewn the adverb literally four times, and for four times it didn't have a literal, non-figurative implication. Stop doing that.
    As for 達す, not only it shows up pretty often in written stuff, there are several words in Japanese where the kanji part ends in a small tsu and okurigana follows. Here are most verbs:*%E3%81%A3%E3%81%99%E3%82%8B%20%23verb*%E3%81%A3%E3%81%99%20%23verb
    The word 以て also comes to mind at the moment.

  3. Surely "before" means "in front of" and "prior in time" in English as well? "The Lord went before them" meaning that God was in front of them? That's why boats have 'fore and 'aft.

    1. Also portuguese features a similar situation (if a bit archaic or excessively literary):

      Someone can stand before another (Ele ajoelhou-se ante o rei -> He knelt in front of the king, or alternatively Ele ajoelhou-se diante do rei, which means exactly the same). This form is quite unusual at least in brazilian portuguese. It sounds really posh and funny, especially if using just 'ante'.

      People can also go somewhere before someone (Elas foram para casa antes dos pais -> They went home before [their] parents). This form is "standard" in spoken portuguese.

  4. Ancient Greek did a similar thing, where the word meaning "in front of" spatially is also used to mean "in the past", and "behind" is used for "in the future". I've read something that I thought was interesting, to explain it or at least make it easier to remember: the Greeks considered that the past was in front of you, because you can see it in your memory; and the future, which you cannot see, is therefore behind you.

    That's a different way of thinking about things than we do in modern English, but it's not a contradiction.

    1. The best thing about this is that according to the Greeks we are moon-walking in time.

    2. Inclusive, acho que você deveria atualizar essa parte pra explicar melhor a origem da confusão.
      Eu abstraí o conceito da inversão quando entendi que pros asiáticos o tempo passa das costas pra frente.

  5. I've seen a Chinese teacher saying the same thing about how Chineses see the relationship between past and future and the pshysical vision. She was talking about cultural differences that we must know to understand how it is expressed through the language.

  6. Hmm... Had no problems with "mae"/"ushiro". I always considered it as a direction (thanks to karate classes :)
    So, basically mae-geri - is a kick forward, kick to an opponent, I'm moving to him. Gozen - forward to a noon, moving to a noon (which means, obviously, that it's earlier than a noon). And so on... So, "mae" means whether before me (in front of), or before some moment of time (if specified).
    Ushiro-geri - back-kick. Which obviously means that I let my target (opponent) behind. So, "ushiro" means something behind me, or "ato" - moment in time whith some event left behind (if specified).

    Although, I'm not good with english or portuguese, so I don't know if that logic works in these languages.

  7. As a beginner, may I add "hajime..." word? You know, like to begin, to start, beginning and so on. Everything related with beginnig something.
    Let's look... ok, they have 3 kanji for that... 始,創,初 oh, 4 actually (+甫). But 4th is a seldom guy, so we won't count him. May be they have different reading? Nope. Why then?!
    Ok, cool down. Even if it's 3 kanji with the same meaning, there's no way they all used equally. Some must be more common... Well... no. If it's a "hajimeru" then 始 is more popular, if it's "hajimete" - then 初 is used usually.
    I mean what the hell..? But... okay, may be it's because of slightly different meaning of these words. They may have nuances which I, as a non native, just don't understand. And so I can't use 初 for a verb (hajimeru) and I shouldn't use 始 for 'hajiete'. It sounds logical, let's look at the dictionaries...

    WTF 0_0
    始,初 and 甫 - used in 'hajimete' are interchangable.
    始,創 - used in 'hajimeru' are interchangable.
    始,初 - used in 'hajime' are interchangable
    始 - thanks god, that's the only allowed option for 'hajimaru

    And now, a little addition. 始 is a most popular form for a verb 'hajimaru'... unless you use it's polite form for a greeting ('hajimamashite'). I tried to find anything that I could on this topic. Now I know that it depends on a japanese region and an age of a japanese person. In general, nowadays 'hajimemashite' with 初 is more popular. Despite the fact that it's derived from the 'hajimaru' which is a verb with 始.

  8. I'm a native German speaker, so the 'mae'/'ushiro' thing just makes perfect sense to me as well. Since in German 'vor' refers to both time and place. So '10 vor 5' means '10 minutes to 5' while 'vor mir' means 'in front of me'.

    I wouldn't want it any other way actually, since the hand on the clock is literally ten minutes 'in front' of the position where it reaches the next hour.