Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Up, Down, Left, Right in Japanese

The words for "up," "down," "left," and "right" in Japanese are ue 上, shita 下, hidari 左 and migi 右 respectively.
Up, down, left, right in Japanese as an image showing the four directions and their kanji: ue 上 shita 下 hidari 左 migi 右

But surely I didn't make a whole post just to tell you a couple of translations you could find in a dictionary. So here's a lot of stuff you don't even want to know about these four directions!
Some English words that have to do with up, down, left, right do not translate to ue, shita, migi, and hidari.

    "Left" as in "Leaving"

    In Japanese, there's a word for "left" that's the direction and another word for "left" that's the past tense of "to leave." To make matters worse, there are multiple verbs that mean "to leave" in Japanese. To have an idea:
    • hidari
      Left. (direction.)
    • deru 出る
      To leave. (a place.)
      To enter a stage. (by leaving the backstage.) To appear.
    • deta 出た
      Left. (a place.)
      Entered the stage. Showed up.
    • nokoru 残る
      To remain.
    • nokosu 残す
      To leave. (something remaining, like veggies on your plate or your inheritance.)
    • nokoshita 残した
      Left. (something.)
    • nokosareru 残される
      To be left. (by someone. Passive conjugation.)
    • hotteoku 放っておく
      To leave. (alone.)
      To not bother. (someone.)
    • hotteoita 放っておいた
      Left. (somebody alone.)

    "Right" as in "Correct"

    In Japanese, there's a word for "right" that's a direction and another word for "right" that's about being "correct."
    • migi
      Right. (direction.)
    • tadashii 正しい
      Right. Correct. Just.

    It's just as the famed philosopher Emiya Shirou 衛宮士郎 once said: "just because you're correct doesn't mean you're right," or, in Japanese:
    • omae no tadashi-sa wa tada tadashii dake no mono da
      Your righteousness is just [about] being right. 
    • sonna mono ore wa iranai
      I don't need something like that.
    • Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works, episode 20.


    The word "download" in Japanese is daunroodo ダウンロード. It obviously comes from English word "download." It's a katakanization, as most words related to computers are.

    To say "to download" in Japanese you'd attach a suru する auxiliary verb:
    • daunroodo suru ダウンロードする
      To do the download. To download.


    Likewise, "upload" in Japanese is appuroodo アップロード.  This can be abbreviated to appu アップ, or even just upu うp. And you can attach a suru verb to these too.
    • appuroodo suru アップロードする
      appu suru アップする
      upu suru うpする
      To upload.


    The kanji of the four directions are all pretty basic and taught in school, that is, they're jouyou kanji 常用漢字. In fact, they're part of the first 80 kanji taught in first grade. So the words ue, shita, hidari, and migi are pretty much always written with kanji.


    Now, I'm pretty sure nobody is ever going to need a mnemonic for ue 上 and shita 下. I mean, look at those things, they are literally pointing up and down respectively. You can even draw a triangle around them and you'll have an upward and downward pointing triangle.

    The 上 kanji, Japanese word ue meaning "up," morphing into an upwards triangle and then into an illuminati meme

    But for migi 右 and hidari 左, however, things might get a little complicated. You might mistake one for the other, which would be pretty bad, specially if you're playing a game and an NPC tells you to go left and you go right, or vice-versa. So here's some mnemonics for you not to forget.

    If you look closely, one of the radicals of migi 右, "right," is that square used to write kuchi 口, "mouth." And this square looks like ro ロ in katakana. And ro starts with r, which is the letter the word "right" starts with. So now you won't forget about it anymore.

    (if you speak Portuguese, hidari 左 has a radical that looks like e エ in katakana, and e is the first letter of "esquerda," which means left.)

    As Part of Other Words

    The kanji for the directions can show up in other words besides ue, shita, hidari and migi. But it's important to note a few things.

    First off, a single kanji can be read in various ways. A single word is always read the same way, but two different words written with the same kanji can have it read differently. 

    Besides having readings, kanji also have meanings associated with them. Words that share the same kanji have related meanings, making it even possible to guess the meaning of a word from the meaning of its kanji.

    In the case of the kanji for directions, most words that contain the kanji for "up", ue 上, will have a meaning related to "above," or "upper," or something like that. While the kanji for "down," shita 下, will have a meaning related to "down," or "lower," or "under," or something like that.


    To have a better idea, here are some readings of the kanji for directions. The dashes (-) in some of the readings separate the okurigana:
    • ue
    • uwa- 上~
    • kami
    • a-geru 上げる
    • nobo-ru 上る
    • jou
    • shita
    • shimo
    • moto
    • sa-geru 下げる
    • kuda-ru 下る
    • o-rosu 下ろす
    • ka
    • ge
    • hidari
    • sa
    • migi
    • yuu

    The sheer number of readings 上 and 下 can be a bit daunting. After all, how do you tell apart all these readings? It's not as hard as you'd fear.

    A single word is always read the same way. That means every time 上 means the word "up" it's read ue 上. And every time 下 means the word "down" it's read shita 下.

    Telling ageru and noboru apart is also quite easy. Just look at the okurigana.

    That is, you may have noticed the 上 in ageru 上げる is read as a あ while the 上 in noboru 上る is read as nobo のぼ, but forget that for a moment. That's just the effect, not the cause.

    The cause is that the words ageru and noboru do, in fact, exist in the Japanese language. A word such as nobo-geru, however, does not exist. So every time there's a geru げる okurigana, the reading must be a あ, not nobo のぼ.

    Stuff Easy to Mix Up

    Some words are easy to mix up with the words for the directions. Beware:
    • ishi 石
      • Looks like migi 右, but is not. 
    • tomeru 止める
      To stop.
      • Looks like ageru 上げる, but is not.
    • shita した
      • Past tense of suru する, "to do."
      • A homonym of shita 下, "down."
    • shita 
      • The body part.
      • Another homonym of shita 下.

    Orienting Yourself

    To The Left

    To say something is "to the left" of something else, just use the no の particle before the words hidari 左.
    • ki no hidari 木の左
      To the left of the tree.

    To The Right

    Likewise, to say something is "to the right" of something else, just say no migi の右.
    • ki no migi 木の右
      To the right of the tree.

    Above and Below

    The words ue 上 and shita 下 can also mean "above" and "below" in Japanese.
    • kumo no ue 雲の上
      Above the clouds.
    • kumo no shita 雲の下
      Below the clouds.


    The phrase no shita の下 can also mean "under" in Japanese.
    • beddo no shita ベッドの下
      Below of the bed.
      Under the bed.
    • ki no shita 木の下
      Under a tree.

    Atop, On, Over

    Likewise, no ue の上 can also mean "atop" in Japanese, or "on," or "over," etc.
    • beddo no ue ベッドの上
      Above of the bed.
      Atop the bed.
      On the bed.
      Over the bed.

      "Direction" in Japanese

      The exact word for "direction" in Japanese is houkou 方向, but a single "direction," "way," or "side" is called a hou 方.

      The eight cardinal directions plus up and down are sometimes called jippou 十方, literally "ten directions," though the word jippou usually means "every direction." 

      The word mukau 向かう means "to face toward (a direction)," while mukeru 向ける is the transitive that means "to point (something) toward (a direction)."

      The word muke 向け is sometimes used to describe something targeted at a certain audience. For example, shoujo manga is "targeted at girls," shoujo-muke 少女向け.

      Vertical and Horizontal

      The words for "vertical" and "horizontal" in Japanese are tate 縦 and yoko 横 respectively.
      • tatekaki 縦書き
        Vertical writing.
      • yokogaki 横書き
        Horizontal writing.
        • -gaki 書き instead of kaki 書き because of rendaku 連濁.
      • yoko ni naru 横になる
        To lie down.
        • Literally:
          To become horizontal.
        • When you stand up you're vertical, when you lie down you're horizontal.

      Jouge 上下

      The word jouge 上下 combines both "up" and "down," so it means literally "up and down," or "above and below," or "top and bottom," and so on. It can refer to stuff that's vertical physically or hierarchically.
      • jouge ni ugoku 上下に動く
        To move up and down.
      • jouge kankei 上下関係
        Up-down relationship. Vertical relationship.
        Hierarchy. (a relationship where someone is above, the superiors, and someone is below, the inferiors, or "subordinates," as they're called in the 21st century.)

      Sayuu 左右

      The word sayuu 左右 combines both "left" and "right" so it means literally "left and right." This word would be just like jouge, except sayuu has another meaning: it can mean "influence." With sayuu suru 左右する meaning "to influence."
      • sayuu ni ugoku 左右に動く
        To move left and right.
      • kekka wo sayuu suru 結果を左右する
        To influence the outcome.
        To influence the result.
        • Imagine the previous outcome is at the center, so influencing the outcome means moving it to the left or to the right, or, in other words, left-right-ing the outcome.

      Jouge Sayuu 上下左右

      The word jouge sayuu 上下左右 means "up and down, left and right," or "top and bottom, left and right." It combines both jouge and sayuu, or rather, it combines all four directions in one word.

      It's also considered to be a "four-character idiom," yojijukugo 四字熟語.


      A number of words containing the kanji for up and down refer to one's skill and ability.

      Superior and Inferior

      The words ue 上 and shita 下 can mean someone has "superior" or "inferior" skill. That is, who is "better" and who is "worse" at something. For example:
      • ore no hou ga ue da 俺の方が上だ
        My side is above. (literally.)
        Mine is superior.
        I'm better (than you, or him, etc.)

      Jouzu 上手

      The word jouzu 上手 means "skilled," or "well-done," because you'd never say "skilled" in English the way you'd say jouzu in Japanese.

      For example, you can say jouzu to say somebody's drawing looks good. They're "skilled" (at drawing), so the drawing is "well-done."

      Umai 上手い

      The word umai 上手い is synonymous with the word jouzu 上手 and also means "skilled." The only difference is that umai is an i-adjective, so it can be inflected to the past, for example.
      • umakatta 上手かった
        [It] was well-done.

      Sometimes umai うまい is written with the same kanji as "delicious," oishii 美味しい. In which case it has a different meaning:
      • umai 美味い
        Delicious. (i.e. somebody is skilled at cooking.)

      Heta 下手

      The word heta 下手 is the antonym of jouzu 上手. If jouzu means "skilled," then heta means "unskilled." That is, "you suck" at something.

      Also note that jouzu is written with the kanji for "up" and "hand," te 手, while heta is written with the kanji for "down" and "hand." You can guess that these words have the kanji for hand because some people are skilled with their hands.


      Sometimes ue 上 and shita 下 are part of words that refer some sort of up-down hierarchy.

      Toshi-ue, Toshi-shita 年上, 年下

      The words toshi-ue 年上 and toshi-shita 年下 mean "senior" and "junior" respectively, that is, "someone who's older than [you]" and "someone who's younger than [you]."

      They combine the word for "year," toshi 年, which usually refers to somebody's "age," with the words "up" and "down." Literally, they mean "above in age" and "below in age."

      Note that there's a difference between senpai and kouhai and toshi-ue and toshi-shita. A senpai 先輩 is "someone who has been in an institution for longer than [you] have." Generally speaking, that's coincidentally someone who is older than you, toshi-ue, but that's not necessarily always the case. Likewise, a kouhai isn't always younger than you.

      Aniue, Aneue, Chichiue, Hahaue 兄上, 姉上, 父上, 母上

      The words aniue, aneue, chichiue, and hahaue are rather respectful and old-fashioned ways of saying ani, ane, chichi and haha, which mean "older brother," "older sister," "father," and "mother" respectively.

      Since ue 上 means "above," it can't be suffixed to all family members. After all your son isn't "above" you. Sons are supposed to respect parents more than parents are supposed to respect sons.

      Likewise, your younger brother or younger sister wouldn't be "above" you either. You were born first, you have seniority. You're "above" them. At least as far as the way this usage of ue goes.

      Giving and Receiving

      The kanji 上 and 下 very often appear in the words ageru 上げる and kudasai 下さい. These words have to do with giving and receiving in Japanese and have (almost) nothing to do with up and down.

      You can read about them in Ageru, Kureru and  Morau.

      Raising, Rising and Lowering

      The words ageru 上げる, agaru 上がる, sageru 下げる and sagaru 下がる refer to raising and lowering something or rising and lowering.
      • ageru. agaru. 上げる。上がる。
        To raise. To rise. (besides other meanings)
      • sageru. sagaru. 下げる。下がる。
        To lower. (besides other meanings)

      The difference between ageru and agaru and sageru and sagaru is that ageru and sageru are transitive verbs (something raises or lowers something else) while agaru and sagaru are intransitive verbs. (something lowers or rises)

      For example, in Japanese games there are often messages like this: X no shubiryoku ga agatta Xの守備力が上がった, "the defense power of X has risen." The intransitive verb is used here because the message doesn't say why or what has raisen the defense power of the X character, it only says it has risen.

      Ascending and Descending

      The words noboru 上る and kudaru 下る (or noboru 登る or noboru 昇る) mean something is ascending or descending.

      Other kanji are used when it's more specific, for example, the noboru 登る one means to "climb" a mountain or something, not just generically "ascend."

      In the manga and anime Initial D when they go uphill they call it the nobori 上り, literally "ascend," and when they go downhill, they call it kudari 下り, literally "descend."

      Dropping and Handing Down

      The words orosu 下ろす and kudasu 下す mean to "drop" and to "hand down" respectively.

      Usually, in anime, kudasu 下す refers to giving orders, or "handing down" orders, if you want.

      The word orosu 下ろす is also often written orosu 降ろす and can mean to "drop" something, to "drop off" someone (a passenger), etc. It is transitive. The intransitive "drop" would be ochiru 堕ちる.

      Body Parts

      The easiest one are body parts. Usually, when talking about a body part you have two of, you refer to the right one by prefixing migi and the left one by prefixing hidari.

      So if you have two "eyes," me 目, the "left eye" is hidari me 左目, the "right eye" is migi me 右目. The "left hand" is hidari te 左手, the "right hand" is migi te 右手, and so on.

      Although not as common, joutai 上体 and katai 下体 refer to the "upper part of the body" and the "lower part of the body" respectively. The "body"  being karada 体 in Japanese.

      See the list of body parts in Japanese for more info.


      Some words for articles of clothing in Japanese have ue 上 and shita 下 in them (or other reading). Examples:
      • shitagi 下着
        Underwear. Underpants. Panties.
      • uwagi 上着
        Jacket. Coat.
      • kutsushita 靴下
        Socks. (they go under the "shoes," kutsu 靴)


      You must have gotten it by now. Most of the words with directions use "up" and "down," and up is always better. We all know it. Up is superior, down is inferior. Literally. Anyway here is some more Japanese vocabulary:
      • gehin 下品
      • jouhin 上品
      • joushi 上司
        One's superior. (manager, boss)
      • shitagaki 下書き
        Sketch. (drawing). Draft.
      • gekou 下校
        Leaving school (to go home).
      • geshuku 下宿
      • geshuku-ya 下宿屋
        Lodging house.

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      1. Goodness me that’s a lot to process. Wonderfully clear explanation of a complex subject. I’ve come hear as beginner student of Japanese, I can speak “travel” ie. pretty crappy Japanese... but I want to know more and become literate in Japanese. Love this site. I’m learning a lot. 👍🇦🇺