Japanese the Japanese Don’t Know

Last month my girlfriend gave me a comic book.  It was a surprising departure from the Japanese comic books I had come in contact with before.  This one didn’t have any robots, explosions, buxom beauties or astonishing obscenity.  It dealt with Japanese linguistics and foreigners to Japan, like me, who study Japanese.

It was titled 日本人の知らない日本語(Nihonjin no shiranai nihongo), or “Japanese the Japanese Don’t Know.”  It’s written by and told from the perspective of Nagiko Umino, a Japanese woman and teacher at a Japanese language school for adults in Japan.  The general premise of the book is her constantly encountering and attempting to correct bizarre and unique Japanese usages by her students, while doing her best to answer their specific and sometimes arcane questions about Japanese words and grammar.  The book uses this theme to humorous effect, as well as a device to highlight how much traditional and specific Japanese many Japanese people never encounter day-to-day, and therefore have little to no knowledge of.

Japanese the Japanese Don't Know.
"Japanese the Japanese Don't Know"

For example, in one comic strip, Ms. Umino is teaching Japanese counters.  Japanese attaches specific morphemes after numbers when counting nouns of certain classes.  Each class of nouns requires a specific “counter” morpheme to augment the number.  In English, the closest example to this process can be seen in phrases like “two pairs of pants” or “five loaves of bread,” but Japanese is far more complex, to the point of being frustrating for learners.  In this section, she is teaching each form of counter by listing example nouns that can be counted with that counter, yet being flummoxed by students proudly announcing what they believe to be proper uses of the counter.  While teaching the counter -hon, used to count long, cylindrical objects, a Chinese student shouts out “So snakes would be ippon, nihon, sanbon, right?!” Of course, snakes are small, animate creatures, so are therefore counted with -hiki, not -hon, despite being long and cylindrical.

In later chapters the book moves beyond the “Japanese is hard” pattern, and introduces some linguistic history and quizzes designed to stump even well-educated Japanese people.  It’s this section of the book that ceases to be very interesting for the non-Japanese reader – even once one understands the answers, they remain mostly arcane and hard to apply to general language knowledge.

However, some of these sections, if rather dense, provide good insights into why contemporary Japanese, both spoken and written, came to be the way it is today.  One section rather comprehensively looks at all of the hiragana that went by the wayside as a result of post-war writing reform, but can still been seen on the signs of shops and restaurants, and therefore are likely to answer those niggling “Why did I never learn that?” questions a reader might have.

The strength of this book is the mixture of lighthearted, quickly paced humor and clearly presented material.  Its humor strikes a good balance in appreciating the quirkiness of the language that foreign students struggle with, without marginalizing the efforts of foreigners who study Japanese or caricaturing them in predictable ways.  It manages to delve into some rather difficult topics through all of this.  I recommend this book as a fun read for anyone studying Japanese at JLPT level 3 or above who feels like improving reading comprehension, having a laugh, and learning some arcane facts to nonchalantly bring up at their next drinking party. link here

There is also a sequel out now, Part 2

2 replies on “Japanese the Japanese Don’t Know”

I know what you mean about the counters. They have them in korean as well. i have the counters for people, ages and things down pat. so if i can’t remember the counter for a specfic class of things, i just call it a thing. I’m making much worse grammar mistakes in others ways. 🙂

[…] Often I’ll take some work with me and keep working, or study materials and have a study session (many local high school students do the same), or even take a book and just read. Often I bump into some of my elementary school students there, and we share a laugh and talk about what we’re going to eat, or what book I’m reading. This was especially funny when I was reading the comic “Japanese the Japanese Don’t Know”. […]

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