I took the first half of the beginner Japanese course in college. I started the second half but for various reasons had to withdraw from the class.
Quite honestly that was just a stressful semester.
But now it is summer and one of the things I want to do is at the very least finish learning the things in this textbook. The larger goal is to become more fluent in Japanese speaking, writing, listening and reading.
This is something I’ve wanted to make for quite a while— so I’m very excited to finally be able to share it with you.
Tonight what I am going to share with you is basically some commentary the first lesson in Genki, which is the most popular Japanese book at the moment. Published by The Japan Times, it’s meant first and foremost to be a classroom book. A classroom book, as opposed to a self-study book, is allowed to fudge things a little bit for the sake of spacial economy and simplification because it is assured that the teacher can clarify the ambiguities that may come from it. Yet I’m aware that many of you are self-learners. While I cannot step into the role of a “Japanese teacher,” I can give you some perspective as a linguist. I can simplify and explain things that the book basically cannot or takes its sweet time in getting to.
This isn’t a detailed explanation of everything, only some additions and comments. If there’s something that you don’t understand or would like me to expand on, let me know!
Without further ado:
The Genki textbook comes with a Hiragana and Katana chart on the front and back covers, respectively. Please remember this while you’re learning them and you forget one. It’s faster than looking up a chart online.
After a completely useless introduction in Japanese, the English translation begins on page 18. I’m going to recommend you read the section on the structure of the book because it is very consisted throughout the lessons.
The section explaining the Kanji lessons in the back brings up two very important terms: on-yomi and kun-yomi. Get familiar with Kanji having more than one pronunciation. The very bottom of this page mentions how some Kanji have derivative pronunciations: this can be explained most of the time. (In the case of “Gakkoo,” what happens is that you have two Chinese readings (on-yomi): gaku+kou. You’ll see that /u/ in Japanese is a very weak vowel and will disappear in many instances. That’s what’s happening here. You have two of the same consonant divided by a /u/, so it gets deleted. )
For those of you who like to write: take note of the different fonts and how it’s expected to look when handwritten. Take special note of り and き. I’ll add here that さ behaves like き in that there isn’t a connective bulb between the top and bottom parts.
Japanese is not a tonal accent (like Mandarin) but it does have a pitch accent. Pitch accent has to do with pitch, i.e. the frequency of one’s voice, and not stress. Stress accent is what Spanish has, for example. (English has it to but that’s another story.) It’s hard to wrap your head around, but imagine this: you’re at a piano and you’re playing two sequential keys. Now imagine that you’re tuning your voice to the two notes of the two keys. When you speak Japanese, one syllable of most words will be spoken in tune with the higher note, and the others will be spoken in turn with the lower note. (And it’s also worth noting that there are many variations in Japan as to how pitch accent works.)
People will want to make you believe that a large portion of Kanji are pictographic. They’re not. It’s like 4%. For most intents and purposes, whether or not it is pictographic is useless information. Don’t mind it. The true story behind Kanji is a very complicated one. What they very nicely point out here is the thing with 晴 and 清, which both share the on’yomi of “sei,” based on the “sound element.” This is something nifty to keep in the back of your mind. In fact, in the long run, this might be the most important point in the whole introduction.
Lesson 1 proper begins with these greetings. The things on the right column are the English equivalents, not the translations. Believe it or not, these greetings are not just totally arbitrary sounds the Japanese make in certain situations: they have meanings.
Oyahoo- is an adverb meaning “early.”
Ohayoo gozaimasu- “gozaimasu” is a polite conjugation of the humble version of the copula “aru.” A copula is a semi-meaningless verb that just establishes a relationship between noun phrases. English’s copula is “is.”
Konnichiwa- is a combination of a prefix “kon-,” meaning “this;” the lexeme “nichi,” meaning “day;” and “wa,” which is a topic particle. So it means “This day…”
Konbanwa- is the same story except that “ban” means “evening.”
Sayoonara- is a combination of “sa,” which is an adjective meaning “that;” “yoo” is a suffix meaning “like;” and “nara” is a one of many conditional conjunctions meaning “if.” So this means something like “If that’s the way it is.”
Oyasuminasai- is a combination of “O,” which is an honorific prefix (Get used to them. They’re everywhere.) and “yasuminasai,” which is the verb “yasumu,” meaning “rest,” in one of many imperative conjugations.
Arigatoo- is a bit difficult to explain, but here’s the gist. This is another combination of terms. “Ari” is participial form (for those of you who are familiar with my work, don’t hold it against me that I’m calling this the participial form.) of “aru,” which I mentioned before. The “gatoo” part comes from the Portuguese “gato,” meaning a cat. So this means “there is a cat.” The rationale behind this is because the Japanese do not want to make people aware that they’re being inconvenienced, so they point out that there’s a cat somewhere to lift up their mood. The “gatoo” part comes is related the lexical stem “kata,” which means “difficult.” The /k/ got voiced into /g/. The /a/ becoming an /o/ is a historical development.
Arigatoo gozaimasu- is made up of two elements we’ve already seem before.
Sumimasen- is also a bit tricky. It’s the polite negative present/future conjugation of the verb “sumu,” which means a lot of things. What it means in essence is for something to be done. So this means “it isn’t over.” It’s also good to note that it’s also a very polite way of thanking someone.
Iie- is probably an arbitrary set of sounds used to express some form of discontent. “Iie” is not the way the Japanese tend to say “no,” though. Please keep that in mind.
Ittekimasu- is “itte,” the gerund (let me call it that for now) of the verb “iku,” meaning “to go;” and “kimasu,” which is the polite present/future affirmative conjugation of “kuru,” meaning to come. So “[I] am going and I will come.”
Itterasshai- is the same “itte” form before plus “rasshai,” which is a shortened form of “irasshai,” which is the imperative form of “irassharu,” which is a very polite verb meaning “to come.”
Tadaima- is a combination of “tada,” meaning “just” and “ima” meaning “now.” So “Just now.”
Okaerinasai- is just like “oyasuminasai:” it’s the honorific prefix plus an imperative conjugation for “kaeru,” meaning “to return.”
Itadakimasu- is the polite present/future conjugation of the verb “itadaku,” which is a very humble verb meaning “to receive.”
Gochisoosama deshita- can be broken down into gochisoo, sama, and deshita. Gochiso is a noun meaning “feast.” (It’s good to note that that “go” is another honorific prefix.) “Sama” is a suffix that, again, gives honor to the noun. If you’re familiar with anime and have heard characters being called [Name]-sama, this is the same “sama.” “Deshita” is polite past conjugation of the copula “da.” Japanese has 3 main copulae and “da” and “aru” are two of them.
Hajimemashite- is sort of an oddity. I myself haven’t come across an official etymology of it. But here is what it seems to me to be. “Hajime” is an adverb meaning “for the first time.” “Mashite” might be “Imashite” minus the initial /i/. “Imashite” would be a weird, but perhaps valid, polite imperative conjugation of the copula “iru,” the third of our 3 copulae. So it would literally mean “Let this be for the first time.”
Yoroshiku Oneishimasu- is two separate words. “Yoroshiku” is the adverbial form of the adjective (Again, those of you who know me, let it be.) “yoroshii,” which is a very polite way of saying “good.” “Onegaishimasu” is an interesting and very popular kind of verb. It’s made up of the noun “onegai” meaning “request” and “shimasu,” which is the polite present/future conjugation of the verb “suru,” (remember this!) meaning “to do.” It’s meaning is much closer to “I’m asking that you treat me well.” than “Nice to meet you.”
I’m going to point out from the vocabulary page that Genki for the moment being uses these transcriptions that I’m not very fond of; but my biases aside, the important thing is that you notice that “えい” is transcripted at “ee” when one would expect it to be transliterated (which is different from transcription) as “ei.” So one normally reads “sensei” and not “sensee.”
Let’s talk about XはYです… You remember “Me Tarzan. You Jane.”? Okay. XはYです is very similar to that syntactically. Genki does come back to this point more than once, and even here it is muddled in one form; but let me just parse things out. は does not indicate the subject of a sentence. は indicates the topic of a sentence. Think of a statement like this: “As to the garbage can… full.” What the heck can that mean? Well, probably that the garbage can is full. That is exactly what happens in Japanese with は. The topic kind of stands there alone in semantic space and everything else develops there. です is not what you want to have in mind when you think of “is.” If anything, think of だ. です has been conjugated for something called “teineigo,” or “polite language.” There’s no way of sounding badass when you’re ending all your sentences in です. The plain version of です is だ; and when you’re defaulting to だ things get much easier in the long run. So, XはYです semantically maps out to: As for X… [it] is Y. As the text tells you, there is no subject grammatically.
の is what we call a genitive particle. The “genitive” is an inflectional case. An inflectional case is form a noun will take base on its function in the sentence. You know how “Me” and “my” are kind of the same word except in function? Well “my” is the genitive of “me.” We’ll be learning about cases as they come up. The genitive indicates that it is modifying another noun, normally to tell you that that other noun belongs to or is part of the genitive noun. XのY can be interpreted as Y of X. It’s a good shorthand and it’ll give you a general idea. Just remember that you won’t always be translating it this way. (“Watashi no pen,” for example is not translated as “pen of I,” but as “My pen.”)
I’ll consolidate the two ideas of sensei (or sensee) and san here. Sensei is a kind of honorific suffix used for teachers, professors, and doctors. (There are other people you may call sensei, but these are the most popular.) In the same way you can’t call yourself “san” because it’s a suffix that in part gives you some form of honor, you cannot use “sensei” for yourself. If you watch anime, you’ve probably seen the suffixes “kun,” “chan,” and “sama.” If you plan on talking to Japanese people, don’t call them these things. Stick with “san” and “sensei” (if it’s a teacher). “Kun” is used among boys for other boys. “Chan” is used by adults for small children and among young girls. A school girl can call a boy X-kun but the boy will tend to call the girl X-san and not X-chan. That seems to be an anime thing. I’ve yet to meet someone who ever goes by “sama.” Kami-sama is the only “sama” i know and that’s “God.”
Also, regarding the bottom point, if you want to get someone’s attention, like you’re calling to them, not that you’re talking right in front of them (which is what the explanation in the book is implying,) then you can say “X-san” without the “wa” and then when you have their attention, you can ask them the sentence. without saying needing to begin with “Haato san wa…”
You’ll realize that there some variations of the minute suffix. Thankfully I have already written a post for this here which explains it.
So there’s Lesson 1. Let me know what you guys think!