Introduction to Japanese: Volume 1

Chapter 8

Adjectives

Last chapter, we continued we started our endeavours into actual conversational exchanges in Japanese, learning how to introduce oneself and how to ask and answer questions.

In this chapter, we will boost our vocabulary and our Kanji with the introduction of adjectives in our studies. We will also learn the basics of a very useful new particle.

Adjectives in Japanese

This time, let’s start by checking some of the most common adjectives.

Japanese English Japanese English
おおきい Big きれい Beautiful
ちいさい Small ハンサム Handsome
あたらしい New ゆうめい Famous
ふる Old たいせつ Importantせつ
おいしい Delicious しんせつ Kind
たのしい Fun すき “Liked”
うれしい Happy きらい “Disliked”
かなしい Sad じょうず Skilful
おもしろい Interesting へた Unskilful
つまらない Dull べんり Convenient
かわいい Cute ふべん Inconvenient
いそがしい Busy しずか Silent
いい(よい) Good にぎやか Lively
わるい Bad げんき “Vigorous”

 

Don’t worry about memorizing all these words now; we will get back to them throughtout this article. Also, while it is odd at first, “like” and “dislike” in Japanese are adjectives, not verbs, so I would suggest thinking about them as “liked” and “disliked”.

The adjectives above are divided in two columns for a very important reason. There are two types of adjectives in Japanese: the “i-keiyoushi”, on the left column, and the “na-keiyoushi”, on the right.

The first are considered to be native Japanese words, while the second are of foreign origin, mostly from Chinese – although recently words of English origin, like ハンサム, are starting to creep in.

“I-keiyoushi” are called so because they all end in い. Please note that the opposite is NOT true: there are adjectives that end in い but are not “i-keiyoushi”, like きれい and きらい on the left column. “I-keiyoushi” can directly modify nouns.

“Na-keiyoushi”, on the other hand, require you to add a な between them and the noun they modify. Sounds complicated? It won’t be anymore after we check the following examples:

“i-keiyoushi” “na-keiyoushi”
Japanese English Japanese English
おおきいえ Big house きれい Beautiful person
ちいさ Small car ハンサム男性 Handsome man
あたらし New book たいせつてがみ Important letter
たのしゲーム Fun game しんせつ先生 Kind teacher
おいしケーキ Delicious cake すきおんがく “Liked” song
いそがし仕事 Busy job きらいたべもの “Disliked” food

 

As you can see, the “i-keiyoushi” attach themselves directly to the noun they modify, while the “na-keiyoushi” require a connective な between the adjective and noun – and, as we will see soon, between an adjective and noun only. So far, so good?

Now I would like to talk about one very important property of adjectives in Japanese: they are conjugated. That is one big departure from English. There are differences between how the two types of adjectives are conjugated, so let’s see the “i-keiyoushi” conjugation first.

“i-keiyoushi”
あたらしい本です “Is new book”.
あたらしくない本です “Is not new book”.
あたらしかった本です “Was new book”.
あたらしくなかった本です “Was not new book”.

 

To conjugate an “i-keiyoushi”, first remove the い; the remaining part is what we call the adjective stem. Then, add:

  • くない for the present negative tense
  • かった for the past tense
  • なかった for the past negative tense.

Note that the “です” part does not change at all; its sole function in the sentences above is to indicate politeness.

Conjugating adjectives can be a bit jarring at first for English speakers. One way of thinking about them is that in Japanese, the adjective contains the verb (I have seen “i-keiyoushi” adjectives being called “adjective verbs”); note that I translated the sentence あたらしい本ですas “is new book” rather than “new book”. Adjectives and verbs can be so similar, actually, that I will let you on a secret: please bear in mind how we conjugate “i-keiyoushi” adjectives, because it greatly resembles how we conjugate verbs in their plain (that is, not polite) form.

It is worth noting is that while in English we need to add a “not” before the adjective to express its opposite (i.e., “not new”), in Japanese adjectives have their own negative tense. Therefore, you need not add any negative words before them. Having said that, their usage has some similarities with English.

First, there is a nuanced difference between saying something is “old” (ふるい) versus “not new”, (あたらしい). Second, it is possible to say the negative while implying the opposite, especially if you add a rising intonation at the end of the word. For example, you could say “おおきくない?” to imply “Isn’t it too big?”.

Before I finish talking about “i-keiyoushi”, let us briefly talk about the one irregular conjugation: that of the adjective いい (good). Because it was originally read as “よい”, when conjugated, the original reading よ still rears it head, as we can see in the tables below.

いい/よい (“good”) conjugation
いい本です “Is good book”.
よくない本です “Is not good book”.
よかった本です “Was good book”.
よくなかった本です “Was not new book”.

 

By the way, if you fear mixing いい and よい, feel free to just use the よい, as the old reading is still not completely obsolete.

Let’s now check the “na-keiyoushi” adjectives. I have some good news: their conjugation is much easier than the “i-keiyoushi” ones. You just conjugate the copula です as you would with any other noun. In fact, just as “i-keiyoushi” adjectives are often compared to verbs, “na-keiyoushi” ones could be considered as a type of nouns, with the sole difference being that you use な to connect them rather than the particle の.

na-keiyoushi conjugation
きれいな人です “Is beautiful person”.
きれいな人ではありません “Is not beautiful person”.
きれいな人でした “Was beautiful person”.
きれいな人ではありませんでした “Was not beautiful person”.

 

Easy, right? One last thing about na-keiyoushi adjectives: remember I said that you only add the connective な between an adjective and a noun? When a na-keiyoushi is followed by です, you do not add な.

Let’s check the two sentences below:

かのじょはきれいな人です。(She is beautiful person.)

かのじょはきれいです。(She is beautiful.)

The が particle

Now that we are learning adjectives, it is a good time to introduce one particle that we often use with them: が. It is a very complex particle, so we will only learn some of its many uses for now.

First, some adjectives (such as すき, きらい, 上手 or 下手) require objects that are marked with が. For example, with you mark the object you like or the thing you are good (or not good) at with が.

ヒロキ:私はコーヒーがすきです。かよこは?
かよこ:私はおちゃがすきです。

Hiroki: (I like coffee. What about you, Kayoko?)
Kayoko: (I like tea.)

かよこ:みどりはテニスが上手ですか?
みどり:いいえ、テニスが上手ではありません。すいえいが上手です。

Kayoko: (Are you good at tennis, Midori?)
Midori: (No, I am not good at tennis. I am good at swimming.)

Some verbs also normally require the use of が. Two verbs that require が that we have already seen are あります or います; another two that we will often use are わかります (to understand) and できます (to be able to do).

かよこは日本語がわかります。 (Kayoko understands Japanese.)

私は車があります。(I have a car.)

みどりはあたらしい仕事ができました。(Midori got a new job (“Midori was able to do a new job”).)

Finally (for now), が can also be used as a conjunctive particle expressing contrast between two statements, pretty much like “but” or “however” in English.

For example, we could rewrite some of the dialogue above using the particle が:

ヒロキ:私はコーヒーがすきです。かよこは?
かよこ:私はコーヒーがすきではありませんが、おちゃがすきです。

Hiroki: (I like coffee. What about you, Kayoko?)
Kayoko: (I do not like coffee, but I like tea.)

かよこ:みどりはテニスが上手ですか。
みどり:テニスが上手ではありませんが、すいえいが上手です。

Kayoko: (Are you good at tennis, Midori?)
Midori: (No, I am not good at tennis, but I am good at swimming.)

That was a lot to cover in just one chapter, so now to wrap it up, let’s check the dialogue below. Not only it covers all three uses of が we have seen in this article but also has a lot of adjectives to boot:

かよこ:みどりさん、あたらしい仕事ができましたね。
みどり:うん、できました!田中先生のけんきゅうしつではたらきます。
かよこ:いいですね。かれはゆうめいな先生ですね。
みどり:まあ、ゆうめいな先生ですが、しんせつではありません。

Kayoko: (Midori, you got a new job, right?)
Midori: (Yes, I did. I work at professor Tanaka’s lab.)
Kayoko: (That is good. He is a famous teacher, right?)
Midori: (Well, he is a famous teacher, but not very kind.)

Shukudai section

Kanji

Let us work a bit harder with Kanji. We will learn many Kanji used in adjectives and also finish checking numbers 6-10.

This Kanji means “small”; you might see it indicating portion and drink sizes just like we see the letter S in English. The adjective we saw in this article is written さい (small).

In kanji compounds it is normally read as しょう, as in 小学校しょうがっこう (elementary school) or 小学生しょうがくせい (elementary school student); especially when used as a suffix, it can also be read as こ, in words as 小島こじま (small island), 小柄こがら (small build), 小雨こさめ (light rain), 小声こごえ (whisper) or 小麦こむぎ (wheat).

Sample sentence: 私はさいくるまがあります. (I have a small car.)

This Kanji means “big”, and big it is indeed. Not only you can see it indicating portion and drink sizes pretty much everywhere, you can also see a truly giant version of it every August 16 in Kyoto, in a festival called Daimonji, where they light a giant bonfire in its shape as a farewell to spirits of deceased family members.

The adjective we saw in this article is written おおきい (big/large); we can see this reading in some kanji compounds too, such as 大手おおて (major company), 大雨おおあめ (heavy rain) and my city, 大阪おおさか (Osaka).

In words borrowed from Chinese it is normally read either as たい, in words such as 大切たいせつ (important) and 大使館たいしかん (embassy); or as だい, in words such as 大学だいがく (university), 大臣だいじん (prime-minister) 大小だいしょう (“various sizes” or daisho, matched pair of samurai swords) and the 大文字 festival I just mentioned above.

Sample sentence: みどりのいえはおおきいです. (Midori’s house is big.)

Sample sentence: 大学だいがく大切たいせつです. (University is very important.)

This Kanji means “dog”, and I confess it is not really related to the adjective lesson. I chose to teach this character now to show how similar in appearance (and how different in meaning) Kanji can be sometimes.

In native Japanese words , such as the word “dog” itself, we read it as いぬ; when used in words of Chinese origin, it is read as けん; for example, the words 愛犬あいけん (pet dog or beloved dog), 犬歯けんし (canine tooth) or 忠犬ちゅうけん (faithful dog, normally meaning Hachiko).

Sample sentence: みどりはがいます. (Midori has a dog.)

This Kanji is a bit on the complex side, being composed of three different characters that we haven’t studied yet (立, 木 and 斤); it is, however, one of the most common and omnipresent Kanji you can find, meaning “new”.

The adjective we saw in this article is written あたらしい (while in words borrowed from Chinese we read it as しん, as in 新聞しんぶん (newspaper), 新年しんねん (New Year) and 新幹線しんかんせん (Shinkansen aka “bullet train”; literally “new trunk line”), not to mention in countless words where it is used as a suffix, such as 新世界しんせかい (new world) or 新車しんしゃ (new car).

Sample sentence: ヒロキはあたらしいくるまがかいました. (Hiroki had a new car.)

Sample sentence: わたしはしんかんせんでいきます → わたし新幹線しんかんせんきます. (I’ll go by shinkansen.)

The polar opposite to the Kanji above, this character means “old”. While I am not a fan of mnemonics and I rarely recommend remembering Kanji by their appearance only, I cannot help but see a grave with a cross on top. Then again, the cruelty of associating “old” with “grave” is probably one of the reasons why I don’t like mnemonics in the first place! When used in Kanji compounds, we read this character as こ; for example, the words 古代こだい (ancient times), 中古ちゅうこ (second-hand object) and 古典的こてんてき (classical).

Sample sentence: かれのいえはふるいです. (His house is old.)

This Kanji means “high”, “tall” or “expensive”, such as in the adjective たかい (tall or expensive). The same reading appears in the verb たかめる (to raise or to lift) and in many Japanese surnames, such as Takahashi (高橋).

Please note that when used to refer to a person’s height, normally the expression used is たかい.

In Kanji compounds, it is normally read as こう; examples include 高校こうこう (high school), 高校生こうこうせい (high school student), 高速道路こうそくどうろ (highway) or 高温こうおん (high temperature).

This Kanji’s range extends from fast speeds to advanced age to high class, and therefore it will often appear in our studies.

Sample sentence: かよこはたかくないです. (Kayoko is not tall.)

Sample sentence: かのじょは高校生こうこうせいですか? (Is she a high school student?)

This Kanji, meaning “like” or “favourable”, is composed of the “child” and “woman” radicals. It is often heard that it is supposed to evoke the feelings of love and fondness that a woman feels for her child; while I am not sure if this story is true or not, feel free to refer to it if it helps you to remember the character.

Anyhow, in Japanese native words this character is usually read as このみ, such as in おこのき (Osaka’s cuisine masterpiece; it is a kind of pancake that in which you can add “whatever you like”, hence the name).

Having said that, the first word you are likely to meet is き (like), that has an irregular reading. Note that you can add add the kanji 大 to write 大好だいき (really like).

Finally, in Chinese borrowings we normally read this as こう, such as 好意こうい (good favour).

Sample sentence: かよこはおこのきが大好だいすきです. (Kayoko loves okonomiyaki.)

Let’s check some more number-related Kanji now; this means “six”, and its Japanese reading, ろく, as in 六月ろくがつ or 6月 (June) or 六法ろっぽう (the six law codes of Japanese Law). Please mind the bottom part of this Kanji, as we will get back to it very soon.

The Kanji for “seven”, in my opinion, greatly resembles an upside-down 7 (I like my seven crossed, thank you). In any case, this is another number that has two common readings: the native Japanese なな and the original Chinese しち.

That means you have words like 七色なないろ (the seven colours of the rainbow) and 七月しちがつ(July) 七福神しちふくじん (the seven lucky gods).

One special reading is 七夕たなばた (the Star Festival, happening every July 7th).

The Kanji for “eight”: aka the bottom part of the Kanji for “six”. Eight is a lucky number in both Japan and China (there is a reason the Beijing Olympics started on 08/08/08 at 08:08); I was told that the fact it spreads out wide toward the end is supposed to symbolise your fortune increasing. In any case, the Japanese reading, や, isn’t as common as the Chinese one, はち; for instance, 八月はちがつ or 8月 (August).

From a lucky number to an unlucky one. The Kanji for “nine” has two Chinese readings, きゅう and く, and the last one shares its reading with 苦, that means suffering (then again, no one bats an eye that 8 shares its reading with wasp, and the Japanese wasp sting is particularly nasty).

In addition to its unlucky Chinese readings, we also have ここの, the native Japanese one. Before you ask, September is 九月くがつ, and far from suffering, it is one of the most pleasant months in Japan.

You will suffer, though, if you mix 九 with 力 (strength) that we saw in the previous chapter. If you need to remember the difference, the tail in 九 points up, just like 9 does, while 力 points inwards (perhaps symbolizing inner strength?).

The Kanji for “ten” is easier than multiplying by ten: just make a cross (I always found remarkable how the Ancient Chinese and the Romans almost came independently to the same symbol to mean “10”). Interestingly, by resembling a cross, this Kanji also came to represent words like crossroads (十字路じゅうじろ) and the cross of Christ (十字架じゅうじか). As you can see, the Chinese reading, じゅう, is much more common than the native Japanese とう: 十月, aka October, is じゅうがつ.

Since you might be curious to know how to write November and October, it is a good time to know how Japanese write numbers greater than ten. If you write a 2-9 Kanji before ten, you are expressing a multiple of ten, so 三十さんじゅう means thirty and 九十きゅうじゅう means ninety.

If you write it after ten instead, you are adding that number to ten, so 十一じゅういち means eleven and 十二じゅうに means twelve – and therefore, you have 十一月じゅういちがつ (November) and 十二月じゅうにがつ (December).