Introduction to Japanese: Volume 1
Introducing yourself and asking questions
Last chapter, we continued our studies about Japanese particles and learned the basics of verb conjugation in Japanese. Now it is time to put to use all the grammar we have learned so far into actual conversational exchanges in Japanese. We will learn how to ask and answer questions, as well as how to make some basic greetings and introductions in Japanese.
Introducing yourself in Japanese
When foreigners learn English, one of the first things they learn is how to “properly” introduce oneself: “Hello. My name is Francis Matthews. What’s your name?”. “My name is Sam Smith”. “Thank you, Mr. Smith”. Once they interact with native speakers, though, they realise that the “proper way” they learned might sound a bit verbose or tedious.
This is not often the case in Japanese, however, which tends to use set phrases more often than English. Self-introductions tend to follow the same pattern even in more informal settings.
Therefore, in its most basic form, a proper introduction in Japanese should go like this at a bare minimum:
Let’s break this introduction into pieces. はじめまして is normally the first thing you say when meeting or being introduced to someone – which is only fitting, since it comes from the verb はじめます, “to begin”! Think of it as “nice to meet you”, and as such, please remember that it should only be said when you meet someone for the first time.
We saw 私のなまえはXです (my name is X) in our previous chapter, so let’s move on to どうぞよろしくおねがいします, which almost always comes at the end of the introduction. One of the most often used sentences in Japanese, this set phrase isn’t very easy to translate to English. Although often translated to “please treat me well”, you can think about it as a polite way to finish your self-introduction.
I often advise against trying to learn Japanese by directly comparing it to English (or any other language) on a sentence-by-sentence or word-by-word basis, and “どうぞよろしくおねがいします” is a good example of why.
Online websites give it as different translations as “nice to meet you”, “I ask for your consideration on this matter” and “thank you for your cooperation”. These seemingly random translations make more sense when we check a Japanese dictionary: “a greeting used when you expect or hope to receive an appropriate consideration or treatment from someone; can also be used to request someone’s favour”.
Of course, there is more to introduction than saying your name! In fact, self-introductions (じこしょうかい) carry a lot of weight in Japanese culture, and when you first arrive at a new school, class, job or even a party, you will normally be directly asked to introduce yourself (my professors at Osaka University used to do this every class, every semester).
Normally people inform their name, age, country and/or city of origin, major or occupation, and hobbies or tastes, but obviously its contents can vary according to the situation (in a job interview, it would be wise to focus on your skills and previous job experience, for example).
Tanaka-sensei: (Please introduce yourselves.)
Hiroki: (Greetings. My name is Hiroki Dornelles. I come from São Paulo, Brazil. My major is Japanese History. It is a pleasure to meet you.)
Now that you have introduced yourself and have politely listened to the other person to finish introducing him or herself, you may ask your listener for some more information. It is time to learn how to ask questions!
Making questions in Japanese is quite easy – I would argue it is easier than in English! There are no changes to word order; simply add the question marker か at the end of the sentence. Just remember to add a rising intonation to the ending just like we do in English (in casual speech, you may even drop the か and just keep the rising intonation).
Let’s see some simple yes/no questions.
Tanaka-sensei: Hiroki, are you Brazilian?
Hiroki: Yes, I am.
Midori: Kayoko, do you come to work by car?
Kayoko: No, I come by train.
Now that you know how to make simple yes/no questions, let’s see how you can ask more specific questions in Japanese using question words. In this chapter, we will see the question words なん and なに, both meaning “what” in Japanese.
* The “お” before some nouns makes the word “polite”.
Hiroki: What is your name?
Doudou: My name is Doudou.
Doudou: What did you say?
Hiroki: Me? I did not say anything.
Midori: What is your job, Kayoko?
Kayoko: I am a company employee.
In addition, なん and, more rarely, なに can be paired with some suffixes in order to ask other questions. For example, you can pair it with じ (hour) to ask “what time” and with じん (person) to ask “what nationality”.
Doudou: From what time is Tanaka-sensei’s class?
Hiroki: From 10am.
Tanaka-sensei: What is Doudou’s nationality?
Hiroki: He is Senegalese.
You may be asking yourself when should you use なに and when should you use なん. The answer is not easy. Japanese textbooks will tell you that you should use なん before words starting with T (た・ち・つ・て・と), D (だ・じ・づ・で・ど) or N (な・に・ぬ・ね・の), but as you can see with なにじん, there are exceptions to this rule.
My own advice and simplification is that なに is used before particles (like in なにを and なにも above) while なん comes before most suffixes.
Demonstrative pronouns and the こ・そ・あ・ど system
What is this? What is that? These are very useful questions for the beginner of any foreign language. In the following exchange, let’s see how we can make these questions. I also promise that by the end of this section you will have learned a very interesting and helpful pattern, the こ・そ・あ・ど system.
Kayoko: What is this?
Midori: (That is) tea.
Kayoko: What is that (close to the listener)?
Midori: (This is) a watch.
Kayoko: What is that (away from both)?
Midori: (That is) a car.
Kayoko: Which one is yours?
Midori: That one (is my car).
While English only has two demonstrative pronouns (this, that and their plurals), Japanese (as well as Portuguese and Spanish) has three: これ, for things that are close to the speaker; それ, for things that are close to the listener, and あれ, from things that are far from both of them. Finally, there is the word どれ, meaning “which” and is normally used when there are three or more objects to choose from. Lastly, remember that Japanese has no plurals, so これ could be either this or these, depending on context.
Now, the thing about これ, それ, あれ and どれ is that you always have to use them “alone”, that is to say, they must not precede any nouns. So while a sentence like “this is a book” or “is that a bird?” would be ok, if you want to say something like “this table”, “that person”, “those boxes”, etc., you need to use another set of words (which is again also the case for Portuguese and Spanish). Fear not: these words also follow the same こ・そ・あ・ど pattern.
Hiroki: Is this book yours?
Doudou: Yes, it’s mine.
Kayoko: Is that pencil yours?
Midori: No, this pencil is not mine.
As you probably noticed, この, その, あの and どの are the equivalent demonstrative adjectives that we use when they precede a noun. So, remember: “this is a book” is これは本です, while “this book is mine” is この本は私の本です. Also, you may have noticed that some words are between parentheses. In Japanese as well as in English, we can omit words to avoid repetitions; an exchange such as “Is this book your book”, “Yes, this book is my book” sounds just as strange in Japanese, and therefore we omit the second mention of the noun.
As you can see, the こ・そ・あ・ど pattern (“near me, near you, far from us, which”) is very helpful. Next, let’s see one more application of the pattern: here, there, where.
Midori: Excuse me, where is the toilet?
Midori: And the post office?
Kayoko: (The post office is) here.
Midori: Thank you very much.
Doudou: Where did you come from, Hiroki?
Hiroki: I come from São Paulo, Brazil. And you?
Doudou: I come from Dakar, Senegal.
As you can imagine, ここ, そこ, あそこ (not “あこ”) and どこ are, respectively, here, there (near the listener), there (far from both speaker and listener) and where. Knowing theこ・そ・あ・ど pattern makes it much easier to remember them.
To wrap-up, here is a handy chart of what we have seen today:
|Demonstrative pronouns||これ (this)||それ (that (near the listener))||あれ (that (far from the listener))||どれ (which (3+ objects))|
|Demonstrative adjectives||この (this [thing])||その (that [thing] (near the listener))||あの (that [thing] (far from the listener))||どの (Which [thing] (3+ objects))|
|Location||ここ (here)||そこ (there (near the listener))||あそこ (there (far from the listener))||どこ (where)|
No grammar shukudai this time! To compensate, let’s work a bit harder on Kanji. We will see some Kanji that are used in words that appear in this article. In addition, we will see some basic Kanji, as well as the characters for numbers 1-5.
This is one of the most used Kanji, as it means “what”. As we have seen in this article, it can be read either as なに or なん, so take care. Combined with other suffixes, it can be used to make many questions, such as 何時ですか (what time is it?) or 何枚ですか (how many pages?).
It can also be used to write 何か (something) or 何も (nothing). As for writing, beware of the similarities between 何 and 行, which we have seen in the previous article: 何 only has one set of lines, while 行 has double lines on its top part.
Sample sentence: これは何ですか？ (What is this?)
Sample sentence: あした、何時にあいましょうか？ (What time are we meeting tomorrow?)
This Kanji originally meant “wheel” (supposedly it mimics the design of a cartwheel as seen from above), but today more commonly means “car”, in Japanese, くるま.
The Chinese reading is しゃ, appearing in words such as 電車 (electric train), 自動車 (automobile), 自転車 (bicycle) and 駐車場 (parking lot).
In addition, please bear in mind that this shape also appears as a radical in many other Kanji, such as 連 (lotus) or 運 (carry).
Sample sentence: みどりの車はどれですか？ (Which one is Midori’s car?)
Sample sentence: 私は電車で仕事へ行きます (I go to work by train.)
Next, let’s study one of the most basic Kanjis of all, meaning “rice field” – showing the importance that rice has in Japanese history. Today this character often appears in Japanese names, where it is read as た or だ, such as 田中 (Tanaka), 中田 (Nakata), 前田 (Maeda), and place names, such as 羽田空港 (Haneda Airport) or 梅田駅 (Umeda Station).
Sample sentence: 私のなまえは田中です (My name is Tanaka.)
Sample sentence: 梅田駅にいます (I am at Umeda Station.)
Another very basic Kanji, meaning “strength”, “force” or “power”; its Japanese reading is ちから. The Chinese reading is りょく; for example, 努力 (effort), 電力 (electric power) or 協力 (cooperation).
The last one is kind of cool, in my opinion – cooperation as many strengths together.
Sample sentence: ご協力をおねがいします. (Thank you for your cooperation.)
Now comes the payoff of learning basic Kanji shapes and radicals: this Kanji, meaning “male”, is pretty much 田 written on top of 力 (so yes, men are the “strength of the fields” according to the minds of the ancient Chinese who created Kanji).
The Japanese reading is おとこ. Other than in toilets, you can see this Kanji in many male-related words such as 男の子 (boy) or 男子 (young man). The masculine gender as seen in official documents and forms is called 男性 (だんせい).
Before we proceed, I just want to establish a small distinction: 男 is not what we call a “Kanji compound”. Kanji compounds are two different Kanji written together to create a word, while 男 is one Kanji composed of simpler characters (much like W, although composed of two Vs, is a different letter altogether).
Sample sentence: 私は男性です (Doudou is a male.)
The Kanji for the “female”, 女, is not composed of any other previous Kanji, being an original shape in its own right. The Japanese reading is おんな, appearing on words such as 女の子 (girl).
The Chinese reading, じょ, appears in 女子 (young girl) and 女性 (woman), as well as 少女漫画 (manga aimed at a teenage female readership such as Sailon Moon) and 男女格差 (gender gap).
Sample sentence: 田中先生は女性です. (Tanaka-sensei is a woman.)
Simple Kanji, complicated readings. This Kanji means “up” or “top”, both in a geographical/spatial way as well as in a status or rank meaning. It has many Japanese readings, so today we will focus on only one of them: うえ, meaning top, as in 机の上 (top of the table).
The Chinese reading is じょ, as seen in 上司 (boss), 上手 (skilful), 上級 (advanced class) or 上達 (improvement).
Sample sentence: ペンはつくえの上にあります. (The pen is on top of the table.)
Sample sentence: かのじょは私の上司です. (She is my boss.)
The counterpart of up, 下 means “under” or “bottom” – again, both in a spatial and rank meaning. It also has many different readings, so now we will only see some of the most common ones. The most common Japanese reading is した, as in 机の下 (under the table).
A common Chinese reading is か, as in the words 地下鉄 (subway) or 下級 (low class).
Sample sentence: えんぴつはつくえの下にあります. (The pencil is under the table.)
Sample sentence: 地下鉄で行きましょう. (Let’s go by subway.)
This is another very basic and common Kanji, meaning “middle”, “centre”, “average”, or “inside”. The most common Japanese reading is なか. The Chinese reading is ちゅう; for example, the words 中性 (neutrality), 中心 (centre, core), 中級 (intermediate level), 中学校 (junior high school) and 中国 (China aka “Middle Kingdom” or “Middle Country”).
Sample sentence: みどりは中国に行きました. (Midori went to China.)
Sample sentence: 美は見る人の目の中にある. (Beauty is in the eye of the beholder (literally “Beauty is inside the eyes of who sees”))
This Kanji means “hand”. It is supposed to look like an open hand with five fingers, but I confess I fail to see it as so. In native Japanese words it is normally read as て, such as in 手 (hand), 手元 (at/on hand), 手紙 (letter) and, famously, 空手 (karate or “empty hand”).
In words of Chinese origin, it is normally read as しゅ. The hand is often used as allegory for skill, and therefore appears in many profession-related nouns, such as 運転手 (driver), 歌手 (singer) or サッカー選手 (football player).
Unfortunately, the very common pair 上手 (skilful) and 下手 (unskilful) have irregular readings.
Sample sentence: 私は手で食べます. (I eat with my hands.)
Sample sentence: みどりはすいえいが上手です. (Midori is good at swimming.)
Sample sentence: 私はサッカーが下手です. (I am bad at football (“soccer”).)
They can’t get easier than this one! This Kanji, meaning “one”, is the simplest of them all – just one stroke, as it should be. Simple as it may look, the reality is that the Japanese counting system is one of the most complicated aspects of the language, so for now let’s just remember its most basic reading: いち, as in 一月 or １月 (January).
See what we did there? Yes, adding a second stroke makes this Kanji mean “two”. The Kanji for “two” looks almost identical to Katakana ニ, and they also sound the same: に, as in 二月 or ２月 (February). Bear in mind when you write this Kanji that the bottom stroke should be a bit bigger than the top one.
You can see where this is going. This is the Kanji for “three”, and it is normally read as さん, as in 三月 or ３月 (March). The Japanese reading, み or みつ, can be seen in words such as the company name 三菱 ( Mitsubishi); now you know why a three-pointed star). When writing, the middle stroke should be the smallest.
The Kanji for “four”, ironically composed of five strokes, is, sadly, not as intuitive as the three previous ones. It also has many readings, due to its original Chinese sounding, し, being a homophone (same sound) for death. Still, we can see the し reading in words such as 四月 or ４月 (April), 四角 (square) and 四季 (the four seasons). The Japanese reading is よん.
The Kanji for “five” is, again in an ironic fashion, written with four strokes; go figure. Its most common reading is ご, such as in the words 五月 or ５月 (May) and 五輪 (five rings aka The Olympics).
In case you are wondering, Japanese people normally use Arabic numerals for day-to-day use, but may use Kanji numerals for expressions such as 五大 (the five elements).