Dictionary Love

I have the 1976 edition.

During my first years in Japan, my dictionaries were my constant companions. I had a few of them. There was the Nelson, for reading kanji. I used it so much that I had many of the bushu numbers memorized. To this day I can tell you that 140 is kusakanmuri.

Then there was the Green Goddess which is what we called the huge and heavy dark green Kenkyusha dictionary.

But it was that small J-E dictionary that I lived with, traveled with, and depended on daily. In my first couple of years in Japan I used it so much that it got very worn out and the cover was torn. It warped and started to unravel. It didn’t matter because the pages were so very thin that using the dictionary and wearing it out made it easier to use as the pages lost their pristine stickiness.

My sensei friend eyed my dictionary each time I pulled it out. One day he asked if he could have it. I had some mixed feelings about that. He was a professor of English. He wanted my dictionary to goad his students into studying more. Japanese college students were notorious for using college as four years of play after passing rigorous exams to enter college and after having learned as much in high school that an American would learn in the first couple of years in college. I knew he’d hold my dictionary up in class and tell his students that they should study until their dictionary looked as worn as mine. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be part of guilt-tripping a bunch of college students.

I was attached to my dictionary. But I also liked the guy. So, I told him that he could have my dictionary if he’d buy me a replacement. So off we went to a honya-san.

The new dictionary is no longer new….

I missed the old one, but adjusted to my new blue one, though the pages didn’t turn as quickly. I still have that blue dictionary. Even forty years later it isn’t as worn as my first dictionary because by that time I didn’t need a dictionary as much as before. But, I still smile when I pick up my blue dictionary. Physical things are always so much more precious when there’s a nice omoide attached!

  • kanji – 漢字 Chinese characters, also used by the Japanese and Korean peoples.
  • bushu – 部首 radical. Not that kind of radical, though. It indicates a part of the kanji that you use to find it in a dictionary.
  • kusakanmuri – 草冠 the radical for “grass.” Almost any flower is going to have it used.
  • Kenkyūsha – 研究社 a publishing house in Japan. They publish the huge J-E and E-J dictionaries that translators favor.
  • sensei – 先生 teacher
  • honya san – 本屋さん bookstore
  • omoide – 思い出 memory or memories. A word that is used very often in Japan as omoide are considered very precious.

Fake Summer

Here in Massachusetts, fake summer is upon us for a mere two days. Temperature in the nineties, but then we will return (hopefully) to the so-called futsū May otenki—though in our world futsū has ceased to exist.

There’s a Japanese word called “gokko.” It’s a suffix that you can add and it means to pretend something. The other morning I put together a typical Japanese mōningu setto for myself and did kissaten-gokko. If I can’t go to Japan right now, I can pretend I am in Japan. It’s a custom in my family.

My best imitation of a Japanese coffee shop breakfast

For example, when my kids were younger and we were living in the USA, we’d sometimes get a bootleg copy of the New Year’s Eve song program called Kohaku Uta Gassen. We’d gather in front of the tv at the kotatsu I brought back from Japan with Japanese snacks and a Japanese meal and do ōmisoka gokko. To do it properly, we’d need mikan of course….

After all, what’s a kotatsu without mikan?

Today, perhaps, I’ll go out and get my hatsu aisu kōhi and do natsu gokko. Because, come tomorrow we’ll be back in spring and since this is New England, even another frost is not out of the question!

  • futsū – 普通 normal, average, expected
  • otenki – お天気 weather
  • gokko – ごっこ pretend. A suffix used to indicate playing at something
  • mōningu setto – モーニングセット morning set. Often a special set served with coffee, toast and an egg and perhaps a small salad. There are infinite variations on this. It’s an economical choice as well.
  • kissaten – 喫茶店 coffee shop. but now refers to an old style coffee shop as opposed to a cafe. Us old folks like this style much better. Hipsters do not. Yet.
  • Kōhaku Uta Gassen – 紅白歌合戦 A big song contest that has been broadcast by NHK tv since 1953 on New Year’s Eve. It pits the men (white team) against the women (red team) and has huge viewership. It goes until almost midnight and then the scene solemnly switches to the chiming of temple bells all over Japan as the new year is welcomed.
  • kotatsu – 炬燵 a low table that is used as a heating device. More about that later.
  • ōmisoka – 大晦日 New Year’s Eve
  • mikan – みかん Japanese tangerines
  • hatsu – 初 first or beginning. Used to modify so many things. There’s hatsukoi 初恋, or first love and hatsumimi 初耳 or “first I’ve heard” which is literally first ear.
  • aisu kōhi – アイスコーヒー iced coffee
  • natsu – 夏 summer

Special Places

We all have them. Or maybe we all had them but they’ve been ruined by the advent of sōsharumedia which seems determined to out every special hidden place anyone has found, complete with detailed chizu. It’s benri, but it is also the easy track when it is done for Japan.

One of my biggest shokku upon returning to Kyoto in 2016 was the amount of signage offered up in English, Korean and Chinese. Kyoto is a tourist city, but really? You’re going to make it that easy for people? Don’t they need to pay their dues (like I did) and learn the language and the ins and outs the hard way? Grumble, grumble. Can you see why the original title of this blog was the Grouchy Granny?

Japanese, English, Korean and Chinese

Even worse than this is the amount of jōhō that is easily found online about places that used to be secret, isolated, empty and shizuka, that are now overrun with kankōkyaku. I do not like to share. Especially when I put in the work!

In the summer of 1979, a friend and I took another friend to visit Kiyomizu Temple. That’s almost the number one tourist spot in Kyoto, but we also knew it would feel cooler up in the hills. After we’d walked around the temple grounds we found a little tea shop with a niwa in back. You’d never know it was there unless you could read Japanese. It was unassuming… and beautiful. The owner took this shashin of the three of us.

Old times, good times

It seems ironic for me to complain about kankōkōgai when I myself was a tourist in 2016. But… I put in my time. And was able to find the Kyoto I missed on the back streets and in restaurants with no language but Japanese. So there.

Right off the main drag, but we were the only foreigners there.
  • sōsharumedia – ソーシャルメディア social media
  • chizu – 地図 a map
  • benri – 便利 convenient
  • shokku – ショック shock(s), surprise
  • shizuka – 静か quiet/peaceful
  • kankōkyaku – 観光客 tourist(s)
  • niwa – 庭 garden
  • shashin – 写真 photograph(s)
  • kankōkōgai – 観光公害 overtourism. Literally tourism pollution.

Nakayoshi – Part 2

[As I typed the title for this post I had a sudden memory connected with “Part 2.” One of the most popular singers of the Showa Era was Yamaguchi Momoe. And she had a hit song called “Playback – Part 2.” Suddenly I’m compelled to see if there was ever a Part 1. Time to consult Ms. Google. Hah! There really was a Part 1. And now I know. Google it yourself if you’re interested.]

So, back to nakayoshi. Having consulted with my family therapist daughter, she allowed for the possibility that reminding children that they are nakayoshi might be a healthier way to stop a kenka.

Gratuitous photo of my nakayoshi kitties

Sometimes the very structure of a language can aid or hinder communication. There’s this:

When our family moved back to the USA my daughter had very little English speaking ability. We were in a large apartment complex and one day she saw a little girl around her age riding a sanrinsha. She wanted to see if she could borrow it. She asked me, “Mama, how do I say ‘kashite‘ in English?”


So simple in Nihongo, but all I could think of in Eigo was the unwieldy “Can I borrow your tricycle?” My daughter just stared at me. Too much English for her sansai self and she gave up right away.

Sweatshirts were torēnā in our house until the kids realized that other American kids didn’t use this term. They’d learned it in Japanese because the Japanese learned it from the Australians or the British? I’m not sure.

One day, when my daughter was in kindergarten in New Jersey, she came to me very excited.

“Mommy, guess what?! The word for orange juice is the same in Japanese and Korean!! orēnji jūsu!”

Gotta love the kids!

  • Yamaguchi Momoe – 山口百恵 one of the most popular singers who retired when she got married. All of Japan wept on that day.
  • nakayoshi – 仲良し good friends
  • kenka – 喧嘩 quarrel or fight
  • sanrinsha – 三輪車 tricycle
  • kashite – 貸して the imperative form of the verb ‘kasu’ which means ‘to lend.’ A casual way of asking. An adult might add a please to it.
  • Nihongo – 日本語 Japanese language
  • Eigo – 英語 English language
  • sansai – 三才 three years old
  • torēnā – トレーナー what we Americans call a sweat shirt
  • orenji jūsu – オレンジ ジュース orange juice

But, why Japanese?

I often get asked why I went to Japan or why I chose to study Japanese. I honestly wish I had a better answer to that question than the truth itself. In the 1970’s people got interested in Japan if they were artists, or if they were drawn to Bukkyō. At the very least, you’d expect someone to have an interest in Ajia if they were undertaking a study of Japanese.

Not me. I got to Japan because I was lazy and hot one late August day.

Kansas in the summer

In the late summer of 1975 I was scheduled to enroll in classes for my sophomore year of college at the University of Kansas. I’d had a pretty good freshman year, but had not yet come to terms with the foreign language requirement. I knew I had to deal with it that year, since two years of a language were required for graduation. I supposed that I should do what others did—that is continue with my high school language. But I hated Furansugo and did terribly. I just dreaded spending two more years with it. And I apparently did not have an aptitude for languages. I had reluctantly decided that my best bet, i.e. easiest one, would be Hebrew. I could go into a first year class and maybe something I’d learned in Sunday School would help to make up for my poor language aptitude, as my French teacher had labeled my ability. I wasn’t enthusiastic, but rather simply resigned.

Registering for classes meant going to the cavernous Allen Fieldhouse. It wasn’t air-conditioned, and this was hachigatsu in Kansas. I cannot stress that enough. Each department of our huge university had a table. You had to locate the table, and then pick up a card for the class you wanted to enroll in. There were always lines, and sometimes you got to the front of the line only to find the section or class was already closed. You could take another section, and then figure out your schedule all over again—and hope that it would work out. The list of classes offered was printed out in a huge handbook that looked like a big city telephone directory, but was even flimsier. Nobody liked this process. Freshmen and sophomores needing to enroll in required classes were always at the bottom of the heap and had the longest lines for classes.

Allen Fieldhouse at the University of Kansas – imagine it filled with tables and students

Departments were arranged in alphabetical order around the fieldhouse, but also by Colleges. So you walked in circles… literally… as you looked for them. You needed a sakusen. You would want to head for the most popular ones first. You needed a pencil with an eraser, because your first plan never worked. It was hell. I knew the line for Hebrew would be shorter than the one for French, though, and that perked me up a little.

The only problem was that I could not find the Hebrew table. It wasn’t where it should be alphabetically. I did another round of the Fieldhouse, but I still wasn’t seeing it. It must be under another department. I tried Middle Eastern Languages. Nothing. I went to the Religion table, but I didn’t see it listed there, either. No, it did not occur to me to ask someone. Hebrew wasn’t that popular. I didn’t think anyone would know. (Really, they wouldn’t have.) I was dead tired and hot. I had all my other classes and I just wanted OUT. Maybe I should just give in and do French. I started to walk over there, when I saw the sign for Japanese. Not a single person was waiting in line!

That summer I had met some Japanese students when I worked in the dorm cafeteria. One of them had even helped me fix a flat tire on my jitensha. I’d gone to one of their association events. What the hell. They’d probably help me study. They were all very nice. The class would probably be small. And I was just too hot to stand on any more lines. I just wanted to leave. Propitiously, Japanese 101 fit with my schedule though it meant M-F 8:30 – 9:20 and a lab on Tuesday and Thursday. I took my card and got out of the heat.

Japanese Association Tanabata Party – 1970s

This is the true story of how I ended up studying Japanese in college—which ended up having not an inconsiderable effect on my life at all!

And as for the mystery of where the Hebrew table was? It turns out that the Hebrew Department was so small that it was located in the Linguistics Department. That is what I should have been looking for. Oh well.

  • Bukkyō – 仏教 Buddhism
  • Ajia – アジア Asia
  • Furansugo – フランス語 French language
  • hachigatsu – 8月 the month of August, i.e. 8th month
  • sakusen – 作戦 plan or strategy
  • jitensha – 自転車 bicycle

There is Nothing to Eat in Tokyo

That was what people would tell me when I said I was thinking of leaving Kyoto to move to Tokyo. I had a few friends there and I was curious to see what it would be like to live there. But the natives of Kyoto repeatedly would tell me that there was nothing good to eat there. In the whole city, I’d ask incredulously? And they’d assure me that was the case. Have you ever heard anything more ridiculous?

It wasn’t just the food. I had been studying kouta and learning to play the shamisen. When I asked my sensei if she could recommend a teacher in Tokyo so that I could continue, she said there weren’t any. Again… in the WHOLE city? Seriously, this rivalry was kind of overplayed. I thought.

Imagine me on my knees like this for an hour-long lesson with a No Mercy teacher. I’d fall over in pain when we finished and I’d try to stand up. She would simply look bemused.

You cannot disregard the differences between these two areas. Tokyo is in Kantō and Kyoto is in Kansai. There are different dialects, different foods, and even different electrical frequencies, i.e. you need a converter for some appliances. To this day.

Nonetheless, I brushed all this off and made the move. And spat out the broth the first time I had soba in Tokyo. It was awful. Shioppoi! It just tasted wrong. It turns out my washoku tastebuds had been formed in Kyoto and that was that. Even after years of living in Tokyo I could not tolerate the way food was seasoned. I wanted to go back to Kyoto and stuff my face with delicious food.

Nishin soba. A dish you will not find in Tokyo

And it wasn’t just the seasoning. During my first summer in Tokyo, I went into a cheap Chinese joint and ordered reimen. I got a blank stare in return. Turns out that you call cold noodles hiyashi chūka in Tokyo. So even the language was a little different.

And my shamisen teacher was correct. There were no teachers for my particular ryū of kouta.

I think I speak a fairly standard Japanese at this point, but put me in the room with some folks from Kyoto and my speech patterns change. Because yokareashikare Kyoto is where I started my life in Japan.

  • kouta – 小唄 literally small song. Short songs that are accompanied by shamisen. Very traditional
  • shamisen – 三味線 three-stringed Japanese instrument
  • Kantō – 関東 the Eastern area of Japan
  • Kansai – 関西 the Western area of Japan
  • soba – 蕎麦 buckwheat noodles
  • shioppoi – 塩っぽい salty. Shio alone is salt.
  • washoku – 和食 Japanese food, i.e. not Western or Chinese
  • reimen – 冷麺 cold Chinese noodles in the Kansai area
  • hiyashi chūka – 冷やし中華 same as above, but this is what they are called in the rest of Japan
  • ryū – 流 style or school, You have different ryū in tea ceremony, karate, flower arranging, etc. People are very loyal to their ryū.
  • yokareashikare – 良かれ悪しかれ “for better or for worse”

Morning Drama

This morning a new asadora started. I’ve been watching them for almost fifty years now and when a new one starts I’m always hopeful that I’ll get hooked on it. It’s a morning ritual for many households.

NHK, which is to Japan like PBS is to America, is the producer of these renzoku fifteen minute dramas. These series started in 1961 and continue to this day. This new asadora is set in Okinawa. They are all set in different locations around Japan and in different time periods. What is interesting to me is that the vast majority of them are based on a onna shujinkō who overcomes different challenges. If I had to guess, perhaps it is because they are aired at 8:00 AM (It used to be 8:15 AM) and they guessed that the audience would be largely female?

Every household in Japan during the 1970s

My first exposure to asadora was during asagohan at my Kyoto homestay in 1976. I didn’t understand more than a word here and there, but since it aired daily (except Sunday) I could sometimes get the gist of it just from watching. It seemed like an excellent language tool and I’ve watched them every chance I get.

The most famous asadora is Oshin. It’s been subtitled and aired all over the world and even been turned into a movie or two. I’ve watched it three times—the first time it aired, again in Rhode Island in 1988 with my giri no okāsan, and then again recently when it was rebroadcast (I have a subscription to Japanese tv.)


In Rhode Island we were able to borrow the whole series on video. My MIL and I cried together as we watched during the last days of my pregnancy and the first days of my son’s life. It was her first trip to America and there she was watching Oshin!

Chimudondon is the 106th asadora. Thanks to the miracle of the internet I can watch it daily and I can also watch reruns of previous asadora. They are well worth seeking out.

  • asadora – 朝ドラ literally morning drama and refers to dramas that are broadcast in the morning (duh)
  • renzoku – 連続 series. So renzoku asadora means “a serialized morning drama”
  • onna shujinkō – 女主人公 onna means woman and shujinkō is hero, so together they mean heroine.
  • asagohan – 朝ご飯 asa means morning and gohan is meal, so together it means breakfast.
  • Oshin – おしん the morning drama that had everyone in tears. Worth googling for more information. It’s everything.
  • giri no okāsan -義理のお母さん mother-in-law
  • Chimudondon – ちむどんどんthe name of the new asadora that started this morning. This is in the Okinawan dialect. Chimu in this case should be thought of as heart (even if it is closer to liver). Maybe vital organ is a good interpretation. Dondon is onomatopoeic and represents the thumping of the heart. Maybe the right interpretation of it together is “heartbeat.” But the implication is a little more exciting and vivid.

The First Iced Coffee

If April is the time of new beginnings it must be time to learn the prefix “hatsu.” It simply means “first” or “beginning” but I like to use it to mark something seasonal.

My kids have all gotten used to me announcing the “hatsu aisu kōhī.” You could drink it all year round, but it has to be a certain unseasonably warm day in the spring for me to make the call. I mean, doesn’t that make it more special? It’s kind of like taking out your shorts and sleeveless shirts for summer, but when it is one specific item that you look forward to, it really does make it special.

Japanese hatsu include a hatsu sekku, which indicates the first Girl’s Day or Boy’s Day that is celebrated after a baby is born. In my daughter’s case, my neighbor who also had a newborn girl, and I delivered sekihan to our nearby neighbors. Sekihan may also be prepared when a girl gets her first period. There is many a scene in Japanese dorama where sekihan appears at the dinner table and the father puts on a puzzled face and asks what is being celebrated. The mother may give a meaningful look and it will dawn upon the father who will then look at his daughter who will look down in embarrassment but also a bit of pride. I might be describing the scene from the 1960’s. I have no idea how it goes down these days.

Sekihan isn’t one of my favorites and I can’t imagine you’ll ever find it in a Japanese restaurant in America. Since it uses mochigome it isn’t easy to cook and there are catering shops in Japan that will cook it for you.

  • hatsu – 初 first or beginning. Used to modify so many things. There’s hatsukoi 初恋, or first love and hatsumimi 初耳 or “first I’ve heard” which is literally first ear.
  • hatsu aisu kōhī – 初アイスコーヒー first iced coffee. Always an event for me!
  • hatsu sekku – 発節句 first festival. If you’re a boy, it is on May 5 and if you’re a girl it is on March 3.
  • sekihan – 赤飯 red rice. Just as delicious as it sounds? It’s made with azuki beans and usually sprinkled with black sesame seeds
  • dorama – ドラマ drama. Refers to tv programs
  • mochigome – 餅米 a kind of sticky rice that is used for making mochi and other special dishes called okowa.

Learning Japanese

Little did I know that it would become a lifelong task, but I walked into the classroom, Fall 1975, with great curiosity. The University of Kansas required me to take a language to graduate and during the summer I’d worked in a dorm kitchen with a Japanese fellow who said he’d help me learn it. Having flunked French in high school, I’d been told I had no aptitude for languages. Japanese was not popular back then as signified by the time slot it held—M-F, 8:30 AM. You’d have to really want it. (You’d have to want Korean even more since it was scheduled M-F, 7:30 AM.)

On the first day of class, the professor looked at the 23 of us and solemnly pronounced, “By the end of the academic year, only five of you will remain.” His words were prophetic and true. And until May, I wasn’t sure at all that I’d be one of the survivors. But I took to it like a fish does to water. Why?

That was puzzling my professor as well. Sure, I studied, but that wasn’t really it. He eventually figured it out, though.

“It’s because you have no concept of English grammar whatsoever.”

And, he was right. My high school years coincided with that phase of teaching when they threw bunpo out the window. We did creative stuff, i.e. a sentence was never diagrammed (whatever that means).

When you have no concept of English grammar, you have no resistance to Japanese. I never tried to figure out how it related to the structure of the English language because I did not know the structure of the English language. And flunking French just proved to me that Eastern languages were easier. Japanese just clicked for me and I didn’t mind memorizing the kanji.

This all went straight to hell when I started my second year of Japanese at Middlebury College during the summer of 1976. All the second year students had used the same, more popular, textbook and they had quite a different set of vocabulary than I had. The teacher used that textbook as well and I had never heard of eating itanda ebi in Ginza. I was miserable and started to doubt myself. One of the staff members said to me, “Just because studying intensively doesn’t work for you, doesn’t mean you can’t learn the language. And he was right. The seven-hour-a-day, 30 characters to memorize-a-day format proved to be my bleakest language study. Furthermore, the director was cho-kibishii and demanded participation in all activities. I promptly broke my finger playing volleyball and got excused from that. (It took her 3 days to let me get my finger x-rayed because she presumed I was faking it. Hah!)

My first Japanese language professor was the best. He was an older gentleman who’d been in Japan after the war and could remember when you could see the rice fields from the Shinkuku Eki platform. He told us that we’d spend the first year learning all the rules of the Japanese language and the rest of our lives learning when we could break them. This is absolutely brilliant.

Many years later, I met up with this professor, who had a Ph.d in medieval Japanese linguistics, at a pizza restaurant in Tokyo. We hadn’t seen each other in years. He had trouble ordering and I gently stepped in. He beamed. He was happy to see how I’d done with the wonderful start he’d given me. I am forever grateful to Professor Richard Spear and the University of Kansas Japanese Department.

  • bunpo – 文法 grammar. Literally the method of sentences
  • kanji – 漢字 Chinese characters, remember? From another post?
  • itanda ebi -いたんだ えび apparently this was taught in the textbook written by Eleanor Jordan that was more popular than the one I used. Itamu is the verb for spoiled (when applied to food) and ebi means shrimp. Itamu is in the past tense here and modifies (OMG, I’m doing grammar!) ebi, so the sentence was about getting food poisoning from shrimp at a restaurant in Ginza. Seriously? Ginza? The most high-class restaurants are there. Why not Shinjuku with its wealth of cheap eateries? I consider this a Jordan fail.
  • chō kibishii – 超厳しいIn this case, chō means really. It’s a bit slangy, but young people use it for emphasis. Kibishii means strict.
  • Shinjuku Eki – 新宿駅 Shinjuku is a place in Tokyo. It also often refers to the station there, even without eki which means station. It’s chaotic, confusing, busy, and there may be people lost in there right now.