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About Japan

Nothing particular about particles


Once upon the time there was an old bamboo cutter. 今となっては昔竹を取りの翁がいました。

The name of the bamboo cutter was Sakaki no Miyatsuko. 竹取の名前はさかきのみやつこでした。

One day the old man found a tiny, sweet girl in a stalk of bamboo. ある日翁は竹の中三寸ぐらいとても可愛らしい少女を見つけた。

The old couple raised her and gave the name Kaguyahime to the girl. 老夫婦はこの子を育ち女の子にかぐや姫というなを付けた。

This is the beginning of the famous, more than 1000 year old Japanese folk tale of the bamboo cutter. 竹取物語The little girl grows into a young lady of extraordinary beauty and it turns out that she is a princes, but not from this world and that is probably why in contrast to the princesses in western fairy tales she shows remarkable independence by rejecting all the princes, even the emperor who came to ask for her hand. But this is a different story. Let’s focus on the particles involved here.

I chose this introduction to demonstrate that there are comparable concepts in Japanese and western languages. The first sentence introduces the bamboo cutter as a new (unknown)未知 topic and therefore the particle „ga“ is used. After that the bamboo cutter is already known既知, and that’s why the particle following the bamboo cutter in the second sentence is „ha“ . In the English equivalent this is rendered as „a bamboo cutter“ (indefinite article a) for the first time he is introduced and later „the bamboo cutter“ once he has become something already known.

So let’s follow up on that concept a bit further. At the station a train is of course something that can be expected to be there. But if I say: „I went to the station and there was a train“ then that would refer to just any train whereas „there was the train“ would indicate a connection to me, for example the train that I intended to take. Same thing in Japanese with ha andagain. 電車がmeans any train. 車はrefers to the train related to me.

Known information doesn’t have to be mentioned explicitly but can also be deducted from context. Imagine a murder scene. The forensic people suddenly tell the inspector „we found a gun“. This would imply that there was just a random gun. But if they said „we found the gun“ it would mean that this is the gun used in the murder. This can be expressed in Japanese with 銃がありました(jyu ga arimashita) or銃はありました(jyu ha arimashita)

The Japanese have quite a penchant for the English definite article „the“ like ザめしや, „The Meshiya“ (Japanese restaurant chain). The article „the“ is used here to give the following noun the aura of being the essence or the epitome of its genre. A Japanese Zen master chose the title „The Zen“ for his book about Zen Buddhism although it was written in Japanese. This is not because he had many western disciples but rather a word play. „The Zen“ means the essence of Zen, but the article „the“ is rendered phonetically into Japanese as za. It happens that this can mean Zazen 座禅meaning sitting Zen or simply meditation. So the interpretation would be that Zazen is the essence of Zen.

It should be added that these similarities are an approximation because English and Japanese belong to two completely different language groups. English is part of the Indo European language group and therefore an inflected language although it has lost most of these inflections in contrast to other European languages. One explanation for this is that the Germanic language of the Anglo Saxons was overlaid by the French of the invading Normans (a Romanic language) and in the process of merging into one language they polished off each other’s edges. Japanese is an agglutinative language, therefore grammatical meaning is glued to the verb at the end of the sentence such as iku 行く(I go), ikeba行けば(If I go) ,ikitakereba行きたければ (if I want to go) or expressed through particles. In addition this article refers to modern Japanese which has evolved in the last 150 years. Classic Japanese (古文)seems to have less particles.

This disclaimer presupposed we can probably proceed to compare the Japanese particles Ha, Ga, No, Ni, and Wo to the 4 grammatical cases of the Germanic or Romanic language groups, of which many English native speakers are probably not always conscious.

Nominative :は、が „the bamboo cutter [as a subject] the girl emerged from the bamboo女の子は竹から出て来ました

Genitive: „the bamboo cutter’s / [of] the girl“ the girl’s name is Kaguyahime 女の子の名前はかぐや姫です。

Dative: „[to/for] the girl“ [as an indirect object] They gave the name Kaguyahimeto the girl.


Accusative:“the girl“ [as a direct object] The bamboo cutter found the girl. 竹取は女の子を見つけた

Copyright Peter Link

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Sino-japanese Charakters „The Canji”


The Japanese script isn’t difficult, just turn the one1 from its vertical position to a horizontal one and you get the character for the number one 一, add one more stroke and there is the two, plus one and we are at three. From the number four四it gets a bit more complex, that’s why we leave it at that, this is just to show that there are Chinese characters for numbers.

The Chinese characters originated more than 3000 years ago as pictograms that means depictions of material phenomenon.stands for fire andfor mountain. If you combine the two 火山you get a fire-mountain or volcano.represents a tree and thus 森means forest. The characters used today received their shape a bit more than 2000 years ago. Emperor Quin Shi Huang (the one with the terracotta army in Xian) unified not only China for the first time in the 3rd century B.C. but also standardized the Chinese units of measurement such as weights and measures  the currency  and the Chinese script.

But the characters that resemble pictures are only a tiny fraction of tens of thousands of Kanji. means tree as we know already so now let’s add a stroke at the bottom . At the bottom of a tree is the root and if you abstract from this even further you get „origin“. Now combine the sunwith origin and you get 日本 that is the origin of the sun, in Japanese Nippon or Japan. These characters represent an idea and are therefore called ideograms. Here are some more examples of how to depict ideas. means high and it is still easy to recognize that a pagoda acted as a model for this character.consists of the sun and the moon. The two have in common to be bright and that’s what this character means. A women under a roof means peaceful, stable or inexpensive. Maybe the emphasis is here on one women. Traffic signs are ideograms as well and that answers the question which script can be read faster. The meaning of this sign can be conceived much faster than if it were written in alphabetic letters.

When you go to a public toilet you have to decide whether you enter through the door with this sign (male) or this one (female). The first character consists of the upper part(rice field) and (power) and together they mean male. The man is the one who applies his strength to the rice field. The women is depicted in a kneeling position. There is an anthropological theory  that male dominance or patriarchate started with agriculture about 10.000 years ago. It might be an over interpretation that this is portrayed in the character for male, but typical Chinese concepts and connotations always resonate with the characters. Another example for this is 貝meaning shell. In ancient times shells also served as shell money so even to this day many characters with a financial meaning like (fortune) contain the shell. We can also annotate that the characters aren’t just a random compilation of strokes but are a combination of some of the more than 200 radicals.

These traditional Chinese connotations transported through the script lead to the phenomenon, that any foreign ideology from Buddhism to Marxism turned into something typical Chinese as soon as it was translated into the Chinese script. The much renowned Chinese ability of assimilation is based on the inability of the language to adopt foreign thought systems. Something similar can be said of the Japanese. The western concept of „public“ for example was translated as おやけ(oyake). But the original meaning of Oyake is great household referring to the imperial household.

Now we had pictograms depicting material phenomenon and ideograms portraying certain concepts but the majority of characters are a combination of one part defining a category and a second one determining the pronunciation. To clarify this I will create a fantasy character rendering two English words the way Chinese characters work . Two pictures amount to one word. In the first one pronunciation is defined through the eye, but it should be in the category of man, thus becoming I (same pronunciation as eye). The second word`s reading is defined through the wave standing for sea, but should be in the category eye thus becoming the word see. The two together would be the sentence „I see“. Lets recall afore character (fortune). defines the category money and the right part the pronunciation zai. Just by changing the right part you get „Han“ meaning trade.

Here comes one feature of the Chinese language into play namely that Chinese is a so called monosyllabic language, meaning that a character`s reading is one syllable. Furthermore there are only 420 monosyllabic phoneme for thousands of characters resulting in many homonyms with different meanings. Thus we can conclude that the majority of sino-japanese Kanji are logograms which have incorporated phonetic features to a certain degree.

To master the Kanji quite a bit of perseverance is essential for Japanese and foreigners alike, but they can definitely turn into Canji.

Copyright Peter Link

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