An interesting conjunction - How to Japanese - September 2023
This is How to Japanese, a monthly newsletter with something about Japan/Japanese and a dash of いろいろ.
Being a good student is a skill. And I don’t just mean showing up to class, taking notes, and doing the homework. I mean the skill to read past the content the teacher is conveying and understand what they are trying to tell you about how you should use that content. What are they telling you about your Japanese, not just Japanese in general?
I have this vivid memory of sitting in class at Waseda and my classmate talking about showing his family around Japan. After he mentioned a few things, our sensei used the pattern ずいぶん楽しんだようですね (Zuibun tanoshinda yō desu ne, It sounds like they had a lot of fun), and then in quick succession she used the same ようです a few more times, with slight emphasis on that particular grammatical structure.
This is something we’re not using enough, I remember thinking to myself. She’s giving us a really important message right now.
Since then, ようです has been lodged in my brain as a way to discuss subjective judgments about other peoples’ actions. It also serves to clarify the subject of the sentence in Japanese. It was clear from context, but the よう makes it 100% clear who was doing the 楽しんだ.
At IUC, I had another moment like this with それが (sore ga), which was introduced as a set phrase during our 待遇表現 (taigū hyōgen, polite expressions). I can’t remember exactly what our sensei said, but he explicitly noted that this was a phrase that we weren’t using enough (at all?) and that, in the right situation, is extremely useful.
Weblio has a great definition (and an example in Osaka dialect for some reason?):
Used when beginning to make a statement contrary to a supposition or expectation about something that came previously [in conversation].
When my sensei introduced this pattern, it had a strong negative connotation. For example, if you’re messaging with a friend about when you’re getting in town:
A: 10:53着だよね (10:53-chaku da yo ne, You get in at 10:53 right?)
B: それが、電車が遅れちゃって、乗り換え間に合わなかった (Sore ga, densha ga okuretyatte, norikae ma ni awanakatta, About that…the train was late and I missed the transfer)
The assumption/supposition/expectation is that B made the connections, so それが sends a clear signal that something has gone very much not according to keikaku.
Since clear signals are what we’re after as language students, why not try adding this phrase to your repertoire? Although it’s just three moji, there’s so much packed into the way you say this それが. “About that” is a nice little phrase that I think works well as an expedient English equivalent (EEE?).
“About that” shares a similar pause right after the phrase that gives the person you’re talking to a moment to realize that you’re about to convey something contrary to expectation. It’s kind of beautiful.
It even works well for positive versions of the phrase. I fell off my J-Drama habit earlier this year and am gradually trying to get back into it. The first show I dialed up—I don’t remember which is was, and it doesn’t matter because it was in the middle of the クール—but I saw this phrase and it felt like a signal from the universe that I need to be watching more Japanese TV:
I don’t remember the exact line that came before this, but the expectation was that this kid had not finished his homework. However, surprise!, he had. “About that” works well in this case, too: “About that…I finished it all!”
As you may or may not expect, this phrase is considerably more subtle than just a positive/negative shift in expectation. There’s a really interesting Japanese research paper titled 接続詞「それが」の意味用法について (PDF) (The Uses of それが as a Conjunction).
And that’s exactly what it is in these cases—a full fledged conjunction. It’s super helpful to think of it that way, as one complete word, rather than trying to divide the それ and が.
I won’t be able to go through examples for every usage provided in the paper, and overall it feels a little disorganized, but it has some interesting ideas to chew on. Broadly, they divide the usage into two categories: 1) When the same person is talking/writing before and after それが (前後が同一話者の場合) and 2) When accepting a person’s utterance and linking it to the speaker’s own utterance (相手の発話を受け、話し手自身の発話につなげる場合).
1 - Same Speaker
This category is then further broken down into the following:
変化の対比関係 - Comparing a change
並立的対比関係 - Comparing parallel items
Adversative Conjunction (逆説関係):
予想・期待・希望が実現しない - Supposition/expectation/hope is not realized
当然のことが実現しない - Something assumed to be natural is not realized
因果関係がが成立しない - A cause and effect relationship is not formed
Cumulative relationship (累加関係)
2 - Responding to Someone
And unfortunately the version of the paper I was able to find omits the explanations and example sentences for this section, the one that seems most interesting, so please take these as extremely provisional translations:
「質問・確認要求 - 応答」の関係 - “Asking a question/requesting confirmation - Replying”
「はたらきかけ - 断り」の関係 - “Urging - Declining”
「心情や見解、事実を表す発話 - 説明添加」の関係 - “Utterances expressing emotions, opinions, or truth - adding explanation”
応答詞としての性格が強いもの - Things with strong character as responding words
I think some of the items from the “same speaker/writer” section actually work rather well in the “responding to someone” category, based on the examples I included above and others I’ve seen (especially the ones about expectations not being realized), so I’m not exactly sure what’s going on here. I think this should all be taken as a sign to examine any instances you come across and explore how you can use this not only in conversations with other people but also in your own writing. Now that you’ve read this, I’m certain that you’ll start to notice the pattern more frequently. That’s just the way things work.
And keep those ears clean for the message behind the message. You won’t get these from TV, but the best teachers will be beaming them at you constantly, and you can even hear them from friends and family when they speak to you in Japanese. Sometimes the messages are louder than others, but they’re almost always present in some form.
(Here’s a link to the podcast this month. Unfortunately posting the audio to Substack isn’t as easy as I hoped, nor does it make sense to switch from my current distributor to Substack completely. Hope you tune in!)
File this one under “beer trends I’m very curious about”: Asahi is releasing a 3.5% abv version of Asahi Super Dry called “Dry Crystal” on October 11. The timing baffles me. This would’ve been perfect a month or two ago. Now that it’s cooled off a little? I’m ready for bock, baby. But damn if that session-strength Japanese light lager wouldn’t have been sweet during the summer. I’ll absolutely be trying this out, and I hope it isn’t just a one-off novelty.
Shinkansen advice: 1. Don’t ride it on the last day of a long weekend. 2. If you do and you have a reserved seat and your train connections get delayed causing you to miss your train, don’t go stand in line to get a reserved seat on a different train. The line to change tickets is probably super long and will delay you even further. Just line up for a non-reserved seat on the next train that will guarantee you a seat. (This assumes you bought a Nozomi ticket, aren’t using a rail pass, and are leaving from the station where the train originates so you’d likely get a seat.) I got caught in a terrible delay and missed my connection last weekend. Tokyo Station was a mess, but I got on the first Nozomi I could with a katsu sando in hand and easily got a seat. I only wish I’d gotten more snacks.
New COVID vaccines are available in Japan starting on September 20. Go get a reservation.
There is a Haruki Murakami Twitter account that seems to have grown in popularity by tweeting out quotes in Japanese and English that make it seem semi-official. It’s been tweeting for a number of years and now has over 180,000 followers, but it recently lost its checkmark (or opted to not display it) and added #unofficial to the profile after @tiger dug a little deeper. Probably worth unfollowing it so the account can’t profit off views.