"My Favorite Japanese Words: The Intuitive Artist's Approach to Adult Second Language Acquisition."

James D'Angelo

It has been said that one's greatest strength and one's greatest weakness are closely related: flip sides of the same coin. From a very early age I was clearly gifted as an artist. I enjoyed dreaming and could represent my mental images accurately on paper. The negative side of this holistic, intuitive talent was a dislike of, and hence poor performance in, logic-driven step-by-step activities. I would like to use this article as fun, non-academic discussion of how this seminal natural inclination of mine is rammed in my approach to gaining a mastery of Japanese: an approach which essentially involves a fascination with accumulating image conjuring culturally-drenched words, while down-playing the active pursuit of grammatical patterns or less intriguing vocabulary. The approach has its benefits and its drawbacks, but this is 'shouganai'!

My first impression of Japan was gained when my parents took me at the tender age of seven to see Sean Connery in the James Bond 007 adventure "You Only Live Twice", or "Ni Do Shinu" (Two times die!) as titled in Japan. We sat near the front of the theatre back in the days when 'the big screen' really was BIG and I stared up, mouth-agape, at the massive Sumo wrestlers looming above. What an overwhelming image! While the film has its weakpoints (Connery's pronunciation of sake... "sack key" for example, in spite of his having "taken a first at Cambridge in oriental languages"!), it is a visual feast: presenting my eyes with their first view of dazzling neon-lit Tokyo nightscapes, warmly-lit shoji-filled interiors, the intoxicating eyes of actress Akiko Wakabayashi with her soft staccato English accent ("No one will disturb you tonight"), and the diving 'Ama' of Izu. For a person who considers himpelf to be an artist to the core, the aesthetic wealth of Japan created a powerfully alluring image; an image which would eventually draw me here to live.

Thus I came to the study of the Japanese Language through a desire to learn what lay at the core of this fascinatingly aesthetic island nation, and bound by my own strengths/limitations, my progress is inexorably tied to who I am, and what I 'like' and 'don't like' to do. The important thing is that by pursuing that which I 'like' I have approached language acqusition in, to use a buzzword of the field, a 'meaningful' way. If you'll allow a brief academic foray, David Brown pinpoints this fact in his book Principles of Language Learning and Teaching: "David Ausubel contends that learning takes place in the human organism through a meaningful process of relating new events or items to already existing cognitive concepts... hanging new items on existing cognitive pegs. Meaning is not an implicit response, but a clearly articulated... conscious experience. "By pursuing what we like to do, within the 'target language' culture, we can learn vocabulary quickly, because we will naturally hang new words onto these 'existing cognitive pegs' or 'mental hooks' which aid our memory.

A final caveat is that we do, on occasion, have to do what we 'don't like to do'! This is the only way to gain true fluency. But by recognizing our weaknesses, at least we will be on the lookout for gaps in our language development and time to time put in some work in these areas!

A Further Note on 'the Artist':

I tend to relate to people in a very emotional way. I look for the beauty in people, and usually can eventually draw it out. In this sense, I am not the type of artist who is politically-oriented. My art contains no weighty messages or portrayals of the negative side of life. There is no human tragedy or nihilism to my art. It is a celebration of life, of excellence, of beauty; I may show sadness in a painting, but the subject might be a beautiful woman who is sad, yet her sadness has a nobility which is not tragic. Perhaps I am more aesthete than true artist. For me Japan is a country rich in beautiful visual images and the people strive to do the most with their potential. I sense the great nobility and pride of the Japanese people which can be seen in the craftsmanship and subtle, understated beauty ('wabi-sabi') of everything from samurai swords, to simple interior carpentry and the lines of the latest luxury Infiniti or Lexus automobile. In addition we see the apparent contradiction of gaudy neon lights and overdone showiness, but this is not paradox, but rather, the lighter, more playful side of a totally life-affirming people. The emotions run the full gamut from a controlled melancholy wist-fulness to obstreperous carousing, but it is always emotion that is placed on a higher plane than cold logic. For me, a very emotional being, I believe it is the dominance of the intuitive/emotional aspect which makes Japan and its language so absorbing.

The Japanese may often be presented as a people who 'do not show emotion', but this is a very misleading statement. It is not that they do not show emotion, but that this emotion is at times very subtle, or 'bimyo'. In Japan you must often intuit what someone means or wishes. There is a wonderful word, 'honomekasu': to 'hint at, intimate, suggest, allude to', which shows how subtle Japanese emotion can be. But the power of such an indirect emotion, when comprehended by the 'receiving' party, is greater than if the 'sender's' desires had been explicitly stated. While this can be frustrating for the 'gaikokujin' who will often not perceive an intended message, it provides a brief emotional 'high' when one finally does catch one of these curve balls. Thus the interesting term: 'Isshin-Denshin' to describe the phenomenon of two people understanding each other without speaking a word!

Thus for me the VISUAL and the EMOTIONAL are closely related. The visual communicates underlying emotions, and the emotional conjures up mental, visual images. The Japanese words which I love best, are the ones that meet these criteria the best. For me, they fall into two basic catergories: 1.) words which themselves conjure up images and carry powerful meaning, and 2.) words which through an emotional experience I had when learning them, now conjure up powerful memories or mental images.

1.) Culture-Laden Image Words... Words of Power

My brown Kenkyusha pocket dictionary (I actually have two identical copies, one on the telephone table in the kitchen and one on the coffee table near the T.V.) is a sea of blue ink with all my underlinings and comments filling the margins. This 'dictionary writing' hobby is one I developed several years ago. If I come across a new word on T.V. or in conversation that I like, I write down who I was talking with, what the situation was, etc... This helps me later when I come across the page in the dictionary (when looking up another word) and I can recreate the experience. It does on occasion create a problem, such as the time I offered to cook lobsters in my downtown Boston apartment for a Japanese woman I had been on several dates with. I left her alone in the living room while I changed out of my business suit into some shorts and a T-shirt (It was a hot summer night with no airconditioning). When I returned to the living room she confronted me with: "Who's Yoko, who's Naoko, who's Akiko, who's Tomiko"??? Nevertheless, I have found that dictionary writing does help me to make Ausubel's 'mental hooks', and it can be of great help if you heard a word a few days before, remember that it began with a 'U', but can't think of the rest. I can usually track it down by my comments.

In any event, dictionary writing is more pertinent to the second category. In this section, I would like to discuss some words which have such power and create such imagery that you can never forget them. They are culturally-linked and may be difficult to translate into English: wherein lies much of their beauty and power. Many of these words are of the 'double consonant' variety... those in which a particular hiragana would be preceded by the infamous 'chisai TSU'.


Being an artist, I might as well start with a few style-oriented words. One can often here the exclamation 'KAKKOU II'! when a stylish person or object comes into view. This is in fact two words, but is really uttered as one. The double-consonant seems to lend itself well to express the strong impact on the speaker/viewer as they point out the object to their friend. You can hear the awe in the person's voice: an alarmed, somewhat 'BIKKURI' sound reminiscent of a loud, heavily-aspirated whisper! 'KAKKOU II' thus is in a league by itself, outshining its closest competitors: 'OSHARE' and 'SUTEKI'... which are rarely said with the same drama as 'KAKKOU II'. 'KAKKOU II' is further enhanced if a young woman precedes it with a convincing, gradually louder 'eeeEEEEHHHHHHH'! Perhaps the only style word which summons as much imagery is the respectful, yet awe-inspired 'SHIBUI'. This word is also best when the speaker drags out the last syllable in an enlongated loud whisper: 'SHIBUIIIIIIiiii'. Shibui is reserved for persons/things of understated elegance or dignity (IGEN), such as the sumo wrestler 'Kirishima', who at age 35 is barely holding his own in the middle ranks, but whose quiet masculinity, good-conditioning, and solemn, 'presence' maintain his popularity.

Another double-consonant word which I have recently come to love is 'SHIKKARI': translated as 'hold on tight to, firmly, securely, fasten tightly' and later in the definition, 'pull yourself together'. This last meaning came home clearly to me in a T.V. commercial when a young, obviously worn-out salaryman's mother gives him an energy-drink and orders him to 'pull himself together' with a firm 'SHIKKARI'! You can see the renewed sense of "GAMBARE" in his face.

Othrr words in this genre include 'SUKKIRI' (feel refreshed, shapely, neat) and 'SAPPARI' (similar meaning): both of which can be uttered with a strong staccato, and whose meaning is all-encompassing and difficult to translate.

For some reason there are many words that start with 'S', and have lots of 'K's and double consonants. These words are difficult for the foreigner to keep straight, but are worth the effort. Continuing, we have the 'SUKKARI wasuremashita'! (I COMPLETELY forgot!), I'll watch this video I just rented 'SASSOKU'! (Immediately!), and my goodness, that painting you did looks 'SOKKURI'! (all together, entirely, wholly, just exactly) like the real person! We do get some relief from all the 'S's and 'K's, but the double-consonant words rich in imagery keep coming: In my coffee please put 'TAPPURI'! (lots of) milk, and hey, that T-shirt fits you 'PITTARI'! (To a T!). A final double-consonant favorite is the powerful 'UTTOUSHII' which means 'gloomy'. I clearly (HAKKIRI) remember my friend Nobuko-san's 60 year-old mother looking out the sliding glass door of their mansion in Ikegami, Tokyo, her head turned skyward, and as she scrutinized the ominous sea of dark grey clouds, uttering a disagreeable 'UTTOUSHII'! Perhaps the dismal Japanese rainy season is perfectly summed up with this word.

2.) Words Whose Experience Makes the Image

I would like to open this section with an old favorite: 'KIKUBARI'. This word carries with it the whole concept of Japanese consumer goods makes trying to make life easy for their customers. I first learned the word when my friend in Boston, Nobuko-san, was searching for the easy-to-open tab to take the plastic seal off of a new bottle of 'mirin'. I was prepared to just rip-away at it like the savage 'yabanjin' that I am, but she assured me that the 'KIKKUBARI place' would assuredly be there, and sure enough we found it. 'KIKUBARI' translates as 'vigilant attention, watch, care, worry' and it gives one a feeling of comfort to know someone back at the factory is looking out for you! Now I always look for the little 'pack-man' arrows on the little packet of ginger that comes with my tekka-maki from the local JUSCO supermarket. No scissors needed!

Another word I can never forget because of the 'meaningful situation' in what I ACQUIRED it (as opposed to LEARNED), is the simple yet seldom-heard verb 'HIROGERU': to 'spread out'. I was showing my conversation-partner in Boston how to make a good lasagna. We boiled the noodles, fried the ground-beef, made the sauce, and layer by layer assembled the lasagna: carefully laying down pasta, mozarella and ricotta cheeses, and sauce. When we got to the top layer, I instructed her to just spread the sauce out on the noodles. She motioned the oversized spoon in a spreading motion and inquired 'HIROGERU'? The word was instantly lodged into my long-term memory.

Another example of a word I cannot forget because of the memorable learning experience is 'KOKUHAKU TAIMU(time)'. I was watching the popular late-night Saturday 'NERUTON' show on television. This is a dating program in which about 15 men and women, in the 'tekireiki' (marriageable age range), go to a nice resort spot. They spend about an hour or so participating in activities and enjoying the scenic spot. During this time they must make good conversation and try to sort out who they would like to have a date with. If one lady is surrounded by three men, or vice-versa, it may be best for the excess suitors to quickly look elsewhere where the 'odds' may be more in their favor! Finally, all the men are lined up at one end of a field, and all the women lined up similarly at the other end, about 30 meters away. The program emcee then asks a man to secretly answer into the microphone 'who do you like'? To which he will answer 'migi kara san ban mei' (The third gal from the right). He then sprints across the field and it's 'KOKUHAKU' (confession, avowal, declaration) time. He bows deeply to the girl, and often another lad or two will scream 'MATTE MATTE' (wait, wait) as they too desire to confess their desire to the lucky girl. Deep in his respectful bow, not looking at the girl, each man extends a bouquet of flowers and modestly suggests that they go someplace together again for a simple cup of coffee or trip to the zoo. After listening to the three 'KOKUHAKUs', the damsel either reaches out and accepts one of the bouquets, or bows deeply and say 'GOMEN NASAI'. If a man has been jilted, he gasps in agony and runs away from the cameras as fast as possible in total shame, often stumbling or falling. It puts a lot of pressure on the man, but of course, there may be some women who are not 'confessed' to at all. It is powerful imagery and emblazoned into my memory.

A final, more innocuous example is a verb I acquired while watching a rented video of the drama "hyaku ikai me no puropozu" (the 101st prososal!). There was a lady's shampoo commercial in which a long shimmering-haired 'Bijin' (Beauty), fresh out of the shower, appropriately wrapped in a bulky towel, uses a comb to pull her long mane as far out as her arm will extend in one direction. The long straight hair defies gravity in its horizontal extension. She smiles glowingly and, pointing to the very ENDS where the comb is, proclaims to the world, 'koko' made KAGAYAITE (shine, be radiant, glisten) imasu! 'KOKO MADE' means 'until here', i.e. 'the very end'. Yes, her hair was indeed shining right to the very tips.


I could go on indefinitely with this list, but perhaps we have brought home my main point that, as in any pursuit, to be successful, you have to do what you 'like' to do. This is the only way that real success comes about. For me, words of style and imagery, or words which helped me to connect with people on an emotional level, are the ones I pursue and avidly add to my ACQUIRED store of vocabulary. They are what 'float my boat'. But these type of words are not for everyone. For example, a respected colleague of mine who is much more of a mathematical or scientific person than I, values different types of words. I once heard him refer to his shoulder bag as his "TESAGEBUKURO" (Bag which hangs from the hand). I cannot think of a better example of a 'technically-based' word which fits his personality! For me, as you can probably understand, the word 'does nothing'! Yet in a peculiar way, because it is so foreign to my way of thinking, I have remembered this cumbersome three-part word. It has no real Japanese cultural value, yet I learned it in a meaningful experience. And perhaps this drives home my final point, which is that while you should use your 'likes' in your main pursuit of a second language, remember that to round yourself out, you must at times do that which you do NOT like to do! In my case, those technical words are often necessary to get the message across, and deserve some painful, yet worthwhile study. Good luck in your own unique path to leaning Japanese!


The Chukyo University Society of English Language and Literature
Last modified: Fri Dec 18, 1998