蟒蛇 uwabami——a drunken python

In English, if we want to show off a little while writing, we can mine the thesaurus for obscure words (at risk of obnubilating our message and discombobulating the reader). With tens or hundreds of thousands of words to choose from, the vocabulary of English represents a practically unlimited resource to play with. But what if, rather than words, there were 10s of thousands of letters or characters, the majority of which were unfamiliar to even the best-educated reader? What if I could write something to you in your own language, and you have no idea what it says because you have never seen those particular ᖃᓂᐅᔮᖅᐸᐃᑦ before? In English, the concept seems absurd because we only use 52 characters and a few punctuation marks to write the language. If we come across a new word, we may not understand it, but we can at least read it. But it’s quite different in Japanese.

One morning in the office after a work night out, a colleague got an email from the section manager, describing him as 蟒蛇. Having never come across this word, he had no idea either how it was pronounced or what it meant. Some kind of snake? Why was the buchou calling him a snake? His fellow team members gathered around his desk, but they didn’t know either. Looking it up online, they discovered that it was pronounced uwabami and that it refers to a giant python or a great drinker (a reference to the previous evening’s activities, which had involved rather a lot of beer). It seems that there is an old story about a giant snake that ate and drank a great deal. What was interesting for me is that the first character, 蟒, is used only to write that one obscure word and in no other context in Japanese.

As it happens, the section manager makes a study of obscure kanji and has demonstrated a very high level of knowledge of the Japanese writing system by passing the “pre-1” level of the kanji kentei exam, an exceptionally rare achievement of which he is rightly proud. (Passing Level 2 is considered evidence of a good university education, while level 1, the most difficult level, is only for the most dedicated kanji scholars, with only a few hundred obsessives passing it every year.) Success at pre-1 level means knowing thousands of kanji, both their common and unusual readings as well as unusual uses in compound words and old Japanese proverbs. So it’s not so surprising, having amassed such a wealth of learning, that you might want to share some of it with your hungover colleagues in a light-hearted e-mail on a Friday morning. Even if it means showing off a little!


やさしい日本語のニュース—Easy Japanese News


I often watch the Japanese TV news but I have a lot of difficulty in understanding it. The vocabulary is too advanced and the sentences too complicated and too quick for me to follow.

NHK offers a service for learners like me: it’s called News Web Easy. Every weekday, three or four stories from the day’s news are presented in simplified vocabulary, read slowly and clearly by a woman in an easy-to-understand voice. There’s a good variety of interesting topics. All of the kanji are glossed with furigana, and you can click on underlined words to see a definition.


After you have listened to and read through the easy version, you may then feel brave enough to click on 普通のニュース futsuu no nyuusu—the “normal” news clip. Of course this is much easier to understand once you know exactly what the story is about.

It’s interesting to compare the two (the easy and the normal versions) and see what changes are made. A big part of it consists of replacing “Chinese” or Sino-Japanese vocabulary with native Japanese vocabulary. For example, instead of 変化 henka, they might use the Japanese verb 変わる kawaru to mean “change”. Similarly, if they want to say that someone has been arrested, instead of using the word 逮捕 taiho, they substitute 捕まる tsukamaru.

This confirms something from my own experience: that native Japanese words are easier to learn, easier to remember and easier to understand than their Sino-Japanese equivalents. But why should this be? After all, the Japanese words are usually longer and more “complicated” looking than the Chinese loan words. Strangely, I think that this is a big part of the reason.

Typical Sino-Japanese vocabulary is bisyllabic, with words consisting of two simple syllables (drawn from a restricted set of possible syllables). This very simplicity has the effect of making the words less distinctive and memorable, and leads to lots of homophones. For example, 成功 seikou means success, but there are numerous other words, such as 製鋼 精工 性交, with the same pronunciation. Was the newsreader referring to success, steelworks, Seiko watches, sexual intercourse or something else? Usually the listener is just expected to figure it out from context.

There is another way, however: Japanese TV routinely captions its programs with Japanese subtitles. Not just news, but all sorts of general entertainment – if someone on screen is saying something, you can read it on screen. So even if you are not very proficient at understanding spoken or written Japanese, the fact that both are available can be a big help.


I recommend News Web Easy to learners at about level N4 or N3 who struggle with understanding normal Japanese news broadcasts, and would be interested in following current events while learning lots of good topical vocabulary.

ご馳走さまでした—Thanks for the lovely meal

In Japan, if you want to thank someone for cooking you dinner, or for treating you to a meal in a restaurant, you say:

御馳走さまでした go-chisou-sama deshita—that was a feast!

On Sunday evening we stayed in a hotel in Arima Onsen, a spa resort in the mountains above the city of Kobe. The hotel stay (which was very expensive, but that’s another story) included use of the bath facilities as well as dinner and breakfast. And dinner was indeed a feast. Over the course of several hours, maybe a dozen dishes were brought to the table, with probably hundreds of different exotic ingredients; all sorts of varieties of mountain vegetables, mushrooms, fish, meat, fruit, flowers and leaves, and so on.

There was a menu with a short description of each of the courses, but I couldn’t read most of it. However the overall theme was spring happiness, suggested by various pink items as well as seasonal ingredients.

The bill of fare

The first course consisted of six individual servings of seasonal ingredients, presented in six bowls of different colours and shapes on a lacquered tray, and accompanied by a cup of plum wine.

Starter course

In the centre, rear dish you can see a little leaf. This is kinome, the leaf of the sanshou or Japanese pepper tree, with a striking and delicious flavour. This ingredient made further appearances accompanying a fish dish and a steak dish later in the meal.

Yuko making tea

We had a fish course. The fish is called gashira, which is some kind of rockfish or lionfish. Much of the time, it’s not useful to try to find out the English name for what you are eating; if it’s not part of western food culture, there may not be an English name for it, and even if the species has an English name that you’ve never heard of, you will be none the wiser.


Next up was a sashimi course, with Ise-ebi as the centrepiece. I had a very disturbing experience with Ise-ebi many years ago; suffice to say that I double-checked to make sure that this one was dead when it was served to us as food.


I didn’t take photos of all the courses – for example there was a nabe course, where you cook the meat and vegetables yourself in a pot of boiling liquid. This was the course I least enjoyed: the bowl of ponzu dipping sauce provided had such a strong citrus flavour that it really overwhelmed all the other flavours.

Next we had some sirloin steak with shimeji mushrooms and vegetables. The two cubes of sirloin steak were incredibly marbled and tender, nothing like western beef. Note the western-style plate for this course, and the little shanshou leaf in the brown dish. The black stems are some kind of candied mountain vegetable.

wagyu sirloin, shimeji, broccoli, peppers and pumpkin

This course was also cooked on your own personal hot plate, so there was no need to ask how you want your steak done – you just eat it when it’s ready.

frying the beef and vegetables

I had eaten half the tempura course before I remembered to take a picture. But I was interested to see a lily or hosta leaf presented as food.


The next course mixed sweet and savoury in an interesting way: an orange with prawns, plump fish eggs and radish. Absolutely delicious.

Orange and seafood dish, on a very striking plate

The miso soup was very  good, made with red miso, rich and deep in flavour. The fish is ainame, which is apparently “fat greenling” in English.

fish with rice, miso soup and pickles

Finally, dessert: cheesecake with ice cream.


ご馳走さまでした! go-chisou-sama deshita!

Why learn bushu? Building-blocks of kanji

In your first year of learning Japanese, you probably learned the days of the week:

  • 月曜日   Monday
  • 火曜日   Tuesday
  • 水曜日   Wednesday
  • and so on.

And, with one exception, you will also have learned all the characters needed to be able to write these words; simple, Grade 1 kanji such as 日 sun, 月 moon, 火 fire, and 水 water. But the fly in the ointment is that tricky 18-stroke character 曜 you in the middle of each of the weekday names. Until you somehow get to grips with that, you may be able to read the Japanese word for Monday, but you won’t be able to write it.

Grade 1 kanji © Dara Connolly
Grade 1 kanji © Dara Connolly

Learning to write simple kanji is a straightforward matter of repetitively copying out the character until it is imprinted in your mind and muscle memory. Which is fine for the first 80, or maybe even 200. But over time you will have discovered that these simple characters are not typical, and that this method doesn’t scale well.

Fortunately, as you encounter more complex kanji, you will have noticed that many share features in common, and that those features suggest the meaning or sound. For example, the characters 痛 painful, 病 sick, 疲 tired, and 疾 shame all have the following feature in common: 疒. This “radical” or bushu*, known as やまいだれ yamai-dare, gives you a clue that the character means something to do with sickness. Other common bushu include radical 149 訁gon-ben, which appears on the left side of characters to do with speaking, radical 140 艹 kusa-kanmuri, which sits on top of kanji that refer to plants, herbs or vegetation, and radical 85 氵sanzui,  which suggests a watery meaning.

There are 214 classical bushu in total, and during the past year I invested the time to learn each of them. Even the obscure, archaic and seemingly useless ones. Not just to recognise them, but (importantly) to write them. So was it worth it?

Well, let’s consider the character 曜 you, mentioned above. No longer is it a scary, seemingly arbitrary assemblage of 18 strokes; it is now a simple-to-remember construct of just 4 parts: 日 + 彐 + 彐 + 隹.

Each of those parts has a nickname, so I can describe it in words: nichi-hen, kei-gashira, kei-gashira, furutori. (sun, pig’s head, pig’s head, old bird. And remember that I’ve learned to write each of these parts, so it’s trivial to put them together and write the character. A character that, like so many others, I have been able to recognise for 20 years but would not previously have been able to write.

On the other hand:

  • The bushu were not actually designed or selected for this purpose. They are not a comprehensive list of kanji building-blocks, nor were they ever intended to be. Their purpose is to be dictionary headings, to allow you to look up characters in the dictionary. Some very common building-blocks are not bushu, but are still worth learning. For example, 寺, which appears in characters like 詩 time, 待 wait, 持 carry, 侍 samurai, 特 special, and so on, usually giving a sound clue (“ji”) rather than a meaning clue. You really need to know those too.
  • The list of bushu is not “efficient”; many of the bushu are themselves made up of simpler bushu. For example radical 186 香 ”fragrant” is made up of radical 115 禾 ”two-branch tree” and radical 72 日 ”sun”. This is okay though, as the more complex ones are often kanji worth remembering in their own right.
  • Some of the simplest radicals are just lines or dots, with limited semantic content.
  • Some of the bushu are utterly obscure. For example you will almost certainly never meet any kanji containing radical 35 夊 sui-nyou “go slowly” or radical 191 鬥  tatakai-gamae “war”. But I’m a bit of a completist, so I learned them anyway. And in the case of radical 192 鬯 nioi-zake “sacrificial wine”, it paid off (see below).

But the day I knew it was worth it was when I noticed that I could now write the following famously-difficult character:

utsu – depression

From being an absurdly complex and impenetrable mass of lines, it now resolves itself as just six parts to remember, each of which I already know how to write: 木 缶 木 冖 鬯 彡(tree, can, tree, cover, sacrificial wine, hair).

So why learn bushu? Four reasons:

  1. They’ll give you clues to the meaning of the kanji
  2. They’ll give you a short cut to remembering new kanji, without having to explicitly learn them
  3. They’ll make your knowledge of kanji more precise (for example, allowing you to clearly distinguish similar kanji)
  4. You need them to be able to look up characters in an old-fashioned dictionary (does anyone do that anymore?)

And maybe a 5th reason, if you’re anything like me:

5. It’s kind of interesting in its own right and gives you more insight into the writing system.



Is it worth learning the bushu during your first few years of learning Japanese? I’d say almost certainly not. You can put your time to far better and more enjoyable use learning vocabulary and grammar, listening, speaking and reading the language. But later—maybe much later—you may come to feel, as I did, that your knowledge of the kanji is built on a somewhat shaky foundation; that you can recognise many kanji in context but you don’t really know them; that you still get confused between kanji such as 通 and 進, or 速い and 遠い (or worse, you never realised that 着る kiru—to wear and 着く tsuku—to arrive are the same kanji!) And you’ll want to go back and consolidate your knowledge, deepen your understanding. And when that time comes, you could do worse than set aside some study time to learn the bushu.



* The word 部首 bushu literally means “section head”; each radical sits at the head of a section of the dictionary, and that’s how you look up the character in the dictionary. They are known as the “Kang Xi” radicals after a dictionary of 47,000 characters published in 1716 on the orders of Chinese emperor Kang Xi, and they still form the basis of paper dictionaries in Japan and China to this day.




カルタ—playing cards

I received a present yesterday evening.

We met my former Japanese teacher and her family for dinner, in what has become an annual tradition, at the Turkish/Mediterranean restaurant アルピーノ Alpino. It was an evening of delicious food and convivial company, as well as an unbeatable Japanese learning experience to be surrounded by Japanese conversation, including the excited chatter of a 7-year-old girl who sat beside me and chatted away to me all evening.

The present came neatly wrapped in a yellow bag from Osaka souvenir shop ichibirian, the bag decorated with typical images of Osaka and some phrases in Osaka dialect. Opening it up, I found what I thought was a book, with the title “Osaka PhD”.

Front of card game “Osaka hakase”

But instead of opening like a book, the middle slid out to reveal two sets of playing cards; one with text and the other with colourful images of fun facts about various Osaka neighbourhoods.

Osaka waiwai karuta

The “front cover” (or maybe back cover, from a European point of view) says 大阪わいわいカルタ oosaka waiwai karuta—Osaka clamorous cards, and then in smaller writing underneath, “Did you know? Didn’t you know? This and that about Osaka”. The whole cover is brightly decorated with typical Osaka images such as Osaka Castle, Tsutenkaku tower, bunraku theatre, fugu, and a bowl of ramen.

Osaka waiwai cards: や

Each card pair is associated with one hiragana symbol. For example, the text card for や (ya) has the following “interesting fact”:

八尾市はな 歯ブラシ生産 日本一

yao-shi wa na, haburashi seisan nihon ichi

Yao city is number one in Japan for toothbrush production.

The corresponding image card shows a woman holding a toothbrush atop a smiling Mount Fuji, symbolising the number one status.

The text on the cards uses little furigana symbols alongside the kanji for the benefit of children (and me!) for whom the task of learning to read Japanese is still a work in progress.

I was really struck by the ease and fluency with which musume-san read the text on the cards. I expected a child of that age to be painstakingly sounding out the words, but she just read them off at full speed (much more quickly than I could). I wondered if she was just familiar with the text of the cards from playing with them at home, so I tested her by showing her some sentences on my phone that she had never seen before. She showed equal facility reading the following random sentence:


doraibaa de neji wo mawashita ga, nakanaka umaku mawattekurenai.

I turned the screw with the screwdriver, but it just didn’t want to turn.

天才娘さん tensai musume-san

I guess she is some kind of a prodigy; I assume most Japanese 7-year-olds don’t read at that level. I asked her mother about it and she just replied that “she loves reading”.

Sensei, danna-san and musume-san after dinner with me and Yuko in Alpino

Anyway, it was a lovely evening and we all left feeling feeling happy and saying また来年 mata rainen—see you again next year!

水素 suiso—hydrogen

The RIKEN institute in Kobe (home of the Kei-computer) has been credited with the discovery of the 113th element, and now has the right to propose a name for it, taking its rightful place in the periodic table between elements 112 (copernicium) and 114 (flerovium) . The name “Japonium” (symbol: Jp) has been suggested, to commemorate its country of discovery.

element 113
Element 113: Jp?

On a visit to the Science museum in Osaka last year, my attention was grabbed by a “Periodic Table Wall”, where the various slots were occupied by little vials containing samples of each element.

Periodic Table Wall

Periodic Table Wall: いろいろな元素 means “various elements”

Looking at the names of the elements in Japanese, I became curious as to why, while many are simply the familiar international name written in katakana (for example リチウム richium—lithium) or a variation thereof (セレン seren—selenium), the names of several of the elements were written in kanji. I wondered what is special about these particular elements, that they have their own kanji.

It seems they fall into a number of categories, depending mainly on when the elements were discovered. In the case of elements known to the ancients, native words, or very old (Tang-dynasty) Chinese loan-words, are used:

  • 鉄 tetsu: iron
  • 金 kin: gold
  • 銀 gin: silver
  • 銅 dou: copper
  • 鉛 en: lead
  • 錫 suzu: tin
  • 燐 rin: phosphorus (normally written in katakana as リン; among the ingredients listed on a can of coca-cola you will find リン酸 rin-san—phosphoric acid)
  • 硫黄 iou: sulphur
  • 水銀 suigin: mercury (literally “water-silver”; an intriguing parallel to the meaning of Latin hydrargyrum, but long-predating European contact)

A couple of oddballs (usually written in katakana as the kanji are so uncommon) combine the old name of the substance with the character 素 so meaning “element”:

  • 硼素 houso: boron (usually written in katakana as ホウ素)
  • 硅素 or 珪素 keiso: silicon (usually written in katakana as ケイ素)
  • 砒素 hiso: arsenic (usually written in katakana as ヒ素)

The names of some of the elements are 18th-century Japanese coinages:

  • 亜鉛 aen: zinc (meaning something like “lesser lead”)
  • 蒼鉛 souen: bismuth (“blue-green lead”); nowadays, however, this element is known by its international name as ビスマス bisumasu.
A bismuth crystal

News of the discovery in 18th-century Europe of new elements such as oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen came to Japan through German (or Dutch); the Japanese names are exact calques of the German names:

  • 水素 suiso: hydrogen (“water element”, from German Wasserstoff)
  • 炭素 tanso: carbon (“coal element”, from German Kohlenstoff)
  • 窒素 chisso: nitrogen (“choking element”, from German Stickstoff)
  • 酸素 sanso: oxygen (“acid element”, from German Sauerstoff)
  • 白金 hakkin: platinum (“white gold”, from Dutch wit goud)

This pattern was extended to some native coinages in the early 18th century:

  • 塩素 enso: chlorine means “salt element”
  • 臭素 shuuso: bromine means “smelly element”

The names of fluorine and iodine are phonetic borrowings based on the initial sound of the German names, combined with the character 素 so meaning “element”:

  • 弗素  fusso: fluorine (usually written in katakana as フッ素)
  • 沃素 youso: iodine  (usually written in katakana as ヨウ素)

After around 1900, however, everything settled down and all the more recently-discovered elements just use the international name in Japanese, so there is no special Japanese name or kanji for ネオン neon, サマリウム samarium or ジスプロシウム dysprosium. How boring!

大数—big numbers

The fastest supercomputer in Japan is at the RIKEN institute in Kobe and is called the K-computer or kei-computer (京コンピュータ).


With 80,000 8-core processors, using an incredible 10 MW of power, it was the fastest computer in the world when it was built in 2011, and 4 years later it is still the 4th fastest. According to Wikipedia, it uses a “proprietary 6-dimensional torus interconnect called Tofu“.

The reason it’s called “kei” is that 京 kei is the Japanese word for 10 quadrillion (10 to the power of 16). And the fact that Japanese has a word for 10 quadrillion is a fascinating thing in itself. Because 10 quadrillion is a very, very large number. It’s approximately the number of meters light travels in a year: one light year is one kei meters. But it is not the largest number word in Japanese – not by a long shot.

Learners of Japanese will be very familiar with the word 万 man meaning 10,000. 1 man yen is equivalent to about 100 dollars or euros, so when you ask about the price of a nice hotel room, an airfare or a car, or the population of a town or city, you’re likely to hear the word man.

The next number word is 億 oku—100 million. While it’s not as common as man, it still crops up fairly often. 一億円 1 oku yen is equivalent to about a million dollars or euros, so you’ll hear it on the news, talking about company profits or budgets, or even the price of an expensive house or apartment.

In fact, the word 億ション oku-shon is used to mean a luxurious apartment. This is a bit of Japanese wordplay. You see, the Japanese word マンション manshon (from English “mansion”) means a large apartment or apartment building. But wouldn’t it be even more impressive if, instead of a “man-” (10,000) shon, you had an “oku-” (100,000,000) shon?

According to Statistics Japan, the population of Japan is 1億2682万人 — that’s 1 oku 2 thousand six hundred and eighty two man people, or 126.82 million. (That example may give some insight into how confusing it is to translate numbers between Japanese and English, even if you know both languages perfectly, which I don’t. Understanding Japanese numbers is very challenging, calling on mathematical as well as linguistic comprehension skills.)

After 億 oku comes 兆 chou—one trillion. This is a big number, but you’ll still come across it, thanks to the fact that the yen is a relatively low-value unit of currency. National budgets and some large infrastructural projects are measured in 兆円. The new maglev Shinkansen line from Tokyo to Nagoya is expected to cost around 9 chou yen.

So what’s bigger than chou? That’s where we meet our old friend 京 kei, ten quadrillion. And until the kei computer was named, I had never heard this number used in real life. It far exceeds the entire world’s money supply. But in 2011, the kei computer was clocked at a speed 10 petaflops per second, which is 1 kei flops. And that’s where it got its name.

And there’s a whole world of numbers after kei. In the Japanese tradition of recreational mathematics, wasan, a 17th-century arithmetician called Yoshida wrote a textbook, Jinkouki, that starts by setting out the names of large and small numbers. I don’t know whether any numbers larger than kei are ever used nowadays, and I seriously doubt that anyone would understand them.

1 垓 gai is 100 quintillion, or 10 to the power of 20. That’s far more than the number of animals in the world, including all the tiny insects and teeming krill in the sea. After that, the numbers continue to go up in powers of 10,000. For example, 1 穣 jou (10 to the power of 28) is about the number of atoms in my body, and if you wanted to estimate the number of atoms in the whole world, that would be around 百極 a hundred goku.

What’s the largest number name in Japanese? The honour goes to 無量大数 muryoutaisuu which is 10 to the power of 68, and appropriately means uncountable large number.

So where did these absurdly large number names come from? Did Yoshida simply invent them, or was he drawing on an existing tradition? I don’t know for sure, but there seems to be a connection to Sanskrit and Buddhism. Wikipedia tells me that the ancient Indian passion for large numbers extended to naming extraordinarily large numbers. Some of the Japanese number names come from Sanskrit, while the word 恒河沙 gougasha, meaning 10 to the power of 52, refers to the constant sands of the Ganges River.