10 Japanese words which sum up the New Year period in Japan

We are in the last few days of the year and it is almost 2018, the year of the dog in the Chinese zodiac. The New Year, or お正月(おしょうがつ) as it is known in Japanese, is one of the biggest celebrations in the Japanese calendar.

There are a lot of traditions associated with the New Year period, so what better way to learn a bit about New Year in Japan than to learn some new vocabulary? Here are ten words which should help you get a feel for how New Year is celebrated.

1. 年賀状/ねんがじょう Postcards

The custom of sending ねんがじょう cards started hundreds of year ago, as a way of sending new year’s greeting to relations who were too far away to visit in person. These are normally sent to the post office around 15th December in order to ensure delivery on 1st January.

Whilst the popularity of electronic messages are growing, the custom of sending cards is still widespread – you can buy premade cards or design your own. Modern cards even make use of VR!

2. 門松/かどまつ Kadomatsu (literally ‘pine gate’).

As the name suggests, these pine decorations are put in pairs in front of homes to welcome the kami Toshigami. It is believed that Toshigami visits homes to bring happiness on New Years’ day if he is invited into the home with かどまつ. かどまつ tend to consist of pine, bamboo, plum flowers and flowering kale. These are normally put out around Christmas time and stay outside until about 7th January.

3. 年末のお掃除/ねんまつのおそうじ End of year cleaning

This is the time of year when Japanese people undertake a thorough clean of their homes. It is thought to help purify the home to help welcome Toshigami in the new year. It is a great time of year to discover new cleaning products and tips. You may end up finding things you thought you had lost during the year!

4. 紅白歌合戦/こうはくうたがっせん Red and White Song Battle

Screenshot 2017-12-26 at 20.47.43

The こうはくうたがっせん (usually abbreviated to こうはく) is a singing competition that takes place in the evening on New Year’s Eve (大晦日/おおみそか in Japanese). The competition has been a regular fixture on broadcaster NHK for over 60 years. Each year sees popular artists split into two teams, a red team for the female participants and a white team for the male participants (hence the name of the contest) who sing to become the overall winners of the competition.

5. はつもで First temple visit

The first visit to a shrine or temple to wish for health and prosperity for the coming year, called Hatsumode, is considered essential during the first few days of the year. Most people will do this before dawn on New Year’s Day, although some people visit on New Year’s Eve in order to witness 除夜の鐘/じょやのかね where a bell is rung 108 times just before the end of the year. Each ring of the bell signifies the 108 worldly desires thought to cause suffering in Buddhism.

6. おみくじ Fortune

During the first temple visit of the year, many Japanese people will write their wishes on little wooden plaques known as 絵馬・えま. They may also take the opportunity to get their fortune, called おみくじ. You draw out a paper slip and hope for a good result for the coming year!

omikujifortune-3032412_1920

7. 御節料理 おせちりょうり Osechi ryouri – New Year’s dishes

おせちりょうり is an assortment of dishes traditionally eaten during the first few days in the new year. Each food is thought to bring different types of prosperity for the coming year and are presented in a special box resembling a traditional bento box. You can read more about the kinds of おせち dishes at Just One Cookbook.

8. 餅/もち Mochi rice cakes

Aside from おせちりょうり, もち is eaten during the New Year period. Many communities will take part in the tradition of 餅つき/もちつき, the process of pounding the rice to make the rice cakes.

You may also come across 鏡餅/かがみもち in a Japanese house around the New Year. かがみもち (literally ‘mirror rice cakes’) are traditional decorations formed with two round pieces of もち stacked on top of each other and adorned with Japanese fruit that symbolise good omens for the forthcoming year.

9. お年玉/おとしだま Otoshidama

New Year’s for Japanese children is a lot like Christmas for children in the West, in that it is when children receive gifts from parents, friends and relatives. The gifts are in the form of おとしだま, gifts of money for children as a blessing for the coming year and are usually presented in a special envelope.

10. 福袋 ふくぶくろ Lucky bags

Around the New Year, many shops will sell lucky dip bags containing a number of the store’s items at a good price. Certain shops’ ふくぶくろ are extremely popular so you may need to line up outside the store to get hold of one. Even convenience stores sell lucky bags!

FamilyMart_fukubukuro_in_Japan_20100204

By Nissy-KITAQ (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

So that is my list, which turned out to contain quite a bit more than 10 new words!

What is your favourite New Years’ tradition (Japanese or otherwise)? Please let me know in the comments!

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Japanese Particles: An Overview

JP Particle overview

Japanese grammar has a few quirks, and I would say that after sentence structure, the use of particles is the trickiest thing for Japanese beginners to get their head around.

Particles are little words similar to prepositions in English that follow verbs, nouns and adjectives to indicate various things within a sentence. I like to think of them as little signposts that show the relationship between different parts within the sentence.

Let’s have a look at an example sentence.

私はあした東京に行きます。

わたしはあしたひこうきでとうきょうにいきます。

In the example above, は indicates the topic and に indicates the destination.

There are a lot of particles in Japanese, but I have put together a mini summary of the most important particles and how they are used:

は Topic marker

  • Not necessarily the subject of the sentence

アントニアは映画が好きです。

アントニアはえいががすきです。

In the sentence Antonia is the topic and movies are the subject

  • Often omitted unless the topic changes
  • Can be used to show contrast as below:

赤ワインは好きですが、白ワインは好きではありません。

あかワインはすきですが、しろワインはすきではありません。

が Subject marker

  • Usually followed by a verb or adjective phrase

スイーツがあまり好きではありません。

スイーツがあまりすきではありません。

  • Always marks the subject of a subordinate clause

先生が私にくれた本は今でも読みます。

せんせいがわたしにくれたほんはいまでもよみます。

  • When used after the end of a clause it acts as a conjunction that can mean ‘and’ or ‘but

レストランに行きましたが、まだ開いていませんでした。

レストランにいきましたが、まだあいていませんでした、

  • Used with intransitive verbs and potential forms of a verb

あそこから海が見えますよ。

あそこからうみがみえますよ。

を Object marker

  • Always followed by a verb/ verb phrase and follows the strict object of a sentence

トムさんは毎日漫画を読みます。

トムさんはまいにちまんがをよみます。

  • Transitive verbs are preceded by を

キムさんはドアを開けます。

キムさんはドアをあけます。

に Time/ place marker

  • Always indicates the location or place with a verb indicating movement

ロンドンに行ったことがあります。

ロンドンにいったことがあります。

  • Also used to denote a time when an action takes place

私は7時に朝ごはんを食べます。

わたしは7じにあさごはんをたべます。

  • Indicates the recipient of an action

リンさんにケーキをあげました。

で Indicates means of an action

  • Indicates the location in which an action takes place

公園でお弁当を食べました。

こうえんでおべんとうをたべました。

  • Can also be used to show the means of doing an action

電車で大学に来ました。

でんしゃでだいがくにきました。

の Possessive marker

  • Can be used in place of が in relative clauses

彼は自分のしたことを後悔しています。

かれはじぶんのしたことをこうかいしています。

  • As a sentence-final suffix, it can add an explanatory nuance

新しい店でワンピースを買ったの。

あたらしいみせでワンピースをかったの。

と Meaning ‘with’

  • Is also used to quote direct or indirect speech

来年アメリカに行こうと思っています。

らいねんアメリカにいこうとおもっています。

If you are looking to get a book that has a great job of explaining the vast majority of the particles you are likely to come across, then I would consider the book All About Particles by Naoko Chino.

This book gives an overview of what each particle can mean in different contexts alongside example sentences. I like that the book shows where particles can be used interchangeably as well as how this can affect the nuance of the sentence, especially with the infamous ha and ga particles. This makes it a great reference book for beginner-intermediate learners.

Getting a good grasp on how particles work from an early stage will help immensely later on when tackling more complex grammar, so do not be afraid to spend a lot of time on studying particles.

Quick Quiz:

1 京都にはお寺__多いです。 きょうとにはおてら__おおいです。

2 家__遊びに来てください。 いえ__あそびにきてください。

3 ペン__名前を書いてください。 ぺん__なまえをかいてください。

4 今日は私__誕生日です。 きょうはわたし__たんじょうびです。

5 マアリーさんは大学__仕事をしています。 メアリーさんはだいがく__しごとしています。

6 先週私は友達__パリに行きました。 せんしゅうわたしはともだち__パリにいきました。

7 きのう天気__よかったです。 きのうてんき__よかったです。

8 窓__開けてもいいですか。 まど__あけてもいいですか。

Practising how to use Particles

  • The JLPT grammar section has some questions on particles where you have to select the appropriate particle missing from the sentence. This is a great way to practice as there are a few quizzes available online.

Examples: JP Drills, JOSHU Particle Quizzes from the University of Texas

  • Pay attention to the sentences you use in your normal studies. I do write a lot about the importance of context – when it comes to particles, certain verbs for example will be used with specific particles, eg. 〜が見えます instead of 〜を見えます.

How do you study particles? Know any useful resources? Let me know in the comments!

Quick quiz answers:

  1. が 2) に 3) で 4) の 5) で 6) と 7) が 8) を

The Quick ‘Why’ Guide: どうしてvs なぜ vs なんで

Japanese is so vocabulary rich that knowing when to use similar words and phrases can be a bit of a nightmare for language learners. どうして, なぜ and なんで can all be translated as ‘why’ in English but it is the level of formailty which largely differentiates the three words.

なぜ

なぜ orginated from the older term なにゆえ. It is the most formal of the three and is the word most often used in the written language rather than in speech.

なぜ日本語を勉強していますか?     naze nihongo wo benkyou shiteimasuka?

Why are you studying Japanese?

なぜ昨日のパーティーに来なかったの? naze pa-ti- ni konakatta no?

Why didn’t you come to the party yesterday?

どうして

In a lot of cases, どうして can be used interchangeably with なぜ, but is considered to feel less formal. The word is a contraction of an older term どのようにして, and therefore can sometimes be used to mean ‘how’ rather than why’ in English.

どうして知っているの? doushite shitteiru no?

How did you know?

どうして昨日そんなに早く帰ってしまったの? doushite kinou sonna ni hayaku kaette shimatta no?

Why did you go home so early yesterday?

なんで

なんで is the most informal of the three terms. As you can imagine, this word tends to be used more by young people than other age groups.

なんで私が? nande watashi ga?

Why me?

なんでそんな所に行ったの? nande sonna tokoro ni itta no?

Why did you go to that place?

どうして is probably the word you’ll hear used the most and is therefore your safest bet for everyday use, but make sure to choose wisely depending on what setting you are in.

Japanese Onomatopoeia: Giongo, Giseigo and Gitaigo

If you’ve been exposed to Japanese for even the shortest period of time, you will have no doubt heard some sort of onomatopoeia being used. Japanese is incredibly rich in vocabulary when it comes to onomatopoeia, which means Japanese students need to dedicate some time studying this fascinating part of the language.

Using onomatopoeia helps to more vividly describe an action or state. Take the verb 笑(わら)う warau for example; this can mean to smile or laugh depending on the context. By adding different onomatopoeia we can change the nuance of this verb:

ニヤニヤ笑う niyaniya warau to grin, smirk

クスクス笑うkusukusu warau to giggle, chuckle

ゲラゲラ笑う geragera warau to burst into laughter, crack up

 

Whilst we Japanese learners can often guess the meaning of some words in context, it is worth noting that onomatopoeia is used in a much broader sense than in English.

 

Types of onomatopoeia

There are three Japanese terms that fall under the umbrella of onomatopoeia (オノマトペ):

 

擬音語/ぎおんご Giongo mimics a sound – think of ‘bang’ or ‘crash’ in English

ざあざあ (zaazaa) = sound of pouring rain/ rushing water

雨がざあざあ降っている ame ga zaazaa futteiru

The rain is pouring down

 

がちゃん (gachan) = slamming or clanging sound

花瓶が床に落ちてがちゃんと割った kabin ga yuka ni ochite gachan to watta

The vase crashed to the floor

 

擬声語/ぎせいご Giseigo mimics a voice (usually of an animal) – think of ‘woof’ or ‘meow’ in English

わんわん (wanwan) = a dog’s bark

犬がわんわん吠えている  inu ga wanwan hoeteiru

The dog is barking

 

おぎゃー(ogya) = a baby’s cry

赤ちゃんがおぎゃーおぎゃーと泣く akachan ga ogyaa ogyaa to naku

The baby is crying

 

擬態語/ぎたいご Gitaigo is used to mimic a state – this is pretty uncommon in English; there are terms like higgledy-piggledy (meaning ‘in a messy state’) which have a similar feel.

We can break gitaigo into three categories:

  1. those that indicate a state or condition, e.g.

きらきら (kirakira) = sparkling, glittering

星が空にきらきらと輝いている hoshi ga sora ni kirakira to kagayaiteiru

The stars are sparkling in the sky

 

つるつる (tsurutsuru) = smooth

ラーメンをつるつるとすする raamen wo tsurutsuru to susuru

I slurp the noodles

 

  1. those that describe how an action is being performed, e.g.

ぺらぺら (perapera) = fluently; thin/ flimsy (paper/ cloth)

姉は5年間スペインに住んでいましたので、スペイン語がぺらぺら

My older sister is fluent in Spanish because she lived in Spain for 5 years

 

のろのろ (noronoro) = slow, sluggish

彼は亀のようにのろのろ歩いた kare wa kame no you ni noronoro aruita

He walked as slow as a snail

 

  1. those that indicate feelings or emotions, e.g.

イライラする (iraira suru) = to be irritated

私は食事をしないとイライラする人だ watashi wa shokuji wo shinai to iraira suru hito da

I’m a person who gets annoyed when I haven’t eaten

 

びっくりする (bikkuri suru) = to be surprised

そのニュースを聞いてびっくりした sono nyuusu wo kiite bikkuri shita

I was shocked to hear the news

 

Slightly changing the sound of the onomatopoeia can also add further nuance, for example:

ドアをトントン叩(たた)く doa wo tonton tataku to knock/ tap on the door

ドアをドンドン叩(たた)く doa wo dondon tataku    to bang on the door

 

How I study onomatopoeia

 

When I come across a new onomatopoeia, I look it up in a dictionary or ask a friend to confirm the meaning, and then make a note of it in my vocabulary notebook. When I write it down in my notebook, I normally write it down as a phrase or in the context of a sentence rather than the word on its own.

Having example sentences or phrases to remember what kinds of situations these type of words are used in is essential. Studying them in context will be helpful for not only able to memorising onomatopoeia but also using them naturally in conversation. This is especially true for gitaigo which is less intuitive to English speakers.

Onomatopoeia is very frequently used with certain verbs so it is best to memorise them together with this verb. Others are formed into verbs by adding する, so remembering the onomatopoeia as a verb means you will know the meaning of it even when it appears without する.

わんわん –> わんわん吠(ほ)える wanwan hoeru = to bark

にこにこ –> にこにこ笑( わら)う nikoniko warau = to smile

You’ll notice in some of the examples in this post that some onomatopoeia can take the particle と, often when being used with a verb. There isn’t a specific rule on when the particle is used, so it is best to make a note of which words use it in your example sentences or phrases.

 

Resources for learning Japanese onomatopoeia

Referring to a decent Japanese-English dictionary is fine for giving an idea of a rough meaning, although you may find that there is not a direct English translation.

I’ve listed a few sites below that might help your studies:

OnomatoProject

Onomatoproject page screenshot

There is a great website called the Onomato Project which lets you practice onomatopoeia in the form of online quizzes. Each word is accompanied by illustrations and example sentences. If you use Anki, you might find the shared Onomatoproject Anki deck a better choice for studying on the go.

Sura Sura

However, if you are an intermediate learner, then I fully recommend going straight to a Japanese resource called Sura Sura, which is an online Japanese onomatopoeia dictionary. It may not have every word you are looking for, but for the onomatopoeia that is on the site, you will find a simple explanation in Japanese, accompanied by a photo which helps illuminate the meaning.

sura sura japanese onomatopoeia screenshot

Each onomatopoeia also has example sentences and notes on things like the etymology of the word and how it differs to others with a similar meaning. Best of all, each page has a link to Twitter showing tweets from native speakers using the word you are looking up.

 

National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics website

 

Screenshot showing japanese onomatopoeia

I also recommend the マンガを読もう section of the NINJAL website above which has some extremely helpful comic illustrations giving you an idea of what situations each word is used in.

 

The above websites show just how useful it is to have visual context for learning how onomatopoeia is actually used. Pictures, manga, and TV, therefore, are especially good places to these words in context, so sometimes I will either draw a picture (despite being terrible at drawing) alongside new onomatopoeia in my notebook.

PS. Think you’re pretty good with onomatopoeia in Japanese? Check out the video and see if you can spot them all!

 

Do you have any special tricks for learning onomatopoeia? Let me know in the comments!