Tumbleweed's Introduction to this Page

I feel it's important to mention that my pages are not commercial in any way. Despite that, I found this page, and it's associate page Particles vs. Patterns--Verbal Guideposts in Speaking Japanese, to be very well written and easy to understand for beginners and intermediate level students of Japanese. The pages themselves are from 1995 so I don't know how current the information at the bottom of the page is. I'm attempting to contact Ken Butler for more updated information, but either way, the information you'll find here should be very useful in your quest to become more intimate with the Japanese language.

Note: I make no claim to copyright ownership of the information as presented here. Copyright is retained by the author and full information is presented at the bottom of the document, along with contact information. This page is presented solely for educational purposes and is not a commercial venture on my part.

Ken Butler's

World Wide Japanese Language Learning Web

How to Understand a Japanese "sentence"

During the ten years I directed the Inter-Univerisity Center for
Japanese Language Studies, at the beginning of the 10-month intensive
program we would spend the morning classroom hours on spoken Japanese,
and the afternoon class hours on reading Japanese. All of the students
who attended the Center had at least two years of previous college level
study of Japanese and had some familiarity with kanji, so for the first
six weeks of reading classes each year we would develop reading materials
with full vocabularies using current event newspaper articles (and videos
of news broadcasts and such) in order to get the students up to speed
in contemporary vocabulary.

But throughout the ten years we offered the "newspaper course" it was
apparent that only a few of the students each year had the ability to
figure out how to understand sentences. This was not restricted to students
from just some colleges or universities. It applied equally to students
from 10 or 15 different colleges or universities each year. As I thought
about why such would be the case, I thought back to my own experiences in
college courses aimed at teaching students to read Japanese.

The usual procedure would go something like this:

The students would assemble for the class, supposedly having already worked
out all of the difficult points in the passage they had been assigned to
read. Then the professor would call on a student to read a sentence and
translate it into English. The student would stumble through reading the
sentence in Japanese, and then take a deep breath and try to make some sense
out of it in English.

The student's efforts would usually not be satisfactory, so the professor,
with a slightly pained look on his face, would call on another student to
go through the same process. Since the first student's efforts at translation
were obviously not acceptable, the second student would attempt to make some
slight modification to the "translation" the first student had given. But
more often than not this effort also was not acceptable, and the professor,
with an even more pained look on his face, would call upon a third student
...and so forth.

Usually there was not enough class time available for the professor to actually
give us the "correct" translation, or to teach us simple procedures for
determining the actual meaning of the Japanese sentences that that been discussed,
and a student was left with only the satisfaction that even if he or she couldn't
translate the sentences, none of the other students could either, and since
Japanese was understood to be a somewhat vague and obtuse language, probably
the translations that had been given for each sentence in class were about as
close to the real meaning as one could get.

Well, I haven't had any contact with college classes in reading Japanese in
quite a number of years, and I assume (and hope) that there has been a great
deal of improvement. But in case you have had problems in knowing how to
approach a Japanese sentence that you don't understand, perhaps the following
will be of help:

Parsing a Japanese "sentence"

If you understand how the structure of a typical Japanese "sentence" is put
together, and if you have an understanding of how Japanese particles act as
guideposts in telling you how each part of a "sentence" relates to the other
parts, there is no Japanese sentence which defies understanding, or rendition
into the English language.

First, embedded in each Japanese "sentence" or utterance is what, for lack of
a better term, I call the "core sentence".

And how does one find out what the core sentence is?

You take a look at the sentence, usually beginning at the end of the sentence,
and try to find the part of the sentence that is the minimal part that makes
sense, both in terms of Japanese logic and English logic -- that is, a verb,
and the main particle that is associated with it.

For example:

Tanaka-san no hanasi ni yoreba, souridaijin wa mou sugu naikaku
kaizou o okonau yotei desu.

So we start at the end of the sentence, and see the verb desu.

desu means, basically, "is". So, we know that the force of this
sentence is that it's a statement of fact. Then we work backwards to the
next word, yotei.

yotei has a basic meaning of "expectation", and it doesn't seem to help us
much at this point, so, while keeping it in mind, we again work backwards.

We next come to the word okonau. This seems to have possibilities, since
it looks like it might be a verb. So, we take a look at what precedes it, and
there before our eyes is the structural particle o. We know that the function
of o is to indicate that what precedes it is going to be acted on by a verb that
follows it, so we take a look at what precedes it. And the word is kaizou,
modified by the word naikaku (we know that one Japanese "noun" can precede
another one to modify it), so we look in the dictionary and find out that naikaku
has the English equivalent of "Cabinet" and kaizou has the English equivalent of
"reorganization". We also look in the dictionary and see that okonau is in fact a
verb with the English equivalent of "carry out". We reflect upon this news for a second,
and then realize that with the words naikaku kaizou o okonau we may perhaps
have found the "core sentence", since we know that one of the most common acceptable
utterences in Japanese is a noun followed by the particle o which is then followed
by a verb.

So, we have:

naikaku kaizou o okonau
Cabinet reorganization carry out

We mentally transpose this to "carry out (a) Cabinet reorganization", and
although we don't as yet have a subject for the sentence, it looks like we have
an acceptable Japanese utterance. But it would help if we had a topic, (or
subject, as is usually the case), so we continue our look backward and we see
the words mou sugu ("quite soon"). But since these words don't seem
central to the meaning of the sentence, we continue to look backwards and come
to the structural particle wa.

Now we've really found something of value, since we know that what precedes
wa is going to be the topic of the sentence. So now, discarding for a moment
all of the extraneous parts of the sentence, we end up with:

souridaijin wa naikaku kaizou o okonau
Prime Minister Cabinet reorganization carry out

Transposing this into English, we get the sentence:

"(The) Prime Minister (will?) carry out (a) Cabinet reorganization."
[the verb okonau is in the "present" tense, which can also be used to
indicate a future action, so we need to decipher the rest of the sentence
before deciding what meaning to give it in English.]

The above English seems to make pretty good sense, and we now have some
confidence that we're well on the way to understanding the entire sentence.

So, just to tidy things up, we continue looking backwards, and see that the sentence
starts with the clause Tanaka-san no hanasi ni yoreba. Well, to make a long story short,
this clause means "According to what Tanaka-san said", and so we start putting the
other remaining parts of the sentence together:

Tanaka-san no hanasi ni yoreba

"According to what Tanaka-san said"

souridaijin wa naikaku kaizou o okonau
"(The) Prime Minister (will?) carry out (a) Cabinet reorganization."

When will he carry it out?

mou sugu "quite soon"

And what does the long clause souridaijin wa naikaku kaizou o okonau modify?
[A verb clause preceding a noun modifies the noun]


And what follows yotei?

"is" (in the sense that what precedes it is a statement of fact)

So, now we put this all together, and we get an English translation as follows:

"According to what Tanaka-san says, (the) Prime Minister is expected to carry
out (a) Cabinet reorganization quite soon."

It makes perfect sense, doesn't it.

But common sense tells us that Japanese, when speaking or reading their language
among themselves, do not perform these convoluted mental gynastics of waiting until
a speaker or writer has completed a sentence and then working backwards to determine
what the speaker or writer has said.

If they don't do this,then what do they do?

They understand the sentence as it is spoken.

And how do they do this?

They do it by hearing and understanding what the structural particles
are telling them as they are spoken (or written) with regard to the
relationships of the various parts of the sentence, as follows:

Tanaka-san no hanasi ---> "Tanaka-san's talk" (or in English "what Tanaka-san said"

ni yoreba ---> "according to" [Henderson, Handbook of Japanese Grammar, p. 211]

Tanaka-san no hanasi ni yoreba ---> "According to what Tanaka-san said"

souridaijin wa --- > "(the) Prime Minister . . ."
[Here we know we have the topic of the sentence]

Tanaka-san no hansi ni yoreba souridaiji wa --->
"According to what Tanaka-san said, the Prime Minister ..."

mou sugu nakaku kaizou o okonau --- >
"quite soon (will) carry out (a) Cabinet reorganization"

Tanaka-san no hanasi ni yoreba souridaijin wa mou sugu nakaku
kaizou o okonau

"According to what Tanaka-san said, (the) Prime Minister will quite
soon carry out a Cabinet reorganization."

If the sentence stopped here, okonau would be in its sentence-ending form:
okonaimasu, and the above rendition of the sentence in English would be
accurate. But since okonau is in the normal "present" tense form (sometimes
referred to as the "dictionary form"), the Japanese listener or reader automatically
knows that he or she has just heard a verb clause that will modify what comes next.

And what comes next is yotei desu ---> "is expected"

This then completes the sentence, and the Japanese listener or reader has understood
each part of the sentence, and the complete sentence, as the speaker was speaking
it, or as he or she was reading it.

The moral of this story is that to understand (and speak and write) Japanese:

  • Acquire as much information as you can about the structure of Japanese sentences
    (such as preceding one noun by another to modify it or a verb clause preceding
    a noun modifying the noun, and so forth).

  • Learn the functions of the various structural particles in Japanese.

  • Pay attention as you hear it or read it to what each particle is telling you
    about the relationship of the part of the sentence the particle acts as a
    guidepost to.

  • Look up any vocabulary you don't know in your dictionary.

    And always keep in mind that there really are no "sentences" in Japanese.
    All there is is a series of utterances that are linked together by particles
    along with verbs and a few connecting words. And also always keep in mind
    that if the topic, the object, an the indirect object (and probably quite a
    few other things) of a particular utterance can be understood from the context,
    then the speaker or the writer has no obligation to state these parts of a
    "sentence" explicitly.

    That's all there is to it.

    (An extraneous comment:)
    I'm reminded of a young woman who many years ago used to broadcast
    lessons in "the Peking dialect" from Beijing. Every few minutes in her
    broadcast, she would use the phrase (in Chinese): "See how easy it is!"
    [with a tip of my hat to an old friend, Bill Lyell.]

    (The content of this CyberTutorial is based in part on Part Four of Unit Nine
    of Butler Consulting's Let's Speak Japanese CD-ROM, and Lesson Fourteen of
    Butler Consulting's JapaneseForEveryone CD-ROM, where it's presented with
    tutorial comment and digitized Japanese sound and sample utterances for
    interactive "hear and speak"practice.)

    This Butler Consulting, Inc. WWW page is copyright 1995 by
    Ken Butler 7-8-13 Seijo, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo, Japan // Internet:kenbutler@twics.com
    All Rights Reserved

    Return to Tumbleweed's Resources for Learning Japanese

    or go on to Particles vs. Patterns--Verbal Guideposts in Speaking Japanese which is also archived at this site! ^_^