Keep pounding away and eventually Japanese will reveal its secrets


Special To The Japan Times

Sometimes studying Japanese just feels useless. No matter how many times you look at the same kanji, you have to count the kakusū (画数, number of strokes) and find it in the dictionary. No matter how many times you come across a certain word, you have to look up the definition to understand it. No matter how hard you Google, a certain grammar pattern just continues to baffle you.

In these cases, it is useful to remember a quote by journalist and social reformer Jacob Riis: “When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the 101st blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”

Riis describes an excellent metaphor for the “eureka effect” in which a previously incomprehensible concept or problem suddenly becomes crystal clear. I believe this is true for Japanese study as well: Even when you’re not understanding completely, you may be internalizing concepts that will later make sense.

For me, personally, Japanese shieki (使役, causative) was an incomprehensible problem, and it wasn’t until I “pounded the rock” with enough blows that it became clear to me.

The phrase that created that eureka moment was kikasete (聞かせて — literally, “Allow me to hear X”).

I was studying abroad in Tokyo at the time, and my sensei paired me with a Japanese-American student. He and a few other students joined our class halfway through the year. He had grown up using the language and had a near-native sense for it, whereas I was the gambariya (頑張り屋, hard worker) who was in a little over his head in a higher-level course.

I’d just visited Tōnan Ajia (東南アジア, Southeast Asia) over haru yasumi (春休み, spring break), and during one exercise I had to describe to him what I did during the break. He wrote a few comments in response on a sheet of paper, and when he passed it to me, I had my eureka moment: He had written ato de motto kikasete ne (後でもっと聞かせてね, “Tell me more about it later”).

“Naruhodo!” (なるほど, Of course!/Eureka!), I thought.

I was already somewhat familiar with shieki at that point. I knew that it was a form of the verb that changes the stem to the a-gyō (あ行, a-column) and adds seru (せる) for godan verbs (五段, consonant-stem verbs) — e.g., nomu (飲む, drink) becomes nomaseru (飲ませる, make someone drink) — or just drops the ru and adds saseru for ichidan verbs (一段, vowel-stem verbs) — e.g. taberu (食べる, to eat) becomes tabesaseru (食べさせる, make someone eat).

I also knew that the causer and “causee” are wrapped up in the verb. The subject of the verb “makes” or “causes” the other person to do the action of the verb. That person is marked with the particle ni (に).

But I was under the mistaken impression that the “causing” of the causative had to be an aggressive “making” in English when in fact it can be a more permissive “letting” or “allowing.” So when my classmate said kikasete, an imperative form of the causative, he wasn’t asking me to “make” him do anything. He wanted me to “allow” him to hear more of my story.

This is reinforced by the Yoshi Ikuzo karaoke classic To-mo-ko (と・も・子). The song is sung by a man who has lost Tomoko, his love. He uses the shieki to make it explicit for whom he is singing: Kono uta o anata ni kikasetakatta (この唄をあなたに聞かせたかった). Literally, this means, “I wanted to let/make you hear this song,” but a more natural English rendering is “I wanted you to hear this song.”

Yoshi makes it clear this is what he meant in the very next line: Kono uta o anata ni kiite hoshikatta (この唄をあなたに聞いてほしかった, “I wanted you to hear this song”).

Once I was equipped with this usage, all the others began to fall into place. I encountered the causative in both very formal and incredibly informal situations.

My sensei taught me that it had been incorporated into a newish form of keigo (敬語, polite speech). We were always to begin our presentations with the phrase X ni tsuite happyō sasete itadakimasu (~について発表させていただきます). This literally equates to something like “I will (humbly) receive your allowing me to give a presentation on X,” but in practice it’s just a set phrase that means “I will now give a presentation on X.”

On the other end of the spectrum, I often heard students say yarasete (やらせて, let me), the shieki of the verb yaru (やる, to do), when I later taught at elementary school. In order to get the full contextual effect of this phrase, you should try to imagine the whiniest possible voice and a shōgakusei (小学生, elementary school student) on the verge of tears because you won’t let him play with the American football you brought to class. “I wanna try! Let me!”

In fact, one of the few cases where “make” makes sense for the shieki is when it incorporates ukemi (受け身, the passive voice) to imply an adversative experience. Here you strap on a few extra syllables and saseru (させる, make someone do) becomes saserareru (させられる, unfortunately be made to do).

This can be a concise way to explain why you came into work hung over: Minna ni o-sake o nomaserareta (皆に お酒を飲ませられた, literally, “I was made to drink by everyone”). Don’t bow to peer pressure!

If these patterns don’t make sense just yet, give them a little time to breathe and keep pounding the rock. With enough time and repetition, they’ll click for you too.

  • Firas Kraïem

    This whole column is a truism: the “eureka” effect occurs in the study of absolutely anything.

  • Isaac Medina

    Another great insight.

  • Toolonggone

    It takes time for non-native speakers of Japanese to make sense out of grammar. They will eventually know when they get a-ha moment.