In his book “Making Sense of Japanese: What the Textbooks Don’t Tell You,” translator and Japanese literature scholar Jay Rubin notes that the Japanese language “works backward.”
When he writes this, Rubin is not referring to tategaki (縦書き, writing vertical lines of text from the top of the page to the bottom) or to migi-tategaki (右縦書き, writing vertically from the right side of the page to the left). Yes, those are “backward” compared to yokogaki (横書き) — the way we write English — but Japanese actually mixes these styles more than you think.
Kyōkasho (教科書, textbooks), especially those in the sciences, are often written in yokogaki. If you’re reading on the netto (ネット, Internet), then you’re likely using yokogaki as well. Japanese readers have sometimes complained that mixing the two on the same website or document results in me ga tsukareru (目が疲れる, tired eyes). English native speakers will likely have the same experience when reading tategaki for the first time, but once you’ve trained your muscles on some nifty bunkobon (文庫本, paperbacks), you’ll adjust. Just give it time.
The “backwardness” Rubin is referring to is the placement of the verb in the Japanese sentence. As you may already know, the English word order is shugo (主語, subject), dōshi (動詞, verb) and mokutekigo (目的語, object), while the Japanese order is shugo then mokutekigo-dōshi, but often a stated subject is left out altogether. Thus, the verb is “backward.”
Rubin gives the example of kabuki theater, which takes advantage of the verb location to build suspense and sustain the drama. Will the ghost take revenge or will he not? We won’t know until the final syllable thanks to the verb location.
The modern master of this is Shinichi Hatori, the MC for the popular comedy food program “Guru-nai.” The show is also referred to as Gochi (ゴチ), which is short for the casual phrase Gochi ni naru (ごちになる, Thanks for dinner). Contestants led by the comedy duo Ninety-nine (Takashi Okamura and Hiroyuki Yabe) order dishes from gourmet restaurants and attempt to keep the total cost of their meal as close to a target price as possible.
If a contestant hits the number exactly, the show awards a hefty million-yen pittari-shō (ピタリ償, perfect prize), which plays on the word pittari (ぴったり, to match exactly). Most of the time the contestants do not hit this price, but Hatori drags out the announcement, wringing every last phrase he can before dropping the final verb:
Gochi 9, nikaime no pitari-shō ga, Shōnan no umi no mae de, pitari-shō ga, nanto, nanto, demasendeshita (ゴチ９、二回目のピタリ償が、湘南の海の前で、ピタリ償が、何と、何と、出ませんでした; The second pitari-sho on Gochi Season 9 has, here on the shores of Shōnan, the pitari-shō has, incredibly, miraculously, not appeared.)
As you can see, Hatori reintroduces the subject, marked with the particle ga (が) for added suspense and makes use of the wonderful Japanese adverb nanto (何と), which can be put in front of almost any verb or adjective to emphasize excitement or disappointment.
This “backwardness” can sometimes make it difficult to hold complicated written Japanese phrases in your mind before the final clause. If you find this to be the case, try skipping to the final verb first. Often the writer will place the main verb or the main idea he or she wants to communicate there. Then work backward to add the other elements. Take, for example, a sentence from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent speech on the economy:
Defure kara dakkyaku shi, keizai wo seichō sase, kokumin seikatsu wo yutaka ni suru tame ni wa, tatoe konnan na michi de arō to mo, kono michi shika arimasen (デフレから脱却し、経済を成長させ、国民生活を豊かにするためには、たとえ困難な道であろうとも、この道しかありません).
If we skip to the very end, we see Abe’s latest catchphrase and the main verb arimasen combined with the particle shika, which signifies the “only” alternative: kono michi shika arimasen (this is the only path we have).
Moving back to the front of the sentence we can see that Abe lays out all of the difficult steps Japan must walk, placed before tame ni wa (in order to): free themselves of deflation (defure kara dakkyaku-shi), grow the economy (keizai wo seichō sase), and enrich the lives of the people (kokumin seikatsu wo yutaka ni suru). “In order to free ourselves of deflation, grow the economy and enrich the lives of the people, this is the only path we have,” he says.
But there’s one last phrase, of course. Abe wouldn’t want to get to his final point too quickly, so he adds a short parenthetical comment that adds dramatic flare and further describes that path: tatoe konnan na michi de arō to mo (even though the path may be difficult). The “backwardness” of Japanese lets Abe save his best for last.
However, there are times when Japanese even turns back on itself. Certain kanji compounds reverse the Japanese subject-object order: for example, kikoku suru (帰国する, return to one’s country). Here the Japanese phrase kuni ni kaeru (国に帰る) is reversed. Likewise, inshu (飲酒, drink alcohol) reverses sake wo nomu (酒を飲む), and tozan (登山, climb a mountain) reverses yama wo noboru (山を登る). These compounds originated in China, and use the Chinese word order, which is the same as English.
While you might feel pulled backward and forward during your study of Japanese, given time, the directions will become second nature. Still, it’s always handy to have techniques to deal with difficult sentences, and going to the back of the line can often be the quickest way to make sense of things in Japanese.