Japanese is so efficient as a language that it can sometimes leave new students feeling as though they are floating in space. Without the familiar gravity of shugo (主語, subjects), students are sometimes at a loss to create sentences that involve multiple actors and both direct and indirect actions. This is a result of thinking in English (or another mother tongue) rather than taking advantage of the little tricks that Japanese provides to deal with these situations.
The first rule for using shugo in Japanese? Try to avoid them — if you want to sound natural. For example, take the following perfectly normal conversation:
Q. Sushi tabeta koto aru? (すし食べたことある?; You ever eaten sushi?)
A. Aru yo (あるよ, I have.)
The question uses the past-tense pattern ~ta koto aru to ask whether the other person has had the experience of doing something, and there’s not a shugo to be found. The word anata (あなた, you) is rarely used when addressing someone directly, but you can be certain the people in the conversation know exactly who the implied subject is. Feel free to leave the subject out of your direct questions.
If you absolutely must draw attention to the person you are addressing (or draw the attention of the person you are addressing), you should be aware of one of the all-time greatest secrets about the Japanese language: Using surnames is a Japanese way of saying “you.”
If, for example, the above conversation was taking place in a group of friends, or if you didn’t have the person’s attention, then you can use the surname to ask them the question: “Kobayashi-san, Yōroppa ni itta koto aru? (小林さん、ヨーロッパに行ったことある?; Have you been to Europe, Kobayashi-san?)”
Surnames are also excellent stand-ins for kare (彼, he), kanojo (彼女, she), kare no (彼の, his) and kanojo no (彼女の, her). While a sentence like “Kobayashi-san no musuko-san wa ima Doitsu de hataraite imasu (小林さんの息子さんは今ドイツで働いています; Kobayashi-san’s son is working in Germany now)” may seem to require the surname in English translation, if it came up in the middle of a conversation — once context had already been established — then “His son is working in Germany now” is a perfectly good way of thinking of the Japanese.
Beyond the actual shugo words themselves, Japanese has a number of clever mechanisms that help imply who the actors are in a sentence. One of these is X sō desu (Xそうです, “I heard X” or “Reportedly, X”). This little bunmatsu (文末, sentence-ending) nugget attaches to reported information to express that it is being relayed from another source.
For example, if someone were relaying what they’d heard on the weather report, they might say “Ashita ame ga furu sō desu (明日雨が降るそうです; I heard it’s going to rain tomorrow).”
“I heard” is kind of a forced substitute for how this pattern works. If context in a conversation has already been established, then X sō desu can really be thought of as an implied subject that means “He/she/they said X” or “He/she/they told me X.”
For example, take the following two sentences: “Kobayashi-san, yasumi wo totte Doitsu ni itte kita n desu yo. Asoko bīru ga totemo yasui sō desu. (小林さん、休みを取ってドイツに行ってきたんですよ。あそこビールがとても安いそうです; Kobayashi-san took some time off and went to Germany. He told me beer is really cheap there).”
The context tells us that the source of the information is Kobayashi-san himself, so there’s no need to think of sō desu as “I heard.” We know you heard and from whom you heard. This is much more efficient than trying to match the English, word for word, with some monstrosity like “Kare wa watashi ni asoko bīru ga totemo yasui to itta (彼は私にあそこビールがとても安いと言った”; literally, “He said to me that beer is really cheap there”). This is bad Japanese. Please forget it immediately.
Often in more katai (固い, formal) situations such as broadcast and written news, the source of the reporting is marked specifically at the beginning of the sentence with X ni yoru to (X によると, According to X). e.g. “Kishōchō ni yoru to, kotoshi no sakura kaika wa shigatsu tsuitachi ni naru sō desu (気象庁によると、今年の桜開花は四月一日になるそうです; According to the Japan Meteorological Agency, the cherry blossoms will open this year on April 1).”
X yō desu (Xようです; It seems [to me] that X) is another great bunmatsu phrase that can help efficiently convey information, except this information is the speaker’s subjective interpretation rather than sō desu, which is direct reportage.
If, for example, you’ve just moved to Japan and have been coping well with the cultural differences, your Japanese neighbor might compliment you by saying “Zuibun Nihon ni nareta yō desu ne (ずいぶん日本に慣れたようですね; It seems like you’ve adapted to Japan well).”
This allows for incredibly concise phrases such as “Okomari no yō desu ga (お困りのようですが; You seem to be having some trouble),” after which you can offer guidance or other services that may be necessary to whoever is having the trouble. Note the distinct lack of shugo thanks to the honorific keigo (敬語, polite speech), which implies a “you,” and the yō desu, which implies a “to me.”
And this is also a great way to politely ask whether a mistake has been made. Rather than shout “Kanjō ga machigatte iru! (勘定が間違っている!; There’s a mistake on the bill!),” you can just add yō desu ga to the end to convey that you have no presumptions — you’re not accusing anyone — but there does appear to be a mistake.
Gradually you’ll be able to leave behind the unnecessary subjects (and objects!) of your sentences using some of the excellent bunmatsu patterns built into the Japanese language.
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