In some Japanese sentences, it’s all relative

by Peter Backhaus

Contributing Writer

One of the major properties that distinguishes human language from other forms of animal communication such as a bee’s dance or a crow’s caw is recursion, or the ability to embed one sentence within another. A prototypical example of this capacity is relative clauses, such as “The article that I’m about to read doesn’t look very interesting.”

Before you stop reading entirely, you must have a look at the corresponding Japanese version of this sentence: 今読もうとしている 記事はあまり面白くなさそうだ (Ima yomō to shiteiru kiji wa amari omoshirokunasa-sō da). Whereas in English, a fairly complex syntactical operation is required to combine the two sentences “I’m about to read the article” and “The article doesn’t look very interesting,” things are far easier in Japanese: Simply take the first sentence as is and insert it before the second, just as you would do with an ordinary adjective. Literally translated, that gives you something like “The now-about-to-read article doesn’t look very interesting.”

The whole thing is so simple that it’s somewhat dubious to call it a relative clause in the first place. In fact, specialists on the topic prefer the term “general noun-modifying clause construction,” which is certainly more accurate — if slightly clumsier.

Whatever you call it, the phenomenon is by no means limited to Japanese. It also occurs in quite a number of other languages, including Korean, Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese. However, it seems particularly common in Japanese, where it is capable of holding together an amazingly complex array of contents.

In a recent paper, Yoshiko Matsumoto, professor of linguistics at Stanford University and one of the world’s authorities on the topic, presents a number of real-world examples that bring this point home.

For instance, 頭が良くなる本 (atama ga yoku naru hon) is a “book that makes you smart,” 太らないお菓子 (futoranai o-kashi), refers to a “sweet that won’t make you gain weight” and, one of my favorites, トイレに行けないコマーシャル (toire ni ikenai komāsharu) is a TV ad that’s so exciting it won’t let you go to the toilet during the commercial break.

The greatest difference with the English language is that in Japanese, the proper comprehension of such phrases is left pretty much to the discretion of the person who hears them. In principle, the above three examples could just as well be about books that become smart, sweets that never put on weight and commercials that can’t go to the toilet. No grammatical restrictions prevent such interpretations, but common sense and world knowledge, hopefully, will.

One of the most interesting examples Matsumoto cites is the newspaper headline: 破る巨人 (yaburu kyojin), where the noun kyojin (giant, or in this case, the Yomiuri Giants) is modified by the preceding verb yaburu (defeat). The headline appeared in both the Tokyo and the Osaka edition of a nationwide paper, obviously intending to trigger two fundamentally opposite readings.

For the people in Tokyo, where the Giants are based, it was meant to read “The Giants, who will beat the other team,” whereas the Osaka audience, likely Hanshin Tigers fans, was supposed to understand the headline as “The Giants, who will be beaten by our team.” Win or lose — it’s as relative as a Japanese relative clause.

The relative clause may also be upgraded to the desu/masu style where more formal language is required. Thus, a person who has just been introduced to make a speech — let’s call him Tanaka — will often start with the set phrase ただ今ご紹介に預かりました田中 です (Tadaima go-shōkai ni azukarimashita Tanaka desu, “I’m the just-introduced Tanaka”). Or take this example from a public transport announcement: お急ぎの方は後に参ります電車をご利用ください (O-isogi no kata wa ato ni mairimasu densha o go-riyō kudasai), which says that passengers in a hurry should not use the incoming train but the “after-that-arriving” one.

As Daniel Morales pointed out last week in this column, relative clauses can and do work as complete sentences. They are not only prominent in travel guides, but also a favorite rhetorical device in sports commentary. They occur in both formal and informal style, and prototypically modify a player or team name. Two examples from recent soccer matches: またゴールを狙って いきますニッポン (Mata gōru o neratte ikimasu Nippon, “Japan aims for another goal”) and, somewhat more epic, スタジアムが揺れる ような大歓声の中でチャンスを作り出してきた 本田 (Sutajiamu ga yureru yō na daikansei no naka de chansu o tsukuridashite-kita Honda, “[Keisuke] Honda has created a chance amid huge cheering that makes the stadium shake”). A whole story contained within a single relative clause!

Even imperatives can be remodeled into relative clauses. For instance, a widely used poster from the National Police Agency stipulates as follows: けん銃を持つな持たすな 社会の目 (Kenjū o motsuna motasuna shakai no me), which roughly translates to something like: “The eyes of a society that says ‘Don’t own or make others own firearms!'”

I hope these examples have convinced you that the Japanese relative clause is a puzzling but quite captivating construction. If you made it this far, you may consider this article a 途中で止めなかった記事 (tochū de yamenakatta kiji), an article you didn’t give up on halfway through.