Whose line is it anyway? Tips for deciphering dialogue in Japanese fiction

by Daniel Morales

Contributing Writer

Japanese wouldn’t be so hard if the characters made more sense. Yes, I mean 漢字 (kanji) and yes, I also mean 人物 (jinbutsu), the word used for characters in works of fiction.

Once you’ve mastered the former enough to be able to read some basic 小説 (shōsetsu, novels or short stories), your challenge then becomes trying to understand the fictional constructs of Japan’s creative minds.

Notably, you have to understand what these characters say to each other and even to themselves. Dialogue in Japanese fiction has its own set of rules, and if you’re not paying close attention, you may have trouble understanding who is saying what to whom.

直接引用 (chokusetsu inyō, direct quotation) is generally very easy to spot because it’s marked off in 鉤括弧 (kagi kakko, bracket quotation markers), which look like this: 「」.

What lies within the kagi kakko is important, obviously, as authors use both 口調 (kuchō, tone) and 会話の内容 (kaiwa no naiyō, content of the conversation) to build character and thus help readers differentiate the various people who inhabit their fiction. But there are other mechanisms Japanese authors use to clue in readers, and that’s what I’d like to hone in on here.

The most basic piece of language for this purpose is the 助詞 (joshi, particle) used to mark quotations: と (to). You find this sandwiched between the quoted content in kagi kakko and a verb that performs speech.

Haruki Murakami is sometimes criticized for overusing these speaker tags, the most basic of which is 「… 」と私は言った (「… 」 to watashi wa itta; “… ” I said). The frequency at times gives his writing a foreign feel, although it does make conversation easier to follow.

There are plenty more verbs that authors use to tag dialogue. You’ll encounter と聞く (to kiku, ask) and と尋ねる (to tazuneru, ask) when quoting a question, と答える (to kotaeru, answer) to provide a response, と叫ぶ (to sakebu, yell) to pump up the volume, と囁く (to sasayaku, whisper) if you don’t want to be overheard, and と口を挟む (to kuchi o hasamu, interject) if you want to interrupt someone.

These speaker tags are flexible. For example, in Hitomi Kanehara’s novel “蛇にピアス” (“Hebi ni Piasu,” “Snakes and Earrings”), she also uses plenty of dialogue without any tags at all and sometimes opts for a 改行 (kaigyō, line break) before noting who said it and how. Here is a good example, which begins with the narrator, Lui, stating her desire for a tattoo:

「刺青、やってみたいな」 (Irezumi, yatte mitai na, “I’d like to try getting a tattoo”).

「ほんとに?」 (Honto ni?, “Really?”)

シバさんとアマは声を揃えた (Shiba-san to Ama wa koe o soroeta, Shiba-san and Ama said in unison).

This isn’t a new trick at all. Natsume Soseki took advantage of it in his famous novel “こころ” (“Kokoro“), such as when the narrator follows Sensei to Zoshigaya Cemetery and surprises him at the grave he visits each month:

「どうして……、どうして……」 (Dōshite…, dōshite… ; “Why … why …”)

先生は同じ言葉を二遍繰り返した (Sensei wa onaji kotoba o nihen kurikaeshita, Sensei repeated the same word twice).

Japanese authors can even put the verb ahead of the dialogue, such as in the wonderfully strange short story “二階扉をつけて ください” (“Nikai Tobira o Tsukete Kudasai,”Please Install a Second-floor Door”) by Aki Misaki. After being notified by neighbors that he needs to have a “second-floor door” installed, the narrator negotiates with a bizarre contractor about the job:

彼はなぜだか用心深くあたりを見回し、さらに近寄ると、耳打ちするように言った (Kare wa naze da ka yōjinbukaku atari o mimawashi, sara ni chikayoru to, mimi-uchi suru yō ni itta; For some reason he looked around the area cautiously, came a little closer and said in almost a whisper).

「まぁ、私もあまり同業者の悪口を言うつもりはないのですが、結構色々トラブル聞いております よぉ」 (Mā, watashi mo amari dōgyōsha no warukuchi o iu tsumori wa nai no desu ga, kekkō iroiro toraburu kiite orimasu yō; “Well, I don’t want to talk bad about anyone in the same trade, but I’ve heard that they’ve had a good bit of trouble”).

Misaki follows this immediately with more 地の文 (ji no bun, narration) that gives readers a vivid image of this contractor: 男の口臭がかすかに漂う。私は、少し後ずさる (Otoko no kōshū ga kasuka ni tadayou. Watashi wa, sukoshi ato-zusaru; The man’s bad breath wafted over me. I retreated slightly).

Ji no bun is incredibly versatile, as it is in English, at helping authors nod toward the speaker without having to repeat often encountered dialogue tags. The one difference between the languages is that Japanese will, again, use a line break between the dialogue and the ji no bun rather than have them on the same line as in English.

Riku Onda has several good examples in her surreal short story “飛び出す、絵本” (“Tobidasu, Ehon”; “Flying Picture Books”). The characters spend their time trying to catch children’s books that are flying away. The narrator takes along a less experienced assistant but is very supportive, and his action gives readers the context they need to understand who is talking:

「いい絵本を捕まえたな」 (Ii ehon o tsukamaeta na, “You caught a great picture book”)

私は助手の肩を叩く (Watashi wa joshu no kata o tataku, I patted my assistant on the shoulder).

Japanese presents unique reading challenges. Vertically aligned script tires the eyes of new readers, and kanji are difficult to parse. These dialogue conventions are no different. Take a step back to look at the big picture, and see what the sentences before and after the dialogue might suggest.

Reading actively this way will give you the key to unlock Japanese dialogue.