Wherever you go in Japanese, you’ll always find your ‘tokoro’

by Peter Backhaus

Contributing Writer

There’s a very special “place” in Japanese and it’s called 所 (tokoro). In combination with other kanji, it also goes by しょ (sho) or じょ (jo), as in 場所 (basho, place/spot) or 近所 (kinjo, neighborhood). But it’s the tokoro reading that has the widest applicability for designating places — and many other things, as we will see. In fact, we could even say that tokoro in Japanese is all over the place.

We start our little tour in the kitchen, called 台所 (daidokoro; literally, “pedestal place”). And even though the other rooms in the house do not have specific tokoro designations, they can all be paraphrased with a tokoro expression: テレビを見る所 (terebi o miru tokoro, place where you watch TV), ご飯を食べる所 (gohan o taberu tokoro, place where you eat), 昼寝する所 (hirune suru tokoro, place where you take a nap), and so on.

When you leave the house you can either head for 近い所 (chikai tokoro, places close-by) or 遠い所 (tōi tokoro, faraway places). You can also choose between よく行く所 (yoku iku tokoro, places you often go) and 行ったことのない所 (itta koto no nai tokoro, places you have never been to). Just keep in mind the old saying, 所変われば品変わる (Tokoro kawareba shina kawaru): “Different places, different customs.”

Where the Japaneseness of a place is to be emphasized, tokoro is sometimes written with a different kanji, 処. This is probably most frequently encountered in そば処 (soba-dokoro), which designates a soba restaurant.

Frequent or occasional viewers of weather forecasts must have come across the standard phrases 所々で雨 (tokoro-dokoro de ame) and 所により雨 (tokoro ni yori ame), both of which mean that there will be rain in some places but not others. Take an umbrella, just in case.

But that’s not all you can do with tokoro — in fact, it’s nowhere near it. Because apart from its spatial meaning, the term has also acquired a time dimension. This can be spotted in collocations like 今のところ (ima no tokoro, at the moment/as of now) or the apology ingredient ご多忙のところ (go-tabō no tokoro, [I know] you are awfully busy right now), which are clearly about time, not space. Note that in such contexts, the term is usually spelled in hiragana rather than kanji.

Temporal tokoro loves to nestle into verbs. For instance, when you are just about to eat it’s 今食べるところ (ima taberu tokoro). By contrast, when the verb changes to the progressive — 今食べているところ (ima tabete-iru tokoro) — you are right in the middle of the meal. This latter construction also occurs in negated sentences used to point out the untimeliness of an action: 今は食事どころじゃない (Ima wa shokuji dokoro ja nai, This is no time to be eating).

When tokoro shows up at the beginning of a sentence, it is crucial to check the particle that follows. There are two options, and these have entirely different effects.

Firstly, ところが (tokora ga), which for some reason I could never quite figure out means “but.” For instance, 道を尋ねた。ところが、誰も教えてくれなかった (Michi o tazuneta. Tokoro ga, dare mo oshiete kurenakatta; “I asked for the way, but nobody would tell me”). Secondly, there is ところで (tokoro de), which means “by the way” and is really useful when introducing topics that are only remotely related to the present conversation.

However, be aware that ところで will lose all of its “by the way” qualities when it is attached directly to a verb. In such cases, it ends up meaning something like “even if” or “no matter how”: いくら泣いたところで何も変わらないよ (Ikura naita tokoro de nani mo kawaranai yo; No matter how much you cry, it won’t change a thing).

At this point, finally, we have moved beyond place or time coordinates and into entirely subjective spheres. This holds even more true for our final stop in the galaxy, the voiced どころか (dokoro ka). It is used to articulate that something is not quite as expected, and thus commonly conveys a grain (or two) of indignation.

It comes in two basic patterns. One is an upgrade of some (positive or negative) state, in which case どころか translates as something like “not just X but even Y.” The second pattern expresses that in fact, the contrary of some state is true, which is best translatable with a “far from” construction. (Note the same “spatial” background in “far” and tokoro).

Here are two simple examples from the web. First of all, the grade-up mechanism: 暑いどころか猛暑日だ (Atsui dokoro ka, mōshobi da; It’s not just hot but a day of scorching heat). And then there’s the contrary meaning: 暑いどころか肌寒いくらいだ (Atsui dokoro ka, hadasamui kurai da; Far from hot, it’s rather chilly).

And with that we conclude our little voyage into the universe of tokoro. We hope you enjoyed the ride and look forward to seeing you again, here or 別の所で (betsu no tokoro de, at a different place).