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It’s been almost a year since Japan started implementing school closures and event cancellations to prevent the spread of 新型コロナウイルス (shingata koronauirusu, novel coronavirus).

ちょうど去年の今頃、楽しみにしていた博物館の展示がコロナのせいで中止になりました (Chōdo kyonen no imagoro, tanoshimi ni shite-ita hakubutsukan no tenji ga korona no sei de chūshi ni narimashita, Just around this time last year, a museum exhibition I was looking forward to was canceled because of COVID-19).

There’s now a little bit of hope. 世界中の科学者の努力のおかげで、ワクチンが開発されています (Sekaijū no kagakusha no doryoku no okage de, wakuchin ga kaihatsu sarete-imasu, Thanks to [because of] the efforts of scientists around the world, vaccines have been developed).

Both of the Japanese sentences above describe a cause-and-effect relationship, though their sentiments are quite different. Before we break down the grammatical structures, let’s do some reading practice. Take a look at the paragraphs below and see if you can spot any similar terms in them that were used earlier in this article. Also note, a few words pop up more than once, including 新製品 (shinseihin, new product), 発売日 (hatsubaibi, the day a product goes on sale) and 佐藤さん (Satō-san, Mr. Sato):

新型コロナウイルスのせいで、自分が勤めている会社の新製品の開発が遅れてしまって、決まっていた発売日までに完成できそうにありませんでした。発売日を延期することになると、既に用意されていた宣伝素材を作り直す必要があるという懸念がありました。

ただ、同僚の佐藤さんが一週間残業をして頑張ってくれたおかげで、発売日までに新製品を完成させることが出来ました。我々は本当に佐藤さんに助けられました。

(Shingata koronauirusu no sei de, jibun ga tsutomete-iru kaisha no shinseihin no kaihatsu ga okurete-shimatte, kimatte-ita hatsubaibi made ni kansei dekisō ni arimasen deshita. Hatsubaibi o enki suru koto ni naru to, sude ni yōi sarete-ita senden sozai o tsukurinaosu hitsuyō ga aru to iu kenen ga arimashita.

Tada, dōryō no Satō-san ga isshūkan zangyō o shite ganbatte-kureta okage de, hatsubaibi made ni shinseihin o kansei saseru koto ga dekimashita. Ware-ware wa hontō ni Satō-san ni tasukeraremashita.)

That was a lot to read through, but ask yourself the following questions to test your comprehension: What was the problem in the first paragraph? Why did that problem occur? In the second paragraph, Mr. Sato is introduced. Who is he? What did he do? Did he do something negative or positive?

Take a moment before we discuss the answers. Are you ready? Let’s get into it! The main problem is that the 開発 (kaihatsu, development) of the 会社の (kaisha no, company’s) 新製品 was late. Why did that occur? Because of the 新型コロナウイルス. That meant the company had to consider postponing the first day of sales, which would also mean they’d have to fix the 宣伝素材 (senden sozai, publicity materials).

In the second paragraph, the speaker’s 同僚 (dōryō, coworker) is 佐藤さん. Because he worked 残業 (zangyō, overtime) for one week, the company was able to meet the deadline for the 発売日.

What are the terms that connect the reading paragraphs to the ones that introduced this article? You may notice the same English translation taking place — “because of.”

In Japanese, there are two words that you can use to convey this idea: せい (sei) and おかげ (okage). While they can both be translated as “because of,” they are opposite in nuance. せいで (Sei de) has a negative feeling behind it, one of blame. You can see this in the examples above that cite 新型コロナウイルス as the reason for our problems. Conversely, おかげで (okage de) has a positive feeling behind it, a sense of gratitude. As such, it was translated as “thanks to” in the example that explains how scientists’ efforts have led to the development of vaccines. It is then used to express gratitude to Mr. Sato for working overtime and saving the day at the company.

With the meaning of these two words sorted out, let’s take a look at how they can be placed into a sentence:

最近、残業が多かったせいで疲れています (Saikin, zangyō ga ōkatta sei de tsukarete-imasu, Recently, because of so much overtime, I’m exhausted).

僕たちが負けたのはあなたのせいだよ (Boku-tachi ga maketa no wa anata no sei da yo, It’s your fault that we lost).

先生のおかげで日本語能力試験に合格出来ました (Sensei no okage de Nihongo nōryoku shiken ni gōkaku dekimashita, I was able to pass the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test all thanks to my teacher).

雨が止んだおかげで予定通りにピクニック出来そう (Ame ga yanda okage de yoteidōri ni pikunikku dekisō, Since the rain stopped it seems like we can have a picnic like we planned).

As seen in the examples above, both せい and おかげ follow the plain forms of verbs and adjectives as is, but are connected to nouns using the particle の.

Another way to use おかげ will allow you to be sarcastic in a negative way.

森会長が女性についての不適切な発言をしてくれたおかげでオリンピックの開催が更に大変なことになってきた。(Mori kaichō ga jōsei ni tsuite no futekisetsuna hatsugen o shite-kureta okage de Orinpikku no kaisai ga sara ni taihenna koto ni natte kita, Thanks to Olympic Chief Mori making inappropriate comments about women, holding the Olympics is going to be even more difficult).

This sarcastic phrasing can be interpreted as a stronger version of せい.

Now that you’ve learned these two words, you can make your feelings about a situation, and the reason behind it, crystal clear. If you want to produce a more neutral “because,” you can always fall back on the word から, which connects to the plain form of adjectives and verbs but does not connect to nouns.

今月の11日は祝日ですからゆっくり寝られます (Kongetsu no jūichi-nichi wa shukujitsu desu kara yukkuri neraremasu, The 11th of this month is a holiday, so I can sleep in).

昨日、雷がうるさかったからよく寝られませんでした (Kinō, kaminari ga urusakatta kara yoku neraremasen deshita, Yesterday, the thunder was very loud, so I wasn’t able to sleep well).

As a final test of comprehension, which of these two sentences could be rewritten with おかげ and which could be rewritten with せい?

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