Coronavirus has once and for all nixed spectator attendance at the 東京五輪 (Tōkyō Gorin, Tokyo Olympics), including the 開会式 (kaikaishiki, opening ceremony), save for a few 偉い人 (erai hito, bigwigs).

As much of a downer as the run-up to the オリンピックの開幕 (Orinpikku no kaimaku, start of the Olympics) has been, the simple concept of beginning can open up a treasure trove of useful Japanese.

Interestingly, neither of the primary two kanji that mean “beginning” are used in the word 開会式. The 開 (kai/hira/a) kanji does mean “opening,” though, and fits into a variety of useful words about beginning: 開会 (kaikai, opening), 開設 (kaisetsu, establishment/setting up), 開幕 (kaimaku, raising the curtain), 開始 (kaishi, start), 開催 (kaisai, holding or hosting) and 開かれる (hirakareru, to be open), are all used for the beginnings of different occasions.

Which one you use depends on context: 展覧会が開催される (Tenrankai ga kaisai sareru, An exhibition will be held) or 新しい唐揚げ屋が開かれる (atarashii karaage-ya ga hirakareru, a new fried chicken shop is opened), for example. For the Olympics, we raise the curtains: オリンピック開幕の後に、様々なスポーツの競技会が開始する (Orinpikku kaimaku no ato ni, sama-zamana supōtsu no kyōgikai ga kaishi suru, After the curtain is raised on the Olympics, various sports competitions will begin).

Let’s talk about the two kanji that literally mean “beginning,” though: 始 (shi/haji) and 初 (sho/haji/hatsu). Besides their different readings, there’s little difference in the meaning. However, 始 is found more often in words about starting and beginning, whereas 初 is found more often in words about first times. In case you were wondering, the ubiquitous はじめまして (hajimemashite, nice to meet you), is typically written in hiragana.

Both 始 and 初 can be used in はじめ (hajime). When you see 始め (hajime), it usually means beginning, start or opening, whereas 初め (hajime) typically refers to the first (first action, first person, etc.). 初 goes on to be used in just about every first you can imagine: 最初 (saisho, the very first), 初日 (shonichi, first date/premiere), 初代 (shodai, first generation), 初演 (shoen, first performance), 初耳 (hatsumimi, first time hearing) and 初恋 (hatsukoi, first love). It can also be found in words like 初級 (shokyū, beginner level), 年初 (nensho, beginning of the year) and the commonly heard 初めて (hajimete, first [of anything]).

The verb “to begin,” however, uses the 始 kanji in two different forms: The intransitive verb 始まる (hajimaru) and the transitive verb 始める (hajimeru).

As an intransitive verb, 始まる can be used when the subject itself is starting: 今週、東京五輪が始まりました (Konshū, Tōkyō Gorin ga hajimarimashita, This week, the Tokyo Olympics began).

始める, on the other hand, is used when the subject is starting something (an object): 選手がウォーミングアップを始める (senshu ga uōminguappu o hajimeru, the athletes will begin the warm-up). In that example, the athletes are the subject and the warm-up is the object. 始める can also be attached to other transitive verbs to mean “start doing,” such as with 食べ始める (tabehajimeru, to start eating), 運び始める (hakobihajimeru, to start carrying) or し始める (shihajimeru, to start doing).

Other words that use 始 include 始動 (shidō, starting/activation), 原始 (genshi, origin), 始業 (shigyō, start of work), 創始 (sōshi, founding) and 始祖 (shiso, founder): 近代オリンピックの始祖は、後に「近代オリンピックの父」と呼ばれるピエール・ド・フレディである (Kindai Orinpikku no shiso wa, nochi ni “kindai Orinpikku no chichi” to yobareru Piēru do Furedi de aru, The founder of the modern Olympics is Pierre de Fredy, who was later known as the “father of the modern Olympic Games”).

But 初, 始 and 開 are just the beginning of the beginnings. There are several other useful grammatical expressions worth adding to your repertoire.

When beginning a new habit or routine, the structure ことにする (koto ni suru, to start doing/to make a habit or rule) comes in handy. This structure describes a new activity or pattern that you are starting or have started of your own volition: オリンピックの間に、毎日一時間ぐらいイベントを見ることにする (Orinpikku no aida ni, mainichi ichi-jikan gurai ibento o miru koto ni suru, During the Olympics, I’m going to watch the events for about an hour a day). Or, in the past tense: 去年、オリンピックの間は東京を避けることにしたけど、観客がいないから今年は気にする必要はないだろう (Kyonen, Orinpikku no aida wa Tōkyō o sakeru koto ni shita kedo, kankyaku ga inai kara kotoshi wa ki ni suru hitsuyō wa nai darō, Last year, I decided to avoid Tokyo during the Olympics, but this year, maybe it won’t be necessary to worry about because there aren’t spectators).

For new beginnings that are not your choice, ことになる (koto ni naru, to be decided/to start doing) does the job. Use ことになる for new routines or patterns that have been started in general or applied to your life. For example, オリンピックの間は在宅ワークをすることになる (Orinpikku no aida wa zaitaku wāku o suru koto ni naru, It has been decided that I’ll be working from home during the Olympics.) Or simply, オリンピックを観に行けないことになった (Orinpikku o mi ni ikenai koto ni natta, I can’t go to see the Olympics anymore.)

When the opening ceremony airs on television tonight, Olympics organizers are most likely hoping for a fresh start when it comes to public perception. それでも、新しい日本語を使い始めない言い訳にはならない (Sore demo, atarashii Nihongo o tsukaihajimenai iiwake ni wa naranai, Regardless, it’s not an excuse to not start using new Japanese).

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