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During the early stages of Japanese study, the language is often divided into words and phrases that are extremely concrete — lessons themed on topics such as 家族 (kazoku, family) or 動物 (dōbutsu, animal) to learn sets of vocabulary — and those that are more vague.

The vague category includes set phrases like お邪魔します (o-jama shimasu, literally “I will be a nuisance,” which you use when entering someone’s home) and よろしくお願いします (yoroshiku onegaishimau, literally “please treat me well,” used in a variety of situations such as when making a request).

The concrete words associate easily with information we already know and are relatively easy to store in mental memory banks. The vague phrases, which are often culturally specific, require repetitions and context to gain familiarity.

As time goes by, students eventually move on to other abstract concepts, ones that might not be so familiar to them even in their native tongues. For things like government and politics, abstract topics that have everyday importance, students must train their ears to hone in on certain sounds and also learn the specifics of the Japanese systems in order to make the abstract more concrete.

A critical first step is to begin associating sounds with meaning, which may seem obvious to the point of meaninglessness. But by proactively thinking of sounds separately from the written script, students can prime their brains for encounters with abstract concepts in the wild.

Take, for example, 自治体 (jichitai, municipalities), the basic unit of Japanese government. While conglomerate nouns like 都道府県 (todōfuken, prefectures) and 市町村 (shichōson, cities, towns and villages) are made up of concrete individual units, students need to recognize how these units are recombined with other sounds.

内 (Nai, Within), 外 (gai, outside) and 中 (chū/, throughout) are frequently combined with these units to describe things in relation to a geographical unit. For example, 市中感染 (shichū kansen, spread of infection through a city) has been in the news recently, and the government asked people to refrain from 県外帰省 (kengai kisei, returning to a hometown outside of the prefecture) during the お盆 (o-Bon) holiday period earlier this month.

Learning these as independent sounds has also been useful to understand the ever-changing 緊急事態宣言 (kinkyū jitai sengen, state of emergency declaration) headlines. 4府県 (Yon-fuken, Four prefectures), for example, would mean that four 県 (ken, prefectures), at least one of which is Osaka or Kyoto (designated by 府 [fu]), are under the state of emergency, whereas 3道県 (san-dōken, three prefectures) would include three, one of which is Hokkaido (designated by 道 []). The inclusion of 都 (to, metropolis) would refer to Tokyo, and 県 refers to any other prefecture.

The mutability of these expressions underscores the importance of keeping your ears limber for new combinations of familiar sounds.

Other useful sounds to orient yourself in Japanese politics are 党 (, party), 派 (ha, faction/wing/camp) and 翼 (tsubasa, wing), which is pronounced よく (yoku) in compounds.

While each party in Japan has particular names, most end in 党, and in news reporting you need to be ready to understand 与党 (yotō, ruling party) and 野党 (yatō, opposition party) as shorthand for the factions in and out of power.

As in English, the spectrum of political beliefs is represented by the directions 左 (hidari, left) and 右 (migi, right), but in compounds these are pronounced さ (sa) and う (u) respectively, as in 左派 (saha, left faction) and 右派 (uha, right faction) or 左翼 (sayoku, left wing) and 右翼 (uyoku, right wing). The content of each side’s political beliefs can also be combined with 派, such as 保守派 (hoshuha, conservative faction) and 革新派 (kakushinha, reform faction).

Once you have your auditory bearings, the other strategy to make Japanese politics more concrete is to educate yourself about the specifics of how things work in Japan.

Corey Wallace, an assistant foreign languages professor at Kanagawa University, notes that his background in politics more broadly helped him make sense of Japanese government. “However,” he says, “things like the 自民党 (Jimintō, Liberal Democratic Party) terms and shorthand required more attention because the party system works quite differently here from the American, Westminster or even the Chinese system that I was more familiar with.”

Fortunately, the LDP provides official translations on its website. The list is full of 局 (kyoku, bureaus) and 会 (kai, groups/councils) as well as 長 (chō, head of/chief), which gets attached to these words and signifies the leaders of the various groups, committees and bureaus. These are important sounds to be familiar with.

In newspapers, Wallace adds that words like 政務調査会 (Seimuchōsakai, Policy Research Council) are often abbreviated like many Japanese words to the first two characters in each of the two-character words that make up the larger compound, in this case 政調 (Seichō).

Tobias Harris, senior fellow for Asia at the Center for American Progress, recommends the book “全図解日本のしくみ” (“Zenzukai Nihon no Shikumi,” “The Complete Guide to Japanese Systems”) as a way to learn about Japanese government.

As students educate themselves, they also need to learn the specific content of political conversations. With the past 安倍政権 (Abe seiken, [Shinzo] Abe administration), this would have included topics like official visits to 靖国神社 (Yasukuni Jinja, Yasukuni Shrine), which enshrines Japanese war dead, and 9条 (Kyū-jō, Article 9) of the 憲法 (Kenpō, Constitution), which renounces the use of war.

For the current 菅政権 (Suga seiken, [Yoshihide] Suga administration), it would obviously include the Japanese shorthand for Olympics, 五輪 (gorin, literally “five rings”), as well as strategies to combat COVID-19 like まん延防止等重点措置 (Man’en bōshi tō jūten sochi, semi-emergency priority measures to prevent mass infection).

We also need to be aware that what politicians say and what they actually mean can be very different at times. When I asked Wallace and Harris about political vocabulary that would be helpful for students of Japanese, without being prompted they both gave the same first response: 慎重に考える (Shinchō ni kangaeru, Consider carefully). “It really means ‘something we’re dead set against,’” Wallace says.

Understanding global politics clearly isn’t as simple as knowing all the individual words. But you can put yourself in a stronger position by training your ears and digging into the specifics of the systems in Japan so that you won’t be as thrown off by the realization that politics, wherever you are, is equal parts art and science.

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