Motivation: Find something that exists only in Japanese

Among the usual advice given to language learners is the idea that one should pursue one’s field of interest in the target language. For example, if you like history, try to read history books in Japanese, if you like cooking, try this Japanese recipe, and so on.

I am following this advice, of course, but even if it makes the learning process more enjoyable, it does not prevent me to feel demotivated from time to time.

For example, I am interested in Japanese modern history. What I can do is buy a History book for children with illustrations and try to read it. If I want to learn more about a historical event, I can try to understand the Wikipedia page in Japanese. But to be honest, I think I would finally give up and read what I want to know in English.

This kind of method always leaves me with a demotivation phase after the euphoria of the first days. I think that there are two reasons for this:

  • either I don’t really want to understand the content of what I am reading, I am reading it only to improve my Japanese (this is true for example when it comes to books for children or contents that I already know),
  • or the information I want to obtain can be easily accessible in English, so why bother? (I always try to read the Wikipedia page in Japanese but I soon switch to the English one)

But there is an even deeper reason why I experience demotivation: I am using what I like as a tool to improve my Japanese. The language, because I am learning it, becomes a goal in itself. But that’s strange because languages are only tools that convey information, that allow us to communicate. The language should be the tool that allows me to understand this Wikipedia page in Japanese, not the other way around.

Of course, when learning a foreign language, there is no choice but to read or listen to a lot of various material in order to increase one’s language skills. But if you do only that, you may experience demotivation and lack of interest.

To re-boost your motivation, I suggest that you should choose something you really want to understand, something for which you have a great interest and, more importantly, something that exists only in Japanese. Do not concern yourself too much with level. Even if the material is far too complicated for your actual Japanese, it doesn’t matter. The idea is not to understand this material but to want to understand it. This desire will refuel your motivation. If you can, try to study this material. You will see that it won’t feel like studying at all, it will be a lot of fun. If it is really too difficult, try to recognize at least the words you know, and you will see that you can figure out some of the contents. Keep that material for later and in the meanwhile, think that you are studying to be able to understand it one day.

Confront yourself from time to time with material you choose for their contents only, not for their ability to teach you Japanese.

We could sum-up with this scheme:

study vs motivation

I am reading all kind of things in Japanese to improve my Japanese: this is the regular studying course.

It is only when I realize that I need to improve my Japanese in order to read things (I really want to read) in Japanese that I refuel my motivation.

To give an example, some days ago, I came across a radio program about air-raid on Japan at the end of World War II. I really wanted to listen to this documentary (which was, in fact, an interview) and I listened to it again and again until I was able to thoroughly understand what was said. It took me a lot of time and efforts but I really enjoyed it. For once, I wasn’t studying Japanese, I was using it. At the end, I was not able to understand everything, but I was more motivated than ever. If I study hard, next year, when Japan commemorates the end of the Pacific War, I may be able to understand radio programs without even think about it.

My actual motivation source is the novel「シャーロック・ホームズ対伊藤博文」by 松岡圭祐 that I received as a present some days ago. I would not have bought it myself since it is way too complicated for my level, but I am very glad I have it, even if I can’t read it now.

As far as I can tell, this novel tells the story of how Sherlock Holmes, during the three years of disappearance that followed the Reichenbach fall, went to Japan and met Ito Hirobumi. Together, they worked on the Otsu Incident. As I love the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and am interested in Japan modern history, I can’t wait to read this book! At first, I was shocked by the idea that Sherlock Holmes went to Japan and met Ito Hirobumi, but now I am just very impatient to know what will happen. This is really a novel I want to read for the story it tells, not to improve my Japanese. Unfortunately, I tried to read the first chapter and I am overwhelmed with unknown words. But as I said earlier, the desire to read this book is more important – in terms of motivation – than actually reading it. I put the book on my Japanese shelf and every time I spot its cover I am motivated to learn more and more words to make my way through reading fluency. I know that some day, I will pick up this novel and realize that I am actually able to read it!

舟を編む・ふねをあむ Part 1

Reference: 舟を編む、三浦しをん、光文社、2015

I am beginning a new book, and I chose 舟を編む・ふねをあむ by 三浦しをん・みうらしをん because it deals with dictionary compiling, a world I don’t know much about but that I find interesting. The novel was adapted into an anime and a film. To learn more about the novel and the story, have a look at my previous post on the subject.

In these reading notes, I will only focus on difficult expressions and words and occasionally work on some challenging extracts. If you are learning Japanese and want to read this novel (which is not that easy), I think this notes might help you. The pagination I give refers to the reference mentioned above.


To begin with, a list of all the characters that appear in this first part.


The novel opens with Araki as a child and describes his love for words and words’ meaning. We learn how he got his very first dictionary and how he finally started to work at the publishing house 玄武消防・げんぶしょうぼう. Then, the novel pack 37 years in a line break and we meet Araki again, announcing to 松本先生, the head of the dictionary-compiling department, that he desires to go into retirement because his wife’s health is bad. He promises to find himself a successor before the date of his retirement. Their dialogue is the opening scene of the film.


I am not sure, but I think we can call Professor Matsumoto, the head of the “dictionary-compiling department”. Although of a great age, he is still working, and I think that he expected Araki to do the same.


A colleague at the dictionary compiling department. From what we learn from a reflexion of Araki page 26, he is a relaxed young man for whom accuracy and words’ meaning is definitively not a question of life and death (see how he defined the word “island”).


Majime works in the sales department of the same company. He feels very uncomfortable with people and loves dictionaries. When Araki hears about him, he thinks that Majime could well be his successor. Majime enters the dictionary-compiling department and becomes the protagonist of our novel (although, during this first part of the novel, Araki is the main character).


A female colleague at the dictionary department. She edits and classifies the 用例採集カード.



玄武書房 is the name of the company where our compilers work. 書房 can mean “bookstore” and “publishing company”. 玄武書房 is a rather big publishing company with over 500 employees (p. 14). They have a sales department (where Majime works), and we learn from Nishioka p. 18 that the employees make a round of bookshops. I assume that they go to bookshops to sell the books published by the company (in the film, we can see a scene where Majime is trying to get a bookshop owner’s attention).


The “dictionary-compiling” Department of Genbu publishers is located in an annexe building 別館・べっかん, on the 2nd floor.


A restaurant where the team is used to gathering and where they celebrate the welcome party 歓迎会・かんげいかい of Majime.

Important words


用例採集カード are cards where the compilers write down every new word or every new usage of a word they come across in their everyday life. If you have seen the film, you know how important they are in the story. Professor Matsumoto always has 用例採集カード with him, even while eating lunch he still writes down every new word that enters his ears (p.11).

Tips to understand the story

いぬ p. 5, 6

At the very beginning of the story, we see the young Araki fascinated with the meanings of the word “dog”. Other than the common meaning of “dog”, Araki learns in a film that “dog” can also mean “spy”. “Dog” really means “spy”, but it doesn’t seem to be widely used. Out of curiosity, I have checked the Japanese trailer of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, but the word mole was either translated as スパイ or even もぐら (mole). Maybe 犬 is only used in a Japanese context?

As Araki soon learns, “dog” also means “useless” 無駄・むだ, a strong contrast to the common association between “dog” and 忠犬・ちゅうけん, “faithful dog”.

ちんちん p.12

Araki and professor Matsumoto are talking about their first dictionary. Araki teases professor Matsumoto, asking if his first dictionary was 色っぽい・いろっぽい, which doesn’t mean “colourful” but “sexy”, “erotic”, “provocative”.

Araki then recalls how he, as a kid, used to search for シモガかった言葉. シモ here is 下・しも and refers to “one’s private parts”, “the genitals”. 下掛る・しもがかる means “talk about something indecent”, “talk dirty”. He then admits that he was sometimes disappointed and give the example of ちんちん. His dictionary only gave the meanings of “begging (for a dog)” and “the sound of boiling water”. As I didn’t know the other meaning of this word, I had to look it up to understand Araki’s remark. ちんちん is a children word to say “penis”, I guess you would say a willy in English.

しま p. 25

The film (and from extracts I saw, the anime) has skipped this passage. When Araki first meet Majime, he does not only ask him to define 右・みぎ but also しま. Majime then asks which しま Araki is referring to. As there were some words I didn’t know, I made some research:

  • ストライプ:written as 縞, しま means “stripe.”
  • アイランド: island, 島, the first (and only) meaning that came to mind to 西岡 (and myself).
  • 志摩・しま is a city in the Kansai region
  • よこしま means devious, getting out of the right path. さかしま means “reverse”, it’s used to translate the title “à rebours” by Huysmans.
  • 揣摩臆測・しまおくそく is a fourth character expression that means “giving one’s imagination full play without any ground”.
  • 四魔・しま are four demons of Buddhism 仏教・ぶっきょう

When trying to define the world 島・しま, Majime notes that it should take into account the meaning “ヤクザの縄張り” (やくざのなわばり) which means “Yakuza turf”. 縄張り・なわばり means “sphere of influence”, “domain”, “turf” or “territory”. To understand Majime’s remark, I had to check a Japanese dictionary myself. The word “島” is really used to refer to a ヤクザの縄張り.

土左衛門・どざえもん p.26

Nishioka defined an island as something floating on the water, and Araki asked him if a 土左衛門 was supposed to be an island too. I didn’t know this word, so I looked it up, and it means “a drowned body”.

Araki’s sarcasm is made clear, but the word in itself is so strange that I have checked its etymology. If I understand correctly, 土左衛門 is the name of a rikishi, a professional sumo wrestler, who lived in the first half of the 18th century. It is said that his name was used to describe a drowned person because of 土左衛門’s appearance… Even if I can perceive the reason of the comparison, it is still a weird association, I think…

When I searched the internet for this word, I found an article advising that one should not mix up 土左衛門 with ドラえもん, which is an even more weird association, haha.

Going from drowned bodies to sumo wrestlers to Doraemon bought me very far from the novel…

大渡海 vs 大都会 p.27

Araki asks Majime to put all his strength into だいとかい. He means the 大渡海, the new dictionary the team is about to start compiling. But, when hearing だいとかい, Majime takes it to be the song 「大都会」by the group クリスタルキング. The song was released in 1979. You have to listen to the song to understand what the 「あ~あぁ~!」 of Majime stands for!


The first part was not very long, and even if it took me some time to get into the story, it was not that difficult after all. I found the encounter between Araki and Majime hilarious in the novel (much more than the same scene in the film), but to me, the charm of the novel reveals itself only with a great amount of vocabulary search. Nonetheless, reading this book is very pleasant!

Daily Japanese study: JLPT N2, First month recap

I started at the beginning of August to study for the JLPT N2 which will take place on December 3rd. Today, the registration opened and I have just applied! It makes things more concrete to be registered.

If you are not familiar with the JLPT, have a look at this post by Kotobites, it explains everything you need to know to get started.

It’s already been a month now since I have started to work with the Shin Kanzen series and I think that one month is a good time to do a little recap of how I have been doing so far. I will focus on regularity.

To be honest, I haven’t been studying according to my plan. At the end of the month, I have done what I had planned to do, but I can’t say that I have studied every single day. First, I have been ill and unable to open a book for some days and there also were days when I didn’t feel like studying at all.

It is not a catastrophe to miss a day or two, but one should absolutely study hard to make up the late schedule, even if it means sacrificing a whole Sunday for the sake of Japanese learning. At least, you will be able to attack the next week with conviction.

There is a subtle equilibrium to find when preparing for the JLPT without any other motivation than testing oneself. On the one hand, if you study Japanese as a hobby, it should remain pleasant and it would be sad to suffer from stress because of the JLPT, but, on the other, passing the test requires a lot of study hours, and you can’t allow yourself to fall behind schedule.

I try to find this equilibrium by analysing why I don’t feel like studying on certain days. Is it just laziness? In this case, I will encourage myself to study anyway. At the end, I will feel relieved and proud to have stuck to my schedule. But some days, I don’t have the motivation at all to study.

Even if I enjoy doing things in Japanese (reading, watching films, etc.), those JLPT preparatory books are just studying material. One has to concentrate, take notes, memorize, do exercises… It can be enjoyable but it can be laborious too. In those days when I feel bored with vocabulary/grammar/kanji ingestion, I don’t open my books and take time to read my novel in Japanese instead. By doing this, I am confronted with a lot of unknown words, unfamiliar structures or on the contrary, familiar ones that I know because I learnt them while studying for the JLPT. This is a great motivation booster. Studying can be arduous, but I must admit that everything I did to prepare the JLPT, helps me considerably to enjoy “real” Japanese. The more I study, the more comfortable I will be to read novels. This in mind, I usually go back to my study the following day, with a new motivation.

At the end of the first month, I am where I wanted to be, even if I did make some minor changes to my first schedule.

Well, I hope I will be studious in September!

Read my second month recap’ here