The 内・外 dichotomy

Over the last couple of years, as I’ve spent a lot of time reading Japanese literature and immersing myself in the language, I’ve become increasingly aware of a particular phenomenon which is endemic to the language at large; which can easily and precisely explain many seemingly unrelated mechanics; and which is so rarely mentioned that I didn’t even realize it had a name until I stumbled across it one day. The 内・外 dichotomy (“uchi/soto”; essentially translated as “inner/outer”) is, with only slight exaggeration, what I might consider in many ways to be a “unified theory of Japanese”. It forms a key component of both the language and the societal practices that define the culture at large, and by understanding it I believe it’s possible to form a deeper, more intuitive grasp of Japanese as a whole.

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Abstract meanings of かける

According to JMDict, かける is a word with around 37 definitions. The idea of memorizing all of these definitions is enough to make anyone think twice about learning Japanese at all, but even taking them one by one can be daunting if it’s not clear which one applies to the given moment.

It’s my belief that all of these “definitions” share a common abstract idea, in the same way that the English words “run” or “get” can be used in a multitude of ways that all make intuitive sense to a native speaker, even when encountering a new collocation for the first time.

Personally I find it especially helpful to split this overarching abstract into three more specific (though still widely applicable) glosses.

かける meaning 1: “set upon

 ・メガネを掛ける set some glasses upon your face
 ・腰をかける set your body down on a chair
 ・負担をかける put a burden on somebody
 ・心配を掛ける lay your worries on someone
 ・金を賭ける set money upon the gambler’s table ★
 ・水をかける to sprinkle water onto something ★
 ・10かける10 ten times ten; ten set upon itself ten times

かける meaning 2: “expend into

 ・スパイスをかける to add spices into a dish
 ・金を賭ける to bet money ★
 ・腕によりをかける to put effort into work
 ・水をかける to sprinkle water onto something ★
 ・時間を掛ける to spend time doing something

かける meaning 3: “engage or activate

 ・かける (standalone): the standard “use” action in video games (“open” the door, “pull” the lever)
 ・アイロンを掛ける to iron clothes
 ・電話をかける to make a phone call; to use the phone
 ・鍵をかける to engage a lock

Each of these three broad meanings fall under one single overarching meaning, which I think of as “raise up“, because to me it evokes the idea of a movement upwards, whether abstract or concrete, towards some end. In the first case, you must “raise up” that which you wish to “set upon” something else. In the second, you figuratively “raise up” that which you wish to spend (a parallel may exist with あげる, where you “raise up” what you wish to give). In the third case, the thing that is being “raised up” is your own hand, to manipulate objects.

(Examples marked with a star are those which I feel work nearly as well in either of the first two groups)

Translation work – Persona 5 twitter comic

Earlier today I happened to see this tweet from an artist I follow:

To summarize, it’s a post looking for someone to do some (volunteer) translation for an upcoming comic. Naturally I jumped at the opportunity and sent off a message offering to help. One thing led to another (the fact that I had done a translation let’s-play of Persona 5: Scramble probably didn’t hurt), and they accepted my offer. My translation of the original Japanese text can be seen in the English version of the comic in the tweet below:

Even though it’s just four short lines, this is technically my first proper translation gig and it’s pretty exciting that I was able to be in the right place at the right time!

Read fast and skip things

This post originally appeared as a comment on the WaniKani forums

Reading broadly, rather than reading deeply, is what helped me the most when I was first starting out.

Let’s say in your reading, you come to a page that has 10 sentences:

  • Four sentences are completely comprehensible. They contain vocab and grammar you’ve studied, or they’re just common phrases that you’ve seen many times in the wild.
  • Three sentences are i+1. You know almost all the words and can infer the last one by context, or there’s some new grammar that you’ve brushed with before, and it’s just about to click into place.
  • Three sentences are incomprehensible. There’s some unfamiliar slang, a weird pronunciation, or a bothersome 和製英語 that’s going to send you off on a wild goose chase.

That’s a decent mix of difficulty and if you sat down and dug into everything, you’d certainly come away with more knowledge. But let’s simulate what might actually happen:

  • You open up your manga and the first sentence you read is easy. Things are going well.
  • The very next line is incomprehensible. You pull out your dictionary, search around on the internet to see if there’s some new grammar point that would help…but it takes a while because honestly, you’re not even confident in what you need to be looking up. If you’re determined to understand everything you come across, maybe your reading session actually ends here because you run out of time or get frustrated.
  • But what a shame! The third sentence is i+1 and you would have understood it with just a fraction of the effort you just spent on the last one. To make matters worse, this sentence actually provides valuable context that immediately clears up any confusion you would have had – a character “pronounces” (in kana) an unknown word that had been written in kanji, and now you suddenly recognize it; or an ambiguous construction is suddenly clear because of context that wasn’t available yet.

Obviously this is a contrived example and it won’t always be the case that every difficult sentence will be followed by one that holds the key to unlocking its meaning. But here’s the thing: in each of these scenarios, it’s the third, the i+1 sentence, that provides the greatest learning boost. For my money, reading should be all about seeking out those moments. If you get bogged down by difficult sentences, you’ll be encountering i+1 material less often simply by virtue of the fact that you’ll have less overall coverage.

I’m a firm proponent of skipping stuff you don’t understand. Pick your battles of course; some words will be easy to look up, and if you run into multiple incomprehensible sentences in a row it’s probably a good idea to slow down so you don’t get lost. Overall though, I find that the more reading you do (not merely the more time you spend reading), the better.