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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Wielding four-kanji phrases surest way to fluency


Special to The Japan Times

You may give yourself heart and soul to something, being focused and determined. Yet, you fail and you have no one to blame but yourself. Well, perhaps it's no consolation, but you can at least learn how to express what happened to you in Japanese.

The most common phrase to express the fact that you have tried as hard as you can is isshokenmei. Isshokenmei ni yarimashita means, "I gave it everything I had." But if you brought failure down on your own head, you might say, jigojitoku da. If someone else says this of you, it has the not-so-subtle nuance of "You made your bed, now lie in it!" Not so nice, perhaps, but you've no choice but to stew in your own juice.

What we are dealing with in the two expressions above are phrases made up of four kanji. There are hundreds of four-kanji phrases in common use in Japanese. These are by no means easy to learn for the nonnative speaker (and not so easy for the native speaker either!). But if you wish to truly master Japanese, I recommend these to you. They will turn a competent speaker of Japanese into a highly articulate one.

I will be discussing these four-kanji phrases in two articles. This week I bring up phrases of practical use in everyday life. Next week I'll concentrate on those of a more philosophical or abstract bent.

These phrases cover the entire gamut of emotions; and in fact, the Japanese expression closest to "gamut of emotions" is the four-kanji phrase kidoairaku. If you look at the meaning of the four kanji in this phrase, you will see why this really does run the gamut: ki is happiness; do, anger; ai, misery; and raku, pleasure.

This is an excellent example of how brilliantly concise and expressive these four-kanji phrases are. In a single burst of sound they tell an entire emotional story.

Most people long to have a fulfilling family life, and the Japanese, of course, are no exception in wishing to have ikkadanran, which translates almost literally as "one big happy family," expressing the state of family bliss that presumably occurs when all members are together.

Sometimes, however, when family members get together, things of a very frank nature are said. If you want to say something point-blank, say it tantochokunyu ni. This is a way of saying something without beating around the bush. This four-kanji phrase literally means something akin to "wielding the sword by yourself and sticking it straight in," a highly colorful way of expressing frankness. If not flesh, at least words are not being minced here.

The Japanese have quite a number of four-kanji phrases meaning "to be out at sea, totally lost, groping in the dark." I can think of at least three common ones. If you use all three skillfully, people will think you are the most articulate disoriented person they have ever met.

1. Anchumosaku, literally, "groping in the dark"

2. Gorimuchu, "five miles in a fog"

3. Bozenjishitsu, "so much in a daze you have lost sight of yourself"

The Japanese love it when you tell them how dizzily disoriented you are over things, especially over one Japanese custom or another.

Of course, not all of these four-kanji phrases are so useful. They are a mixed bag, which, by the way, in Japanese is gyokusekikonko. This phrase literally means "a jumble of jewels and rocks."

One way to stretch yourself in any language is to speak above your level, that is, to use expressions that generally only a native speaker would. Then, one day, you will wake up and find yourself speaking like one. The goal of everyone learning a foreign language is to use that language freely and effortlessly, jiyujizai ni tsukaikonaseru, the closest equivalent to "fluently."

Mastering four-kanji phrases is, to my mind, the best way of achieving that effortless freedom.

Isshokenmei ni yaru shika nai or there's no other way but to give it everything you've got.



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