Tag Archives: Japanese language

Language Faux Pas: Part III

Kempo ("kungfu")

My Japanese Embarrassment

When I arrived in Japan I spoke absolutely no Japanese and I had no money for lessons and so I taught myself the language which meant lots of mistakes.  But immersion helped me learn quickly.  My first immersion was at  a Zen temple where I practiced Kung Fu (Japanese: Kempo).  The Kempo vocabulary was conveniently limited: “kick”, “punch”, “stand”, “meditate”, “wash” … (see my post here).  And fortunately it did not take long to build competency in understanding the simple commands so as to enjoy temple life.


After our three hours of fighting, our sessions would end with mutual shiatsu (massage).  One of the words I learned during our shiatsu practice was “boki” (ボキ) which is the sound of a joint cracking — it was most often heard when backs were twisted or bent.  Ahhhhh!

But with only a limited vocabulary, I wanted to add feeling to my otherwise childish ‘conversations’.  It was then that I discovered a trick used to add emphasis to Japanese words. In English, if we want to emphasize a word, one way we do it is by stretching out the vowel sound.  For example:

  • His motorcycle is really coooooool;
  • The movie was faaaaaantastic.

Japanese sokuon (double consonant)

In Japanese, instead of lengthening the vowel, they lengthen the consonant to emphasize a word.  In linguistics, this is called “gemination” and is done by the Japanese letter called the  “sokuon” which can sound a bit like a glottal stop (for those of you interested in the terms).   Transcribing this sound into English is done by doubling the consonant.  So here are two examples:

  • big = oki   ==>  biiiiig = okki
  • amazing = sugoi  ==>   amaaaaazing = suggoi

Just as in written English you don’t see all the “i”s in biiiiiiig,  so in written Japanese you don’t see the double consonant when expressing this exaggeration — it is all done in speech.   Actually, to complicate things, depending on the word, actually putting sokuon in a written Japanese word may actually change the meaning of the Japanese word.   I did not fully understand this complexity and it led to my embarrassing mistake which I will now tell you.

Studying around a Kotatsu

My story returns back to the Zen temple where, on one winter day, we had a large party.  Men and women attended, sake was served and I was the only foreigner there.  We sat at tables with blankets on them and heaters underneath called kotatsu.  Kotatsu kept your legs and whole body warm because the temple was not centrally heated.

We were all enjoying ourselves and I stretched and twisted my spine to freshen up.  My back made a big crack (“boke”) which felt great and relieved the tension in my back from sitting that long time on the floor.  So I had big smile on my face.  My friend across the table yelled over to me inquiring:

friend: Sabio-san, why the big smile.
me: I just had a craaaack [in my back].

With that, everyone started laughing uproariously and picking up the blanket on the kotatsu look at my ‘legs’.  I laughed nervously not understanding only to find out later my mistake.

I said, “boke” (cracked-joint) but wanted to emphasize it to show why the big smile so I said “bokke”.  Well, boke is one of those words that changes meaning when a sokuon (double vowel) is used:

boki (ボキ) = cracking sound in a joint
bokki (勃起) = erection

So the conversation they heard was:

friend: Sabio-san, why the big smile.
me: I just had a huge erection.

Thus everyone giggled and lifted up the kotasu blanket to see exactly what the foreigner meant.  I was reminded of that mistake for a long time.

My Son’s Language Embarrassment

Children also struggling to learn a language — our kids struggle to learn their native English.  And, my son’s recent mistake served as the inspiration for this post series:

Recently my son had joined my wife and I in bed to read before going to sleep.   Taking a break during the reading, I was telling my wife about some work story with a patient with an erection problem (not unusual in a Urology practice).  My son, 11 years-old, quickly asked, “Dad, what is an erection?”  My wife cracked up laughing and my son, to protect his pride quickly tried to guess, “Wait, I think I know what it is.  Jesus had an erection, didn’t he?”  Then trying to talk over my wife’s howling laughter, I told him. “Some people think Jesus had a *resurrection* — that’s when you come back to life after being dead.  An erection is when your penis gets hard and longer.”  My son was embarrassed, but not too much because he enjoyed the humor too.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

“Hara”: A Japanese Lesson

“Hara”, The Character

The Japanese word “hara” is variously translated as: : abdomen, bowel, belly, gut, mind or courage. It is a very important concept in both Chinese and Japanese culture —  even in their religions.  Below I offer a a playful linguistic romp to introduce some of the uses of “hara” in Japanese culture:

First, the Chinese character for “hara” is shown to the right.  In Japanese it can be read as either “hara” or “fuku”.  In Mandarin Chinese it is read as: fù (4th tone–falling).  Japanese is tough that way; each character may have multiple readings — 3 or 4 readings per character is not uncommon.  The Chinese language, on the other hand, is much easier– each character usually has only one reading.

Like many Chinese characters (the source of Japanese writing), “hara” is composed of several parts: On the left side of the character is the radical for “meat”.   And for this character, the right side of the character only gives it the sound “fuku” and has no meaning related to the word.

Hara Wrap

The cool weather today reminded me of staying warm in Japan.  In cold weather, the older people often wear a haramaki (腹巻き) — an abdomen-wrap.  It is a warm piece of cloth either wrapped around the abdomen or made from elastic tube cloth which slides over the abdomen.

In Asian culture, the hara is felt to be the seat of vitality and power. Thus keeping it warm during the winter is felt to protect one’s vitality — one’s health.

Here is a scene from a famous Japanese movie where this old man is seen wearing a HaraMaki.  Since a haramaki is considered rather out-dated, this scene illustrates the character’s lack of concern for appearance and his old-fashion nature.Most Japanese houses do not have central heating, so these haramakis are very nice item to keep you warm in winter.  When I lived in Japan, I had one to wear around my house but would not wear one in public!

Cutting Hara

Since the hara contains the vitality of an individual, a famous way to commit suicide is to “cut the hara” or “Hara-Kiri” (abdomen-cut).   When Americans pronounce “HaraKiri” they ironically slaughter its  pronunciation by saying “HariKari” (Hairy-Carry).

The characters for HaraKiri are 腹切りbut interestingly, if you change the order of the words, you get a more classic samurai word for this type of suicide : 切腹  “Seppuku”.  This is one of the many difficult traits of Japanese — the pronunciation for a character depends on context.

Apparently, not only is the cutting open of one’s hara very painful, but one then dies slowly and painfully.  Thus, to save “face”, a samurai committing harakiri will have a friend stand behind him so that once he has slit his belly open and sealed his fate, the friend would quickly chop off his head to save him a groveling and groaning death.

Hara Stands

With the hara being the center of vitality, it is from the hara that anger arises.  A common expression for “getting angry” is “Hara ga tatsu” or (“stomach stands/arises”).   As the stomach stands, heat rises to the head!  A very visceral description of anger.

So those were two unhealthy uses of the hara, let me end with two healthy tips on how to use your hara.

8/10 Hara

Don’t eat until your stuffed!  Or, as they say in Japan, “腹の八分” (Hara no hachibun) which means “[only fill your] hara 80%”. In the picture to the right we have the good boy (symbolized by the “0”) eating small portions  and the bad boy (symbolized by the “x”) who is stuffing himself.


Here is another picture showing the 8/10 hara idea in more literal terms.  Before leaving this notion of  eating small portions, I must tell you another common Japanese saying used to steer people away from obesity.  It is said that if you eat right before going to bed you will turn into a [fat] cow.  It turns out that this is partially true.   When your body digests food, it does not produce human growth factor which is primarily made while sleeping.  This in turn slows down your metabolism and thus causes weight gain.  Or so I have read.

Hara Method of Breathing

腹式呼吸 (Hara Shiki Kokyū) is Japanese for “diaphramatic breathing”.  This breathing method is taught in meditation styles of Zen, Yoga and many others.  Here your lower abdomen expands with each inhale and contracts with each exhale.  The chest does none of the breathing.  Try it by lying down and placing a book on your abdomen.  Then place one hand on the book and the other on your chest.  Now, try to breath by only moving the book and not your chest.  Once you have mastered is lying, it is easy to do while you are sitting.  This sort of breathing is very calming.  If you don’t believe me, try breathing only from your chest and watch your mood change!

In my next Japanese Character post, I will show you how this sort of breathing can help prevent a very nasty aliment.


See other “Word!” posts, here.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Fart Logic


He – Ri – Kutsu : “Fart Logic”

“He-RiKutsu” (Fart-Logic):

An argument which is deceptively false using disgustingly obvious faulty reasons. (a Japanese noun)

He-Rikutsu is translated in Japanese-English dictionaries as “quibble” or “sophism”, but neither of these words seems to capture the full feeling that I know in the Japanese of a very distasteful, repugnant sort of arguing style, thus I offered you the above superior definition. HeRikutus is a ripe and disgusting word!

In this post’s picture you can see that this Japanese word is made of three ideograms (KanJi) :

  • The first character, “He” (pronounced the same as the “he” in “head”), means “fart“.
  • The last two characters, “Ri” + “Kutsu”, combine to mean “logic“.

Just like farts, some people generate this sort of logic without effort or forethought, while others do it intentionally, almost making an art of it. But inevitably, we all let them slip out occasionally.


Examples of Fart Logic:


Filed under Philosophy & Religion