Sound Solutions to 3 Common Problems We All Have with Advanced Japanese Sentences

You’re now a member of the Advanced Learners Club. Welcome.

We’re all mad as hatters here.

Mostly because we were told there would be an open bar, and yet here we are paying $8 for a bottle of beer.

But also because we’re now adrift in a sea of sentences we still cannot understand

Maybe you already mastered your ABC’s, spent years learning every nook and cranny of hundreds of 漢字 (かんじ, adopted Chinese characters) and convinced yourself that, yes, you do in fact understand the difference between しか and だけ (both mean “only”)

Knowing words and letters is one thing, understanding sample textbook sentences yet another, but being able to tread water without drowning in large blocks of text, archaic literature or unfamiliar compounds is still another matter altogether.

You may pass the Japanese Language Proficiency Exam level N2 with flying colors and still tear out your hair trying to understand what the Queen is saying about Alice and the Cat.

But never fear, for we’ve assembled a collection of advanced sentences that will help you learn how to break things down and approach even the most complex text.

We’re eager to ease the burden of wending your way through literary labyrinths.

How to Decipher Advanced Japanese Sentences Without Going as Mad as a Hatter

Why are these sentences so difficult?

Why, after five to ten years spent internalizing half a dozen Japanese textbooks, is it still so painful to read GQ Japan“The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles” or The Institute for Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability handbook on environmental living?

Here are some challenges that even the most advanced and nearly-fluent learners face:

1. Meaning

The first hurdle is meaning. Modern languages do have connections, but not all were formed in relation to one another.

Japanese and English weren’t created with each other in mind, so you’ll find that things in Japanese don’t translate well into English. Just try explaining the concept of ~てしまう, “to do accidentally, completely or destructively,” to someone who doesn’t know Japanese, and vice versa. There’s a layer of connotation, nuance and cultural meaning that escapes the dictionary.

In order to keep up with ever-thickening plots and chaotic neutral purple cats, you’ll need to know the meanings of Japanese phrases intrinsically—within the context of sentences and stories—rather than attempting to translate all of them directly and literally into English.

2. Grammar

The second issue is similar, but not identical. Grammatical structures. For a quick example, see the above note regarding しか and だけLord knows what the difference between the two words for “only” is, but the fact is that there is a difference. It’s something to do with “only, as opposed to more,” and “only, with no relation to anything else.” For all I know, they’re no more than a cruel joke.

Jumping over this obstacle requires focus and agility, and remembering not only the meanings of different grammatical structures, but also the proper instances in which to use each one.

3. Noun Modifiers

The third hurdle is noun modifiers. In English, words and phrases that modify nouns usually trail along behind the noun (“the cat in the hat,” “the cat that wears a goofy red hat“). In Japanese, it’s the other way around.

Japanese noun modifiers come before the noun. For example, take “the cat that wears a goofy red hat” and look as its Japanese translation: おかしな赤い帽子を被っている猫(おかしな あかい ぼうしをかぶっているねこ). All the descriptive modifiers come before the main noun, “cat” or 猫(ねこ).

In both languages, the more you load up on modifiers, the less room you’ll have for dessert. As in English, noun modifiers in Japanese can become fairly extensive and convoluted, so focusing on tackling this issue will help you decipher more advanced sentences.

Aside from these three concrete issues, you may also have trouble with style. The style in which people write in Japan is a far cry from the way they speak naturally. Unfamiliarity with this could impede your understanding of newspapers, novels, magazines and more.

Most of the same words are used in literature as in everyday language, but try approaching your neighbor the way Nick approaches Jay Gatsby in “The Great Gatsby,” and you’ll get more than the “oh hell, a 外人 (がいじん, foreigner)” look.

If you’re studying Japanese for essential communication purposes, understanding literature may not be high on your list. If you’re at the point where you’re ready to dive deeper into the sea of the rising sun, or if you really, really need to beef up your skills (for example, if you intend to work as a translator, or for the government), then you’re heading in the right direction here.

Continue on the sentences, and start understanding advanced Japanese!

6 Advanced Japanese Sentences That Will Help You Learn to Love Literature

—Meanings That Don’t Translate Well—

When reading a foreign language and encountering unknown vocabulary, it pays to take a pincer approach (coming from both sides, like pincer claws).

With this approach, you’ll need to be thinking about how each mystery word translates into your native language while simultaneously trying to absorb a general meaning based on what you know of the target language.

In other words, think both in your native language and not in your native language. For concrete words, you can focus more on how they translate into your own language. For example, do this with straightforward vocabulary such as:

  • 夫婦 (ふうふ) — couple/husband and wife
  • 護衛者 (ごえいしゃ) — escort/envoy
  • 変わった (かわった) — changed
  • 気分 (きぶん) — feeling

You’ll know you’re dealing with a more concrete word when searching in your dictionary or translator app yields one-word answers, with little ambiguity.

However, you might come across words that translate into numerous things, abstract ideas and lengthy, imprecise phrases.

For these loftier bits, think like a child being raised in the target language. Put together meaning based on context and pre-existing knowledge, rather than relying on explanations and translations. Do this with words like the following:

  • 身をまかす (みをまかす) — to yield to
  • 〜もの — thing, it is such that, because, etc.
  • ふう — a feeling of
  • ような — similar to/like

Once you’ve found a rudimentary definition by looking it up, take that abstract word with its imprecise meaning and stick it into the context of the sentence and the story. What other connotations and nuances might this word be conveying to native Japanese speakers?

Now let’s take a look at how this can be done with the help of a few example sentences.

1. “三組の夫婦、それからジョーダンの護衛者をもって任じているしつこい大学生 が一人、これは粗野なあてこすりを好んでやる男で、遠からずジョーダンは多かれ少なかれ自分に身をまかすものと思い込んでいるふうだった。”

Hiragana: さんくみのふうふ、それからじょーだんの ごえいしゃをもって にんじている しつこい だいがくせいがひとり、これは そやな あてこすりをこのんでやる おとこで、とおからず じょーだんは おおかれすくなかれ じぶんに みをまかすものと おもいこんでいるふうだった。)

English Translation: Three couples, the one stubborn college student leading Jordan’s envoy, the one who likes to make vulgar remarks, and then Jordan more or less on her own.

“グレートギャツビー” (71) 作家 (さっか, author):F. フィッツジェラルド; 訳 (やく, translation): 野崎孝(のざき こう, Nozaki Koh)

“The Great Gatsby” (p. 71), F. Scott Fitzgerald

There are a lot of words and phrases here that don’t quite compute for some learners of Japanese:

  • 〜をもって — with, by means of
  • 任じている (にんじている) — posing as
  • 遠からず (とおからず) — soon, before long
  • 身をまかす (みをまかす) — to yield oneself
  • 思い込む (おもいこむ) — to be under the impression, to be bent on
  • ふうだ — method, manner, way, appearance

We can get a vague sense that we’re talking about Jordan (the athlete and subject of Nick Carraway’s desire) and a group of people, that Jordan is self-possessed and that some members of her friend group are slightly less than tactful.

For the purposes of learning or deep understanding, we can pull out individual words, like with the short list above, and learn their meanings.

For general understanding, we can scan through the sentence a few times. Look at the sentence as a block, then go through and pick apart each piece: The couples of husbands and wives, the boorish college student, Jordan and her confidence.

Start at the end of the sentence after reading and work your way back to the beginning, trying to understand the true meaning of the more abstract words. For example, you may start with ふうだった, “it was such that, or there was a manner/appearance of,” and try to gain a feeling for what’s really being said here.

It pays in cases like this to remember that, in Japan, people don’t talk the way they write, and also that this particular book was written nearly a century ago. Regardless, if you can read through a Japanese translation of Fitzgerald’s classic and either recognize what’s going on (if you know the story) or understand the context (if you’ve never read the book in English), then that’ll reflect on how you understand people talking to you in Japanese and how you manage when immersed in the language.

2. “なんだかちょっと変わった気分だったような気もするみたい。”

Hiragana: なんだか ちょっと かわった きぶんだったような きもするみたい。

English Translation: I feel as if I may have changed somehow…

“不思議の国のアリス” (30) [作家:ルイス・キャロル; 訳: 山形 浩生 (やまがた ひろし, Yamagata Hiroshi)]

“Alice in Wonderland” (p. 30), Lewis Carroll

Anyone who’s read Lewis Carroll may know that his books are simultaneously great for practicing advanced Japanese and linguistic hell.

Even reading the originals can be a trip for native English speakers, and he meant for his books to be that way. It’s hard enough following Alice’s out-loud musings in your native language; it’s a whole different adventure trying to follow them in a language such as Japanese, that prides itself on its vagueness and piled up expressions.

In this sentence, the crux is the exact center: 変わった気分だ。(かわった きぶんだ。— There is a feeling that I had changed.)

It’s entirely possible to express the same meaning with just these four words: “It feels I’ve changed.” All the rest is extra and adds to both the convolution so common in Carroll’s stories and the insecurity with which Alice speaks to herself. Basically, it’s fluff.

In full, her sentence is “I’m noticing that somehow, there’s a sort of feeling that I have changed a little bit.”

With a sentence like this, don’t get bogged down in the details. That’s where the devil hides. Once you’re sure you’ve gotten the general message, and feel comfortable with each piece separately, you’re all set.

Now, let’s move right along to issue #2 on our list above.

—Nuanced Grammatical Structures—

When we stumble upon words and phrases that appear to mean the same thing as what we learned in elementary Japanese, how are we to approach them? For example, when it seems that a sentence is a simple cause-and-effect, but there’s a fancy new word introducing the cause, how can we be expected to fully process the essence of the sentence? After all, one simple word change in a Japanese sentence can easily alter the grammar used, the meaning and the agreements in words throughout the sentence.

First, don’t freak out.

There are usually at least a few words for each situation. Sometimes they’re different, sometimes they involve the sentence in a whole new grammar pattern and sometimes they’re entirely interchangeable.

Second, once you’ve determined which word or phrase is the synonym for a basic word you already know, look for information on how to create sentences with it and how it differs from other words or phrases with similar meanings. Look it up on a site or forum like WordReference, when learners and natives flock to discuss the proper usage of words and grammar patterns.

Finally, always remember that languages aren’t concrete. The first step is learning a word, the second step is knowing how to use it properly in a sentence, and the third is gaining a general understanding of context around the word.

3. “というのはつまり、うちは教会からつい二軒目だったってわけ。”

Hiragana:というのは つまり、うちは きょうかいから つい にけんめ だったってわけ。

English Translation: That is to say, it’s because my house was two doors down from the church.

“グレートギャツビー” (209) F. フィッツジェラルド

“The Great Gatsby” (p. 209), F. Scott Fitzgerald

Simply because this sentence is so short, one would expect it to be an easy one. In fact, it’s not as easy as it looks.

For context, Bill “Blocks” Biloxi fainted at someone’s wedding at the aforementioned church and Daisy, Jordan’s friend and Gatsby’s next-door neighbor, was asking why the guests carried Bill to Jordan’s house, as if she thought it was strange.

The trick here is the use of ってわけ (conjugated from というわけ) in place of から, both of which are used to indicate a reason.

から is the basic “because” that we learn first. It’s simply a conjunction, connecting a situation and a reason, objective or subjective. The other, というわけ, is far stronger, a reason with conviction.

There’s hardly any distinction in English, as far as the wording of the sentence. In this case, Jordan wants to emphasize that there was, in fact, a reason for bringing poor Bill to her house, as opposed to anywhere else. It understandably or naturally happened because her house was two doors down from (〜からつい二軒目) the church. Her intention was more than just indicative statement.

This is most often used to clarify or refute a former statement, or to strongly emphasize that a situation has a reason. When using “because” as a conjunction between clauses, it’s best to use another more basic option, such as ので or から. Likewise, there’s a number of grammatical phrases that use わけ that can’t use, or don’t have the same meaning as, から.

See how learning more about one seemingly simple word can revolutionize your learning? Dig around when you encounter an unfamiliar grammar pattern, and you’ll understand more Japanese than ever before.

4. “地元、熊本市で暮らす彼の「衣・食・住」における独身の経済圏を大公開。”

Hiragana: じもと、くまもとしで くらすかれの「い・しょく・じゅう」における どくしんの けいざいけんをだいこうかい。)

English Translation: [The artist], from Kumamoto City, opens to the public his solitary, lifestyle, based in bare necessities.

「坂口 恭平 (さかぐち きょうへい, Sakaguchi Kyouhei) のゼロ・シック・ライフ in 熊本」POPEYE: Magazine for City Boys, September 2013 (106)

“Kyouhei Sakaguchi’s Zero Chic Life in Kumamoto,” POPEYE: Magazine for City Boys, September 2013 (p. 106)

This technically isn’t a full sentence, but in magazine writing anything goes!

The focus in this fragment is on one simple preposition/postposition: における (in).

Prepositions aren’t necessarily advanced, but when you start substituting phrases like における for such simple particles as で or に, the language starts to get confusing.

The use of the verb おける emphasizes the placement or basis, not just the object.

Additionally, because the phrase「衣・食・住」における modifies the noun phrase 独身の経済圏, either a verb like おける or the noun の (the fact of/matter of) are required. With just に, the meaning of the sentence fragment would change: “Opening to the public IN the bare necessities, the artist’s solitary lifestyle…”.

As with わけ, this verb is for emphasis, but it also helps adapt the postposition に to various situations. You can use it in place of ある and いる, “there is/are,” as well. If something is happening in the location mentioned, though, the postposition に should be used alone.

In cases where you want to use には, to emphasize things that happen in a location or the contrast between one location and another, the particle phrase には is better than における.

They key here, yet again, is that you’ll need to investigate the nuances and usage of any unknown grammar patterns to get the full understanding of what’s going on in the sentence.

All right, got that? Now we’re moving on to issue #3.

—Convoluted and Extensive Modifiers—

If those nearly untranslatable words are the mouth of the rabbit hole, and the plethora of words that could be one word are the length of the tunnel, then modifiers are the “Eat me,” and “Drink me” potions at the bottom, the ones that make Alice do the vertical hokey pokey.

This is what it’s all about: You start to read a phrase, thinking all is well and good, but then other phrases are smooshed on at the end, and other phrases after that, until you don’t even remember what size you’re supposed to be and before you know it—Bam! Pow!—a verb hits you.

There are two things you must know about Japanese sentences to understand what’s going on with any verb you encounter.

1. Japanese sentences follow a strict Subject-Object-Verb structure.

2. There’s a rule that the main verb for a clause must be the last word in that clause.

So, with these two facts in mind, you can approach modifiers backwards in order to sort them out. If you can feel yourself tumbling through phrases that take forever to reach a verb, follow this process:

1. Skip ahead to the period (○).

2. Read the sentence backwards.

3. Line up verbs with objects.

4. Line up nouns with modifiers.

Let’s take this process to a few examples, and see how it all works out!

5. “ロハス、という言葉を目にしたり耳にする機会が増えてきた。”

Hiragana: ろはす、という ことばをめにしたり みみにする きかいが ふえてきた。

English Translation: The word LOHAS has become more and more popular. / Instances of hearing and seeing the word, LOHAS have been increasing.”

“ロハスの思考” (8) [作家:福岡 伸一 (ふくおか しんいち, Fukuoka Shin’Ichi)]

“Ideas of LOHAS” (p. 8), Shin’Ichi Fukuoka

In this case, the hurdle is “instances of hearing the word called ‘LOHAS.'” That’s a strange structure to deal with!

To understand the meaning after finding this tricky sentence in our reading material, the first thing we can do is scan the sentence for verbs, and we find:

  • 目にしたり (めにしたり) — seeing
  • 耳にする (みみにする) — hearing
  • 増えてきた (ふえてきた) — have been increasing / growing

…in that order.

You’ll notice no punctuation and no grammatical words after the verbs “to say” or “to hear,” and then you’ll notice those verbs are immediately followed by nouns. So, those are not the verbs we’re looking for.

In the middle of the sentence, “to see” uses a verb form that means “doing things such as ~, and ~,” and therefore is connected to the next phrase. Theoretically, this could be the end of one clause, “We are doing such things as seeing the word ‘LOHAS,’ and…” But if you take the sentence as a whole, that makes no sense.

By process of elimination, our target verb is “have been growing.”

Starting from that point, we move immediately left and see the subject particle, so we can assume the first noun we encounter is the subject of the sentence, “instances/opportunities.” This makes sentence: “instances have been increasing [in number.]”

But what instances?

Perhaps this is the noun being modified, right? That’s the next logical step. So, we keep moving to the left, picking up information as we go: “of hearing something,” “of seeing something and…,” “the/a word,” “called” and “LOHAS.”

In order to rebuild the modifiers correctly, we need to pick up each noun and build from there: “the word ‘LOHAS,'” “instances of/opportunities for doing such things as seeing and hearing.”

And there we have it: A phrase within a phrase, within a sentence: “Opportunities for doing such things as seeing and hearing the word ‘LOHAS’ have been growing in number.”

6. “この雑誌が書店に並ぶころには、衆議院の「平和安全法制特別委員会でこの間行われてきた安保関連法案の審議 (しんぎ, deliberation) が打ち切りとなり、政府・与党案 が採決されてしまっているかもしれない。”

Hiragana: このざっしが しょてんに ならぶころには、しゅうぎいんの「へいわ あんぜん ほうせい とくべつ いいんかい」でこのかん おこなわれてきた あんぽかんれんほうあんの しんぎが うちきりとなり、せいふ・よとうあんが さいけつされてしまっている かもしれない。)

English Translation: Around the time this magazine hit the newsstands, in the House of Representatives’s ‘Council on Peace and Safety Legislation,’ the government was discussing the truncation of deliberations on the U.S.-Japan security bill, most likely.

 “エディターズ・レター,” GQ Japan, 2015年9月

“Editor’s Letter,” GQ Japan, September 2015

Aside from the obvious hurdle of 漢字, the sentence has a few smaller, but still twisted, modifiers: “the time at which this magazine hit the newsstands” and “the deliberation upon the U.S.-Japan security bill that has been happening in this building [the House of Representatives].”

Like the previous sentence, start at the end: “…perhaps.”

We can ignore this for now, and move on to the verb, “is being voted upon,” and find the subject, which is “the government.” Moving left we see the comma (、) and assume “the government” is not being modified, so we find the next verb, “being cancelled/truncated,” and repeat the process.

If you really delved into those sentences and picked them apart, you may find that my translations aren’t exact, or you may end up like Alice Who Feels Like Perhaps She Changed Somehow Overnight—trapped in a rabbit hole, unsure of how to extricate yourself.

In order to avoid this kind of mental overkill, it pays to approach sentences with not only an open mind, but a lofty one. Read the sentence back and forth, skip over words, scramble phrases, take a cheese and sausage break, then read the sentence a few times until you get the general aura of the meaning.

If you’re just reading to improve your vocabulary, then focus on vocabulary. If you’re reading with intent of absorbing the context, then keep reading and reading and reading until there are no books left to read. After some time, it’ll become easier to process the stories.

Language is like a muscle. Exercise makes using it stronger and stronger.

Make the effort, and enjoy the results!

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