“You’re rooted, Brandon.”
A friend from Switzerland told me this one day. She was telling me how I reminded her of solid earth and trees. To her, I was grounded and stable.
Have you ever heard a natural element being used to describe someone’s personality?
“Her speech flows like water.”
“He has a fiery personality.”
Although someone’s personality can’t actually be on fire, you understand what the statement means.
You can easily visualize the natural elements in the sentence—speech that flows like water is smooth and soft, while a fiery personality is outspoken, opinionated and feisty.
But the basic elements differ slightly from country to country.
In Japan, the five elements are known as 五大 (ごだい) or “godai” and include earth, water, fire, wind and void.
These are Buddhist concepts, but you can find them in everyday life—from science to ourselves.
We’ll break each one down soon, but first I want to give you a lay of the land.
We don’t just recognize the elements when we’re taking a walk in nature, but also in ourselves. We might need someone to point it out (like my Swiss friend did for me), but once we recognize our own elemental traits, it’s in our best interest to own them.
Because we can use them to be better people and speak better Japanese!
Sounds odd, but think about it. Compare yourself to your younger self. Who’s more confident? For me, it’s definitely my older self. Because I know myself better.
Once you know yourself better, you speak with more confidence.
This is both in your target and native language!
4 Tips for Using the Elements in Japanese to Speak More Fluently
You now know that we see the godai—or, natural elements—in our daily lives. Now, let’s dig into how we can use them strategically to speak better Japanese.
Listen to Native Speakers Talk
Before we’re able to use the elements in Japanese conversations ourselves, we first have to recognize them in native speakers.
Just like a baby copies their parents’ mouth movements when speaking, we must mimic how native speakers use the elements in conversation.
I recommend listening to different video and audio of native speakers and pinpointing what elements are most persuasive to you in their conversation. That’s a start to see what elements you are drawn to or repulsed by.
Is a certain comedian a bit too docile for your tastes?
Maybe you prefer passionate and intense speakers that employ the Fire element.
Or perhaps you prefer the silent actor in a drama that most resembles your calm, meditative demeanor. That could be more Void vibes.
Practice Using the Elements in Japanese By Yourself
You can prepare yourself mentally by getting an overview of the Japanese language and cultural basics before jumping into a conversation.
This will allow you to focus when you do start speaking with other people.
Then, once you’re in the heat of a conversation, you can practice balancing the five elements with your conversation partner.
Watch (and Pay Attention to) Anime
When you’re by yourself, you can pinpoint elements in use through your favorite anime, but make sure you understand the common phrases first.
And when you finally sit down for some Anki reps or reading comprehension time, you can tie it all together with timeless phrases that reflect nature. These phrases contain the exact kanji of the elements, so it could prove useful to remember them in the long run.
Enhance Your Listening Skills
The most important skill needed for using elements in Japanese effectively is listening.
You must be able to listen to the emotional layering underneath the words and phrases you hear flowing out of native speakers.
Starting with listening to yourself is a good first step.
When you understand how you’re emotionally built, you can work to deploy the godai at your will, rather than be at the mercy of them.
The 5 Elements in Japanese: What They Mean and Where to Find Them
By now, you’re probably asking yourself: “what are these five elements really?”
Let’s dive into that now!
What Are the 5 Elements in Japanese?
The godai consists of five basic elements. These elements are pretty well-known in every culture, but each one adds its own finishing touches.
In Japanese, the elements are:
- 土 (つち) — Earth
- 水 (みず) — Water
- 火 (ひ) — Fire
- 風 (かぜ) — Wind
- 空 (そら) — Void
土 (つち) — Earth represents foundation, being acted upon, stability and stubbornness.
水 (みず) — Water represents flow, change, emotion and adaptability.
火 (ひ) — Fire represents creativity, motivation, passion, intensity and desire.
風 (かぜ) — Wind represents growth, open-minded, wisdom and freedom.
And finally, 空 (そら) — Void represents the source of human spirit, everything, nothing, absence and death.
Read through that list one more time. Do any of these characteristics relate to you? Does one particular element show up in your life or personality more prominently than the others?
Yes, I know.
It can be hard to apply some of these natural traits in a concrete way.
Especially void. How can something be everything and nothing at the same time?
If you’re having trouble pinpointing what element you are most of the time, try to think of singular moments. How do you usually react in conversations? Does it change depending on the other person? Or the topic?
Once you start recognizing these elements, you can start implementing them in your speech more—including your Japanse speech!
Personally, I find myself using wind and fire the most.
I value the freedom of wind above all else.
And I use the passion and creativity of fire to reach for it.
But I deploy the stability and stubbornness of earth frequently.
And whenever I can, I try to face void by acknowledging that we’ll all eventually disappear, leaving our friends and family behind.
Whenever that gets too heavy, I use water to change my mood or get into the flow (like when writing this post).
That’s the beauty of the godai concept—you can see how they all eventually slip into our lives.
Where to Find the Elements in Japanese Culture
Now that you have an understanding of what the elements in Japanese are and how we can use them in conversation, let’s see how we can keep our new tools sharpened.
Finding fresh content with the godai on full display is key. So let’s explore the different areas of Japanese culture that utilize their full power!
Since these elements started in nature, why not go back to the source?
Start off by connecting the elements with Japan’s natural sites.
Unlike things like personality traits, nature sites can give you a clearer picture of what the elements actually are.
So when the time comes during a conversation, you can clearly see the godai dancing underneath the words of the person you’re speaking with.
I mentioned anime earlier, but I didn’t go into what parts of anime we can find the elements.
Have you ever seen symbols on the characters’ clothing that represent some aspect of their personality?
Or the physical appearance matching their cold or hot or stable personality?
Anime allows more freedom to visualize the elements in the characters, world, and the relationship between them.
When you watch anime, do your best to recognize the elements being used through the special talents, personalities and relationships of the characters.
These visual cues in the anime will stick with you and help you understand the elements better, such as how they’re used in everyday life.
Design and Architecture
Japanese culture holds almost nothing back when it comes to expressing the godai. And one of the hotspots for finding them is in design and architecture!
Here the elements are embedded into the work and at times, may not be so obvious.
But with physical art and structures, we can experience the feeling of harnessing the elements with masterful skill.
The effort that goes into exploring the subtle nuances of the elements and then turning them into structures we enjoy is quite impressive.
Another human feat that takes massive effort is cinema.
The population of a small town stands on a movie set working towards the singular goal of creating a piece of art to move audiences around the world.
This art can do many things, but Japanese directors have shown time and again that nature has a major influence on their art.
It’s in your best interest to set some study time aside to watch Japanese movies for the heavy influence nature has on cinema. By doing so, you’re guaranteed to recognize some elements!
The elements started out as spiritual concepts that have been used throughout history for understanding our world and ourselves.
Now we can use them to improve our Japanese language skills!
By mastering the elements, not only will we impress native speakers, but we can also add plenty of personality to our speech.
Brandon Chin is a Jamaican-Chinese hybrid and sees the world just the same: a mash-up of different stories. He spends his time asking questions through his novels. Based in Fukuoka, he helps you travel to Japan virtually through his podcast, Raw Japan and his free daily newsletter here: brandonchin.net.