JOK Notebook

Rhythm and Blues

I mentioned last week that a former cram school head had sent me a bounty of Japanese sentences about cram schools. And as I said then, his thoughtful answers not only informed me about cram schools (塾, じゅく) but also taught me a lot about Japanese.

I don't know if you would classify him as a poetic man or a guy with a lot of rhythm, but an unusually high number of his sentences have neat patterns. (I suspected as much and confirmed it with my language partner Kensuke, who spent four hours on Skype with me poring over the text and coming up with translations.)

Without Kensuke, I would have had no prayer of understanding a sentence like this:

Unless Japanese public schools stop having more than 30 kids in a class, unless public schools decrease teachers' duties, and unless public school teachers are specialized, I think the demand for cram schools will not decrease.

日本 (にほん: Japan); 公立校* (こうりつこう: public school); -名 (-めい: counter for people); 以上 (いじょう: more than); 人数 (にんずう: number of people); 変更 (へんこう: modification); ない限り * (ないかぎり: unless); 教師 (きょうし: teacher); 校内 (こうない: within a school); 雑務 (ざつむ: routine tasks and duties); 減少 (げんしょう: decrease); 専門分野 (せんもんぶんや: special field); -化 (-か: -ization); 需要 (じゅよう: demand); 減る (へる: to decrease); 思う (おもう: to think)

Out of all the things going on here, Kensuke zeroed in on an important part, ない限り (ないかぎり), noticing that it appeared at the ends of two clauses:


When 限り stands alone, it means "as long as." In conjunction with a negative word (ない in this case), it means "unless." He translated the repeating phrase as "unless," putting it at the head of each translated clause. From that great start he was able to unravel all the rest.

He also spotted an essential pattern in the next sentence, though this time it didn't involve a repeating word:

Demand is well matched with supply; students want to be taught, and cram school teachers want to teach fun lessons.

教わる (おそわる: to be taught); 生徒* (せいと: student); 需要 (じゅよう: demand); 授業 (じゅぎょう: lesson); 楽しさ (たのしさ: fun); 教える (おしえる: to teach); 先生 (せんせい: teacher); 供給 (きょうきゅう: supply); 合う (あう: to meet)

In this case, Kensuke recognized that two words played off each other—namely, 需要 (じゅよう: demand) and 供給 (きょうきゅう: supply). The sentence is about economics! I never would have imagined that. For starters, one has to know both words! Then one has to recognize that they fit together, hand in glove. (Also notice that whereas English speakers say "supply and demand," the Japanese reverse the order.)

He spotted a similar hand-in-glove relationship in this sentence, and I wonder if you can:

When it comes to this policy, parents with school-age kids publicly support it but privately oppose it.

持つ (もつ: to have); 両親 (りょうしん: parents); ゆとり教育 (ゆとりきょういく: "education with breathing space"; pressure-free education); に対して (にたいして: in regard to); 建前 (たてまえ: public position or attitude (as opposed to private thoughts)); 賛成 (さんせい: support); 本音 (ほんね: true opinion; what one really thinks); 反対 (はんたい: opposition)

Any idea what two words in that list go together? You might think I'm talking about 賛成 (support) and 反対 (opposition), and they certainly stand out as antonyms. But I had two others in mind, as they really lend a flavor to the sentence:

建前 (たてまえ: face; official stance; public position or attitude (as opposed to private thoughts))

本音 (ほんね: real intention; motive; true opinion; what one really thinks)

As I look at these words, I feel a surge of anxiety because I associate them with an article I read not long ago. It said, in essence, if you don't know these two words and what they truly mean to Japanese people, then you don't know the first thing about the culture or language (and might as well hang it all up now). Okay, the parenthetical part wasn't in the article, but it easily could have been because that's how it made me feel. For years I've been focusing on kanji, grammar, and what I believed to be the intricacies of Japanese culture, but I had never heard of the two most crucial words and was therefore a complete failure at Japan-related things and maybe life in general. Sorry, I took off again there! I'll rein myself back in and examine the two words at hand.

I actually really like them in tandem, as they collectively express an insight about universal human psychology. We all have a mask and an authentic self, and it's an enormous struggle to keep that authenticity from bubbling over and turning into hurtful comments that alienate everyone (or is that just my personal battle?!).

If you take these words individually, they're also quite interesting and beautiful. Here they are again:

建前 (たてまえ: face; official stance; public position or attitude (as opposed to private thoughts))

本音 (ほんね: real intention; motive; true opinion; what one really thinks)

The first one, 建前, looks as if it would mean "standing in front of a building," given that 建物 (たてもの) means "building" and 前 is "before." 

It's also a melodious kun-kun combination that tricks me into reading it as ケンゼン, which has a cool rhyme but is dead wrong!

As for 本音, it's a lovely-sounding on-kun combination that is therefore also hard to read. (Using one incorrect yomi produces another rhyme—ホンオン! What's the deal with these seductive rhymes?!) 

I can see that 本 conveys "real," whereas 音 (sound) could refer to the sound of one's voice and therefore one's opinion. How perfect!

I'm deeply grateful to the former head of the cram school for the goldmine he gave me. It inspired two JOK Notebook posts and enriched the newest essay to no end. Here's a sneak preview of essay 1370 on 塾:

Have a great weekend!


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