Calligraphers of Instagram (Part 2) - Mitsuru Nagata

Mitsuru Nagata was born in Kyoto, and works extensively in Spain. His work combines elements of calligraphy with sumi-e (Japanese ink painting) techniques.

He performs at "live-painting" events, where he produces huge calligraphy paintings in front of a live audience.

These large-scale performances are often at festivals:

I love the simplicity of Nagata's work, like this stunning commission, with the traditional thatched roof home in the background:
おかえりなさい (o kaeri nasai) "Welcome home"
(Calligraphy is a good opportunity to get your eyes used to vertical writing, too!)

A post shared by Mitsuru Nagata (@nagatayakyoto) on

If hiragana's not your thing, there's plenty of complex kanji to get your teeth into too.

Like this new year's post, with a pug for the year of the dog (2018):
謹賀新年 (kinga shinnen) "Happy New Year"

I love the movement in these videos, and the combination of precision brushwork and watery ink.

This one's a promo for one of Nagata's live performances in Spain - a beckoning cat saying おいでね! (oide ne!) "Please come!"

Follow Mitsuru Nagata (@nagatayakyoto) on Instagram, or find out more on his website.

Read more in this series: Calligraphers of Instagram (Part 1) - @yogai888emi

Calligraphers of Instagram (bonus pun!) - @yogai888emi again

I can't believe I wrote an entire blog post about calligrapher @yogai888emi and forgot to include this amazing pun.


tai ryouri ga tabe-tai

"I want to eat Thai food."

What's the Japanese word for "Thai?" it's タイ tai.

And how do you say "want to eat" in Japanese? You stick -tai on the end of the verb.

It's funny, right?

Cute, too ♡

Calligraphers of Instagram (Part 1) - @yogai888emi

I absolutely love kanji - Chinese characters that are also used in Japanese writing.

But calligraphy is not my strong point. My writing is good, but not particularly beautiful.

I have, however, recently become slightly obsessed with instagrammers who post Japanese calligraphy photos.

So I thought it might be fun to share some with you!

I first discovered @yogai888emi via this adorable story about falling asleep on the train.

↓ Look at those lovely clean lines. I immediately had serious handwriting envy.

A post shared by 恵美・曄涯 (@yogai888emi) on

Can you read this one?
↓ 掃除 (souji) "cleaning"

If kanji's not your thing, you can find beautiful hiragana and katakana on her page too.

↓ ハナゲ (hanage) "nose hair"

There are videos, too, if you like watching calligraphy. I do - I find it strangely relaxing.

↓ 煮える (nieru) to boil, to be cooked. This one's from the height of summer!

You can find heaps more of her work at @yogai888emi's instagram page. I hope you enjoy exploring it as much as I do.

Just looking at calligraphy won't make your handwriting more beautiful though - unfortunately!

Is it "douzo" or "dōzo"?

"Wait, is it douzo? In the book it says dōzo..."

It's both. And it's neither!

In the beginning stages I use rōmaji (English letters) to write Japanese in class. This is to give you a head start in learning to speak.

Some people think you shouldn't use rōmaji at all, because it will give you bad pronunciation.
That might be true if you're studying by yourself.

But if you have a teacher to teach you how to pronounce Japanese words correctly, and correct your mistakes, you can learn Japanese correctly using rōmaji.

I'm pretty strict on pronunciation, I think. My students have good pronunciation - even the beginners.

Anyway, there are different systems for writing Japanese in the English alphabet. Depending on which system is being used, a word could be spelled quite differently.

どうぞ (do-u-zo) means "here you are" / "go ahead".

Some writing systems use a macron (a horizontal bar over the letter) to write the long vowel sound: ā ī ū ē ō.  Then, it would be written "dōzo".

Another method is to spell out the letters: aa, ii, uu, ei, ou.   That gives us "douzo".

Both "dōzo" and "douzo" are correct.

Sometimes, the long vowel isn't written in: "dozo". This is wrong!

You might also see ee and oo used instead of ei and ou: "doozo".

Personally I think "doozo" is just asking for trouble. That's not how the word is spelled in Japanese (it's どうぞ  do-u-zo).

Of course, the only truly correct way to spell the word is to write it in Japanese: どうぞ.

But both "dōzo" and "douzo" are fine too. Just don't forget the long vowel!

Why You Should Use Mnemonics - the Quickest and Best Way to Learn Hiragana and Katakana

This week I finally got around to going through the mid-course feedback from my students and drawing up plans to incorporate some of what you asked for into the rest of the course.

Several learners mentioned the importance of learning the kana early on.

Learning to read Japanese can be a daunting task. The Japanese language has three distinct "alphabets" (four if you count romaji!) and learning kanji is a task that takes years.

You can learn the kana (hiragana and katakana) pretty quickly, though, if you use the most efficient way to memorise them - mnemonics.

It's a bit like brute force memorisation, except it's fun...

Hiragana and Katakana are the "building blocks" of the Japanese written language. Students in my beginner class mostly start with the romaji edition of 'Japanese For Busy People', because my priority is to get you speaking from day one, and to spend class time on speaking as much as possible. Reading and writing is mostly set as homework.

But if you want to learn to read Japanese, you definitely need to start by learning hiragana.

But how to remember them?

The best, quickest, most fun method is to associate each character with a picture that it (clearly or vaguely) looks like, ideally also using the sound of the letter.

Hiragana and katakana are pretty simple, so associating each character with a picture is super easy.

Here's hiragana き (ki), which we can imagine is a picture of a KEY. My key is an old-fashioned one. Yours might be modern and spiky. Or it might have wings on it and be flying about getting chased by Harry Potter on a broomstick.

The point is to think of a strong visual image that makes the picture of the key stick in your mind:

Of course, you need to learn to read words and sentences too. So as well as learning each letter, you need to practice writing and reading. This where the mnemonic really sinks in.

Memorisation doesn't help you remember. What helps you remember is active recall.

Let me give you an example.

You're reading a sentence and come across the word きのこ. You're staring at the letter き - "which one was that again?" and struggle a little bit to remember it.

Then you remember - aha! it's the KEY! This is ki.

This process of active recall - pushing a little bit to remember something - is the process that cements the mnemonic in your mind.

Hurrah! You're on the path to reading Japanese.

Fun fact: Toad is a きのこ (kinoko).

For me, one of the great thing about using mnemonics to remember the kana is that when I explain the system to learners, they often tell me that's what they're doing anyway, even if they don't have a name for what they're doing:
"Oh yes, that's how I remember む too - it's a funny cow's face! MOO"

"No, む is a man saying MO-ve!"
I've also found - luckily for me - it doesn't matter seem to matter if the actual picture is rubbish. (You don't even have to draw them, I just did this to help my students out and to share the idea).

What's important is that the picture in your head is super clear.

...and once you finish hiragana, you can do the whole thing again for katakana!

You can find the whole set of hiragana and katakana mnemonics with the hashtag #stepupkana - please check it out and let me know what you think.

I'd love to hear what mnemonics you use to help remember the kana - let me know in the comments or add your story to the instagram posts for that character.

Have a lovely Friday everyone. 素敵な一日を過ごしてください!

Sarada at the Resutoran...Part 2: The Answers

Remember, some loanwords look and sound a bit like English - but they're not!

Last week I gave you some Japanese loanwords to guess the origins of. Did you guess what languages (not English!) these words come from?

Koohii コーヒー coffee -  Portuguese

Zero ゼロ zero - French

Pompu ポンプ pump - Dutch; Flemish

Botan ボタン button - Portuguese

Koppu コップ cup - Dutch; Flemish

Sarada サラダ salad - Portuguese

Kokku コック cook - Dutch; Flemish 
There have actually been Dutch and Portuguese loanwords in Japanese since the 16th and 17th centuries, when both countries established trade with Japan.

So, next time you see a katakana word you don't recognise, don't despair - it might not have originated from a language you speak! ;-)

Is it shimbun or shinbun?

It’s both. And it’s neither.

I got asked again recently whether “shinbun” or “shimbun” is correct.

You’ll see both spellings...and books about the Japanese language don’t seem to be able to agree either.

If you look at the two most popular Japanese beginner textbooks, Genki has “shinbun”, whereas Japanese for Busy People has “shimbun” and also “kombanwa”.

But why?

Well, there are different ways of writing Japanese in romaji (roman letters i.e. the alphabet). All romaji is an approximation, and there are two different major systems, both used widely.

In elementary school, Japanese kids learn Kunrei, the government’s official romanization system. Kunrei is more consistent, but not particularly intuitive for non-Japanese speakers.

In the Kunrei system:
しょ is written as “syo”
こうこう is written as “kookoo”

But textbooks for people learning Japanese tend to use the Hepburn system, which is easier for non-native speakers. Modernized Hepburn writes しょ as “sho” and こうこう as “kōkō”.

"N or M?"

Under the old Hepburn system of romaji, a ん (n) before a "b" or "p" sound used to be written as m. This gave us romaji spellings like shimbun and sempai. (The Kunrei system, on the other hand, never used this rogue "m" at all).

When Modernized Hepburn was introduced in 1954, the "m" rule was dropped. Since 1954, both major systems have said that these words should be written as shinbun and senpai.

So shimbun-with-an-m hasn't been officially used since 1954...but it is still the preferred romanization of several major Japanese newspapers: Asahi Shimbun, Yomiuri Shimbun, Mainichi Shimbun.

So it seems like shimbun-with-an-m is still with us for historical reasons.

Yay, history!

"So which is better?"

Arguably, “shimbun” is closer to the pronunciation of the word. There IS a sound change going on here – before a “p” or “b” sound in Japanese, the ん sounds more like “m” than “n”.

But "shinbun" is more consistent, and personally I prefer it - especially if you’re still learning kana. There is no ‘m’ hiragana, and I don’t want you wasting your time looking for it on your kana chart.

"Which is more common?"

I don’t know. But it kind of doesn’t matter which one is more common: the Japanese way to write the word for newspaper isn't “shinbun” or “shimbun”. It’s not really even しんぶん. The Japanese word for newspaper is 新聞.

Which brings me neatly onto my next question...

"Why are you writing it in romaji anyway?"

You might think the shimbun/shinbun thing is a slightly pointless question. Everyone should just learn the kana, and then we wouldn't have this problem, right?

But romaji isn’t just read by people learning Japanese. Romanised stations and place names and even people's names are read by millions of people visiting Japan who don’t know Japanese.

And for people who don’t speak Japanese (especially English speakers), it's much easier to guess the pronunciation of “shokuji” than “syokuzi”.

So, while the current system is a bit of a muddle, it's the best thing we've got. I think we can all agree on that.

P.S. If you'd like to delve deeper into Japanese together, check out my new Japanese language courses here in sunny Brighton!