Who is 自分?

「自分」 is a commonly used pronoun but it's not always clear exactly who is being talked about. Depending on context, or more importantly regional dialect, 「自分」 can be a first person, second person, or third person pronoun. Dictionaries usually list a third person definition like [one] or [oneself], but in my experience, third person usage is the least common. While not a fixed rule, 「自分」 is usually first person in western Japan and second person in eastern Japan, but that's not important. As a general rule, you should probably avoid using 「自分」 because of problems with ambiguity until you've had enough direct experience with native Japanese usage to understand some of the nuance. There are plenty of other usable and more specific pronouns for first person ( 私、僕、俺、アタシ、我、これ), second person (あなた、君、お前、てめぇ、それ), and third person (彼、彼女、あの人、その人、この人、あれ). But if you like to exude an air of aloofness, you can go ahead and use 「自分」 for everything. As long as you can use it with confidence, you don't really need to worry about other more specific pronouns. This does mean that sometimes, or often it will be unclear who or what you're talking about, but one of the magic things about the Japanese language is that there's lots of ambiguity built in because everyone is supposed to all be thinking the same thing all the time. Even if the people you are talking to aren't sure what you're talking about they will usually make an effort to try and understand context, and if they can't figure it out, they will likely think it's their problem for not understanding something that should be implied, and that you are smarter than they are. Or an asshole. But they won't know which it is for sure, so they won't complain. Or try and correct you.


This is heavy. There are lots of people here.

When most people talk about things as being heavy or a large number of objects they usually use 「重い」 (heavy) or 「いっぱい」 (many, lots). These terms are fine, but not always the most accurate. In some cases, I prefer to be able to describe things in terms of mass or density. The terms 「質量」 and 「密度」 are easy enough to look up in the dictionary, but maybe a little tricky to learn how to use because you don't hear them used often in normal conversation. So hear are a few examples.

  • 英文:massive part
  • 和文:質量の多い部品
  • 英文:dense part
  • 和文:密度の高い部品
  • 英文:That front end has more mass than the back
  • 和文:前の部分が後ろより質量が多い
  • 英文:His hair density is low but he's not bald.
  • 和文: 彼の髪の毛の密度が少ない、でも彼ははげてない。
  • 英文:These two parts are the same size but this one has denser mass than the other.
  • 和文: この2つの部品の大きさは同じですがこの部品の質量密度のほうが高い

The things to remember are that 「質量」 is usually quantified by 「多い」 and 「少ない」 and 「密度」 is quantified by 「高い」 and 「低い」. 「密度」 can also be quantified by prepending 「高・低」 resulting in 「高密度(こうみつど)」 or 「低密度(ていみつど)」.

On a practical note, I don't need to use 「質量」 all that often, but I use 「密度」 just about every day.


How come Japanese doesn't have a "maybe"?

During my first year living in Japan, trying to say "maybe" and "might". At the time 「たぶん」 looked like the word to use for "maybe" but it didn't take long for people to start giving me funny looks for using a word that is closer to "probably" as "maybe". After a while I caught on that 「〜かもしれない」 was a much better was to express "might" or "maybe", but because the word order for 「〜かもしれない」is backwards from what I'm usually thinking when I was to say "might" or "maybe" it always felt a little clumsy. It feels to me more like a "... but I'm not sure" than a "maybe", and I don't like "... but I'm not sure".

Now don't get me wrong, 「〜かもしれない」 isn't so bad once you get used to it. It's very much standard Japanese so you're pretty likely to be understood if you choose to use it. It's just not my thing. It gets me confused if I'm trying to think in English before talking and it's not particularly nerdy. I prefer using 「可能性」 (かのうせい).

「可能性」 is best translated as "possibility", and it's used pretty much the same way. If you want to say you might do something, you can say 「可能性がある」 ("there is a possibility") which, to me, feels closer to its English analogue than "might"/"maybe" does to 「〜かもしれない」. It's also easy to quantify with high, low, or other quantifiers so you can let people know how strongly you feel about something.

  • Very high confidence: 可能性が高い
  • High confidence: 可能性が十分ある
  • Average confidence: 可能性がある
  • Moderately low confidence: やや可能性がある (I like when I have an excuse to use 「やや」)
  • Low confidence: 可能性が低い

Both 「可能性」 and 「可能」 are useful and sufficiently nerdy. I find myself using them just about every day. Just as 「可能性」 is great for things you're not sure about, 「可能」 is the word for things you are sure about.

  • Can do it?: 可能です
  • Can't do it?: 不可能

note: people usually 「です」 after 「可能」 but often leave 「不可能」 on its own. I'm not sure why...


Aさん: [something interesting] Bさん: なるほど。

While not unheard of in ordinary speech, 「なるほど」 is used with particular frequency by Japanese speaking nerds. 「なるほど」 is probably best translated as meaning something like "oh! now i get it" or "I see" (from my main man Jim Breen). Normal people use 「なるほど」 when someone has explained something to them and they have managed to understand it. This could be referred to as a "なるほど moment". They're usually pretty excited about what they've just understood and use it the way Archimedes is said to have used "Eureka!" — with an exclamation mark. Even so, its far more common to say something like 「そうなんだ!」 or 「今分かった!」 or even just 「あぁ〜!」. Note that for all the alternate phrases the exclamation mark persists. This is because regular people aren't often able to understand new things and are usually surprised and excited when they do.

Nerds, on the other hand are understanding new things all the time. A nerd is so used to having なるほど moments that when one comes along it's no biggie. Nerdy people who speak Japanese tend to use 「なるほど」 at a rate around 78% higher than average (source: my butt). They have a higher frequency of なるほど moments and because of this a nerd would usually not be moved to an excited state and would therefore not need an exclamation mark. Here are a few standard examples of usage where Aさん could be anyone and Bさん is a なるほど user.

  • Aさん: We found the problem with the server. A malicious hacker broke in and deleted all files between 14K and 93K in size.
  • Bさん: なるほど。
  • Aさん: It looks like we cut your fugu wrong. You only have 3 hours left to live.
  • Bさん: なるほど。

These 2 examples are pretty pedestrian. In each case a non-nerd would probably have responded differently, but its still clear why 「なるほど」 was used in each case. Now let's look at two more examples.

  • Aさん: Before coming to work, I had breakfast and brushed my teeth.
  • Bさん: なるほど。
  • Aさん: I enjoy tennis.
  • Bさん: なるほど。

OK. On the surface these don't appear to be なるほど moments, but they're might be some reason why they would be. It's not important that your reason for using 「なるほど」 be clear or even reasonable. What is important is that you appear to have an elevated understanding of what's going on around you, even if that's not necessarily true.

Usage is probably easiest to understand for people that often use "indeed" to respond to statements in English. The English "indeed" as a response can almost always be translated as 「なるほど」 in Japanese, but 「なるほど」doesn't have the automatic air of pretension that "indeed" does so the opposite isn't always true. In most cases, though, if you're a user of "indeed" in English, you'll probably enjoy using 「なるほど」.


for nerds. that's 「おたく」, right?

if you're studying Japanese, you've probably come across the term 「おたく」. most places translate this as "nerd", but if you're looking to tell someone you're a nerd 「おたく」 might not always be the term you want. 「おたく」 is derived from 「お宅」, which usually means "house" or "home". irrespective of positive or negative connotations, 「おたく」 doesn't specifically suggest intelligence; it is used for people who are so consumed by their hobbies that they spend all their time at home. so if you want to tell someone that you live with your parents and spend all your time in your room reading comics and playing with plastic figurines, then 「おたく」 is probably the term for you. most nerds i know appreciate the suggestion of smarts that comes with nerd.「インテリ」, while not as widely used, is specifically the term for a nerd who is a smart nerd, as opposed to someone who lacks social skills and may or may not be intelligent.

so if you want a Japanese translation for "nerd", you've got two choices: 「おたく」 or 「インテリ」. i prefer 「インテリ」.