Like many people studying Japanese here at OIST, I reached a certain point in my studies where it became obvious that the adventures of Takeshi-san and Mary-san were getting a bit stale. And like many people at this particular point in their language journey, I thought manga would make the perfect tool to improve my reading ability. After all, it’s real Japanese! But with pictures! And short sentences! If it’s aimed at 10- to 12-year-old boys, it can’t be that hard, right?
As it turns out, yes, it can be that hard, with a few additional layers of hard on top. Classes tend to focus on formal Japanese and for good reason; you can’t have foreigners going around being rude to everyone until they learn keigo. Unfortunately manga is almost entirely written in casual style with a whole different set of rules that are difficult to find in any textbook. Sometimes these rules even seem to contradict things taught in class.
With the liberal aid of a book called Japanese the Manga Way1 and a good dictionary, I’ve struggled through a volume of Dragon Ball SD and have now started a second. Believe me, there are a lot of things I wish I had known from the beginning. So in the interest of trying to make manga more accessible, and letting other people profit from my mistakes, here are a few things that I would liked to have known before I started reading Dragon Ball.
The delightful fun that is sentence-final particles
If you’ve ever taken a Japanese course, then you can at least recognize some of the basic particles like は (wa), が (ga), を (wo), ね (ne), and よ (yo). But there are actually five more common particles out there to frustrate you, especially since the ones I’m going to talk about all fall at the end of a sentence. So imagine you’re reading through a sentence, like below, and you pretty much understand it all! Where does the ぞ (zo) fit in? Turns out Japanese has two particles, ぜ (ze) andぞ (zo), which indicate “strong masculine emphasis.” There’s a corresponding female particle, わ (wa), which can add “a delicate feminine touch” to the preceding sentence (and for all of you who ever wondered why Japanese teachers put so much emphasis on the わ (wa) / は (wa) distinction, this is it). None of these three particles are generally translated into English, but they can sometimes help you figure out who is talking in a crowded panel, or determine the gender of an androgynous character. For instance, that adorable blue cat thing in the picture? According to a speech bubble a few pages back, unambiguously male.
め (me) is an interesting particle. I also feel like I need to apologize to all my Japanese teachers past, present, and future for teaching it to you, since it is essentially the cursing particle. That’s right folks. Although Japanese doesn’t really have swear words in the same way English speakers think of them, tacking on a め (me) to the end of a sentence describing a person or thing you dislike really drives the point home. When paired with one of the やつ (yatsu)—or slang term for guy, こ-そ- あ-ど (ko-so-a-do) words or the こん な (konna) こ-そ-あ-ど (ko-so-a-do) series it can get downright nasty. I’m sorry, and you’re welcome.
The last thing I kept seeing all over the place was a small つ (tsu) at the ends of sentences. I couldn’t figure out if it was voiced or voiceless or what was going on until I saw a translated example in Japanese the Manga Way. Interestingly enough (or maybe this is just my linguistics background showing), the small つ (tsu) seems to be the native Japanese equivalent of an English exclamation point. In fact, you’ll often see them used together. The Japanese つ (tsu) has the added effect of sharpening whatever was said before it, so よしっ ends up sounding more like “Yosh!” and less like Nintendo’s iconic green dinosaur.
There are many, many more things I have learned in the course of reading manga (and I’m not done yet!), but I’m afraid I may have hit a universal tolerance for reading articles about grammar. Therefore, 次回をお楽しみ に (shikai wo otano-shimi ni), or tune in next time as we tackle the another aspect of the ever-surprising grammar of Japanese manga.
1 Wayne P. Lammers, Japanese the Manga Way: An Illustrated Guide to Grammar and Structure, (Berkeley, Stone Bridge Press, 2004).
images from Akira Toriyama and Naho Ohishi, Dragon Ball SD vol. 1 (Tokyo, Shueisha, 2014), 56; and Akira Toriyama and Naho Ohishi, Dragon Ball SD vol. 2 (Tokyo, Shueisha, 2014), 25.
Margaret Howell is a grammar and language nerd, with a BA in Linguistics and an MA in Intercultural Communication. In her free time she enjoys drawing, learning more about Japanese culture and playing board games.