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The Power of Japanese Filler Words

After many years of Japanese study, I’ve obtained MANY books that have been both immeasurably useful and those that are complete bollocks. Recently, I dug up all the books currently in my possession and decided what I wanted to look at in my continuing efforts to get better at Japanese. One of the books I pulled out of the woodwork is “Japanese Core Words and Phrases: Things You Can’t Find In A Dictionary” by Kakuko Shoji.

This little book has a tremendous amount of information. It doesn’t teach you vocabulary per se, but it contains more of the binding words of Japanese that give it a sense of fullness. They make every day speech sound more natural and not textbook-like. Seriously, who wants to speak with a textbook?

The one thing this book really brings to light is the lack of practical simplicity in the “ko-so-a-do” words of Japanese (check out Maggie-sensei’s explanation of the basics of ko-so-a-do). But these fillers are larger than just “this”, “that”, “that over there” and “which”. When used in conjunction with other participles, binder and filler words, it changes the meaning of an entire sentence; it also can change the very emotion that is evoked. Let’s take the phrase なんとなく (どことなく is similar; the difference is ‘what’ or ‘where’ is uncertain), for example. It’s easy enough to say “She’s not pretty, but she’s popular because she’s cute.” (彼女は美人じゃないけど、可愛いので人気がある), but you could expand that statement to have a “je ne sais quoi” feeling: 彼女は美人じゃないけど、なんとなく愛嬌(あいきょう)があって可愛いので人気がある) — ”She’s not pretty, but she’s popular because she’s cute & there’s something charming about her”. The ‘why’ and ‘how’ relays uncertainty when using なんとなく.

You can’t add “je ne sais quoi’ without those little extra fillers. And that makes all the difference. Sometimes you can’t explain why something is or you can’t just be black and white about a statement. It requires more, and in every language, we take the same action — we add fillers.

I’ve seen these type of things on the JLPT before as well and it helps to understand the overall context of sentences and essays during the test, not to mention the added flexibility it has for live conversations with other Japanese speakers.

I recommend this book as a good add-on to your Japanese language library. :) Besides, it’s super cheap, so there’s no reason you shouldn’t have it.