Solving unrealistic murder mysteries in Japanese

So you’re a mystery writer, or a private detective, and you’ve been called to Japan to solve the harrowing, grisly, impossible murder of a rich and powerful politician, Yamaguchi-san, during a party at his home. But where do you begin?

You begin, of course, by learning all the important mystery and forensics terminology.

First, you have to know how to introduce yourself. You’re not a “mystery writer”; you’re a 推理筆者 (すいりひっしゃ). Or, rather than a private detective, you’re a 私立探偵 (しりつたんてい) who works for (or perhaps operates) a 探偵事務所 (たんていじむしょ, detective agency or consulting firm). Maybe you’re even a 名探偵 (めいたんてい, great detective), your exploits known throughout the world, but it would be impolite for you to say so.

The 警察 (けいさつ, police) have called you because of the 怪しい (あやしい, suspicious) nature of the death. The 事件 (じけん, incident) was, as far as anyone can tell, a 密室殺人 (みっしつさつじん, “locked room murder”)–a 不可能犯罪 (ふかのうはんざい, impossible crime). It would have been ruled a 自殺 (じさつ, suicide) if not for an apparent ダイイングメッセージ (“dying message”) left by the 被害者 (ひがいしゃ, victim). Unfortunately, the message is unclear–it may be some sort of 暗号 (あんごう, code), or it may be some other sort of indirect reference to the 殺人犯 (さつじんはん, murderer).

Now it’s up to you to double-check the work the police have done. Assemble all the 手がかり (てがかり, clues) they’ve noted so far, and start keeping track of your own. Talk with the 客人 (きゃくじん, guests) of the パーティー (party) and analyze their アリバイ (alibis). Go over the 犯罪現場 (はんざいげんば, crime scene) for clues that may have been missed. Talk with 鑑識 (かんしき, forensics) about the tests they’ve done and order more if necessary. Based on what you’ve learned, you may want to order a ルミノール (luminol) test somewhere on the scene…the killer may have cleaned up some 血液 (けつえき, blood), but you’ll still be able to get a reaction if you know where to look.

Once you’ve figured out what really happened, it’s time for your 推理ショー(すいりショー, literally “deduction show”, where you present your findings). Have the police help you set up a demonstration of how the 殺人 (さつじん, murder) went down. There may be a grumpy inspector who complains a little about this, but you’ll also usually find at least one very willing detective to be your errand boy. He’ll also sit in as your victim if you want! Just try not to bump him off in your excitement to reveal the killer’s トリック (trick).

Make a big show of demonstrating the trick first. Once you’ve impressed everyone with your reasoning skills, start eliminating suspects. Ticking them off one by one adds to the サスペンス (suspense). Finally, lower your head, close your eyes dramatically, lay out your best 証拠 (しょうこ, evidence), and then say the following line:

山口さんを殺したのは… (“The one who killed Yamaguchi-san…”)

Then snap your head up, point straight at the killer, and say:

…Xさん、あなただ! (“…was you, X-san!”)

And with that, you’re ready to be a 名探偵 in 日本. (Just watch out for 黒ずくめの男達 [men in black] with 実験的な薬 [experimental drugs]!)

I wrote this in 2012 and never posted it. It is, rather obviously, inspired by Detective Conan.

Getting more Japanese language input with Flutterscape

One of the most important factors in learning a new language is getting good input. Interacting with other speakers of Japanese, watching Japanese-language videos, reading Japanese-language books and websites, and listening to Japanese music are all ways you can ramp up your learning.

There are lots of free resources out there for Japanese input. One simple way to find Japanese language content is simply by searching the web for keywords in Japanese.

But sometimes you want something you can hold in your hands, or something that isn’t available digitally. If you’re lucky enough to live near a Kinokuniya or a Japanese specialty store that offers more than groceries, you might be able to find what you’re looking for there. But let’s say you’re really interested in a certain band, and you want to find all their CDs. Or you used to read a translation of a certain manga, and now you’d like to give the original a shot. It’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to walk into a store and find exactly what you’re looking for.

Enter Flutterscape.

Flutterscape is kind of like Craigslist for Japanese media. The site connects people outside Japan who want Japanese products with people living in Japan who have better access to those products. Often the sellers will already have items posted for sale, but what I’ve found most useful is Requests, where buyers can post exactly what they want and then let different sellers bid on the sale. So far I’ve used Requests to purchase two artbooks and two complete sets of out-of-print manga.

The buying process is simple and secure and guaranteed by Flutterscape. Your personal information is not sent to the seller; instead, the seller sends your item to Flutterscape’s Tokyo location, and Flutterscape ships the item to you. You can find more information on buying here.

Obviously, ordering items from another country is going to be a little pricey, especially when you add shipping. Unfortunately, Flutterscape does not currently have a way to combine multiple orders to lower shipping costs; each requested item will be shipped on its own. (I ordered my mangas in sets rather than volume by volume, which would have been cost-prohibitive.) If you like the idea of having media direct from Japan to consume but are leery of the cost, you might consider sharing the cost of materials across a group of Japanese-learning friends in your area.

Regardless, having the option to import items you wouldn’t normally have access to really opens up your language-learning possibilities.

If you are actually in Japan, you can earn a little extra money by being a seller on Flutterscape. You won’t make anything on shipping, but you can (and should) charge the buyers a little more than what it costs you to purchase the item they want. You then get the satisfaction of sharing Japanese language and culture with people around the world while accumulating a tidy little sum for yourself. There’s more about selling here.

As interest in Japanese language and culture continues to grow, Flutterscape has emerged to provide a much-needed conduit for obtaining raw materials. For the right price, you can snag the original manga for that show you were obsessed with as a kid, or out-of-print CDs from that band you heard the first time you started getting into Japanese culture. If there’s something out there you know will keep your interest, it’s excellent fodder for Japanese language study. After all, if you like it, you’re more likely to consume it, which means you’re maximizing your Japanese input. It’s win-win.

Social media language study suggestion

I think it would be cool if a bunch of people studying a language would go out and take photos of signs written entirely in that language and upload them somewhere (probably Flickr, people always use Flickr for this sort of thing) and tag them so others can find them. Then we would have a huge group of real-life flash cards that we could use on our computers to familiarize ourselves with the vocabulary found on signs. It could be place names, common warnings, business names, sales, things like that. Basically, the idea is to give vocabulary (and how to write it) relevance.

I put some rather mediocre photos from 2001 up to start.

Posts like this are the reason I love Language Log

I Didn’t Write Shit Today

The sentence I didn’t write shit today is ambiguous: the idiomatic meaning typically says you didn’t write (or at best, you wrote essentially nothing); the literal meaning typically says that you did write, and what you wrote could not be described as shit. But, I just noticed today, the two roughly opposed meanings can both be true in the same situation! Consider someone who expects daily output to be between 15 and 20 pages, and today they wrote only a page and a half, though it was of high quality. Then on the idiomatic meaning, they didn’t write shit (because a page and a half counts as approximately nothing). But on the literal meaning, they didn’t write any shit: it was all good stuff, not excrement. Both meanings are true!

See, this is the sort of thing I think about. (Just ask Hai about my extended Sluggy Freelance “caca” joke…)

Categorized as Language

Under the right circumstances, people use "under" instead of "in"

Arnold Zwicky over at Language Log has been looking into the phenomenon of “under” versus “in” occurring before the phrase “[modifier] circumstances”. I, personally, couldn’t recall ever hearing someone say “in the circumstances”, but Zwicky stated previously that not only is this how he says it, but it’s considered proper.

Of course, it’s Language Log’s purpose to debunk prescriptive language rules, so he did a little googling to see how people are actually using the phrase. Not content to simply check with “the circumstances”, he tried “these”, “all”, “no”, and several other modifiers.

In summary: the Google data suggest that “under” is preferred to “in”

with determiners “the” and “these”
(more strongly)
with determiner “which”
(very strongly)
with determiner “what”
(almost categorically)
with quantity determiner “no”

but that “in” is preferred to “under”

(almost categorically)
when “circumstances” means ‘personal situation’
with determiner “those” in general
(almost categorically)
with determiner “those” plus certain following relatives
with quantity determiners “all” and “some”
with quantity determiner “many”
(almost categorically)
with quantity determiner “a few”

This just scratches the surface of the phenomenon, but it’s enough to indicate that several effects are probably going on. As usual, the facts of usage are complex, subtle, sometimes surprising, and not easy to derive from first principles.

Ah, science.

Got languages?

My cousin Carl spent four months in Zambia working with missionaries this past summer. Today, highlights how to write Zambia (ザンビア) and its capital, Lusaka (ルサカ) in Japanese. Most interesting to me was this, though:

Languages: English, Bemba, Kaonda, Lozi, Lunda, Luvale, Nyanja, Tonga, and about 70 other indigenous languages


Categorized as Language

Helping your baby’s language learning

Teach Your Baby to Talk

Pay close attention to everything your toddler says — even when her babbles are hard to understand. To help her out, ask her to show you what she wants or point to what she is talking about. Ask open-ended questions and wait for a response. When you act genuinely interested in your toddler’s answers, you can keep the conversational ball rolling longer. (Open-ended questions also promote children’s recall from memory, sharpen observation skills, and encourage planning and if-then syllogistic reasoning skills.)

Yes, I am still excitedly reading articles like this, because I’m a masochist!

Seriously, this kind of thing has always been interesting to me. I do have a degree in linguistics, after all. Maybe someday I’ll “get over the narcissistic injury” and stop adding snide comments every time I make a post relating to children.

Categorized as Language

God, I love Language Log

Nearly all strings of words are ungrammatical“!

But celebrating their religious observances in home and church is a clause with celebrating as its verb, not a noun phrase with observances as its head. The word celebrating cannot possible [sic] be an attributive modifier with observances, because their, a genitive pronoun, follows it; that cannot be anything but a determiner, and determiners precede attributive adjectives. (Genitive pronouns cannot serve as attributive modifiers: phrases like *the my house or *an our cat are utterly ungrammatical.)

I also love that I found a typo. In Language Log.

Categorized as Language

My hero Mark Liberman gives his take on the Language Rats

Yee! See, he even included the actual results from the actual article. Is he awesome, or what?

You don’t believe me? Well, read this!

In other words, in all cases the rats are responding very nearly randomly, but in the forwards condition they responded just a bit (about .08) more often (in the first minute vs. the second minute after hearing the sentence) to same-language test material than to the new-language test material. This marginal effect did not hold in the backwards condition, which might be because the rats were better able to encode the natural patterns, or might be because they were distracted by the unnatural patterns (you might call this the “holy sh*t, what was that?” effect).

Both sorts of explanations might have played a role here.

I mean, come on…the “holy sh*t, what was that?” effect!

Categorized as Language