LINGUIST List 12.2153

Tue Sep 4 2001

Review: Kaiser et al, Japanese Comprehensive Grammar

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  1. linguistlist reviews, Kabata review

Message 1: Kabata review

Date: Tue, 4 Sep 2001 14:16:28 -0400 (EDT)
From: linguistlist reviews <>
Subject: Kabata review

Date: Mon, 03 Sep 2001 11:09:46 -0600
From: Kaori Kabata <>
Subject: review of Kaiser, et al., Japanese: A Comprehensive Grammar

Kaiser, Stafan, Yasuko Ichikawa, Noriko Kobayashi, and Hilofumi
Yamamoto (2000) Japanese: A Comprehensive Grammar. Routledge,
paperback ISBN 0-415-09920-X, xx+636pp, Routledge Grammars

Kaori Kabata, University of Alberta

Written by a team of both native and non-native speakers of
Japanese, this book aims to provide guides to the Japanese
grammar for both native and non-native Japanese language
specialists. At the same time, with its concise explanation in
basic terms with a minimum amount of linguistic jargons, it may
also be used as a reference book by a learner of Japanese.

The content of the book is arranged in 255 alphabetically ordered
entries, most of which deal with Japanese-language items (e.g.,
'baai,' 'datte,' 'ka,' 'ni yotte,' and so on) but general linguistic
categories (e.g., 'Morphology' and 'Vocabulary), grammatical
categories (e.g., 'Adjectival expressions,' 'Adverbs,' 'Nouns,'
and 'Verb types'), and syntactic functions (e.g., 'Conjoining,'
'Ellipses,' 'Passive sentences,' and 'Questions') are also included.
The List of Entries is provided at the beginning of the book for
a quick overview, and the Grammar and Function Index at the end
of the book provides a more comprehensive list of items covered in
this volume. The English Index, which is also at the end of the
book, allows one to search for an entry from its English meaning or
English grammatical terms. The book also provides a number of
cross-references to related entries and/or sub- entries.

Under each entry are a short functional or semantic explanation
in English and sub- entries with a list of examples both in
Japanese and Romaji, each followed by their English translation.
In this book, like Sunagawa (1998) and some other previous
Japanese grammar (e.g., Makino & Tsutsui 1986), usages of a
language item are defined mostly on the basis of their syntactic

What distinguishes this book from the previous books like Morita
(1989), which is written for the native language specialist, and
Makino and Tsutsui (1986), written for learners of Japanese, is
the amount of authentic data provided as examples. Most of the
examples are taken from original printed media sources, such as
daily newspapers (although no list of the sources nor the source
of each example is revealed). The approach taken in this book is
data-driven, and the breadth of the structure patterns found in
the data is quite remarkable. Moreover, as mentioned in the
preface, the data revealed some gaps between the pedagogical or
prescriptive grammar and the actual use of the language. What is
generally believed to be a common usage may seldom, if ever,
appear in the actual data. Similarly, an item may appear almost
exclusively in a particular structure or string of words, which
the pedagogical grammar does not list.

There is no doubt that the authenticity and the richness of the
examples make this book a fine addition to the existing list of
books on Japanese grammar. However, there are a few issues that
emerge if one considers it as a grammar book, as implied by the
title "Japanese: A Comprehensive Grammar."

First of all, many of the examples are so long and complex that
mere English translations (which are usually non-literal) do not
help understand the functions or the meanings of the particular
item. In some cases, the examples seemed unnecessarily complex
for a fairly simple function of a language item (e.g., the entry
for 'made' has a three-line-long example in which "-made" is used
in a phrase "koko-made" or 'until high school.' There was no
indication as to which part of the translation corresponds to the
item of interest. It would have been beneficial, especially to
non-native users, to make it clear what relevance each example
has to the particular entry or sub-entry.

Related to this point was the issue dealing with the romanized
translation of the examples. It is supposed to enable users
'to work out most unknown words or kanji in the original
script version.' However, without the word-by-word gloss,
it would be simply impossible to figure out the meaning of
unknown words within a rather long example. It would have
been more helpful if furigana were provided with difficult kanji.

Furthermore, how sub-entries were determined was sometimes
unclear. For example, under the entry for '-te ageru,' it is more
reasonable to have separate sub- entries for 'VERB-te age-rare-ru'
and 'VERB-CAUSATIVE-te ageru,' than having a separate
sub-entry for 'VERB-te ageru IN SUBORDINATE CLAUSES.' The
function of '-te ageru' is, after all, no different whether it is
used in a main clause or in a subordinate clause. Moreover,
the definition of 'idioms' was not clarified at all.

The fact that the sources of examples were not presented is also
regrettable. At the very least, a list of sources should have
been included. With a clear identification of the sources of
examples, users would be able to better appreciate each example
and the context where it is used.

There were also quite a few errors with the placement of square
brackets. There were also some missing letters from the original
scripts, which would make the sentence unintelligible.

Obviously, this book came out as an outcome of a large-scale data
collection, and the richness of the data provided here is worth
recognition. However, a language specialist may find this book
to be disappointing for a reference book because of the overly
short explanation provided for each entry and sub-entry, while a
learner of Japanese may face a great deal of difficulty making
out most of the examples, which are far from self-explanatory.
Dealing with authentic materials, as the authors admit in the
preface, is not an easy task. It is unfortunate that, by trying
to reach a wider range of users, this book fails to meet
anybody's demand.


Makino, Seiichi, and Michio Tsutsui. (1986) A Dictionary of Basic
Japanese Grammar. Tokyo: The Japan Times.

Morita, Yoshiyuki. (1989) A Dictionary of Basic Japanese. Tokyo:
Kadokawa Shoten.

Sunagawa, Yuriko. (1998). Nihongo Bunkei Ziten [A Dictionary of
Structures of the Japanese Language]. Tokyo: Kuroshio.

About the reviewer:
Kaori Kabata (Ph.D. University of Alberta) is an assistant professor
of the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Alberta.
She teaches various levels of Japanese language courses, as well as
courses on Japanese grammar for learners. Her specialty is Japanese
lexical semantics and first and second language acquisition of word
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