Wednesday, December 9, 2009

from: Herouth M.
date: Mon, Nov 30, 2009 at 1:43 AM
subject: [Fwd: Emailing: P1230294.JPG]

Hi. I'm from Israel. Love your blog.

The story goes like this: I study Japanese for several years now, and I can read about 1400 kanji more or less. One day, my co-worker approaches me with his cellphone. "Can you tell me what this says?" he asks me, showing me a photo of a piece of fabric carrying the kanji 私変態. I take a look, and reply "It's not grammatical, but it basically says "I'm a pervert".


"'I'm a pervert'. The first character means 'I', the other two mean 'pervert'", where did you get that from, anyway?

"It's on my 1.5 years old daughter's shirt!"

After LOLing for about 15 minutes straight, I kind of demanded that he get me a photo of the complete shirt so I can send it to Hanzi Smatter. And here is the shirt, complete with the cute, luckless 1.5 years old "hentai" herself.

I mean, yes, I have seen intentionally-made "hentai" shirts around the web (and on Hanzi Smatter). Adults buy them and wear them for the laughs. But who in his right mind would put this on a toddler's shirt, and sell it in a children's clothing store rather than a joke shop? I can't imagine.

Yes, I suppose it *could* mean "metamorphosis", but really, outside scientific contexts, it's almost always means "pervert". Or am I wrong?



Cute kid, though. The "bunny" or whatever kind of cute animal that is also on the shirt is a nice touch. We have obviously uncovered a diabolical plot to "pervert" innocent youth with inappropriate hanzi!

By the way, the T-shirt would be cuter and better if it was grammatically correct, like:

私、変態なんです。[I ... am a pervert.]
私、変態かも…[I might be a pervert...]
As it is, it sounds more like Tarzan-speak: "me - pervert." You kind of expect "you - Jane" next.


  1. Okay, what if it's 私変体 read しへんたい meaning something like "private pervert" (as opposed to 公変体, a public one)?

    Hm, no, that doesn't help. ^_^

  2. Actually, 私変態 is perfectly good spoken Japanese. You'd normally write it with a comma (私、変態), but in speech the Japanese can drop the copulas and topic/subject markers (as well as に). 僕、アメリカ人 is perfectly understandable as 僕はアメリカ人です。

  3. 変態 can also mean 'abnormal', but yeah, it almost always refers to being a pervert. I can't believe someone made such a shirt!

  4. Anon @ 5:04 AM-

    Hmm, "perfectly understandable," you say?

    I don't know about that. I think it all depends on the context, and only context will clarify what exactly is meant when the grammatical bits are omitted.

    For example, 私、変態? with a questioning tone could be a shocked denial of the mere suggestion that someone might be even slightly perverted.

    In another example, 私、カレーライス is in fact "perfectly understandable" in some situations but it is not the nonsensical "I am curried rice" but rather it means "I'll have the curried rice" in response to a waitress asking your lunch order.

    Similarly, your example 僕、アメリカ人 is only understandable as "I am an American" as a response to a question about your nationality or such. It could mean other things in other situations.

    An outrageous statement like "I am a pervert" or "I am perverted" would be so unusual in ordinary spoken Japanese that absent some contrived context and the grammatical bits, it would not normally be understandable.


  5. First, popular American understanding of the word "hentai" is not the same as Japanese understanding/use of the word "変態". Americans tend to view it in terms of a label for perverts and/or adult anime.

    The Japanese meaning is much broader, meaning general perversion (perversion as a noun, not a descriptor) or any weird and abnormal behavior. Sexual implication is usually with the word エッチ (ettchi), and an actual pervert is usually referred to with something like 痴漢 (chikan) or anything specifically meant for a personal descriptor.

    Alan is pretty much right, that a situation where 私変態 is an understood response is so contrived that it'll probably be met with blank stares, and wouldn't make much sense.

    Oh, and:

  6. Some good points here I think regarding the omission of particles/prepositions in spoken Japanese. Like Alan mentioned, it all depends on situation and context.

    I recently picked up a great book which explains the 無助詞 (particle omission) phenomenon in detail. Anyone interested in those subtle little nuances in spoken Japanese which seperate the adequate speakers from the good ones (I'm still the former) should check out 日本語教科書の落とし穴 (Japanese Textbook Pitfalls).

    The book is actually intended for Japanese teachers when teaching foreigners. Reading it you realize how much school-taught Japanese simplifies some fairly complex (and important) points. Recommended for those of you studying at school who want to annoy the hell out of your sensei (笑).

  7. @Kiz

    I totally agree with your statement about 変態 having a much broader general perversion.

    But I think bringing up エッチ and 痴漢 only adds confusion, especially because I think your explanation is inadequate if not incorrect.

    Agreed that エッチ is sexual implication, but I am not sure why you bring this up because it's unrelated to perversion per se.

    As for 痴漢, it is much more specific than perversion; rather it is sexual molestation/assault or a person who commits such act.

  8. Uh-oh, straw men left and right.

    First, what I said was perfectly understandable is the dropping of particles and copulas. I was responding specifically to the assertion that 私、変態 is some kind of Tarzan-talk.

    I did not say that the meaning of such a statement doesn't depend on the context. I can see from your textbook recitation of what looks like a variation on the 僕はうなぎです example that you're still learning Japanese, and it's good that you've assimilated the lesson on Japanese being a high-context language, but you have to remember that this kind of context-less statement (on a t-shirt) will be understood using the minimum information necessary - in this case an equational sentence. It would take more information than is presented to interpret this as 私(は)変態(が嫌いです) or whatever.

    Keep in mind that none of your arguments apply to what was being asserted, namely the dropping of the particle and copula. 私、カレーライス is just as ambiguous as 私はカレーライスです.

    I also was not talking about the content of the statement. Naturally an unprompted admission of sexual deviance will elicit a different response than a statement of nationality, say.

    Remember, to learn Japanese, you have to stay flexible. Rigid application of rules you learn in your textbook is the quickest way to become discouraged because you won't be able to figure out what's being said.

    Good luck with your studies.

  9. Anon-

    First, what I said was perfectly understandable is the dropping of particles and copulas. I was responding specifically to the assertion that 私、変態 is some kind of Tarzan-talk.

    OK, I think I see what you are saying now. Yes, most Japanese speech with particles and copulas dropped is indeed perfectly understandable in ordinary conversation. The dropped grammatical bits can normally be filled in from the context and so they are unnecessary.

    But this is not ordinary conversation.

    私変態 is in fact Tarzan-speak. It sounds like the speech of a brusque dimwit or a nonnative speaker of the language just stringing words together without knowing or using the proper grammar. It might even be understandable given the proper contrived context.

    The exact same phenomenon is seen in English and even Tarzan-speak is perfectly understandable. But it is certainly not perfectly good spoken English.

    Perhaps you might want to take a little closer look into the difference between Japanese-style Tarzan-speak and the ordinary omission of particles and copulas by native Japanese speakers.

    I have heard Japanese people mock the speech of nonnative learners of the language, and this is the sort of thing they mock.

    Good luck with your studies, too.


  10. I have to agree with Alan here. I think its a bit of stretch to say that "私変態" is perfectly good spoken Japanese. Anon, you mention that it's "normally" written with a comma, but I would say that the comma is required to give it some semblance of correctness (even with a comma, it'd still be kind of awkward).

    Anyways. If you want to get into ordinary omission of particles and copulas, I would argue that the natural inclination of a native Japanese speaker to be "understood using the minimum information necessary" in this case would be to omit the subject instead (ie 変態です), making an assumption of course, about the intended meaning.

    That's why it doesn't come off as other than Tarzan-speak, especially in the written context of a T-shirt and especially without the comma.

  11. @Yokohama

    Some of what I brought up was just due to past conversations with folks who didn't quite understand what the word "hentai" actually meant. (In those conversations, I usually brought up how, given what they were describing, 'etchi' or 'chikan' would be more appropriate.)

    I can see how it'd seem out of place here, given a lack of context. We seem to agree on everything, though. KF

  12. I love it when we foreign speakers of Japanese try to explain the nuances of the Japanese language to each other.

    Maybe the makers of the t-shirt were going for something like "secret transformation/metamorphosis" and used an online dictionary? I got that more from approaching it as Chinese, though.

  13. Hi, I like your blog. However I was surprised to see that no one had mentioned this:

    Doesn't it seem like the T-Shirt was supposed to say 私愛熊 (I.Love.Bear(s)), but they either made a hilarious mistake or someone made the change somewhere along the way? It would explain the little picture.

  14. I'll agree it's a bit odd for a kid's shirt say that they're hentai but I just wanted to follow up on the other meaning of hentai that Japanese use a lot but a lot of non-Japanese may not realize. To expand on "abnormal" as the other meaning, well I just feel like this one word doesn't explain it well enough. It sounds like a negative whereas it may be positive. When I was a kid living in Japan, sometimes my friends would call me hentai and it wasn't bad at all. It was simply because I was more physically daring and capable then they were so it was like they were calling me a freak, in a good way, like "wow, you were able to jump over that, you're not normal". After all these years, I still can't find a good one word translation for hentai in this sort of context. Now, dictionaries will also tell you it means "metamorphosis" but I must disagree and point out that Japanese are more likely to say "henshin" 変身. (in both cases you might've noticed the first character is the same, it means "change")

  15. For an adult yes it sounds more like tarzan talk. For a little girl, it doesn't. It is perfectly natural.

    However, the same thought would probably be expressed 私、変態なの。(atashi, hentai na no.)