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How-to Use Commas in Japanese (Intro to)

The comma punctuation (読点/とうてん) has been used in the Japanese language for decades (since the 1940s); but relative to the history of the entire Japanese language, a couple of decades actually isn’t quite that long at all.

As you might have been able to guess, the comma (and the period) were imported into the Japanese language from Western languages; and as such, the general function of it is pretty much the same as the English comma. However, wherein the English language has strict grammatical guidelines for where a comma must or must not appear (e.g. before a conjunction that connects two non-simple clauses, between entities in a list, etc.), the Japanese comma is used much, much, much more liberally, to the point where it is essentially up to the author of the sentence whether or not they want to include a comma at all.

With this information so far, we native English speakers have a somewhat decent idea of where to expect commas in Japanese sentences. If there would be a comma in that position in the English version of the Japanese sentence, then you can expect a comma there. Or not. It depends on if the author wants it there or not.

If you’ve read/watched enough of our other lessons, we’ve covered a decent amount of grammar patterns that would qualify as conjunctions of sorts-words or phrases that connect both halves of a sentence basically, and you might have noticed in said lessons that the example sentences would occasionally have commas positioned right before said words or phrases.

Here are a couple of examples pulled from various lessons:

皆の決定に従って、プロジェクトをやり直した。
Minna no kettei ni shitagatte, project o yarinaoshita.
(“Following the decision we made together, we redid the entire project.”)
*from Xに従って(従い) as “following X, in accordance with X”

ジョージワシントンはもう大人なのに、昨日、車の代わりに自転車を買った。
George Washington wa mou otona na no ni, kinou, kuruma no kawari ni jitensha o katta.
(Even though he’s already an adult now, George Washington went and bought a bicycle instead of a car yesterday.)
*from NOUNの代わりに as “in the place of NOUN, instead of NOUN, in lieu of NOUN”

私は一般的に肉が好きですが、今日、代わりにサラダにします。
Watashi wa ippanteki ni niku ga suki desuga, kyou, kawari ni salad ni shimasu.
(Although I’m usually fond of meat, today, I’ll go with salad.)
*from NOUNの代わりに as “in the place of NOUN, instead of NOUN, in lieu of NOUN”

 

With all that, we’ve basically covered half of what we need to know about Japanese commas.

The next half revolves around the concept that Japanese commas can pretty much appear in any position where the speaker would take a quick pause if the sentence was actually being spoken aloud. The general explanation for this is that the comma is used to separate elements within a sentence, in which case, said elements can pretty much be anything. At times, commas can also be placed between large conglomerates of kanji to avoid confusion. Both of these possibilities enable for much more radical and liberal placement for commas in Japanese sentences that may catch us off-guard.

Example(s):

今日、仕事がありますか?
Kyou, shigoto ga arimasuka?
“Do you have work today?”

こちらこそ、どうぞよろしくお願いします。
Kochirakoso, douzoyoroshikuonegaishimasu.
“It is I, who is looking forward to being under your care.”

日本では、まだ女のひとの生活に自動車を運転するということが普通になっていない。
Nihon de wa, mada onna no hito to no seikatsu ni jidousha o unten suru toiu koto ga futsuu ni natte inai.
“In Japan, women driving cars as a part of their daily lives has yet to become the norm.”