Posted in Japanese as a Second Language, Japanese Culture, Japanese Language, linguistics

Emoji Etymology

I encountered a delicious etymological treat this week. Emojis! 😋I did not know that “emoji” is a Japanese word. I thought it was the internet’s way of taking the word “emotion” and shortening it or combining it with something, as the internet loves to do. It was a light bulb moment. 💡 Ah, ha! This is why there are so many Japanese kanji and Japanese cultural items in the emoji library!

Let’s break down the word in Japanese.

Emoji, pronounced with a short e sounds (/ɛ/ [e as in egg 🥚]), is made up of three kanji: 絵文字. えもじ The word is more recognizably Japanese with this “e” ‘s pronunciation as it sheds the English’s long e sound (/ɪ/ [e as in emotion ❤️]) connotation. 

The first character , literally means a picture, drawing, painting, sketch, etc. I see this kanji in book stores advertising picture books for kids “絵本えほん .”

The middle character () means sentence, composition, text, writings, etc. It’s the character you see on the Google Translate app icon.  

The last kanji: ( ) means symbol, character, (i.e. kanji) hand-writing, penmanship. ✍️ It’s the “ji” in kanji.

and together become a compound kanji and means the English equivalent of “letter” (as in the letter of the alphabet) or character. Thus, capital letters in Japanese are called 大文字 おおもじ , literally “big letter,” and lowercase is 小文字 しょうもじ , you guessed it, “small letter.”

Therefore, + the compound kanji 文字 もじ = 絵文字 えもじ = picture letter = 🖼️🔤.

I adore self-explanatory words. Kanji can do this, not always, but often. Kanji allows for one to get the feeling of the world through the visual representation, even if one does not know the denotation. I can usually guess at the meaning of words without knowing how to pronounce them. English is the opposite, where one may be able to guess at the pronunciation, but not necessarily the meaning of a word. 

Kanji’s visual reliance on meaning contributes to my belief in why 習字 しゅうじ (There is that “ji” again.) i.e. calligraphy is still taught widely in Japan and is even a profession when penmanship has mostly died out in American schools. Though I know that the advent of computer keyboarding also played a vital roll in penmanship’s demise. ⌨️

If you are interested in seeing a professional calligraphist at work, check out Kayo-sensei @Kayo_Japanese_Lesson on Instagram. Her work and teaching style is exquisite.

Kanji’s powerful visual impact is another reason why I believe Japanese people are skilled at “reading the air” because they have to read the air sometimes even when they read words. Ex: 四字熟語 よじじゅくご (four-character idioms.) Americans are more verbally direct, and like meaning to be in “black and white,” i.e. ink on the paper. That idiom does much cultural talking. 

What I also find intriguing is that the Japanese language has now come full circle. ♻️ Kanji started as pictures, morphed into ideograms, and eventually was combined in Japan with a syllabary that held phonetic value, and now technology is taking people back to the origin of writing roots.   

Until recently, I never like using emojis as I thought them cheesy. 🧀 However, when I started my Instagram, I found them useful as a visual cue with a semantic tie-in to signify the switch between my writing in English and my Japanese translation. Example: I love nature! 🌱 自然 しぜん 大好だいすきです! 

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” and emojis help achieve this and aid in lending tone to compositions. 🖋️ Maybe emojis aren’t cheesy. Maybe they are the most intuitively human way of writing. 🤔

What is your favorite emoji? Why? Or write an idiom in emojis, and let’s see if I can guess which one you mean.

Works Cited

“Emoji.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 14 June 2020,

Posted in American Culture, Japanese Culture

How a Buddhist Death Vase Gave Me Peace

Life has come full circle. There is a completeness, and the story now has a happy ending.

Allow me to set the context:

An American student of mine, dutifully gave me a gift as his mother had told him to do.  As it is no secret that I love plants (as they adorn my classroom, and I cultivate the edible garden outside the cafeteria) I am assuming that this gift was a thoughtful way of encouraging this passion of mine.

This is a 仏壇の花瓶 (butsudan no kabin), the vase that holds 菊の花 (kiku no hana[chrysanthemums]) on a Buddist altar.

It was a vase of vibrant cerulean and scrolling gold motif. It also happens to be a 仏壇の花瓶(butsudan no kabin) or the vessel that sits on a Buddist alter in which flowers for the deceased are placed.

Without knowing the heart of the student, the intent of the mother, and only looked at this act through the lens of Japanese culture, the act could be seen as morbid nefarious aggression. I.e., The student wished for my death.

And yet, my reaction was laughter.

From an American lense, it’s a beautiful vase, and she wanted to give me a beautiful, thoughtful gift. This student had no idea what he was giving, the poor thing was just doing what his mom told him to do, and culturally she didn’t know what she had. I loved the gift. In fact, it might be the best tangible present a student has ever give me, but not for the vase’s merit itself. Unintentionally, they had just given me a happy ending to a painful past.

Allow me to put this context into context:

The first year I emigrated to Okinawa, Japan, my work visa was approved for three years. However, the contract I signed with the school was only for one year.

After a few months, I knew the school was not for me, but I would honor my contract and give the appropriate amount of time in advance for the school to find a new teacher.

The decision was excruciatingly painful to make.

 One, because believed in the mission of the school, just not its application. 

Two, I loved my students (Like a first love, a teacher’s first group of students impact one deeply.). 

Three, I could infer, based on the character of the principal (who was also my visa sponsor), that if I quit, she would call immigration to cancel my visa out of spite.

I was not wrong. 

Before I could even explain how I intended to continue to support my students and the school. (I wanted desperately to revivify the library and garden.) She jumped up and spat, “I’m calling immigration!” I was deflated, but not surprised, and now the clock was ticking for me to find a new job with visa sponsorship before the Japanese government sent me back to America.

Allow me to put this context of context into context:

I had recently started dating my future husband at the time and I didn’t want to leave him, the country, or my students if I couldn’t find another job with visa sponsorship. Yet, I was willing to risk losing my relationship, home, and pupils, because that is how unhealthy the place was.

And unlike America, where two weeks are standard notice, I had to give two months. It was two months of knots in my stomach as I was vilified to prepare the parents for my “sudden departure.” It was two months of dirty looks. Two months of not nice things said behind my back or in front of my face in Japanese. Two months of tears streaming down my face while I rode my bike home. Two months of being, as a compassionate coworker said to me, “a wilted flower.”

I try to be fair by looking at things from the principal’s perspective. I think she thought my visa and contract were one and the same and this discrepancy blindsided her. I know that she also had experienced much heartbreak with foreigners running out on her, and I believe it was this past hurt that blocked her ability to see that I was trying to be honorable, even on her side. I just needed to be so and do so in a different capacity.

I really miss those students and wonder often what happened to them. I wasn’t even allowed to say goodbye…

The next day, I brought my boss a bouquet of what I thought were “happy yellow flowers.” I put much thought into this gift as I wanted to be culturally appropriate. I researched the meanings of colors, and yellow in western cultures means friendship, and in eastern cultures, it is good fortune or money. (Friendship and good luck and money! The was the rare Venn diagram middle of positivity in both cultures!) I also knew from my Japanese culture classes that this particular flower is used as a symbol of the emperor, so I thought there was a royal aspect too. Plus, this flower is on everything from hello-kitty to kimonos and traditional art. They are even sold in grocery stores as garnishes! I thought it was a win-win-win-win!

My Japanese readers have most likely figured out that I am talking about 菊の花 (kiku no hana): the chrysanthemum.

Are not chrysanthemums pretty? Unfortunately, I don’t like this flower much anymore.

While all the above is true, it is also true that these flowers are the ones offered to the dead on Buddhist altars, and while it is OK to have a depiction of the flower, to give the real ones as a gift is taboo. (I still struggle to wrap my mind around this.)

I know that my boss recognized that my intentions were innocent. I did not wish for her death. I also know that she used this incident as an excuse to demonize me. She would not accept the flowers, nor tell me why. I went in tears to my boyfriend, who explained the situation and took me shopping to get an appropriate gift of delicacy cookies. I brought the right gift the next day, professionally gift-wrapped, with an explanation, apology, and bow that I had rehearsed in Japanese with my boyfriend. She would not accept this either. I believe she wanted to hurt me as much as she perceived I was hurting her.

How does all of this add up to a laughing reaction to the vase gifted by my American student? It is this vase that the “taboo flowers” are put in and placed on Buddhist alters to honor the dead. Inadvertently, this student blessed me with the opportunity to accept his gift-giving intentions and enact the grace that I wish my boss would have done for me. In doing so, that student gave me the ability to redeem apart of the pain.

I will fill this life-giving death vase with plants that will grace my classroom and be quite the conversation starter to those who know that they are looking at.

Death does bring new life if one has the eyes to see it. The death of my time at that school brought me to the 英会話 (English conversation school), where I discovered my passion for teaching English as a Second Language. The death of my time there also revealed how solid my then-boyfriend-and-now-husband is in a crisis. 

Have you ever committed a cultural taboo or had a memory redeemed? Please share.

The plant in the vase is a peace lily I grew. Oh, the symbolism.

Posted in English as a Second Language, Japanese Culture, Japanese Language, Teaching Adventures

Homophone Mishappenings

I was teaching a Mommy and Me English as a Second Language class to a lovely young mother and her two-year-old son. The lesson’s topic was body parts. Not wanting to use Japanese to explain the meaning, I would touch the location of the vocabulary word and then move such anatomy in a goofy way. This game was quite popular with the two-year-old, and I was feeling on fire as a teacher, for we were in that beautiful intersection of learning, engagement, and genuine joy.

I said, “Touch your chin,” and proceeded to place my finger on my mentum; however, Japanese-toddler logic mandated not the mentum as modeled, but what he very knew to be his chin. You see, “chin-chin” (ちんちん) is the Japanese kid word for penis.

“From Head To Toe” is a spectacular book to teach body parts and easily incorporates Kinesthetic learning.

He promptly grabbed his groin and proceeded to waggle it in the previously playful way. I started to correct/ apologize to the mom, but she was lost in a full guffaw, so I felt permission to laugh too.

It is a lesson that I will never forget, for it is true what the dear Anna Leonowens has said, “If you become a teacher, by your pupils, you’ll be taught.” (I highly recommend the 1956 version of the King and I. [♫ Getting to know you. Getting to know all about you…♪])

Now, as a mom of a toddler and further into my teaching English and learning Japanese journey, I appreciate this memory even more. I can see how my son is interpreting his world and the role that homophones play in inter-lingually and even within one language, as in the Homophone Horrors happening.

What are some inter-lingual homophone mishappenings you have encountered in your life?

Vocabulary 単語 


penis= ちんちん







Works Cited

“Oscar Hammerstein II Quotes.” BrainyQuote, Xplore,

(I am aware that the above citation is not entirely in MLA format. I’m researching how to do hanging indents on WordPress. If you could teach me, or link to a source, I’d be grateful.)

Posted in Japanese Culture

Peace is Foreigners Eating Sushi

At this year’s Christmas party, my 92-year-old grandfather in law said: “When foreigners eat sushi, it really is peace, isn’t it.” Well, actually he said: 「外国人が寿司を食べる時、本当に平和だね。

(Our family eats sushi in our Christmas spread, and the traditional KFC, Japanese Christmas cake as well as mash potatoes, turkey, and pizza. [We have a large extended international family, and everybody brings something they want to eat, potluck style, and all benefit deliciously.])

This was contemplating on how to work in a nap (I have a newborn.) without being rude when Ji-Chan (Japanese for Grandpa), who only says something when it needs saying, made the aforementioned comment. Three things happened at once.

First, I was thrilled that I understood his entire sentence in Japanese.

Second, I was thrilled that I understood despite Ji-chan’s voice. (I wonder what my vocal cords will sound like in almost a century.)

And thirdly, my philosophical loving mind pricked up at the prospects of a delicious thought morsel that most likely needed to be added to my Philosophical Art Collection, so I asked him what he meant.

He has been observing the newest addition to the family, my sister-in-law’s husband, who happens to be American, arrive at the party. Still dressed in his cammies from work, my brother-in-law courteously took off his combat boots at the door, strolled over to the feast, and promptly picked up some chopsticks to dish himself out a sushi assortment.

However, Ji-chan, who has seen Okinawa under Japanese rule, seen World War 2, seen Okinawa when it was an American territory, seen Okinawa become a part of Japan again, most definitely saw something in this masticating act.

I am translating, and it is not exact, but he explained along the lines of “60 years ago, Americans wouldn’t even try sushi. They physically couldn’t eat it. It would make them gag. Now, they eat it. They like it. Japanese culture has been spread and shared. This means there truly is peace now.”

I have been inspired by Ji-chan’s words and my new found love of Instagram! Shameless Plug: Check out Right Rice Paddy on Instagram!

With the incredible sharing power of the internet, I would like to show Ji-chan just how much peace there truly is, but I need help. Please take a picture of yourself eating sushi and tag it as #sushipeace and tag me @kendra_migita on Instagram. I will present Ji-chan with the photos for Christmas. I think that it will bring him joy.

Peace and Joy for Christmas. How perfect.

Will you please help me out? Eat sushi. Share peace. #sushipeace