Intermediate Japanese Language Learning with Dazai Osamu
Complimentary Japanese Reading Lessons From Maplopo Schoolhouse
Season ONE—水仙 (Page Six)
Read the full こと, EP6 transcript | Intermediate and Advanced Japanese
Okay, let’s take a little ‘ol look at こと here… and, first Dazai’s sentence.
“It was when I was thirteen or fourteen that I read a novel called ‘On the Conduct of Lord Tadanao.”
This word has two basic aspects to it that we’re going to cover in this lesson. The first is when こと has some substantial meaning of its own. So, it can mean a circumstance or “happenings” … it can even be used to kind of indicate trouble that’s caused by someone… or, maybe, even yourself. Here are three illustrations of this sort of aspect:
“here’s how the imbroglio came about”
“ending without incident”
In the second aspect of こと, the word itself doesn’t really have meaning—it works together with the preceding modifier as an aid. And, when it does that it allows this preceding modifier to really provide the point of focus of the sentence. So, こと kind of disappears into that aspect of the sentence.
Here are two examples of this at work:
What happened yesterday is a secret to be kept between the two of us.
“When I grow up I want to do what’s good for the world.”
Dazai is employing this second usage of ことin his sentence here… and you can really see how without the preceding modifier the sentence is kind of formless… it doesn’t really have any real meaning, right? So, if you look at our first example:
“What happened yesterday is a secret to be kept between the two of us.”
… If you remove the preceding modifier and just have こと in there, then the sentence reads:
“A THING is a secret to be kept between the two of us.” Which doesn’t really tell you a whole lot, does it?
And the same, of course, is true in the second example.
So, if you were to remove this important part of the sentence, you would just end up with:
“When I grow up I want to do a THING.”
Well, by golly, isn’t that great?
It doesn’t really tell us anything, right? So, the two need to work together (in this aspect of the word). Another thing worth noting about this is when you attach a time reference prior to using こと (as Dazai does here in his sentence), then it really frames the sentence in a storytelling way. So, he’s kind of leading us in a direction, right? This aspect of こと allows a sort of sort of zooming in… “a point of focus.” He wants us to to be thinking about what he’s about to tell us, and he wants us to kind of lean in and listen.
A nice way to think about this is as if someone is on a stage and they’re telling a story… and, they’re looking out at the audience and they want to see like that kind of rapt attention that the audience is giving them… waiting for the next part of the sentence (or of the story) …that’s what this accomplishes when you throw it in there together.
So, including time, right? Here are a few, maybe, “time phrases” that you might see in sentences.
Pretty clear, right? Okay. Let’s look at another really famous example that uses this too. You might recognize it:
I won’t translate this one, but I’ll rely on Jay Rubin’s translation of the story and his first line is this: “And now children, let me tell you a story about Lord Buddha Shakyamuni. Now, he’s taken a few liberties with the translation of this, (and) but he’s really, uh, foreshadowing here, right? And, maybe I’m doing a little bit of that too because I haven’t told you who wrote this story… So, this one is from Akutagawa Ryūnosuke. And the story, of course (maybe of course), is “The Spider Thread.”
Two final examples for you to kind of chew on.
“It was six years ago that I went to see my first Paul McCartney concert.”
“It was the morning of the third Sunday of last month that I heard my father was to remarry.” Okay, so, in these last two examples it should really feel how these are meant to be written down, right? It’s a literary device.
[Using a Japanese expression]
(It was なになに … it was なになに)…
They’re leading you on, and that’s the whole idea of this little cool word.