Ra-less love on Enoshima

My new apartment is within walking distance of Enoshima, and I walked there last weekend. There is a shrine on the island where couples can buy a small, tacky piece of wood, write their names on it, and hang it carefully with thousands of others to ensure that they will stay coupled.

(This is really sort of a protection racket, because an older tradition says that couples who visit Enoshima together will be driven apart by Benten's jealousy.)

Shintonomics aside, the result is a linguistic corpus as charming as it is valuable. Check out these two (names censored):

The first one reads ずっと一緒にいられますように, zutto issho ni iraremasu yō ni, which roughly translates as "May we always be together".

The second one expresses the same wish, but spells it differently: ずっと一緒にいれますように, zutto issho ni iremasu yō ni.

This is called "ra-nuki", ra-dropping. To summarize it briefly, while carefully dodging the hermetic mysteries of the Japanese "passive" and "potential" constructions, vowel-stem Japanese verbs are "supposed" to form both the passive and potential stem by adding -rare:

tabe.ru eat
tabe.rare.ru be able to eat (be edible), be eaten

Consonant-stem verbs, on the other hand, distinguish the two:

yom.u read
yom.e.ru be able to read (be readable)
yom.are.ru be read

Ra-nuki has the effect of bringing the vowel-stem verbs in line with the consonant-stem ones by using -e- for the potential (dropping the ra) but retaining the full -rare- for the passive form, like so:

tabe.ru eat
tabe.re.ru be able to eat (be edible)
tabe.rare.ru be eaten

Ra-nuki offers two advantages: it distinguishes the the two forms from each other, and it normalizes the pattern to (r)e/(r)are for all verbs. The old system, on the other hand, is traditional, which means that a certain proportion of the populace will never deem any deviation from it acceptable, particularly in written Japanese -- even if they use ra-nuki occasionally in casual speech without realizing it, which many if not most of them probably do.

But, as the photos above show (and here I reveal that they are using the potential form of i.ru, technically translating as "be able to be together"), no-one can stop language evolution.

Two final things:

  1. The nuki in "ra-nuki" is also used in the Japanese equivalent of "Hold the onion/anchovies/etc.": "X-nuki de...".
  2. I cheated. The second photo doesn't say exactly the same thing; I ignored the words before the part I was interested in. In full, it would probably be better translated as, "May he get divorced soon so that we can always be together". (I am assuming that it is the man who needs to get divorced, because the message was clearly written by the woman.)

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Kyle Goetz:

I was going to complain that you ignored the best part of the second one until you pointed it out in your notes at the end.

I almost spit my drink out when I read the little "slide this text in here" bubble saying りこんして.

Thanks for the information about nuki and the ranuki. My professors back in the day refused to explain when ranuki was permissible. Now I understand it to be only with the potential form.

Also, do you know of any other situations when nuki is used? When living in Japan, I only ever used it when ordering food (specifically, hold the ketchup). I used to use "nashi" instead there, but a polite clerk corrected me: ketchup-nuki.


A guess-- would ketchup-nashi mean "(originally and always) ketchup-less" or "sans ketchup" whereas ketchup-nuki would be "(actively) hold the ketchup"?


I think ketchup-nuki would mean scraping off the ketchup that was already applied.

But I am only guessing. My teachers also didn't explain when ra-nuki was permissible. This explanation is very interesting, but I'm not sure I'm able to internalize it. I figure this is another one of those obscurities that will sit in my hindbrain for a long time before I really get it.


I'm surprised that your teachers weren't even willing to explain it!

-nuki in the food ordering sense means, yeah, "(actively) hold/leave out the X". I don't know about how they would interpret -nashi in that situation -- I've only ever been told "you just don't put it that way". Amida's theory seems plausible enough...

Kyle: Yeah, I didn't want to confuse the ra-nuki explanation with the divorce clause, but I knew that it was too good to leave out of the post entirely.

Charles: The key is that the (r)e/(r)are becomes universally applicable! It's actually simpler than the traditional rule in that sense.


If we really want to follow the literal (Chinese) meaning of the Kanji for "nuki" it would mean something like "ketchup-extracted" or "ketchup-plucked," but I have learned that doing things like that gets me nowhere in Japanese. Maybe the ketchup is plucked off the ideal Platonic hamburger floating in the ether?

Would "-nashi" be used in a situation where something was not used as an ingredient? Sugar-nashi gum? Anyway, I went around Japan ordering burgers tomato-nashi without anyone bothering to correct me so it's all in vain anyway.

Having hijacked this thread to talk about ordering hamburgers long enough, I should say that my teachers in Japanese 101 actually did teach the ra-nuki thing, explaining it away as a "new" thing or something those wacky kids are doing today.


I think that -nashi and -nuki here amount to the same thing, just that -nuki implies holding off ketchup that should rightfully be part of your chosen burger, whereas -nashi would simply be a descriptor without any context. Like, "I wanted a hamburger with no ketchup, but because all their meals are actually prefabricated in a dank factory in Saigon, I was informed by a sheepishly apologetic manager that it was impossible."

By the way, congratulations on the successful move. Moving this year myself from Ibaraki to Tochigi was one of the single most trying and painful things I've ever had to do tat didn't involve my relatives.


Oh, come on, Elessorn, Tochigi isn't that bad. (Seriously, thanks. The move went OK mostly because all of my stuff used to fit in a single room.)

I suppose my gut understanding of the process is that the ketchup (say) is yanked out of the conceptual assembly line so that the hamburger passes unsauced.

And yeah, I got away with "nashi" for a long time too, so clearly the difference isn't incomprehensibly great.

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