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The Thrilling World of Legal Documents

[Update 2011/07/29@0129 JST: I humbly retract everything bad I said about CliffsNotes. CliffsNotes rule. There’s no way I was going to read Atlas Shrugged for real: YouTube doesn’t watch itself; get to the point, woman! :P]

Legal documents are a wordy morass of redundant crap…

…in English.

But in Japanese, they’re…fun. No, I mean it. Filled with cool kanji, simple, logical, direct and unambiguous language, legal dox in Japanese are actually, IMHO, a language learner’s dream. I started deliberately reading legal documents in Japanese one day on a whim a while ago. I was buying comics to read on my cellphone, as one is readily able to do in Japan, and, the purchase screen had one of those user agreements attached. And I decided to read the agreement, the whole agreement, just for kicks. And I was struck by both how easy it was to understand, but at the same time about how much I learned in terms of document and sentence structure.

Now, I can hear some voices say “but Kats, you were fluent in Japanese at this point”. I was…but, looking back, I had done a similar thing long before I was fluent. Back when I was installing a Japanese OS on my computer, in February 2005, and thereafter when installing other software, I would encounter software license agreements, and while I never read them in their entirety because I’m usually in such a rush when installing software, I did read them in part, and I was struck by how easy they were to understand. This is going to sound weird but reading legal dox in Japanese is really…enjoyable. Maybe it’s because, in terms of actual content, they all say about the same thing — “screw you and all your base are belong to us” — but they say it so edjumacated-sounding! Here’s a line from a contract a read today (I was considering signing up for Sky Perfect satellite TV, specifically to get channels of the from Hong Kong and Taiwan kind):

If in the course of using a Sky Perfect DVR, said DVR is unable to record video due to a breakdown or any other reason resulting in the user’s data being lost or damaged, Sky Perfect TV cannot in any way, shape or form be held responsible for that loss or any accompanying damage. Screw you and all your base are belong to us.

(actually, it’s from outside the main contract, but it’s from the contract page, and it still owns).

This kind of thing (contract-reading) is what I mean by “anything and everything that is in Japanese, by and for a Japanese audience, is fair game for study”. If you haven’t already, I want you to let go of the very narrow idea that only materials specifically and explicitly designated for learning are for learning. In fact, the materials designated for learning tend to suck; they tend to be the ones from which you learn the least.

Other than their being fun, there is a more practical reason for reading legal documents. Whether or not you are a lawyer, it should come as no surprise to you that Japan is a society that is basically governed by laws and written contracts. These written contracts are built on logical arguments and language that people use to secure their positions. If you do anything remotely grown-up in connection with Japan — live here, do business here or with people from here, whatever — then there may well come a time when you will have to have a more or less reasonable discussion with someone who disagrees with you, but whom you will need to win over. I may be wrong, but I feel that Japanese legalese is not as removed from normal communication and ridiculous-sounding as English legalese. For this and other reasons, I recommend that you read legal Japanese to equip yourself with the vocabulary and structure needed to go to town.

In my personal experience, people in Japan, like people all over the world, do things based on bad logic, but when shown that bad logic, they are willing to correct and compromise in a way I do not often see in the rest of the world. As long as you couch your arguments in logic, not in “best practice in other parts of the world” or “this is how we do it in my country”, you can win a lot of bloodless battles in Japan. This is from a guy who’s had to get the erroneously overcharged import duty removed from items shipped from abroad (the duty was about 10 times the value of the items), get the water turned back on at his friend’s house hours before New Year’s break, and get a doctor to give Momoko enough prescription medication so that we needn’t go to the hospital and wait in line for three hours every other freaking day (OK, every 2.5 months, but that can feel like every other day). All of it involved gently exposing bad logic to put it kindly (or arguing my guts out with polite tenacity and lots of grown-up words, to put it bluntly).

Let me be frank. Japan is not a multiethnic country in the modern sense on a large scale (of course the people of Japan originally came from all over Asia, but everyone combined to form a new people, the Japanese people, and therefore Japan can be said to have only one ethnicity)…yet. And that’s fine. The only problem is that this means that non-ethnic Japanese who speak Japanese are rare…for now. Simply put, Japanese people do not expect you to speak Japanese and so in that sense they think you’re stupid in the way that we all think that people who do not speak our language are stupid — we do not think they can handle a complex, nuanced discussion. This is not a good thing or a bad thing: it is merely the way things are. Frankly, I see it as an opportunity. Since most people in Japan currently hold such low linguistic expectations of you, for you to exceed those expectations, by what appear to be such astronomical margins, works in your favor — the shock value alone can win the day for you. Anyway, so, yeah, to get some Japanese people in some situations to take you seriously, as you may need to from time to time in adult life, you may need to make all their base belong to you. The best way (I have thought of so far) to do this is through language that is firm, well-reasoned and a liiiiiiiittle cold(?) — don’t be a jerk, don’t be rude, but don’t be a pushover either. One of the best places to learn such language, I think, is in legal documents. That and the proceedings of Japan’s law-making body (the House of Representatives), available in full in video here. For those times when you really need to talk like a no-B.S. adult, this is some of the best preparation you can get.

I’ve said that most legal dox amount to “screw you and all your base are belong to us”. That’s not entirely true — sometimes stated explicitly and other times openly implied between the lines are your rights. Get familiar with legal documents, get over the intimidation, start reading them, and you can potentially get more out of life here as and when you need to.

I have no formal legal training, nor am I particularly interested in the law for its own sake. But, that doesn’t matter. Contracts are a part of our lives. At the end of the day, what is literacy even for if it is not at least for reading, understanding, analzying and evaluating the documents that run our very lives? If you don’t read the things that matter, then it’s the same as you not being able to read at all; you’re as defenseless as those Americans who got outright lied to and swindled by European invaders into signing away all your base are belong to us documents (see 1492 to 1970 for details) . And like, if all the people in the US who bought houses on subprime loans had actually read and thought about their contracts before signing them, they might have known that they were getting screwed and in danger of having their base belong to someone else. But they didn’t read them. We are a society, a generation, of people raised on the Cliffs Notes of life. We read about the law, we read about the Constitution, we read about the budget, but we almost never read the actual, original documents; we never bust out a calculator and actually add up those numbers that get thrown around in the legislatures of our respective countries, not unless it’s something stupid and irrelevant like Moby Dick or Macbeth. Not that Moby Dick and Macbeth don’t have their place, but if you’re not a Macbetholigst, they’re about as important to your daily life as yesterday’s episode of One Piece, which is to say less than the dust that gathers in the fan on my laptop even as I type this. Dude, that cellphone contract you and I signed without reading, that thing matters, we should have read it and not just trusted the shop guy’s hand-waving explanation talking about how it “should” be OK. Shop guys (and girls) will mislead you with qualified statements that are lexically true “in some cases…”, but practically quite false. Before you sign away the next two years of your life to AU or Softbank, you should seriously cast your eyes and mind upon that print, fine or otherwise — ask for the large-print senior citizen version if the regular one hurts to read, but whatever you do, READ it. Spend at least as much time perusing the pertinent contracts as picking the colors on your keitai or the wallpaper of your house. This is your life; this is real; this is important. OK, end of dad lecture 8) .

Anwyay, I just realized that maybe I haven’t expressed myself very well in this post, which would be ironic, but…whatever. Um, here are some links to more legal dox (primarily software user agreements) and to all the Sky Perfect agreements bundled up into one file.

  17 comments for “The Thrilling World of Legal Documents

  1. Max
    January 27, 2008 at 14:22

    It’s funny that you should have an article about this today. I picked up a bit of Japanese legalese just this morning at my Japanese school because the topic of discussion was ”サブプライムローンって何?”

    I admit I’m mostly bringing this up to tell an actual success story about schooling and language learning that’s been working out great for me. A little bit of background info: I learned Japanese half-heartedly/with sucky methods (learning 2 kanji a day…*shudder*) for about a half a year until I discovered this site in August. Since then, I’ve been following the AJATT method as closely as possible, and it’s produced great results. Anyway, in my city there’s a school that Japanese parents send their kids to every Saturday to learn kanji, Japanese math, etc. All instruction is in Japanese, and you actually can get in trouble for speaking English there. In my earlier stages of learning I would help out in the library there when my friend’s mom would take me (I’m 15). About a month ago, though, I got to take part in the high school class for the first time. I’ve been 3 times now, and it’s been an awesome experience. The class is usually just 3 students and the teacher, and we discuss the upcoming elections, learning English, globalization, サブプライムローン, all kinds of fun stuff. And it’s truly all Japanese, all the time. I’m by far the worst in the class, as the other students are generally semi-recent transplants from Japan, but, as we all know, just being surrounded by the chatter is edifying.

    So on the off-chance anyone here is in a similar situation (age-wise, Japanese school proximity), I highly recommend trying to work yourself in. It’s a great way to become part of the Japanese community while improving your Japanese.

  2. nacest
    January 27, 2008 at 16:36

    nice suggestion, thanks. Just one thing: I’m curious about “Japanese math”… how exactly is it different from the non-Japanese one?

  3. Daniel
    January 27, 2008 at 18:16

    If their math is anything like their language, they probably use Reverse Polish notation.

  4. Jeniko
    January 27, 2008 at 22:20

    Japanese maths is way more advanced than the kind of maths that we get taught in the UK, i’m not sure about other countries..

    I think that it’s definitely a good idea to be able to get through legal language, as when I was living in Japan I didn’t have enough confidence in my Japanese so I didn’t even attempt to look through any paperwork that I got for anything, so I was kind of in a constant state of worry that something might go wrong and I wouldn’t be able to deal with it. But looking at the example you put above, I understood it (although some of it just in a 何となく way) and I’m going to make an effort to acquaint myself with legal language so I don’t feel so helpless when I go back 🙂
    Your posts always inspire me to go out and do something to improve my Japanese, so thank you! 🙂

  5. Rob
    January 27, 2008 at 23:13

    Sorry for this being off the topic of legal documents, but I stumbled onto this podcast website while searching for new listening material and thought I would share it with everyone.

    The website is about (from what I gathered) the psychology of women and men and why they act the way they do in certain situations with the hope that if the other sex understands each other’s behavior then relationships will improve.

    The podcasts are interesting (although the background music is fairly cheesy), but the kicker is they have transcripts of each podcast that you can follow along. These transcripts are not word for word, but they seem to be pretty close. These were a nice change of pace for me from the other types of podcasts I’m listening to.

  6. quendidil
    January 28, 2008 at 01:21

    lol, i have that podcast on itunes.

  7. James
    January 28, 2008 at 04:50

    I’d be interested in a post on Japanese math terms (beyond +-*/). I haven’t been able to find any literature about that.

  8. dancc
    January 28, 2008 at 12:25

    Hey I have an unrelated questionto the post. Is it unproductive to jam music and watch movies in Japanese as opposed to doing sentences in my SRS? I know ALJAT but will I stunt my language growth by not doing enough sentences. Example, today I reviewed sentences for..1.5 hrs, listened to 1hr of pimsleur(I do it while I run or drive), but than I watched about 4 hrs of anime/movies/music videos. Should I lower my enjoyment time and do more sentences(not that sentences are boring). Note, I can’t mine movies/anime at all for sentences, it just doesn’t work, probably because my spelling sucks.

  9. Sutebun
    January 28, 2008 at 15:01


    Not Khatzu, but I see these kind of questions a lot and I think there is a pretty easy answer.

    Regarding Time Investment:

    Reading all these posts by Khatz since about summer time, I think I’ve come away with a pretty good understanding of the general method. Of course, it seems easy enough; AJATT. But people seem to always have these specific questions despite the simplicity of the term.

    Anyway, I think the learning method could also be called and summarized as “All Japanese All The Time -While- Learning Something New Everyday”. That is, the environment is first and foremost key. Japanese should be going all the time if possible. If not, as much as you can. But, then, on top of that, you should be learning new stuff everyday. Heisig, words/sentences, whatever.

    So, if you’ve done Heisig (and if you haven’t you should), and you’re reviewing sentences while learning new stuff and have this awesome environment up and running — don’t worry. Just make sure you are picking up new things everyday in addition to watching anime/listening to the music.

    One last note about watching anime/listening to music.

    Just make sure that if you are watching/listening to some Japanese as some primary activity (ie, it’s not just background noise), that you are engaging it as much as you can, bringing as much to the listening experience as you can. Listening as an activity and hearing a looped background are two different modes of listening. You said you can’t mine movies/anime at all right now. It’s still fine to watch those for hours, as long as 1) you are still doing other things where you are picking up/learning stuff and 2) you are actually paying attention to the Japanese (no English subs etc). Don’t worry about mining so much for now. Listen intently. Listen to the rhythm and the flow of the language. If you can get even just a single word, try to write it down. Look it up, try to understand an example sentence.

    So yeah, as long as you’re picking up new things in other activities, knock yourself out watching Japanese things you don’t (YET) understand. Just try to listen carefully and get as much as you can. And if you haven’t done Heisig, do it.

  10. quendidil
    January 28, 2008 at 15:13

    There are some sample test questions for the 文部科学省 scholarship.
    The undergraduate tests are targeted after someone who has completed 12 years of compulsory education. I don’t believe these are the full tests as they’re so short, but they should give you an idea about the maths/science standard in Japan. BTW, you might want to google/wiki ゆとり教育.

    *On a side, completely unrelated note, do you ever say “maths” in North America or is it always “math”? Here in Singapore, we officially follow the British and use “maths”, but I’ve noticed a disturbing trend where younger people use “math” more and more.

  11. Charles
    January 28, 2008 at 16:11

    We always say “math” in North America. However, we say “mathematics”, which, I would assume where “maths” comes from…

    As far as Singaporeans, maybe it’s part of the North American english influence through popular media.

  12. James
    January 28, 2008 at 16:15

    In the US we always say ‘math.’

  13. Teishukanpaku
    January 28, 2008 at 17:36


    For a discussion on math terms in Japanese, a good place to start would be Wikipedia:

    From that main page, you can link to any one of the different fields in math (geometry, statistics, algebra, etc.), and learn the different terms for each field.

  14. Zack
    January 29, 2008 at 10:24

    Dear katsumoto,

    This is a bit off topic, but I have been trying out the reading to writing method for a little while now, and I have to say that it’s been working out very very well. I have to say bravo, you’ve upped the bar even more once again. Thank you for all the help you’ve been to those of us who are doing japanese self-study, it’s greatly appreciated.

  15. Nivaldo
    January 30, 2008 at 02:24

    Hey, Khatz! Quick question: you said somewhere that you were studying Fourier Transforms(or something like that). In that period, were you already reading academic books in japanese? It’s really just a curiosity nothing else…:D

  16. February 2, 2008 at 23:26

    I think you expressed yourself just fine! Fascinating article.

    Off-topic: I’ve been watching the Twitter public timeline lately and think that that would be a great place to harvest sentences.

  17. khatzumoto
    February 29, 2008 at 10:22

    Yeah. Like…there’s no put of reading the kind of thing you want to read until some magical time when you’re “ready”. The reason I can read academic texts in Japanese now is because I read academic texts in Japanese. Kind of a case of…”effect is cause is effect”.

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