Japanese Go Terms / Overused and Underused

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Underused terms


Various SL discussions throw up comments about Japanese terms. These can relate to mistranslations, conceptual mistakes, poor definitions that have had currency in the English literature for decades, and so on. Equally, JF in particular argues that a better conceptual understanding of the pro attitude can go hand-in-hand with a technical vocabulary that is a better match to theirs.

Therefore this is a To Do list of words to cut down on (in senses beyond the well-justified), and to promote (in some form ... by replacement, translation?).

Charles Matthews


Many of these words have more-or-less standard English translations e.g.

mamoru = to defend or protect nerai = aim, from nerau to take aim. tsurai = painful, bitter, trying ukeru = respond or answer yuuryoku = having strength or power.

They are used very frequently in commentaries. The question is whether there is some subtle meaning of the Japanese term not captured by the normal translation. Ijime on the playground at school has been a big social problem in Japan. In that context it refers to bullying to force conformity. In go it seems to be close to the English word harassment, and ijimeru, to harass, to torment, etc.

JF Bob, it's not really a question of capturing subtleties in translation. The point is that, as you observe, these are very common words. As such translators (I include myself) have created a problem by following the deleterious western habit of elegant variation. It would be best if we choose a single western term for a single Japanese term and make sure we stick to it. That way we will begin to get a quantitative sense of what the pros talk about.
On the meanings of some of the terms above, although nerau is used of taking aim (e.g. with a rifle), it is used also of watching carefully, ready to pounce, as of a cat watching a bird on the lawn. That is the go usage. I recommend "target" (aim implies you will actually shoot; a target is available but you don't have to aim at it - the whole point in high-level pro discussions; this should be apparent from the common usage of nerai with nokoru - a target can remain but taking aim can't, really). Yuuryoku is not normally used of power fighting (e.g. cut everywhere) but as an evaluative term it has a sense that I would render as muscular. Mamoru can only be understood properly by comparison with ukeru, rather than by the definition "defend". For tsurai I suggest sticking to painful - it is a common evaluative term - because of its strong association with ijimeru.

Karl Knechtel: What's wrong with defend for ukeru and fortify for mamoru? I normally understand "defend" as specifically reactive rather than proactive...

Overused terms

Bill: I find this page confusing. I have been accused, with some justice, of using too many Japanese terms. But even when I was fresh back from Japan, I would not have used the "underused" terms. I don't see much value in having Western 5-kyus say, "Mamotta!"

As for the overused terms, I cannot recall the last time I heard anybody use "yoritsuki".

John F. This is an answer also to Bob's note below. I didn't create this page so can't really speak for its intentions, but I think I know how it came about.

At a GoGoD seminar and in the wake of some pretty heavy statistical analysis of Japanese go texts, I made several observations. A few were floated here, some on r.g.g. and some are still in the ether. One in particular led to the nerai pages.

I was indicating that there is far, far less correspondence between the vocabulary used by Japanese pros and the vocabulary we use in the west than most dan players (the seminar audience) might suspect. Does it matter? I leave others to decide, but first they have to be told what the differences are. Nerai was an especially interesting example because of the high numbers of examples involved and the almost total ignorance of the term among UK dan players.

I mentioned other examples but did not go into detail. Some of them ended up on this page, awaiting (I believe) further discussion. What overuse means here is that, numerically, westerners use the term far more than Japanese texts, and underuse is the opposite. Overuse may arise for several reasons, obviously including misunderstanding of the term in which case it is probably a bad thing. It may be because we have extended the meaning (as with hane) and it may then not be a bad thing.

One factor I highlighted is that translators have often rendered terms such as nerai in different ways, even in the same paragraph, and this obscures useful technical terms. If all translators had rigorously rendered nerai as (say) target, we would by now be aware it is a major techncial term. Mamoru is another example. It is very different from ukeru, but if translators indifferently render both as them as defend, the important distinction will only slowly percolate through to western beginners. Pace Bill, if a 5-kyu suddenly says Mamotta for the right reason, he has made a very big breakthrough.

In short, I believe the intention of using "over" and "under" was not to suggest we use the indicated terms less or more, or to suggest whether we use the Japanese or English term. It was simply to point out potentially interesting differences in numerical usages between the two languages.

Charles John is right on the history. Plenty of discussion seems to warrant saying this

better to use nerai or an apt translation as master term in strategic discussion, than aji.

Most of us can't follow John into the thickets of Japanese usage. But this sort of outturn from discussion seems to be to be valuable, clarifying, and specific to the SL-discussion mode (cf. also thickness and haengma, and contrast with ongoing confusion about kikashi). I for one have learned a lot.


What is in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet

Ignoring for the moment John's point about translation, which only really affects the majority of us tangentially, I'm not sure that the benefit of all this discussion about foreign Go terms - haengma, nerai et al is to be found in finding an apt translation for words.

Maybe I'm stating the obvious but for me the point is thus:

The Japanese, Koreans and Chinese each have overlapping traditions of strong Go underpinned by ways of thinking about the game that are for various reasons, geographic and linguistic to name but two, hard for westerners to access.

As such, the aim of discussing how and what words the Japanese, say, use to describe various situations is not, therefore to accurately translate them, but to better understand how strong Go players view a position, and to try to assimilate these methods.

It doesn't matter to me, therefore, whether we decide to call a nerai an aim, a target or even a cabbage (and nerau, to aim, to target or even to...)

Rather I think that if I can start to try to find moves in the fuseki which provide me with further options, follow-ups (and cabbages, of course) then that is a job well done.

Bill: More than any other game I know, go seems to have an extremely valuable vocabulary. If you truly understand many go terms, not in a linguistic sense, but in the ability to apply them to games, then I think you will be a strong amateur.

This is not simply a matter of translation, but translation matters. If distinct terms are translated by the same word, or if a single term is translated by several different words, the distinct concepts cannot be conveyed. They are lost in translation.

But there is hope, anyway. :-) I was a 2-dan when I learned about motare. It was like a secret weapon. ;-) Nowadays I note that nearly all US 4- and 5-dans I have met utilize it, without ever having heard the term. I admire their ability to pick it up on their own.[1]

Anonymous: In the novel 1984, the totalitarian government removes words from the dictionary when it feels the words describe concepts that are unnecessary for people to think about.

It is definitely possible for people to 'think' about something without having a word for it, but having a name to call something can tremendously help the spread and understanding of a concept.

I think understanding the words Korean, Chinese, and Japanese pros use, could be very useful in learning concepts that can improve our go.

So, thanks for this page.

Earlier discussion

Bob Myers:

I'm frankly at a loss as to why you say that some of these words are supposed to be overused and others underused. The exact words you say are overused (hane, for one) are words with no alternative. On the other hand, as other commentators have noted, the words you say are underused, "tsurai', for example, are words that are basically just everyday Japanese words that should be translated into everyday English. Are you saying that certain words are overused in the sense that an English equivalent is preferable? Or the concept is overused? Do you want to use some other term for "aji"? Or do you think that people are spending too much time talking about "aji"?

On the other side, Are you saying that certain words are underused in the sense that the English equivalent is less preferable, so that we should use "osae" instead of "block" Or are you saying that the concept is underused?

[1] I blame Attack and Defense for this; it is definitely where I learned the concept (and it's maybe the most valuable book I have read for my progress in go). --dnerra

Japanese Go Terms / Overused and Underused last edited by on February 5, 2011 - 18:57
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