In spite of the fact that I spend a good part of every day with my nose in a Japanese-English dictionary, I seldom come across a completely new word anymore.
I don't mean to imply that my Japanese vocabulary is already so rich or that sentences roll off my tongue like polished jewels. It isn't and they don't. But nowadays whenever I encounter a new word, I find that if I can visualize the kanji that combine to create the word, I can usually guess what the meaning is.
The other day, I was talking with a friend who is a successful restauranteur. He had recently opened up motsu nabe restaurant in Hokkaidô and I was curious to know how he and another friend, who has a chain of yakiniku restaurants in Fukuoka and Tôkyô, could be so consistently successful despite wild fluctuations in the business climate over the past ten years. He answered, "Gûzen-wa hitsuzen." (偶然は必然 (ぐうぜんはひつぜん) literally "Coincidence is inevitable.")
He asked me if I knew what hitsuzen meant. I didn't actually, but said I did, because I guessed that the word was written 必然 (ひつぜん), where 必, hitsu or kanarazu, meant "certainly, surely, always", and 然, zen, was a suffix that meant "in that way". I could get the gist of what he was talking about which is usually enough. Not always, but usually.
I sometimes joke that I can understand 90% of the Japanese I read and hear. That may sound impressive until you realize that the remaining 10% is often the most important part of what is being conveyed.
So, it is with nerdish delight when I come across a word that taxes my imagination and yet finds me coming up short of that eureka! of comprehension.
Yesterday, another business man I know, who runs a Doctor Martens boutique and shoe-wholesaling business, told me he had bought a nodatê (野点). I had no idea what he was talking about, so I Googled it and found pictures of the large cinnabar-colored paper umbrellas used when the tea ceremony is conducted outdoors. I can't count how many times I've seen them, but never knew what they were called. I would even venture to say that your average Japanese, who hasn't been initiated into the arcana of the Way of Tea, probably doesn't know what they're called, either.
Now I do.
Something else I didn't know yesterday, was the word tateru (点てる、たてる) describes the state in which someone is drinking maccha. It's an unusual reading for the kanji 点 (usually read as ten) and doesn't show up in many dictionaries.