Here’s one Japanese grammatical form that I rarely find discussed. The following scene is from Ueshiba Reach’s Discommunication, v.2:


Reading right to left:

“What are you doing?!”
“Each and every one of these drawers has a precious treasure of mine! Don’t just go about messing with them!”


“Ah! Now’s not the time for this!!” “Busy, busy!”
Akechao… (Let’s just open it…)

A while later:


“Now how about this other drawer? Akechao

This is the abbreviated inflection of -chau, itself the abbreviation of -te shimau. If you listen to the spoken language at all, or if you ever read any manga, you already know -chau. When I first started learning Japanese, I recall how much trouble this form gave me; it wasn’t found in my textbooks, nor grammar books, nor dictionaries. (Similarly, a narrator from Helen DeWitt’s wonderful The Last Samurai rejoices at finding a then-unusual little book on colloquial Japanese abbreviations, which finally solves the problems that had plagued him since forever.) Those were the dark ages of Japanese education, kids. They taught us starting from -masu forms, they told us to use oru and de gozaimasu, they told us cursive kanji were “necessary for daily life in modern Japan”, and they thought it improper to teach “wrong” Japanese. Luckily, these days people have learned the value of teaching a language as she is spoke, and today no one would have any trouble finding -chau in a dictionary or textbook.

Of course, if I knew how to search adult grammars, I’d have found it even in the past century. Martin’s godlike Reference Grammar (1975) thoroughly details all possible combinations of -te shimau with -wa, -nai, causatives/passives, etc., all possible contractions including dialectal differences, and illustrates no less than five meanings:

  1. Finishing an action (perfective aspect): Tsui ni Taiyō ga shizunde shimatta “Finally the sun finished sinking”.
  2. Doing something all the way through, completely (completive aspect): O-Kane wo otoshite shimatta “I lost all the money”.
  3. Ends up doing, gets around to doing; Tabe-sugite o-Naka wo kowashite shimatta “Being such a glutton, I ended up with a ruined stomach”.
  4. Just a strong or emphatic past: Ichatta “They’re gone!”
  5. As a mood indicator, it marks annoyance, displeasure at how things ended up, frustration of expectations: Nan de mo nonjau “He’ll drink any damn thing!”.

For didactic purposes we could perhaps classify those, grosso modo, in two main strands of meaning: to finish doing (completive aspect) and to end up doing despite one’s will (non-volitional mood). As the English translations (“finish”, “end up”) suggest, both have to do with the meaning of shimau as an independent verb: “to finish, to store away”.

This is why I like -chao (-te shimaō) so much. denotes volition; that is, something she wants to do. -chau denotes ending up doing something, despite of oneself—that is, involuntarily (kowachatta! “I accidentally broke it!”). The combined volition-nonvolition effect is resembles “I baked you a cookie, but I ate it”: “let’s end up opening the drawer!” “let’s put ourselves in the state of ‘whoops, I’ve opened it!’”“let’s just open it [and not worry about the consequences]!”


8 thoughts on “-chao

  1. By “kowachatta”, do you mean “kowashichatta” or maybe “kowarechatta”?

    I find Martin’s descriptions quite misleading. I cannot read “-te shimau” without a sense of “lamentably”, “accidentally” or “carelessly”. E.g. in #1, I can only read it as “The sun finished setting (before something happened)”. Perfective aspect is not enough, the part in parentheses is strongly suggested.

    • Yes, kowashichatta. Thank you for the correction!

      I’m not sure I agree that -te shimau is always a modal negative. I think it can be a neutral aspectual for “completion”, with no particular modality. For references, here’s the Kōjien (meaning #8):


      • すっかり…しおわる。好色五人女(1)「おつつけ勘当帳に付けて~ふべし」。「ぜんぶ食べて~う」。
      • 完全に~する。ほんとに…する。浄瑠璃、夕霧阿波鳴渡「奥様はうつそり、鼻明いて~はんしよ」。「あきれて~う」。

      Here’s the Digital Daijirin (emphasis mine):

      (補助動詞) 動詞の連用形に助詞「て(で)」を添えた形に付いて、その動作がすっかり終わる、その状態が完成することを表す。終わったことを強調したり、不本意である、困ったことになった、などの気持ちを添えたりすることもある [i.e. not exclusively]

      Here’s some website for Japanese teachers:



      Following that hint, here are examples from alc.co.jp:

      • 夕方までには完全に仕上げてしまう
        get everything done before the evening
      • 完全に排除してしまうことはできない
        can’t be absolutely excluded
      • すっかり変わってしまっている
        be utterly transformed [changed]
      • テレビを完全にやめてしまう
        get rid of TV altogether
      • 無駄にならないよう全て使ってしまう
        not leave any to waste
      • Thanks for your prompt reply.

        I think most speakers would agree that it would be a bit strange to hand in a report to your boss/teacher and say レポートを仕上げてしまいました. I cannot see why this would be if てしまう could be purely aspectual. There is something “negative” or “carefree” about the てしまうwhich goes against the “properness” of handing in the report.

        So there must be something modal (if that’s the right term) at play as well, although it’s quite subtle and hard to pinpoint. Looking at the list of adverbs I gave in my previous comment, “carelessly” should probably be “in a carefree way”. Secondly, the list is most likely not complete. I think at least there should also be an “unexpectedly” in there.

        In all of your alc examples, I can explain how I read a subtle modal interpretation into the sentence. I’ll agree that てしまう can be very subtle, so the English translations without any adverb explicitly included seem completely fine to me.

        • I don’t have enough fluency to judge, but could it be that the expression was originally a temporal aspectual, then acquired modal connotations, and recently the modal overtones came to be dominant? And your Japanese is more up-to-date than Martin’s or Kōjien’s etc.?

  2. I think the process you describe is likely what has happened/is happening

    > And your Japanese is more up-to-date than Martin’s or Kōjien’s etc.?

    Hard to say, Japanese is one of my native languages, but I grew up mostly outside of Japan. I do realize that arguing against established dictionaries puts the burden of proof on my shoulders. I’m going to try to ask some “real” native speakers to see if I can get illustrative feedback.

  3. I was looking at this and thinking about how it is similar to the modal semantics of ‘acabar’ in Portuguese (and how it is not). I believe it is similar in some ways (though I’m not a native speaker of Portuguese, so please correct me if my intuition is inaccurate). For example, in Brazilian Portuguese at least, you can use ‘acabar’ with a gerund, and the resulting meaning seems to be similarly modal in the sense of ‘ending up having done something (despite perhaps not having wanted to initially)’. You could say “Eu acabei comendo tudo” and mean that you ended up eating everything, even though that was perhaps not what you wanted. At least me and some Brazilian friends use this when we speak, but perhaps I’m projecting the semantics of English ‘to end up’ onto ‘acabar’. Not sure, actually.

    • It works just that way in BP, yeah. It feels like an easy cognitive metaphor (in Lakoff’s sense) to make; I bet there are more languages which use a root for “end, finish” in this aspectual way.

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