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I checked Japanese Wikipedia and お天道様 is an early Edo period word for the sun, as used in some kind of early modern popular religion that is not really described well at all. Anyway, I've never seen a word like this in any children's book, so how do kids know what their grandparents are talking about? It seems like if it's a word nobody understands, the grandparents should just say お日様 instead.

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It might be just one of those things you know but don't understand... –  silvermaple Jul 29 '12 at 20:02
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So there are some things you are just born with? This is an interesting theory of language acquisition... –  Avery Morrow Jul 29 '12 at 23:26
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I heard of some saying like to tell kids that お天道様 is watching them, so they better be good. If they used some gesture to point to the sky while saying it, they might understand. –  Chris Harris Jul 29 '12 at 23:28
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@Avery Haha! That would make things simple! No, sorry, what I meant was one of those things that you know what it means, but you can't explain why it means it. So, you know that お天道様 is watching you, and that's a good thing, even if you don't know exactly who or what お天道様 is. –  silvermaple Jul 30 '12 at 2:24
    
Oh, I understand! That's almost the answer I wanted. Maybe this is more of a personal experience question than a linguistics question. –  Avery Morrow Jul 30 '12 at 4:03

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This is an interesting question but I don't think it's really Japan-specific. Japanese kids learn the word お天道様 the same way kids everywhere learn words.

I mean, how do kids in the US know who "God" is? If anything, it should be easier to figure out お天道様 -- at least Japanese grandmas can point to a concrete placeholder... I'm sure there are many Japanese kids who grow up with idiosyncratic understandings of what お天道様 means, but again, the same could be said of "God".

It seems like if it's a word nobody understands, the grandparents should just say お日様 instead.

But it isn't a word nobody understands -- it's a word (almost) everybody understands, even if they can't put their understanding in simple words. Plus, if grandmas said お日様 it wouldn't really make sense. There is obviously some overlap, but watching over people and disapproving of naughtiness is just not something that お日様 does.

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So it is a common word, despite what silvermaple said? Is there a book that uses it? –  Avery Morrow Jul 30 '12 at 15:40
    
Well, it's not as commonly used as "God" (that was a flaw in my analogy, I guess), and I don't know of any kids' books that use it, but I think most Japanese people have at least heard the word and know how it's used. (Silvermaple didn't say it was uncommon, just that people might not be able to define it exactly.) If you had a grandma that used it, you would learn it, because her use of the word would teach it to you. And if you didn't, eventually you would hear it from someone else. It may die out in a few generations if non-grandmas have stopped using it, of course, like any other word. –  Matt Jul 30 '12 at 21:00
    
Is "God" a word that most people understand? ;) –  Trevor Alexander Jan 4 at 9:27
    
This question seems to apply to all languages not just Japanese and "god" is quite a good analogy: I still remember slight confusion when I started school and listened to stories in morning assembly about people who were helped by someone who knows us. This was despite knowing the Christmas story, being taken to church for a brief period and being taught the sign of the cross by my mother. Eventually all these things came together, although I did make sense of the sign of the cross until it was used every morning at my next school 2 years later. (contd) –  Tim Mar 21 at 2:31
    
(contd) But what is interesting to me is that until they all gradually came together, for a long time I just did not worry about these things, probably because they had no bearing on my day-to-day life. This is just an example but it is an illustration of how words/concepts like 天道様 would be acquired fairly passively. I can remember other instances of words which I often heard but did not start using until one day I asked about them/something happend to make them relevant. –  Tim Mar 21 at 2:35

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