There's a famous old song that's actually the only ever Japanese language song to reach #1 on the US pop charts: "上{うえ}を向{む}いて歩{ある}こう".

This is both the title of the song and a frequently repeated line in it.

向{む}いて is the -te form of 向{む}く, meaning "to face".

My understanding of 上{うえ} is that in Japanese it's a noun even though it's usually translated to another part of speech in English, such as "up".

It seems odd from the point of view of an English speaker that "to face", "to look toward" would be a transitive verb requiring a direct object.

Is that in fact what's happening or have I got it all wrong trying to parse this phrase due to my English speaker's intuition and my limited knowledge of Japanese?

Is what I'm seeing more of a quirk of the verb 向く or is there something about the particle を that I haven't learned yet? Or maybe it's all about the 上 in this case?

  • Nobody told me. I explained how I logically reached this conclusion because を is the direct object particle and verbs that take direct objects are transitive verbs. Based of course on limited and flawed knowledge. – hippietrail Apr 3 '14 at 14:41
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    In fact, 上 is a little special, sometimes it can be modified by adverbials. But in this context, you can view it as a noun. 向く is a little special too. It's sometimes used with に. <方向>を向く seems similar to 見る. It's only possible when it means someone intentional changes or keeps the <direction> he looks towards. I don't think the usage of を向く is the same as を行く・来る・飛ぶ・出る, etc. – Yang Muye Apr 3 '14 at 15:29
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    My intuition is the を向く is similar to を見る. I just found a paper which claims that を向く is different from を歩く, and only very few words can be used in this way. The only other example given by the author is “振り返る”, which I think is similar to 見る too. Another verb I think might be similar to 向く is を望む{のぞむ}/に臨む{のぞむ}, which etymologically contains the meaning of 見る, too. – Yang Muye Apr 3 '14 at 16:08

Although it is usually the transitive verb that takes a "Noun + を" in front of it, there is an important exception to this general rule.

Intransitive verbs such as 向く、[走]{はし}る (to run)、[飛]{と}ぶ (to fly)、[出]{で}る (to get out), etc. can take a "Noun + を" when it describes the place of an action or the direction of a movement.

上を向く = to look upward

[公園]{こうえん}を走る = to run in the park

[空]{そら}を飛ぶ = to fly in the sky

レストランを出る = to leave the restaurant

Other such intransitive verbs:

[曲]{ま}がる (to make a turn)、[降]{お}りる (to get off)、[通]{とお}る (to pass), etc.

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    Am I the only person that sees all of these as just transitive verbs? (or verbs that are optionally transitive?) – Sjiveru Apr 3 '14 at 16:03
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    @Sjiveru, me too. By the definition of “transitive”, they should be transitive. By the definition of “自動詞”, well, it seems there isn't a definition for “自動詞” that are accepted by all scholars. – Yang Muye Apr 3 '14 at 16:15
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    Perhaps you should share with us "the" definition of "transitive". – hippietrail Apr 3 '14 at 16:17
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    @Sjiveru I agree that they remain intransitive and I believe there are two particles spelled を, and only one of them is related to transitivity. The two particles have different meaning and distribution, so I see no motivation to treat them as the same thing. In fact, see Martin 1975 (pp.255-256) for some exceptional examples that use both をs together (which is usually not possible). – snailboat Apr 3 '14 at 19:19
  • I'll have to take a look at those when I get to the library next. – Sjiveru Apr 3 '14 at 20:24

上 is a noun and を is to show the process of the act. [上]{うえ}を[向]{む}いて= with [your face] looking up [at the sky]

  • Thanks for the response, I'll have to wait for somebody kindly to offer up a translation though (-: – hippietrail Apr 3 '14 at 14:47
  • So を actually has a second function besides being the direct object particle? Wow! – hippietrail Apr 3 '14 at 14:48
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    yes. を has a variety of functions actually. – Matthewfsq Apr 3 '14 at 14:54
  • I bet I'm not the only beginner Japanese learner who takes it as a shock when getting to this stage. At the early stages this is really how they teach を in books, websites, YouTube videos, etc. – hippietrail Apr 3 '14 at 15:09
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    We see it quite often on this site but, when an intransitive verb takes を it is still intransitve and it is not correct to start referring to the verb as "transitive". Another question on this use of を: japanese.stackexchange.com/questions/14985/… – Tim Apr 3 '14 at 15:19

(This is just a supplementary note to compliment the answer above)

向く is an interesting case (see below) but generally when an intransitive verb takes を the English equivalent often contains an additional word:

  1. You fly across the sky.-> 空を飛ぶ

  2. You run along a road-> 道を走る

  3. You stroll around a park -> 公園を散歩する

  4. You go out of a house -> 家を出る

  5. You feel sad about your friend's failure -> 友達の失敗を悲しむ

  6. You turn left around a corner -> 角を左へ曲がる

This does not always work: I think some people still get off "of" a bus (〜バスを降りる) and you might turn "to" the left (左を向く)but I struggle to do more that just look up (上を向く).

However, the real reason I picked on 向く as interesting is to compare it to 曲がる. In the first case we turn to the left, in the latter we turn left around a corner. It seems that in the end there is no substitute for understanding the verb and how it is used, not just knowing if it is transitive or intransitive.

For reference:
Some books give one use of を with intransitive verbs, Makino's Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar gives three:

1) to indicate a space where something moves (1,2,3 & 6 above)
2) to indicate location from where something moves (4)
3) to mark the cause of some emotion (5)

I am not quite sure which 上を向く fits, probably 1, but it is still intransitive (transitive verb is 向ける).

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