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All the dictionary entries I have found for 明ける include definitions that are almost opposites of each other. More specifically, in some of the definitions, 明ける means something like "to begin", while in others (within the same dictionary entry!) it means something like "to end."

I have been able to find example sentences that illustrate the second group of definitions pretty unambiguously. For example:

冬休み明けないでほしいな。
I wish winter vacation would not end.

The alternative (明ける ≈ "begin") interpretation does not sound likely:

I wish winter vacation would not begin.

In contrast, all the example sentences I have found that supposedly illustrate the "to begin" meaning seem to me ambiguous, at best.

For example, the sentence

年が明ける。

...is typically translated as something like

The year begins.

...but it is not obvious to me why. After all, the translation

The year ends.

...would also fit the same situation, since whenever a year begins another year ends. Why is the latter never given as the translation for the original Japanese sentence?

It gets worse, though. The following example is almost shocking in its perversity. The following sentence is often given as an illustration of the "to begin" meaning of 明ける

夜が明ける。

The translation given for it is typically something like

The day dawns.

And yet 夜(=よる/よ) means literally night, and therefore it seems to me blindingly obvious that the original sentence says, literally

The night ends.

Given this blatantly straighforward translation, it seems to me just willful to insist that, in that sentence, 明ける means "to dawn".

In fact, I even came across the following sentence:

ようやく夜が明けて長い夜が終った。

I hope that this sentence makes it obvious that the only reasonable translation for 明ける here is "to end," even though it is always translated as "to dawn."

(I realize that the end of the night coincides with the beginning of the day, but this does not mean that "to end" is interchangeable with "to begin.")


I am looking for an example sentence featuring 明ける where the only possible interpretation would require it to be translated as something like "to begin."


Alternatively, I would like to know how native speakers of Japanese interpret the verb 明ける when it appears in a context different from set phrases. For example, how would a native speaker of Japanese interpret the following sentence?

1904年6月16日、彼の長い試練が明けた。

Did the ordeal begin on June 16, 1904, or did it end?


Granted, contributing to the perversity are the facts that

  1. The words 開ける and 空ける, which have the same reading (あける), both have meanings related to "opening up", which is consonant with the general sense of "to begin";
  2. The character 明 means "bright", and therefore is suggestive of the dawn.

These two inconvenient facts notwithstanding, I have not been able to find an example of 明ける that does not fit the interpretation "to end".

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    明ける never means to begin. It is a transition from one period to another.
    – sundowner
    Jan 29, 2023 at 23:43
  • Just FYI, some say, as in this blog, that 新年明けましておめでとうございます is incorrect because the 年 in 年が明ける is the year that has ended.
    – aguijonazo
    Jan 30, 2023 at 13:04
  • The same event marks the end of one thing and the beginning of another. Though the subject may be the one that ends, the focus of the phrase is more on the beginning because it's an "opening" after all. I think that's how you should understand it.
    – aguijonazo
    Jan 30, 2023 at 13:16
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    @aguijonazo 明鏡国語辞典 says "「夜が明ける/朝が明ける」「旧年が明ける/新年が明ける」のように、古いものと新しいものの両方を主語にとる。(略)同種の言い方に「水が沸く/湯が沸く」などがある。"
    – naruto
    Jan 30, 2023 at 14:16
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    @aguijonazo Both 朝が明ける and 水が沸く seem to lie on the "some experts say it's fine but others say it's technically wrong" area. But I think what's important now is even the strictest person imagines the same phenomenon (no one would feel 朝が明ける or 新年が明ける refers to the end of the morning or the new year).
    – naruto
    Jan 31, 2023 at 0:23

1 Answer 1

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First, please read this question for the basic meaning of 明ける: What does 明ける mean?

明ける in this sense is used with only a small group of words as the subject, and you have already covered important ones. Don't think of this as a general-purpose "begin" or "end".

EDIT: For a Japanese speaker, 明ける is a word closer to "dawn" (or "get brighter") than to "start" or "end". "Dawn" is the original meaning of 明ける, but by extension, it also refers to a shift from a dark/dreamy/extraordinary period to a bright/ordinary period. Since no English verb fully corresponds to 明ける, we have no choice but to use either "start" or "end" in the translation. 明鏡国語辞典 explicitly says that, in the context of dawn, the subject of 明ける can be either the old state or the new state; 夜が明ける and 朝が明ける mean exactly the same thing, though the former is relatively more common.

I am looking for an example sentence featuring 明ける where the only possible interpretation would require it to be translated as something like "to begin."

How about 新しい年が明ける? Actually, 年が明ける means exactly the same thing even without explicitly saying 新しい, so this 年 unambiguously refers to the new year.

We also say 新年明けましておめでとう ("Happy New Year"). 年明けの期間 refers to a new year period (early January), not a year-end period.

1904年6月16日、彼の長い試練が明けた。

This only means the ordeal is over. 試練 is something "dark", right? Similarly, 試験明け(期間) refers to a post-exam period when students are happy.

Lastly, I feel this has nothing to do with 開ける/空ける (They might be etymologically related to 明ける, but they feel totally different to me.)

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  • Thank you for these explanations! Would you mind adding a word regarding why 夜が明ける is always translated along the lines of the day dawns, and never along the lines of the night ends, even though the original sentence contains the word 夜 = night? In particular, does the sentence ようやく夜が明けて長い夜が終った sound as silly and pointlessly repetitive in Japanese as the sentence Finally the night ended, and the long night concluded does in English, and if not, why not?
    – kjo
    Jan 30, 2023 at 12:27
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    @kjo I think you're thinking the other way around. "Dawn" is the original meaning of 明ける, so it's strange to ask why 夜が明ける is translated using "dawn". Please see the edit.
    – naruto
    Jan 30, 2023 at 14:11
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    I think perhaps a way to make 夜が明ける make more sense is to think of it as actually saying "the night begins to transition into day" Likewise, 年が明ける could be viewed as saying either "The (new) year begins/dawns" or alternately "The (old) year transitions into the new year". It's not so much that the year is ending, but that it is becoming the start of something else (a new year).
    – Foogod
    Jan 30, 2023 at 16:38
  • (I'm still trying to fully understand the 水/湯 example you gave in a comment above, as well as sundowner's and Foogood's comments.) If speaker A said something like "冬休みの明けることを楽しみにしている" to native listener B, would B's reasonable assumption that A, like most people, enjoys vacations, lead B to interpret 明ける to mean the beginning of A's vacation period (i.e. the transation from the "non-vacation state" to the "vacation state")? (continues)
    – kjo
    Jan 30, 2023 at 17:02
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    @kjo As I said earlier, 明ける is normally used with a small group of words as the subject. 休み is one of them, and it only means the holidays are over. 冬休みが明けるのが楽しみ simply means this person likes school more than holidays. On the other hand, 5月が明ける and 学期が明ける sound very confusing to me (start? end?). And I forgot to mention this, but 夜が明けて夜が終わった sounds very redundant to me, too.
    – naruto
    Jan 31, 2023 at 0:17

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