Entries in learning Japanese (5)


Why does Japanese use "Chinese" Characters?

Ema (絵馬) are small wooden plaques on which prayers or wishes are written. Note how a variety of writing systems are used.

   One thing that comes up time and time again when otherwise bright people who are merely not familiar with Japan read my writing is the issue of why the Japanese language uses "Chinese characters". 
   "What?" they invariably comment. "I thought this was supposed to be Japanese . . . Is this Japanese or is this Chinese? I don't get it."
   Don't worry. I asked the same question twenty-two years ago. (For more on the Japanese writing system, scroll down.)
   I'm curious: were I to write "Yada yada yada was written in kanji", would readers have a better idea about what I was saying or would they be just as confused? I welcome your thoughts.




   Every day I hear Japanese complain, “Eigo-wa muzukashii.” (English is difficult.)

   I suppose for non-native speakers of the language, English can be hard to master. This blessed tongue of mine is a hodgepodge of languages—Germanic, Romance and Celtic—making the spelling and grammar a confused mess that is not only cumbersome for learners but for native speakers alike.

   BUT! The Japanese language is so much more muzukashii. Our list of irregular verbs and odd spelling rules cannot even begin to burden a student the way the Japanese writing system hinders foreigners who try to master it.

   Of the more than five thousand different languages out there in the world, the most difficult one to read is Japanese.

   It’s not unusual to find a single sentence chockablock with Hiragana (ひらがな), Katakana (カタカナ), Kanji (漢字), Rômaji (also known as the alphabet), and even Arabic numerals. While hiraganakatana, and rômaji are straight-forward enough and can be mastered in less than a week, what really makes Japanese so hellish for learners is the fact that unlike the pictograms in Chinese, known as hànzi (漢字), where most characters have one basic reading, almost all Japanese kanji have several possible, often unrelated readings.

   Take the kanji for “I”. In Chinese 我 is pronounced wǒ. In Japanese, however, it can be pronounced: aaréga,wawaré, and waro. The character for “food/eat” 食 is read shí in Chinese, but can be read: ukaukekeshi,jikishokukukuisutaha and so on, depending on context. And while the kanji for “go”, 行 can be read in a number of similar ways in Chinese—xínghánghanghéng—in Japanese it can be read in the following ways: gyôokonayuyukiyukuian, and, who knows, possibly more. 

   Kids in Japan must master 1,006 of the 2,136 different characters, the so-called jôyô kanji,[1] by the end of elementary school and the remainder in junior high school.

   Think about that.

   It can take up to nine years of education for a Japanese child to become literate in his own language, far longer than it takes an American to learn how to read English. By comparison, hangul (한글) the Korean writing system can be mastered for the most part in a single day. If you’re determined enough, that is. I taught myself how to read (though not quite understand) hangul during a trip I took in the mid 90s. Riding on the high-speed train connecting Busan in the south of the country to Seoul in the north, I compared the Romanization of the station names and the Chinese characters with the hangul. By the time I reached Seoul a few hours later, I could read the Korean script. Piece of cake!

   No other language offers as overwhelming a barrier to entry as Japanese does when it comes to its writing system. As a result, students of the language are often forced to focus on speaking alone. They cannot reinforce what they learn by, say, reading books or magazine and newspaper articles the way you can with other languages.

   If they ever try to do so, however, as I did, they’ll find that written Japanese is a very different animal from the spoken language.

   Open up any book, even a collection of casual, humorous essays by Murakami Haruki for example, and you’ll bump up against “ーde-aru” (ーである). I hadn’t heard of this copula[2] until I started trying to read things other than textbooks and manga.

   De-aru, which is just another way of say desu (ーです) but in a more formal and rigid way that is suitable for reports or making conclusions, is only the beginning. (You can learn more about de-aru here.) While I can generally catch almost everything that is being said to me or what is said on TV even when I’m not really paying attention,[3] written Japanese takes concentrated effort to comprehend and sometimes up to three perusals[4] to get a firm grasp on what the writer is trying to convey.

   Even if you’re not interested in learning how to read Japanese, just trying to master the spoken language can provide you with years of headaches.

   Thinking I could master the language in my first three months or so in Japan, I dove headfirst into my studies almost as soon as I arrived, taking sometimes two to three private lessons a week.

   At the time, the selection of textbooks for learners of Japanese was extremely limited. While I had a good set of dictionaries called the Takahashi Romanized “Pocket” Dictionary—the only kind of pockets they would conceivably fit in were the pockets you might find on the baggy pants of a circus clown—the textbook I had to work with couldn’t have been more irrelevant.

   Written for engineers from developing countries invited by the government to study and train in Japan, it contained such everyday vocabulary as “welding flux”, “hydraulic jack” and “water-pressure gauge”. The phrases taught in the textbook were equally helpful:


Q: ラオさんは何を持っていますか。

            Rao-san-wa nani-o motteimasuka

                        What is Rao-san holding.

A: ラオさんはスパナを持っています。

            Rao-san-wa supana-o motteimasu

Rao-san is holding a spanner.


   In all of my twenty years in Japan, I have never once used this phrase. I haven’t used a spanner or a wrench for that matter, either. Nor have I met anyone named Rao.[5]

   But, the biggest shortcoming of the textbook was its desire to have learners of Japanese speak the languagepolitely.

   And so, the less casual -masu (−ます) and -desu (—です) form of verbs triumphed. If you wanted to ask someone what he was doing, the textbook taught you to say:



(Anata-wa, nani-o shiteimasuka?)


   I practiced this phrase over and over: Anata-wa, nani-o shiteimasuka? Anata-wa, nani-o shiteimasuka? Anata-wa, nani-o shiteimasuka? Anata-wa, nani-o shiteimasuka? Anata-wa, nani-o shiteimasuka?

   Armed with this new phrase, I accosted a group of children in a playground and asked, “Anata-wa, nani-o shiteimasuka?


   A few months later I was diligently studying Japanese in that most effective of classrooms—a girlfriend’s bed—when I learned that people didn’t really say Anata-wa, nani-o shiteimasuka, especially to children much younger than themselves. No, they said, “Nani, shiteru no?” or something like that, instead.

   After about a year of studying the language, I could manage. I certainly wasn’t what I would call fluent, but I was no longer threatened by death or starvation. When I moved to Fukuoka, however, I bumped up against a new and very unexpected wall: hôgen. The local patois, known as Hakata-ben, is one of the more well-known of Japan’s many bens, or dialects.

   When the people of Fukuoka wanted to know what you were doing, they didn’t say anata-wa, nani-o shiteimasuka or even nani, shiteru no. They said, “Nan shiyô to?” (なんしようと) or “Nan shon?” (なんしょん).

   Let me tell you, it took quite a few years to graduate from saying “Anata-wa, nani-o shiteimasuka?” to “Nan shiyô to?” And that, of course, was only the beginning. It took me nearly a decade to figure out what 〜んめえ (~nmê) and ばってん (batten) meant.




    博多弁: 雨なら、行かんめーと思うとるっちゃばってん、こん様子なら降らんめーや。

    Hakata-ben: Ame-nara, ikanmê to omôtoruccha batten, kon yôsu nara, furanmê ya.

    標準語: 雨なら行くまいと思ってるのだが、この様子だと雨は降らないだろう。

    Standard: Ame nara, ikumai to omotteru-no daga, kono yôsu dato, ame wa furanai darô.

    English: I was thinking of not going if it rained[6], but it doesn’t look like it’s going to rain (after all).


   My Japanese grandmother would say something like, “Anta, ikanmê” (you aren’t going, are you) to which I’d grunt, “Un” (that’s right), when in fact I had every intention of going. The poor woman and I had conversations like that all the time.[7] When I finally figured that one out it was as if the scales had fallen from my eyes. Day-to-day life here has contained fewer misunderstandings ever since. ばってん (batten), by the way, means “but”.

   My experience with Hakata-ben has spawned a masochistic interest in Japanese dialects in general and I have been maintaining a blog on the topic for the past few years. Have a look-see!

   Anyways, the long and short of it is that while English is no cakewalk, it’s still much easier to learn than many other languages, such as Japanese. So, the next time you hear your students grumbling about how difficult English is, just tell them, “Oh, shuddup.”


   So, why "Chinese characters"?

   Mr. Wiki says: "The Japanese language had no written form at the time Chinese characters were introduced, and texts were written and read only in Chinese. Later, during the Heian period however, a system known as kanbun emerged, which involved using Chinese text with diacritical marks to allow Japanese speakers to restructure and read Chinese sentences, by changing word order and adding particles and verb endings, in accordance with the rules of Japanese grammar."


[1] 常用漢字, jôyô kanji, are the Chinese characters designated by the Ministry of Education for use in everyday life.

[2] A copula is a word used to link a subject and predicate, as in “John is a teacher”, where “John” is the subject, “a teacher” (actually a predicative nominal), the predicate and “is”, the copula. (Don’t worry, I had know idea what a copula was either until I started studying Japanese.)

[3] Unless it’s a period piece and the actors are using Edo Period Japanese.

[4] I use the word “perusal” to imply thoroughness and care in reading. So many Americans today mistakenly assume the word means “to skim”. It does not, it does not, it does not. So, for the love of God, stop it! Same goes for the word “nonplussed”. If you’re not a hundred percent certain of the meaning—and even if you are (over confidence is America’s Achilles heel)—don’t use it. Chances are you’re probably mistaken.

[5] I eagerly await his arrival, though. For when I find him, I will surely ask, “ラオさん、何を持っていますか?”

[6] I have intentionally translated this in the manner that Japanese speak—namely “I was thinking about notdoing” rather than the more natural “I wasn’t thinking about doing”—to make the original sentences easier to understand.

[7] Incidentally, while in Tôkyô I chatted up a girl from Gifu who told me that they also used the same ~nmêverb ending. Her friend from Hokkaidô had never heard it before.


And speaking of gutters

   When learning a language in the country where the language is spoken you may find that you will sometimes be able to not only remember the meaning of a given word but also recall with great detail when and where the word was first learned or who first uttered that word to you in a way that you understood. Because of this, even the most prosaic of words may come to carry far more weight, nuance, and contain memories far richer than those leaned from textbooks.

   For instance, I cannot remember when or where I first learned the English word “gutter”, yet I will always associate its Japanese equivalent, mizo, with my first girlfriend in Japan.

   It was a hot midsummer’s evening, the rainy season had finally come to an end, and the two of us were making our way towards an old izakaya (pub) in the neighborhood.

   As we walked down the narrow, sloping road that led away from my apartment I asked her something that I had been wondering about for weeks: how she had come to get the scar on her forehead. It wasn’t what I would call an ugly or particularly conspicuous scar, certainly not like the one-inch gash leading from my left nostril to my mouth that a dear friend in elementary school christened “The Snot Canal”, but it was there all the same and would stand out in a certain light.

   My girlfriend touched the scar and said, “Oh this? When I was about three, I tripped and fell into the, the, . . . the mizo.”

   “The what?”

   “That,” she said, pointing at the open concrete ditch that lined the road.

   “The gutter?”

   “The gutter! Yes! I fell into the gutter.”

   Why Japan with its otherwise state-of-the-art infrastructure doesn’t cover these driving hazards (And while you’re at it, bury the goddamn telephone wires!) is neither here nor there. What’s interesting to me is that I can recall so vividly where I first learned that and so many, many other words in Japanese.[1]

   Incidentally, my three-year-old son recently taught me the word yattsukeru (遣っ付ける). Meaning “to finish off”, as in kill something, to “vanquish”, or “let someone have it”, among other things, Yu-kun said it after he had smashed a bug with a rolled up newspaper. Who taught him the word, I haven’t the slightest clue, but I will never forget when he said it for the first time and the reaction his mother and grandmother had upon hearing him say it with such triumph and élan.

   The only trouble I have found with this kind of acquisition of new vocabulary is that the memories surrounding a word are sometimes so rich and detailed that there's sometimes little room for anything else. I can get so caught up wrapping words in memories before packing them away in my head, only to find later that I have misplaced the word altogether.


[1] Another word that girlfriend taught me was hayaku.

   It was early in the morning and we were getting ready to leave for our long-anticipated trip to the onsen (hot spring) resort of Beppu, Ôita. My girlfriend who was downstairs waiting by her car called up to me, “Aonghas! Aonghas!”

   “What?” I called back.



   “Hayaku! Hayaku!”

   I had no idea what she was trying to tell me. “Hold on a sec,” I said as I popped back into my apartment to fetch my Japanese-English dictionary. “Ha . . . Haya . . . Hayai. Hayaku. Ah, here it is . . . Oh dear.”

   She had been telling me to get the lead out, to hurry up.




Language of Love and Hate

   When learning a foreign language, and particularly when you're fully immersed in it, you may come to associate words with the places where the words were first learnt, or with the person who first taught you them. As the years pass and your circle of acquaintances or, in my case, roster of former lovers grow, you may start to notice that the mood or nature of a relationship can be characterized by the words that were acquired during the time when those people were in your life.

   A rocky relationship with one woman taught me the words ayashii (怪しい, questionable, dubious, fishy, suspicious, unreliable), yabai (ヤバい, chancy, dodgy, touch-and-go, in hot water), and so on.

   My first marriage was wellspring of words such as iyami otoko (嫌み男, sarcastic bastard), dasan-teki (打算的, calculating), sekoi yatsu (stingy bastard), and yôryô ga warui (要領がわるい, cack-handed). I also learned the word 慰謝料 (isharyô, “consolation money”, a.k.a. alimony) from that woman. Ah, the memories!

   Less contentious lovers have taught me, among other things, toriko (虜, a slave to love), horeru (惚れる, be entranced, be taken with), and zokkon (ゾッコン, to be head over heels). Sigh.

   For someone like me who enjoys reading and writing, who hungers for new words and vocabulary, to be in the company of someone who is a source for fresh vocabulary or novel ways of saying what has long become tiresome and clichéd can be as stimulating as a drug.




   I’ve been reading old letters and journals from my early days in Japan hoping to find some gems worth buffing up and posting but so far no luck. I was awfully whiny two decades ago. But then, I had plenty to whinge about: that dreadful boss, “Bakayama”, the miserable state of my lovelife, student-loan induced austerity, and so on.

   The only really good thing about my first year in Japan was the friendship that developed between “Blad”, “Hoka”, and me. Never having been in the military myself I can’t be too sure, but I think what we had was as close as civilians can come to being comrade-in-arms. I might not have taken a bullet for them, but I would have quickly told off that idiot of a boss of ours if he ever treated the others unfairly.

   That’s another thing I noticed about myself. I had quite the temper. I’m happy to say that like a good wine I’ve mellowed with age.

   Anyways, there’s one funny story from those days that is worth mentioning.

   The more interesting episodes of that first year usually involve Blad. He was the first in a long slew of people I would come to know over the years who had a Masters Degree in TESL/TEFL and yet couldn’t master a foreign language if their lives depended upon it.

   And, in a sense it did: twenty years ago in Japan, it was hard to find people who could speak English, especially in that working class town we were living in, Kitakyûshû. You had to speak Japanese to get by.

   The root of Blad’s struggle with the Japanese language was the fact that he was tone-deaf. The guy could not have carried a tune even if he’d had a bucket. Seriously.

   The Japanese can be very polite and will encourage even the poorest of singers to finish their karaoke song, but with Blad they couldn’t help but throw their hands up. “Pulease, Bladorey,” they would beg as he sang Killing Me Softly. “You are killing us!”

   Thanks his imperfect pitch, Blad could never quite get his tongue around Japanese words. I can clearly remember how the word for “toilet”, o-tearai, used to give him a lot of grief.

   “Why don’t you just say, ‘toiretto’ or ‘benjo’?” I suggested.


   He could be stubborn, too.

   Some of the best times Blad and I had together were the evenings after work. Since we lived next door to each other, we would often get together, share a bottle of beer and talk about the things that had gobsmacked us during the day.

   “You know all those little mom-and-pop shops are up the hill?” he said one night.

   “I do.”

   “Well, I found what looked like a little garden shop/florist and there was a woman out watering the plants, so I picked up one of the pots and asked, ‘Kore-wa ikura desuka?’”

   We had recently learned how to say, “How much is this?” in Japanese.

   “The woman babbled something to me that I couldn’t understand, so I went to another plant, picked it up and asked, ‘Kore-wa ikura deskua?’ She said something to me again, but as I was picking up a third plant, she turned and ran into the shop. I could hear her shouting something to someone inside.”


   “And a few seconds later a man came out—I think it was her husband—and he gestured wildly at the plants and shouted, ‘No!’ He turned to some flowers, shouted ‘No!’ again. Then he turned to me and shouted, ‘No! No! NO! This . . . is . . . our . . . HOME!’”

   I laughed so hard that I started crying. When I finally regained my composure, I asked what Blad did next.

   “I put the plant down and continued on down the road.”


Shita Amé

   The other night my wife used a word I hadn't heard before: shita amé (下雨). I tried looking it up but couldn't find it in any of my dictionaries. I did, however, learn that the two characters in reverse order (雨下) was pronounced uka and meant "rain" or "raining". I'd guessed that much: there had been a downpour outside at the time.

   Now, I'd never heard uka before, either, but, taking a second look at 下雨 (shita amé) with fresh eyes I remembered that it was the same as the Chinese word for "raining", namely xià yǔ.

   It's been years since I last studied Mandarin. Nevertheless, the word was still tucked away in that cluttered pantry in my head, waiting for me to take it out and dust it off. Almost makes me want to study the language again. Almost.

   So, shita amé meant "rain". Or so I thought. When I asked my wife about it a few days later, she gave a quizzical look and said she had no idea what I was talking about.

   "Maybe you misheard."

   "I did not mishear," I insisted. "You said, shita amé."

   After a moment's thought, she had a sudden inspiration: "Ashita amé!"


   I had indeed misheard, or more precisely had not heard the first syllable "a" of her sentence. She hadn't said, shita amé, but rather ashita amé. She was telling me it was going to rain tomorrow

   Anyways, now that the rainy season is just around the corner I am reminded of a passage from my second novel A Woman's Nails:



   In Japanese, Jimé jimé is that unpleasant, sticky feeling during the rainy season when humidity's got its clammy hands all over you; mushi mushi when it damn near smothers you.

   To the Japanese ear, potan is the sound of a drop of water plopping into, say, a bucket; pota pota, the tune a leaky faucet sings; and jah jah, water gushing out of a pipe.

   The Japanese will hear potsu potsu as raindrops start falling upon dry ground; shito shito, when it drizzles; and zah zah when it pours.

   Strong winds howl with a byoo byoo making the windows of your apartment rattle, gata gata. And, thunder, when woken by the pika pika of lightning, will grumble loudly with a goro goro.

   While nuru nuru describes the slimy feel every surface has when it’s been balmy for days on end, beta beta is how your sweaty skin feels on uncomfortably jimé jimé days.

   You're dripping with sweat if you're dara dara; drenched to the skin if you're bisho bisho.

   And, while niwaka amé, you may recall, means a sudden shower, a doshaburi is a downpour; and oh-amé, a torrential rain. Konuka amé means a light mist; and kiri samé, a drizzle.

   Confused already? This is not even a potan in the baketsu. There are 1190 rain related words and phrases in the Japanese language.

   One more! Though Yûdachi, which literally means evening stand, refers to a late afternoon summer shower, you shouldn't assume that asadachi, or morning stand, means an early morning shower. Far from it, an asadachi, my friend, is sure as shootin’ the Morning Woodie.


Excerpt from A Woman's Nails. To read more here.

 © Aonghas Crowe, 2010. All rights reserved. No unauthorized duplication of any kind.


All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

A Woman's Nails is now available at Amazon.