Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Japanese Writing System

The general consensus among Japanese language students here is that Japanese is pretty simple in terms of grammar, but it has a complex writing system. Despite that, I can read/write Japanese way better than I can speak it. Maybe it’s because I study kanji. A lot. Regardless, I’m going to break down the writing system and explain it a little bit in case someone is interested.

There are four symbol sets in Japanese: romaji, hiragana, katakana, and kanji. If you are capable of reading this, then you know romaji. Because Japan does business internationally, and not exactly everyone in the world knows Japanese, but many people can read Roman characters, businesses often write their names (and slogans) using romaji. Foreign businesses that setup shop in Japan also tend to retain their original spellings. Businesses in Japan also often use English for advertising, despite the fact that many people don’t know English. And in reality, the English used in advertising tends to not actually have any real meaning, which is where Engrish comes into play. Similar to the way that kanji are used in America as fashion statements, such as tattoos or whatnot, English has a “cool” factor in Japan. Seemingly random or nonsensical phrases are commonly adorned on shirts and stuff. One of the American students that studied here had a shirt with the kanji for “wind” on it, but the specific connotation of the kanji was “fart.” I’ll just say he didn’t wear that shirt again.

The most basic and essential symbol set of Japanese is hiragana. I guess you could compare it to the alphabet, but it (mostly) represents syllables instead of individual letters.
There are 46 basic symbols, but there are actually more given that the basic symbols’ pronunciations are changed by slight alterations (i.e. ひ=hi, び=bi, ぴ=pi, ひゃ=hya, etc.) Since hiragana composes the basic syllabic sounds of Japanese, all kanji can be written in hiragana. This poses an interesting dilemma for students of Japanese, or at least me. To kill time and simultaneously study, I tend to translate stuff. I find it extremely frustrating that sometimes words are written in kanji, and sometimes they aren’t—even in the same source. Some words don’t have kanji, but hiragana typically marks the grammatical portions of a sentence (verb/adjective endings, particles, etc.). If a word has a kanji, I wish it would just be used all the time. If you aren’t familiar with a word, and you just see a big jumble of hiragana, it can be difficult to separate everything. Kanji may be more difficult to commit to memory, but it really is easier to read.

Katakana is essentially the equivalent of hiragana, but for foreign words. Japanese borrows a lot of foreign words, Japanamizes the pronunciation, and then firmly integrates them into the language. Borrowed words have to be modified to fit into Japan’s syllable system. For example, Christmas becomes Kurisumasu. These words are then represented with katakana instead of hiragana. Because some foreign sounds don’t easily fit into Japanese syllables, there are some extra katakana modifications that make this symbol set larger than hiragana, such as for the letter ‘v.’ I think katakana is the mortal enemy of Japanese students. A lot of students really like it because the words are basically just cognates (assuming they are derived from English, some katakana words come from Portuguese or Dutch, due to Japan’s long trading history, or German, French, etc.). However, a lot of katakana words already have Japanese equivalents, so I feel that studying katakana is kind of the bane of making real progress with the language. This is strongly noticeable on product labels. For example: milk is often miruku, not gyunyu; apple is often apuru, not ringo; and fruit is often furutsu, not kudamono. It’s a rule in Japanese that Japanese words are written in hiragana only, and foreign words in katakana only (except in kanji dictionaries, where one indicates the Chinese reading, and the other indicates the Japanese reading). But to further emphasize how inconsistent the language really is, I see Japanese words in katakana and vice versa on signs and stuff all the time.

Kanji is probably the first thing that comes to mind when people think of Japanese. Kanji are the complicated ideograms borrowed from China. There are a lot of exceptions when talking about kanji, but generally, there are at least two pronunciations for each—a Chinese one and a Japanese one. Some kanji can be pronounced many different ways. Kanji may have different readings if: they are alone, they are in a word, they are used as a suffix, they are a prefix, they are a different part of speech, etc. Maybe because I’m a visual learner, I don’t find kanji to be all that difficult. Kanji are composed of different radicals (there are 214 of them). Once you learn the radicals, you stop seeing kanji as a group of complex strokes, and you start to see them as a pairing of different radicals. If the meaning of the kanji isn’t totally abstract, the radicals may indicate somewhat the meaning of the kanji. One interesting issue I have come across with studying kanji is that sometimes I can read a sentence and comprehend it, but not be able to read it aloud. I’ll know the proper meanings, but I’ll forget the reading.

One way Japanese literacy is determined is through knowledge of the Joyo kanji. The list is updated periodically, but there are currently 1945 kanji in it. The Joyo kanji are basically the “official” kanji that are used in media sources, etc. Other kanji (or different readings) may be used as well, but they are accompanied by furigana (small hiragana above the kanji to show its pronunciation). On top of learning the symbols, the Joyo kanji list consists of the various readings that need to be learned as well. 生, for example, has twelve different readings. Most Japanese words are constructed from combinations of kanji, so memorizing all the symbols and their readings isn’t going to result in the ability to understand a newspaper article.

A list of the Joyo kanji can be found here.


President Obama seems to be quite the celebrity in Japan. There are numerous towns in Japan which are called Obama, and they seem to be doing their best to capitalize off this similarity. Obama-cho, which is nearby, and I think is the location of Unzen, has been doing President Obama themed omiage (souvenirs) and special champon (a noodle dish) that adds potatoes to the formula. It is not uncommon at all to find shirts, cups, etc. with Obama's face on it in mall shops. Obama impersonaters are also very popular on Japanese variety TV shows. Finally, there was a ceremony today for the students that are leaving for home in February. Our school's president gave a speech and talked about Obama for a little bit. It was complete with an English "Yes we can!"

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Snow and fish

It's snowed a few times in Nagasaki this winter, but never enough to stick except for this one time last week:
This is completely unrelated, but here's a Japanese snack mix that includes dried fish:

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

New Year's

Well last week was an interesting week. It was New Years, obviously, which is one of the major holidays in Japan. My host brother got the whole week off from work, which meant limited internet access for me since the only connection is in his room. The week began with extensive cleaning of the house. Then on Tuesday, Chris' Pizza, the only place in Nagasaki to get some real American food, was having it's last ever day open (RIP). I opted to go to my French buddy's birthday party instead, though. Got to try goose liver sausage. We then went to a nearby bar and sat on the tatami floor and hung out for awhile. Some of the people there were glued to the TV, watching the annual New Year's singing competition. I had a nice big bowl of kimchi rice, which is a Korean dish. Shortly after midnight, the bar owner/chef treated us to a free bowl of soba noodles, which is traditionally eaten on New Year's. We then went to another bar for awhile, and then went karaoke for three hours. I topped that off with an early breakfast from a 24 hour McDonald's, and I made it home and in bed by 8am. It was a blast.

The day after New Year's, my host mother's daughter came by and helped her make a very elaborate dinner. The rest of her kids, their spouses, and their kids came by for dinner. My host mother's daughter's husband plays drums in a band composed of people from his workplace. They like to play Deep Purple and Red Hot Chili Peppers :) My host family went to the shrine in the afternoon, and the onsen late in the evening. Many Japanese go to the shrine shortly after midnight on New Year's morning to offer their prayers for the new year and receive a fortune, followed by a period of heavily enebriated karaoke. The fact that my friends and I got into karaoke at that time is notable.

The week ended with me virtually rewriting my entire 20 page independent study paper on Japanese metal because I wasn't satisfied with how it turned out. I finally finished it yesterday, so now I can start on my 10 page society research paper which is due in a couple weeks. My soc. paper will be on ijime, which is "bullying."