This week's top T-shirt slogan: "Optic absurd flutie malicious".
Couldn't have said it better myself, although I'm still wondering
what a "flutie" is.
Today's episode will be devoted entirely to Japanese (the language,
that is). While I'm afraid some parts of this will be
incomprehensible to you non-students, you may still wish to stick
around and see what's in store for you if you decide to start
To get the most out of your stay in Japan, you will need to become
proficient at three (3) aspects of Japanese. They are, in order:
- Kanji recognition
- Understanding spoken Japanese
- Speaking Japanese yourself
Number 1 is kanji recognition. Like it or not, Japanese is deeply
steeped in its hideously cumbersome form of writing, and if you
wish to venture beyond the thin veneer of English slogans you will
have to learn to recognize kanji. Note well: I said recognize,
not write, not pronounce, maybe not even understand. Whereas
being able to actually read Japanese literature requires mastery
of some 2000 characters plus all the complexities of Japanese
grammar, "practical" reading -- signs, subway maps, menus, and the
like -- requires only that you learn to associate that hairy
squiggle with "pork" and that pointy squiggle with "exit".
And, being both ubiquitous and essential for daily life, you will
learn kanji by osmosis once you get here. However, any practice
before arrival will be most useful, and once you get here you can
greatly accelerate your learning speed with a few simple steps.
While I had some doubts about lugging my 1500-page Spahn &
Hadamitzky kanji dictionary here, the calories expended have
already repayed themselves thousandfold. My system is simple:
at all times, I carry a tiny booklet that I use to jot down
interesting kanji and the compound I find it in, and then in
the evening I go through today's batch, adding common readings,
meanings and the reference number. I've already accumulated
close to 100 new kanji this way and the new vocabulary accompanying
them along with it.
These days, after some 3 years of study, I'd venture to say I have
a decent grasp of some 600 characters, about the same as a native
10-year-old. Much to my surprise, I've found that this ranks
me as #1 kanji reader in the group of 20-odd gaijin that I work
with, and having passed the magic 500 mark I'm starting to find
that I can -- slowly and painfully -- puzzle out enough "real"
written Japanese to be able to, say, install software or read
cooking instructions. Were I to keep up my current rate of 2-3
new characters a day, I would theoretically be able to fully read
Japanese in less than 3 additional years of study...
The second essential skill for living in Japan is understanding
what is being jabbered at and around you. The "kore wa hon desu"
school is in for a shock here -- the desu/masu forms you've
painfully learned with the help of Yan-san are entirely useless.
Oh, they're certainly used in written Japanese (albeit only in
real text, not signs and the like) and in spoken business Japanese,
but as a lowly student or trainee you will never hear them.
Instead you will be faced with the extremes of the obsequiously
polite language ("kochira wa hon de gozaimasu") used by salesclerks
and announcers and the guttural slang used by your friends
and equals ("hon da yo!"). You will also have to face the fact
that most people speak Japanese extremely quickly, especially
when flustered by 3-meter-tall blonde gaijin giants from Mars or
just repeating set phrases for the 17,000th time that day.
You will, in time, learn to pick out the important parts on the fly,
but, again, practice as much as you can. I would in fact suggest
that, once the bare minimum necessary for understanding has been
established -- no more than a year of basic studies -- all teaching
of Japanese should also be done in Japanese. This also has the
side effect of forcing an almost equally important skill:
Learning to speak Japanese yourself. When I came here, after 2.5 years
of studies, I was downright shocked by my inability to speak
Japanese in real life. Sure, I could compose sentences if given
10 minutes of time and a range of books for references, but in Real
Life a delay of 10 seconds is way too much. Fortunately, Japanese
people will go out of their way to understand your pathetic
attempts at communication, and especially in Tokyo you will often
find that people speak and understand English a lot better than they
While just getting yourself understood may be a hassle, it will
be an even bigger problem to decondition yourself from years of
desu/masu-syndrome. Spoken Japanese is simple and short and
verb conjugations are brutally abbreviated to the point of
unrecognizability ("kaitte shimaimasu" -> "kaichau", "no de wa
arimasen ka" -> "n ja nai"). I have yet to hear somebody tell
me they "shitte imasu" or "shirimasen" something, but I hear
"shitteru" and "shiranai" daily. And it's not just verb endings: as a
friend of mine put, perhaps just a tad too bluntly, "particles are
useless". Te, ni, wo, wa, forget it! Instead you'll find yourself
facing a host of new particles tacked on to the end of a sentence: yo,
no, na, ne, sa, zo, kedo... yes, largely meaningless, but heavily
used to connect sentences and add shades of meaning. Add a "wa yo"
to sound feminine, "n da yo" to sound masculine, "kedo" to hesitate,
"zo" to imply you're gonna kick their butt, and so on in a million
The desu/masu forms are usually taught first for three reasons.
Reason 1, they're supposed to be polite and non-offensive, but as
a gaijin you'll be making social faux pas every other minute anyway and
people won't mind, because you're gaijin! Reason 2, they're supposed
to be easier to conjugate and learn, but you'll have to learn the
plain forms anyway if you want to speak real Japanese or just
read a slightly more complex sentence which will contain embedded
plain forms. So the real reason is number 3, a very Japanese reason
in fact: "That's the way it's always been done..."
Personally, I think that using masu/desu does students a great
disservice. Not only are they next to useless until you reach the
stage where you can read written Japanese -- which, thanks to the
kanji system, means at least 3 years of study -- but they are,
in my opinion, much harder and clumsier than plain forms.
If something is not red, which is easier to say, "akaku nai"
or "iie, akaku de wa arimasen"? If you have read a book, which
is easier, "hon wo yonde shimaimasu" or "hon o yonjau"?
And while I'm grumbling, here's the top 10 list of words ignored
or almost ignored by my textbooks, in reverse order of importance.
10) komu 'to be crowded' Largely useless by itself, "chikatetsu
komatta naa" being a statement of the obvious, komu is
the ultimate combination verb with my dictionary listing
no less than 200 marumaru-komu compounds ranging from
orikomu (to insert) to tsurekomu (to take a lover into
a hotel). In compounds the meaning is along the lines
of "including", and indeed the kanji has hairu (enter)
above a squiggly foot-line.
9) a(n)mari 'not very much' (if used alone or with a negative).
"Nihongo wakatteru?" "Anmari..." If used with a
positive, the meaning becomes the opposite: too much.
8) yappari 'again' One of an infinite variety of "-ri" adverbs,
like yukkuri sukkiri hakkiri tappuri shikkari...
7) yaru 'to do' The same as suru, only different. Suru is
largely restricted to compounds like benkyoo suru;
if you want to just do it, use yaru.
6) yukkuri 'slowly' Not only will you often be told to eat slowly
(so you can enjoy the hamburger you just spent a king's
ransom on), but it's an essential part of a very
frequently used phrase:
"Kantan-na nihongo o yukkuri hanashite kudasai!"
5) dake 'only' Short, sweet, simple and very useful.
4) mazui 'yucky' Everybody knows oishii, this is the opposite.
Rather rude, a more polite way to decline sheep
testicle tartar would be "Anmari suki ja nai..."
3) sugoi 'cool' An adjective and adverb rolled into one. Proper
male pronounciation: "Sugeeeee naa!" Things that are
totemo sugoku nai are hidoi.
2) daijoobu 'OK' A wonderfully multipurpose word. Add a question mark
and you can ask if someone/something/what you're doing
is OK; or without it means you/someone/something/what
they're doing is OK. Daijoobu? Daijoobu!
1) dame And number one is... 'no way'! If something is not
daijoobu, it's dame. Stick a desu at the end to sound
a little more polite. Unfortunately others are more
likely to tell you this than vica versa...
Speaking of politeness, it's time to get to the psycho part of this
linguistics post and discuss Japanese society a bit. It has been said
that in Japanese, all forms of "thank you" are really apologies,
and I think this is quite true. However, the concept of "apology"
itself differs between Japan and the West. In a nutshell:
In the West, you apologize when you do something 'wrong'.
In Japan, you apologize when you inconvinience somebody.
As you might guess, there are many ways of apologizing in Japanese;
I'll discuss three. Needless to say, these capsule summaries are
very far from definitive, but perhaps they can serve as guidelines
for the bewildered gaijin.
First of all is the classic "sumimasen", literally "it does not end",
where the 'it' refers to one's gratefulness for a favor granted.
While usually translated as "excuse me" or "sorry", it is often
used as a greeting, as thanks, and as a farewell. However, in all
cases the intent is the same: the person saying "sumimasen" is
apologizing for selfishly troubling someone with his own problems.
If you need help, you'll start your question with "sumimasen", and
after being helped, you will thank by reiterating the "sumimasen",
preferably with an emphatic "doomo" tacked on front.
Second is "shitsurei shimasu", literally "I am breaking etiquette".
This may be the trickiest for a gaijin to understand (it certainly
took me a while): basically, shitsurei shimasu is used when your
duties compel you to violate someone's harmony. I am being entirely
serious and so are the Japanese. "Shitsurei shimasu" is what the
cleaning lady says when she empties your trashcan, it's what the
waitress says when she brings your food, and it's what you're
expected to say if you enter someone's home, office or other personal
space. Like sumimasen, for extra politeness points you can say
this afterwards as well: "shitsurei shimashita".
Third is "gomen nasai", which both literally and figuratively means
"please excuse me". This is the only one of the trio that corresponds
to the Western concept of an apology, and this is what you would
use if you bump into someone, are caught in bed with underaged sheep,
etc. Often shortened to "gomen ne" or even "gomen". Fancy versions
like "mooshiwake arimasen" (I have no excuse) exist, but usually
you'll show the sincerity of your apology by bowing. (A staple
of Japanese soap operas is the hero/heroine kneeling, bowing his/her
head to the floor, repeating "gomen gomen gomen" like a mantra before
the offended party.)
Speaking of bowing, you'll be doing that a lot here, and I don't
mean just because you'll be bumping your head all the time otherwise.
Every single one of the above apologies must be accompanies by a bow,
as must all greetings, introductions, thank yous, farewells, etc.
Fortunately, for us uncouth barbarians even a simple "body nod" is
sufficient, and you'll get the hang of it in no time at all.
Absorbed all that? It's time for a test. This situation actually
happened to me yesterday morning.
I had just entered the elevator on the ground floor, when a
Japanese businessman also on his way up appeared. Seeing him coming,
I held the door open with my hand.
1) How did he react?
2) What did I do wrong?
3) What should I have done instead?
Answer: He rushed in, bowed and apologized with "sumimasen".
By visibly holding the door open, I had forced a favor on him,
creating an obligation for him to rush in to accept my gift, which
then had to be apologized for. Of course, it would have been much
more rude to let the door close, but a more discreet way of handling
the situation would have been pressing the "door open" button,
delicately hidden inside the elevator. My favor would not have been
obvious, he would have gotten in on time, and harmony would have been
So how to go about learning all this? Well, for kanji, the
definitive book is the excellent Basic Kanji Book series, which will
teach you those first 500 if you slog through both volumes.
I'm still looking for a halfway decent guide to conversational
Japanese (any suggestions?). As for general textbooks, I didn't
bring any, but I plan to get a good, thorough grammar book soon.
While I still think that Finnish is indeed a much better starting
point than English for learning Japanese, I have also been forced
to come to the conclusion that the sole existing Finnish-language
book on the subject is so hidoi that all existing copies should
be incinerated. For time being, I'll have to concur with another
piece of advice, namely that the best way to learn spoken Japanese is
to acquire a non-English-speaking Japanese girlfriend; unfortunately
Kinokuniya doesn't stock them next to the BKBs...
Issho-ni yoake no koohii nomanai,
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