Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Life in Japan #5: Japanese Writing 101
I don’t know if you knew this, but in addition to speaking a different language, the Japanese writing system is also, like, totally different than ours. Dang.
Luckily for me, English abounds here, from the signs on the bathroom doors, to the “PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CELL PHONE” warning on the train, to the high school kid wearing the “Make it a night I want forget” shirt. There are restaurant menus, tourist pamphlets, and department store sale announcements in English; though more useful things like ATM instructions are conspicuously absent here in Kofu. At the very least, however, Japanese place names are usually spelled out in the Roman alphabet (romaji); making it a simple matter for a lost gaijin to at the very least get from Shinjuku to Jinbocho (if he doesn’t horribly butcher the pronunciation first).
That’s where the easy part ends. The most common (and most confusing) writing system in Japan is the kanji, characters taken from China during ancient Japan’s long history of borrowing from the mainland. Each of these characters represents a different word, and in different contexts will be pronounced totally differently. The meaning of the kanji remains the same in both Chinese and Japanese,* but the pronunciation was changed sometime around the sixth century to fit the existing Japanese word. This means that a person who can read Chinese should be able to grasp the meaning of a Japanese sentence without having any idea how to speak it. Of course, this doesn’t help me any.
Kanji are freakin’ difficult to learn and require a more skillful hand than mine to write, but the studious gaijin should be able to master the Japanese alphabet (the kana) with some hard work and a good study guide. The kana actually contains two alphabets, each with forty-six syllables (A, Ka, Sa, Ta, Na, Ha, Ma, Ya, and so on) plus some other symbols that change the sound of each syllable. The more graceful hiragana is used for Japanese words like sushi, gaijin, and chikan, and comes in handy when reading the station names on the train platform. More recently, hiragana has been my best friend when ordering at small noodle houses with traditional Japanese menus lacking pictures. Even if I can’t read the kanji names for the flavors, I can at least be sure whether I’m ordering udon (a delicious thick white noodle) or inari (rice rolled in tofu and lightly fried).
The Japanese use their second alphabet—the blocky, bold-faced katakana—for the thousands of loan words they’ve borrowed from other languages (mostly English). This is the one that all the gaijin learn because the practical payoff is far quicker than for kanji or hiragana since the word’s meaning is usually apparent after you’ve taken the time to sound it out. Words like basu (bus), erebeta (elevator), sarariman (salaryman), bi—ru (beer), and sarada (salad) are everywhere, making it a cinch to order at Starbucks and read the foreign movie listings (as when I saw Hari— Pota [indecipherable kanji] Purinsu in English with Japanese subtitles telling what was surely a truncated version of the story in a silver gothic font). Katakana makes finding your way around a lot easier—unless of course you’re like me and can’t figure out the English word from the garbled mass of syllables.
Fun Quiz: Can you translate the Romanized katakana into regular English? (To make it harder I’ve left out the spaces, just like the Japanese do.)
7. nuterahe—zarunattu & chocoretosupureddo
*There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. According to Mr. Chen, the Chinese character for “husband” is read as “owner” in Japanese. Likewise, for their word “husband,” the Japanese borrowed the character for “strong man.” (This pretty much sums up the traditional Japanese view on relationships, which is a subject for another day.)