I’ve been in Japan almost 4 weeks now, traversing the country from Tokyo all the way down to Aoshima, where I am now, on the eastern coast of Japan’s southernmost main island.
As I wrote in my first post and elsewhere on this blog, oneof my primary goals this trip is to practice my Japanese as much as possible. Since I graduated last year, I haven’t really gotten many chances to speak Japanese, mostly due to being busy with work and alsot having someone to practice with.
So, before I came to Japan at the end of September, I was a little nervous about how I would fare trying to only speak Japanese when conversing with locals. It’s just like playing a sport. If you don’t kick a soccer ball for a year and a half, you’re bound to be a bit rusty if you suddenly force yourself to play again.
I’ve realized though that just by speaking it every day and making mistakes (some pretty funny, like when I mixed up the word ‘population’ with ‘a man’s private parts’), I improve. Not only that, but conversing on a daily basis essentially subconciously extracts what I learned in my 4 years of Japanese classes in college. Once you start playing soccer again, you’ll begin remembering and mimicking moves you used to do. It’s kind of like muscle memory, but in this case with your brain’s language skills.
And so, I have definitely been able to improve my Japanese speaking skills. Everywhere I go, whether it’s with the staff of my hostel, the friendly owner of a restaurant, or the cashier at a 7-eleven, I speak as much Japanese as I can, even if I make mistakes. It’s the best way to learn, and I know I still have a long way to go, so I will keep practicing!
On another note, a guy from Australia at one of my hostels asked me the significance of kanji, or the pictographic characters Japan adopted from China. He thought they were very frustrating to learn, and I don’t blame him. If I remember correctly, there are over 50,000 kanji in the Japanese language, although it’s said you need to know only about 2,000 of them to get by in daily life. That’s still a tall order, especially for speakers of English who are used to just 26 simple alphabet letters. So, for those of you interested, I thought I would give a very brief, and probably incomplete, look into the mechanics of kanji, and why they are actually very useful. Or, in other words, I can’t really sleep right now so I figured why not.
First off, Japanese written language is split into 3 systems: Hiragana, katakana, kanji. Hiragana and katakana are syllable scripts, hiragana being used for Japanese words and katakana largely used for foreign words. This is hiragana: ながさきはほんとうにきれいだ。(Nagasaki wa hontou ni kirei da, ‘Nagasaki really is beautiful.’) Katakana is for foreign words not origi ally found in traditional Japanese language, like computer (pasokon in Japanese). That same sentence above in hiragana can be written using a mix of hiragana and kanji (which is the normal way of writing in Japanese):長崎は本当に奇麗だ。The meaning is the same, and theoretically every Japanese sentence could be written in only hiragana, so why bother with kanji?
For one thing, having kanji helps visually interms of splitting a sentence into subject, particles, endings, etc. With only hiragana, it can be hard to quickly tell where one word ends and another begins. Second, having hiragana alone can create problems with regards to meaning since many words in Japanese have the same syllables (and thus same hiragana spelling) but different meanings. For example, くも (kumo) can mean cloud or spider. Written just in hiragana, it can mean either, and would probably cause a lot of fright if you meant to write ‘There are clouds everywhere’, but someone read it as ‘There are spiders everywhere.’ Thus, kanji come in handy. 雲 only means cloud, while 蜘蛛 only means spider, even though they are both pronounced ‘kumo’.
Kanji are also very well organized and logical, even if they are hard to remember. Even if you see a combination of kanji that mean one thing but you don’t know how to pronounce it, you can guess the meaning by splitting the kanji up. For example, I saw a kanji phrase recently I didn’t recognize, 無人島. But, I knew the first character meant nothing or null, the second meant person, and the last island. Together, it means uninhabited island. An easier example is 火山, the first kanji is fire and the second means mountain, so ‘fire mountain’. It means volcano, which is essentially a mountain full of fire.
I think that should do it. My apologies if that put some of you to sleep, but hope you learned something new! Thanks for reading.
Tomorrow, I’m taking a day-trip to Takachiho Gorge, a couple hours north of Aoshima. It’s a very famous ravine in Japan, so I’m looking forward to it.