But while learning useful phrases was not hard, written Japanese seemed impossible. I was told that while Japan has something like a 99-percent plus literacy rate, the written language is so difficult that school children cannot read an ordinary newspaper or a magazine until middle school.
Written Japanese uses hiragana, katakana, kanji, and occasionally the alpahbet. The hiragana and katakana characters represent sounds. Hiragana is used for verb endings, grammatical markers (like English prepositions), and certain common words. Katakana is used these days for foreign words and for emphasis. Kanji are the originally Chinese characters that may be used for their meaning or their sound (or both). So the word "Japan" can be written four ways: にっぽん、ニッポン、日本, and Nippon.
I wanted to learn to sound out hiragana because train station signs, which included the name of the station, the last station, and the next station, were in hiragana. If I could read that the train was stopped at しもあかつか and the next station was なります, I would know to be ready to get off.
|The letters across the top show the sounds, so the characters in the second column from the right are pronounced ka, ki, ku, ke, ko.|
Once I could, I began sounding out everything I could read. Being able to sound the hiragana out did not mean I could understand the words, but it was a start. And on the way back to Ikebukuro Station, I spotted a bus poster advertising 味の素. I could not of course understand the two kanji characters, but beside them were small hiragana (called furigana) that gave the pronunciation—あじ の もと, or "Ajinomoto," the brand of monosodium glutamate, a word I did understand. I can still vividly recall the shock of recognition, the sense that it was possible to grasp what had been incomprehensible. What a rush of delight!