Monday, October 27, 2014

Adventures in Japanese - II

Once I was stationed in Japan and leaving the Army camp on pass most weekends, I was able to pick up enough Japanese to function with phrases like: "Where is the . . .toilet . . . train station . . . bus stop?" "I would like . . . a coffee . . . a beer . . . a check." "How much is it?" "How do you say this in Japanese"? (pointing to an object). Asking for directions to the train station in acceptable Japanese sometimes meant of course that the answer came back in rapid and incomprehensible Japanese. So I learned the phrase "Do you speak English?"

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.
The hiragana and katakana syllabaries each have 46 characters. The chart above illustrates the hiragana. One Saturday afternoon, I took the train from camp into Tokyo, parked myself in a favorite coffee shop where I could sit all afternoon for the price of a single cup of coffee, made up flash cards, and spent more than four hours memorizing. Because these only represent sounds, and because characters are similar (め、ぬ、れ、ね、わ、ろ、る) it was not easy, but by the end of the day I could read and write almost all 46 characters.

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!

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