Kanji is easier than Hiragana

At my Japanese lesson today, the question was posed:

ひらがなは漢字どちら方が一番やさしいですか (which is the easiest, kanji or hiragana)

I responded 漢字は方が一番やさしいです (kanji is the easiest).

I didn’t make this statement lightly or without thinking.  And while it would have been fun to troll sensei, I wasn’t doing that either.  I really do think that is the correct answer.  And here’s why.

Yes, when it comes to pronunciation, hiragana is by far easier.  This is obvious. Each kana has its own pronunciation, and the syllables are one to one – meaning there is one and only one pronunciation for each kana.  But that doesn’t make it easier.  It just makes it a more predictable writing system, which is not the same thing.

There are two things that make kanji difficult:  the fact that there are so many of them, and the fact that each one has many different pronunciations.  But, honestly, I think this is a problem of scale.  When you take a look at a word with its kanji, compared with the word in hiragana, it’s really no contest.  Kanji is far easier.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that if you just go by pronunciation, there can be many, many different meanings for the same word, and it is unclear except through context which meaning is the correct one.  The second is that in hiragana, you don’t know where one word ends and the next begins, and this leads to no end of confusion.  So you can tell at a glance which word (and by word I mean meaning and not pronunciation) you are looking at, so it is far easier to figure out what a particular sentence means than by using the equivalent hiragana.

Kanji is more intimidating than hiragana is, for sure.  It’s a lot more to learn and a lot more to memorize.  But not by much, as you would need to remember the words one way or another, and kanji gives you a visual anchor to help memorization.

So, all told, I think kanji is far easier than hiragana.  Hiragana is important and indispensable, for sure – how could you tell how to pronounce the kanji without it!  But for actually getting anywhere with the language – I think staying exclusively with hiragana hurts much more than it helps in the long term.


I found a book at Half Price Books yesterday called “zakennayo”.  It’s an introduction to slang in Japanese.  It doesn’t paint a very flattering picture of early 90s Japanese teen culture, but maybe that’s just realistic.

“Zakennayo” is an extremely rude word that means, essentially, “fuck off” in Japanese.  It’s a word I’d actually rather I didn’t know, but I guess it’s good to have in my arsenal if I really, really need it.  And I can’t think of a situation where I would.

But here’s the funny thing.  This is a word that is just to be taken at face value for what it means, but I wanted to dig in a little further to find out where it came from.  I didn’t succeed at that.  But I did find that there’s a (rather highly rated, it seems) sushi restaurant in Guatemala called “Zakennayo Sushi Bar”.  Don’t take my word for it, look it up yourself.

Basically, it’s a sushi bar that is telling every one of its customers to fuck off, and they have absolutely no idea that’s the case.

It seems to me that some people use the fact that they know a different language to their advantage.  Some people use it to talk about someone right in their face, and they have absolutely no idea.  Others use it to try to cheat them.  And some just do stuff like this to troll.

It works right up until someone figures out that they’ve been trolled or insulted, and then the jig is up.

It might be a joke.  And it might be a way of insulting people right to their face.

This is why I think it is so valuable to know another language.  You learn things that you never would otherwise.  For example, I learned what a sushi restaurant owner in Guatemala thinks of their customers.

Maybe sometimes you’re better off not knowing, to be honest.

Loan Words

Many words in Japanese are borrowed from other languages.  Many from Chinese, and quite a few from English and Portuguese.  A smattering from other languages as well.

The interesting thing about Japanese, though, as opposed to many other languages, is that the Japanese language doesn’t have the syllabic structure to migrate the loanwords over untouched.  So when they migrate a word into their language, even though it’s somewhat recognizable as the word they borrowed, it’s not the same word anymore.

For example, “Starbucks”.  In Japanese, it’s “sutaabukkusu”, or スターブックス.  For obvious reason, a native speaker would never recognize that as a loan word, and even when it’s spoken, it’s not the easiest thing to recognize it unless it’s spoken very quickly.  This works the other way around, too:  I saw an episode of “AKBingo” where a girl said “You can find me on instagram and twitter”, and the rest of the girls (who did not speak English past what they learned in school) did not understand the words “instagram” or “twitter”, even though those are loan words in their language.

I think one of the difficult things about learning Japanese is getting past the mindset that loanwords, in Japanese as opposed to most other languages, have stopped being words from the origin language, and are, in actually, completely Japanese words.  Which is also indicated by the fact that they’re written in katakana.

As I mentioned before, the Japanese never assimilate.  They adapt things into their language and culture, but in the process, they always turn those things into something specifically Japanese.  Loanwords are another example of this phenomenon.  Because arguably, if this was not the case, they would keep those words in roman characters.

There are not many Japanese words in American culture – I can think of only a handful.  While we do not use the Japanese character set for them, there are several possible reasons for this.  The first is that the English syllabic structure is lossless when it comes to Japanese – unlike the fact that converting from other languages to Japanese changes the phonetic structure of the word, this is not the case the other way around.  For words like “tsunami”, “shiitake”, etc., we have more than enough information in the transliteration of the words to keep the pronunciation.  Unlike the Japanese language, which does not contain enough information in its syllabic structure to keep the pronunciation of the foreign word.

Culturally, too, we tend to keep the “gairaigo” character of the Japanese word when we import it.  There are very few words that we have imported into English that do not either offer some homage to Japanese culture, or that describe a concept that we do not have in English.  So there is no reason for us, for the most part, to migrate Japanese loanwords into our language – it is already rich enough.  For whatever reason, theirs does not seem to be, at least partially.  Even for words like “taifu”, which we misspelled as “typhoon”, we have our own word for that, “hurricane”, so other than as an oddity, we have no reason to import that word.

There is a different kind of loanword, though.  This like of loanword exists because the people who import the word find the other language “cool” and import the word simply because they can.  Many words in Japanese fit this qualification, and a few in English do as well.  “Kawaii” is one example, and “nani” is slowly gaining popularity in the same way.  This kind of loanword is a cultural homage, and is never necessary for describing a particular concept that already exists in a language.  It’s mostly there just because we think using the words is “cool”.

I personally consider that kind of thing to be too “otaku” for my tastes, to be honest.  Use the language or don’t.

Anyway, loanwords are a very interesting aspect of Japanese culture, and seeing how they are used grants an insight into how the Japanese see other cultures and languages.  Hint:  they take what’s useful and make it Japanese.

This is probably, in my opinion, the most important aspect of Japanese culture for any language learner.  It’s not English anymore, even if that’s where the word came from.

100 posts

I started this blog on a whim, not really knowing what I would even do with it.  Honest truth is, that hasn’t changed.  I still have no idea.  I just write about what I feel like.  Sometimes it’s good.  Sometimes it’s crap.  Sometimes it’s crappily good.

But here are some interesting insights.

My most popular post is 5 Reasons J-Pop sucks.  Interestingly, that was an experimental post.  Everything in that post was designed to be popular.  I put in a “5 reasons” tagline, I had an emotional conclusion that would draw people in, I even added a photo!  And, well…

I guess it worked.

Not sure what to do with that, though.  I’ll have to think about it.

The top country viewing this blog for this year is the USA.  Followed by Japan.  That’s a little surprising to me, as I didn’t think I was getting much Japan traffic, but it’s a pleasant surprise.  Last year, the second most popular country was Germany.  That is surprising.

I made a post once entirely in Japanese.  I honestly don’t think anyone’s even seen it.  That’s disheartening, but not surprising.  If I’m going to to Japanese, I’ll probably need to choose a different medium.  Or get better at Japanese.  Or both.

Nearly all the traffic comes from search engines.  I have generally no idea what people are searching for, because google sucks.  But that indicates that if I want, for some reason, to drive more people here, then I have to do some kind of SEO.  That, of course, has the premise of wanting to drive more people here.  I have mixed feelings about that.

The honest truth is, I’m an introvert.  I’m not good with people.  Other than the odd experiment, I’m honestly not too interested in selling out for popularity.  But on the flip side, that means this site will likely never be popular.  Am I okay with that?

I don’t know.  Guess I have to experiment some more.  Wish me luck.  But here’s to another hundred posts.  Hopefully of higher quality than the first 100.

America’s Darkness

A part of me feels like I’ve been a bit hard on Japan.

I take back nothing, honestly.  There is a darkness that runs through their society, and it is a little jarring when contrasted with the beauty of their culture.  I am not comfortable with that, honestly.

But then I thought about how my country must appear.  There are some places in most major cities in which it is not safe to be out at night.  There are fewer but far too many places where it is not safe to be seen during the daytime.  Cities like Memphis or Philadelphia have a well-deserved reputation as places that are not safe to visit.  I went to Oakland once, and hailed a cab outside of a tall office building.  That night, someone was murdered not fifty feet from where I was standing.  Thankfully, I had already flown back home.

Japan is a homogenous society where probably 90 percent or more of the country are racially Japanese.  American is about the exact opposite of a homogenous society, where people of every conceivable ancestry try to live together peacefully – and it doesn’t always work.  One wishes it did, of course, but it doesn’t.  We are also a people who are the opposite of Japan in another way – the Japanese value harmony so greatly that they’re pretty eager to pound down the nail that sticks out – but we in America say “oh, that is a unique nail sticking out” and celebrate it.  Of course, sometimes that leads to snagging one’s clothing on said nail – or worse, stepping on it.  Sometimes, it’s better to pound down the nail.  Of course, sometimes it’s not.

My point is that there are things in America that the Japanese might consider dark as well…  and many of those things they’d be well justified in doing so.  I would still love for them to visit my country.  For as dark as it can be, we have many things worth seeing, things such as the Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains, the Great Lakes, etc.  And the people are also mostly friendly – there are a few bad apples, but for the most part, we’re a good people who just want to live our lives in peace.

And, I imagine, so are the Japanese.

I live in a suburban city in Texas where you can still approach the police with questions, where people are friendly, and while major crime does happen, one can feel relatively safe walking or driving through town.  Even the major city that I live near (Austin), while it has many problems due to mismanagement and an incompetent city council, is relatively crime free and known for its live music scene and status as a major technology hub.  But to the Japanese, perhaps our free-wheeling, libertarian, “I’m not bothering you so leave me alone” ways might seem intimidating, or worse.  But it’s just how we are.  You learn the rules.  And you thrive.

Japan has problems.  Big problems.  Some of these problems threaten their very existence as a country and a people.  But perhaps it’s no more fair of me to define them by their troubles than it is for them to define America by the high-crime neighborhoods in its major cities.

All that said, I still feel very uncomfortable with the thought of visiting.

The Heart of Japan

I tend to annoy my coworkers with discussions of Japanese and all things Japan.  Some of them find it interesting.  Some just recite “press 1 for English”.  But at the end of the day, the discussions can be interesting at times.

One of my coworkers made the statement that “the best representation of Japanese culture is anime”.  I vehemently disagreed.  He then asked me the very fair question, “okay, then, what is it?”  After some thought, I answered.

But before I tell you what that answer was, let me go down a bit of a rabbit hole.

I follow Sora News 24 (Sky News) from Japan, which tends to focus on otaku and pop culture, as many Japanese sites seem to, for whatever reason.  They had a very interesting link wherein a person found an American wartime propaganda film, and posted it to a social media site.  Many people responded “how have we changed in the past 80 years?”  Many Japanese folks couldn’t answer the question.  They had to admit that they really hadn’t.  An observation I’ve made here previously.

As wonderful as Japanese media is, there is this undercurrent of darkness that runs across Japanese culture, which is why you have the chronic problem of overwork, of suicides, of so many things that run under the surface of what is by all respects an ancient and proud culture.

I love the Japanese, don’t get me wrong.  Their contributions to culture and media are amazing.  Their contributions to technology are amazing.  I find their art to be more beautiful, their music to be more interesting, their written word to be more thoughtful and introspective, than I’ve ever found western pop culture.

And yet, something in their culture drives people to overwork, to a declining birth rate, to wartime atrocities that their neighbors still haven’t forgiven them for.  Just as there are some major things wrong with western culture, there are some major things wrong with Japanese culture as well.  And covering it with a layer of cute and funny doesn’t fix those problems, it only hides them.

I love kawaii!  Really I do!  When I’m looking for something to lift the seemingly never-ending depression, it’s really hard to stay depressed when seeing things like nyangostar, AKBingo girls going crazy (particularly that little cutie Ichikawa Miori), Gaki no Tsukai ya Arrahende…  and there are so many things they have to offer the world that I think we ignore at our peril.  Shintoism has some really interesting insights that we in the west should pay attention to – without romanticizing them like we do most Eastern religions.  I don’t say any of this because I hate the Japanese culture – I say these things because it’s so beautiful sometimes that the spots on it are almost unbearable.

My answer to the question above:  the best representation of Japanese culture right now is karoushi.  Death by overwork.

See, there’s no karoushi in America.  Do you know why?  It’s not because companies wouldn’t enforce that if they could.  I worked at a company in the LA area around 2008 when the economy crashed – they told us flat out that they were revoking some of the perks we’d grown used to, and the reasoning was “the economy’s worse now.  Where are you going to go?  You’re lucky you have a job!”, as they laid off half the company.  That’s not the reason.  The reason is that the workers would simply say “I’m not doing this” and walk out.  There is no karoushi in America because no one would stand for it.  Companies such as Amazon and some video game companies come pretty close in some cases, but they really can only go so far.

Yes, there are plenty of companies in Japan who treat their employees well, but there are plenty that don’t, and the point is, that people will not speak up, to the point where they kill themselves rather than say “you’re not treating me well, I quit”.

I know there are many social pressures in Japan that make this difficult, but that’s entirely the point.  Japan is a small and very densely populated country.  It doesn’t have the kind of wealth of natural resources that we have in America.  Its greatest treasure is its people.  And there are millions upon millions of people in Japan who will silently bear abuse, rather than speaking up and saying “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying we have it right in the west.  We take that too far.  Everyone seems to think they’re entitled to everything.  There are times when we should kind of suck it up a bit and be okay with minor inconveniences for the greater good.  Right now we take any kind of offense whatsoever as a grievous slight, and that, too, must stop.  But being worked to death, being bullied by superiors, that kind of thing, could not be classed as “minor inconveniences!”.

So the thing that most represents Japanese culture is karoushi.  And that makes me tremendously sad.  I love Japan, I love Japanese media, I love Japanese people.  And right now, I really don’t ever want to visit.  The darkness would cripple me.

Karate – Babymetal

I’m not going to review this song.  We’ll just say I rather like it and leave it at that.  But I do want to point out something interesting about it.

One of the central musical themes of this song is a contrast between staccato and lyrical.  The part of the chorus that starts “hikasura seiya soiya” are very sharp, cut off, and aggressive, while the part that is “wow” is very lyrical.  These two things contrast off of each other to make the music more effective than it might otherwise be.  I think it actually represents the tension and release of the fight that is being described in the lyrics, and on the video.

But one of the things that makes this possible is the rapid fire nature of the Japanese syllabic structure itself.  I saw a video where a girl tried to do an English translation, and it was lacking.  Not because the words were bad, and she wasn’t even a particularly bad singer, but the rapid fire staccato didn’t translate well and she didn’t seem to understand why it was necessary to try to keep that character.  So, instead, she did it lyrically, and didn’t attack it hard enough, so her voice was wavering.  It didn’t work well.

When translating Japanese, things can be lost in translation, even when all the words are correct.

That’s the worst trap to fall into.  Japanese are people like me, yes, but theirs is a very different culture, and a very different way of looking at the world.  If one doesn’t see and accept that for what it is, one runs the very real risk of losing something important in translation.