Why Japanese is Hard

I was thinking this morning, on my day off for Independence Day here in the US (while waving a flag and shooting off fireworks while drinking beer and saying “hold mah beer and watch this”) about why Japanese is so hard.  I was rather lamenting in my head about something I’ve been harping about in previous posts – how there seems to be no one resource that actually tells you what you need to know about Japanese and you kind of have to piece it together from a bunch of disparate sources.

But that’s a matter of information.  That’s not what makes it hard.

One could say that the reason it’s hard is because there are so many different kanji to learn, along with difference pronunciations.  But I don’t think that’s what makes it hard.

One could say that the reason it’s hard is because of the very different grammar and vocabulary.  But I don’t think that’s what makes it hard.

One could also say that the reason it’s hard is because there’s a whole different set of characters and sounds to learn.  But I don’t think that’s what makes it hard either.

I think what makes it hard is the same reason that driving two thousand miles across country is difficult.  You take a look at the map, you look at your schedule, and wonder “how the heck am I going to do this?”  But none of the maps are really complete.  You just have to start the journey and see where it takes you.

I think that’s what makes it hard.  You stand on a mountain and see the entire realm of Japanese in front of you, and you are wondering “how the heck am I going to find my way through that?”

The trick, I think, is to just start somewhere.

Learn the syllabaries.  Hiragana, then katakana.  Don’t worry about the rest.  It’s not because the rest is not important, but it’s really easy to get discouraged.  Remember that even just knowing the hiragana and katakana is more than probably all of your friends can do.  You don’t even have to know a single word.  Then you’ll find yourself going “oh, hey.  I don’t know what that word means, but I can pronounce it!”

Then learn a kanji.  Just a kanji.  One single, solitary kanji.  Perhaps 人.  As you learn these things, you will find interesting paths to go down.  Feel free.  Like you might see 大人 and wonder how to pronounce it, then you’ll look it up and say “oh!  big person!  adult!”. And you’ll know two kanji.  You won’t know all the readings, but again, that’s okay.  It will come.

That’s two kanji more than you knew before.  Don’t worry about the fact that there are two thousand more.  You know two kanji!

At this point you might want to study it a bit more rigorously, and that’s fine.  But don’t forget that your journey started with a single hiragana syllable.

Now you know a couple of hundred syllables and a hundred or so characters, and a couple of kanji.  It’s a start, right?

Now find a teaching method that works for you.  There are dozens out there, each one wants your money, and each one has a different way of teaching.  There’s Japanese Level Up, Japanese Pod 101, Rosetta Stone, Puni Puni, lots of different blogs, etc.  They’re not all the same, but they’re also not all complete.  Some even complement each other – Japanese Pod 101 and Japanese Level Up seem to be two resources that could complement each other to good effect (Japanese Pod 101 has very high quality videos – they’re also not anywhere near as comprehensive as what Japanese Level Up offers in terms of sheer completeness).  But if one isn’t working for you, try another.  See if your local community college has Japanese classes, too.  I know here in austin they’re $85 per credit hour, which is not bad at all.

But above all, keep exploring.  Watch YouTube videos of native speakers.  It will sound like gibberish when you start, but as you learn you’ll start to pick out words.  Those will really help you to get the cadence, and they’re usually pretty entertaining to boot!  There’s old HaroMoni stuff, AKBingo, Downtown DK and Gaki No Tsukai, and quite a few other things as well.  You’ll also start to get a feel for the culture and learn things that the books don’t really teach you.  Start with the English subbed ones if you want, but pay attention to what they’re saying, and try unsubbed ones every now and then.  It’s not so important that you do it right, as much as that you just do it.

I would, though, recommend in general staying away from anime and manga though when you’re just starting out – or at least don’t try to use it to learn.  It’ll teach you stuff you just have to unlearn later.  Wait till you at least know enough to understand what not to use.

And if you need to take a break, take one, but just don’t make it too long or you’ll start forgetting.

I guess what I’m saying is, don’t let it intimidate you.  Take one step at a time.  It’s a hard language, yes.  Actually, it’s a very hard language.  But it’s only hard because there’s so much of it.  Take it step by step and it’s no worse than anything else you’ve had to learn in your life.  Everything you learn is still something that 99.999% of Americans (or people in your country that’s not Japan) probably have no clue about.


Still plugging along…

I feel as if, if I even come close to mastering Japanese, I’ll be able to learn any other language I want.  Japanese is hard.

Crazy hard.

But I keep encountering ways to look at it that make it easier, and sometimes it feels like you just kind of have to luck your way into learning these things, as there seems to be nowhere that has everything you need in one place.  Every site or book seems to have parts of it, but you have to spend months just piecing it all together until it just clicks.  I know I’ve said something similar to this before, but it’s still true.

Take learning kanji, for example.  When you first start Japanese, you have this big ol’ pile of thousands of characters in front of you, and you think the best way is to just pick them up one by one, stomp them into your memory, and then eventually you’ll master it.  But that’s really not how it works.

Here’s what kanji really are (for the purposes of memorizing):  They are a multivariate grid of a little over 200 different axes.  Each of those axes is a “radical”.  Kanji Damage (and “Remembering the Kanji”) gives each of those radicals a name, and that’s a really wise thing to do.  What I’ve been doing is just giving them my *own* name.  It’s probably not the wisest thing to do, but it works.

For example, 外, meaning “outside”, I call a “ta” and a “to”, because that’s what the two katakana characters look like.  時, or “time”, I call “sun temple”, because that’s the two characters.  And 寺, or “temple”, I call “ground on measurement”.  I make other mnemonics too…  “long ta” for one component of 各 (“long ta over mouth”, “half a give” for one component of 号, etc.  It works for me, but it may not work for most.

The point, though, is not so much what you call it – though most of those radicals do have names that it would be helpful to learn at some point, but that it works for you to help you remember where on that 200 and some dimensional space a particular kanji falls.  Obviously it works a bit for me because I called those up – even though I did have to look up the pronunciation.  That comes a bit later.

What I’m trying to say is, that it’s not insurmountable, but you can’t approach it as just a pile of kanji you sweep up into the middle of the room, pick one out, and hope that it’s useful to you.  You gotta organize them in a way that makes sense to you and use that to your advantage.

I’ll tell you, there’s a sense of accomplishment when you look at a name like “Takahashi”  (高橋), and think “hey!  I know that first kanji!  It means “expensive”!  Or “敦子” (Atsuko) and realize “hey!  I know that last kanji!  And I know how to pronounce it! Or a word like “気楽” and have a pretty good idea of how to pronounce it because you’ve seen both of the kanji before and recognized them!

The tools you use are important – some are better than others.  The books you use are also important – some are better than others.  But the most important thing is to figure out how to make it make sense to you, and build on that.  Because you’re not learning Japanese for someone else – you’re learning it for yourself.  And, other than whether people can understand you or not, You are the only one who gets to judge whether you are happy with your progress.

Hope this helps.

Ohori Meshibe

In my seeking to understand Japanese culture, I found this YouTube video, and found it very interesting.


Ohori Meshibe (also known as Ohori Megumi, but that was her name for this recording) was a 25 year old AKB48 member who was given an opportunity, but with a catch:  we’ll give you a solo debut, but you have to sell 10,000 CDs within a month or you’ll have to graduate.

So for a month, she went all over, selling one CD at a time, giving little performances all over the place, and even ended up sleeping on the ground one night (though there was a cameraman there so I’m very much doubting that she was truly in any danger).  Finally, the month was over, and this documented her trying to get over the finish line in the last day.

Halfway through the day, she had a nervous breakdown, and Sata and Kiyoto ended up having to go out and entertain the crowd while she pulled herself together – and it was a close thing, she even started to hyperventilate a bit.

But there are a few observations about this, some of which I found out through other means.

Many westerners would have given up and accepted their fate, honestly, at about the time that she had her nervous breakdown.  We would have ran out and never looked back.  But she pulled herself together, went out, and ended up meeting her goal, after many of the other members came by and helped out.  Her fans also pulled together and filled the last “hug event”.  This is the Japanese idea of “ganbatte” – or “try your best” – anything less than your best is not an option, and it seems they just pull themselves together and get it done.

This is even more poignant because of something they don’t tell you:  she lost her beloved grandmother – the only person in her family who supported her idol career – two days before the producer pulled her into a room and offered her the solo debut.  So she was already dealing with a lot, and then…

I don’t know how much of this was scripted, to be honest.  Probably more of it than appeared.  I’m also not at all sure if she would ever have been allowed to graduate.  I’m even not sure if the timing of it wasn’t an accident so that it would increase the drama.  But it shows a lot about Japanese “ganbatte” culture.  She tried her best, even surmounting some pretty incredible odds.

And it’s hard to not find that inspirational.

Lately she got married and had a child.  Which seems to be the ending of all idol (or gravure) related activity, as Japanese culture seems to expect women to raise children when they have one (something I generally respect, tbh).  Still, I wish her well.


Learning Japanese has been frought with challenges – I mean it’s been really, really difficult.  I think one of the reasons is the scattershot nature of the resources I’ve been using to learn.  They all seem to emphasize something different, and each advertises itself as the only resource I’ll ever need.

That is, of course, bull-pucky.

But the word that is the title of this post is an example of why I feel this way.  大丈夫.  Pronounced “daijoubu”, this word seems to be one of the most commonly used words in colloquial and conversational Japanese, and is arguably one of the most useful.  I’m not saying it’s the most, obviously, but it seems to be used quite frequently and in quite a few different contexts.  I’ve seen it used multiple times in almost every single Japanese video I’ve watched since I’ve learned it.  And not only that, but by its nature, it tends to be used in particularly pivotal moments.

It means “okay”.  As in “I’m okay” or “are you okay?”.

And it took me months to find it.

And then you have resources similarly teaching Japanese words that are not used or are not used in the context that’s being taught (aishiteru, for example), people trying to learn Japanese from anime where that is probably the worst idea ever (don’t ever call someone “kisama” unless they’re literally a king) and basically all sorts of resources teaching you stuff that you find out very quickly is either useless or worse than useless.  And you wonder why it’s so easy to give up.

If I were to give advice to someone just starting out (and I mean much more of a beginner than me), here’s what I’d say:

  • Hiragana and Katakana are not alphabets, and don’t try to learn them as one.  Memorize them, but remember what they are.  They are a precise phonetic syllabary, no more, no less.
  • Don’t skimp on katakana.  Most resources don’t spend any time on it, but probably half the language are borrow words from different languages, and ten percent of the language is borrowed from English.  But you’ll never recognize it if you don’t understand katakana.  It’s not a skill you can afford to not have.
  • Kanji radicals are closer to an alphabet, and use those to your advantage – breaking kanji into their component parts makes it much easier to memorize them.
  • Kanji are not words.  Don’t try to treat them as words.  They’re concepts that can be turned into words.
  • Don’t rely on any one resource, textbook, website, or anything else.  Pick among a few and switch between them.  You are guaranteed to learn something from one that you wouldn’t have learned much later from others, and it’s usually going to be something very helpful.
  • Corollary: Just because someone is good at speaking Japanese, it doesn’t mean they’re good at teaching it.
  • Corollary #2:  Just because someone’s charging money for a lesson plan doesn’t mean it’s any good at all.
  • Learning conversational Japanese only takes you so far.  If you’re not trying to cram for a trip in two weeks, don’t fall into that trap.  Learn it right.  (If you are, of course, all bets are off)
  • The first time you try to speak with a native speaker, you are going to fail.  I had that experience today.  I hope it gets better.
  • Culture and language cannot be separated.  If you try to learn Japanese with an English dialect, your efforts will collapse the moment you meet a real Japanese person.
  • Anime is “real Japanese”, but you don’t know the difference between anime Japanese and actual Japanese that people use.  Don’t risk it.  Don’t try to learn from anime or manga.  Do it right.

Maybe this advice will help.

Oh, and if you want to see something cool, write a post on Facebook with 大丈夫 and watch what happens.  Not even kidding.



Women in Japan

A friend asked me today how women are treated in the Japanese culture.  And it brought me up short, because I’d never even considered that question seriously.  It’s funny, because most of my exposure to Japanese culture has been J-pop, and a through that, a couple of hundred young women and girls.  So you’d think the question would be on my mind, but it actually wasn’t.

The problem with that question, though, is that anyone from America who tries to answer that question, though, including me, is going to do so through a western lens.  And the problem with that western lens is that we in the west go through hoops upon hoops trying to reconcile irreconcilable positions.  Many in my culture believe in multiculturalism (all cultures are equal) and at the same time think that human rights in cultures such as Japan are backwards.  Those are not two beliefs that you can hold at the same time without some cognitive dissonance.  There are also beliefs many of us hold around gender, etc., that are just as irreconcilable.  So whichever belief holds supremacy is the view from which we will look at the Japanese culture – and two people, even side by side, could see the same thing (such as “maid cafes”) and see it either as empowering or demeaning, or even maybe both at the same time.

So if I were to look at it from a western viewpoint, I don’t have a good answer.  I think it is true that most Japanese are not feminist in the western sense of the word, and I think they have a very different sense of gender roles and sexuality, one that may not be even compatible with a western sense of feminism.  Their culture is very purity oriented, as purification is very important in Shinto, so it makes sense that they would put a value on purity that we in the west don’t.  Their culture also puts a great deal more value on the health of the collective than on the individual, where I think it’s defensible to say that western feminism puts more emphasis on the rights of the individual.

I think many in the west would consider Japanese culture regressive, though.  I don’t, really, but then I’m not really a feminist, at least not by the more recent definitions of the word.  I think in some ways they treat women (and people in general) poorly, and in some ways they have attitudes that I think we have lost at our peril (one parent at home with the children, for example, and divorce being less common).  As with everything in a culture, there is good and bad.

Japanese culture will, though, start to have to actually address this issue, though.  As their birth rate continues to decline, they are going to have to start opening up their gates to foreign workers just so that they can keep their country running, and with foreign workers come foreign attitudes and morals.  It’s then, I think, that we’ll discover what they can give up and what is important to them.  I hope they choose wisely.

More wisely than we have, anyway.

The Genius of Kanji

I think I understand now why kanji have lasted as long as it has.

Today, I saw a kanji pair.  気楽.  It means “relaxed” or some such.  The kanji by themselves mean “mood” and “comfort” (in this context).  I thought they were pronounced “kigaku”, but I looked it up and realized it was “kiraku”.

But here’s the thing – I haven’t forgotten how to pronounce the word!  I forgot several times, but then I just think of the two kanji, and then I know how to pronounce it.

So the genius of kanji is this:  as long as you remember what the kanji look like, then you can use that to extrapolate the readings of the kanji, but they are also a memory aid!  So, yes, there are two thousand kanji, but if you even remember a small fraction and their common readings, then you can use that as a building block to remember all sorts of different words – both the kanji, and the reading of the word.  I probably won’t forget “kiraku” again, because the kanji have given me a visual anchor to remember the concepts the reading is attached to.

Yes, it’s complicated and there’s a lot to remember, but if you look at it the right way, then you only have to really remember (by rote memorization) a small fraction of what you need, and the rest you can reconstruct by extrapolation.  Which is actually… pretty damn cool.


Post in Japanese #1

Hi all.  I am going to try to write a weekly post in Japanese, mostly to address the issue in “Crisis of Confidence“, which I wrote about earlier.  It will have a lot of mistakes and I will need to look a lot of things up.  Feel free to correct.  The point is just to do it no matter what.  Honestly, it will probably take me a long time to write this, as I refuse to use Google Translate except to check that my work is halfways intelligible… 🙂




Just for humor’s sake, this is what I first came up with before I used google translate to correct my *worst* errors…  I guess I learned something through the process, though.  The English translation is hilarious.

Hello. . I am a Japanese student. It’s embarrassing, is not it. I went to the shop yesterday. It is chewy with chicken or meat. I will hang a hamburger tonight. I bask in bamboo, lettuce, tomato and fluffy bread. It is very tasty. Different books are difficult. I am a scholar for an hour or Japanese.

okay…  think that’s all for this week.  I have so much to learn…