Tips and Tricks for Japanese Learners

Over the past ouple of years, I’ve learned a few things about Japanese that are not obvious to people just starting out in Japanese. Let me try to summarize them here. Maybe I’ve said some of these before, but I’ll just repeat here if so, I guess it bears repeating.

Okurigana

Okurigana are those hiragana characters on the end of Japanese words. Here’s the tip: An English speaker is going to be tempted to look at a kanji and think that it is a word. In many cases, it is not. It is a part of a word. The actual word is the kanji coupled with its okurigana.

For example, look at the kanji 見. It’s pronounced “mi”, and means “see”. But if you add okurigana to the end of the kanji, it can change both meaning and pronunciation. 見る (miru) means “see”. But 見える means “can see”, 見せる means “to show”, and 見つける means “to find” or “to discover”. This kanji has all of these meanings, but it’s the okurigana that distinguish one meaning from the the other. This is a difficult concept for learners to understand, as the question is often asked “how can one kanji have so many meanings and pronunciations?” The answer is that they are just building blocks for words, and almost never the words themselves. I say almost because some words do not have okurigana, like 桜 (sakura).

Jyukugo

Jyukugo are Japanese words that consist of two or more kanji stuck together. This is also hard to understand for Japanese learners, because when you combine two or more kanji, with some exceptions, they take an entirely different pronunciation – and the kanji together form a word that may have little if anything to do with its constituent kanji.

But here’s the simple rule: The kanji will almost always take an “on” reading (Chinese) in a jyukugu, and probably 95% of the time it’s the same “on” reading. So it’s kind of intimidating when you first start learning about this, but once you learn this trick, learning and reading jyukugo becomes much simpler. Learn the common “on” readings for the kanji, smush them together, and most of the time, you’ll be right.

Not always, of course, but it’s a really good start, and Japanese really is about learning the common rules and then when not to use them.

For example, you use the “kun” (Japanese) readings when one of the kanji is a body part. So 上手 (jyouzu) means “skilled”, even though one of the kanji means hand. But 右手 (migite) means right hand. Since “te” is the kun reading for hand, and you’re talking about a hand, the rules of jyukugo don’t really apply there. As I said, a few exceptions. But learn those and you’re golden.

Rendaku

This is something that, for some damn reason, beginners are never taught. You’ll have to figure it out for yourself. But, dear reader, let me explain what is maybe one of the most outwardly puzzling but eminently sensible things about the Japanese language.

You may notice that sometimes voiced consonants will change to unvoiced consonants (adding the two little dots, or tenten) when they are part of a jyukugo. 紙 (kami), or paper, becomes 手紙 (tegami), or postcard, when turned into a jyukugo Why is this, you might ask?

It’s simply, and solely, because the Japanese really don’t like to waste mouth energy.

No, seriously. That’s it. That’s the whole reason.

It’s harder to say “tekami” then “tegami”, so they turn it into “tegami” so it’s easier to say.

You’ll find this is actually the case for almost all cases when voiced consonants are turned into unvoiced consonants. For example, “n” is turned into “m” when put before certain syllables to make the words flow better. “ganbatte”, for example, is harder to say than “gambatte”, so “gambatte” it is.

This changing of voiced to unvoiced consonants is called rendaku.

There’s actually a whole “law” (Lyman’s Law), I believe, that says when and when not to use rendaku, but generally, when you have two kanji, and the second has a voiced syllable, you just change it to unvoiced (add a tenten) and all is well.

Japanese has a few rules like this that no one explains, and for the life of me I have no idea why. It just makes life easier to know, don’t you think?

Dialects

Japanese has a few dialects, and by a few, I mean a metric buttload. Most of them aren’t really important unless you’re planning on travelling all over Japan, but there are a few that are kind of useful to know. Kansai, for example, is one of them. It is well represented in media and comedy because, as a native Japanese I know puts it, “they’re proud of themselves and their dialect so they refuse to change”. Regardless of the reasons why, you’ll have to reckon with it at some point. It has a different pitch accent and syllable emphasis, so I’m told it sounds a bit more sing-song than Tokyo standard.

For the beginner learner, it’s probably best just to know that it exists, and the reason you can’t understand comedy you see on YouTube or whatever isn’t entirely your fault. But it’s still a really useful thing to look into if you have some spare time.

Otaku aren’t Normal Japanese

This is really an important thing to learn, and it’s taken me a while to figure this out. Many of the things you’re going to be exposed to in Japanese media are things otaku like. Some of it might be funny, cool, all that jazz, but at the end of the day, most Japanese people kind of look down on Otaku. They’ll say something like “Well, I guess if they’re happy…”, which for a Japanese person is something like “Holy SHIT are they weird!”

By the same token, anime is hit or miss when it comes to Japanese. Some of it is good colloquial Japanese, but a lot of it is stuff you really should never be using as an example, as it will teach you bad habits, or things that you really should only use under specific circumstances – but those are context specific and the anime will never tell you what those circumstances are. Don’t try to learn Japanese through media. It’s self-selected by otaku and weeaboos, and generally you’re not going to be served well by it.

If it’s all you got, though, I guess it’s better than nothing! Japanese are often just happy you’re trying, so they’ll forgive a lot from a learner.

Native Japanese don’t know everything!

My sensei is a native Japanese, has degrees in Japanese pedagogy, and has been teaching for many years. And I still teach sensei things sometimes. For example, sensei had no idea what a “small ke” meant, and when I looked it up and explained it, well, sensei learned something. Never be afraid to ask questions, and if a native Japanese speaker does not know, it does not at all mean the answer isn’t to be found, and sometimes easily! It just means the native speaker never bothered to find out.

And that’s fine, of course! I only recently learned what a gerund was, for example, and I’ve been speaking English for mumble mumble years!

Sometimes you’ll be told “I don’t know”. Look it up. You might be able to teach something yourself.

Have fun with it

I only recently learned about something called Japanglish. It contains phrases like:

  • yamete kudastop
  • arigathanks
  • don’t itashimention it
  • nani the fuck

Of course, this isn’t real Japanese. It is almost but not entirely unlike real Japanese. But for all of the ragging I do on otaku, etc., they do have one quality that should be emulated. They have fun with it. They’re not really as concerned with the rules as they are with how cool it is. And so you come up with a list of things like this that are nothing like Japanese except on the most basic level, and yet, people are having loads of fun with it. Respect the culture (which gaikokujin otaku generally don’t do), respect the people, give it your best go, but at the end of the day, remember that if you can’t have some fun with it there’s really no point. And let me be entirely frank – if a native Japanese doesn’t like that you’re not taking it seriously enough, they can just ざけんなよ. Being irreverent is not the same as being disrespectful.

What are some tips that you think people should know that would make their Japanese learning life easier?

Jyukugo

Japanese jyukugo fascinate me, because each one tells a story.  Sometimes the story is boring, but sometimes they offer an unwitting insight into the mind of a culture.

I was reminded of this when I learned the jyukugo 電池.  The two kanji together mean “electricity” and “pond”.  But if you put them together, it means “battery”.  It’s a very poetic word, and not really intentionally, I think.  The Japanese people needed to think of a word for electrical storage, and well, why not?

I’ve often been curious as to how these words arise.  The word for “wife”, for example, is “kanai”, or 家内.  The two kanji mean “inside” and “house”.  One could say that this isn’t a very forward thinking jyukugo, but then, the Japanese culture is thousands of years old, of course it’s not.  Sometimes you just have to take a word at face value.  That’s the word.  Trying to demand that an entire country change their language because it offends you is…  well… what seems to happen these days.  But it’s not reasonable.

Jyukugo are one thing about Japanese culture that I’m willing to accept for what they are.  Some are poetic.  Some are not.  Some are disturbing.  And some are beautiful, in their own way.  We don’t have these same kinds of constructions in English for the most part, and in some ways, I kind of wish we did.  It would make my language much more interesting.

In my opinion, Japanese is difficult, incomprehensible, inscrutable, and a whole bunch of other words that start with “in”.  But it’s beautiful.  English is all of those things, and ugly, too.  I guess that’s one reason I like Japanese – for the same reason I collect porcelain dolls.  I like beautiful things in my life.