One of the more frustrating things about Japanese to a beginner is the multiple levels of politeness.  At first glance they seem completely foreign, but I really don’t think they are.  It’s baked into English as well, it’s just not so much a grammatical construct as a manner of speaking.

Contrast, for example,

Greetings, I would like to inquire as to the report dated 11/15/2019, and await your reply forthwith.


Yo, dawg, you got that report or no?

The first example is intentionally pretentious, but you get the idea.  There are multiple levels of politeness in English as well, and the consequences for breaking those rules can be the same.  I very much doubt that someone saying the second in a workplace that’s anything but majorly casual would last very long at all.  Things have loosened, but not very much.  We call it “professional” speech, but it serves the same function.

I kind of like the way it’s baked into the grammar in Japanese, though.  I don’t generally have to learn new words in order to speak more politely, I just have to conjugate a bit differently and remember to use the correct forms when addressing someone.

There are many, many things to complain about in Japanese, but I don’t think politeness is one of them.  In fact, in case you didn’t get the idea, I think English is worse in that regard, because you basically have to learn an entirely new vocabulary to speak professionally as opposed to speaking with your friends.  When I write on this blog, I speak in a semi-professional manner.  I could say it’s gauged to be appropriate for a blog such as this, and I’d be correct, but this is also the way I write in any professional setting.  There’s a place for cursing, and this ain’t it.

(By the way, “ain’t” is a perfectly legitimate word.  It’s also not professional.  I never said I was consistent about it.)

Anyway, my point is this:  be glad you just have to learn a few conjugations.  It seems to become second nature after a while.  I know, for me, when I use polite form in Japanese, it feels a bit stifling and stilted – just like professional speech should.  Well done, Japanese folks.


One thing that many people don’t know about me is that I’m fairly competent on the piano.  As with Japanese, I am only now learning exactly how much I don’t know in that discipline, but I can hold my own.  If I really want to learn a piece, even if it’s difficult, I usually can.

But the reason I chose the piano was precisely because it is a different instrument.  I also became relatively proficient with the clarinet, and while in some ways it is a far more expressive instrument, and with all of those levers and buttons it has its own form of complexity, but it was not really a satisfying thing for me to learn.  It wasn’t complex.

Many languages don’t hold much appeal to me, even if I know their usefulness.  I have absolutely no interest or desire to learn Spanish, even though, living in Texas, it would be a terribly useful language for me to know.  One of these days I will probably learn it, even as I really don’t want to.  I learned conversational German in college, and while I’ve forgotten most of the vocabulary, I remember much of the grammar.  It was also not particularly challenging, so I lost interest.  Most of the Germanic or Anglo-Saxon languages don’t interest me – I already know English, so what’s the point, really?

However, languages that have their own special symbols have always fascinated me  I learned a little bit of Thai a long time ago, and I’ve forgotten all but a couple of phrases, but I found the fact that it has its own alphabet and/or syllabary to be quite interesting.  I’m not particularly interested in learning Hebrew or Greek, but those languages do have some quite interesting symbols I’d be interested in understanding at some point.  Russian, with their Cyrillic alphabet, probably would interest me if I hadn’t have had some run-ins with Russian people who soured me on the whole culture.  And Chinese… well, that does hold a certain fascination for me, but being a tonal language, it’s very likely something that would be too complicated.  I only have so much time, after all.  Plus I’m really not impressed with their culture at the moment, so on to greener pastures for me.  (and I know what will likely happen with that statement, and I won’t approve those comments.)

So that pretty much leaves me with a few of the other far-east languages, like Korean or Japanese.

Korean doesn’t hold a lot of interest to me because its writing system is actually simple.  Their grammar is very similar to Japanese, though their vocabulary is not, but after learning Japanese grammar, it should be pretty simple to pick up Korean if I really wanted to – just learn a much simplified writing system and pick up vocabulary, and I’m golden.

So that leaves Japanese.  One of the most complicated languages in existence.  Three writing systems, a completely inverted language structure, several politeness levels… basically a hodgepodge and mishmash of things stuck together, jerry-rigged, and smushed into one huge glorious ball of confusion.

And I suspect that is the major reason I chose it.

Crisis of Confidence

I am a reasonably accomplished early-40s man.  I can play the piano reasonably competently.  I know how to program in quite a few programming languages.  I became an expert at the Linux operating system.  I have studied, to varying degrees, math and electronics, and I consider myself to be of significantly above-average intelligence.  I have thoughts about theology that make pastor friends tell me that they remind me of C.S Lewis, or even Augustine.

All this is to say that trying to learn Japanese is probably the first thing in my life that I’ve taken up that I am not sure I will ever master with any degree of competency at all.  It is orders of magnitude more difficult than any of these things I’ve mentioned.

I could say that the reason is that I have to learn two entirely new syllabaries.  I could say that the reason is that I have to learn an entirely new vocabulary.  I could say that the reason is the entirely different postpositional grammar of Japanese.  I could even say that the reason is that there are a couple of thousand kanji, each with multiple readings that only apply in certain times.  I could even say that the reason is that Japan has an entirely different culture, and that even if I master the language technically, if I don’t understand that, then I may as well hang it all up.

I could say any one of these are the reason, but that’s not entirely true – all of these things at once are the reason.

I am embarrassed to even attempt the simplest sentence with a native, or even competent, speaker.  I don’t even want to open my mouth.  I don’t want to write a single sentence.  I love the idea of learning the language, I think it is a great challenge and I like the people and culture, but truth be told, I don’t know if I can do this.  I don’t even know why I’m doing this.

One of the first words I learned in Japanese was 恥ずかしい. Hazukashii.  It means embarrassed.  And I can think of no other word to describe my utter lack of competence and confidence in this undertaing.

And worse, I don’t even know if the approach I’m taking is the right one.  Or if there is even a right approach.  I’m so woefully lacking in this endeavor, with so many different resources clamoring for my attention and telling me I can become fluent if I do this and that and give this one money and give that one money and try my best, that I’m seriously wondering if I’m doing myself a disservice by using any one, or even all, of them.  Yeah, I can recognize more kanji than I used to.  Big whoop.  Even that little tiny bit of accomplishment feels like a big deal, and when I look at the huge sea of things to learn, knowing what a few more kanji mean seems to be like pissing into the ocean.

I’m not seriously considering giving up at the moment, but I’m wondering if there’s any point to continuing.  There’s a difference.