Basic knowledge of Japanese is mandatory for foreign employees entering Sony. 新入社員サチンナヤック (new employee and insti alumnus Sachin Nayak) gives us an overview of this strange foreign tongue.
A Strange Foreign Tongue
A few years back, when I took part in the Sony Global Internship Program, I found myself explaining to my Japanese colleagues why I was conversant with four different Indian languages- ヒンディー語、カンナダ語、コんカニ語 and マラティ語 (Hindi, Kannada, Konkani and Marathi). At that time, my Japanese colleagues remarked that since I had already learned so many languages, learning 日本語 (Japanese) would be a piece of cake for me. Little did I know what was in store for me or as in 日本語- 私は深いトラブルの為にでした (I was in for deep trouble)。
バカ外国人が日本語を学ぶのは非常に難しいです (It is very difficult for dumb foreigners to learn Japanese.)。Japanese is considered to be one of the world’s toughest languages. Japanese, belonging to the Japonic family of languages, is completely different from all other languages (日本語が他の外語より全然違います). Before I go on stating why Japanese is so difficult, please look at the Japanese sentences in this article. Is there any space between the words?
The World’s Most Complex Written Language
Although there are many reasons why Japanese is so inaccessible to foreigners, the main reason is the cryptic script. 本当に面倒くさいです (It is really troublesome.)。What makes Japanese script more difficult than the average alphabet-based writing system is that, depending on the context, most Japanese words can be written in the following three ways: in 漢字 (Kanji), ひらがな (Hiragana) or カタカナ (Katakana).
So, if you wished to write ‘Japanese’ in Japanese, you could write it like this.
Or, you could write it like this.
Lastly, this, also, is an option.
Katakana and Hiragana are both 46-character syllabaries while a set of 2136 logograms called Joyo Kanji are in regular use in Japan. To be able to barely get by, you need to know around 400 Japanese characters and to be able to write to a good extent, around 1100 Japanese characters. No wonder Japanese students keep learning Kanji even up till high school. Imagine learning the alphabet till 10th Standard.
Despite having three different scripts, Japanese has a limited phonological inventory and is unable to accommodate the pronunciations of many words outside of Japanese. Apart from famously not having the ‘L sound’, few consonants can be blended together in Japanese and all syllables in Japanese necessarily need to end with a vowel or an ‘n’. Due to this, there is an unusually large number of homonyms and similar sounding words in Japanese.
Early Japanese learners easily tend to get confused between such words. For example, a beginner in Japanese can easily confuse ‘kowai’ (scary) with ‘kawaii’ (cute) and say “akachyan ha totemo kowai desune” (“Isn’t the baby scary?”) instead of “akachyan ha totemo kawaii desune” (“Isn’t the baby cute?”). One can find an entire series of ‘Nihongo-faux pas’ at this website.
More on Kanji
The situation is compounded by the fact that Japanese has a large number of imported Chinese words, written solely in Kanji, that can only be reliably distinguished in writing. Consider the following 8 Kanji characters.
神 進 信 新 真 伸 心 親
皆言葉の発音は「しん」ですが、意味は全然違います (All of these are pronounced as ‘shin’ but are completely unrelated.)。From left to right, their meanings are ‘God’, ‘advance’, ‘believe’, ‘new’, ‘true’, ‘stretch’, ‘heart’, and ‘parent’.
The advent of Kanji was the worst thing that happened in the history of Japan. Originally, Japanese did not have any script. The Japanese borrowed the Chinese script, consisting solely of Kanji, and over centuries, gave them several readings (sometimes over 20 readings), created the 2 syllabaries — Hiragana and Katakana — by simplifying some of the Kanji and came up with all sorts of irregular rules about how to combine the 3 scripts to write the language.
Currently, in addition to the conglomeration of these approximations to the Chinese readings (over time and place) of Kanji, namely「音読み」(‘onyomi’), there are Japanese readings called 「訓読み」 (‘kunyomi’) which are the fruits of Japan’s attempt to make their language work with Kanji by associating closely equivalent Japanese words with their meanings. This pretty much doubles up what you have to learn to be comfortable with Kanji and sometimes you can’t even tell which pronunciation to use.
Moreover, there are a lot of Japanese words that the common man in Japan wouldn’t know how to pronounce without referring to a dictionary, due to the larger number of unorthodox readings for Kanji. Names whose pronunciation cannot be inferred from their Kanji are not rare. It is not unusual for a Japanese friend to say, 「ごめんなさい、分からない。」 (“Sorry, I don’t know.”) when asked to read the name of a temple or a place in Japan. This peculiar uncertainty is frequently exploited in poetry, writing and even in game shows that play off these facts.
漢字だけでなく、文法も難しい – It is not Only About the Kanji, the Grammar is Also Difficult
外国人が難しく感じるのは漢字だけではありません (Kanji is not the only thing in Japanese that foreigners find tough.)。The grammar is also considered to be hard to learn for English speakers because its syntax is inverted from English and therefore one has to learn an entirely new grammar structure. Ideas are expressed in ways that are unrelated to that in English. In contrast to English, the verb in a Japanese sentence comes at the end of the sentence which makes the meaning of a long sentence hard to grasp.
Picture a sentence in English like “Last year, heavy rains lashed Chennai for days on a stretch- causing phenomenal flooding that blocked roads, disrupted air traffic, damaged buildings and property, bringing the entire city to a standstill and displacing over 18 lakh people.” and put the verb ‘lashed’ at the end of the sentence. それは可笑しいですね (Isn’t that strange?)。
Moreover, due to cultural and linguistic reasons, the subject is often dropped in a Japanese sentence because it assumed to be understood, causing perplexity and uncertainty. Adding to the confusion is the fact that there is no verb conjugation according to the person, making the subject of a sentence unclear.
Japanese’s peculiar counting system adds to one’s problems. There exist gnarly things called 助数詞 (counter words) that are to be used along with numbers to count things, actions and events. The problem is that there is a very large number of counter words based on the size, shape and nature of what is being counted. To get an idea of this, in Japanese, the counter word to be used varies from 個 and 本 to 匹 and 回 based on whether a small object or a long cylindrical object or a small animal or an occurrence is being counted. One can find a full list on this website.
ヒンディー語のように、学ぶべき丁寧な言葉のいくつかのレベルがあります (Like in Hindi, there are several levels of polite language to learn.)。 But the problem with Japanese is that the number of levels is much bigger in number. For example, something as simple as ‘miru’ (to see) can become ‘goran ni naru’ or ‘haiken suru’ based on who is performing the action. In Japanese, there are at least 20 different ways to say “sorry” and “please”. If you don’t learn them all, you will never rise above the status of a バカ外人 (‘dumb foreigner’).
Is There Anything Easy About Japanese?
All’s not lost for the naive Japanese learner. The Japanese language has certain peculiarities that make it easy for English speakers and other foreigners to grasp the language.
Firstly, there are loads of English loanwords in Japanese. These “foreign loanwords”, or 外来語 (‘gairaigo’) offer English speakers a great start allowing communication with primitive knowledge of Japanese. Examples of such loanwords include マイク (maiku – mic), テーブル (teeburu – table) and バス (basu – bus). Of course, you need to learn their “Japanified” pronunciation but they are highly predictable and consistent.
Then, there is the other side of the coin to the Japanese grammar. The Japanese grammar allows a degree of flexibility that is not seen in any other language. The order of words in a sentence, except the verb at the end, is completely unrestricted. Additionally, the absence of articles and gender of nouns makes things easier for a Japanese learner.
Also, speaking Japanese is considered to be easy for a foreigner as it is not a tonal language and English has all the sounds you need for the Japanese language. Japanese is not hard to learn to pronounce as there are only 48 sounds consisting of 5 vowels and 11 consonants. Unlike English, the pronunciation of a consonant-vowel combo never changes. Yet, mastery of pitch differences in Japanese is considered to be hard and often separates non-native speakers from native ones.
Finally coming to the script, there is a small and set amount of Hiragana and Katakana, which make up a good deal of the written Japanese language. Regarding Kanji, things could be worse. Japanese has significantly less Kanji than Chinese in which around 10,000 Kanji are in daily use.
Japanese Haiku Poetry
The Japanese language forms the base for a unique form of poetry called the Haiku poetry. Haiku poetry is perhaps the shortest form of poetry in the world. Traditional Haiku consists of 17 syllables in three phrases of 5, 7, and 5 respectively. Haikus often focus on images from nature and emphasize clarity, potency and straightforwardness of expression. Below is an English translation of a famous Haiku.
Climb Mount Fuji,
But slowly, slowly!
The first line, i.e., the “hokku”, sets the mood for the rest of the verses. The remaining part of the poem introduces a different but related idea. The essence of the Haiku is the juxtaposition of these two images. Nowadays, Haikus written in English are also quite common. What follows is my maiden attempt to write a Haiku in Japanese:
This translates as
Baby is crying
I want to climb the tree
But I can’t climb down.
So, Why Study Japanese?
Notwithstanding the hardships involved in learning the cryptic Japanese grammar and memorizing the entire set of 2000 Kanji, learning Japanese can actually be very lucrative. Apart from giving a perspective of Japanese culture, learning Japanese can open up a plethora of opportunities in the Japanese job market and the world of Japanese research to you. So let us get rid of our fear of this strange symbolic language and open up the gates to the land of the rising sun.