Japanese: すごい, です ね?

Japan. In one word, the country is nothing short of marvel.

In fact, I still have pangs about how awesome it is. Despite never visiting the land of the Rising Sun (at least not yet), I studied Japanese in high school, utilizing lessons from Japanese-online (before Wikipedia), in attempts to acquaint myself with the culture and perhaps live there one day. And then I graduated high school, started college, went to NYC and changed my mind.

I guess learning Japanese was really the start of when I began to document my language learning. I transcribed all of the lessons into a bound book I made from one of my classes and read from it every day, greeting students and even using it with Japanese customers at my job in high school. I wonder where the thrill went?

Just as thrilling is Japan’s expansive history. Legend has it that the emperors descended from a sun goddess (and the line continued to 1945), ruling the country before and after the beginning of the first millennium AD. China was a huge influence on Japan, bring agriculture, pottery and an imperial form of government. Nearby Korea brought Buddhism to the country. In the 700s, when the capital was moved to modern-day Kyoto by Emperor Kammu, a distinct Japanese culture emerged. For about 500 years, Japan would be ruled by the royal court until 1192, when shogun (military dictator) Yoritomo took control of the country with the Minamoto clan, aka, samurais.

Westerners wouldn’t reach the county until the 1500s. If you guessed that the Portuguese who were the first to arrive, you would be correct. They brought trade and Christianity to the island, opening up Japan to the Western world for the first time. When other European nations followed suit, Japan shoguns banned them from coming back and wouldn’t return until the 1800s.

Shogun rule eventually fell apart after Commodore Matthew Perry and his fleet set sail to Japan in 1854, forcing Japan to open up its borders. This created a crisis, eventually leading to the Boshin War, a civil war between shoguns and the imperial court. After Emperor Meiji rose to power, Japan made a quick turnaround in modernity, creating a parliament and an army.

Japan’s history would take a dark turn after WWII, when it joined the Axis powers. After it attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, Japan went through a period of economic and humanitarian strife and exile after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After U.S. occupation ended and Japan created a new constitution, the country turned to manufacturing, technology, and investment in Western markets with close government intervention to make a comeback, becoming the miracle of the Far East and the second richest country in the world.

But what about the language? The origin is somewhat unclear But there are several theories:

-Some believe that it’s a relative of other Asian languages

-Some believe that it’s related to languages in the Altaic family, like Mongolian and Turkish because it is agglutinative (tacks on suffixes to change the meaning of words).

-Some believe it’s related to Austronesian languages.

-Some believe it’s a creole of an Altaic and Austronesian language.

Whatever the case, most of its influences comes from China, specifically in the vocabulary department. Also, Japanese has a ton of loan words from English, Dutch and Portuguese.

WRITING SYSTEM:

Japanese has four — that’s right, four — writing systems. Kanji, Romanji Romaji, Hiragana and Katakana. Kanji are borrowed Chinese characters and are used in everything. Hirigana and Katakana are alphabet systems, intermingled with kanji. Hiragana is used for older words and Katakana is used for loan words. Finally, Romanji Romaji is composed of Roman letters, similar to the English alphabet. It’s grown in usage, though it’s not used as much as the first three systems.

To read a newspaper in Japanese, you have to know at least 3,000 characters in kanji. And since you can already read Roman letters, I’ll just list hiragana and katakana (c/o Language Guide and Wikipedia’s Japanese article). The vowels are in italics.

HIRAGANA:

あ – a, a as in father
か – ka, ka as in karate
が – ga, ga as in gall
さ – sa, sa as in saw
ざ – za, sounds like “zaw”
た – ta, ta as in tada
だ – da, da as in dawn
な – na, na as in nauseous
は- ha, ha as in haul
ば – ba, ba as in ball
ぱ – pa, pa as in paw
ま – ma, ma as in mama
や – ya, ya as in yacht
ら – ra, ra as in raw
わ – wa, wa as in water
ん – a nasal n, as in pan
い – i, sounds like ee as in see
ひ – hi, sounds like he
び – bi, sounds like bee
ぴ – pi, sounds like pee
き – ki, ki as in kiwi
ぎ- gi, sounds like gee (hard g as in gift)
し – shi, sounds like she
じ – ji, sounds like gee
ち – chi, sounds like chi
ぢ – ji, sounds like gee
に -ni, sounds like knee
み – mi, sounds like me
り – ri, sounds like re in reek
う – u, u as in u you
く – ku, sounds like coo
ぐ – gu, sounds like goo
す – su, su as in suzuki
ず – zu, sounds like zoo
つ – tsu, sounds like tsu in jiujitsu
づ – dzu, sounds like tsu above, except voiced
ぬ – nu, sounds like new
ふ – fu, sounds like foo
ぶ – bu, sounds like boo
ぷ – pu, sounds like Pooh
む – mu, sounds like moo
ゆ – yu, sounds like you
る – ru, sounds like rue
え – e, sounds like eh
け – ke, ke as in keg
げ – ge, ge as in get
せ – se, se as in set
て – te, te as in tepid
で – de, de as in depth
ね – ne, ne as in never
へ – he, he as in head
べ – be, be as in bed
ぺ – pe, pe as in pet
め – me, me as in medic
れ – re, re as in red
お – o, long o as in old
こ – ko, sound like co in cold
ご – go, sounds like go
そ – so, sounds like English so or sew
ぞ – zo, zo in Alonzo
と – to, sounds like tow
ど – do, do as in dough
の – no, sounds like English no
ほ – ho, ho in hose
ぼ – bo, sounds like bow
ぽ – po, po as in poke
も – mo, sounds like mow
よ – yo, yo as in yodel
ろ – ro, sounds like row
を – wo, sounds like whoa

KATAKANA:

ア – a, a as in father
カ – ka, ka as in karate
が – ga, ga as in gall
サ – sa, sa as in saw
ザ – za, sounds like “zaw”
タ – ta, ta as in tada
ダ – da, da as in dawn
ナ – na, na as in nauseous
ハ – ha, ha as in haul
バ ba, ba as in ball
パ – pa, pa as in pawn
マ -ma, ma as in mama
ヤ – ya, ya as in yacht
ラ – ra, ra as in raw
ワ – wa, wa as in water
ン – a nasal n, as in pan
イ – i, sounds like ee as in see
ヒ – hi, sounds like he
ビ – bi, sounds like bee
ピ – pi, sounds like pee
キ – ki, ki as in kiwi
ギ – gi, sounds like gee (hard g as in gift)
シ – shi, sounds like she
ジ – ji, sounds like gee
チ – chi, sounds like chi
ヂ – ji, sounds like gee
ニ – ni, sounds like knee
ミ -mi, sounds like me
リ – ri, sounds like re in reek
ウ – u, u as in u you
ク – ku, sounds like coo
グ – gu, sounds like goo
ス – su, su as in suzuki
ズ – zu, sounds like zoo
ツ – tsu, sounds like tsu in jiujitsu
ヅ – dzu, sounds like tsu above, except voiced
フ – fu, sounds like “foo”
ブ – bu, sounds like boo
プ – pu, sounds like Pooh
ム – mu, sounds like moo
ユ – yu, sounds like you
ル – ru, sounds like rue
エ – e, sounds like eh
ケ – ke, ke as in keg
ゲ – ge, ge as in get
セ – se, se as in set
テ – te, te as in tepid
デ – de, de as in depth
ネ – ne, ne as in never
ヘ – he, he as in head
べ – be, be as in bed
ぺ – pe, pe as in pet
メ – me, me as in medic
レ – re, re as in red
オ – o, long o as in old
コ – ko, sound like co in cold
ゴ – go, sounds like go
ソ – so, sounds like English so or sew
ゾ – zo, zo in Alonzo
ト – to, sounds like tow
ド – do, do as in dough
ノ – no, sounds like English no
ホ – ho, ho in hose
ボ – bo, sounds like bow
ポ – po, po as in poke
モ – mo, sounds like mow
ヨ – yo, yo as in yodel
ロ – ro, sounds like row

This took several hours to write. And thank goodness I was already familiar, otherwise I might have not posted this until the next day.

Another thing to note is that the Japanese “r” sounds like a cross between an English r and l. There are also no diphthongs in Japanese.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Japanese may be an agglutinative language, but the words aren’t really super-long or at least they don’t sound like it. When I learned it before, I could tell words apart just fine and detect verbs, as they’re placed at the end of sentences quite commonly. The language itself sounds like someone speaking fast with lots of “s” sounds. Also, there are a lot of cognates. In my opinion, the writing systems seem to be the hardest things to learn. I wonder how it will be this time around.

Until then, enjoy this song from Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, an anime film that is apparently breaking records on the mainland. It’s the number 5 song in Japan right now.

6 thoughts on “Japanese: すごい, です ね?

  1. Just found your blog, I think the idea is pretty interesting and am really looking forward to see which language you decide to pursue in the end. I got a bit confused at one point though, you said you were proficient in Spanish in one post and then speculated about learning Spanish not being meant for you in another one, so what’s actually your Spanish level? I’m quite curious about that. Can’t wait for you to review my language, btw 🙂

  2. Thank you so much for reading! I probably did a bad job at specifying how I KNOW Spanish and I apologize. I learned it in elementary school and took courses in high school. I also read from magazines and listened to a lot of Latino music for study. I would say my level of comprehension is intermediate, as I’m able to read it mostly fine, but can only make out some words in spoken Spanish, but not enough to be fluent.

    I hope you enjoy my review of Japanese!

  3. Your challenge is amazing. Well done for devoting so much time to it. Would just like to point out that Romaji is not really considered a writing system by Japanese. It is more of a means for Japanese to communicate with outsiders. And now a teaching tool to learn Japanese.

    However, if it is your intention to study Japanese avoid learning Romaji as much as you can. Learning hiragana and katakana is pretty easy. It just takes a little time.

    1. Wow, thank you for the warm compliment, and also specifying Romaji’s role. I apologize for getting to this so late!

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