Could You Learn Japanese?
By “Awake!” correspondent in Japan
“IMPOSSIBLE,” you say? Not necessarily. Why, if you think about it you may already know some words in Japanese, such as kimono and sake (rice wine)! Did you know that if you say the English pronoun “I,” it sounds as if you are saying “love” in Japanese (ai)? Or that if you say “cow” in English, the same pronunciation means “to buy” in Japanese (kau)?
Some claim that a person can learn Japanese overnight merely by poring over a ‘How-to-Learn’ book. Though it is not quite that easy, one can quickly master enough Japanese to have an enjoyable time visiting Japan as a tourist.
Even more complicated than the Japanese language itself are various ideas regarding its origin. Recently Leptcha, a language spoken in a valley of the Himalaya mountains, was found to be closely related to Japanese. Others claim that Japanese bears greater affinity to Korean than to any other language.
What is the relationship between Japanese and Chinese? Due to the use of Chinese ideographic script, which we call “Kanji,” Japanese is often thought to have close connections with Chinese. But the differences are considerable. Chinese is a “monosyllabic” language, containing words of only one syllable. Japanese, however, is “polysyllabic,” having numerous words of two or more syllables. In Chinese, word meaning is conveyed by pitch and word order, while in Japanese the meaning is conveyed by the words themselves and by the word endings.
Nearly 2,500 years ago, the Japanese language had, basically, the same grammar as that used today. But by the end of the ninth and tenth centuries, changes began taking place. This made it necessary to know one set of words for reading and another set for speaking. The result was that until the end of World War II, one had to know 3,000 to 5,000 Chinese characters and two sets of syllabaries of 50 characters each in order to read any weighty material.
Since 1945, however, the essential Kanji have been somewhat simplified and reduced to a little less than 2,000. The language also has adopted many English words. Nowadays, besides these Kanji characters, schoolchildren are taught two sets of romanization. This requires hours of work at memorizing as well as writing practice until, by the end of grammar school, children have learned 881 Kanji, and, by the end of high school, 1,850. Reading college textbooks, however, requires knowledge of about 3,000 Kanji.
Let’s Say Something in Japanese
Perhaps you are anxious to test your ability at speaking Japanese. The pronunciation is easy enough, as there are, basically, only 50 different sounds possible. What presents the biggest problem is grammar. But for now, we’ll stick to simpler matters.
To begin with, there are five vowel sounds, all pronounced as in Italian: A as in far, I as e in me, E as in nest, O as in old, U as in push, when the U is a short vowel; when long, the U is as oo in soon. It is very important to learn the short and the long vowel sounds. A rather frequent mistake made by missionaries is confusing so shi ki (organization) with sō shi ki (funeral). Not a few audiences have been shocked at hearing about God’s great heavenly funeral, rather than God’s great heavenly organization. Another easy mistake is that of calling a young girl shō jō (orangutan) rather than shō jo (young girl). Clearly, both the learner of Japanese and the listener are benefited by having a sense of humor.
Often the same vowel, or phonetic sound, is used consecutively, as in a ta ma (head), ko ko ro (heart), or to ko ro (place). Sometimes a phonetic sound is lost through contraction when saying certain words. For instance, when pronouncing kō fu ku (happy), one drops the middle u and slurs the f and k together. This results in the pronunciation kō f’ku. Practice saying it several times and you will see how easily the Japanese rolls off your tongue! Another basic word is the pronoun “I,” which in Japanese is wa ta ku shi. It is pronounced correctly wa ta k’shi, with the loss of a u and the slurring of the k into the shi sound. In recent years “I” has been still further abbreviated to become wa ta shi.
Consonants can be tricky too. For example, the single-consonant “k” in the word kō ka gives us “school song,” while the double consonant in the word kok ka makes it “national anthem.”
Are there any rules as to which syllable should receive accent? Authorities differ, but some agree that it is better not to accent any syllable than to accent the wrong one. For example, the city of Numazu is pronounced nu ma zu, with equal emphasis on each syllable.
Especially since the seventeenth century, Japanese has borrowed many words from European languages. For instance, the Portuguese word “pao” (bread) becomes pan in Japanese. The Dutch “blik” (tin) is bu ri ki. “Butter” in English becomes ba ta. Another English word, “strike,” expands to five syllables, with two different meanings. It is su to ra i ku in baseball jargon, but when some want better pay or working conditions, the word becomes su to ra i ki.
Other Things of Interest
One must realize that Japanese word order differs from that in most other languages. On a visit to Japan, you might say in English: “I would like to visit Mount Fuji.” In Japanese you would say, “Watak’shi wa Fuji San o hōmon shitai desu.” The literal word order is: “I Fuji Mount visit want.” In Japanese the verb always comes at the end of the sentence. As noted above, verb endings are also most important. To know whether an expression is in the present or the past tense, or whether it is a positive or negative response to a previous question or statement, one must listen to the very last syllable of a sentence.
An unusual feature of the Japanese language is its system of honorifics or keigo. All conversations must take into consideration three things: the speaker, the one spoken to and the person spoken about. Besides these, the speaker must consider the respective positions, ages, belongings, families, friends and social groups embraced by the conversation. These factors affect—to name just a few—vocabulary, suffixes, prefixes and verb endings used in conversation. The pronoun “you,” for example, is represented by many different Japanese words, according to the status of the person addressed. The polite way is often to use the person’s name instead, or to omit the “you” altogether. One making one’s residence in Japan should be determined to learn the various forms of address. The visitor on a temporary basis, however, will be forgiven blunders of this type. The Japanese, as a whole, are delighted to hear people make the effort to speak their difficult tongue.
Let’s Read Kanji
Even though you may not know the correct pronunciation of a Kanji character, you often can know its meaning. Do not be afraid of what may appear at first sight to be “chicken scratches” all up and down a page. Although opinions vary, there is a fairly easy way to learn to read Kanji. This system of writing has, basically, 300 “building blocks.” By combinations of these, all the thousands of Kanji are formed. Shall we try a few?
The character for ka wa (river) comes from the flowing river [Artwork—River Drawing] and looks like this [Artwork—River Drawing]. Now, if you squeeze that river [Artwork—River Drawing], what do you have but the character for water [Artwork—Japanese Characters], mi zu?
A traveler in Japan will find it helpful to know the characters for “entrance” and “exit” that are in train stations and other public places. First take a mouth [Artwork—Mouth Drawing], form it into [Artwork—Japanese Characters] and pronounce it ku chi. Now picture a small river running into a large river [Artwork—River Drawing], square it up [Artwork—Japanese Characters], and you have hai ru or iru, meaning “to enter.” Put the two together [Artwork—Japanese Characters], smooth out the pronunciation, and you have the word for entrance, i ri gu chi, or, literally, ‘enter mouth.’ To leave the station, you must know another character. So think of a flower growing out of the ground [Artwork—Flower Drawing]. Shape it up a bit [Artwork—Japanese Characters], and you have the character for de ru (to leave). Put [Artwork—Japanese Characters] with [Artwork—Japanese Characters] and you have [Artwork—Japanese Characters], meaning ‘coming out mouth,’ or exit, pronounced de guchi. That wasn’t nearly as hard as you expected, was it?
Many of the characters tell a story, as does the man [Artwork—Man Drawing] [Artwork—Japanese Characters], standing by a tree [Artwork—Tree Drawing], which becomes [Artwork—Japanese Characters]. The two together [Artwork—Japanese Characters] constitute the Kanji for vacation, pronounced ya su mi. How about a man leaning on a shovel [Artwork—Man Drawing], next to his horse [Artwork—Horse Drawing]? Put them together and you have e ki, or station [Artwork—Japanese Characters], as in “Tokyo Eki,” where you can catch the bullet train.
There are many, many more to learn, and while requiring effort, it is a thoroughly fascinating and entertaining study. Over the years the writing of Kanji is being progressively simplified. As the older and younger generations differ in their way of writing Kanji, often a letter received from a grandmother or grandfather will have to be read and “translated” by someone living nearby who is in the same age group as the writer of the letter.
Some Reasons for Learning Japanese
There are many reasons that may prompt persons to learn Japanese. With some individuals, it may be simply a hobby that helps to broaden their views of people from a different culture and environment. Others will want to learn Japanese for business reasons. Tourists will enjoy their visit to Japan all the more if they know some basic Japanese. But to gain a real working knowledge of Japanese, one would have to live in this country for some years.
The nearly 80 missionaries of Jehovah’s Witnesses who now live in Japan have a most important reason for perfecting their knowledge of Japanese. It is so that they can share Bible truths with native residents of this country. The first missionaries set out with a dictionary in one hand and a Bible in the other. Though not easy, it was well worth the effort.
If you wish to learn Japanese, you can. Our word of advice is: “Ganbatte kudasai!,” that is, “Stick to it!”