Here’s an excellent description of what it’s really like to study this fascinating language. This piece was written by Dan Barrett, a student at an American college. The original website has now disappeared, so I have preserved his article here.
So You Want To Learn Japanese.
You’ve eaten at a few Japanese restaurants, seen some anime, hosted an exchange student, and had a Japanese girlfriend. And now, somewhere in the back of your tiny brain, you think that Japanese would be a good language to learn. Hey, you could translate video games! Or Manga! Or even Anime! Pick up Japanese girls, impress your friends! Maybe you’ll even go to Japan and become an anime artist! Yeah! Sounds like a great idea!
So you head down to the library, pick up some books with titles like “How To Teach Yourself Japanese In Just 5 Seconds A Day While Driving Your Car To And From The Post Office” and “Japanese For Complete And Total, Utter Fools Who Should Never Procreate”. Hey, you already know a few words from your manga collection/girlfriend/anime. Excited and impressed with your new knowledge, you begin to think: “Hey. Maybe, just maybe, i could do this for a living! Or even major in Japanese! Great Idea, Right?
I don’t care how many anime tapes you’ve watched, how many Japanese girlfriends you’ve had, or books you’ve read, you don’t know Japanese. Not only that, majoring in the godforsaken language is NOT fun or even remotely sensible. Iraqi war prisoners are often forced to major in Japanese. The term “Holocaust” comes from the Latin roots “Holi” and “Causm”, meaning “to major in Japanese”. You get the idea.
And so, sick of seeing so many lambs run eagerly to the slaughter, I have created This Guide to REAL TIPS for Studying Japanese. Or, as is actually the case, NOT studying it.
This should be an obvious.
Despite what many language books, friends, or online tutorials may have told you, Japanese is NOT simple, easy, or even sensical (Japanese vocabulary is determined by throwing tiny pieces of sushi at a dart board with several random syllables attached to it). The Japanese spread these rumours to draw foolish Gaijin into their clutches.
Not only is it not simple, it’s probably one of the hardest languages you could ever want to learn. With THREE completely different written languages (none of which make sense), multitude of useless, confusing politeness levels, and absolutely insane grammatical structure, Japanese has been crushing the souls of the pathetic Gaijin since it’s conception. Let’s go over some of these elements mentioned above so you can get a better idea of what I mean.
The Japanese Writing System
The Japanese writing system is broken down into three separate, complete, and insane, parts: Hiragana (“those squiggly letters”), Katakana (“those boxy letters”) and Kanji (“roughly 4 million embodiments of your worst nightmares”).
Hiragana is used to spell out Japanese words using syllables. It consist of many letters, all of which look completely different and bear absolutely no resemblance to each other whatsoever. Hiragana were developed by having a bunch of completely blind, deaf, and dumb Japanese people scribble things on pieces of paper while having no idea why they were doing so. The resulting designs were then called “hiragana”. The prince who invented these characters, Yorimushi (“stinking monkey-bush-donkey”) was promptly bludgeoned to death. But don’t worry, because you’ll hardly use Hiragana in “real life”.
Katakana are used only to spell out foreign words in a thick, crippling Japanese accent, so that you’ll have no idea what you’re saying even though it’s in English. However, if you remember one simple rule for Katakana, you’ll find reading Japanese much easier: Whenever something is written in Katakana, it’s an English word! (note: Katakana is also used for non-English foreign words. And sound effects, and Japanese words). Katakana all look exactly the same, and it’s impossible, even for Japanese people, to tell them apart. No need to worry, because you’ll hardly ever have to read Katakana in “real life”.
Kanji are letters that were stolen from China. Every time the Japanese invaded China (which was very often) they’d just take a few more letters, so now they have an estimated 400 gazillion of them. Kanji each consist of several “strokes”, which must be written in a specific order, and convey a specific meaning, like “horse”, or “girl”. Not only that, but Kanji can combined to form new words. For example, if you combine the Kanji for “small”, and “woman”, you get the word “carburettor”. Kanji also have different pronunciations depending on where they are in the word, how old you are, and what day it is. When European settlers first came upon Japan, the Japanese scholars suggested that Europe adopt the Japanese written language as a “universal” language understood by all parties. This was the cause of World War 2 several years later. Don’t worry, however, since you’ll never have to use kanji in “real life”, since most Japanese gave up on reading a long, long time ago, and now spend most of their time playing Pokemon.
Politeness Levels have their root in an ancient Japanese tradition of absolute obedience and conformity, a social caste system, and complete respect for arbitrary hierarchical authority, which many American companies believe will be very helpful when applied as managerial techniques. They’re right, of course, but no one is very happy about it.
Depending on who you are speaking to your politeness level will be very different. Politeness depends on many things, such as age of the speaker, age of the person being spoken to, time of day, zodiac sign, blood type, sex, whether they are Grass or Rock Pokemon type, color of pants, and so on. For an example of Politeness Levels in action, see the example below.
Japanese Teacher: Good morning, Harry.
Harry: Good Morning.
Japanese Classmates: (gasps of horror and shock)
The bottom line is that Politeness Levels are completely beyond your understanding, so don’t even try. Just resign yourself to talking like a little girl for the rest of your life and hope to God that no one beats you up.
The Japanese have what could be called an “interesting” grammatical structure, but could also be called “confusing”, “random”, “bogus” or “evil”. To truly understand this, let’s examine the differences between Japanese and English grammar.
Jane went to the school.
Same Sentence In Japanese:
School Jane To Went Monkey Apple Carburettor.
Japanese grammar is not for the faint of heart or weak of mind. What’s more, the Japanese also do not have any words for “me”, “them”, “him, or “her” that anyone could use without being incredibly insulting (the Japanese word for “you”, for example, when written in kanji, translates to “I hope a monkey scratches your face off”). Because of this, the sentence “He just killed her!” and “I just killed her!” sound exactly the same, meaning that most people in Japan have no idea what is going on around them at any given moment. You are supposed to figure these things out from the “context”, which is a German word meaning “you’re screwed”.
When most Americans think of Japanese people, they think: polite, respectful, accommodating. (They could also possibly think: Chinese). However, it is important to learn where the truth ends and our Western stereotyping begins.
Of course, it would be irresponsible of me to make any sweeping generalizations about such a large group of people, but ALL Japanese people have three characteristics: they “speak” English, they dress very nicely, and they’re short.
The Japanese school system is controlled by Japan’s central government, which, of course, is not biased in any way (recent Japanese history textbook title: “White Demons Attempt To Take Away our Holy Motherland, But Great And Powerful Father-Emperor Deflects Them With Winds From God: The Story Of WW2”). Because of this, all Japanese have been taught the same English-language course, which consists of reading The Canterbury Tales, watching several episodes of M*A*S*H, and reading the English dictionary from cover to cover. Armed with this extensive language knowledge, the children of Japan emerge from school ready to take part in international business and affairs, uttering such remarkable and memorable sentences as “You have no chance to survive make your time”, and adding to their own products by inscribing English slogans, such as “Just give this a Paul. It may be the Paul of your life” on the side of a slot machine.
Secondly, all Japanese people dress extremely well. This fits in with the larger Japanese attitude of neatness and order. Everything has to be in it’s correct place with the Japanese, or a small section in the right lobe of their brain begins to have seizures and they exhibit erratic violent behaviour until the messiness is eradicated. The Japanese even FOLD THEIR DIRTY CLOTHES. Sloppiness is not tolerated in Japanese society, and someone with a small wrinkle in their shirt, which they thought they could hide by wearing a hooded sweatshirt over it (possibly emblazoned with a catchy English phrase like “Spread Beaver, Violence Jack-Off!”), will be promptly beaten to death with tiny cellular phones.
Lastly, the Japanese are all short. Really, really short. It’s kind of funny. Not ones to leave being tall to the Europeans or Africans, however, the Japanese have singlehandedly brought shoes with incredibly gigantic soles into style, so that they can finally appear to be of actual human height, when in reality their height suggests that they may indeed be closer in relation to the race of dwarves or Hobbits.
Japanese culture is also very “interesting”, by which we mean “confusing” and in several cases “dangerous”. Their culture is based on the concept of “In Group/Out Group”, in which all Japanese people are one big “In” group, and YOU are the “Out” group. Besides this sense of alienation, Japan also produces cartoons, and a wide variety of other consumer products which are crammed into your face 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Japanese also like cock fighting monsters that live in your pants, taking baths with the elderly, and killing themselves.
Japanese food is what some people would call “exotic”, but what most people call “disgusting”, or perhaps, in some areas, “whack”. Japanese food evolved in ancient days, when the main staple of the diet was rice. People got so sick and tired of eating rice, in fact, that they ate just about anything else they could find, from seaweed to other Japanese people. This has led to the creation of such wonderful foods as “Natto”, which I believe is a kind of bean but tastes like battery acid, and “Pocky”, which is a stick with different frostings on it, the flavors of which include Sawdust and Strawberry.
Despite this variety of foods, however, the Japanese have succeeded in making every single thing they eat, from tea to plums, taste like smokey beef.
As if learning the language wasn’t hard enough, Japanese classes in America tend to attract the kind of student who makes you wish that a large comet would strike the earth. There are a few basic type of students that you’ll always find yourself running into. These include The Anime Freak, The Know It All, and the Deer Caught In Headlights.
The Anime Freak is probably the most common, and one of the most annoying. You can usually spot a few warning signs to let you identify them before it’s too late: they wear the same exact Evangelion shirt every day, they have more than one anime key chain on their person, they wear glasses, they say phrases in Japanese that hey obviously don’t understand (such as “Yes! I will never forgive you!”), they refer to you as “-chan”, make obscure Japanese culture references during class, and usually fail class. You have to be extremely careful not to let them smell pity or fear on you, because if they do they will immediately latch onto you and suck up both your time and patience, leaving only a lifeless husk. Desperate for human companionship, they will invite you to club meetings, anime showings, conventions, and all other sorts of various things you don’t care about.
The Know It All typically has a Japanese girlfriend or boyfriend, and because of this “inside source” on Japanese culture, has suddenly become an academic expert on all things Japanese, without ever having read a single book on Japan in their entire lives. You can usually spot Know It All’s by keeping an eye out for these warning signs: a cocky smile, answering more than their share of questions, getting most questions wrong, questioning the teacher on various subjects and then arguing about the answers (a typical exchange: Student: What does “ohayoo” mean? Teacher: It means “good morning”, Student: That’s not what my girlfriend said…), being wrong, talking a lot about Japanese food and being wrong, giving long, unnecessarily detailed answers which are wrong, and failing class.
The Deer Caught In headlights are those students who took Japanese because either a.) they thought it sounded like fun, b.) they thought it would be easy, or c.) they just need a couple more credits to graduate. These students wear a mask of terror and panic form the moment they walk into class till the moment they leave, because all they can hear inside their head is the high pitched scream their future is making as it is flushed down the toilet. They are usually failing.
Although many of Japanese-language students are smart, funny, hard working people, none of them will be in your class.
If you can get past the difficulty, society, and classmates, you will probably find Japanese to be a fun, rewarding language to learn. We wouldn’t know, however, since no one has ever gotten that far. But hey, I’m sure You’re different.
Author’s Note: This whole essay, although sprinkled with truisms here and there, is a joke and should be taken like one. I’m actually a Japanese major myself, and even if I’ve given it a bit of a hard time, I love the Japanese language, and I think everyone should give it a try.
You should just be ready for a whole lot of pain.
HAPPY LANGUAGE LEARNING!
Written by Dan Barrett. Original URL was www-unix.oit.umass.edu/~thoureau/japanese.html