On Being Illiterate…Temporarily

June 29, 2017

Being illiterate where you live is a disorienting experience. It is at the same time frustrating and interesting, hilarious and infuriating. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of English when you visit Tokyo. A deceptive amount of English, in fact, considering that once I moved here I found that essential places like my grocery store, Emerie’s day care, our neighborhood playground, and post office don’t really have any English at all. Nor do many of my neighbors or friends who I meet at the park or church speak much English either.

In light of this, and with the helpful insight of people who came before us to this crazy city, we are dedicating the first 2 years of our ministry to language school. 10 hours (average)/day, (about) 45+ weeks/year – consumed with learning to listen, speak, read, and write in Japanese.

So I thought I would share with y’all a few of the interesting, frustrating, infuriating, and hilarious things about learning Japanese. As that is almost 100% of what I am doing these days anyway, and incidentally the reason this is the first post in a very long while…sorry.

Assessing where I stand

One of the first things you will hear when people talk about learning Japanese is the word “honorifics”. This is a boring grammatical word for one of the most interesting and complicated aspects of the Japanese language. In a conversation with someone I have to figure out where they are in the social hierarchy – how old they are in relation to me, how well I know them, what position in the company/group they have, etc. – all in order to determine how to talk to them. This goes far beyond the “yes, sir” and “yes, ma’am” this little Southern girl is used to. The way I bow, the subject matter I discuss, the sentence structure I use, even the actual vocabulary may change depending on who is talking.

The best example and the first one we learned in class are the words for giving and receiving. Let me try to get this right.

  1. “Equal” (in the social hierarchy and familiarity to you) gives to equal: agemas (あげます)
  2. Lower gives to higher: sashiagemas (さしあげます)
  3. Higher gives to lower (children/animals): yarimas (やります)
  4. Higher gives to me (or my family): kudasiamas (くださいます)
  5. Equal receives from equal: moraimas (もらいます)
  6. Lower receives from higher: itadakimas (いただきます)

Like I said, it gets confusing. I have to think for about 20 seconds every time they ask me in class. In real life I tend to fumble around and hope my “American-ness” gets me by with getting it wrong most of the time.

This whole concept causes some interesting situations for me. Like with Emerie’s day care teacher (an older lady whose position as a teacher “sensei”(せんせい) to Emerie means I should address her as higher than me, but who addresses me as lower.) This most often means doing something that feels like conjugating verbs every time I respond to her. Which sounds not super hard in theory, but I did not realize how much my speech, especially in a foreign language, was built on more or less repeating as much as possible when responding. Sort of like all my elementary school teachers taught me – restate the question. Well, that is mostly unhelpful to me now as I have to change about 1/2 of the words she says to the more “polite” form when responding. It would be like someone talking to you in past tense and having to switch to present progressive on the spot. Sort of. My response to this is to more or less “ganbate” (がんばて、try my best) and make tons of mistakes as impolitely address her as my friend. All the time. Oh well. She remains very sweet to me despite my many shortcomings (see the previous post).


Now, this is something I didn’t think to expect. Yet again, these things I thought were universal – that dogs say “woof” for example – is in fact not at all the case. There is not a whole lot more to say about this other than to just do a short (very short) list of What does a ______ say?

Dog: wan-wan
Cat: nyan-nyan
Train: gadan-gadan
Duck: gaa-gaa
Pig: buu-buu

Even things like “lounging around” have “onomatopoeias” – in this case, to “goro-goro” (ゴロゴロ). It is supposed to be (as my teacher acted out in a charades-like episode) the sound of someone rolling around on the floor. Seems accurate.

Language as Cultural Insight

This is something I will write more about later, so I will just give you two of the more interesting examples.

  1. The word for “pretty” and “clean” are the same word.
  2. The word used in situations we would say “good luck” actually means “work hard” or “do your best”.

Reading and Writing – in 3 alphabets
…if you can call kanji an alphabet because the characters are only very loosely related to sounds and can be pronounced 3 to infinity different ways depending on the context.

Here is my most recent “essay” (on the first time I went to the pool)

Yes, Japanese has 3 alphabets. 2 are phonetic (one character for every consonant/vowel combo, and one for each solo vowel) and 1 is “pictorial” or character-based. Hiragana is used for verb endings, words that don’t have kanji characters, or words for which the kanji characters are no longer used. Interesting stuff, huh?

Katakana is basically a parallel alphabet to Hiragana, but used mostly for “borrowed” words – words that originated from other languages. These words are usually from English (but not always) and reading katakana often feels like playing mad libs. They are English words…but not really. For example, sakkaa (サッカー)is soccer, and coehii(コーヒー) is coffee.

Here is challenge for you: what does ho-wa-i-to-boe-do mean in English?

And then there is Kanji. These are the thousands of characters used in Japanese written language. It is said that you need to know 2000 of them in order to operate in daily life entirely on your own (read the newspaper, for example). If katakana is like mad libs, then kanji are like riddles. They range from concepts that make sense, like the characters for “self”, “rotate”, & “car” means “bicycle” (自転車) , and “sick” & “place” together mean “hospital” (病院). To concepts that make no sense at all like that “clothes” and “use” together mean “medicinal dosage” (用). To the slightly gender over-stereotypical like the characters “lord” & “person” together mean “husband” (主人) and for wife, “house” & “inside” (家内).

We have about 500 down now, so wish us luck for the rest! (Or just tell us to work harder :)…)

And finally, Japanglish

English (often used in advertising Japanese products) that doesn’t seem to make any sense at all. This subject really deserves it’s own post so I will just tease that for you here with this picture of a store I passed on my way home from writing this:

This is a flower shop…I think…but it’s about 10x more creepy than any flower shop I plan on entering.

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