The Japanese Language: A Victim’s Impressions

Richard Oslund
(Terminology Update, Volume 29, Number 1, 1996, page 17)

There are many reasons for studying Japanese. Maybe you want to enjoy Japanese poetry in the original. Maybe you’re attracted by the beautiful writing system. Or maybe you’re just a glutton for punishment. Japanese shouldn’t be so tough. It has no difficult sounds for an English speaker, no genders, no articles, hardly any plurals, and no declensions. In short, none of the picky details that make up most of the grammar of Indo-European languages. Great.

It’s not until you tackle the verbs that things start getting sticky. Japanese verbs are agglutinative, meaning there’s a root word followed by a string of bits and pieces expressing everything from probability to coercion to negation. This string can be extremely long, as in hashirasaretakunakereba, which means "if one does not want to be made to run."

And then there’s polite speech, whose complexity makes life miserable for foreigners living in Japan. Depending on whom you’re talking to and what you’re talking about, you may have to use completely different words and grammar. There are perhaps a dozen levels of politeness when asking someone to eat, for example, ranging from kurae (extremely rude) to omeshiagari ni natte kudasaimasen ka, which you might use when the Emperor drops by for tea and biscuits.

But by far the greatest obstacle to learning Japanese is the written language, which is one of the most ambiguous, illogical, opaque writing systems ever developed.

The problem goes back to the seventh century, when the Japanese were learning how to write from the Chinese. Grossly put, Chinese uses a different written character for each word, so there are as many different characters as there are words in the language. The Japanese somehow made this already ungainly writing system even more unwieldy by multiplying the number of ways each character could be pronounced.

Even in the seventh century, Chinese was divided into several dialects, so the pronunciation of a given character varied from one part of China to the next. The Japanese simply adopted the various pronunciations they were exposed to for each character.

After adopting Chinese characters to write Chinese words, the Japanese naturally started using them to write homegrown Japanese words as well, further adding to the number of ways each character can be read. Most characters now have four or five possible pronunciations in Japanese, although one common character has at least 20, and I’m still coming across new ones. Which pronunciation is the proper one depends entirely on the context.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. Not only can most Chinese characters be pronounced several different ways in Japanese, but most native Japanese words can be written by using a variety of Chinese characters. As an extreme case, according to one dictionary, there are no fewer than 300 different ways to write the word yoshi (good) when it appears in Japanese names.

On the other hand, spoken Japanese has far fewer sounds than Chinese (or most other languages, for that matter), so words pronounced differently in China often become homonyms in Japan. For example, Japanese has at least 20 words pronounced Kŏshi, all written differently and pronounced differently in Chinese. There are so many homonyms, in fact, that rhyming has never been a feature of Japanese poetry; it would simply be too easy.

After borrowing Chinese characters, the Japanese developed not one, but two different alphabets for spelling phonetically. Originally, women used one alphabet and men used the other. Now, the women’s alphabet is used for most native Japanese words, while the men’s alphabet is used for writing such things as the names of plants, wild animals . . . and foreigners.

Not only did Japanese men and women develop different alphabets, but they continue to use different vocabularies, intonation, even grammar. American GIs who learn Japanese from barmaids or girlfriends in Okinawa end up sounding decidedly effeminate. And Japanese women reportedly look for this "linguistic lipstick-on-the-collar" to tell whether a foreign man has had a Japanese girlfriend in the past.

Another fun thing about Japanese is that it can be written in almost any direction. In newspaper articles, the headline might be written left-to-right, the first paragraph right-to-left, and the rest of the article top-to-bottom. On cars and trucks, the Japanese often write from the front of the vehicle to the back, even in English. So a truck might have WE DELIVER on the left side, but REVILED EW on the right.

In works intended for the general public, publishers often print minuscule phonetic characters beside the Chinese characters to show how they are pronounced. This gives the Japanese the dubious distinction of having developed a writing system so complex that it requires a second system to explain it.

So how literate are the Japanese themselves? No one knows. The Japanese government has never actually tested reading ability. Its claim is simple: since all Japanese have to finish junior high school, and since junior high school is supposed to teach students how to read, all Japanese are literate.

In the past 100 years, Japanese has borrowed massively from English, but this hasn’t made Japanese much easier for English speakers to learn, since many of the borrowings have been transformed beyond recognition. Thermal, for example, ended up saamaru. I recently translated a text in which fon meant phone in one place and horn in another. And the Japanese abbreviate English terms with enthusiasm: zenesuto from general strike, famikon from family computer and, most recently, sekuhara from sexual harassment.

Then there’s onomatopoeia, which the Japanese have elevated to an art. There’s a supposedly onomatopoeic word in Japanese for practically every emotion, action or appearance: furafura for dizziness, gatagata for shaking and (a personal favourite) bukubuku for obesity.

One reward of learning Japanese is finding out what the names mean. Hanako, a traditional girl’s name, means flower child. Uninspired but popular names for boys include Ichiro (first male), Jiro (second male) and Saburo (third male).

The first child is often called Hajime (start), while the fifth or sixth child may get stuck with Tomeo (stop!).

But please don’t allow this article to deter you from studying Japanese. Personally, I never regret having started. Not more than ten times a day, that is.


Article published in Apostrophe, Vol. (Terminology Update, Volume) 2-5, Translation Bureau, Public Works and Government Services Canada, December 1993, pp. 4-5, and reproduced with permission from the editor.

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