Would you like to glance at my lousy Japanese garden?

Japanese is a fascinating language. The most remarkable features of it are the honorifics and the writing system. Even physicist Richard Feynman studied it at one point.

I took lessons from a Japanese man every day for an hour. One day he was teaching me the word for "see." "All right," he said. "You want to say, 'May I see your garden?' What do you say?" I made up a sentence with the word that I had just learned. "No, no!" he said. "When you say to someone, 'Would you like to see my garden? you use the first 'see.' But when you want to see someone else's garden, you must use another 'see,' which is more polite." "Would you like to glance at my lousy garden?" is essentially what you're saying in the first case, but when you want to look at the other fella's garden, you have to say something like, "May I observe your gorgeous garden?"

He gave up on the language shortly after that.

I started studying it back in late 90s while living in a small Finnish town. I had just discovered that the Internet exists, and was using it to look up tables of the basic character sets. I was drawn to it because it sounded beautiful and looked bizarre. It was also the language that all those big-eyed anime characters spoke in the Ranma 1/2 episodes that my German friend mailed me on VHS tapes. Eventually this led to where I am now, in Tokushima, Japan with a detour via Tokyo.

I learned pretty quickly that the first steps with the language would be easy, just about a hundred characters to memorize to read the most basic "hiragana" set. While it would have been totally possible to memorize them in well under a month, I put off seriously studying the characters, as around the time I was more into learning computer programming (Pascal!). Time travel a few years and my study pace finally really picked up after entering the university to study computer science. They had actual courses about Japanese, ones which I could take to fill the credit requirements. 

Eager to learn and also to get a shot at being accepted to study abroad, I took the three courses we had. There was also a technical university nearby that had more even courses. I applied for permission to study there as well, but was denied. I went anyway. We studied the basic syllables by rote, just writing them over and over again. We would draw the basic characters and our teacher would spice things up by throwing random compliments like "wow, that's so artistic!". Rote sounds bad, but it actually worked well.

Speaking takes practice too, but seems comparatively easier at least for anyone with prior experience in learning a spoken language. There are some conjugation rules. The most complicated example I can think of is when a word like "eat" which is "taberu" can become "tabesaseraremashita" (polite form of when you were forced to eat by someone else), but it is very rare it becomes that bad (it gets much worse in Finnish).

As for the honorifics that made Feynman reconsider his study path, we did cover and drill them in our courses, but unlike Feynman who no doubt dealt with many prominent people who would need to be properly addressed in public, they are not a requirement for daily life where people you interact with are "on the same level". 

After you've studied Japanese for a while, you start to realize that at least 80% of all the work is in learning the third character set, the ideograms. In my next post I intend to write more about my experiences in studying them. If you would like to get notified when my posts come out, please enter your email below or subscribe to the RSS feed.