E-mails and comments welcome from teachers and learners of all ages.  
November 29, 2002
Learning to be Japanese (it's very hard)

Patrick Crozier has just finished giving a talk about Japan, based on his recent visit there, and out of the conversation afterwards emerged a point about Japanese society that will seem very obvious to all those who have been aware of it for many years, but which only got to me tonight, for the first time.

The Japanese alphabet is diabolically complicated. In fact, if I heard an exchange between Patrick and David Carr correctly, there are three Japanese alphabets, for three different purposes which I didn't quite catch. And each alphabet contains characters beyond numbering. Something like eight thousand.

The upshot of which is that it takes about two decades of unremitting toil to become, in a basic sense, Japanese. What our cleverer or luckier or smarter pupils have done by the age of about nine, takes them twice as long and more. You think it's hard for Westerners to "penetrate" Japanese society? Well yes, it is. But so too, and for the same sort of reasons, is it hard for the Japanese themselves to get to the centre of it.

Suddenly the "conformity" and "collectivism" and "authoritarianism" of Japan makes more sense. Becoming Japanese is, in a basic sense, climbing an endless ladder of cultural complexity. Becoming British or French or Spanish or American, by comparison, is about as hard as passing your driving test. And once you're in, you're in, and everyone's equal.

I'm sure the internet is pulsating with places where all this is much more thoroughly gone into. But I only really got this notion tonight, and I have no links to offer whatsoever, except to Patrick's own Transport Blog, where, if you dig in the archives you'll find pictures of Japanese trains, and such like.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:55 PM
Category: Literacy

In contrast, I've been told that Japanese language for talking about numbers is very easy to learn, and that the same goes for Korean. In other words Japanese three year olds don't have to learn words like "eleven" or "nineteen" or "fifty" it's more like some equivalent of "ten-one", "ten-nine" and "five tens".

If I am right about this (I'm not sure since I don't speak Japanese), then once they gave up their own written numbering system for arabic numerals they then had easy and logical systems for both written and spoken numbers.

How much of those countries' superiority in mathematics might just be due to a higher proportion of little Japanese and Korean kids "getting" numbers at an earlier age than their counterparts who speak Indo-European languages?

Comment by: Natalie Solent on November 30, 2002 12:37 PM

While I am far from an expert, I offer this explanation of Japanese "alphabets".

There are two, called hiragana and katakana. Each contains 51 symbols (105 including all variants). These are what we think of as alphabets, where each symbol has a unique pronunciation. Unlike our alphabet, each represents a complete syllable. Hiragana are used to spell out words which come from Japanese or Chinese and for grammatical annotations. Katakana are used for word which come from "foreign" languages.

The other Japanese writing system is Kanji. These are the pictographs we normally associate with Chinese and Japanese writing and most writing uses them. There are, officially, about 1900 Kanji in Japanese (compare with about 50,000 in Chinese), which can be "read" (pronounced) in some 4,000 different ways. These were set by governmental edict after WWII. Prior to that, there were about 10,000. (I once heard a story that the number was initially reduced to about 1,850, but there were complaints from some people whose names had been removed from the language. A few dozen were added back to get the list we have today.) I have been told that only a few hundred are commonly used and only half are learned by all school children.

At least as difficult for westerners are Japanese grammar and, especially, their sense of politeness. Essentially anything you might want to say in Japanese can be said at any of four politeness levels. I think of them, no doubt incorrectly, as corresponding roughly to “Sie” vs “Du” in German, plus one above (obsequious) and one below (downright rude). Keeping these straight while simultaneously dealing with a different (to me inscrutable) grammar system is a significant challenge.

Comment by: Steven Gallaher on December 2, 2002 06:35 PM


There are not "about 1900 kanji in Japanese", there are 1,947 jyouyou kanji where are the minimal set required for high school graduation.

The average adult Japanese can get along with about that many, roughly 2,000, in reading the daily paper.

Yukio Mishima, sometimes considered "Japan's Modern Shakespeare" in respect of the vocabulary he employed in his novels (he is said to have used around 7,000 kanji), can be read and appreciated - I was told by some of my Japanese friends when I lived there - by persons of above-average erudition.

As for Brian's assertion that Japanese is "devilishly difficult", I find that it's easier for me to read Japanese than Chinese, precisely because of the patterns of kanji and kana.

As for the kana (hiragana and katakana), think of them as having similar relations to each other in terms of character morphology as do our Latin majuscule and miniscule letters; we have 52 characters, not 26: A-Z and a-z:


Notice how some letters, e.g. C and c, are morphologically similar, while other, e.g. R and r, are different. Similar relations hold in Japanese kana.

My first Japanese class was 10 years ago at London SOAS. Prior to the 1st day's class, we students were each required to have mastered the kana before stepping foot in class, from P.G. O'Neill's Japanese Kana Workbook. I did that, in the 2 weeks prior to starting, and found that it helped enormously in the acquisition of the first few hundred kanji.

Comment by: Russell Whitaker on December 5, 2002 10:00 AM

Hello Brian,
I am currently studying Japanese and have learned some of the language so far and all of the hiragana. I wanted to start learning Katakana so I began searching for what I could find on the internet and I ran across your page. I really like it, you've done well. I was woundering if you could send me a list of as many katakana as you could, or know of where I might find them. If you dont' have the time or just don't feel like it please write back and just write no in the subject. Thank you so much for all your help, Aaron.

Comment by: Aaron Bergquist on December 11, 2002 03:29 PM
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