Japanese explains the Japanese

There was an earthquake during Japanese class yesterday. The biggest surprise wasn’t the quake itself, but the barrage of noisy cell phones that sounded a few minutes before the quake. Every phone with a Japanese SIM card automatically starts blasting warning messages when an earthquake is on its way. After the cell phones died down, I waited in suspense. The quake gently rocked the entire building for 15 seconds or so and subsided, no harm done. And the teacher continued to explain how the word for ‘minute’ in Japanese is modified depending on how many minutes you are referring to.

As a visiting PhD student at Kyoto University, I have the opportunity to take Japanese language classes. The language difference is definitely a huge barrier here in Japan, and even though I’m under no illusion that I will be anywhere near fluent by the end of November, I feel like it’s worth a try. In the this case, something is far better than nothing. Even though I’m only three weeks into classes, I’m starting to be able to read signs and pick up a few words hear and there, which is extremely gratifying after a month of a wall of meaningless sound.

Moving back to square one with a language is hard, and undeniably humbling. The most difficult aspect so far has been learning the alphabet(s). It’s been more than 20 years since the last time I had to learn the alphabet, and attaching seemingly meaningless squiggles to sounds isn’t trivial in the least bit.

Thumb DSC 0458 1024

Japanese Katakana worksheet. Stroke order is important!

Still, the fascinating thing about learning Japanese is much the language reflects the culture. Here are four things I’ve learned about Japanese culture, as reflected by the language:

1) Everything should flow effortlessly. Japanese words, as a rule, end with a vowel, and consonants are often swapped when words are strung together to make the language flow more easily. For example, the Japanese word for ‘river’ can be pronounced ‘kawa’ or ‘gawa’ depending on what word it is prefixed with. In the same way, so many aspects of Japanese society are designed around convenience and efficient flow. One only has to watch the Japanese queue for and get on a train, a phenomenon that is so much less chaotic in Japan than in Europe, to see how they strive towards and achieve effortless motion.

2) Politeness is king. Although there is a Japanese word for ‘you’, I have been told not to use it. It’s considered very impolite to address someone so directly. You either use someone's name and an appropriate title (-san is polite enough for most circumstances) or don’t address them directly at all. Politeness and formalities are extremely important in Japan, and I’m now almost used to people bowing at me as a part of everyday conversations.

3) …but convenience is equally important. It is acceptable to shorten sentences to an almost ridiculous degree, removing both the subject and the verb, for convenience. For example, in English when you would say ‘Where’s the train station?’, in Japan you could basically just say ‘Train station?’ Convenience in everyday life is just as important, as starkly illustrated by vending machines even in the most remote places and 7-Elevens on every street corner.

Thumb DSC 0153 1024

My favorite kind of vending machine is the ice cream vending machine!

4) The Japanese are masters of adopting foreign concepts, and making them entirely their own. For example, the Japanese alphabets are all based in the Chinese characters. The phonetics alphabets, hiragana and katakana, are essentially Chinese characters taken to represent a certain sound, and dramatically simplified. So although these characters are originally Chinese, they are twisted into a form that is uniquely Japanese. Another area of life where this happens is in food. The Japanese have adopted donuts, and Mister Donut shops (drawing on Dunkin’ Donuts) are ubiquitous. However, although the donuts resemble their American counterparts in shape, the taste and texture is something uniquely Japanese.

Thumb DSC 0448 1024

I love Japanese donuts too.

Thumb DSC 0375 1024

This was something I had for lunch the other week called ‘Taco udon’. Although there were most definitely udon noodle, it wasn’t a taco even in the vaguest sense of the term.

I don’t think English is quite so representative of culture, but that’s because English represents so many cultures simultaneously. Any examples to the contrary?

- 野生バジゥチュク