j_rant: Possibly the second most generic Japan-themed icon! (Default)
2011-03-10 01:03 pm

Looking things up quickly

This is so obvious it almost doesn't need to be said, and it's something lots of Japanese people do to, but for some reason it didn't occur to me immediately: If you want to look something up, but you can't copy and paste (because it's from a book, because it's in a graphic, etc.), see if you know any of the component kanji from other words. Type in the other words, delete what you don't need, and voila! Guessing pronunciations is also a good way to go. If it looks like five other kanji that can all be pronounced 'kou', chances are good it's pronounced 'kou' too. Sometimes scrolling through all of the possible kanji for 'kou' in your IME is faster than other lookup methods, and it's good practice.
j_rant: Are there any kabuki actors who don't look grumpy? (suspicious kabuki face)
2011-03-09 12:35 pm

Don't be ashamed to half-know things

What if I can read kanji but not write them? What if I only know the kun readings and not the on ones? What if I know how to say a word, but I've never seen it written? What if I accidentally waste time memorizing rare words?

You know what: What if you stopped worrying for a minute?

A lot of time is devoted to hand-wringing over questions like these, but it's pointless. Instead, consider two things: economics and memory.

Economics
Economics? Yes. Economics. One of the first things you learn about in intro econ classes is "opportunity cost" and the related "sunk costs fallacy". Or, in layman's terms, don't throw good money after bad. Who cares whether you failed to learn X in the past or whether it was a waste of time to learn Y. You can't change the past, so the only thing that matters is what you're going to do starting right now.

If you did waste time learning something "not useful" or you've learned and forgotten the same boring stuff over and over, use that experience. Don't waste any more time on those words. Switch study methods to something that will work better for you. Sometimes you should just cut your losses, whether it means switching flashcard programs or giving up on a few jouyou kanji that you just can't seem to remember to make more time for words you'll actually use. This goes for study habits too: Make goals based on what you know now, what you want to know, and how much time you realistically have, not on how guilty you feel about your past crappy study habits.

Passive vs. Active Vocabulary
Language is big and messy. You don't know all of the words of your native language and you never will. (Try playing Free Rice if you want an example. Still think your English vocabulary is impressive, smartypants?) You're never going to know every word of Japanese. Even if you ignore scientific terms and slang, you still won't.

On top of that, people always recognize more words than they "know". So, for example, you might be able to understand a sentence of English without being able to give the dictionary definition of every word, or you might know what a word means in a particular idiom but have no idea that it also has three other meanings. This is normal. Native Japanese speakers always half-recognize many more kanji than they know well and know many more kanji well than they can write, from memory, in pretty handwriting.

This is the difference between "active" vocabulary and "passive" vocabulary. It's nearly impossible to measure how many words a person knows, but the best estimate I could find suggested that most people's passive vocabulary is half again as large as their active one. (So for every 100 words you really know, you kind of know another 150. Or, put another way, out of all of the words you know, you only know about 40% of them well.) I'm pulling these statistics out of my ass; the exact numbers really don't matter. What's important is that this is true for all speakers of all languages.

No matter how hard you study kanji, you will still always recognize more than you can write from memory. You don't need to feel guilty about this, and you should not waste time trying to fix this "problem".

Memory: How does it work?
Memory is messy too. Some words you'll remember easily for no reason you understand. Some words you'll remember because they're unusual. Some words you'll remember because they remind you of others. Some you'll remember because of exactly how they differ from words you already know. (I usually find that I remember meanings based on similarities and kanji based on differences, for example.) Some things you'll remember because you saw them first in place names or set phrases long before you understood what they actually meant.

Any word or kanji that you kind of know is one more piece of knowledge you can use to look for similarities, differences, and connections. Don't think of language as discrete blocks of information that you've failed to learn perfectly. Think of it as constructing a building. The more scaffolding you can build, the more places you have to attach things. Anything you've already learned is one less thing you'll need to learn in the future. Knowing well is better than half-knowing, but half-knowing is still pretty useful.
j_rant: Possibly the second most generic Japan-themed icon! (Default)
2011-03-07 03:32 pm

What Words Should I Know?

I could also have titled this post "A defense of 'useless' knowledge" or "Shut up, your textbook's not that bad!"

The thing that you have to keep in mind about any foreign language is that, just like math or being able to read in your native language, it's a tool. If what you want to do with Japanese is read manga, it makes no difference whether manga are written in "normal" Japanese: If you can't read the word for 'teleporter' or 'psychokinesis' or whatever it is on that manga page, your tool isn't useful. So what if you know how to say 'hello' really, really politely! But, equally, if you've learned nothing but how to say 'psychokinesis' and you try reading one of those josei office romances or a historical series, you're going to get lost the first time someone busts out the keigo.

I see a lot of complaints from beginning Japanese students about how paper textbooks can't possibly keep up with the speed at which the Japanese language evolves. Implicit in these complaints is the idea that Japanese evolves unusually quickly compared to other languages (bullshit) and that boring or old things aren't worth knowing (again, bullshit). Read enough, watch enough, and every single "boring" thing from your textbook will eventually show up. Have the right tastes, and everything boring from your textbook will show up right away.

There is no such thing as good language and bad language or useful language and useless language. There is only language that you need right now.

Most textbooks do an acceptable job of organizing the grammar from easier, simpler patterns to more complex ones. You do have to start somewhere, after all. But textbooks are no good at teaching useful vocabulary. They can't be. Aside from a few verbs so basic you can hardly find a paragraph of Japanese without them, there is simply no way for your textbook to guess what you'll need to know. The word lists in your book are just there to give you enough vocabulary to practice the grammar patterns. This is not an excuse for hating your textbook...

But it's also not an excuse to stick to the textbook. You want to know what words are used in "real Japanese"? Go find some real Japanese you want to read, make a list of everything you don't understand, and look it up. There are your useful words! Make flashcards. Use Anki. Read more stuff you like. There are some more useful words!

You may find that your textbook is actually pretty good and that Japanese doesn't evolve that quickly after all, or you might find that it's preparing you perfectly to read a bunch of manga from the 70s or to watch Kurosawa films or to talk to Grandma. (70s manga, mid-20thC film directors, and Grandma are, after all, rather unlikely to be using slang from last year.) Or you might find that neither your textbook nor any current slang dictionary prepares you to deal with sewing patterns or science fiction or whatever it is you enjoy.

Don't hate your textbook. But don't rely on it for vocabulary either.
j_rant: Possibly the second most generic Japan-themed icon! (Default)
2011-03-04 12:03 pm

Why Are Manga So Damn Hard 1: Contractions

Lots of beginning students get bored of their textbooks and go looking for "easy" real Japanese to practice on instead. Unfortunately, real Japanese is full of confusing things you don't find in your textbook: that's what makes it real Japanese. One that I found particularly hard and that's especially prevalent in shounen manga is contractions. My textbook did mention these but not until the very end of the last volume, and they aren't in the index or tables of conjugations. The same is true of many other textbooks, assuming they ever mention them at all. So not only do you not know they're coming, but they're hard to look up too! Oh great.

Luckily, Japanese contractions aren't actually hard once you know what you're dealing with. Two great resources are the Japanese section of the Wikipedia page on contractions and the sci.lang.japan FAQ entry on chau verb endings. Below is my summary of those and other pages with an emphasis on manga:

Particles
では → じゃ
ては → ちゃ
の → ん

These are so amazingly common, I'm surprised more textbooks don't beat them into your head, but they're usually relegated to a footnote somewhere, especially the second one. Remember these. They turn up everywhere, not just manga. For shounen manga, you may also occasionally see katakana ン where you're expecting の or ん.

では can contract both when it's a form of the copula (desu) in constructions like Xではない/Xじゃない and when で is part of a longer conjugation. This pattern is what leads to examples like なくては becoming なくちゃ.

Te-iru and related forms
~ている → ~てる
~ておる → ~とる
~ておく → ~とく

Japanese is full of constructions (conjugations, compound verbs, whatever you want to call them) that stick something onto the -te form of the verb. When the second part starts with 'い', the い is often dropped. A bunch of other contractions also happen in this context.

Shimau
~てしまう → ~ちゃう
~でしまう → ~じゃう
~てしまう → ~ちまう
~でしまう → ~じまう

しまう is a verb that isn't taught nearly early enough in most Japanese textbooks, in my opinion. It's common to the point of absurdity in manga dialogue: You won't find a single fight, sex scene, or impassioned speech that doesn't use this at least once, frequently in its contracted form. Especially common when telling other people to die.

Nakereba
~なければ → ~なきゃ

When manga characters are speaking colloquially (so most of the time), you are likely to get ~なきゃ in place of ~なければいけない. ("If I don't do __, it won't do." In other words, "I must do ___.") Yes, the entire 'ikenai' part is usually dropped, making this even more confusing for a beginner. The same thing happens with では and ては forms: If you see a manga character saying something like "しちゃ…", it usually means "I must not ___" (~してはいけない). (なくてはいけない becomes なくちゃ, "Must ___".)

Damn you, n!
ない → ん
の → ん
る → ん
ら → ん

Pesky ん! It's used in several totally different contractions that mean opposite or unrelated things. Thus, じゃない often becomes じゃん, but 何をやってるの can become 何をやってんの, and 知らない can become しんない. For a beginner, my advice is to just remember that ん doesn't always indicate negatives. The rest of the sentence and the context should give you a better idea of which contraction you're looking at. I've seen this more in teenage guy speech in manga, but it could turn up anywhere.

to iu
という → って
という → て
という → とゆう
といえば → ってば

'という' (to say) gets contracted or pronounced colloquially in all kinds of wacky ways. This is where the so-called word 'datteba' comes from. This is overwhelmingly common in all types of manga for all types of characters in all types of situations.

Desu
です → っす

This is a representation of what happens in fast speech. It happens with lots of actual people, but I most often see it written this way in shounen dialogue, particularly for male characters.

Other words
すみません → すいません

The majority of all manga dialogue regardless of what you're reading will have すいません, not すみません. Super girly shoujo characters do this one just as much.

Lots of other contractions of compound nouns and other words also exist. If it follows the same kinds of patterns as the words above and you think you're looking at a contraction, you probably are.
j_rant: Possibly the second most generic Japan-themed icon! (Default)
2011-03-04 10:34 am

Getting Japanese, not Chinese Google results

Checking those 'search in Japanese' boxes on search engines is rarely effective, and searching for kanji via google turns up lots of Chinese pages. The solution: Add は to your kanji search terms. It shows up as a separate word on every single Japanese page ever written, so it won't narrow your results, but it will kick out most pages that aren't actually in Japanese.
j_rant: Possibly the second most generic Japan-themed icon! (Default)
2011-03-03 01:55 pm

The Internet is for...

If you're learning Japanese, you've probably heard of the blog All Japanese All The Time. In this excellent post, khatzumoto talks about how "logical" reasons for learning foreign languages don't work but addiction does. It's a point I've seen in a lot of language learning blogs, but his version is particularly clear, succinct, and amusing. But there's one thing I haven't seen a lot of language learning blogs mention:

Porn.

Yeah, I'm sure that will creep some people out to think about. You're learning Japanese for noble, pure reasons. Your BL manga are about Art and Story and they're "erotica", not that filthy, nasty porn. Blah, blah, blah. Look, this advice may not apply to you, but if you're like most of the rest of the internet, it does:

No amount of artificial timeboxing or self-help book motivation crap and no amount of valid long-term goals will motivate you to learn kanji half as much as reading porn with one hand in your pants. Your brain is lazy: it does not want to remember hard, boring kanji. It does want to know what the next filthy line of your yaoi fanfic/tentacle porn/celebrity self-insert epic says, and it wants to know right now. Add to that the fact that most porn is highly repetitive, and you have an ideal prescription for language learning.

But wait! Won't porn teach me useless porn-only words?

No. If you're reading something with enough text, whether it's online fanfic or an ero game or a dirty manga, it will have grammar and conjunctions and particles. It will have some porn-only words, but it will also have a lot of words that have both dirty and normal meanings. It will also have a lot of kanji that occur in lots of different types of compounds. Yes, 触手 ('tentacle') isn't that useful outside of porn or fish markets, but the kanji 触 is used in 触る ('to touch') and 感触 ('sense of touch'), among other things, and 手 is the kanji for 'hand' as well as being used in thousands of very common compounds and expressions. (And as an added bonus, the word for tentacle is literally 'feeler arm', which gives you a nice mnemonic to link both kanji and at least three different words.) Also, realistically, if you're looking at porn today, you'll still be looking at it ten years from now, so even those porn-only words will come in handy.

Every little bit of knowledge helps, especially when it comes to kanji. It's far easier to remember second and third meanings, pronunciations, and uses of a kanji once you already recognize it in at least one context. And it's far easier to learn that first usage when you have a direct, immediate, and very strong motivation.

So don't be afraid to embrace your kinks while you're studying Japanese. The rest of us may not want to hear about them, but they'll make you learn kanji like nothing else.
j_rant: Protecting your temple from demons and your Japanese class from idiots! (temple guardian)
2010-09-30 10:47 am

Tattoos

Every Japanese learning forum gets periodic tattoo requests. They usually go something like this:

"Can anyone translate the word [love/hope/faith/joy/etc.] into Japanese? This is for a tattoo." or
"I want to get [idiomatic expression specific to English] as a tattoo, but I think it would be cooler in Japanese. Can anyone help me translate this?"

Posts like these generate instant flamewars and links to hanzismatter. Their authors rarely understand why. Below is my attempt to pick apart the reasons people want these horrible tattoos and the reasons everyone else objects.

Baths, Yakuza, and Japanese Culture
The first thing people on Japanese learning communities will tell you when you ask about kanji tattoos is that Japanese people hate tattoos: They'll think you're a yakuza and they won't let you into the public baths if you have visible ones. This might have been true in the past, but that's not how things are now. No one is going to think you're actually a yakuza unless you have yakuza tattoos (the full-body traditional irezumi). What they will think is that you're a tacky, clueless foreigner with an ugly tattoo.

Tattooing doesn't seem to be as popular with young Japanese people as it is in, for example, the US, but it's becoming increasingly common. Popular styles include cheesy tribal armbands and other small designs that are easily hidden from elderly relatives or employers. They don't usually include badly written Japanese.

My Soul is Japanese!
Many Westerners considering a Japanese language tattoo say that they are motivated by their long-time involvement with Japanese culture or interest in the Japanese language. For someone already seriously into body modification, this makes sense. (If that's you, you've probably already got the names of your nearest and dearest, a bunch of favorite quotes, and references to all of your other serious interests all over your body. What's one kanji more?) However, if this is going to be your first tattoo, consider the situation described in the last section. Japanese people do not get this kind of tattoo. Japanese people do not like or understand the motivation behind this kind of tattoo. Japanese people will think you're a weirdo and your fellow Western Japanophiles will think you're a terrible n00b if you get this kind of tattoo. Are you sure this is going to demonstrate a serious interest in Japanese culture? Positive? I can tell you right now that you're one of the only people who thinks so.

I'm Getting It For Me, Not For You
If you genuinely don't care what anyone else thinks, fine. Most people who ask for help so they can get their tattoo "right" do care what other people think, but maybe you're the exception. Again, these tattoos generally end up being totally embarrassing later, no matter how well you've checked your dictionary before going to the tattoo parlor. Those people trying to warn you on the Japanese learning communities are not just being mean. But, hey, it's your body.

Enough social points. Now some points on why checking your dictionary doesn't always help:

Japanese, Chinese, Uh Oh
Kanji aren't just Japanese writing, they're also adapted hanzi--Chinese characters--and they're used to write more than one language. Unfortunately, while many characters mean exactly the same thing in different languages, many don't. It's almost always obvious whether a block of text is in Japanese, but most tattoos only include a few characters. There is a distinct possibility that someone seeing your tattoo could interpret it as Mandarin or some other character-using language, perhaps with hilarious results. Even the most contientious tattoo-ees rarely think to check with native speakers of multiple languages before getting inked.

Here's an unfortunate example from hanzismatter: "In Japanese, 我慢 means 'to persevere' or 'patience, endurance, perseverance.' However, it means 'I am slow' in Chinese."

Words Have Multiple Meanings
Words can also mean more than one thing even within a single language. Here's an example from that same hanzismatter post: "芽出度い [...] can mean 'happy' but can also colloquially mean 'pregnant' or 'crazy.'" Oops.

Since Japanese is a language with all of the normal natural language quirks, a gorgeous "symbol" that means something like 'love' or 'freedom' in one context might be used in some banal word having to do with accounting or perverted slang or something totally irrelevant in another. Getting a language tattooed on you is a lot more complicated than getting an astrological symbol or a picture of an animal.

Words, Not "Symbols"
Another problem is that many people who are only familiar with the Latin alphabet think of other types of writing as symbols or pictures. This is offensive in a Noble Savage kind of way. There is nothing exotic or mysterious about Japanese writing to a Japanese person. In fact, it's the Latin alphabet that looks exotic to them, which is probably why so much wacky Engrish ends up decorating Japanese products.

Since this is writing, not mystical sigils, you have to think about grammar and morphology and all that boring stuff when selecting words. Japanese verbs, for example, have endings that conjugate. These aren't written with kanji, so if you want to tattoo a verb on yourself, you'll need to use kana or a combination of kanji and kana. You can't just use a cool-looking kanji by itself.

If you find a 2-kanji compound, sometimes the two halves mean something obvious when you split it apart, but sometimes they don't. You have to make sure you're getting 'ice' from 'icebox' and not 'refrig' from 'refrigerator'. Making up new compound words is hard. Many bad tattoos are supposed to say something like super l33t hell warrior but end up as an incomprehensible mish-mash of characters that no native speaker would put together.

Translationese
Another facet of the 'words mean multiple things' problem is that English words also mean multiple things. A Japanese word may be a completely valid translation of one meaning of an English word--but maybe not the meaning you were thinking of! Concepts like 'love' and 'freedom' are very popular as decorative motifs, but are we talking about capital-L romantic love? Are we talking about sex? Are we talking about familial affection? Freedom is even worse: are we talking about high ideals or civil liberties or one of those "free to a good home" signs on a bag of abandoned crap on the sidewalk? Japanese-English dictionaries don't usually do a good job of explaining nuances. Machine translations do an even worse job.

Machine Translation
Does not work. You need to talk to a live human, but not all humans are equally good. For example...

Japanese Learning Forums Are For Beginners
Japanese people don't hang out there. Why would they? They already know Japanese. A few (very few!) native speakers do answer questions in those spaces, but most responses you get there will be from students, usually beginners. Extremely advanced students of Japanese like to practice by talking to native speakers or reading and watching media intended for native speakers. They don't usually hang out in beginner/intermediate forums either. Whether it's a livejournal community or the boards on one of the many Japanese Learning websites or a newsgroup or whatever other forum you've found, nearly all of the posters are going to be intermediate students at best. That's great if you have a beginner question about the grammar in chapter 5 of your textbook. It's not so great if you're researching an advanced topic like tattoos and the nuances of words.

Native Speakers Differ
Before you go "But my friend saaaaaid the tattoo made sense!" consider that being a native speaker and being a good writer, a poet, a nerd, or a translator are not the same thing. Asking one native Japanese speaker is usually better than just asking a bunch of non-native students. Asking a lot of native speakers or asking an expert would be better still. That guy who does hanzismatter has looked at tons and tons of horrible tattoos. He has a friend who's a J-E translator for questions involving Japanese. It's pretty likely he knows what he's talking about. The random Japanese teenager you met on the internet may or may not give equally good advice.


Ok, so let's say you've asked a native speaker who knows what they're talking about, and you've checked that your kanji don't mean something horrible in Chinese, and you've picked a word/concept that's not too painfully stupid as a tattoo... Don't relax! You're not out of the woods yet!

Fonts
Your tattoo artist probably doesn't speak Japanese. But you have a great idea: you're going to print out your word/phrase and have them work from that. Unfortunately, just like in English, lots of fonts are really, really ugly. It can also be hard to adapt a printout to a tattoo unless you're both a skilled tattoo artist and know some of the language you're writing. Plenty of otherwise gorgeous kanji tattoos are upsidedown or reversed. Sometimes individual characters or pieces of characters are written in the wrong direction even when everything else is fine.

Ok, you're going to find someone who knows Japanese. Keep in mind that even a Japanese-American (British/French/etc.) person who learned some Japanese from their parents probably didn't become fully literate in the language. Maybe they can read, but they didn't go through the whole school system there, and that means...

Their Handwriting Sucks!
My handwriting is very messy. I wouldn't get English tattooed in my own handwriting. A Japanese tattoo that's based on an ugly font or an ugly fake-handwriting font or someone's actual ugly handwriting is going to look like you let a 4 year-old scribble on your skin. Handwriting is a big deal in Japanese culture, maybe not as much as it once was, but still more than it is in the US. Combine this with a tattoo artist who doesn't know that much about Japanese and whatever ugly example you gave them to work off of, and you're guaranteed an ugly tattoo.

If you want one that looks nice, it would be a good idea to consult a Japanese calligrapher. Pay them to produce a life-size version of what you want. The tattoo artist will do a much better job if they aren't trying to blow up a teeny tiny picture to cover your whole back. The more experience your tattoo artist has with this kind of work, the better.

But I'm Poor! And Busy!
If you can't afford to consult a Japanese calligrapher or go to an experienced tattoo artist and you can't take the time to find a native speaker to consult, should you really be getting a tattoo? If it's that important to you to get it "right", you'll find the time and the money. If it's not that important to you... well, I look forward to seeing you on hanzismatter with all of the other n00bs with ugly body art.
j_rant: Possibly the second most generic Japan-themed icon! (Default)
2010-08-24 02:44 pm

A Few Radical Notions About Kanji Learning

Kanji are the bane of the Japanese student. Countless books, games, and flashcards are sold on the (largely spurious) claim that they can make kanji learning easy and fast. Countless students give up learning Japanese when these materials fail them. Textbooks are evaluated on the basis of how well they cover characters. Manga are chosen by whether they have furigana. The whole of the Japanese learning industry from books to classes to websites fixates on and obsesses over kanji, kanji, kanji.

Honestly, a lot of the stress and freaking out would be avoided if most books covered kanji in a logical fashion and if most students had realistic goals and a general knowledge of how to attain them.

The first thing most Japanese learners ask is how many kanji they need to know. Then, they set out to make that number of flashcards or buy a book that covers that many. The usual number cited is 2,000. This is bull. An educated adult native speaker knows at least 3,000 kanji pretty well; they may have some knowledge of several thousand others. No single course for non-native speakers (including most undergraduate majors) manages even 3k, let alone more.

The standard ways of learning kanji don't work. They might be ok for the first 500 or even the first 2,000, but at some point, you're going to hit a wall. The way to get around it is to keep the following in mind:

1. Kanji are not random: Kanji are made up of smaller units. Learn those units, and giant, complicated, "impossible" kanji will suddenly be much easier.
2. Learn words, not kanji: If a particular kanji only occurs in compound words, learn one of those words, not the kanji in isolation. Real words are more immediately useful, and useful things are easier to remember.
3. Kanji represent Japanese: If you don't know any vocabulary or grammar, you still won't be able to read anything no matter how many kanji you've memorized. Stick to kanji that you'll have a use for; the more you use them, the more you'll remember them. Save the super advanced kanji for when your other skills are similarly advanced.

Keep It Practical
If you're taking Japanese in school or you need to pass a particular level of the JLPT for a study abroad program or anything like that, then flashcards and studying for tests make sense. If your goal is real world language skills, most of your practice should be geared towards real world applications: this means reading for fun, reading for fun, and more reading for fun. This is how you learned most of your vocabulary in English, and it's how most Japanese people learn most of the vocabulary and kanji they know.

Sometimes, a little rote memorization is necessary when you're learning a foreign language, but keep it to a minimum. Your short-term goals should look a lot more like "read 1 chapter of ___ this week" and a lot less like "memorize 30 kanji by Friday". Which kanji you should study also depends on what you want to read. If you're a fan of CLAMP or you're getting all of your reading in by playing RPGs, you'll have a lot more use for 巫 ("kannagi" or the first half of "miko") than for anything on a standard kanji list.

The only way to know for sure what parts of a language are useful to you is to go ahead and use it!

It's hard to read much or understand much of what you hear when you're first starting out, but it's worth it to try. The more real world exposure you have, even if it's just reading the instructions on your package of instant ramen, the better you'll remember Japanese and the easier it will be to study without getting discouraged and losing motivation.

Kanji Structure
Ok, so I've made the case for learning practical vocabulary above. Now I'm going to make the case for learning impractical things... kind of. One of the biggest problems with kanji learning is that most textbooks try to teach grammar, vocabulary, and kanji at exactly the same time. When you're selecting words to study based on a manga you're reading, this is a great idea. If you've never seen a kanji before in your life and you're trying to figure out how anybody can tell the difference between all those different dark blotches in the 1mm high fine print, it works much less well.

Sadly, many simple words are written with complicated kanji. Many of those kanji are made up of easier kanji, but those easier kanji are used to write very unusual, difficult words. Deciding what to study first is, to be blunt, a giant pain in the ass. The standard textbook approach has you start with complicated kanji that are used for simple words. Methods like Kanji Damage start with the simple kanji and work towards the complicated ones. You're probably best off doing a little of each. (I know, I know: very clear and helpful advice there!) However, you can't go wrong with a bit of background on basic character layout,stroke order, and radicals.

Basic Character Layout
Think of characters as square boxes divided into four equal parts. This is how calligraphers think of them, and it's the key to getting a balanced character and having pretty handwriting. It's also helpful for understanding the layout of the component parts ("radicals"--see below). Wikipedia shows some possible configurations.

Basic Stroke Order and Direction
This is complicated to explain in text, but basically, stroke order goes from the top left corner of the character to the bottom right. Most strokes go from left to right or from top to bottom. Certain strokes, like the top stroke in 手 and the three strokes on the right in 杉 go right to left, but they still slant downward. Each section of the character is completed before moving on to the next. If a radical starts in the top left corner, you write that whole radical first. Then, generally, you move on to the radical to the right of it. Then radicals below it. The stroke order and direction within a particular radical does not change; it will be the same in every other character you ever see that radical in.

You don't need to try to memorize all of this instantly; just keep in mind that stroke order is quite consistent across all characters, and you can learn to figure out what it is even when you're looking at teeny, weeny fine print blobs. This page has a more complete explanation with pictures. Wikipedia also lists some rules and shows animations.

Why is stroke order important? One, because it makes your handwriting prettier. Two, because it makes it easier to write Japanese without getting a hand cramp (seriously!). And three, because the really nice electronic dictionaries designed for native speakers often have handwriting recognition functions, but they will not recognize a character written in the wrong order or direction! Trust me, this is one thing you want to learn correctly the first time. It will pay off a lot over the years.

Radicals
What are "radicals"? Essentially, they're the component parts of Chinese characters. When people use the word ‘radical', they mean one of three things:

1. The main radical that the character would be listed under in a dictionary (this is a system Japanese inherited from Chinese).
2. Any piece of a character that is one of those dictionary radicals (even if it's no the main radical in that character).
3. Any piece of a character that also appears in lots of other characters.

The things in #3 can have other names as well ("components", "primitives", etc.). These names and exactly what pieces count depends on which textbook or dictionary you're looking at. (Most only add a few things to the traditional list covered in 1 and 2.)

Radicals have names: Some textbooks translate these into English ("water radical"), some leave them in Japanese ("sanzui"), and most leave them out entirely. The Japanese names usually indicate not just which radical something is but also what form it takes because...

Radicals have multiple forms: Radicals can appear in different parts of a character (right, left, top, bottom, and sometimes others). Sometimes, they look a little bit different in different places. A handful of them look so different you wouldn't know they're the "same" radical.

Why should you care about radicals? They help with handwriting and stroke order and all of that, but they're most important for two reasons:

1. Having a good grasp of radicals allows you to look characters up even when you don't know the pronunciation and you don't have access to handwriting recognition software.

2. They let you break big, messy, "impossible" characters into small, easy to memorize parts--parts they have in common with lots of other big, messy characters.

Which is easier: learning a few hundred kanji components or learning a few thousand kanji? Yeah, that's what I thought. That's why you should care about radicals.

Lists of Radicals
There are various lists of radicals. The traditional set of 214 comes from Chinese dictionaries and was developed in the 17thC.

Modern methods like Kanji Damage expand on that list and include 500 or more.

About.com discusses a few dozen of the most common ones. This is a great place to start.

Text Fugu, a textbook produced by the (excellent) blog Tofugu also has an introduction to radicals.

Dictionaries
Before all of this newfangled handwriting input stuff, if you didn't know how to pronounce a kanji, you had to look it up the old fashioned way: by radical. This is less true now, but it's still often necessary if you don't have access to an expensive electronic dictionary or if your handwriting is too awful or if whatever input program you're using doesn't recognize more unusual kanji. Using radical lookup is also a great way to practice even if it seems more tedious.

The fastest, least painful way to do this is to use the multi-radical lookup on WWWJDIC. The next best option is to use a paper dictionary like the New Nelson that has "universal radical" lookup. (Surprisingly, some of the larger paper dictionaries will list variant kanji online ones are missing. Even if your dictionary of choice is massive and excellent, there will always be something it's missing, so it's good to have other options.)

One feature of WWWJDIC to keep in mind is that it has reverse radical lookup: that is, if you can copy and paste a character in, the dictionary can tell you what component radicals it contains. I use this feature on any characters I've had a lot of trouble looking up so I'll know what their radicals are next time.

How to Learn Kanji
So given all that stuff about radicals, how should you go about learning kanji? First, I would take a little bit of time to read over information in English. I've linked to a number of good sites. It's easier to absorb this kind of information in a language you already speak, and it's easier to absorb unfamiliar Japanese once you have a conceptual framework to put it in.

Next, I would try multiple methods. I don't generally advocate studying kanji directly (as opposed to studying vocabulary words), but Kanji Damage or one of the other kanji learning sites might be exactly what you need.

Third, I would find an easy manga or something equivalently simple and study based on that. (Manga tend to repeat the same words over and over, which makes them an ideal study tool for beginners even if the Japanese sometimes sounds weird.) Read through chapter 1, marking down any words you don't know. Keep track of the ones written in kanji. (Note: many words will list kanji in the dictionary. This does not always mean they are normally written in kanji.) If those kanji are fairly simple, add them to your list. If they're complicated, look up their component parts. If those are independent kanji or you find some related, useful kanji, add those to your list too. After you've done a little memorization, read chapter 2.

If you're a little more ambitious, try a manga with no furigana and use the WWWJDIC radical lookup to find characters you don't know. Again, read a chapter, compile a vocab list, study, and go back to reading.

Going back and forth between reading/practical applications and flashcard style learning will be much more effective than flashcards alone. Attacking the kanji problem both from the vocabulary direction (basic words and words you use a lot first) and from the kanji structure direction (simple kanji with few radicals first) will be more effective than doing either alone.
j_rant: Possibly the second most generic Japan-themed icon! (Default)
2010-07-19 02:07 pm

Honorifics: Moving beyond fanboy/girl Japanese

Honorifics: They're everywhere in Japanese, fanboy/girl Japanese, and--these days--translated English language manga. Fans think leaving them in makes translations authentic. I think people need to cut that the hell out and actually learn something about Japanese. Let's start with what honorifics are. Here's the start of the wikipedia article:

An honorific (sometimes Honorable) is a word or expression that conveys esteem or respect when used in addressing or referring to a person. Sometimes the term is used not quite correctly to refer to an honorary title. It is also often conflated with systems of honorific speech in linguistics, which are grammatical or morphological ways of encoding the relative social status of speakers.
Typically honorifics are used for second and third persons; use for first person is less common. Some languages have anti-honorific or despective first person forms (meaning something like "your most humble servant" or "this unworthy person") whose effect is to enhance the relative honor accorded a second or third person.


What do you notice here? First, there are some real, live English language examples: these things aren't restricted to Japanese. Second, in addition to these individual words you use to address people ("honorifics"), there are also grammar patterns that have a similar effect ("honorific speech"). Third, these things are not polite per se: what they actually do is encode the relative social status of two people.

Some people like to see these left in in manga translations. They say it's a matter of authenticity or even subjective taste. I say it's misleading crap that makes idiots think they understand Japanese when they don't know jack. It's not something people say about Spanish or French, only the exotic languages of the East where the women are submissive and all of the men know kung fu.

Yes, I'm saying I think it's racist. Racist, orientalist, essentialist, and stupid.


Yes, Virginia, you can translate honorifics

"Oh, but you can't translate honorifics," you say. "There's no English language equivalent!" This is crap. There's no direct English language equivalent for Japanese honorific speech either. There's no direct English language equivalent for 'tú' and 'usted' in Spanish, yet half the middle-aged gringos I know have a whole stack of Allende novels by the bed. You can translate anything, and almost nothing has a completely direct one-to-one universal translation that covers all contexts.

I find this particular example of "untranslatable" words extra annoying because Japanese is full of other honorific speech that gets translated with no problems whatsoever. The same characters who call everyone So-and-so-sama all the time also use grammar patterns that are unnaturally polite, stilted, old-fashioned, formal, or just plain weird. The characters who call all of the grown women "-chan" sound exactly as smarmy and overbearing in the rest of their speech.

The best way to get across what the Japanese author intended is to make the literary characters sound literary, the smarmy characters sound smarmy, the snooty characters sound snooty, and--most importantly by far--to make normal speech sound normal. Until the entirety of daily life in English-speaking countries turns into a LARP session at Otakon, appending "-san" to people's names is never going to sound normal.

"But we should preserve what we can," you're probably saying. "Even if that honorific grammar has to be translated non-literally, we can at least preserve the honorifics themselves." We could. We do. But preserving this type of stilted, unnatural word choice in English interferes with translating the rest of the honorific language. The formality or smarminess or whatever else in the rest of the dialogue can only be conveyed in the translation by style: by tone, by word choice, by the overall sound of the passage. And adding unnatural, untranslated bits to the English has a severe effect on that style.


You keep using that word. I do not think it... etc.

I know the comment you're going to leave me, so I'll write it for you: "Fans aren't stupid. Put a glossary in the manga, and we'll figure out what the honorifics mean!"

Great idea! If only it worked. It's not that it's hard to tell someone, intellectually, what "-san" or "-sama" means; English text peppered with them still sounds strange, so it's not a particularly good translation of normal-sounding Japanese text. But there's a worse problem: Like all other words in all other languages, honorifics aren't used 100% consistently. A canned glossary inside the front cover of your manga isn't going to give you a complete grasp of how an honorific is really used in natural Japanese. Hell, manga aren't going to give you a good grasp of natural Japanese. The Japanese audience will know when something sounds intentionally strange. You won't.

Even if you personally, know exactly what each and every honorific means in every context, I guarantee that most English-speaking fans don't. Among people who should know better and who've even studied some Japanese, I've seen plenty of silly statements: "-kun is never used for women." (Nonsense. Boys don't usually use it to refer to their female classmates, but it's used for women in plenty of contexts.) "-san shows respect and politeness." (It's not rude, but it's so ubiquitous that I'd say it's more of a neutral, normal thing than something that's explicitly polite.) "-sama shows you really like and respect someone." (Bwa ha ha. Maybe if this someone is Gackt or you're an anime character. Otherwise, you risk sounding sarcastic in many contexts.) etc. etc.

I just took a gander at the Wikipedia article on Japanese honorifics, and it's pretty good. The cheat sheets some manga include are probably accurate too, if simplistic. But these definitions don't always filter down to the readers, and they don't make Engrish sound natural. A well-read English speaker knows hundreds of French words. Most Americans know half the vocabulary from Spanish 101 just from passive exposure. And yet translations of Spanish and French leave very few of these words in--a species name or a new philosophical concept, maybe, but normal words get normal translations, even if they sometimes have to be a bit non-literal.


Japanese grammar is more different, so Japanese translations should sound more like Charlie Chan

This is what all of those moron arguments about "untranslatable" Japanese boil down to: Because Japanese is very different from English, instead of producing natural-sounding English that gets the original tone and emotional impact across, a translator should go for wacky translation-ese. Novels about French people in Paris should be translated so that the characters sound normal. Manga about Japanese people in Tokyo--Japanese people surrounded entirely by other Japanese people and who talk in completely normal ways for Japanese people--should be translated so that all of the characters sound like Charlie Chan. Ditto manga about goofy fantasy pirates, genderless space aliens, or NYPD detectives. If it was once in Japanese, in half-baked Engrish it stays!

This translation strategy doesn't lead to authenticity. It just makes Japanese people sound weird and Japanese media sound poorly-written.
j_rant: Possibly the second most generic Japan-themed icon! (Default)
2010-05-04 04:19 pm
Entry tags:

Kana-rama

Kanji are hard. There are too many of them. They all look the same. Japanese people don't even write with them that much. Why can't we stick to nice, phonetic kana? Hell, why do we need katakana at all? One alphabet is enough for English: Why can't we just write Japanese in hiragana?

...or so says the optimistic student of Japanese about two weeks into one of those Learn Japanese in Two Minutes a Day Amazing Miracle Grapefruit Diet! books. Unfortunately, reality is a little more complex: Not only are there good reasons to use kanji, but kana aren't that transparently simple. I'll save the rant on kanji for another day, but I will tell you a bunch of quirks of kana that your crappy intro textbook probably didn't cover.


Kana aren't phonetic

Kana are a lot closer to being phonetic than English spelling is, but don't delude yourself into thinking they're 100% phonetic. Like in English, there are plenty of colloquial pronunciations and contractions that are rarely written as pronounced. Also like in English, one standard spelling covers a wide range of accents, all of which sound a bit different and some of which don't even have the same total number of sounds.

Particles: The obvious example is the particles , , and . Most textbooks mention these, but I've seen plenty of confused self-study people having trouble with them. "は" is pronounced "wa" when it's a particle and "ha" all the rest of the time; "へ" is pronounced "e" as a particle and "he" the rest of the time; and "を" is only ever used to write the particle "o". It's sometimes romanized as "wo", but it's rarely pronounced this way unless you're sounding something out for someone and you want to make extra sure they know you're talking about the particle. Just to make things extra fun, there's actually another "wa" particle that's spelled with the normal kana for 'wa', わ. は is the topic marker ("Watashi wa..."); わ is the sentence particle ("...desu wa ne!"). Students overuse both of these particles, but that's a topic for another post.

Small Tsu: I wouldn't have thought even the worst of self-study materials would screw this one up, but I keep seeing questions about this too. The kana for "tsu" (つ in hiragana or ツ in katakana) is also used to write geminate (i.e. double) consonants. 切手 (postage stamp) is written in kana as "きって". This is pronounced "ki-t-te", not "ki-tsu-te". Ki-tsu-te (not a real word) would be spelled with a large tsu like so: "きつて". To me, writing that right now, the difference is pretty obvious, but there are lots of fonts where it's a lot harder to see the difference, especially if you're not used to reading Japanese. Which reminds me...


Furigana only have one size

You've learned your kana, you've gotten some nice, easy manga with plentiful furigana, and you think you're all set... And then you come across a nasty little point that no textbook ever mentions: furigana only come in one size. Those small っ's that you've finally learned to recognize: Guess what? Now they're indistinguishable from regular-size つ's! You're going to have to guess which one's which. Lucky you.

Realistically, yes, there are cases where furigana do clearly distinguish between regular-size and small kana, but this is still a point that trips up a lot of people. It's even led to some hilarious translation mishaps like the name of Inuyasha's sword. In Japanese, it's written as 鉄砕牙. That's "てつ" "さい" "が" (tetsu sai ga), but when you combine those, you get "てっさいが". That's "Tessaiga", not "Tetsusaiga". Either somebody didn't know the difference between つ and っ, or they were looking at all-one-size furigana, because the Inuyasha fan community has stupid flamewars over the correct spelling of that word to this day. (And, of course, you can't look it up in a dictionary because it's a made-up word.)


ず = づ, じ = ぢ

These are called the yotsugana. When kana spelling got reformed in the 20th Century, づ and ぢ mostly dropped out of use because, in standard Tokyo accents, they're indistinguishable from ず and じ respectively. That's just one dialect though: there are others where all four represent distinct sounds or where all four are exactly the same. There's really only one written standard for Japanese, but you might see weird variant kana spelling in dialogue in manga or novels or when people are discussing accents. And that's not the only time...


Historical kana spelling

It's not just English speakers who like Ye Olde spelling. The Japanese do it too. Read anything by an author with a love of classical literature or just a weird sense of humor, and you may start running into wacky things like いふ (ifu) in place of いう (iu). For a native speaker, this stuff is no more confusing than a bit of Shakespeare or a sign saying "Olde Pubbe" in faux-Medieval font. For you the beginner student, it's much more of a headache.


Japanese people can so pronounce F and V!

Ok, maybe grandpa can't, but any young-ish person in Japan who's had a bit of exposure to foreign things is going to know a number of foreign sounds that aren't found too commonly in Japanese. And when they make new loan words from foreign languages, they're going to try to write those sounds. This gives us fun things like ツァ,ツィ,ツ,ツェ,ツォ (tsa, tsi, tsu, tse, tso); ヴァ,ヴィ,ヴ,ヴェ,ヴォ (va, vi, vu, ve, vo); and ファ,フィ,フ,フェ,フォ (fa, fi, fu, fe, fo), of which, only ツ and フ are a traditional part of Japanese spelling. These are most common in katakana, but you'll see them in hiragana too (usually for sound effects). With the exception of ヴ, most wacky kana spellings will involve small kana. Speaking of which...


More about small kana

Small kana work in three ways: 1. Small っ is used to write double consonants. This has nothing to do with the pronunciation of big つ: it's just a writing convention.

2. Small ゃ, ゅ, and ょ are placed after a "consonant i" kana to indicate a palatalized sound (kya/rya as opposed to ka/ra). き ゃ = きゃ (ki ya = kya) The consonant part comes from the big kana, the vowel sound from the little one.

3. Weird modern kana spellings, as described above use this same convention: The big kana gives you the consonant; the little one gives you the vowel.


ヶ月, ケ月, ヵ月, カ月, か月

ヶ, despite being called "small ke", isn't really the same as those other small kana. It and those other variants above are actually short for the kanji 箇.


Katakana: not just for loanwords

Among the most idiotic and widespread myths about written Japanese is that loanwords are written in katakana and katakana is for loanwords. In reality, older loanwords often have kanji, and katakana is used for a number of things in addition to recent loanwords. It's often equivalent to italics, being used for both scientific names and emphasis. It's also frequently used for sound effects.

Robots and foreigners: Another italic-like use of katakana is for halting, artificial speech. Computers in video games frequently speak in all-katakana text (including the rarely seen katakana 'wo': ヲ). Foreigners' speech is sometimes also written in katakana either to indicate a poor accent or because the Japanese writer just doesn't think gaijin could ever possibly sound natural in Japanese.


Moans, grunts, and doujinshi sexytimes

If you're reading a manga with a lot of scenes at the gym... Oh, who am I kidding. If you're reading shameless yaoi porn with lots of explicit sex, you may have noticed something like ん” or あ”. Putting dakuten (that Japanese voicing mark) on kana it doesn't belong on often indicates some kind of grunting sound. ん” usually appears where I'd expect to see "unf" or "ngh" in English. あ” can be anything from a bellowed "a" sound to a long, drawn-out, nasal moan.


Fonts

It shouldn't be surprising that foreign languages also have cursive and non-cursive handwriting, fancy and plain typefaces, and even wacky alternate forms like normal g vs. typewriter g in English. But for some reason, as a n00b Japanese student, this never really occured to me. This isn't a big deal with most of the kana, but there are a few that have alternate forms that can be confusing. Hiragana 'so' is the worst here, but 'sa' and 'ki' can also be hard to recognize. The best illustration of this point I could find is this blog post. Notice how 'so' can either be one stroke (what your Japanese textbook probably shows) or two (found in lots of handwritten parts in manga and in fonts that are meant to look like handwriting).


Katakana that look similar

Lots of kana look similar to one another, at least if you're not used to reading them yet, but the ones that cause a problem for the most students are ツ, シ, ソ, ン, and ノ. ノ has only one stroke, but how do you tell ツ apart from シ or ソ apart from ン? The answer is in the direction of the stroke. Have a look at the wikipedia stroke order charts for tsu and shi. Notice that 'tsu' goes left dot, right dot, and then down for the long stroke. 'Shi' goes upper dot, lower dot, and then up for the long stroke. In many fonts, the beginning of the stroke will be wider or will have a bit of a hook on it (as it would if handwritten). For 'tsu', the dots will be more vertical because of how you're moving as you go to write the next stroke (down, down, down and to the left). For 'shi', they will be more horizontal (across, across, across and up to the right). Similarly, 'so' has a vertical dot; 'n' has a horizontal one.



That's all of the kana trivia I can think of for the moment. If you've got any questions or want to share your own wacky trivia, leave me a message.
j_rant: Possibly the second most generic Japan-themed icon! (Default)
2010-04-15 11:18 am

Navigating a Japanese Bookstore

This post is a guide to navigating Japanese bookstores, or, more precisely, to navigating the manga sections of Japanese bookstores in the US. (Most of this is applicable to Japanese bookstores anywhere, but my focus is the US.) If you're shopping online at expensive web stores designed for English speakers, no problem. If you're 100% fluent, no problem. If you're like most English speakers buying manga to practice their Japanese, there are a few nasty pitfalls that make it hard to shop for manga in an actual bookstore. Below are a few tips you should know before you make that pilgrimage to Kinokuniya or Bookoff.

1. Japanese bookstores organize manga by imprint.

That's right: The big sections are done not by genre, author name, title, etc. but by who published the volume. There are sometimes exceptions at stores that cater to non-Japanese, but if there are Japanese customers, that's what you should expect to find. Usually, the shounen/seinen imprints will be in one section with the shoujo/josei/BL imprints in another. Sometimes there are separate BL, wide-ban/oversized, and bunkoban (digest) sections. Most series that are popular in the West will be from imprints like Jump Comics, Shounen Sunday, Hana to Yume, or Ribon, but there are dozens of other more obscure ones. There should be a distinctive graphic on the top (or sometimes bottom) of the spine of each volume that will let you recognize the sections even if they're poorly marked or you can't read the signs.

If you are looking for a specific series, especially if it is old, unusual, or not currently popular with Japanese people, you should make a note of the imprint before you go shopping. Japanese shop staff often won't be able to help you find things if all you have is the author and title.

2. Japanese bookstores use Japanese alphabetical order.

No, no, not the iroha, but you should either know kana order or bring a cheat sheet. Parts of the alphabet won't be well marked (if they're marked at all), so if you can only read a handful of author names, it can be quite challenging to find the right part of a large section. In case you've forgotten, each row of kana goes in order of: a, i, u, e, o. The rows are: a, k, s, t, n, h, m, y, r, w, (plain) n. 'Da' comes after 'ta'.

3. Wonky volume numbers

You might think you know how to write numbers in Japanese... Unfortunately, volumes of manga aren't always numbered the normal way. A few short series use Japanese novel ordering, which is 上下 or 上中下 (beginning, end or beginning, middle, end). Many other series, purely for artistic effect use variant kanji for 1, 2, 3, and 10. These are 壱, 弐, 参, and 拾 respectively. This is very common even in some series that otherwise use very easy kanji and vocabulary.

4. 1 standard size tankoubon ≠ 1 bunkoban

Most shounen and shoujo manga (but not seinen, josei, or other types of manga) get collected first in a standard tankoubon size. Series that are particularly popular get reprinted in wide-ban and/or bunkoban sizes. (Wide-ban are slightly larger than the standard size. bunkoban are the small digest size.) Beware: wide-ban and bunkoban versions of the same series often have the same number of pages per volume. Standard size tankoubon almost always have fewer pages. If you buy volumes of the same series in multiple size formats, the volume numbers will not match up!

5. There is no yuri section.

BL sells well in the US. Yuri doesn't. You might find a little filed with the porn for adult men, but there isn't going to be a separate section. Note: Japanese people don't call this stuff "shoujo ai"; if you have to ask Japanese store staff where to find something, call it "yuri" or mention specific magazines/publishers/series. And make sure you know the Japanese title: "Sweet Blue Flowers" is actually titled "Aoi Hana".

6. How to tell what the markup is:

Only you can determine if you think a given manga is a ripoff. Personally, I base this on the original price. In the US, I expect to pay about 150% of the original sticker price. More than 200% is pretty high and not worth it for most things.

So how do you tell what the markup is? Most manga have the original Japanese price printed on the back somewhere. The exchange rate varies, but ¥1 is roughly equal to 1¢. Normal tankoubon are around ¥400 these days. Wide-ban are often more like ¥1200. Sometimes, a high price in the US indicates unreasonable markup; sometimes, it indicates that the manga is kind of expensive in Japan too.

7. How to tell if something is in print:

Just because you've heard of it and/or someone scanlated it doesn't mean it's in print. On the other hand, just because you've never heard of it doesn't mean it's out of print. The easiest way to tell is to look at amazon.co.jp. If they have new copies available to ship, it's in print.

8. How to tell if Kinokuniya carries something:

Kinokuniya has a book lookup feature on their website that will tell you which of their US stores have a book in stock. This is primarily intended for ordering purposes, but it's also a good way to tell if a book is likely to be carried in the US. (Like all store inventory lookup features, I wouldn't trust it too far though. Just because it's there on the website doesn't mean it will be on the shelf when you arrive at the store.)

Paste the name of whatever you're looking for (written in kana/kanji, not romaji) into the search box here: http://bookweb.kinokuniya.co.jp/indexohb.cgi?AREA=03
j_rant: Look, it's Himeji.  How original! (himeji)
2010-03-23 04:03 pm
Entry tags:

Romaji: Crutch, tool, or giant pain in the ass?

What's wrong with romaji?

Romaji, ローマ字 (literally "Rome letters" in Japanese), gets a lot of flack from students of Japanese.

Zonjineko (a nice blog with bits of Japanese learning trivia) has a rather prototypical post on why Romaji is Evil: "If you’re thinking of visiting Japan for a quick holiday and want to get your head around a few phrases so you don’t end up taking a taxi to Utashinai then go for it but if you are serious about learning, and I mean really learning, then avoid it at all costs – trust me. When you get to Japan you will realise there is nothing (or very little) written in romaji except for the usual train station names, some street names, store names and a few other things that are there to make life easier for foreigners. [...] Romaji also makes you very lazy. [...] if the romaji isn’t there you have to look up the kana or kanji and you’ll remember it for next time. [...] So my humble advice is to do as the kids do and learn the Hiragana characters and their sounds and once you have mastered those you can move on to Katakana. After that comes kanji, which we’ll get to later."

And here's a standard blog post on Kanji vs. Romaji: "Unfortunately, a lot of textbook writers use romaji for everything. As a result, a lot of textbooks allegedly about Japanese, are actually about some strange artificial language, “Romaji Japanese”, which no one in the world actually uses. [...] One of the big arguments for romaji is that it allows students to start pronouncing Japanese right away. Fortunately, Japanese has a pair of alphabets (well, technically syllabaries). These alphabets are called “hiragana” and “katakana” and they allow Japanese words to be rendered phonetically. [...] The Japanese department at Ohio State University is in love with Romaji and I’ve been subjected to some of the ugliest romanized Japanese the world has ever seen. It’s not even standard romaji, but some crazy half-baked alternative romanji, with the amusing side effect that even English borrow words get screwed up (in this textbook, for instance, “ninja” would be spelled “ninza”, and “Mitsubishi” would be “Mitubisi”!) Now, in preparing for lessons (I still have to memorize dialogs, so there is still some preparation), I have to actually reverse engineer this crazy abomination of language to figure out what it’s actually saying in Japanese."

Some people go a bit further: "My most damning criticism is the publishers that still use romaji in the belief that either people won't buy books without it, or that Japanese is too difficult to learn without that crutch. Romaji is completely unnecessary even for beginners and should burn in a hell reserved for the vilest filth ever invented by humanity."

Hmm... Is that so?

How Japanese people really use romaji
Before I address those points, I'd like to offer you the following example of native Japanese speaker-produced romaji. This is off of some genuine Japanese snackfood intended for a Japanese customer base:

Mochi


Notice anything funny about that romaji? Not only are there spaces in strange places, but the spellings of 'si' and 'moti' are anything but intuitive for an English speaker. The fact is, Japanese people do use romaji. They use it all the time! They use it in acronyms and names of products. They use it online in places where Japanese text isn't well enabled. They use it in ads and on packaging because it looks cool and foreign. It's like putting a bunch of French words in cursive all over your fancy cake box (something the Japanese also like--almost as much as we English speakers do). What Japanese people don't do is use romaji in ways that make sense to English speakers.

On average, romaji produced by native speakers of Japanese tends to:

1. Follow Japanese kana spellings.
2. Be decorative rather than informative.

In other words, it's intended for Japanese people, not for you. You'll see enough of it that it can be useful to have a rough idea of the systems Japanese people generally use. This isn't an important skill you should be wasting time practicing, but it can be helpful to have a basic familiarity with non-Hepburn romaji.

Non-Hepburn romaji
Basically, there are three ways to romanize Japanese: You can follow English spelling rules in a way that is mostly intuitive for English speakers (Hepburn and its derivatives), you can follow Japanese kana spelling rules (nihon-shiki, kunrei-shiki, JSL), or you can use whatever you'd type into a computer to get the correct kana ("wapuro" romaji).

Kana Hepburn Kunrei-shiki Wapuro
ちゃ cha tya chya
じゃ ja zya jya


None of these systems is inherently right or wrong. The student favorite, Hepburn romanization, can actually be somewhat confusing for a native Japanese speaker who perceives "shi" and "si" as the same sound. Kunrei-shiki and other similar systems can be equally confusing for a native English speaker who expects romaji spelling to match English spelling. Each is useful in a particular context to particular people.

Myths about romaji

1. Romaji makes you lazy.
Underlying this myth is the idea that you need to learn the kana right away because otherwise you'll never get enough practice to be comfortable with them. In reality, anyone can learn kana with a stack of flashcards and a few days of free time. The reason many students take a long time to become proficient at kana is that reading a textbook for a few hours a week isn't enough practice, but once you start using kana regularly outside of class, they'll sink in in no time. If you're studying on your own, then by all means, learn kana as early as you want. If you're in a formal class and you're stuck learning kana very slowly or very late in the curriculum, don't despair: Using romaji will only make you lazy if you let it.

2. Romaji teaches you bad pronunciation.
Again, this is nonsense. Some people are good at pronunciation; others are terrible. I've seen students of both types who used romaji for ages; I've seen students of both types who never used it at all. It's true that looking at a romanization like "si" will mislead English speakers who aren't familiar with Japanese pronunciation, but learning that "し" is pronounced "shi" can do the same thing. The "shi" sound in English and the "shi" sound in Japanese aren't quite the same. The only way to have good pronunciation is to get good at listening to and imitating native speakers. Writing systems are completely irrelevant.

3. Hiragana and katakana are phonetic writing systems. Learn them, and you'll have good pronunciation.
Yeah right! Kana spelling underwent a massive spelling reform just after WWII to make most kana spelling mostly match standard Tokyo pronunciation. Thus, Japanese spelling is much closer to being "phonetic" than English spelling is, but it is still not entirely phonetic. Some particles are pronounced in an irregular fashion, and some sounds can be written multiple ways. Kana spelling also does nothing to indicate regular sound changes of nasals (and, for some speakers, intervocalic g's), vowel reduction, or pitch. None of these things make hiragana and katakana bad writing systems, but they are hardly the perfect, 100% clear systems that romaji haters like to suggest. Even if you do learn to pronounce each kana correctly in isolation, there are still other aspects to correctly pronouncing complete words and sentences that are not immediately clear from the written form. Whether romaji would be helpful or not, kana do not, by themselves, lead to good pronunciation.

4. Reading long texts in romaji is unnatural. That's not how they do it in Japan.
This is sort of true, but it usually hides the implicit assumption that all-hiragana text is natural and that reading it is a useful skill. In reality, all-hiragana text is very, very rare. It's basically only used in children's picture books, and reading it can be just as awkward as reading long passages in romaji. If all-hiragana text doesn't include spaces between the words, it's even more difficult to read, especially without a strong knowledge of Japanese grammar and vocabulary, but if it does include spaces, it looks even less like normal writing. Natural Japanese text uses no spaces and lots of kanji, either with or without furigana. There can be advantages to giving example sentences in natural Japanese writing, but all-hiragana textbooks and example sentences are not superior to all-romaji ones.

5. Romaji isn't "real" Japanese!
Japanese is a spoken language. Every language is a spoken language. Don't confuse writing systems with languages. You could write Japanese in Cyrillic or Devanagari and it would still be Japanese. Being able to read normal Japanese writing produced by native speakers is a good long term goal, but it's not something you'll be able to do after your first Japanese class no matter what study method you use. Sometimes, using romaji at first can help students pick up grammar and vocabulary more quickly, which can make kana and kanji easier to learn later. Other times, it just gets in the way. It really depends on your program, your textbook, and your teacher.

6. Textbooks only use romaji because textbook writers think all students are idiots/lazy/scared of Japanese writing.
Some textbooks (Japanese For Busy People, for example) come in both a romaji version and a kana version. In those cases, I'm tempted to agree with this assessment. However, there are also textbooks that use romaji for other reasons. JSL (Japanese The Spoken Language) is one of the most common targets of anti-romaji rants, but this particular text actually has sound pedagogical reasons for its use of romaji. (Reasons which are explained quite well in the introduction to volume 1, but ranters never seem to have read that...)

Good romaji, bad romaji

The bottom line is that too much romaji use can be a warning sign that a textbook, a class, or a whole program isn't very good. However, while it can mean this, it doesn't necessarily. The best argument I've seen against romaji is that you don't really need it. Most people are perfectly capable of learning kana quickly, and there are many Japanese learning materials available that use little or no romaji. It's not something you'll need much in monolingual Japanese contexts, so if you're doing self-study, there's no reason to specifically seek it out.

However, if you're taking Japanese at a university, you probably won't have a choice about what textbook to use. As long as your text has clear reasons for how and when it uses romaji, and as long as you have good teachers who understand how to teach this particular curriculum, romaji will not hinder your Japanese studies. It may even help. A bad attitude and a virulent, unthinking hatred of your Japanese program, however, are a major impediment to Japanese learning.

If you're still in the process of choosing a program or a book, romaji use is one valid factor to consider, but it will probably have much less effect on your success at Japanese than things like the overall success of students in the program, the talent of the teachers, what extra materials come with the book, and how much time and effort you put in.