4koma Coma

Happy New Year! I’m in the Japan Times this week with a look at 四コマ漫画 aka 四コマ aka 4koma: “Yonkoma manga: Lives told, lessons learned in four frames.”

I wrote this article before reading Nippon.com’s look at the nominees for the word of 2017. It made me wonder whether the strips I wrote about were a result of うつヌケ うつトンネルを抜けた人たち (Utsu-nuke: Utsu tonneru o nuketa hito-tachi, Utsu-nuke: The people who made it through the tunnel).

But I realized that Utsu-nuke may be a culmination of sorts. Ryu Tamako’s blog began in 2015 with a look at OCD and seems to have been relatively successful. I’m sure there have also been other examples of mainstream pop culture (dramas? novels?) that have helped make the topic of mental health more accessible over the last 10-15 years.

The pixiv strips I looked at are more recent, so maybe they benefited from the Utsu-nuke phenomenon as well as technological advancements (new social media, easily/affordably accessible digital art supplies). At any rate, I think they’re both great, and I think they both capture the artists remarkably well.

I dug around pixiv for a little lagniappe for the blog and I ended up finding this awesome 4koma: 5分でわかる「羊をめぐる冒険」. It’s basically a manga Cliff Notes version of A Wild Sheep Chase, not your prototypical 4koma structure. I can’t tell if it’s finished…seems like there’s more of the story to tell. I really like the art. It’s very clean but not overly simplified. I’ll have to check back in.

The artist also has a more typical 4koma series titled めがね夫婦日乗 (Megane fūfu nichijō, Daily life of the glasses couple…although I’m not sure I understand the nichijō pun). One funny example is this gem which required me to listen to the 1972 song 北風小僧の寒太郎 (Kita-kaze kozō no Kantarō, Kantarō, The North Wind Kid…as translated here) to understand. If you don’t get the joke, I’ll explain it below*.

Judging from the Wikipedia, the song was NHK’s attempt to make 子供向け演歌 (kodomo-muke enka, enka for kids). Pretty interesting. It comes right as the word enka was starting to coalesce into its own style.

Searching for this song also reminded me of the banana song that used to play over the speakers in my grocery store in Tokyo. I don’t really have an excuse to share it (and I think a stand-alone post would be kind of silly…although maybe silly is what I’m aiming for with this), so here it is. It’s an earworm. 甘熟王!

*In the song, background singers repeat Kantarō but the second verse has やってきた in place of Kantarō, and the husband messes this up and goes with Kantarō again, ruining the wife’s perfect rendition and resulting in his subsequent orz. This is only made funnier by the fact that he says he messed it up on purpose. Ha.

Dazai Osamu’s “Dispatch From Tokyo”

I was in the Japan Times this week with a curated look at Aozora Bunko, a great source for public domain literature in Japanese: “Blue Sky Books is a literary treasure trove.”

My encounters with Dazai Osamu on Aozora Bunko have been revelatory. I’d only ever read him in translation previously, and nothing ever really struck me (for which I’ll blame youthful ignorance), but I remember a friend at Waseda saying that she loved his sentences, and I can now say that I know what she was talking about.

To try to give you a good example of this, I’ve translated one of his shorter nonfiction pieces on Aozora titled 東京だより (Tokyo dayori, Dispatch from Tokyo). I don’t think I do him full justice, but it was a fun exercise:

Dispatch From Tokyo

Dazai Osamu

Tokyo is currently full of working girls. Morning and evening, on their way to and from the factories, the girls march through the streets of Tokyo in double-file columns singing the songs of industrial soldiers. They wear almost exactly the same clothing as boys. However, the straps of their geta are red, and this lone point leaves them with an aura of femininity. All of the girls have the same look on their faces. You can’t even tell clearly how old they are. When offered up to the Emperor, perhaps all humans are cleanly stripped of all facial features and age. This isn’t only when they march through the streets of Tokyo; when I see these girls laboring or working, each of their features lost and their so called “personal circumstances” also forgotten, it’s even easier for me to understand that they’re exerting themselves for their country.

Just the other day, a friend of mine who is an artist was drafted to work at a factory, and I had to see him about something, so I visited the factory three times. This something was that he is going to draw the cover for one of my fiction collections that should be published soon, but in truth I always make fun of his works, and in the past he asked several times to draw the cover of my collection, but I rejected him outright and said, if I let you draw the cover, even one of my books that wasn’t considered any good to begin with would get even worse and would never sell a single copy, so, yeah, I’ll pass. Actually, his drawings were really bad. But he got in touch with an incredibly solemn request and said he was going into the factory and now was precisely the moment to try to draw the cover for my collection with a fresh mindset, so I quickly set out for the factory to ask him to draw the cover. I didn’t care if it was crap. I didn’t care if the collection was reviewed poorly. None of those things mattered. If drawing the cover for my boring collection lifted his spirits at the factory, then nothing would make me happier. I received his touching correspondence and quickly set out for the factory where he works. He greeted me with great joy and told me about his various plans for the cover. Each and every one was unsatisfactory. It shocked me how cliched and sentimental they were, but, yet, given the situation, the quality of the drawing was not the problem. My next collection might be ruined due to his drawing, but, nevertheless, I couldn’t have cared less about it. Didn’t someone once say, do unto others? He excitedly told me about his boring ideas and then the next time he showed me even more boring drafts of the drawings, so I was frequently summoned and had to go to his factory.

I passed through the gate of the factory, showed the guard the letter from him, and entered the administrative office, where ten girls were quietly attending to administrative duties. I told one of the girls the reason for my visit and had her phone his guard room. He slept in one room of the factory, so he had made sure to inform me of his break times in his letter, and I was able to make a short visit during those break times. Until he got to the office, I sat in a small chair in one corner and stared off into space as I waited, but actually I wasn’t that spaced out. I was surreptitiously observing the ten girls who were working right in front of me. They had already, in almost beautiful fashion, cooly ignored my presence. I’ve been accustomed to being ignored by girls since my childhood, so I wasn’t particularly surprised, but the way they ignored me showed no trace of arrogance; they all simply looked downward and diligently attended to their duties without a shift in attitude revealed on any of their faces, and there was no sign of any change in the quiet atmosphere due to the coming and going of visitors—it was an incredibly pleasant scene; I could hear only the crisp sounds of the abacus and the turning of pages in the ledgers. There weren’t noticeable expressions on any of the girls faces, which made them seem like identically colored butterflies quietly lined up on the branch of a flower, but there was one who, for some reason, had an unforgettable impression. This is a rare phenomenon when it comes to working girls. I stated previously that there weren’t even slight distinguishing features between each of the working girls, but there was the one in the administrative office of that factory who had a completely different sense from the other girls. There was nothing all that different about her face. It was longish and tan. There was nothing different about her clothes either. She was wearing the same black work uniform as everyone. There was nothing different about her hairstyle either. There was nothing different about anything about her. Nevertheless, she was beautiful and vividly different from the others, as though a green butterfly was mixed in amongst black swallowtail butterflies. Yes. She was beautiful. She wasn’t wearing any makeup. Still, she was completely different and beautiful. I couldn’t help but be intrigued. I must confess that while I waited for the artist in that office, I was looking only at that mysterious girl’s face. I settled myself down and came to the most plausible conclusion that it was her bloodlines. Her father or mother had noble blood for many generations in the distant past, therefore she gave off this strange scent despite having no discernible features. I sat alone intrigued and sighed thinking of how important bloodlines are for humans, but I was wrong. My lone conclusion was completely off. The reason she was so prominently, mysteriously beautiful lay within a solemn—even sublime—urgent reality. One evening, when I was leaving through the front gate of the factory after completing my third visit, I happened to hear the girls singing behind me and turned around to see them come out from the factory courtyard in double-file lines, loudly singing the songs of industrial warriors. I stopped to watch the energetic group go by. And then I was astonished. The girl from the office came walking with crutches, slightly behind everyone else. As I watched, my eyes began to burn. The girl who should’ve been beautiful, her legs were deformed from birth. Her right leg right around her ankle—no, I can’t bring myself to say it. She passed by me silently on the crutches.

The piece is striking for its variety of sentences. Dazai has total control and jumps back and forth between shorter and longer phrases. There is some repetition of terminology (such as 事務所), but I think they can be chalked up to linguistic differences.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of 男子意気に感ぜざれば. I found a few instances of 人生意気に感ず, which has a few good explanations here and here, so I made up something that seems to fit. Let me know if you see any other blatant mistakes.

Dazai has a long list of shorter pieces on Aozora that are manageable reads in addition to longer works like 人間失格 (Ningen shikkaku, No Longer Human). There are also a number that are related to the war, which are interesting…I don’t think I’d read many primary texts about the war experience in Japan. I think this piece can be read as a subtle critique of the war effort and its effect on the populace.

Dr. Yusuke Nakamura at the University of Chicago

I’m in the Japan Times today with a profile of oncologist/genomics researcher Dr. Yusuke Nakamura: “Leading cancer researcher Yusuke Nakamura pursues answers.”

He’s got an impressive back story. He spent five years researching in Utah and made some pretty incredible, important discoveries, including research that lead to discovery of the genes for colon cancer and breast cancer.

I don’t mention this in the article, but it’s easy to tell how he got where he is: he seems to be working at an extremely high level almost constantly. He replied to nearly all my emails within an hour, if not sooner. Why wait when you can knock it out and get on to the next thing? He must have this approach to his science as well.

His blog is also great reading. I selected his post 濃霧の中の殺人 (Nōmu no naka no satsujin, Murder Amidst Dense Fog) for my Japanese Reading Group last month. It tells the story of a gunshot patient he treated while a doctor in Japan. The ending is so interesting that I won’t spoil it here.

Despite leading a research lab and conducting clinical trials for different drugs (and traveling back and forth to Japan to help with projects there), he finds the time to post every two to three days about some interesting topic in his life, whether it’s things like Uber, his Fourth of July, politics, or information about cancer research. Highly recommended reading.

Cool Website – Yahoo Chiebukuro

I’m in the Japan Times this week with a look at Yahoo Chiebukuro: “Asking questions to the Japanese internet.”

Long-time readers will already be familiar with this site (I’ve mentioned it/linked to it a bunch of times before), but I think the article is still worth checking out. I found some fun new posts.

Yahoo Chiebukuro has become my go-to site whenever I have a question about Japanese language or culture. It may not always provide a perfect answer, but it’s generally worth a first look before deciding to dive deeper.

I recently filled in an eye on a Daruma a friend made for me, and I realized I didn’t know which eye to start with.

As you’d expect, there’s a page on Yahoo Chiebukuro for that. It’s a little rambling but seems to imply that there are many different ways to fill in Daruma eyes, depending on what kind of wish you’re making. Sometimes you even fill in both at the same time (to maintain a connection with someone, for example), although for general wishes you start with one eye and fill in the other when the wish has come true.

I wasn’t totally satisfied with the answer, so I did a little more searching and found ダルマの目はどちらから?(Daruma no me wa dochira kara? For Daruma’s eyes, which do you start with?), which seems to have most of the same information along with a history of Daruma and how they’re used. One funny line: Daruma are associated with Zen Buddhism but can be found at shrines and all types of Buddhist temples because, the author says, 日本人はそんな原理主義的な考え方をしません (Nihonjin wa sonna genrishugi-teki na kangaekata o shimasen, Japanese don’t really have that much of a fundamentalist way of thinking).

The author conveniently highlights the most important section in red:

どうも一般的には「最初は左、満願で右」、選挙では「最初は右、当選で左」が多いようです。間違いやすいのは、「右目」・「左目」というのがダルマにとってのことなので、「最初は向かって右、満願で向かって左」が憶えやすいと思います。

In general, “First left, right when it comes true” and for elections “First right, left when you’re elected” seems to be most common. It’s easy to mess up that it’s “right eye” and “left eye” from the Daruma’s point of view, so it’s easier to remember “First right as you face it, left as you face it when it comes true.”

And if you read to the bottom of the article, you’ll see another interesting point: It seems some political campaigns have stopped using Daruma after disability groups complained that filling in Daruma eyes after a victory discriminates against those with vision impairments by suggesting having two eyes is superior.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t round up all the times I linked to Yahoo Chiebukuro. Give these a skim—I’ve listed them with date and the topic of the Chiebukuro post:

2009.10.14 – Causative form of 見せる・見る (two posts)
2011.08.01 – Why Japanese uses ホワイト instead of ワイト
2012.01.11 – Origin and usage of お陰様
2015.01.05 – Usage of 借りができた
2015.03.02 – Difference between 愛し and 愛おしい and meaning of いとし
2015.05.12 – Pronunciation of 場合
2016.03.10 – Difference between 振られる and 捨てられる
2016.04.25 – How to write ケツ in kanji
2016.06.23 – Correct phrasing for the tongue twister about monks painting screens
2016.11.24 – How do you write ワイセツ in kanji?
2016.12.15 – Etymology of 邪魔 and ご無沙汰
2017.01.04 – Are 年男 and 年女 lucky?

Tanka and Competitive Karuta

I’m in the Japan Times this week with a quick introduction to tanka along with some cool reading recommendations: “Tanka help Japanese express emotions.”

I can’t recommend 『現代秀歌』 highly enough. As I mention in the article, it’s the collection that the poet (and scientist) Kazuhiro Nagata recommended at his Poetry Foundation talk back in April. The book is a collection of 100 contemporary tanka from 100 poets. It’s a follow-up to his collection 『近代秀歌』. Both are available on the Amazon Kindle store…very convenient and inexpensive. I think the former cost me $6.95. Not bad at all!

Tanka and other classical Japanese poetry forms can be super challenging to students of Japanese. I know that I generally need a helping hand to understand most haiku, and tanka are no different. Nagata provides that helping hand through his commentary about the poems. Yes, the commentary happens to be in Japanese…all the better for your reading practice.

In addition to the poems he has selected to represent each poet, he provides another two or three with commentary to fill out a sense of each poet’s oeuvre.

If you’re interested in older tanka, Ad Blankestijn has been blogging his way through the poems of the Hyakunin isshu in English at his website Japan Navigator. He gives nice explanations for each of the poems he’s addressed so far with very detailed look at the language used.

If you’re not satisfied with the couple dozen that he’s made it through, another blogger got through all 100 over the course of three years (I think…the poems seem to be out of order). The posting for each poem isn’t as detailed as Ad’s in terms of language, but there’s a lot of great background information.

And don’t forget that the the Hyakunin isshu is the source of the game Karuta! Check out this very high level match with commentary.

Nagata showed a similar video during his presentation. The person singing the poem reads the 上句 (jōku, first half of the poem) and the players have to tag the 下句 (geku, second half of the poem). As you can tell, they generally swipe at the cards after the first few mora…they don’t need to the full 17 to find the answer. Intense!

Natsume Sōseki’s “Koeber-sensei’s Farewell”

Apropos of plugging my Japanese reading group, here is a translation of ケーベル先生の告別, which we read this month:

Koeber-sensei’s Farewell
Natsume Sōseki

Koeber-sensei is supposed to be leaving Japan today (August 12). But he probably hasn’t been in Tokyo for two or three days now. Sensei is a strong willed person who hates empty ceremony and formalities. I heard that when he left Germany at the invitation of a university here twenty years ago, not a single person who knew him went to the station to see him off. He arrived in Japan quietly, like a shadow, and it seems he plans to leave Japan secretly, again like a shadow.

This quiet man moved three times in Tokyo. He was probably only familiar with those three houses and the ways to get to school from them. A while back, I asked him if he went walking, and he answered no, I have no place to go walking, so I don’t. He was of the opinion that the city was not a place for walking.

Sensei didn’t need to learn anything about Japan. Nor did he ever have the curiosity to try to learn anything. He was such that when I told him I was living in Waseda, he said he didn’t know his way to Waseda. Even after Fukada-kun reminded him that he had been invited to Count Ōkuma’s house in the past, Sensei had already forgotten. That might have even been the first time he heard Count Ōkuma’s name. [Count Ōkuma was the founder of Waseda]

When I took an invitation to dinner last month on the fifteenth, I asked him if he would have friends when he returned to his country, and he responded that, other than the North and South Poles, he had friends wherever else he went. This was a joke, of course, but Sensei could make this response precisely because somewhere deep inside his head there lurks an international mindset that transcends the trivial notion of place. And precisely because he could make such a response, he never needed to scowl despite living for twenty long years in Japan, a place about which he had little interest.

And it wasn’t just place; Sensei had a completely different attitude toward time than normal people. When I asked him why he had chosen to go on a steamer from a shipping company even though it was slow because half of the ship was filled with cargo, he said that he wouldn’t be bothered floating at sea for a long time nor could he understand someone so wrapped up in thoughts of convenience, trying to hasten their trip by a single day and get from Japan to Berlin in fifteen days or fourteen days.

He was also so indifferent to money that he didn’t seem like a Westerner at all. People who had visited Sensei’s home said that, from an economical point of view, he seemed to have been given a freedom that you couldn’t find in normal houses. When I last met him, the subject of a certain wealthy man came up, and he smirked and asked what exactly he planned to do by saving up all that money. Sensei will live off of a pension from the Japanese government and what is left of his pay to this point, but the amount left from his pay is truly a natural remainder and not the result of any foresight on his part.

The thing that mattered most to this man who lived in this way was just the love and affection that connected people. Sensei seemed to be fondest of the Japanese students he taught. On the night of the fifteenth when I was getting ready to leave his house and go home, he asked me to write the simple message “Farewell, be well” for him on his leaving Japan to his friends, especially his students that he had taught, in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. Sensei didn’t want to write anything other than that. He didn’t need to say anything else. And he didn’t want the message to be placed into the classified section. Owing to circumstances, I received Sensei’s permission and carefully added my own words (superfluous though they may be) to his “Farewell, be well” so that the many people who received his teaching would see his farewell message, as he wished. And on behalf of those many people, I pray he has a safe voyage and a pleasant rest of his life.

It’s a nice little piece of writing. The sympathy toward Cable-sensei certainly seems to change over the course of the profile. There’s one other, longer, piece up on Aozora about Koeber-sensei. I’ll have to give it a read at some point.

But not in February! February we read Dasai Osamu’s . If you’re in Chicago, please join us:

Deep Dives

I’m in the Japan Times this week with a look at using Wikipedia for anguish practice…er, reading practice: “Wikipedia ‘deep dives’ can help recreate the joys and pains of Japanese-language immersion.”

This is an exercise I’ve done in the past, but I think playing the game for the JT resulted in some pretty nice material to look at.

The textbook thing, of course, pops up in the news every now and then, but it was very funny to read about the Textbook Bribery Incident and how it was uncovered.

And I was thrilled to have an excuse to revisit Adam’s amazing trek of abandoned rail lines in Hokkaido. It makes me want to do a similar trip of my own, but I’m still lame from my surgery. It will be another 6-8 weeks before I’m back to normal, but I at least don’t have to wear my brace 24/7 anymore.

This gives me a good excuse to embed all the videos here. I’m always so impressed with his video editing skills. Crack open some beers and kick your feet up; these are longwatches:

And apropos of nothing, this week’s piece is my 32nd Bilingual column for the JT! I missed the even, diez-divisible anniversary two articles ago, so I thought I’d take a quick moment to pause and say…damn, I can’t believe I put out that many articles! Thanks as always for reading and commenting. If you have any questions or suggestions for topics, I’d be glad to hear them.

I missed the Murakami Fest post last week due to being busy with freelance work, but I have a big post that I should be able to put up later this week before we hit October, so keep an eye out for that.

Amazon Kindle Singles in Japanese

Japanese students living outside of Japan sometimes have trouble finding reading material. There are no BookOFFs or Kinokuniyas in, say, Omaha, Nebraska. And most of the ebook sales platforms are region locked.

You might counter with the fact that the Internet itself is a giant source of reading material, one that is ever-expanding thanks to its explosive nature. However, as with many explosive phenomena, it can be hard (and messy?) to sort through the results. What’s good reading material? What’s bad reading material?

This question gets less and less important the better you get at Japanese; it’s all practice, and you’ll quickly be able to sort out whether you’re enjoying it or not. Those at the lower- and middle-intermediate levels don’t have the chops it takes to sort through the expanse—they could, but it might exhaust the muscles that they should be saving for more “quality” exposure.

Amazon has a solution. A few months ago I learned that the Amazon Singles program has been offering Singles in Japanese in the U.S. and other Amazon stores. Singles are short stories, essays, novellas, etc. and they range in price from $0.99 to $7.00. Most are $0.99 to $3.99. You can download these and go at them on your phone or Kindle without ever leaving the country.

I picked up 天上の飲み物 (“Drink of the Heavens”) by Shion Miura to test drive the system, and I have to say it’s great:

tenjo8

All these screenshots are from the iPhone interface. You can install dictionaries which pop up when you highlight text. The J-J dictionary is great for forcing reading practice:

tenjo3

tenjo4

And there’s J-E if you’re struggling:

tenjo2

Highly recommended. Get ye to the Amazon Singles store.

This is a good reminder that ease of access doesn’t mean you’ll be accessing quality material. The story itself was only okay. Shion Miura is well known for the Naoki Prize-winning まほろ駅前多田便利軒.

天上の飲み物 is about a wine-obsessed vampire, and it’s highly concept driven. It reminded me a lot of the Yoko Ogawa story 涙売り that was part of the JLPP Translation Contest. They both start with narrators introducing a magic realist premise that the author uses to explore an idea: in Ogawa’s case, she looks at sacrifice for art, more specifically sacrifice in support of an artist, and Miura looks at relationships and love for someone who lives forever, which she uses to reflect on the state of relations in Japan.

Neither story has much of a plot. It’s mostly the narrator rambling on, but Ogawa’s story feels more specific, and there’s a small bit of plot toward the end: a band goes to play a show outside. Miura is far more general and the only plot is the narrator and his love interest lying around. Snore. Still, it’s good practice.

A couple of language highlights:

I learned that 収集 has the alternate reading 蒐集:

tenjo5

And I learned that ennui is written in katakana and can be used as an adverb (ennuifully?):

tenjo7

I’m going to have to look through the rest of the Singles on offer. I’d seen Miura’s name all over covers of literary magazines while I was living in Japan but I never had a chance to read her stories, so that was nice. I hope Amazon is able to add to this program. Very valuable for students living abroad.

JETAA Chicago Japanese Reading Group

coffee2

I’m on the Japan Times Bilingual page this week with a piece about learning how to read in Japanese: “Look to ‘senpai’ to help take your Japanese reading to the next level.”

These are all true stories. Paul laughed at me a couple of times (being laughed at is good, remember), and Sakakibara-sensei sat with me and fielded questions about those novels week after week for a whole semester. By the end, she admitted that she was glad we had done the activity because it allowed her to go over the novels closely (which she might not otherwise have done…because they aren’t very good…although they are interesting, perhaps, when considered together).

I previously wrote that I was reading those novels at five pages a day, but I feel like it was much slower than that. Maybe even just two pages a day. Progress is progress. And having someone willing to explain things to you patiently is one of the greatest gifts for language learners. Recently Daniel Lau asked me how he might go about mixing up his Japanese conversation lessons which had gotten a little stale, and I think incorporating a text (a novel or a set of short stories) might be a good idea—it would give you a set discussion topic rather than leaving it up to the random topics your conversation partner does (or doesn’t) pick. Being forced to talk about it in Japanese would be even better.

As I mention at the end of the article, I finally set up a Japanese reading group for the JETAA Chicago chapter. (I had totally forgotten that I thought up the idea years ago in that blog post.) We’ve been going strong over the past year. I’ve started logging the readings we are doing on this page in case you are looking for good reading material. Some of them are accessible on the web. I’ve gone back to some published material after a string of web stuff, so I’ll have to make an effort to find websites again in the near future because that makes it easier to share with folks who don’t have easy access to Japan.

Into the benkyō-ness: Let us now praise difficult kanji

kanji practice

I have an article in the Japan Times today: “Complicated characters: Let us now praise difficult kanji.”

This column was inspired by two of my biggest Japanese-related realizations of all time:

1. Katakana are not inherently more difficult than hiragana.

2. Kanji are not more difficult than English words.

I think everyone comes to understand these at some point, if they study long enough, but it’s always useful to review them.

I wrote more in depth about the first a few years ago (jeez, five years ago). Students of Japanese usually start with hiragana, then go on to katakana and kanji. They learn the pronunciation of all the individual katakana, but because there are comparatively fewer katakana words, they don’t get enough reps with any to really let them sink in. Whenever they do encounter them, they end up sounding out the syllables one at a time, wondering why the script is so difficult.

By contrast, they see 勉強 so much in the first few months, that it turns into what it should be: A gestalt larger than the individual parts. The kanji are still there, if you look closely enough (and within the kanji, the strokes), but dial back your focus, and they disappear into the benkyō-ness.

My recommendation to new students of the language: Don’t learn the hiragana or katakana individually. Just start memorizing whole words. I mean, I guess you need to do them individually at some point in order to learn how to write them, but I would recommend adding large katakana words to your flashcards or SRS software immediately. カレー, ラーメン, パソコン, all of these will be far more useful than the individual katakana.

The second realization may still be up for debate. I think Japanese and foreigners who study the language both enjoy contributing to the myth that Japanese is “the most difficult language in the world.” A good portion of this myth is supported by the sheer numbers: Japanese has THREE written “languages” and there are TWO THOUSAND kanji. Saying something like English has TWENTY-SIX letters just doesn’t feel as hefty in comparison. The fact that kanji are pictographs also contributes: My god, man, they look so damn complicated! How do you even deal with a language that isn’t phonetic?

But this assumes two things:

1. Two thousand characters allow for more combinations (and more difficult combinations) than twenty-six letters.

2. Being able to pronounce a word is equivalent to knowing what it means.

1 may seem true at first, but when you consider the fact that most kanji compounds only have two characters (and the longer ones can be broken down into sets of two), whereas the average English word is 5.1 letters, the playing field levels a bit. (Based on this website which gives Japanese an average word length of over 34…clearly mistaken since it acknowledges at the top that its calculation is based on languages with spaces.)

Japanese words look like this: __ __, with roughly two thousand possibilities for each space.

English words look like this: __ __ __ __ __, with twenty-six possibilities for each space.

2000 x 2000 = 2,000,000

26 to the power of 5 = 11,881,376

Obviously, there aren’t that many words in either language, but this is just a quick calculation that can hopefully put things in perspective: English words are equally complex as kanji.

And they are also equally simple. Take, for example, antidisestablishmentarianism. When I was in 3rd Grade, this was the word to know, for whatever reason. I guess when you’re ten years old, it’s really cool to know long words that seem complicated.

At the time, it seemed like one massive thing, but when I look at it now, it looks like kanji to me. Rather than being a gestalt or a string of individual letters, I see little packets of information: anti-, dis-, establishment, -arian, -ism.

Theoretically, you don’t even need to know how to pronounce these to know their meaning. They provide a visual way to break down the word, to a certain extent (if you are familiar with them). Which is another advantage to kanji: Because the pieces contain more information in and of themselves—is it safe to say that 義 holds more information on its own than -ism?—you have an additional method to gain information from the pieces, independent of their pronunciation.

Just because we English speakers don’t spend time in school learning these packets in the same way that Japanese students tackle kanji (lots of repetition required to master the ability to write the individual units) doesn’t mean that English is easier. They just require different strategies.

That’s all well and good, you might say, but give us something prescriptive, Morales! Well, the best I can do is these two pieces of advice:

1. Start reading in context as soon as you can. This will force you to look at kanji as compounds rather than individual characters.

2. When you are practicing your kanji composition, practice writing compounds or short phrases rather than individual kanji. This will hopefully serve to embed the idea that the whole is more important than the parts. For an example of this, see the image at the top of the post: These are my notebooks from study for the JLPT Level 1 test.

And if you haven’t yet, you must read “Kanji as Argo,” over at No-Sword, an amazing take on studying kanji that emphasizes number 1. The money quote:

…if you were learning French, you wouldn’t refuse to look at a French book at all until you’d memorized all possible verb conjugation patterns. (If that was the standard approach, no-one would ever read any French books at all—not even the French.)