Akemi's Anime World

Extra Credit Japanese Lesson

(Or: "Two things you were afraid to know, but always wanted to ask.")

In part three of our introductory lesson, I'm going to explain a couple of very important things about the Japanese language that you don't need to know to start studying it. They're interesting (if you're into that sort of thing), and they're very common, but you can get by without knowing these things at first. So, if you're itching to get started, feel free to skip this section and go straight to lesson 2. Otherwise, here goes...

Writing (AKA: Insane Scribbling)

At this point, you just might be wondering about how to write Japanese. For these lessons, we'll be writing Japanese in what's called "Romaji". The word means "Roman characters" in Japanese, which is appropriate because that's what they are. There are a couple of slightly different ways to write Japanese using letters you recognize (for example that "oh"/"ou" stuff from before), but they're all pretty similar.

If you were Japanese, though, writing your own language is a little more complicated. The Japanese have three--count 'em, three--different writing systems. Two of them are phonetic writing systems, called "Hiragana" (which have curvy lines) and "Katakana" (which are boxy-looking). Each of these contains 46 different characters, and each character represents one of those cool sounds you're going to be pronouncing perfectly (if you've been counting, you're paying too much attention for your own good, but you have to add dots or combine characters to write a few of the sounds).

Here's an example of what they look like:

Romaji: a i u e o

Even though Hiragana and Katakana have the exact same set of sounds, they're used for different things. Generally speaking, Hiragana is used for writing Japanese words, and for all the little things that fill in sentences. Katakana, on the other hand, is used for writing foreign words that are brought into Japanese (there are lots of these), as well as sound effects (like "Boom!"). These two systems aren't so bad, especially since there's no tricky spelling to worry about.

However... (add particularly evil music here) there's also "Kanji". Kanji are those characters, imported many centuries ago from China (and still used there, too), that look like a bunch of random (but pretty) scratches on paper. Each character represents one concept, but depending on the word it's in, it can represent several different sounds. If that's not bad enough, there are a grand total of upwards of 13,000 (read that again--thirteen thousand) Kanji.

Ok, it's not really that bad--most of those are used for obscure place names or technical words, and even most Japanese people don't know them. In everyday life, you only need to know a couple of thousand or so characters. If that sounds easy, then you're alone--get away from me you freak. If you're Japanese, you'll have learned to read (and write) enough of the generally used Kanji to read a newspaper by about the time you're in high school. There is thankfully the phonetic systems to fall back on (pity the Chinese--it's a miracle anybody can read), and it's not impossible to learn to really read Japanese, but don't get your hopes up unless you're serious.

Here's an example of what kanji looks like:

Romaji: Takahashi Rumiko

In any case, don't worry about writing for now, and be thankful if you only had to learn 26 letters in school.

Politeness + Formality + Reverence = Confusion

One of the trickiest parts of the Japanese language is unfortunately also very common: multiple levels of politeness and formality. In English, there are lots of way to be polite or rude, but they all use more or less the same words. In Japanese, not only can you be polite or rude, but different words actually have different levels of formality associated with them, and you're supposed to use different words depending on who you're talking to (whether they're higher or lower in social status than you).

As far as these lessons go, we're mostly going to start with what is considered "polite" Japanese. Not particularly formal, but not exactly "hangin' with friends" either, and it doesn't imply that the speaker is higher or lower in status than anybody else. This a good place to start, because polite language is used frequently, and you probably won't end up offending anybody by talking to them that way (we will get into more informal Japanese, though, since you're an anime fan, not looking to move to Japan... and if you are, go take a proper class). If you're interested, though, here's some more detail.

I'd like to be able to say "there are three levels of politeness" or something like that, but sadly it's not that simple. There is a lot of subtlety (way more than I understand, to be sure), but here are some of the basic levels. The grammar is basically the same, but there are a number of words (particularly the type of verb) that are only used with one of them.

  • Blunt - usually only used by men, and informally at that. You do hear this a lot in movies, particularly coming from rough-type guys.
  • Plain - anybody can use plain language, but it's only appropriate for relaxed situations with people you know well. Common, particularly with young people.
  • Casual - closer to polite than plain Japanese, but with some changes to make it flow a little more smoothly when you're talking.
  • Polite - what you start out learning in most Japanese classes; not too stiff and can be used in most situations where a lot of formality isn't necessary. Also very common.
  • Formal and humble - used when you're referring to yourself while talking to someone of superior social status, or who you're "at the service of", such as a business client.
  • Formal - used when talking to the same type of social superior, but when you're talking about them.
  • Formal and reverential - same as above, but even more so. Yes, there's actually another set of words if you want to be this polite.

Exactly when to use each of these types of speech depends on enough things to make your head hurt--your social standing relative to the person you're talking to, your age relative to them, your position in an organization relative to them (they're in a higher/lower grade than you in school, or higher ranked in your company), if they're a client of your company, whether you're related and in what way, and more.

The bottom line is, don't worry about it too much. Once you get the hang of polite Japanese, it's easier to get a feel for other types, even if you can't really understand them. Oh, and watch out for Samurai movies if you're practicing listening--they tend to speak very formally in addition to some old-fashioned words that aren't used anymore.

In Closing...

And that's the end of your introduction to Japanese. If you still want to keep going, congratulate yourself. In Lesson 2, we'll start with grammar...