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Life is too short to learn Japanese

Life is too short to learn Japanese

Since we know that we will be in Japan in March, we are preparing for the culture shock.

Every Saturday, for three consecutive weeks, we are active participants of introductory Japanese lessons about country, habits, food and script at the ‘Japanisches Kulturinstitut’ in Cologne, Germany. Enthusiastic learners we are, finding our way through the Japanese writing system was entertaining (and cheap – 5 Euros for any class per person is a bargain). At the same time it let all hope for Japanese language acquisition vanish.

The courses are worthwhile to attend, for the Japanese inexperienced. Especially the class on the ‘Introduction to Japanese language and culture’, where I learned about the importance of strawberries, quizzes and the meaning of ‘maru’ and ‘batsu’.

Japanisches Kulturinstitut Sprachkurse Info


As I learned, there are FOUR different ALPHABETS (Hiragana, Katakana, Kanji, Romaji):

1. KANJI. Chinese based characters, that look like little pictographs or stamp seals to the amateur eye. For example, the days of the week are based on illustrations of objects in Japanese Kanji writing. There are only 1,945 characters to be memorized (and their multiple meanings). Haha.

‘Die Wochentage’, means ‘days of the week’ in German. The pictures on the left, eventually form the Kanji sign on the right.

Illustration of days of the week in Japanese


2.+3. KANA. That is the term, to refer to two alphabets, namely KATAKANA and HIRAGANA. There are 46 signs each, which are based on syllables, rather than one sign representing just one sound. HIRAGANA is used for Japanese words and KATAKANA is used to write words, that come from a foreign language, which is neat, because you can understand its meaning without vocab training, like

truck -> torakku トラック
fork -> foku フォーク
bed -> beddo ベッド

We were provided with useful laminated Katakana and Hiragana charts to decipher signs. Will definitely bring that to Japan.

Katakana chart Hiragana chart


4. ROMAJI. That is the Latin alphabet, which the Japanese use as well, because our letters are a piece of cake for their highly developed language skills. I am glad they use Romaji – I won’t feel totally alienated upon arrival. Japan must be a hospitable country.

The writing systems mix up in writing, of course. And: can be presented HORIZONTALLY and/or VERTICALLY. Japanese people are GENIUS and overachievers, who need major intellectual input all the time, so, who knows, the Japanese are probably already developing ANOTHER alphabet. Or some kind of language code, to decipher established Japanese writing systems, just for fun.

There is more challenge, actually. Each Japanese character has its given SYSTEM of bringing it to paper, with a counted number of STROKES and SEQUENCES. It felt more like drawing than writing to me. We had the honour to use a Japanese pen, that looked like an artist’s paint brush. It was fun to write our names in Japanese and that was our achievement of the day.

Tomasz is ‘To-ma-su’ in Japanese and Dasza would be ‘Da-sha’, phonetically left intact.

Japanese writing


The Japanese teacher actually transcribed my name the Japanese way (sound out every letter), ‘Da-su-za’, at first. It was one (of many) versions I have not heard before. Chose global, when naming your kids.

Polish names turned into Japanese names


Speaking Japanese is challenging, memorizing different syllables and sound combinations, without the comfort of mutual intelligibility of Romanic languages. The strings of syllable combinations are difficult to remember. A bit like ALIEN language, I used to make up as kid, really fun to ‘speak’ with other aliens, who pretend to understand Alien and ‘speak back’ in Alien. That’s a bit what is was like during the repetition training, in the comforting closed-class environment in Cologne.

By the end of the course I was able to say that I am a former ‘serapisuto’ (therapist) and Tomek is a ‘IT-senmonka’ (IT specialist). Should have asked for the ‘perpetual traveller’ profession. However, I was also able to use most important terms of everyday life’ (‘Die wichtigsten Ausdrücke im alltäglichen Leben’). At least ON PAPER I could.

Berufe auf Japanisch Wichtigsten Ausdrücke im alltäglichen Leben


It gets a lot easier when you are sick and a GERMAN speaking person – Japanese MEDICAL JARGON is based on German vocabulary and understanding your illness poses no problem to the native German speaker, like myself. Can’t wait to get to a hospital in Japan, if that’s all it takes.


Dasza’s Word of Wisdom: If you really want to learn Japanese, you shouldn’t let this stop you. Just be ready for a love-hate relationship. I think it’s like at ballet class – the more it hurts, the better you get, the more fun it is.


Check out my Japanese language acquisition approach after I actually got back from Japan.

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  1. No tourist should ever try to learn to read or write. It takes years. That said, basic survival Japanese if you just focus on speaking and listening is a lot easier than Spanish and I presume French as well.

  2. I am counting on the easy parts ;) I got very motivated to master Japanese after our trip to Japan and while watching Japanese horror film. There is now (and finally) another post, called Life is too short NOT to learn Japanese :) Wrote it after reading your comment!

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