When visiting Japan, it can be a mistake to expect the locals to be able to speak English. Lobby staff at major hotels, especially in Tokyo and Kyoto will, plus at ski resorts, but elsewhere might be pushing your luck. To get by, use of a phrase book can be helpful, and to improve the chances of success with this some understanding of the Japanese language can be worthwhile.
As with any language, a few handy phrases can be quite easily memorised. For those willing to take on something of a linguistic challenge, being able to count can be pretty useful, especially when dealing with money. As this can develop into some rather large numbers, learning the words for thousand and ten thousand are also necessary, but not overly difficult. Mastery of numbers, plus a few more words, can then lead to telling the time.
The spoken language
At the core of the Japanese language are the five vowel sounds, always spoken of in this sequence: a (as in cup), i (as in hit), e (as in egg), u (as in push), o (as in top). To make most of the standard sounds in Japanese, these are added to by a consonant, such as ka, ki, ku, ke, ko, creating the approximately 65 sounds in the language. Almost all consonants are followed by a vowel, and the language is phonetic. The most important points to remember when attempting to read from a phrase book are these five basic vowel sounds.
There are a few quirks and exceptions, as with all languages, the best known one being the problem with r and l: r is given a sound bordering on l, and vice versa. Each sound in a word is given equal emphasis (with some exceptions). In some words the final sound may be spoken trailing up or down, which can determine the word’s actual meaning: for example, áme, rain (trailing down), ame, candy (trailing up). These words can be understood from the context though.
Some words contain the same two vowels together, a long vowel sound, indicated by a macron, such as in the word kūkō, airport. Each u and o receives equal emphasis, and so in this word the u and o sounds are doubly long. Another example is the city name Ōsaka: it is a long o sound followed by the sa sound and ka sound, each of which is half the length of the Ō sound.
The written language
Apart from the romanised version of presenting words (referred to as romaji in Japanese), there are three forms of script in Japanese. Hiragana is the form of writing for each sound in originally Japanese words. Katakana is the form of writing for each sound in words introduced to the Japanese language from other languages, known as loan words. There are the same number of sounds, around 65, in both systems, but they are all written differently.
The most prevalent writing system in Japanese are the characters, many originating from China but in some way changed over the years, known as kanji. Many kanji characters have more than one meaning, and all such characters can be written in the much simpler hiragana. When writing a kanji character, the strokes are written in a specific sequence and direction, all part of the learning process from a young age.
Once viewed a few times, some kanji characters can be fairly easily memorised, which can be useful when travelling, such as the character or characters for one’s place of destination. Knowing the character for male and female can also be useful when staying at an onsen, hot spring.
© Copyright 2014 SJ Peterson