Alphabetti spaghetti desu ne!

While studying Japanese at university, I was looking forward not only to learning my first non-European language (having studied French, German, Latin & Greek at school and university), but also making a stab at an entirely new alphabet (or as our sensei told us to call it, writing system). It was only after our first lesson that I became a little more apprehensive, when I learnt that they employ three separate writing systems simultaneously.

First of all there are two phonetic writing systems: hiragana, which is used to ‘spell out’ Japanese words in short phonetic units (for example, sensei (せんせい), meaning ‘teacher’, consists of four hiraganas: se (せ), n (ん), se (せ) & i (い).

The other phonetic system follows the same rules as hiragana, but is used to spell out ‘loan words’ (Japanese words borrowed from English or other languages) or to emphasise Japanese words (for example, in signs outside shops and bars). This writing system is called katakana, and while it follows the same pattern of phonetic sounds, the characters look different, consisting more of straight lines when compared with the more curvaceous hiragana. For example, the Japanese word for ‘icon’ is the same word, but transliterated into the more limited Japanese phonemes to match the sound of the original term as closely as possible – in this case, aikon (アイコン).

These two writing systems were manageable for a gaijin (‘foreigner’) such as myself: regular practice reading and writing the characters and recognition exercises coupled with my own enthusiasm helped me become fairly proficient in both writing systems in only a couple of weeks, but it was the third writing system that bamboozled me – kanji.

Kanji are characters of Chinese origin, first imported to Japanese shores by articles from China. These characters are far more complex and intricate than the kana systems, many requiring upwards of 20 individual strokes to draw, and are used primarily for nouns, adjective stems and verb stems, replacing what would otherwise be phonetic characters. Most kanji have several different ‘readings’, which can subtly alter their meaning, as well as usually completely changing the way you say them. The main drawback when learning kanji, however, is that you don’t know how to pronounce them unless you either have the furigana form of the character, or have been briefed in advance of the different readings. To add insult to injury, there are over 50,000 kanji in existence; although only around 2,000 are in daily use.

While the Chinese students in my class had very little difficulty recognising the root meanings of many kanjis, as well as being able to write them with amazing speed and accuracy, every facet of every kanji exercise was a huge challenge for somebody with my background, trained purely on Roman and Greek alphabets with very little talent for drawing complex shapes.

For those starting out in Japanese reading and writing, the only advice I can offer for unlocking the mysteries of kanji would be the same advice given to me by my senseigambatte!