Japanese E-Dictionary Friends Bookmarks

Japanese Language Strategy

A personal adventure of a differernt kind.
Some hints and hands for future fighters.

Often, mountains look like rolling hills, flat on top and the rivers cut into steep valleys: the higher you climb, the easier you proceed. Such is my experience with European languages, which have a common root. Studying Japanese, I found out, is more like climbing Mt. Fuji (or, as a matter fact, a bit rockier like Yatsukadake near Nagano): The first words and sentences come out easily because the pronunciation is simple. As you advance, you find out that the grammar gets quite complicated. Yet, the main obstacle is the script: Not only does one kanji character have several pronunciations, there are also many characters which carry the same sound. For example, 59 of the 1945 jouyou kanji for everyday use can be pronounced 'shou'. The result is a striking disparity between written and spoken Japanese: If you know all the characters, you may get an idea of what is written in a Japanese text - but you would not understand that same text read out to you aloud. The sound simply does not carry the information of the character. It won't be until you can actually read, however, that you can appreciate the magnitude of this cliff.

With each character carrying its meaning and a simple word made by combinging two characters, it is a fun game to mingle characters and form new words. Because of this modularity, the Japanese language has developed a larger vocabulary than other languages.

Studying Japanse is not a trivial task. But it is no mystery either. You need an enthusiastic approach and a long breath.

The Start

In my last high school year, I became curious about this mysterious island in the Pacific, the only sizeable non-Western post-industrial nation. To find out, I took a beginners' language course at the VHS Karlsruhe. Teruko Fritz Sensei made us memorize chapters in the textbook because plain memorizing is the best way to get youself familiar with a completely different language structure. I have since used the memorizing approach with Japanese pop songs - much fun!

Over the next six years, I kept studying Japanese lightly and visited Japan several times. The language was a fun challenge, and I made dear friends along the way. So it happened that I did not mind at all to do my Ph.D. studies in Japan. People being open and welcoming, it was very easy for me to find a good lab in Tokyo. This marks the time when I started to approach the language problem with an earnest strategy, spending signifficant amounts of my free time studying.
(By the way, if getting in was easy, fitting in and having success in a Japanese laboratory can be quite another story - depending partly on your professor, and on your ability and willingness to adapt. But I will spare you that one for the moment.)

I was very fortunate to master spoken Japanese already before moving to Tokyo for good. I could readily make non-English speaking friends and carry on a meaningful conversation, if slowly and with simple vocabulary. Foreigners who survive here in English tend to slip into the small anglointernational niche that exists in Tokyo and get stuck in it. In the end, they live in a separate world, because the "real" Tokyo does not, and Japan does not, by any means, speak English.

Striking up conversations in the subway by asking for directions is a hobby I was about to graduate from at this point: The 'what is your name?' 'I come from Southern Germany, the Black Forrest. Do you know?' style conversatons were getting boring. I had greatly enjoyed such exercise on earlier visits, even made friends that way. People usually respond gently in an open way, few would ignore me, but noone ever got aggressive. (Oddly, it is easier to strike up conversations with women. Men are sometimes shy to talk to foreigners, apparently fearing to make mistakes, or to fall out of their well-familiar, socially approved, consensial everyday routine.)

Getting Serious

My way of studying a new language is to identify the one critical point, to intensively work to clear this one point, while working on other aspects only light and playfully - yet work on them. The bottleneck I identified was reading.

Classes, held weekly or so, are offered almost free of charge to residents at city halls and community centers, as well as at universities. I jumped right away into the hardest class which focuses on text reading rather than doing grammar drills. My classmates were 40 Chinese and Koreans: Europeans seem to quit at an earlier point - good thing I skipped it!

The most important thing about a textbook is, in my opinion, that the texts have interesting content: you struggle to understand, but when you get there you feel rewarded. A challenging one, well suited for self-study, too, is "Intensive Course in Japanese, Intermediate" (see below). Another text book with very well selected texts is "Nihon Wo Yomu". A comic (manga) I read to gain fluency is the history book of the Doraemon series. Doraemon is a friendly robot and the best-known manga character in Japan, Pokemon notwithstanding. Doraemon is often used as a vehicle to make kids (elementary school level) review the things they have learned in school. In the same way, Doraemon taught me Japanese history - to the extent that I could understand him, but then the pictures gave me a hint too. The first Japanese movie I saw in a Japanese theater was also Doraemon. The kids around me looked a bit baffled at this big gaijin.

Again, I felt that reading practice alone does not break the barrier: One gets to a point where one must study the Kanjis, all of them, one by one. Since I do not trust my memory beyond 3 months, one can easily calculate: 2000 characters divided by 100 days yields 20 characters a day. Such was my plan. In fact, I arrived at Character no. 1945 nine month later, the better half forgotten, yet with a sense of satisfaction and a fair base to grab for new horizons.

It may not work for everyone, but it did work for me. So, here is my method to studying kanji: I used two books, "Kanji ABC" and "Kanji and Kana". Since Kanjis are composed of small sub-parts, called graphemes, one can assign meanings to those parts and build mnemonics. Kanji ABC does just that: First, it lists the graphemes and assigns a meaning to them. Then, it has a spartanic list of all the kanjis in order of grapheme composition - rather than the usual order according to frequncy of use and pronunciation. I found this semantic approach hugely helpful.

Spartanic is the book because it gives only the character, its pronunciations, English meaning and grapheme composition - no examples. To avoid confusion, I memorized only one pronunciation, the more systematic on-yomi (sinojapanese reading). For each character, I looked up an exaple jukugo (onyomi-based word composed of two or more characters) in "Kanji and Kana", which conveniently lists about 5 examples for each character, and entered that jukugo both into the Kanji ABC and a memo booklet for review. A friend of mine, Kurt, was smarter: He entered the information into the address book of his Zaurus PDA and now has a kanji study dictionary in his pocket. Most cool! In fact, let me add a few more words about electronic organizers - they can be handy language tools indeed.

Carrying On

As I went beyond textbooks, which have the vocabulary listed in English, I grew profoundly desparate of a dictionary which allows me to look up kanji characters directly. Having so far used so far the popular Cannon 'Word Tank' electronic dictinary which requires characters to be entered by keyboard, I switched to the Sharp's Zaurus. This machine, just like Casio's, lets you enter characters on a touch screen and has a handwriting recognition which recognizes my script remarkably well. At the time (1996), the Casio was unpractical to use for foreigners (who want to know both the pronunciation and the meaning of a given word, and need a sufficient font size or resolution to display complicated kanjis legibly). So I concluded that Sharp's Zaurus was the only truely useful electronic Japanese-English dictionary. Unfortunately, it is designed as a multi-function gadget (of course, you can browse the Web and send emails), and words I key in from regular newspapers lecture more and more often leave the Zaurus speechless: Its vocabulary is too small. In the past month or so, we have found out how to add external dictionaries from the internet. The possibilities are infinite, it's an exciting project going on.

Back to books, an excellent hint I once received is the fact that among literary works, mystery stories are by far the easiest to comprehend. I read one and strongly agree: "Ten to Sen" by Matsumoto Seicho. It has been tranlated into Englsh and German, the title should be simila to "Points and Lines". As a suspense drama, the book is entertaining, as a window at Japan 30 years ago, it is educating. As any good novel, the story has subtle points and allusions, many of which you will hardly catch, but once you get started beyond the first 10-20 pages, know the main characters and how things flow, it will just carry you along, and you will be surprised how much you understand. (That is, if I don't raise your expectiatins to the unreadonable by writing so here.)

Channel Conflict

A striking observation I made is that Japanese (and perhaps Chinese to some extent) learn by eye, while we Europeans lear by ear. An example is how Japanese study English in school: Not even the teacher is able to actually speak English. Memorizing written patterns is the name of the game. Now, this may strike us funny, but think the other way around: Is perhaps Japanese a language that calls for a visual approach to study, and for a good bit of blind memorization?

Now, don't go out and tell people Japanese cannot be studied by ear alone. A blind friend of mine who moved to Tokyo in her 20s did managed to study at a Japanese university. It isn't black and white. Just be careful to adapt your style to the language - the language will hardly adapt to you. Be sensitive, be imaginative, and have fun. Otherwise, you will get stuck and give up. Three years are no quick meal.

Today, I am at a point where I read everyday things - from cell phone manuals to newspapers - at bearable speed. I try to read Nikkei Shinbun every morning - they have the most detailed reports, and as a scientist I love to get down to the details. Time does not really allow for additonal lecture of English news, so weekend after weekend the Economist remains unopened. (The Economist, printed in Singapore, is the best paper delivered at reasonable cost that will keep you informed in English: The only alternatives are the American boulevard press, namely Times and Newsweek, and the sorry English language daylies by the Japanese press.)

Wow, you got quite a glimpse at a not so unimportant part of my everyday life over the last few years. I hope I could also give you some useful information and perhaps a thing or two to ponder about. Although this page will not change for a while, do visit me again. My biotech pages will be regularly updated and do contain a few articles of general interest - check the lower table in the 'archive'.

In case you need a text translated to or from Japanese, I'd be glad to do it for you for a fee. (I can handle most major languages, if not myself I got friends.) Technical, medical and scientific text are my speciality. Please inquire about details.


These are the text books I used and recommend, in the order mentioned in the text (i.e. beginners to advanced). Japanese E-Dictionary Friends Bookmarks
June 3, 2001 by Armin Rump

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