I’ve developed a bad habit with this blog: post a few times, vanish, rinse and repeat. I’m sort of just treading water right now, so blog motivation is low. But since Japanese is one of my things, and I see people going the self-study route online all the time, I’m back for a nuts and bolts language series. I’ve got six years of experience behind me, so I might as well share, right?
And I’m going to start things off by covering some relevant terms! Some of it’s extremely basic. I meant it when I said “nuts and bolts”.
文部科学省 (Monbu-Kagaku-Shou/MEXT): The Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology. They decide all the things.
かな (kana): The phonetic scripts. Hiragana (ひらがな) and katakana (カタカナ) are the two currently in use: hiragana for native Japanese words and katakana for foreign words. Romaji (ローマ字) is romanized Japanese.
漢字 (kanji): Characters imported from China. Before the initial introduction of written Chinese in the 1st century, Japan didn’t have any writing at all and, for several hundred years, all Japanese texts were written in Classical Chinese. Then they started adapting the Chinese characters to go with their own language and what we know as written Japanese [awkwardly] came to be.
常用漢字 (jouyou kanji): Common-use kanji/the jouyou set. It’s the list of 2,136 characters that Japanese people learn in school. From 1981 to 2010 there were only 1,945 but then MEXT decided to eliminate 5 and add 196 (thanks).
Kanji Readings: Pronunciation. There are two types of readings: On (音読み) and Kun (訓読み). On is based on the Japanese approximation of Classical Chinese. There are four types and a single character can have more than one. Kun is the native reading, assigning a Japanese word to a character with a roughly equivalent meaning. There can also be more than one Kun reading, but some kanji don’t have a Kun reading at all. Yes, it really is this convoluted.
国字 (kokuji): I will likely never use this term again, but kokuji are kanji that were invented for words and concepts unique to Japan.
ふりがな (furigana): Small kana printed under, over, or next to a kanji, so you know how it’s pronounced. You usually see furigana in children’s books and with kanji that are rare or ambiguous.
送り仮名 (okurigana): Kana suffixes attached to kanji in words. Example: 読む (yomu/to read). The first character is kanji, the second is hiragana, and the suffix indicates verb tense. You never see okurigana with On readings because, to oversimplify some linguistics, you can’t modify Chinese in Japanese.
Radicals: Common components used to organize/identify kanji. There has to be some method to this madness.
Stroke Order: The order in which a character is written. There are exactly two instances when you really need to care about this: calligraphy and trying to look something up with a touch screen dictionary.
Heisig Method: James Heisig’s kanji study method, detailed in Remembering the Kanji. Heisig decided that the traditional tactic of rote memorization, learning readings and meaning simultaneously, sucks. Instead, he recommends using mnemonics and not learning the readings until after you know all the kanji by meaning alone. Some people hate him, some people swear by him, and my strategy stops at being inspired by him, though I do have the books.
JLPT (日本語能力試験/Nihongo Nouryoku Shiken/Japanese Language Proficiency Test): A standardized test, issued twice a year in Japan and once a year in other countries, that certifies Japanese proficiency. MEXT overhauled it in 2010 to fix the difficulty gap between the old levels 3 and 2, so now there are 5 levels instead of 4. Level 1 (N1 now) is the most difficult and if you can pass it chances are you know Japanese better than most Japanese people.
And that is… not everything, but it is a pretty good start. Mostly I just tried to hit terms that get thrown around a lot like everyone already knows what they mean. And, if you didn’t, now you do! I might go back and talk about some of the linguistics in more detail later, because rules are all fine and good but ultimately it’s important to also understand why. But that’s more than the casual language learner is signing on for, so I’m setting it aside for another day.
Next up: books and other resources you should (or shouldn’t) use.