Why Japanese Sucks So Hard
Well, I must add a few words of explanation before angry Japanophiles out there start throwing things at me. This is merely an angry rant as a student of this miserable language, and this is more like a collective voice complaining and whining against the insurmountability of Japanese. Some may want to stab me in the back, as a Korean native speaker learning Japanese; the language should be a walk in the park for me. Well, But trust me, we have our own difficulties and I have heard the same complaints from people with various linguistic backgrounds. Some difficulties are specific to the speakers with a certain background; others are more common across their linguistic backgrounds.
1. The script is just ridiculous.
Okay. Why do we have to master three different scripts to read just one language? Kanji was the first writing system that Japanese ever came across, and it is understandable that they attempted writing Japanese in Kanji. So far it is merely a pardonable sin. Then they developed Hiragana. That is a good sign, now they have a more phonetic system which may be lousy but nonetheless good enough to represent Japanese fairly accurately. Did they reject those cumbersome Chinese characters? No, and there comes Katakana – that leaves Japanese with three scripts to choose from, and they chose all. I even wonder whether the entire Japanese nation has a typical anal personality; they just don’t let things go. And we shouldn’t forget the existence of Romaji, and they developed a habit of reading and writing foreign product names in fresh Romaji, not even Katakana. One may envisage the future students of Japanese complaining with four equally ridiculous systems.
2. And one of them particularly sucks.
You know what I mean. Yes, the horrors of Kanji. It is difficult regardless of your background. Those with no previous exposure of these wiggly squares will suffer, and you should have expected it. How about those who already had some characters under their belts? Well, that is not a very straightforward situation either. Of course, not even an English speaking person can automatically read German just because they share the same script, one need to put some efforts to learn different rules for pronunciation to avoid pronouncing Wagen like ‘way-gen.’ But that is a relatively small obstacle; there are 26 letters anyways.
Things are different when it comes to Kanji. I don’t need to say much if you don’t have any characters to start with, you’re doomed for sure. What about a Chinese? They know the characters already, huh? True, life is easier for them but they still have to learn the traditional set again if they happen to hail from mainland. How about those of you who keep traditional characters? You don’t have to learn everything new again, right? Wrong, because Japanese uses slightly different set from the traditional characters in Taiwan or Korea. The “true” traditional character for “virtue” (德) differs only one stroke from Japanese usage (徳); and keeping track of these obscurities suffice to drive us mad. (To be more specific, the diagnosis would be obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.)
Well, it still should be easier than Chinese, that you need to know *only* 2000 or so characters in Japanese, right? Wrong again. It is true that Japanese has a defined set of characters that may be used for the general purpose – the 1945 Joyo Kanji (常用漢字). And if you took the trouble to learn the Joyo Kanji you shouldn’t be really complaining about the extra two hundred or so characters for the personal names, and with an approximately two thousand or so characters you will be fine with almost anything, eh? Wrong. I couldn’t comfortably read a book in Japanese with that number of characters. Sure, the language in the newspaper is regulated but you cannot regulate every writer, and many of them just ignore the list.
3. And their readings don’t buy the common sense
Japanese uses two types of phonetics for reading Kanji; the onyomi or Sino-Japanese, and the kunyomi or native Japanese. The very existence of kunyomi is an unpardonable sin for they don’t have a common sense not to write native Japanese words using Chinese characters. As a result, you can combine two native words to make a new word (a common practice in many languages) and grant an entirely irrelevant spelling (only in Japan). For example, the compound word of “festival” (matsuri, 祭) and “work” (koto, 事) is not usually written as 祭事 as one might expect, but it becomes “政” because that character happens to be synonymous for the Japanese compound: politics.
So far, one may assume that Japanese writing system respects meaning of the characters when they do these kinds of things. Wrong again. Even the meaning may play no role at all in the world of Ateji, native Japanese words written “phonetically” (read with sarcastic tone) using Chinese characters. “Tempura” (天麩羅) really does not need to be written in Kanji, the characters by themselves don’t contribute to any meaning of fried seafood or vegetables. It’s a purely Japanese word written in the arbitrarily chosen Kanji for their Sino-Japanese phonetics. The latter two characters often dropped out and it becomes 天ぷら; why they keep 天 there is a mystery to me, they might just write it all in Kana. Again, I don’t see anything but Kanji fetish in their practice of Ateji.
My favourite example to illustrate Japanese lack of common sense is “Izumi.” Well, “Izumi” means a spring (where water springs out) and it’s normally written as 泉. There happens to be a place with the same name, and it was (reasonably enough) written as 泉 before the Imperial Court officially changed the name to 和泉. Well, it’s entirely in their rights to change the name of a place, but - lo and behold, the phonetics remains unchanged as just “Izumi.” Why did they add a character, after all? At this point, your previous acquaintance with the Chinese characters becomes largely irrelevant because the characters themselves are irrelevant.
4. And you can’t even read a name right
If that is not enough, proper names happen to be another Pandora’s Box where all kinds of evils come out and haunt you. A person’s last name can contain any obscure character and the government can’t force them to change it. The characters may be the same but you can never be sure how to read it; there’s no hint in the characters themselves whether “定家” is Sadaie or Teika. How do you know then? Well, you can’t. It’s a not-so-well kept secret that you can confidently read a name only after you already know it. And by the way, don’t even think about writing down a Japanese name. There are dozens of possibilities to write a single male name “Hiroshi” and the best thing you can do is just Hiragana.
Place names can get as surreal as personal names. The Kanji names “飛鳥” and “明日香” don’t even look remotely same (even if you don’t know any Kanji, you can figure out that one has two characters while the other has three) but you pronounce them the same, as “Asuka.” Are they two different places? No, and here comes the esoteric wisdom: they’re the same place but “Asuka” as a historical site is 飛鳥 while the modern “Asuka” happens to be 明日香. Some place names are Sino-Japanese (“東京” Tokyo), others just Japanese (“大阪” Osaka), others a mixture of both (“徳島” Tokushima), and others Ateji (“札幌” Sapporo). Okinawan names have their rules (“西表” Iriomote) and there is even Manyogana (“奈良”, Nara). Again, you can read the name only if you know what that place is, and you’re lost if you’re looking for a direction in an unfamiliar place.
Now before the prospective students of Japanese fall into the abject despair, I should add a few words for consolation. The thing is, that the Japanese themselves cannot read or write Japanese names with a full confidence either. Even a relatively common name like “山崎” may be “Yamasaki” or “Yamazaki” and there is no cue unless they’re given the phonetics, and they’re as blind as you are when they want to write down a name that they have never seen, only heard. It’s not surprising that being able to read place names or surnames – a task largely trivial for the speakers of normal languages – is regarded as a special feat.
5. Then there comes the grammar.
Sure. All languages have their own peculiarities in regards to grammar, and it’s not fair to accuse just Japanese in this respect. But let’s stop and think about it for a while – when you learn a European language, for example, you find a well-defined grammatical categories such as mood, tense, aspect, and voice, for example. A learner of English grammar can use top-down a priori approach: there are four moods; indicative, subjunctive, conditional and imperative. Indicative and subjunctive each has three time tenses, which are further divided into four aspects – simple, perfect, continuous and perfect continuous – and finally into two voices, active and passive. It is complex but there is a well-defined overarching structure.
And you never seem to find anything like that in Japanese. Learning “grammar” in Japanese is almost synonymous with learning a new phrase or structure which serves a specific grammatical function. (For example, “べき” attached to the verb means “one must”) You just grab them one by one, and try to build a sentence. The process is entirely bottom-up a posteriori and it’s not long until the learner comes to a total despair. Moreover, nobody really tells you when to use は and when to use が, you’re at the mercy of your intuitive guess which may or may not be correct.
Why should this happen in the first place? Because Japanese grammar in fact contains two different sets of grammars and it’s a secret that you’re not supposed to know before you seriously begin studying. The above example “べき” violates the modern Japanese rule that the verb in the final position must end with –u sound; です、ます、する、します、but why the hell べき and not べく? This is another manifestation of Japanese anal-ness; they switched their written standard from Classical Japanese to the modern spoken one, but they kept a lot of the Classical structures that they throw at random in the midst of sentences. The truth is that the verb final used to be –i in Classical Japanese and these things don’t abide by the modern rules. They end up with a language with two independent grammar sets operating simultaneously, and of course they can’t come up with a neat system to describe this as long as they pretend it’s just one language. This leads to the next point.
6. And there’s Literary Japanese.
You may acquire a sound command of modern Japanese, and you happen to be a poetic kind of person so you attempt a piece of haiku. Your Japanese friends may give you a patronising smile and tell you that’s not the way you should write a haiku. There is a formal register known as Classical Japanese (“文語”, Bungo) coexisting with the modern descendant. Unfortunately, it pops up everywhere, from novel to even animé, and you need to get some acquaintance with it whether you want or not.
This is a particularly discouraging factor for the ambitious students who want to dive into the Modern Japanese literature: Natsume Soseki, Akutagawa Ryunosuke, Dazai Osamu, etc. You have learned the language for some time, and you might have been able to read the works of some contemporary writers like Yoshimoto Banana, and find yourself at blank on the first page of “Botchan.” Sure, Natsume doesn’t care about Joyo Kanji because it didn’t exist when he wrote his novels, but that’s not all: these Early Modern authors throw Classical constructions much more frequently than their modern counterparts.
You might think that’s just inevitable that the language changes over time. True. But languages change gradually and there is no fundamental grammatical difference between the French of Sartre and Voltaire. Here, Japanese prove their anal trait once again that they preserved a thousand-year old Heian period Japanese as the literary standard, resulting in a chaotic amalgamation of two significantly different grammars found at once. The ambitious students who can’t wait to feast on the riches of Japanese literature must be patient and get used to this first. Still more ambitious ones wanting to tackle Murasaki Shikibu should see next.
7. And the “real” Classical Japanese.
The student who came all the way through from learning Kana to Natsume Soseki may reasonably feel confidence in reading Japanese. Now there’s the epic scale soap opera called the Tale of Genji, and all Japanese say that it’s the greatest achievement of Japanese literature. You’re quite familiar with the literary Japanese, so you get a copy of it and open the page. And voilà, it makes absolutely no sense what she’s talking about, and you come to a painful recognition that there is still more to come. If Soseki’s Classical adages were merely later imitations, Murasaki was a native of it and apparently wrote entirely in it. You may just treat it as a different language, like Anglo-Saxon from Modern English.
So you start from reading shorter works. It’s assumed that you went through painful reading of Classical Japanese grammars (of course those written in Japanese) and have a Classical Japanese-Modern Japanese grammar at hand, and Murasaki is still too difficult, because Murasaki wrote almost entirely in native Japanese words, with rare cases of Sino-Japanese loans. Almost pure, very subtle, and unarguably beautiful – but impossible to penetrate to the uninitiated foreigners.
There is absolutely no shame if a weary student stops the arduous march here, because not even Japanese can read Murasaki fluently without some serious work. Unfortunately, a gaijin is bound to be treated like a grown-up child who is by definition clueless about anything Japanese and needs to be reinitiated into the proper Japanese society. If you don’t happen to be satisfied with such treatments and low expectations, you might start citing Classical literature. After all, the students of English don't read Shakespeare for nothing. It is a symbol of your interest and appreciation of their culture – and it just has to be perversely difficult in Japanese, as usual.
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