Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Japanese Characters

Something that greatly surprised me on our trip to Japan was how little knowledge of English there is the country. Now, I realize that makes me sound like the archetypal American lout expecting to be addressed in my native language wherever I go in the world. It’s easy enough to fall into that trap.

However, I did think that in Japan, which is maybe the most Western of any Asian country – they play baseball there, for goodness' sake! – English would be quite common.

Wrong. In Naha City, the capital of Okinawa, we struggled to find a restaurant with street-side menus in English. At our hotel in Tokyo, we struggled when asking the polite, but bewildered, clerk if there would be coffee available in the lobby when we left at 6:00 the next morning. He looked sympathetic, wanting so much to understand us, but remained clueless. (Okay, to be fair, we were staying at cheap hotels, maybe not often used by Western tourists, so the standards are no doubt different.)

In any case, it began to feel that the Sofia Coppola film “Lost in Translation” rings completely true.

Of course, Japan presents special challenges for English speakers. If you travel in countries that use an alphabet based on the Latin of ancient Rome (which, by my count, is about 80% of all countries) you can squint your eyes and almost make out how a word reads, no matter how foreign it may be. Or at least find it in a phrase book. Or make a comical attempt at pronouncing it to a hotel clerk.

Places like Japan are much different. Without knowledge of the language, it’s impossible to make out anything of signs, maps, menus, practically anything written in Japanese.

The only Japanese characters I had any clue about previously were 入口. I partially remember this from our trip to China some years ago, where I eventually grasped from signs in the Beijing metro that 入口 means “entrance”. Teasing out this bit of understanding was no great lift, however, since the Chinese word was accompanied with its English counterpart.

That was also the case in the Tokyo metro. Chinese characters are employed in the Japanese kanji writing system, and the word for “entrance” is written identically in both languages. It helps that these two characters are quite simple, made up of only a few lines, unlike many Japanese characters that are much more baroque. For example, the kanji for “bear” is , which, if you think of the little lines at the bottom as legs, you could almost imagine as a bear. Or maybe not.

Naturally, if you know the meaning of the two characters in 入口, it all makes sense. means “entering”, and  signifies “gate” or “mouth”, which is especially easy to visualize. Likewise, the word for “exit” 出口, is made up of (“out”) (“gate”).

That’s about the extent of my Japanese reading comprehension. I have no clue how “entrance” and “exit” would be pronounced in Japanese, or Chinese for that matter. Nothing to brag about really.

I did learn one additional word on this trip. We spent part of one day in the town to Takayama, which means “tall mountain”, and is written as 高山. I like the simplicity and obviousness of 山, the character for yama ("mountain"). If I ever got tattooed with a Japanese inscription, it would probably include .

Maybe something like 高熊山 ("tall bear mountain"?). It might be garbled Japanese in reality, but it does look impressive, doesn’t it? 

A sign in Takayama warning about bears, featuring three of the six kanji 
characters I can recognize. 

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