Parker, outbound to Japan

Hello all! Somehow February is mostly over already and I'm just now posting this, apologies. Since last entry, I've switched families not once, but twice according to schedule, and experienced the plenty of “new” that accompanies such changes. It's been interesting to view objectively the differences in lifestyle, housing, parenting, etc that vary by family. There's too much to address in one blog, so I'll just list some interesting things instead, and try to fill in more at a later date.

My mode of transport switched from soccer-mom van to Maserati(!) and then back to van. I spent considerable time chilling in big tubs with naked old guys. I tour guided a couple of Korean boys around Tokyo (and skipped school for it!). I've run a marathon (albeit broken up over many PE periods), passed two judo tests, and skied down Japanese mountains. I sleep each night on a mat on the floor, and I've experienced cold and snow riding my bike to school. I've gotten lost on trains, chatted about marriage (and rice) with strangers, and prepared guacamole for a traumatized Mexican living in a hotel. I've thrown beans at my host sister. I've learned baseball drills with old (fully clothed) Japanese men, and cross-dressed as a female bowling pin. I've also gained about five pounds!

… But despite the excess of stories within just those few lines, I promised myself I'd take this entry to detail something I find fascinating: the Japanese language itself. This is likely an excess of new information, but hopefully I've formatted it in such a way as not to bore. The language essentially defines my life here, so I thought it worthwhile to share some thoughts. Here goes!

Looking at a Japanese text for the first time, before grammar or vocabulary even enter the picture, it's apparent something is different. Namely, you won't be able to voice a single sound to match what you see. The page will probably resemble a giant jigsaw puzzle of black and white... A fair assessment, really, in the sense that written Japanese IS a jigsaw puzzle of sorts. But under the seeming randomness of its markings lies a very organized set of rules governing their arrangement.

The first thing to address is that Japanese has no one single alphabet, like these ABCs you're reading. It has three! Well, actually, it has two syllabaries and one logosyllabary, but we'll get there. Using three writing systems together means that any given chunk of Japanese text will lack the uniform appearance of the above. Instead, it might look something like this: こんにちはアメリカ人、元気ですか?... Can you distinguish between the three different scripts?

Breaking it down, we'll start with kanji (漢字), the characters most likely to spring to mind at mention of “Asian” writing. Kanji are the thousands of pictographic characters which constitute the vast majority of Japanese words. A 2,136 “must-know” character list was issued by the Japanese government to be instructed through high school graduation, and thus reading the newspaper is the culmination of twelve years of effort. Among to the first learned are simple, stylized representations of common objects. For example, can you see the “mountain” in 山, or the “tree” in 木? Unfortunately, not all are so easy, and it can be daunting to confront pages of dense kanji like 柔道部。

But just as many English words can be broken into their Greek and Latin roots, so too can kanji be broken down into smaller components to discern larger meaning. This occasionally occurs with extremely satisfying elegance, as with the characte rs 林and森。What better way to represent “grove” and “forest,” respectively, than by simply repeating the character for “tree” two and three times? Given a splash of imagination, the meaning is evident within the picture itself. Such combinations can occur within one kanji like so, or across multiple kanji, such as with 入れ歯, which combines meanings for “to enter/to put in” and “teeth” to make “dentures.”

It makes sense to look at kanji first, because they came first. Like so many other cultural aspects of Japan (and greater Asia), written language traces its heritage back to ancient China. Beginning in the 5th century, Japanese started adopting the characters of visiting Chinese merchants and missionaries. Prior to this, they had no formalized writing system of their own, contrasting the ~2500 years of written Chinese. So great was China's influence that the “civilized” wealthy men of Japan studied for years to read and write in Chinese, leaving the other, evolving variants of Japanese to women and the less educated masses.

The problem with this, however, was that the two languages don't share any sort of grammatical structure. As Chinese script flowed into the country, Japanese had an overwhelming body of conceptualized characters to choose from, none of which they could pronounce without years of training, nor which captured the basic framework that makes a Japanese sentence coherent. The solution? Simply to “steal” the meaning of characters for their own purposes and apply a new, Japanese pronunciation to each one. Almost every kanji in Japanese writing has origin in a Chinese “hanzi.” For example, writing 火represents fire in both languages, despite different pronunciations. This means that any literate Chinese person could function quite capably here, provided they needn't speak... Meanwhile, I'm largely illiterate and quite jealous, hah!

Those meanings (and a large number of cognates associated with them) are where the similarities end, however. Because Japanese features concepts like tenses and conjugations which Chinese lacks, further modifications evolved over time. Namely, two identical-but-not-identical syllabaries known as 'hiragana' and 'katakana'. It’s probably important to clarify what a “syllabary” is before I go on. As English speakers, we’re accustomed to a an alphabet, in which each letter can stand perfectly fine on its own as an “a, h, m,” and so on. Japanese, on the other hand, in its most basic form is divided into syllables. The same vowels “a, e, i, o, u” exist (albeit in ‘aiueo’ order), but a solitary “m” simply makes no sense. Instead, select consonants are combined with the vowels (i.e.: ma, mi, mu, me, mo) to make the building blocks which form larger words.

And this, in essence, is the role of both hiragana and katakana: to depict these phonetic blocks, which in turn perform a variety of grammatical functions. To continue in the above “m” theme, 「ま、み、む、め、も」and 「マ、ミ、ム、メ、モ」represent “ma, mi, mu, me, mo” in hiragana and katakana respectively. If certain characters, like ‘mo,’ look similar to you, they should. In fact, both scripts evolved as shorthands for reading and writing Chinese texts, particularly for Buddhist monks in their daily recitations (religion, yet another ancient export of China). Complex kanji were stripped down to their most basic skeletons and over time standardized and accepted as legitimate scripts. Often times these shorthands derived from the same “parent” kanji, explaining their similarity: it’s fairly easy to find the “mo” within 「毛」.

That said, it's important to note that one pronunciation of 毛 IS “mo,” and it can just as easily be represented as 「も(う)」 Every kanji has corresponding pronunciations that fit into the “easier” system of the syllabaries. So why not do away with kanji altogether and make things simpler? Well, for one, Japanese text has no “space bar” function (and very limited punctuation, for that matter), so switching to a singular script would make things quite difficult indeed to tell whereonewordstopsandthenextbegins. More importantly, the lack of structural variety that comes with using syllables rather than individual letters results in fewer physically capable sounds in Japanese than in English. The language simply does not contain many unique combinations of letters. Among other things, this means that homophones and similar-sounding words are abundant. The word “jishin,” for example, means both self-confidence and earth quake. It's probably a good idea to clarify which one you're talking about, but written in hiragana or katakana the meanings would be indistinguishable...

Enter kanji! In using the distinct characters 自身and 地震, the confusion is avoided. Well, that is, if you understand kanji, including the over TWENTY ways to write our good friend “mo.”.. Multiply that by all the other letters, and factor in that most kanji have at LEAST two different readings, and you can see how this might get difficult..

Okay that got pretty dense, forgive me, but there's just a little bit more. Because even if Japanese must have both kanji and a phonetic script, why the heck does it need TWO of the latter? This is where it gets fascinating (for me). After morphing slowly over the years, each now plays a defined role, with hiragana in particular serving as grammatical “markers” that I won't get into here. What I will, however, is how the origin of a word affects the script in which it's written.
As a general rule the majority of words are written in kanji, which you'll remember comes from Chinese. A large percentage of words themselves are Chinese in origin as well, after adapting the pronunciations to better fit the Japanese tongue. Next comes hiragana, used for many general phrases and prepositions, like “little by little,” “the other day,” and “thereabouts.” It's also used for distinctly Japanese things, like native foods, creatures and certain customs. Last and most dynamic, katakana is used almost exclusively to write "loan words" - those words borrowed (abundantly) from other languages and adopted into Japanese. It's also used to write foreign nouns, like パーカーハミルトン、paakaa hamiruton, my name.

The part that fascinates me is that altogether this means that a page of Japanese text (or indeed, a conversation) is not simply a randomized jumble of scripts. Rather, it is a living, breathing history of all the influences to enter the country. Going all the way back, what was Japanese like before Chinese influence? We have very little idea, since it was a strictly spoken language before foreign tools arrived to put it into writing. Now close to 40% of vocabulary has direct Chinese origin.

Going forward, who were the first Europeans to touch soil on the islands? Portuguese, in the 16th century. As a result, to this day people visit the supermarket to buy パン、which spells 'pan,' meaning bread. Until that introduction, bread simply didn't exist in Japan, and thus its name hails from Portuguese. Later, after the borders reopened in the mid 1800s, a wave of Westerners broke upon Japan, bringing with their languages new concepts of economic and social roles developed during the Industrial Revolution. That's the reason you'll see so many signs nowadays advertising openings for アルバイト, arubaito, or part time jobs: it comes directly from “arbeit,” the German word 'to work.'Interestingly, it was also during this period that horizontal, left-to-right writing was introduced on a large scale. Now half of my textbooks open the same way they do in Florida, and the other half open from the “back” cover, and read vertically, right-to-left, in the traditional fashion.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the language du jour since the end of WWII has overwhelmingly been English. The coincidence of American occupation with an increasingly global economy increasingly dominated by Americans cemented English's place in Japanese society, to massive effect. An example: native Japanese words rarely start with 'P,' and so a dictionary from 100 years ago would be unlikely to have many 'P' words. In my modern pocket dictionary, however, on a 'P” page of sixy-seven entries, SIXTY were imported directly from English. For the most part, the English pronunciation is merely adapted to fit the appropriate syllables, with words like 'pasuwaado' for password, and 'petto' for pet. Others get more creative, like 'pasokon,' a shortening of “personal computer,” or my personal favorite: “piiaaru.”.. Which is a literal import of the acronym PR, and the way to refer to “public relations” here.

English is borrowed so profusely that sometimes I feel like I'm living in some sort of bizarre alternate universe, in which I sit at the 'teburu' (table) in front of the 'terebi' (television) eating my 'hanbaaga' (hamburger) while I watch 'baraitii shouzu' (variety shows). The part that gets me is that Japanese are gradually losing the ability to distinguish when a word comes from English. I've been asked how to say “supin-offu” (spin-off) and “shoto-stupu” (short stop) in English, among many other more conspicuous words. Sometimes it's snuck into hybrid words, like “ha-burashi,” which despite first glances does not mean hairbrush, but instead slaps the Japanese word for 'tooth' in front of English 'brush' to make a new word for toothbrush. Occasionally this willy-nilly language nabbing makes me indignant, like some kind of Ancient Roman waking up in modern day Italy and wondering what sort of nonsense everybody seems to be babbling in “his” language... Okay, it's really different from that.. But the image does highlight my own hypocrisy: namely, that English, too, borrows exhaustively from other languages, despite general ignorance of where many words originate.

I could keep musing, but the length of this entry is getting just silly and I need to sleep. No doubt you'll appreciate the respite as well. I'll finish on one last bit of food for thought, though, for those who've read this far: that you should be very, very, very grateful. Not because you've been graced with my ramblings, rather because you've had the capacity to read them and understand their tone and quirk and meaning. Living abroad has given me a new country to call home, but it's also illuminated many things to appreciate about my first home, perhaps most critically my native ability to speak English. Every single inbound student in my district has a working knowledge of English, but only the four Americans spoke it from birth. The others had it crammed into them through years of effort and schooling. I have (at least) one English lesson a day here, spent listening to my classmates struggle. They have to, because English is THE international language, and thereby imperative in a shrinking world. I'm very blessed to have learned it in the easiest way possible.

And for many other things as well, for which I'll quickly give thanks here and try to post again sooner. Thanks to all!