Friday, January 25, 2008
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
With a sentence structure and grammar unlike anything used in the West along with three different writing systems, learning the Japanese language can certainly be challenging. Then again, there are times when Japanese learners get off easy. First, there are whole swaths of words that are simple to learn, thanks to the way kanji words can be appended to the ends of other words. If you need to specify a language, just add the kanji for language (go) the end of a country name, resulting in France-go, Russia-go and so on. Similarly, nationality can be specified by sticking the character for "person" (jin, pronounced "jean") on the end of a country name, for example America-jin, Nihon-jin. When the Japanese adopted the Western calendar during the Meiji Era, they wisely named January ichi-gatsu (1-month), February ni-gatsu (2-month) and so on -- much easier than using the old esoteric names from the Edo Period. One of the most difficult areas of English for Japanese to learn are verb tenses like past perfect and present progressive, but I'm happy to report that none of these structures exist in Japanese, something bilingual foreigners are thankful for every day. Similarly, Japanese is not a tonal language like Chinese or Vietnamese, making it much easier for English speakers to pronounce. There are some difficult patches in the language, of course, including concepts like "sister" which get split into two, oneesan (older sister) and imouto (younger sister). When I'm talking about something my friend's sister did, my brain isn't used to filing away the age of the girl relative to her male sibling, and it can be difficult to pull that information out on the fly while speaking quickly.
Living in Japan can bring you into contact with concepts that may be difficult to wrap your mind around. While Sesame Street has been shown here for years, it really never got that much traction; a much more popular childrens show is the NHK program Okaasan to Issho ("With Mother"), which has been broadcast non-stop since 1959. The show is divided into sections that feature different songs for kids to sing, presumably with their mother, although I would join in despite the title of the show. One song teaches kids "AIUEO" and the beginnings of the hiragana sound system, while another is the Pajama Song, which celebrates toddlers being able to put their pajamas on all by themselves, quite an achievement when you're that small. I've found it interesting to observe the little cultural differences between the show, which is watched by practically every child age 0-5 in Japan, and what I remember watching from my own youth. The show is always hosted by a Singing Older Sister and Singing Older Brother, who lead the kids through the various songs in each section. One day I noticed that the Older Brother host always spoke informal Japanese (早くなるぞ！） while the Older Sister spoke politely （早くなりますよ！）, a bit of subtle role model-building for the kids to watch and imitate. When I asked my wife about it, I got a blank stare -- apparently no Japanese person could have noticed such a tiny cultural difference.
This video is the Dango Sankyodai, or the Three Dango Brothers, the story of three little dumplings who live on a stick that was shown on the With Mother show and became a national obsession a few years ago. At the top is the Oldest Son, on the bottom is the Third Son, in the middle is the Second Son, Dango Sankyodai. Dango, dango, dango, dango, danso sankyodai. Warning: this song WILL invade your brain and never leave!
Monday, January 21, 2008
There was a minor dust-up on the Internets in Japan this week after the government suggested that it might add a Japanese language requirement for long-term foreigners living here. Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura suggested that requiring foreigners renewing multi-year visas or applying for permanent residency status (which generally means foreigners who have been in Japan for 5+ years at least) to meet minimal linguistic requirements would help encourage the foreign population better fit in and be good for Japan's society overall. Some bloggers and others are crying foul at the suggestion, though, saying that it shows a xenophobic side to Japan's government, but I support the idea 100%. It goes without saying that someone trying to live in Japan will get a lot more out of their time here if they can communicate with people, and if the government can find a way to encourage foreigners to study the language, it can only lead to more understanding between gaijin and nihonjin. (Note that normal visas for jobs such as English teachers, which are issued on a year-to-year basis normally, would not be affected by this plan.) A lot of the comments I saw online had to do with whether or not getting foreigners to learn Japanese would lead to them actually being "assimilated" into Japan's society. That's a difficult question, since I know that even after seventeen years of living here, I could commit seppuku in front of the Imperial Palace and still not be considered Japanese, and I'm okay with that -- I'm just an American who happens to like living in Japan. For myself, I know that you can't learn a language without internalizing the values held by that linguistic group, and and the more foreigners take an interest in learning Japanese, the happier everyone will be together.