Japanese signs

My fascination with Japanese started with videogames, but maybe not in the way you'd expect. Sure, I was obsessed with videogames in my younger years. I laughed at the weird Engrish deployed in NES games. And I certainly did wonder how a collection of scribbles could ever constitute into a word. Apart from that I never gave it much thought. Japanese was the original language of a lot of my favourite games, but I never felt the need to dive deeper.

Until I started working at a videogame store in the late '90s.

We had an import section there as most videogame consoles had region locks, and there was a small but thriving business in importing and playing Japanese games. As opposed to waiting one or two years before publishers decided to localize them.

This led to amusing situations. Metal Gear Solid is famous for adding a crucial in-game code to its box art. A hint towards where to find the code is made in the game, but without knowledge of Japanese it meant that all of our customers hit a (literal) wall when they tried to reach Revolver Ocelot in the Japanese version.

After that, I started scanning the import box art a bit more often. One of them was Tokyo Highway Challenge for Dreamcast, called Shutokou Battle in Japan and written as 首都高バトル on the cover. That was when I suddenly realised there was something funny going on with the latter half of that name. Those characters were 'simple' compared to the first half. It also reminded me of the box art of another game I'd played before: Bushido Blade or ブシドーブレード in Japanese.

It was then that something clicked. Considering Bushido Blade was called that in Japan as well, this name must've been literal. In that case, the latter half of Shutokou Battle's name must've been that as well. The first half was probably 'too complex'.

Without realising it, I had stumbled upon the difference between katakana and kanji. The former used mostly for foreign words pronounced through the Japanese syllable system, with the latter used for Japanese words.

It fascinated me endlessly and by cross referencing titles of various other imported games, I was able to discern the pronunciation of some katakana characters. This also appealed to me as some months before, I had cracked Riven's "big puzzle" (spoiler warning there) and was looking for a new challenge.

It simultaneously confused the hell out of me with certain characters. There's ツ (tsu) which I kind of thought of as a 't' sound (almost correct). But then there was ッ. Which is the same character, right? Wrong. It's smaller and in katakana that means it duplicates the consonant that follows it (giving a slight pause or a shortened vowel sound before it; in Dutch this is similar to how 'abonement' and 'abonnement' would sound). That one was impossible for me to discern by merely comparing videogame titles.

The confusion led to searching on the internet and of course discovering that there was something like hiragana and katakana. Picking up on its rules and how English was often written in katakana in Japan, my curiosity was satisfied. For now.

It only reignited when I started writing for a videogame website at the turn of the century. Back then (and in the Netherlands this is still the rule rather than the exception), writing news articles meant scouring English videogame sites for interesting stuff and copying/translating their news wholesale. This led to something of an arms race amongst Dutch games journalists; who could find the English website that had the news first so you could copy it first?1

It didn't take long for me to uncover how the web worked and that those English sites needed to get their stuff from somewhere as well. Following this trail almost always led to Japanese websites. Xbox was just starting at that time, so with Nintendo, Sega, and Sony being the then Big Three, most of the news was from Japan. Western news was almost exclusively aimed at PC games.

So taking that into account I figured I could simply learn katakana, which would (based on the box art experiences) allow me to read a lot of the titles they were writing about on those Japanese websites.

I didn't have any experience in learning a new script as in high school, English, French, and German all mostly used the same script as Dutch. Thinking further back, I adopted a kindergarten approach. Just read, write, and speak each character dozens of times. Brute force repetition. Luckily, I had switched jobs by that time and was working at an ISP helpdesk. In between the calls there were often long stretches of waiting for the next one. In those moments, I opened up my notebook and started filling a page with the same character repeated over and over again. Each time pronouncing it under my breath.

With each page completed, I'd quickly write down all individual characters I had learned in a sequence as if it were the alphabet. Within a month I had most of it down. After two months I also mastered the contractions (combinations of normal and smaller characters to pronounce syllables like 'kyo' and 'sha'). Surprised by how quickly I progressed, I started on hiragana immediately afterwards, realising it was going to cost me a two additional months tops. Kanji however, that was clearly a bridge too far. It featured not 49 characters like the kanas did, but thousands of characters. Often with varying meanings depending upon context and differing pronunciations as well! That way lay madness! Better to stick to kanas.

The plan of being able to read simple videogame titles worked though, and it helped me immensely in figuring out stuff beforehand. Secondly, I really enjoyed translating names in katakana to English as some kind of twisted rebus. Japanese has a tendency to use katakana phonetically. So while an English word could be written ending in -er, in Japanese this could easily be replaced with an -a sound as it more closely matched its English pronunciation. (As witnessed in Street Fighter, which reads ストレートファイター or 'sutoreeto faitaa'.)

So for years, this was all the Japanese I knew. In 2012 I actually visited Japan and there I noticed how knowing the kanas was both good and not so good.

The good was that I understood Japanese syllables. I hadn't fully registered it before that trip, but Japanese had slowed down immeasurably in experiencing it. In learning the syllables, I had unwittingly exposed myself to the rhythm of the Japanese language. Whereas I distinctly remember watching Ghost in the Shell (1995) in Japanese and wondering why on Earth everybody was talking in fast-forward, upon rewatching it after the trip, I had to admit to myself they were talking at normal speed after all.

Another plus was that I learned about furigana. This is basically kanji with its pronunciation depicted in hiragana right above the character. Suddenly, figuring out which subway stop to use was a piece of cake.

Where I completely tripped over myself was in the use of katakana. They don't exclusively use it for foreign words as was my initial impression all those years ago. Nope. They also use it for biological words and emphasis. This meant meat cuts in restaurants were often presented in katakana and I couldn't figure out for the life of me what they represented. 'Roosu'? Is that like 'rosé' meat as in medium rare? 'Tan'? The hell is that? Etc. Etc.

Only after I returned from Japan did some further research teach me what the deal was with katakana in such cases. 'Roosu' was Japanese for loin. 'Tan' turned out to be 'tongue'. They were just noted in katakana because that was the thing you did.2 It really shifted my perception of the languages as a whole.

Most importantly though: while being there I also picked up on some kanji. Not explicitly, but implicitly I started recognizing stuff like 'entrance', 'exit', and 'izakaya' (very important that last one). So when I came back, the itch to learn more grew and grew.

Fast forward to 2019 and I was looking for a new side project to sink my teeth into. Not only that, I really wanted to learn something. After a couple of years researching technology, I suddenly didn't learn as much new stuff on a daily basis. And that Japanese itch was still there. But the thousands of characters as well. It wouldn't be a mere two months this time around. But on the other hand, it didn't feel as impossible, like back when I learned the kanas...

Things got interesting when I read about spaced repetition. It's a method in which you use flash cards to learn, but the better you know a card, the longer it'll take for it to be repeated. This leads to things you've learned easily being put into the background, while focussing on stuff that needs attention as it keeps popping up. My mind made it kind of fit in with how I had learned the kanas and there were plenty of apps using this system for kanji.

In the end I settled upon trying Wanikani (I really liked the UI). The experience was so positive, I signed up for a year before the trial period was even over. One year later, I got a lifetime subscription. Because yes, this was exactly what I was looking for.

We're now a few months past that lifetime sub and things are pretty much the same still. Daily Wanikani reviews and lessons now also with some Genki lessons to support and apply it. What has changed is how I perceive Japanese and Chinese text. Whenever I encounter it, it's no longer gibberish. Like holes poked into a curtain, rays of light shine through and I pick up words here and there. I can see the name of an institute in kanji, and while not being able to read it 100%, I recognize enough kanji to make it fit in with what a translation may add.

The amount of facepalms also increases. Shinbun or 新聞 means newspaper, but the kanji literally mean 'new' and 'hear'. Hearing new stuff, you know, the news, in a newspaper. Kimono is 着物 and means 'wear-things'. My wristwatch is from Seiko or 成功, meaning 'become achievement' or rather 'success'.

Of course the language is logical and downright basic in how words work, because every language does that. In fact, learning about words like this often makes me go "Oh for crying out loud, that's stupid! It's not like we have that in Dutch..." Only then to suddenly remember multiple instances of where we do that in Dutch as well. Sometimes even worse.

It has led me to a new appreciation of language in general. Thinking about how and why words are used as they are. How loanwords dissolve into the general tapestry of a language. How some people (in the Netherlands) hate their own language in media and prefer English instead. How utterly illogical Dutch can be and how much pain foreign people must be in to learn it. How insane Chinese pronunciation is in comparison to Japanese. How correct Chinese restaurants are with their translated names. How everything you encounter becomes inexplicably linked to Japanese words, because now your brain functions differently. How you recontextualize everything, because Japanese sorts and associates words differently.

And I think that's the best lesson to learn from learning another language. To get a different point of view. To see things from a different perspective. You may not fully understand it, but you can give it its own little place and as a result understand humans just a tiny bit better. Even though that understanding ultimately came from picking up some random box art in a videogame store decades ago.

1 Believe it or not, fights could break out between journalists claiming rivals had copied the source they were copying first, while it was clearly their source. The audacity! 🙃
2 It turned out タン or 'tan' was actually correct use of katakana. Confusing me even more as it was oversimplifying the sounds beyond what I anticipated.