Be it for business or pleasure, learning Japanese is an adventure. In our second installment of this short series, we talk about four more hurdles you will need to take if you want to speak, write or translate Japanese. 

We’re not going to lie. Learning Japanese is hard for Europeans. Japanese is different in so many ways compared to any European language, that it might seem an impossible language to learn. However, the fact that Japanese is so exotic, might just exactly be what attracts people to it.

4. Speaking Japanese: ups and downs

Let’s start with how Japanese sounds. Here’s a Japanese word that illustrates the complexity of the Japanese language: ‘kikai’. This word has no less than five meanings, all of which are pronounced the same way.

kikai

So, you have to judge from the context what the correct meaning is. This is the case with a lot of Japanese words.

Japanese only uses a limited number of vowels: a–i–u–e–o

  • ie – meaning ‘house’
  • ue – meaning ‘up’

  • ao – meaning ‘blue’

In European languages, word stress is often used to convey meaning. In contrast, Japanese is a pitch-based language, where alterations between a high and a low pitch can convey different meanings. Vowel length – shortening vowels or making vowels sound longer – is another Japanese way of conveying different meanings.

For example:

Obaasan (grandmother)

Vs

Obasan (aunt)

Fun fact: you shouldn’t pronounce English loan words with an English accent. So, computer or hamburger will sound something like ‘compyuutaa’ and ‘hambaagaa’.

5. Writing Japanese: the Chinese connection

The Japanese writing system uses so-called ‘kanji’ characters. These characters were adopted from the Chinese writing system around the fourth century. Kanji are logograms: written characters that represent a word or a phrase. Japanese can be written in either direction, although traditionally it is written in a format called tategaki (縦書き) - in columns from top to bottom, and from right to left. Vertical writing is still commonly used in Japan in novels, newspapers and magazines, while horizontal writing is used more often in texts, especially those containing English language references.

Although the Japanese rely on Chinese characters, Japanese is as different from Chinese as it is to any other language. For example, Japanese has typical verb suffixes, which Chinese hasn’t. That is why Japanese needs additional character sets to reflect typical Japanese grammar or vocabulary elements. Japanese also has typical words and grammatical constructions that are associated either with men or women. On the other hand, the actual Japanese grammar is gender-neutral. For example, there are no masculine/feminine pronouns (cfr. his/her) or masculine/feminine nouns.

To make it even more difficult, the Japanese writing system uses different character types.

The hiragana character set is primarily used for native or naturalized Japanese words and grammatical elements, whereas the katakana character set is mainly used for foreign words and names, loan words, onomatopoeia, scientific names, and sometimes for emphasis.

Have a look at this example:

Belgian Beer

Before you decide to study the Japanese writing system, be aware that there are over 50,000 characters. However, knowing a mere 2,000 frequently used characters should already be enough to be able to read the newspaper.  Maybe also interesting to know is that there is no such thing as a Japanese keyboard. Text is keyed in on Querty keyboards in romaji, which is phonetical, Romanized Japanese.

6. Translating Japanese: extra effort

It is clear that the language barrier between Japanese and European languages is high. This has some serious implications for translation.

  • The totally different word order (some might say: total lack of word order) will require extra translation effort.
  • Unlike European languages, Japanese does not have pronouns or plural, making it hard to define subjects or objects. That is why translators need to carefully analyze the word context.
  • Word boundaries are not always clear in Japanese, making translation even more complex.
  • In our previous post, we discussed the different politeness levels. Translators need to be consistent and pay attention to the politeness level in use.   

Translators can tackle these challenges by optimizing the language source. For example, for translating from English to Japanese, the English word order can be adapted so it leans more toward the Japanese word order. When translating from Japanese to English, pre-editing could include changing honorific/humble forms to plain polite forms.

In machine translation, usually an extra pre-editing step is added to the workflow. Here, having a large bi-lingual corpus of legacy data (translation memories, glossaries) is even more important.

7. Enjoying Japanese: business or pleasure?

The ultimate way of crossing the cultural barrier, is by actually learning the language, and enjoying doing it.

For whatever reason you do it, learning Japanese is a real adventure. And if your foreign language knowledge is limited to European languages, the road to Japanese mastery might be a long one. Still, there is plenty of motivation why you should embark on the Japanese language journey.

  • For Japanese business: As we mentioned in part 1, Japan is hot. The economic future for Japan seems to be bright. But Japan is also a gateway to the rest of Asia. So, from a business perspective, there are definitely good reasons to learn Japanese.
  • For Japanese culture: Manga, Anime, Jpop … Need we go on? If you’re a fan of Japanese popular culture, then it’s really fun the be able to follow that in the original language. But also Japan’s rich cultural and philosophical heritage is known all over the world. Learning Japanese is a way to learn more about this culture as well.
  • For the love of language: Some people just like the challenge. Learning Japanese might be tough for Westerners, but if you manage to do it, it is very rewarding. If you can learn Japanese, you can learn anything, right? And having mastered Japanese, maybe Chinese or Korean may look less like a chore to you.