Some notes on manners

Gratuitous armor photo

On the Japan Info blog/website, I came across a list of “7 Daily Habits Considered Rude Elsewhere, But are Perfectly OK in Japan.” Yes, I’m susceptible to clickbait, but it’s still an interesting list.

The seven things are:

Not tipping

Nope, not done here; this is good

Being indirect

“hiding” the meaning of what you really mean to say by minimizing complaints or overstating compliments.

Interrupting when someone else is speaking

In other words, Japanese conversations have more feedback—saying things like “I see,” “really,” “uh huh” more frequently than in English, for example.

Not holding doors open for other people

Not sure, see comments below.

Making noise when eating

Must slurp the noodles!

Pushing people when getting in or off the train

Necessity.

Shouting for service in a restaurant

I’m not sure about all restaurants, but definitely in pub-style restaurants, just yell “sumimasen” to get the server’s attention.

As previously discussed, I would also add “smoking permitted indoors especially restaurants”, which is among the very worst and rudest things about Japan in my opinion.

But anyway, on the topic of #4, I haven’t really noticed whether people tend to hold open doors generally or not, but definitely people do hold open elevator doors. This is a very minor thing, but it’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine. The gym I go to is on the 6th floor of a building, and you have to use the elevator to get there. Without fail, the person in the elevator closest to the door holds down the “open” button and allows others to exit first. This is great when, for example, the elevator is really crowded or there’s a baby stroller or elderly person with a shopping trolley. But if there are only, say, 3 people in the elevator, it’s really annoying! People tend to make a big show saying どうぞ (douzo) “go ahead”, “no, after you” “please, you first” etc. etc. … and then no one ends up getting out of the elevator before more people start getting in. I’m usually the one who appears very rude by being the first out of the elevator, but I’m willing to make that sacrifice so that we don’t have to be trapped in the elevator forever. (And, I now make a point to hold the door open whenever I’m closest to the button, just so I’m not rude all the time.)

 

Let’s talk about kanji

Back in January, I started studying Japanese more seriously, going to a language school for 3 and a half hours every weekday. My first goal is to improve my speaking skills, but the classes focus more on grammar, vocabulary, and reading—which makes sense given that most students aim to go on to further studies (trade school or university) in Japan and therefore they need to take lots of exams. I actually really like studying grammar and have been inspired to think about becoming a translator (someday…).

One very daunting challenge for any Japanese language learner is reading and writing, which explains why I’m studying during any free moment rather than writing on this blog!

Japanese has two phonetic alphabets, hiragana and katakana, which are not too difficult to learn, although I’m still pretty slow at reading katakana (which is mainly used to write words of foreign origin). And, there is kanji (Chinese characters).

To compare:

“Japanese language” (Nihongo)
Hiragana: にほんご
Katakana: ニホンゴ (this would never be written in katakana, but just for the sake of comparison)
Kanji: 日本語

So my goal in this post is to explain why I agonize so much about learning kanji.

To “learn” a character, you have to memorize:

  • How to write it: the strokes go in a particular order. You also have to know how many strokes there are if you want to look it up in a print dictionary!
  • The readings. Most kanji can be pronounced in at least two different ways, although often there are three or four or more.
  • The meaning. Sometimes a single character has a meaning, although sometimes they only represent a pronunciation in a particular context.
  • Combinations. Beyond the basic kanji, you can’t really learn the characters on their own. You have to learn them in combination with other kanji to make words.

So here is an example.

水 = water みず (mizu)

水着 = bathing suit みずぎ (mizugi), with the second kanji meaning “wear”

So far so good. Then:

水曜日 = Wednesday すいようび (suiyoubi)

水準 = level, standard すいじゅん (suijyun)

水泳 = swimming すいえい (suiei). Yes, the ei part 泳 looks very similar to 水!

Then 泳

泳ぐ = to swim およぐ (oyogu)

Then another similar (but different!) kanji 永, also ei but a different meaning:

永続 = permanence, continuation えいぞく (eizoku)

Another famous example is:

3月1日は日曜日で祝日、晴れの日でした

“Sangatsu tsuitachi wa nichiyoubi de shukujitsu, hare no hi deshita,” which translates into “March 1 was Sunday, a holiday, and a sunny day.”

The character 日 (day) is pronounced: tachi, nichi, bi, jitsu, and hi in that sentence. There’s no way of knowing which reading to use other than by memorization.

There are 2,136 “regular use” kanji that a person with basic literacy should know, and I’ve studied about 500 so far, although I don’t know all of the readings of those. But again, “knowing” involves knowing words in context as well as the various readings. That is, even if you memorize all possible readings, you still can’t automatically “read” the kanji when it’s combined with others. According to Wikipedia, a “total of 13,108 characters can be encoded in various Japanese Industrial Standards for kanji.”

It’s really fascinating to learn kanji and start to unlock the mysterious symbols around you (literacy = empowerment!), but it takes so much work, essentially memorization, that can go on for a lifetime.

Some homework

Sakura season is waning

In our part of Japan, the cherry blossom season is waning—many trees are still a shimmering pink, but green is starting to show through and the petals are fluttering down.

We live on a beautiful sakura-lined street, and you can feel everyone’s happy spirit as they walk a bit slower than usual to gaze up at the blossoms.