I have been asked many times, “Is Japanese hard to learn?” I guess that it really depends on what your native language is. If it is Chinese or Turkish then maybe it won’t be so hard. Some of the sentence structure is the same in Turkish and obviously Chinese also uses kanji (however not in the same way). Personally as a native English speaking adult with almost no prior exposure to Japanese or its grammatical structure it is one of the hardest languages in the world for me to learn. Among a ranking of the 63 languages used in diplomacy Japanese was #2, second only to Hungarian. It out ranked Cantonese, Arabic, Persian, Serbian, Hebrew… you get the idea. I was surprised to find this information (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hardest_language) but not entirely. Japanese is hard! I have been studying since the moment I hit the ground here some 18 months ago. Currently I have about a C ranking at level 3, which is just conversational level! Its not that I don’t study, I do, I study for about 8hours a week, not to mention being surrounded by the language. To reach level 3, 60% proficiency at the very least, takes 600 hours of study. You do the math. Why is Japanese so difficult? Well, let me tell you! There is some very difficult grammar, but first let’s start from the start.
There are three “alphabets”, the first is very well known, and that is kanji. The second is hiragana. The third is Katakana. Kanji is an alphabet of ideographs while hiragana and Katakana are an alphabet of syllabary much like our own Roman alphabet. This appears like this ひり仮名. Hiragana is used like our Roman alphabet to represent phonetics. Kanji can be written in hiragana, all kanji have a reading or sound that can be represented by hiragana. Many of the articles of Japanese such as question marks, conjunctions, verb stems, etc. appear in hiragana. Sometimes roman letters and numbers are used, romaji, which makes everything….well, here is an example sentence containing all 4. ラドクリフ、マラソン五輪代表に1万m出場にも含み. The green (first) part is in katakana, the red (second) in kanji, the blue (particles and last) in hiragana and the black (1,m) is romaji.
Kanji appears like this 今日 or this 京 or this 興. Those kanji in order mean today, capitol, and interest. I chose them because they also all have the same phonetic sound, kyou. This is very common, that many words have the exact same sound. Yes, we have it in English too, but it occurs much more in Japanese. You just have to know context to understand when speaking. Each has its own stroke order, meaning that you start with one mark and follow a path to the last mark to make the kanji. The second example has 8 strokes; one small mark on the top, then the horizontal line, then the left side of the box, then the top and right side in one stroke, then the bottom(left to right), then the stem going down in the middle, then the right under dash and finally the left under dash. This in itself is hard enough to learn. Stroke order sucks! These days with the use of personal computers Japanese themselves are starting to forget how to write the kanji because software is built to recognize what they want, eliminating the need to write kanji by hand. There are also multiply readings for the same kanji. For instance,欠. This kanji is pronounced ketsu…or..ka…or keru…or ke ….or ku. It depends on where it is with other kanji. If it is like this, 欠陥, it is pronounced as ke, if it is like this, 欠ける, it is pronounced ka, etc. I think you are starting to get the point if you are beginning to think to yourself, this makes no sense. You are right, there are no real rules for kanji, and you just have to know. There is however one thing that you can latch on to that will keep you sane as you learn these kanji. Symbols within a kanji DO mean something, they are ideograms after all. Take for instance 松 matsu 板 ita , and根 ne. These three kanji all have one thing in common, can you see it? It’s the radical to the left that somewhat looks like a tree. In Japanese tree is 木 and you know what; those three kanji, with the tree radical in it mean pine tree, board, and root, all things that relate to a tree.
Now, on to hiragana. Let’s take a kanji I have already used, 京. This kanji, if you remember, is pronounced kyou. It is the symbol for capitol. You can easily see that in place names like Kyoto 京都 and Tokyo 東京. Kyoto is the former capitol of Japan while Tokyo is the current. Kanji all can be written in hiragana, however, not all hiragana can be written in kanji. There are even a few words that exist only in hiragana, but not in Kanji, like こけしwhich is the word for a wooden doll.
Usually hiragana is used to group nouns and verbs, giving direction to objects and movements. For example, 飲む, is the verb for drink, however if you want to give it context you have to use hiragana with the kanji. 飲みます、 飲んだ、飲んでいる、 which mean I will drink, I have drunk, and I am drinking. The kanji remains the same, but the hiragana changes. It can also be used to mark a question, with か. For example, 飲みますか, means “will (implied person/s) drink”? And of course there are particles like と、に、で、etc. that work as and, in/to/for, and by.
Next up, Katakana. Katakana is used to spell out foreign words. Why the language needs an entirely new alphabet, which matches the sounds of hiragana letter by letter is beyond me. That’s right; every letter in katakana has a counterpart in hiragana. かヵ きキ くク けヶ こコ, those are all hiragana (left side) by katakana (right side) and they all have the same sounds, ka, ki, ku, ke, ko. I absolutely hate Katakana because I see no point in it. Some people have told me it is used for words that never existed before, but that is BS. The Japanese have a kanji for baseball and often will use a katakana word rather than a hiragana one. The only upside is that I am supposed to be able to easily identify Katakana words, since they are foreign. However this is not true, first of all because the sound comes out all chopped up, like パソコン、this is supposed to be personal computer, but it comes out like pasocon. There are also lots of katakana words that aren’t English, but are in other languages like アルバイト, arbaito, which comes from the German word to work. In Japanese it means part time job. There are words that aren’t in any language at all, but are made up, like クーラー/kura which means air conditioner. They just made it up! Then assigned it to their foreign words alphabet, which matches their alphabet exactly! Why?! Why Japan!? WHY!!??
Kanji, Katakana, Hiragana, and Romaji might be enough to make your head spin, but then there is keigo. Keigo is the honorific system of addressing people. There are three levels to this, two of which are used to address someone who is not present and one to address someone who is. For example: 知る(しる) to know comes out as 知っています・しっています（teenier-go) and thenご存知になる・ごぞんじになる、ご存知でいらっしゃる・ごぞんじでいらっしゃる(sonkei-go)、 and then存知あげる・ぞんじあげる（kenjo-go). Yes, that’s right, four levels of addressing people.
When I think about all of this I want to give up, yell at someone, and go home. I don’t though, I just take it one day at a time and plod ahead with my blinders on. Paying no attention to the madness that surrounds me.