Wakarimasen

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Earlier I mentioned being a big fan of the Japanese game show “Nounai Este IQ Supplement” (that link is to a Japanese-language website). Above is my favorite puzzle from the show, because it’s the only one I’ve been able to figure out before hearing or seeing the answer. (Since they insist on talking in Japanese on that show, I still consider it an accomplishment when I can solve a puzzle after seeing the answer.)

As far as I could tell, the question was: “How can you make this an accurate statement by adding only one line?” I put the solution at the end of this post. If you want a hint: you do have to know a little bit of beginner’s Japanese to understand it. And a bigger hint: it’s not a math problem, but a language problem, a visual pun.

The reason I’m putting it on here is because I absolutely love this kind of thing, and it’s exactly the reason why I want to learn Japanese. When I first started, I had this vague notion of being able to read manga or watch anime, or play imported videogames. As it turns out, I’m really not all that into manga and anime, and these days, the good stuff is quickly translated anyway. And I barely have enough time to check out the games available in English, much less go to the trouble of importing more. Plus, I’ve already been to Japan twice, and I’ve seen how easy it is to navigate knowing next to nothing about the language.

So now, the appeal is as simple as just being able to understand something I didn’t understand before. I don’t realistically expect I’ll ever become “fluent,” just because I don’t have any opportunity to use the language. (I also have some weird kind of dyslexia where Japanese is concerned; I’m constantly getting the syllables in the wrong order or using the wrong one, for words I should be familiar with). For me, it’s not about fluency as much as having a big puzzle to solve, discovering new pieces and then finding out how they fit together.

And that’s what’s frustrating me about the way the language seems to be taught. Nothing really presents the language in a way that makes sense. And from what I’ve seen, it’s hard, but it all does make sense. But it only makes sense after the fact — while I’m learning, it’s all arbitrary memorization.

You start out learning the hiragana and katakana, which makes sense because it’s kind of a bridge between western languages and Japanese. Each symbol corresponds to a sound, so there’s an order to it, but you’re not just trying to transliterate between the roman alphabet and a language that has nothing to do with that alphabet. And you’re learning something that’s actually used — it’s just plain neat to be able to read something that wasn’t translated or altered for my benefit, even if I can only pronounce it and don’t yet know what it actually says.

At the same time, you’re learning vocabulary: the days of the week, the days of the month, how to tell time, etc. That all has context, but it’s rote memorization. “Sunday” is nichiyoubi, “Monday” is getsuyoubi, and the number one is ichi unless you’re talking about the first day of the month, in which case it’s tsuitachi. It all seems arbitrary and needlessly complex, until you start to make the connections: in English, we don’t say the “oneth day,” but the “first.” That’s the kind of thing I can understand.

And through it all, kanji looms in the distance as this ridiculously complex thing you shouldn’t even bother looking at until you’ve mastered the basics. You start to wonder why they bother with kanji at all, since you can write everything in hiragana or katakana. (The explanation I read when I was first starting out was that it’s “faster,” which is astoundingly simplistic and off-base). It’s only after you struggle with the basics that you’re exposed to your first few kanji, and then you start to understand why it’s used.

The kanji for “sun” is sometimes read nichi, and the kanji for “weekday” is youbi. So nichiyoubi really does mean “Sunday.” Same thing for getsu (moon) youbi (weekday), “Moon-day” or “Monday.” And the rest of the days of the week are named after the elements — fire, water, wood, etc. — something that any fan of role-playing games should be able to get into. So how come I was never shown the kanji for these until after I’d already learned them the hard way? Why take something with such a direct analog to what I already know, and turn it into arbitrary memorization?

Especially since the language just builds from there: the names of the months are the kanji for a number plus the kanji for “moon.” The word Nihon for Japan literally does mean “sun source,” or “the land of the rising sun.” The kanji for “fire” in kayoubi (Tuesday) is also used in “fireworks,” which is written hanabi or literally, “fire flower.” I can’t be the only one who thinks that the concepts of “fire flowers” and “source of the sun” and “moon day” is much more interesting and evocative than trying to memorize long lists of unfamiliar words.

Plus, if you’re nerdy at all (and I hate to break it to you, but if you’ve read this far, then you are), then there’s all this built-in potential for etymologies and odd connections between words. The symbols are so packed with meaning and multiple readings, that they’re interesting both on a conceptual and a linguistic level. I mentioned that my favorite aspect of the Yokai Attack! book was that included the kanji for the monsters as well as notes as to which monsters derived from idioms or folk expressions. It was the first time I’d seen the characters for “woman” and “child” and “demon” pop up consistently, and realized that the names aren’t just arbitrary collections of syllables, but logical combinations of concepts: “Onibaba” really does mean “devil woman.” And some names come from the fact that the kanji used to write them can be read in different ways, which results in puns and homonyms.

With my current job, there’s no way I’ll have time to start taking classes again, so it’s back to the books. And all the books I’ve found so far fail in one of two ways: some start with an exhaustive break-down of all the radicals and kana and kanji that make up other kanji, and present them in long lists to memorize. This makes everything systematic and shows all the cool connections between the characters, but removes all of the context and meaning, making it dry and arbitrary.

The other books present mnemonics and build off those: this one looks like a dude boxing a giant spider, while this one looks like a leaky faucet on top of a slice of bread! These have the problem of having interest but not much system, and a context that’s just plain goofy. Sorry, but that does not look like a faucet on top of a slice of bread. And now that you’ve shown me the picture, that’s all I can think about, even though the symbol I’m supposed to be learning has nothing to do with either faucets, sandwiches, or giant spiders.

So, I guess I’m just going to start exploring on my own and see if I make any progress. One website for kanji instruction that seems pretty good so far is called Kanjiroushi, and it even has an interface that works well with Mobile Safari on the iPhone. And the answer to that puzzle up top is after the jump:
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The puzzle doesn’t require any math, but knowledge of katakana. The kana for fu looks like the Arabic numeral 7, and the kana for ha is that symbol at the left. When you put a dash between them, it’s read haafu, or “half.” I love that stuff.

5 thoughts on “Wakarimasen”

  1. Whoa. I like the haa-fu answer a lot. I’d come up with a completely different (and sort of strange) solution: The line you need to add is a bar the same length as the top of the 7, but at the bottom. Then you take all the existing lines, and draw them all in the same space, so you get a complete box (the 7, the additional line on the bottom, and the 1), that’s bisected by the -.

    Which, I think (if I’m remembering correctly) is the character for “middle,” which would imply a division in two, or halves.

    Yeah, it’s a LOT less elegant. 😀

  2. The explanation I received from one of my hosts in japan was that katakana was childish, or juveneille. It’s the first thing they learn as little kids. Kanji is for adults.

  3. I’ve heard that one before, and now I can kind of see it. I always interpreted that as “kanji is too complicated for you to understand,” but now I think it’s more that there’s multiple meanings to them. Maybe it’s the same for every language that uses symbols to represent concepts instead of sounds, but it seems like there’s a whole level of expression that’s just not possible in English.

  4. I had another solution for the puzzle. Just draw your line through the equals sign to make it 1 – 7 does not equal 1/2. Admittedly, I like the haafu answer a hell of a lot better and wish I had thought of it first. This is what I get for being so rusty with katakana.

    I do find it interesting that katakana is both the “childish” script and the “foreign” script. There seems to be a clear sign that words with foreign origin aren’t good enough or advanced enough to be real words. Though every so often you will find a European word that has been in the language for so long that it has been upgraded to hiragana.

  5. Well, I always heard it described as hiragana was the “childish” script, and katakana was for foreign words and for emphasis and sound effects. Which isn’t any more xenophobic than English, since we use italics both for emphasis and for foreign words.

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