If there was one thing I wish I would have done before I went to Japan it’s learn Katakana. As you may recall I put a pretty good effort forward to learn to speak and understand some basic Japanese and also a learn a specific script for the show. All of which I would say was a huge success and was really, really useful!
Katakana is one of Japanese’s three branches of written symbols, the other two being Hiragana and Kanji. Kanji are borrowed from Chinese and there are said to be near 50,000. Kanji is more of a symbol that represents an idea or object like a pictogram, whereas Katakana and Hiragana are symbols that represent sounds to spell out words or particles. Hiragana is the Japanese alphabet and is used to write Japanese words and Katakana is used to write out foreign words and places.
I got along well enough without it, learning just a few helpful characters as I went. Most of what I did learn was really random kanji, not really useful for anything except taking the train back to Tachikawa. However, it was interesting to see that once I learned the symbols they seemed to pop out at me from signs, even though I have no idea what they were saying. For example the symbol for the city we were living (tachikawa) in was:
Or as I thought of it: ice bucket on a table / cat scratch
The setting on the rice cooker that I wanted to select (white rice) was:
or window / angry face cross
I avoided learning either for a couple of reasons. First, I thought the difficult : useful ratio would be too high to be worthwhile.
It seems like I was wrong. People have told me that it can be memorized in a matter of days at the most. As for not being useful…katakana was all over the place! Especially on signs and menus, which are the main things I read there anyway 🙂 I don’t have any illusions about picking up a copy of the Tokyo Daily News and plowing through it, but it would be nice to decipher a menu or store sign.
It also helps you speak better because when they write something in katakana, pronouncing the foreign word that way is the best way of being understood. For example I was in front of a movie theater aptly named Cinema City. It was written in English and also below in katakana. One of the guys with me sounded it out to me from the katakana:
Si-ni-ma Si-ti ( pronounce all i’s as ee’s : see-ne-ma see-tee)
He said I would be well understood if I said it like that, but pronouncing it in correct English was more likely to be unintelligible. I felt a little weird pronouncing words like that, but Japanizing English words defiantly made me better understood.
The second reason I avoided learning was that I knew I had to learn to speak for the show, so I wanted to put most of my focus into speaking. While I think that was a good plan for my first trip there, now that I am going back I think it’s time to tackle katakana for sure and hirgana as well as I can.
Oh yeah, did I not mention that 😉 I’M GOING BACK! Apparently we made a really good impression and we’re headed back in the beginning/ middle of January… and this time I’ll be able to order what I want!