Mudsock Heights

Mudsock Heights

A kanji and two hiragana. Together, they say "Run away!"


By Dennis E. Powell | Posted at 10:51 PM

Much has been written in the last 75 years about how the U.S. gained an edge in the Pacific in World War II when the Japanese code was broken.

In recent weeks it turns out I may have been trying to recreate that feat, and have begun to understand the challenges those skilled codebreakers faced.

I am trying to learn the Japanese alphabet. Alphabets, really. I am more and more convinced that Tojo’s Japan used no code at all. They merely wrote their secrets in Japanese, which is just about unbreakable all by itself.

If one were setting out to create an obscure and unlearnable series of characters for the transmission of facts and ideas, one would give up upon exposure to hiragana and katakana (never mind kanji) in the anguished realization that there can be no improvement on the obscurity and inscrutability of Japan’s achievement.

The fundamental Japanese alphabet is called hiragana. This is 46 characters — actually more, and we’ll get to that — that are a “syllabary,” meaning that every character stands for a single, immutable sound. There are vowels, five of them, but they are listed as A, I, U, E, O, which is already confusing if when you learned English you learned A, E, I, O, U. Also, they don’t have the same sounds as they do in the West; for instance, “I” sounds like long “E.” The vowels may stand alone, but usually they are joined with a consonant to make a hiragana character for, say, “ka,” or “su,” or “mo.” Adding to the puzzle-like atmosphere are the facts that the strokes for each character must be written in a particular order and that there are often several versions of the same character, which resemble each other not at all.

But wait. There’s more. For those who find value in the letters G, Z, D, B, and P, there are 25 additional characters. These are made up of existing characters with double marks, like the close-quotes symbol in English.

We’re still not done. There are certain Japanese sounds that are commonly said and that therefore need their own characters, and these — “kyu,” “sho,” “nya,” “ja,” “byo,” and 28 others — get their own special character combinations that are themselves hiragana characters.

A second level in the fiendish encryption that is the entire Japanese language is in the form of characters that look almost alike. Indeed, the 46 base hiragana are a half-dozen character designs, with little doo-dads and strokes added here and there to distinguish one from another. It would be nice if these were related to each other: “A” looks like an Easter commemorative pretzel, with a stroke at the top that resembles a cross. There are variations that add and remove bits, and if they together made up the characters that end in an “A” sound, that would be fine. But they do not. Take away the crucifix and you are left with “no.” Take away most but not all of the cross and you have “me.” The characters for “ra,” “chi,” and “u” all resemble the numeral 5. “Ke,” “ha,” and “ho” all look like the English word “it.”

If the letters “L” and “V” and the sounds made by “th” are among your favorites, you might find Japanese disappointing — they don’t exist. Japan makes up for it by offering sounds the Western mouth finds nearly impossible to make without lots of practice and possibly speech therapy. (One course advised me to “make the sound between L and R.” No such sound exists. It’s like saying “pick a number between blue and square.”)

It is all made more maddening by the happy talk spewed by those who try to teach Japanese. They often have names like “Learn Japanese Adventure” and have cute anime graphics. “This will be fun!” they say. “You’ll learn hiragana in an afternoon!” they say. They lie. They then offer “mnemonics” that supposedly will help you remember the characters by associating the characters with shapes . . . that have nothing to do with the characters. For instance, a picture of seaweed doesn’t do much to help you remember the character for “ke.” Everybody goes through some of these before realizing that flashcards or a flashcard application and simple memorization is all that will get you where you are doomed to go.

The exception is the video game Duolingo, in which the gameplay takes place amid a language-learning simulation. (But no mnemonics.) If it were an actual teaching application, it would let you go back a screen or two, to more closely examine or listen to something you got wrong, so you could learn from your error. A huge problem, too, is that you quickly find yourself trying to win the game rather than learn the language. Also, if you click in the conveniently located wrong place, you can find yourself billed for $91.08. (Sounds as if I know, doesn’t it.) In Duolingo there are characters — “ki” comes to mind — where if you use the stroke order for the character that they themselves display you will be marked wrong because they want the strokes for a different version of the character, which they also use though less frequently.

Yes, stroke order. You must know exactly how the characters are properly written as taught to Japanese school children. It does not matter that you will almost never actually write the characters, or that if you do no one will know the order in which you drew the lines that make up the character.

I can complain about hiragana at length. If you learn it you can, to some small extent (have you ever heard of pitch accent?), slowly read some Japanese aloud, but you won’t understand any of it. You must learn hiragana if you are to learn any Japanese, as every happy-talk instructional program will tell you. (I just wish that one of them would say: It will be a slog, and an unpleasant one. You will not like a second of it. But it stands between you and knowledge of Japanese. Tell me again, why did you want to learn Japanese? I sure hope she’s kawaii!) It is like numbers: you need to learn them but after you do, you still won’t know any arithmetic.

But then: katakana. This has 46 base characters plus all of the add-ons mentioned above. It does not much resemble hiragana in appearance. But its characters reflect exactly the same sounds as hiragana. Why does it exist at all? There is no good answer for this, but the excuse is that it differentiates “loan words,” or foreign words adapted for Japanese use. Examples of loan words are: “hanbāgā” for “hamburger,” “video camera” is “bideokamera,” and so on. “Elevator?” (Remember, no “L” or “V” in Japanese.) It is “erebetano.” It is said that about 10 percent of Japanese is English loan words. Which are which? Ha, sucker! You don’t know! And the only way to find out is to look it up — lots of luck with that — and see whether it is written in hiragana or katakana. What’s more, some animal names and scientific terms are written in katakana. Oh, and they can all get mixed together.

Together, hiragana and katakana are called “kana,” which I believe is Japanese for “It gets worse and you’re about to find out how.”

Let’s presume that you, which is to say I, have mastered these characters. (No, it’s you, because I haven’t.) Do you have the tools now to learn grammar and vocabulary? Of course not. Because: kanji. These are characters of Chinese origin that are Chinese no more. Each means something. Many are made of pieces, called “radicals,” of which there are 214, and “components.” They are sorted in the dictionary by radical. They can be poetic in their construction, and many Japanese people are proud of the kanji in their names and are happy to tell you about them. (Here, we have “chosen pronouns” we can use to annoy people.)

There are two main ways of pronouncing kanji: On’yomi, which means to use the original Chinese pronunciation, and Kun’yomi, which means that a pronunciation invented in Japan is used. (I remember this because “-kun” is sometimes used affectionately in referring to young boys, pets, even body parts, in Japanese.) Many published kanji are accompanied by furigana, which are tiny kana characters that tell you how the kanji is pronounced. You may wonder why not just use the kana to begin with, to which I’d counter: why is there katakana?

There are tens of thousands of kanji. I have broken tradition by waiting this long to say it; usually it’s in the first sentence or two of anything discussing kanji. There are so many, in fact, that the Japanese government (or somebody) compiled a list of 2,136 kanji that one must know if he is to be considered literate in Japan. How do you learn them? You use the same method you use in memorizing 2,136 of anything!

And yes, there is kanji braille, invented in 1969 and apparently still under construction.

Let us suppose — it’s an unrealistic supposition in the case of kanji — that you have learned all this. You can now make sounds that resemble Japanese, and you can read lines of text — no spaces between words adds to the madcap enjoyment — though you will have no idea what they mean. If someone you know says he knows how to speak Japanese, for a cool party trick ask him in front of the crowd to explain for you the use of “ga” or any of a number of other “particles.” He’ll run from the room as certainly and quickly as if he had just soiled his pants.

Basic Japanese grammar is surprisingly straightforward, but it’s just a trick to lure you in. If you are content to communicate but sound as if you just crawled out of the jungle, you might, it is said, be able to nail it down in just a couple of years. With kanji, longer, often much longer. Japan has the “Japanese Language Proficiency Test,” which determines such things as whether you are allowed to live in Japan. There are five levels. N1 is very difficult. N5 seems to be designed to provide the Japanese people endless hours of free amusement as you say silly things in pidgin-Japanese and equips you, maybe, to order sushi but not to specify which kind of sushi. This adds to the fun.

Where am I in my studies? Just yesterday I was called “baka,” Japanese for “idiot.” As if to prove the point, it was spelled two ways. I understood the hiragana but not the katakana. I have finally located most of the characters on the iPad Japanese onscreen keyboard.

Why learn Japanese? Good question. I can offer only one answer: Yes, she is kawaii.

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large at Open for Business. Powell was a reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio, where he has (mostly) recovered. You can reach him at

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