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Saturday, March 21, 2009


Fear not and embrace the music of Japanese

Welcome to Japan! And welcome to hiragana, katakana and kanji. I hope you packed some aspirin.

Westerners tend to think of the Roman alphabet as being far easier to use than hiragana, katakana or kanji. After all, there are only 26 letters in our alphabet, compared to 48 symbols each for hiragana and katakana, so the alphabet has got to be easier! But of course, we are biased.

The real reason we think the Roman alphabet is easier is simply because we already know it.

In truth, despite the mere 26 letters in the alphabet, there are a quarter of a million English words out there, most of which we native English speakers still don't know. Yet we don't lose sleep over this.

Most of us cannot even imagine how many years it would take to use all the words in the English language given the chance to use them in their proper context.

We don't feel overwhelmed by these words that spend most of their lives between the pages of a dictionary with only the chance few seconds a year to dance on the lips of some scientist or professor expounding on esoteric research subjects.

However, when we are introduced to hiragana and katakana symbols, we are completely dismayed — my God, 48! How can I possibly understand them?

Then, when we find out that katakana and hiragana are just like different letters representing similar sounds to English, it sends us into a tizzy. This is unnecessary, a total waste of brainpower, we say.

This is because when one looks at katakana for the first time in his or her life, it just looks like a bunch of stray marks, like when you look down and realize you left the cap off your pen and there are pen marks all over your shirt.

Hiragana is the same, but with curvy stray marks. When I first saw these two alphabets I thought, "Hmm. They're nice, but they'd look better if they added some color to them." Black and white makes these alphabets look like a poor cartoonist's abstract drawing of fish swimming in a pond.

To thank, we have Kukai (aka Kobo Daishi 774-835), the father of Shingon Buddhism, as he is thought to have invented the kana syllabary. Perhaps the point here is that meditation is the best way to master these two alphabets.

Then there are kanji, which look like stylized, tightly knit, polished stray marks with a purpose. You could call it sophisticated doodling, like the designs on top of those fancy boxed chocolates. Very beautifully written kanji is like a decoration, like the roses on the top of a cake. Unfortunately, kanji is much harder to digest than either chocolate or cake.

In order to learn these three Japanese writing systems properly, we need to expand our minds a bit. Move away from the comfortable 26 letters plus ampersand into a world of endless possibility.

Imagine the benefit of the extra symbols and sounds the Japanese alphabets offer. We have that much more to communicate with, sing karaoke with and doodle with.

If we incorporated all the sounds of all the languages of the world, we'd have one heck of a choir. Not to mention a huge vocabulary.

With such a repertoire, you'd never be at a loss for words again! On the contrary, three to four words would spill out at one time. We'd be speaking in avalanches of words.

Teachers would write home about children being too literate, too eloquent, and too concise. Teachers would advise, "Your child needs to hamper his execution of the language, shorten his term papers and, by the way, please return the 100-plus dictionaries he checked out of the library last semester!"

So if we look upon Japanese as just one of the many languages in the world, full of wonderful new sounds, it is as if we have discovered a new musical instrument. We should treat it with respect, rather than fear, and embrace it for the music it can produce and the pleasure it can provide.

Of course, if we just leave the instrument lying there, the instrument and the music will go to waste. But if we pick up this unfamiliar instrument and experiment with it, learn to read its music, and practice playing it, eventually we discover a whole new way of listening to music.

And to think that to achieve this one only need learn 48 more "letters" and decipher the tops of fancy boxed chocolates. Let the music begin!

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