“A different language is a different vision of life.” -- Federico Fellini
Where would you eat? I'd opt for the Curry Depot restaurant on the right. See the sign that says カレー デポ (kare depo) ?
When I first arrived in Japan, I found the most perplexing impediment to getting around was the written language. When traveling to countries where the language is written in the same alphabet as English, one might not know what a word means, but you can at least pronounce it, and if you are looking for a place name, it is readable. In Japan, however, you could be starving for soba, but not realize that a soba restaurant is only across the street, even though there was a big sign that said そば hanging over the door
While Japanese might appear to be extraordinarily difficult, it is a well structured and orderly language with few irregularities in its basic form. The phonetics are consistent, and all foreign words that are integrated into the language are converted into Japanese phonetics. While this may seem odd and humorous to a foreigner listening to a McDonald's commercial and hearing the word "makudonarudo", wouldn't English be a lot easier to learn if there were not so many irregularities that one has to simply memorize.
I would encourage anyone who is traveling to Japan to study the language, even if it is just an introductory course in order to get a feel for the phonetics, grammar, basic vocabulary, and to learn the "kanas". I'll try to give you a bit of an introduction here.
Forget vowels and consonants, and think syllables -- single syllables. The vowel sounds of those syllables are as follows: a, i, u, e, o. A is a short a as in ah. I is a long e sound like see. U is a long u as in sue. E -- you're from Canada, eh? O is a long O like go. Now, we've just covered the first row of syllabic sounds in the Japanese phonetic set; those syllables are comprised of a single vowel with no consonant.
Combine these vowel sounds with a single leading consonant, and you have the next group: ka, ki, ku, ke, ko. See the pattern?
The only stand alone consonant sound is N, and it is considered a separate syllable.
There are some sounds that are foreign to us. For example, the r and l sound. There are a set of syllabic sounds that, when written in Romaji, or the roman character set that we use as our alphabet, they are: ra, ri, ru, re, ro. The consonant sound is somewhere between and r and l, and is very difficult for us to enunciate properly. This is why Japanese people have so much problem with the r and l sound when speaking English. If your name is Larry, forget about anyone properly saying your name. Some others that are mildly difficult at first, but easy to master are tsu, and diphthongs such as hya, hyu, hyo, bya, byu, byo, pya, pyu, pyo.
This will all make more sense when looking at a hiragana or katakana chart.
I mentioned Romaji in the section above. Romaji is a representation of Japanese words in our character set or alphabet. While you might see some signs written in romaji for commercial effect, or some signs in train stations written in romaji, Japanese do not make a practice of reading their own language in our alphabet. In fact, for many of them, romaji can be confusing.
There are three sets of characters used in written Japanese. Kanji is a collection of hieroglyphic like characters adopted from the Chinese. Each character has a meaning, and there are at least two ways of reading each character. There are thousands of kanji, however, standard Japanese is defined by the usage of about 1800 of these characters. That being said, proper nouns such as town names and family names might be written in archaic characters that are not in common usage.
Railroad station sign in rural Kyushu containing kanji, hiragana, and romaji
Hiragana is a set of just less than 50 characters that represent syllabic sounds. The characters do not have meaning, only sound. In the written language, you will see prepositions and verb endings written in hiragana. Whole words may also be written in hiragana in the case where either there is no kanji for the word, the writer does not know the kanji for the word, or it may be done for emphasis. In train stations, the town or station names on the platform signs will show name of the present stop in hiragana as well as kanji, and in some cases romaji. The previous and next stop names are written in hiragana and sometimes romaji. Store signs, menus, and the like often are written mostly in hiragana. Learn the chart on the right, and you will be a lot less likely to get lost or go hungry.
Katakana is another syllabic character set that is very similar to hiragana. Foreign words that are integrated into the language are converted to the Japanese phonetics and then written in katakana. The basic katakana character set is detailed in the chart on the left.
Like hiragana, these characters do not have meaning, but only represent the sounds of syllables. Earlier, I mentioned the trade name McDonald's as in the fast food restaurant chain. McDonalds becomes "makudonarudo" or マクドナルド . My name, Robert, becomes "robaato", and is written in katakana as ロバート.
Katakana is also used in a lot of commercial signage and logos, and occasionally a word might be written in katakana for emphasis.
In hiragana and katakana, there are also voiced sounds formed by adding either a double hash mark or a small circle to the upper right of certain characters. I won't chart all of these, but, for example, the hiragana characters は ひ ふ へ ほ (ha, hi, hu, he, ho) become ば び ぶ べ ぼ (ba, bi, bu, be, bo) with the addition of the double hash mark. Adding the small circle, they become ぱ ぴ ぷ ぺ ぽ (pa, pi, pu, pe, po) . These sounds are represented in katakana by the identical method. There are other voiced sounds, and certain characters are combined to form diphthongs.
As I stated earlier in this article, there are thousands of kanji. Each character has a meaning, and at least two ways of being read. For example, the name of Japan's capital city, Tokyo, is written 東京. The meaning of the first character is east, and written by itself is read higashi. The meaning of the second character is capital, as in capital city. As you can determine from the meaning of these two characters, the word Tokyo means eastern capital. This makes sense because the city of Edo was renamed Tokyo when the Emperor Meiji, after having been restored as the head of government, moved the seat of government from Kyoto to Edo, which is east of Kyoto.
While it would take years to learn enough kanji to become literate, it is a good idea for the traveler to know a few, like the kanji for man 男, woman 女, entrance 入口, exit 出口 , north 北, south 南, east 東 , west 西, and the characters of the numbering system.
In Japan, you will sometimes see numbers written in the Arabic numerals and sometimes in kanji. Prices marked on merchandise, if machine generated are usually in arabic numerals, e.g. an item selling for two thousand yen would be marked ¥2,000. However, that item might show the price in the native numeral kanji, especially if the price sign is handwritten, 二千円, or perhaps a combination using zeros, like 二000円. Menus often show the prices in kanji, so it is a good idea to be able to recognize the numeral kanji.
Another thing that is really handy to know, is the structure of the numbering system heirarchy. Please note in the chart on the right that there are symbols for 1-10, 100, 1000, 10000, and 100000000. The number twenty two, for example would be a combination of two, ten and two, and would be said ni-ju-ni. Two hundred twenty would be ni-hyaku-ni-ju. Two thousand two hundred twenty would then be ni-sen-ni-hyaku-ni-ju. Twenty thousand would utilize the 10,000 unit and would be read ni-man. Now it gets interesting, for two hundred thousand would be ni-ju-man, two million would be ni-hyaku-man, and twenty million ni-sen-man. Do you see the pattern? This isn't really all that difficult; it is just different from the way that we are used to expressing numerical values. If you know this, though, and if you can learn to express numbers in Japanese, then you are less likely to have that deer in the headlights look in the convenience store checkout line when the cashier politely tells you the total of your purchase.
I won't attempt to go any deeper into the language in this article, but I would encourage you to learn more if you plan to go to Japan.
A little knowledge of the language can go a long way in making your travels there more pleasurable. There are a lot of online guides to help you learn, and I have identified a few of these in the links section. If you have the opportunity to take a formal course in the language in either your local community college, or for military personnel and dependents, through your base education office, I would encourage you to do so.