Life in Japan #3: 13 Reasons Why You Should Learn Kanji

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According to lots of people far smarter than me, Japanese is either one of the hardest, or the hardest language for English speakers to learn. But why? It’s very different from English, obviously, but so are lots of other languages. And Japanese grammar isn’t all that complicated, nor is the speaking and listening as difficult as tonal languages like Mandarin. So, to ask the same rhetorical question twice in one paragraph: why is Japanese so difficult to learn?

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If you’ve ever studied Japanese, or know a little about Japanese as a language, or have literally just read the title of this post, you’ll know the answer – kanji. Originally taken from China, kanji is now radically different from the Chinese writing system, and far more difficult to learn.

Now, I wrote last week about how intimidating learning kanji can be, and why it’s far more doable than people make it out to be. So I won’t go over all that again. You can read my post What I want to talk about this week, is why you should bother learning kanji in the first place. So here are 13 good reasons you should learn kanji:

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(Note: some of these only make sense if you live in Japan.)

  1. Japanese people think you’re basically magic.
  2. It’s really useful for learning vocabulary – especially since it often acts as a ready-made mnemonic.
  3. It allows you to read, obviously. That really should have been number 1.
  4. It makes walking down the street much more interesting – instead of just a boring, nondescript building, it’s now a boring, nondescript proctology clinic (70% of all buildings in Japan house medical clinics, for some reason – roughly 90% of which are ear, nose, and throat clinics, with the remaining 10% being proctology clinics. Roughly 50% of all adverts on trains are for local proctology clinics. I’m only kind of joking about this.)
  5. Learning a couple hundred kanji basically teaches you how to predict stroke order of unfamiliar kanji, allowing you to look up unfamiliar things (place names, stations, warnings about perverts on trains, the ticket you received from the police doing pervert stuff on the train) and get around life in Japan much more easily (you can set up your smartphone to allow you to hand-draw kanji using the touch screen.
  6. It cuts down anxiety on unfamiliar train rides (esp. in the countryside on small lines), allowing you to know where you are/the next stop without having to wait and hope that it will be displayed in English
  7. Following on from number 4, it lets you be the high-level weeb you’ve always wanted to be. Right now I’m playing Yo-kai Watch 4 (a mature game for grown-up people), which hasn’t seen an English release yet, and I’m reading the incredibly good manga Our Dreams at Dusk (Shimanami Tasogare) – a 4-part series, only the first of which has been released in the west as of the time of writing. Learning Japanese opens you up to a whole world of good media aimed squarely at poindexters like you and me.
  8. It allows you to go into all the haughty, semi-fancy Japanese restaurants that put their menus all in kanji (even the things that Japanese people write in kana 100% of the time) to keep foreigners out, so you can annoy them with your presence while feeling self-conscious and not at all having a good time.
  9. It’s interesting and fun. Fight me.
  10. You can understand and fill in complicated forms perfectly, for all those complicated government things you need to do but don’t actually understand, and wouldn’t understand even if everything was written in English.
  11. It removes 40-50% of the friction in everyday life in Japan
  12. If you get married to a Japanese person, it allows you to live a life together without having to say to them “Please do my adult things for me because I am baby” every week for the rest of your life, which, I don’t know, might just lead to a tiny bit of resentment maybe?
  13. The following horse fact:

The kanji for horse is:

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There is also an obscure kanji that means ‘many horses’ and which looks like this:E9A9AB

Personally I think that one kanji is reason enough, but the other 12 points are also good, I guess.

So that’s it – indisputable proof that learning kanji is worthwhile. Thanks for reading!

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Life in Japan #2: Thoughts on Studying Kanji, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Needlessly Complicated Japanese Logographic Writing System

(This is an edited repost of a post I wrote in the dark depths of 2015.)

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So you want to learn Japanese. It’s a common story. Just think of all the manga you could read, all the anime you could watch, and all the non-Japanese people you could no doubt impress by saying ‘karaoke’ with the original Japanese pronunciation. Maybe you could even go to Japan. In that case, just think of all the places you could see, all the interesting people you could meet, and – statistically speaking if you’re a white man – all the Japanese women you could pursue with a single-mindedness bordering on mania.

So you buy a textbook, sign up for weekend classes, and everything goes well – at first. After a little while you feel like you’re making real progress. You’ve memorised hiragana and katakana – Japan’s two phonetic alphabets. Your listening skills are improving. You’ve got your ‘sumimasen‘ (excuse me), your ‘arigatō‘ (thank you), and your ‘私の一番好きな力士は琴奨菊です。’ (Kotoshōgiku is my favourite sumo wrestler) all sorted out.

You’re dimly aware that there’s something out there waiting for you, though. Something that’s eaten linguistically-better men and women alive. Something every single one of your teachers and textbooks warned you about from the very beginning.

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Eventually kanji catches up with you. One day you’re foolish enough to think ‘I’ll just learn a few kanji and we’ll see how it goes’ and the next thing you know you’re tearing you hair out. About the three different readings for each kanji. About the 2,000+ hideously complex characters you’ll have to learn. And about why exactly the kanji for ‘happy’ (幸) and ‘spicy’ (辛) have to look almost bloody identical.

After a brief, violent skirmish you delete the app off your phone, abandon your textbook on the shelf between your copies of Russian Fluency in 30 Days and Legerdemain & Skulduggery: A Beginner’s Guide, and you give up. You’ll just focus on speaking and listening for now. Kanji can come later. Maybe.

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I said it was a common story, and it is. People who study Japanese absolutely bloody love this story, in the sense that misery absolutely bloody loves company. Especially new, wide-eyed company that is about to go through the same misery you had to endure, but has no idea what they’re getting themselves into just yet. Learners of Japanese love telling beginners horror stories about how awful kanji is, before informing them that they’ll understand one day.

Yup, kanji isn’t easy. It would be so much easier to learn Spanish, with its Latin roots and its lovely, lovely single alphabet. And yes, the official list of Jōyō kanji – i.e. the list of kanji in everyday usage – currently stands at 2,136. That’s like learning the Latin alphabet (upper and lower case), and then learning it 40 more times. But harder. Impossible. Impossible, right?

Well, no. It’s not exactly easy, but it’s also not one of the twelve labours of Hercules. There are many reasons why the story I told you above is so common, and in my opinion one of the most important is that many people approach kanji in the wrong way.

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The bit where I shill some crappy textbook I wrote:

Now, I should make it clear that I’m not trying to hype up my new, patent-pending method of learning kanji. I’m also not saying that any one specific method of learning kanji is stupid. Whatever works for you is great, and different methods work for different people.

The people who champion one specific method of learning kanji often act as if theirs is the only good one (sometimes it seems like every article or YouTube video about how to learn kanji is titled ‘Learn Kanji – The Right Way!‘), which is wrong, because as I said: different methods work for different people. I learned kanji pretty much by rote memorisation, which many people would say is a terrible way to learn kanji. And it actually kind of is terrible – for most people. It might not work for you. But it worked really well for me, because apparently I have a cold, inhuman robot brain. And after a few years of using that cold, inhuman method, I now probably know 3,000-3,500 kanji.

But this insistence on the One True Method for learning kanji isn’t just wrong, it also leads to people getting disheartened when that specific method doesn’t gel with their own way of learning. Instead of thinking “Maybe I just need to try a different method” it’s very easy and understandable to think “Maybe I’m just no good at learning kanji”).

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So what is stupid is not any one specific method of learning kanji, but instead how students and teachers tend to think about learning kanji as a whole. This problem comes in two main parts:

(1) People tell you that kanji is one of the scariest things in the world

Like I said before, people learning Japanese are weirdly into telling Japanese beginners about how awful kanji is, and how they’re just going to hate it. But lots of teachers also do this. Almost every single Japanese teacher I’ve had, actually. Even Japanese textbooks – including textbooks specifically designed to teach you kanji – do this. This is not only incredibly annoying, it’s setting you up to fail from the very beginning. If you approach kanji knowing only that everyone thinks it’s endless and near-impossible, you’re going to have a much harder time than if you approach it with an open mind.

I’m not saying that learning kanji isn’t difficult – it is, and, like most things, the beginning stages of the learning process are probably the hardest. But nothing else I know has such a poisonous popular image. Such a poisonous popular image, in fact, that it pushes people to give up where they might not otherwise.

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When you’re studying Japanese vocabulary and you forget a word, or five, or ten – even ones you’ve reviewed dozens of times – the natural reaction is to shrug it off and think “Oh well, I’ll get it next time”.  But the moment you forget a kanji character all that baggage comes up and it’s amazingly easy to throw up your hands and think ‘For god’s sake, I guess kanji really is impossible’ and take a step towards giving up, rather than taking a step back and realising that frequent roadblocks are a part of any learning process.

Learning anything is difficult – learning thousands of Japanese words, many of which sound incredibly similar, is really, really difficult. And it takes a really, really long time. But there isn’t a culture of fear and anger surrounding it. People just accept it as part of the territory of learning a language. The moment someone starts learning kanji, however, everyone warns them how awful it is, how long it will take, and how many mistakes they’ll make, but surprisingly few people actually seems interested in giving practical advice.

So it remains something weird and different and apparently impossible, rather than what it actually is, which is something that’s difficult, useful, and totally doable. Something that, with the rise of electronic dictionaries, memorisation apps, and new methods of learning has become far easier over time, but which still retains its reputation as the academic equivalent of just punching yourself in the kidneys over and over again until you die.

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(2) They coddle you, letting you avoid it for far too long

I don’t know if you should start learning kanji on your first day of studying Japanese, but that’s definitely a far better idea than what 95% of students (at least students I’ve encountered, all of whom are studying in Japan) are pushed towards – i.e. learning almost no kanji for months and months and months.

If you’re going to read Japanese you’re going to have to learn to read kanji, full stop. But Japanese text books (and many teachers), even up to a pretty high level, rarely make you do this, since they’ll print the hiragana reading above the kanji. This is partly because everyone learns at different paces, so it’s obviously useful to have hiragana there for those who haven’t learned the kanji yet. But I think it’s also largely down to the aforementioned ‘It’s impossible, you’re never going to learn it’ attitude that hangs around the Japanese-education community like the ghost of a bad fart. After all – I’ve studied using quite a few high-level textbooks, and they still feature the hiragana readings, well past a point where they should be necessary.

What this attempt to shield you from kanji means is that, while you could be going at a steady, manageable pace – learning a few kanji a week alongside your regular studying and steadily getting better over time, instead many students are left functionally illiterate for years, and then are suddenly faced with the prospect of cramming thousands of kanji all at once somewhere awful down the line.

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In conclusion:

So, I guess if you come out of this with anything it should be that kanji is difficult, but doable. You can learn kanji – stop trying to avoid my gaze – yes, you.  It’s not only for people who are great at languages (I’m pretty rubbish at languages – 10 years of French and I could barely say “Where is the cake? In the dustbin.”), or only for people who are geniuses (I still sometimes get mixed up on the whole ‘small/far away’ thing). You can learn kanji, but like everything else it takes time and consistent effort.

There are tricks that will make it easier, but they’re the ‘how to make sure you’re not wasting those 20 minutes of studying per day/every other day’ kind of tricks, rather than the ‘this one quick trick to learn kanji in 10 days that doctors hate’ kind of trick.

Just don’t let people turn you against it before you’ve even started. Take it from me – it’s not impossible and it’s not evil and it’s not out to get you. You can start whenever you want, going at your own pace and you’ll make progress so long as you try. You’ll make mistakes and get frustrated at times but the most important thing to remember is that even then you’re always making progress.

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Thanks for reading! If you liked this post you can follow me on Twitter by clicking here. or you could be the loveliest person alive and support me on my newly-opened Patreon. Chuck a few dollars my way, get some lovely rewards, and generally fill yourself with the warm glow that comes from helping someone make some money out of all this nonsense.

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RPG Autopsy #10: Vampyr (Part Ten – Vampire Rats)

(Welcome to part ten of our mini-series on Vampyr. If you missed part one, you can find it here. Today we’ll be heading down into the sewers, fighting a big punchy man, and questioning the judgement of God.)

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It’s time to head down into ever gamer’s favourite environment – one full of beautiful vistas and countless opportunities for interesting, varied level design – a sewer!

Mercifully, Vampyr doesn’t make us punch giant rats or navigate a labyrinth of identical brown corridors. It’s a quick jaunt, with one ‘puzzle’ (open and close some sewer grates in the correct sequence, because video games), and we soon run into something pretty interesting: the Big Grey Man me met before, only now he’s absolutely going to town on some Skals.

After crushing the heads of a few Skals like so many delicious grapes, he – the subtitles call him ‘Fergal’, which, okay, I guess that’s his name now, maybe I missed when they told me – tells us that he’s here to eradicate the Skals on behalf of the Ascalon Club. Reid tells him off a bit, and then Fergal decides to kill us for reasons.

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He says, before crushing the heads of a few more Skals like so many delicious maggots.

What can I say? It’s a Vampyr boss fight, so all the complaints I’ve made before are still in play. We dodge around. We get caught in some janky attack animations. There’s an approximately 70% chance we die a couple of times, and an approximately 1000% chance that I get annoyed and raise my voice at a loading screen. But it’s fine. It’s fine. Eventually Big Grey Fergal dies, and I’m left thinking ‘Oh, I guess he’s not going to end up being a major character, then.’

Tramping through the sewers some more, we discover a group of peaceful, talkative Skals living in the sewers. That’s right – apparently Skals are not always feral, flesh-eating beasts. I mean, these ones still eat human flesh, but it’s still an improvement.

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Most of the Skals hanging around the sewers are of the ‘repeat the same two voice lines whenever you walk past them’ variety of NPCs. There’s only one we can properly talk to, which feels like a huge missed opportunity in a game about talking to interesting NPCs.

We meet a mysterious, scarred woman – seemingly the leader of these Skals – who goes by ‘Old Bridget’. She tells us a little about the Ascalon Club (they’re the upper echelons of vampire society – think ‘Vampire Tories’), and its relationship with the Skals (they see Skals as lesser beings fit only for slavery or extinction – remember: ‘Vampire Tories’).

She also tells us that Sean Hampton is not only charitable to poor, downtrodden mortals, but has long been a friend to the poor, downtrodden Skal of London – even before becoming a skal himself.

She also also tells us that Harriet Jones – whom we thought murdered by Hampton – is in fact alive. For whatever reason, she turned undead at Pembroke, and Hampton brought her here to live with the sewer Skals.

I said alive before. What I really meant was: ‘alive’. We find Harriet, and find her looking very strange. Her flesh is twisted, and her body is bloated to all hell – to the point where Old Bridget isn’t fully convinced she’s even a Skal. No one really seems to know what’s going on with her, or what’s the cause of her strange mutations (THIS DEFINITELY WON’T BE MASSIVELY IMPORTANT LATER).

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Harriet Jones, here pictured sitting in a very questionably rendered armchair.

But two things are clear about Harriet Jones – she’s full of overwhelming bitterness and hatred for basically everyone, and she’s definitely killed at least one person. That murdered man in the docks was her work – an old grudge of hers. Turns out Hampton brought her here to the sewers as much to protect the world from her, as to protect her from the world.

She also says something very disconcerting – apparently she was visited by some kind of shadowy presence – one ‘born of hatred’, that spoke only to her, and that asked after us (Dr. Reid, that is) specifically (THIS DEFINITELY WON’T BE MASSIVELY IMPORTANT LATER LOL).

Harriet is quickly exhausted by all this exposition, and we leave her to rest. And now that we know the truth about Sean Hampton – i.e. that he didn’t kill anyone – it’s time to head back and absolve him of our suspicions.

When we do so, we find him sitting at his table eating raw human flesh with a knife and fork. Okay then…

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In case you missed out on your college’s ‘Creepy Horror Tropes 101’ class, ‘Communion’ means eating dead people.

Well, we already knew that as a Skal Hampton has to eat human flesh, and that he only eats the flesh of the already dead. But Reid is (I have to say, justifiably) worried that Hampton will one day cross the line, succumb to his hungers, and actually kill someone.

So, much like with Nurse Crane (RIP, deffo not my fault), we now have a choice. We can spare his life or kill him, or we can ‘Turn’ him. Not into an Ekon like us, but we’ve just learned from Old Bridget that vampire/Ekon blood can sustain a Skal, removing their need to eat flesh entirely.

This is a really cool choice, because I (and I expect a hell of a lot of other players) got burned by the Nurse Crane choice. The option I chose there was also coloured blue – an indication that it was unlocked by collecting Hints about the character (and basically presented as ‘click this option to win’). Choosing the option that seems obviously correct with Nurse Crane ended up screwing me over big time, and so naturally I was suspicious that the same thing would happen here.

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More very weird vampire eyes that no one notices somehow.

And the game knows that. It’s an obvious attempt to make the player feel nervous and unsteady about their choice, and it works fantastically. So fantastically, in fact, that I’m almost willing to forgive the game’s missteps with the Nurse Crane choice, since it’s what allows this choice to work so well:

THIS WEEK’S INSIGHTFUL GAME DESIGN LESSON:

Mess with your players’ expectations and make them doubt their choices.

A player thinking ‘Oh god, I don’t know – will this come back to bite me in the arse later?’ is orders of magnitude more interesting than a choice coming back to bite them in the arse later out of the blue, with little or no foreshadowing.

If they player knows they’re making a fraught choice, they’ll probably care about it, wring their hands over it, and be more willing to accept a negative outcome. If they feel like they’re making a normal choice, then you suddenly screw them over, they’ll just feel annoyed and betrayed (even though, yes, sometimes real life does just screw you over with no warning).

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This will definitely, 100% go badly.

I eventually choose – against my better judgement, as I’m pretty sure it’s too good to be true – to give him my blood. I don’t think he’s lying about not killing people, but I am scared that he’ll one day succumb to the cravings and snap.

But Hampton is really not into it. He says God made him this way, so going through with this plan would be against God’s will. Reid (without any input from us – we’ve shit out bed and now have to sleep in it) begins to strong-arm Hampton. Hard. He questions his trust in God’s plan, using the facts we learned about Hampton earlier as ammunition.

How can he trust God’s plan when he was abandoned as a baby. Was it God’s plan for him to be molested by a priest as a child?

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Oof.

It feels incredibly icky, but that’s the point, and it works perfectly in the moment – Reid is being manipulative, and downright awful here. Which is entirely in-keeping with his ‘I’m very nice, but I retain my birthright privilege to tear you down at the drop of a hat if I deem it necessary’ posh, upper-class character, and the manipulative nature of every vampire we’ve met (or will meet in the future).

And we don’t really ‘convince’ Sean Hampton with all this – we merely target where he’s emotionally vulnerable, and proceed to pummel him there until he’s unable to stand up to any more. And after using his own personal trauma against him in the name of making him do something he desperately doesn’t want to do (but that we’ve decided, in our doctorly magnanimity, is best for him), he stops fighting back, kneels down, and drinks our blood. We win.

I feel awful.

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In my defence, I now hate myself.

So, uh…yeah. Next week we’ll be continuing our investigation into the epidemic, and I’ll be trying to forget what we just did here.

For now, though – as always,  you can follow me on Twitter by clicking here. And if you like RPG Autopsy – why not be lovely by supporting me on my newly-opened Patreon?Alternatively, if you hate RPG Autopsy – why not spite me by supporting me on my newly-opened Patreon? Find that Patreon here.

 

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