Sitnews - Stories In The News - Ketchikan, Alaska - News, Features, Opinions...


Kanayama Korner

Ohayo Gozaimasu Ketchikan
by Daniel Patton


February 15, 2005

As I write, fat snowflakes are gently wafting past the large windows of the Kanayama Middle School teacher's office. Outside on a gravel field the P.E. class is laughing and shouting as they practice soccer and plod through the occasional muck hole. In all directions steep, densely forested mountains rise quickly, their concealed peaks presumably accumulating quality snow while down here we must be content with the soggy dregs. Remind you of anywhere in particular? Winter is well upon us here in the Hida region of Japan and while Kanayama is relatively low elevation and doesn't ordinarily receive a great deal of snowfall, the 'Japanese Alps' just north us are one of the snowiest places on the globe (a recent forecast I saw called for 90 centimeters, three feet, over the course of a single day!). Bitterly cold air from Siberia picks up moisture as it blows over the relatively warm Sea of Japan only to have it squeezed out when it confronts the tall mountain range. For the local folks this means that the multitude of ski resorts that dot the landscape are rarely lacking in white stuff. Regrettably, it is generally not the light, powdery snow of Colorado or New Mexico, but more like heavier variety of the western Coast Range. Either way, skiing is a big industry in this part of Japan and every weekend now a steady stream of vehicles can be seen heading from the big cities in the south to the winter playgrounds up north.

jpg Ketchikan Kanayama exchange group

The 2005 Ketchikan Kanayama exchange group

Probably the biggest difference between life here in Japan and that back home is the fact that I never really know for sure what people around me are saying. When I arrived five months ago I knew a grand total of about five Japanese words (tsunami, samurai, kimono, arigato, oyaho gozaimasu) and absolutely nothing about the writing system (or systems, to be correct). I had studied several foreign languages before, however, and didn't think Japanese would present too much of a problem. Boy was I wrong. In this article I would like to give you a brief overview of Japanese and some of the highlights of this beautiful but challenging language.

The first big obstacle that I struggled with was the Japanese word order. It is almost completely opposite that of English, with the verb almost always coming at the end of the phrase and the articles after the words they modify. If you want to form a well worded Japanese sentence, just imagine the English equivalent and say it backwards. For example, instead of saying 'the cat is in the house' say 'cat the house in is' (neko ga ie no naka ni imasu) and 'the moon rose over the mountains' would be 'mountains over moon the rose' (yama no ue ni tsuki ga demashita).

The next difficulty I encountered was the tendency for Japanese words to 'all sound the same', especially to an ear tuned to hear English. This is a common problem for people learning a new language, but with Japanese it is compounded because, in fact, there are much fewer possible sound combinations than in English. And due to the different timing of Japanese, it is moraic instead of syllabic, what seem to our ears extremely subtle differences in pronunciation can make the difference between two very different words. For example, biru means 'building' while biiru means 'beer'. The i sound in biiru is held out infinitesimally longer than in biru.

jpg temple

Temple on the outskirts of Kanayama town.

There are also WAY more words that sound the same but have different meanings (like bat and bat). One word I recently learned, saku has five very different definitions: 1) a plan or scheme, 2) a fence, 3) to spare (as in time), 4) to split or tear, 5) to blossom. And saku is certainly not an isolated example. To be fair, sometimes there is a slight different in inflection between two words that to a foreigners ear sound the same, but there are only so many ways to change the inflection of a word as short as saku! The reason for this redundancy brings us to by far the most difficult part of Japanese, the written system.

The Japanese written system consists of not one, but four alphabets. The first three, hiragana, katakana, and romaji, are relatively easy to learn as they are compact and the letters refer to single sounds. Actually, we all already know romaji, it is the alphabet we use. Romaji is very common in Japan. You see it on billboards, t-shirts, and every computer keyboard. The fourth 'alphabet', kanji, isn't really an alphabet but a quasi-hieroglyphic writing system adopted from China about 1,500 years ago. It is amazingly prolific. The Japanese government has issued a list of approximately 2,000 kanji symbols to be used in official documents, but if you want to read technical papers you need to know upwards of 5,000 and total kanji lists sometimes exceed 30,000. This is an enormous amount of memorization to anyone hoping to learn to read kanji and it is even tougher than it seems at first glance because most kanji have at least two (often many more) pronunciations. Chinese is a tonal language; the meaning of words differs depending on pitch. When the Japanese adopted Chinese symbols they also adopted vast numbers of words. Since Japanese is not tonal, many words that sounded different in Chinese sound the same. Thus, the five different meanings for saku (each having a different kanji, by the way). Needless to say it is very difficult to learn to read Japanese. I recently heard a story about an American who was determined to learn to read kanji. After a few years of study he called up a friend and proudly proclaimed he'd mastered his 1000th kanji and could now read the front page of a Tokyo newspaperin only an hour and a half!

There are also a few instances where Japanese is simpler than English. There is almost no use to the plural, as it is deduced from context. The future tense in nonexistent as well. In some cases where English is rather verbose, Japanese is concise. For example, 'the bread that I bought yesterday' is 'yesterday bought bread' kinoo katta pan and 'the man who is wearing the red shirt' is 'red shirt wearing man' akai shatsu o kitte otoko. Japanese also has a great wealth of onomatopoetic words which tend to greatly reduce the amount of words needed to make a point. For example bashibashi is 'the sound of smacking someone on the head' and burabura is 'the sound a drunk person makes as they swagger down the street'. One phrase in particular, onegai shimasu, I find interesting. It's impossible to accurately translate but might mean something like 'I humbly place myself in your care please accept me'. Onegai shimasu is used constantly, I probably hear it 20 times a day. It is actually rather indicative of Japanese culture as a wholebut that is an entirely different article.

I hope this piqued some interest in learning Japanese. Go for it and then come visit our sister city, Kanayama.


E-mail your news & photos to

Publish A Letter on SitNews
        Read Letters/Opinions
Submit A Letter to the Editor

Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska