I already complained about being illiterate here. This, on the other hand means I am very motivated to learn to read, which, unfortunately, is not an easy task.
In Japan, three writing systems coexist:
- Hiragana, which is syllabic and is used mainly for grammatical inflections and particles.
- Katakana, which is also syllabic and is used for all non-Japanese words.
- Kanji. These are Chinese characters and make up the majority of written text.
1945 of them are taught in school and are enough to understand 90% of all characters generally encountered. Chinese dictionaries list up to 80’000.
Chinese characters are often pretty complex (some contain up to 23 individual strokes) and therefore hard to memorize. I got myself a book that had quite good online reviews , A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters. So every evening, I memorize my Kanji for a little while. The 80 characters of first grade I already more or less recognize, also a number of the second grade ones. Which doesn’t mean I can write them (stroke order is all important). And neither that I can pronounce them. Each kanji usually has more than one pronunciation, which multiplies the memorizing effort. While there is the actual Japanese word corresponding to the character (the kun reading), some pronunciations were imported along with the character itself from China (the on reading). In compound words, the Chinese reading is usually used.
Take for example the character for cow 牛, Japanese ushi. (Cow-)milk is written with two kanjis 牛乳 and pronounced gyuunyuu. Gyu is the Chinese reading for cow.
Knowing the individual kanji doesn’t necessarily mean you’d understand the meaning of a compound. Take fire 火 and flower 花 for example. 火花 means spark, while 花火 means firework. Good luck guessing this!
I have a habit of reading the packaging of my food while having breakfast. While this was pretty straightforward in Dutch, in Japanese it’s a challenge of a different order of magnitude. This morning, I found this here on my milk package: 賞味期限. And for once I wanted to be able to read.
Now how do you look this up? First you have to count the number of strokes of the character you wish to find (there are some subtleties here, you have to know for example that a square is written with 3 strokes). Then you check all the characters with this stroke number in the book till you find yours. I got the following result: 賞 is prize, but also praise. 味 is flavor/taste. 期 is period. 限 is limit. Praise taste period limit? At first this seems puzzling, but it turns out to correspond to “best before” with the expiration date!