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Climbing Mount Fuji

In mid-February, I decided to start studying Japanese via Duolingo. I've always been interested in language study, although as I've said before I'd kind of given up studying native languages. They're so arbitrary and, as a second-language learner, your potential for mastery is so low. But part of my disappointment really derives from unrealistic expectations. Just because you will never be a grand master is not a good reason not to play chess. (Well, maybe it is. I don' t know. Your mileage may vary.)

It actually started because in Animal Crossing, I could see the names of Japanese players, but I didn't know how to say them. So I thought maybe I could learn to read enough Japanese to be able to pronounce their names.

And, of course, I've been interested in Japanese poetry for many years.

And, of course, everyone talks about how language study is good for keeping your brain active and young.

And I enjoy watching anime, and I thought this could provide additional insight into what's happening.

And all of these things are true. Sorta.

When I started, I didn't realize that Japanese actually has three writing systems: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. And most Japanese writing has a mix of all three. The Hiragana and Katakana are sorta phonetic, although the fact that they map to syllables, rather than letters is different. They appear quite differently depending on the font (or when stylized or hand-written. My reaction reminds me of the faces my children would make when trying to read letters written in cursive.) I joke that the Hiragana can be classified as "hooks", "knots", and "telephone poles", but you can represent them in a table that sorta makes sense. And then there are the diacriticals. And the digraphs. But still — sorta phonetic. But the kanji are totally impenetrable. You just have to learn them all.

Today, Duolingo says I've learned 349 words of Japanese. That might seem encouraging but I looked yesterday at the list of kanji that elementary school children learn in Japan. Philip comments, "You're like a second grader!" But I've actually only learned about a quarter of the first list because most of the words I've learned are not kanji. But I am gaining insights into things, exactly as I'd hoped I might.

I've been watching an anime series the boys recommended: Yuru Camp, which is very charming. In several episodes, Mt. Fuji is a prominent landmark and I noticed that one of the characters refers to it as Fuji-san. (I noticed because I'm listening to the spoken language more closely and not just reading the subtitles). I wondered about it and looked it up on Wikipedia which explains that Fuji-san is not an honorific (like Mr. Fuji) but rather the On'yomi or Sino-Japanese reading of the kanji 富士山. In other words, it's not enough to know the word and its hiragana (or katakana) equivalents — you have to know the ideogram plus TWO pronunciations. Sheesh. Impossible. Still, it gives me deeper insight into haiku and other Japanese poetry and the mechanisms of the alternate readings that I've heard of. Haiku often involves word-play, where a word or phrase has two meanings: an obvious literal reading and another more tongue-in-cheek reading.

I also realized one other thing from an anime. In an episode of Dragon Maid, Lucoa greets Tohru with the honorific "-kun". I'm generally familiar with honorifics in Japanese (well, as familiar as you can get by only watching anime. I remember the boys and I all gasping when Naruto called Sasuke "Sasuke-chan"), but I saw a page on the senpai-kohai relationship which sounds like what the creators were going for.

I've tended to be skeptical when people talk about studying a language to learn about culture. A lot of the detail of native languages is just contingency or convention. And this is perhaps not the most efficient way to go about it. But it's still fun.

And the title of this post, is a comment on the famous haiku by Kobayashi Issa:

“O snail
Climb Mount Fuji
But slowly, slowly!”

I'll keep doing my daily practice at Duolingo.