Japanese 101

One of my goals when we moved to Japan was to learn the language fluently enough to converse comfortable and someday to be able to teach our children. I immediately enrolled in the free Japanese class offered on base that meets on Monday and Wednesday night, bought a stack of note cards and told myself I was on my way! I’d be communicating in no time.


So far I am comfortable with exactly three phrases:

  • Domo arigato gozaimasu
  • Sumimasen
  • Yoi ichinichi o

Translation: thank you, sorry and have a good day.

I was at lunch with a friend yesterday and a Japanese man asked me if I knew where a certain hotel was. He made an effort in English, and I so wanted to return that by trying out Japanese. “Hai,” I said. Which means yes, but was a lie. I didn’t know where the hotel was. “Hai” just sort of popped out.  I started shaking my head. “Sumimasen. No. Umm… Maybe that way.” I pointed and shrugged as if to say, “I apologize for being completely useless”. He smiled and bowed and thanked me anyway. I bowed and thanked him back because other than “sorry” it’s one of the two other things I can say.  As he walked away I looked at my friend and said, “Ah!! I just learned how to say good luck! It’s on a note card in my purse. This would have been a perfect opportunity to practice!”

I reviewed my note cards on the way home: Ganbatte Kudasai. Damn. So close.

When I took French in high school, I don’t remember it being difficult to learn the basics. I remember having conjugating issues, but I don’t remember stumbling over the most basic of vocabulary. When I took Spanish in college, I remember it coming really easily and sticking with me. This was my expectation when I moved to Japan. I imagined myself laughing with the locals in their native language, being witty and I’ve been here for a month and a half now and I basically just walk around saying, “sorry”.  This morning I woke up motivated. No more two days a week for me! Today I was going to conquer hiragana! Watch out Japan.

There are three different writing systems in Japanese: kanji (which are the Chinese symbols that are sounds/words with meanings associated with them),  hiragana, and katakana. The latter two are the two sets of characters that have corresponding sounds and build words in Japanese (the alphabets, for lack of a better word). Given that a college educated scholar knows about 6000 kanji and there are approximately 2000 kanji characters used routinely in Japanese, most non-native speakers don’t study kanji (or at least not in the beginning.)

There are 46 characters for basic syllables in both the hiragana and katakana “alphabet”. They both expand from there with modified syllables for consonants plus vowels, and modified syllables for consonants plus ya, yu, yo. Example:  ba, bi, bu, be, bo, bya, byu, byo. Not to mention double consonants and long vowels.


A very basic sentence, can use characters from all three writing systems: kanji, hiragana, and katakana. Example:

Japanese characters

My goal this morning was to familiarize myself with the 46 basic hiragana characters.  It’s noon now and I have been at it for about 4 hours. Dane went to the hardware store to buy lumber for a table he is building, and he’s already back with groceries and lunch. In that time I have “mastered” 26 characters according to my software program. (And as you can see, I’ve decided to take a blogging break.)

Hiragana Character Practice IMG_0718 IMG_0716




At this rate, it is likely he could build an entire house before I will be speaking Japanese well enough to teach our unborn children. But I’m not going to give up. The next time someone asks me for directions, I doubt I will be able to help them, but I’m at least going to be able to wish them luck.


4 thoughts on “Japanese 101”

  1. Gambatte kudasai! I started Japanese also 2 months ago, and I can also feel my progress are much slower than in any other language. I’d love to come to Okinawa for improving my Japanese and doing some scuba diving at the same time… how did you find these free classes?


    1. My husband is in the military and they offer classes on base… although, the best for me so far has been a program called Transparent Language! Where are you living right now? The diving here is OUT OF THIS WORLD! We’re loving these reefs! You must get our here!


  2. Yikes, Japanese sounds so difficult! (Or should I say, impossible?) Just trying to comprehend the 3 different alphabets makes my head hurt. I think I’ll stick with the romance languages 😉 But I’m sure with time you’ll get the hang of it more quickly! Baby steps!!


    1. I’m starting to recognize the letters when I’m out and about… but even if I can sound out a whole word… I still have NO idea what it means. Makes me miss those romance languages SO MUCH! I’d love to live somewhere where we are surrounded by Spanish next! I feel like all those years of studying it would finally click.


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