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Stop Mystifying Japanese

People, I can’t freaking take it any more. Everywhere I go, left and right. “Japanese is the hardest language in the galaxy”. “Japanese people themselves cannot read Japanese”. “Japanese uses thousands of characters, TWO syllabaries and even Arabic numerals and Roman letters from time to time”. “Even the Vulcans had trouble with Japanese”. Double u. Tee. Eff.

First of all, if you want to whine about complexity, English isn’t that simple either. A phonetically complex Germanic language using the writing system of its Roman colonial masters (who used a phonetically simpler, Romance language) that itself was a derivative of the Greek writing system which was in turn derived from the Phoenician writing system? If they’d only asked me first, I could have told them that this was a bad idea. There aren’t enough letters in English to represent its sounds: there aren’t. The only reason you and I can even read (reed? riid? ried? reid? rwd?) English successfully is because we do all kinds of pattern-matching and crap to bridge the gap between text and sound (oh my gorsh — just like IN JAPANESE!?!?!). And not only that, but there aren’t “only 26 letters” in the Roman alphabet as we now use it. There are at least 52 (since uppercase looks nothing the heck like lowercase), not to mention punctuation and Arabic numerals. As for handwriting, how many people can correctly spell any English word? I don’t know about you, but “Massachussetts” always trips me up (I think I’ve got it wrong even now) and Matt Claridge and his mum make fun of me for it ;).

More importantly, the Japanese and Chinese writing systems do not use “thousands of characters” as such. A kanji is not just a character or letter: it is closer to a word. Indeed, many individual kanji are words, even though the past couple thousand years have seen a trend toward two-kanji compounds. Each kanji is made up of logical components [all kanji are made from a subset of the same set of 190-200 or so logical components; all those logical components are made up of the same 7 or 8 strokes] those that indicate its meaning and, to some extent, even its pronunciation. And guess what, Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan have some of the highest literacy rates in the world. Some experiments have shown that kanji are processed faster in the brain than phonetic systems; I certainly find that kanji pack a lot of meaning-per-pixel. Meanwhile, many countries that use the supposedly simpler Roman alphabet — even Romance-language-speaking countries that don’t have the phonetic gap of English — have crappy literacy rates. Don’t even get me started about adult illiteracy in the US.

So, whoever you are, stop scaring the children! Stop whining about how Japanese is “so complex”. Stop trying to intimidate people with horror stories about all the homophone bloopers just “waiting” to happen to a learner of Japanese. Stop doing the modern equivalent of putting “here be dragons” on a map!!! And stop going on about “thousands of characters”: those characters are WORDS, and English has a ton of words, too — hundreds of thousands — without nearly the recombinative power of kanji. You can’t measure the kanji system with the same ruler as you would an alphabet and then give people the impression that “it’s like having an alphabet with ten thousand letters!”. It’s not; the two systems are entirely different and it’s really apples and oranges to attempt to equate them in any way that would permit comparison. For your own good and for the good of the children, don’t conflate having something to do with having an obstacle; don’t confuse difficulty of task with crappiness of method. This is not Kansas: paradigm shift, people.

Just because someone is (or even a lot of people are) having trouble with a task, that doesn’t mean it’s intrinsically hard — more often than not, it could just be that the method sucks. The method sucks, not the person. Often we can be trying to walk across a tightrope while fencing left-handed and eating steak with a plastic spoon and frying an egg with a magnifiying glass all at the same time and all without even being aware of it. That kind of situation would make steak seem hard to eat, and eggs hard to fry. But they aren’t. So, find your way of making it easy: it’s out there. Find a sharp knife and fork for that steak; get off that tightrope; acquire a pan, some oil and fire to fry that egg. You’re smart enough to do it.

(Steps off soapbox). And now I leave the floor to Fabrice and Elizabeth Baba over at Reviewing the Kanji.

  35 comments for “Stop Mystifying Japanese

  1. August 21, 2007 at 11:37

    I don’t think Japanese grammar can compare to the complexity of English. But why does Japanese take so long to learn? Perhaps because it is like learning 3 or 4 languages at once, unless they follow your phases.

  2. khatzumoto
    August 21, 2007 at 11:41

    >But why does Japanese take so long to learn?
    It doesn’t. I think it just intimidates people so they don’t work as hard (and consistently) at it, which stalls the process, often indefinitely: anyone can learn Japanese to fluency, IF they keep learning it–you can’t binge-study for a week every 6 months and expect it to all work out. It’s the same deal with Chinese. A lot of people, like me, who are/were “learning Chinese”, would often go for long stretches of time without seeing, hearing, saying or touching anything to do with Chinese..and guess what, they (I) failed to progress. I know these people, I was one of them.

    Whatever trouble people have with Japanese is because it’s DIFFERENT, not because it’s difficult. Whatever trouble people don’t have with, say, European languages, probably comes because they are not learning anything new. For starters, they don’t learn a new alphabet. Plus a lot of European languages are so close as to be merely dialects of each other, IMHO.

  3. khatzumoto
    August 21, 2007 at 11:44

    As for Japanese having “three writing systems”, that’s a bunch of bull, too. Or, at least it’s a question of classification. Japanese only has one writing system: kanji. Hiragana and katakana are merely deformed kanji being used purely for sound rather than meaning. In China, back in the day, kanji/hanzi were used for sound as well, e.g. when teaching kids and what not.

    I guess you didn’t ask that, but I wanted to put it out there.

  4. khatzumoto
    August 21, 2007 at 11:49

    I think, like you said, Clay, the lack of divide-and-conquer/systematic approach also messes people up. It’s a shame, because Japanese and Chinese are languages that readily lend themselves to a very systematic learning approach, in no small part because they are so much more openly logical than other languages (in my experience). Every language has its own logic, C/J logic is just more clear, I think.

  5. August 21, 2007 at 12:52

    Nicely put, Khatzumoto. You’d make a good coach on a language team. (How nerdy! But I’d totally join a language team for language competition.)

    I was going to respond directly here, but my comment was way too long so I just made a post on my own blog linking back to here. Check it out.

  6. August 21, 2007 at 14:01

    Found you via Alex’s blog. Great post. Cracked me up – soooo true.

  7. Steven
    August 23, 2007 at 00:58

    I completely agree. I hate hearing people or seeing people online say just how hard Japanese is and “lol how long does it take to become fluent?” “lol 10 years”.

    I remember reading one post online, the guy said he’s been studying Japanese for three years and knows about 180 Kanji…180. Now, I have no problem with people who just want to learn language not to actually complete it, but enjoy the learning process and move slowly, but I don’t like them equating their own slow progress with difficulty.

    Anyway, I’m sure you know this Khatz, but linguists say all language are equally logical and difficult. So how does Japanese end up being seen as the most difficult language?

    I think it’s quite simple. Just about everything in Japanese is backwards/opposite from English (or English is backwards compared to Japanese if you prefer). Add a new alphabet including Kanji with the backwards relation, and then compare English to Spanish. Hell, myself, having learned no Spanish, can usually look at a paragraph of Spanish and pick out a few words.

    So my point? There is nothing that makes Japanese mystically hard or difficult in of itself. However, if English is your first language, there WILL be other languages that are easier to learn. There’s nothing special about these languages or Japanese, it’s just that English shares a lot of similarities with romance and Germanic languages. Conversely, if you are Japanese, I’d guess it’s easier to learn Chinese than English in actuality. So is Chinese easier than English? No, it’s just that the jump to Chinese from Japanese is much shorter than from Japanese to English.

  8. khatzumoto
    August 23, 2007 at 01:11

    Hey Steven

    You made a lot of great points. Something I’d like to add to what you said is that the funny thing about learning a language that’s close to yours is that it can actually be a “disadvantage” for at least two reasons.

    1. Laziness. It’s co close, but so far. Close enough for you to benefit from recognizing similarities, but far enough that you still actually have to make an effort. For all the similarities, Japanese looks/seems impossible to Chinese speakers and vice versa. Ditto for Spanish/Portuguese/French, German/Danish/Dutch/English, and such.

    2. False friends. Over-estimating the closeness between two languages can lead you to make all kinds of structural errors of assumption. Back in the day when my Chinese was stronger than my Japanese, I tried to (incorrectly) force a lot of Chinese grammar onto Japanese. For example, both Chinese and Japanese use counters/classifiers, but Chinese uses them with demonstrative pronouns, while Japanese doesn’t [I don’t usually talk like this…].

    Anyway, it’s just like you said: “all languages are equally logical and difficult”. I’ve heard it and I believe it. All languages being made by and for humans, they even out. The lack of variation in spoken Chinese is compensated for by the variation in writing…stuff like that.

    But I imagine you already knew all that ;). Thanks for commenting!

  9. August 23, 2007 at 03:36

    On the “all languages are equally logical and difficult” aspect, I’ve just about given up trying to explain this on the how-to-learn-any-language forums, for precisely the reasons you and others describe in these posts. People are just too comfortable easing back, waving the white flag, and declaring “This Oriental Language of Most Epic Proportions Is Objectively Impossible To Learn.” Over there, the excuses are the same, and, naturally, concern Japanese, Chinese, and Korean.

    When I pointed out repeatedly that every single hearing baby on Earth somehow managed to learn every single language on Earth within the same amount of time, and began speaking at the same amount of time, and developed the same oral/aural vocabulary in the same amount of time, another book of excuses was pulled out of the attic, and I started hearing how “this proves nothing”, and “Chinese is still harder”. It’s ridiculous, man. But the more I see it, the more I believe people will go to any lengths to justify an unwillingness to try anything out of their comfort zones.

  10. beneficii
    August 23, 2007 at 04:22

    BTW, I’ve tried playing Japanese things when I’m sleeping. Though it often results in a somewhat disturbed sleep (any advice for this?), I’ve been keeping it up every night for about a week and a half and I find that it helps with hearing it. My mind is not so functional and I can listen to each of the sounds and pick them out. I may be becoming more accustomed to them? (I think though if I speak I would still have a horrible accent. I called a Japanese person at a Japanese restaurant today and asked them 「********。」 and they did not understand it when I said it at first, and I had to separate the 2 parts of the phrase for him to understand. I could make out the time he gave though. When listening, I find there still is a lot of fuzziness, so I probably should still not speak yet.)

    Granted, when I was a child, I had long language delays, and it wasn’t until high school that I could listen or speak with any real confidence.

  11. khatzumoto
    August 23, 2007 at 07:11

    1. If you must, try 「お店は何時からですか」
    2. But avoid output
    3. >somewhat disturbed sleep (any advice for this?)
    Pick something quieter (like news read by a single announcer)?

  12. khatzumoto
    August 23, 2007 at 07:24

    >every single hearing baby on Earth somehow managed to learn every single language on Earth within the same amount of time, and began speaking at the same amount of time, and developed the same oral/aural vocabulary in the same amount of time

    Them pesky facts…

  13. beneficii
    August 23, 2007 at 12:15


    From where do you recommend I get that news video? Fuji News Network has very short news video, but perhaps there is streaming?

  14. khatzumoto
    August 23, 2007 at 12:43

    In the comments, there’s a link to TBS, which is a similar deal to FNN. If you’re talking about a 24-hour CNN-type thing over the Internet, I don’t know of any yet; it may well be out there, I simply don’t know. You can put FNN on loop, though.

  15. beneficii
    August 24, 2007 at 02:49



    I wonder if they pulled the “adults can’t learn as well as children” routine at that point.

  16. Joe
    August 26, 2007 at 01:11

    Great points, as usual: the more mystical and rarefied you make Japanese, the more forbidding it appears to learners.

  17. Glenn
    August 27, 2007 at 13:43

    For news, I like ANN News. Just search that on Google and it should be one of the first hits. I’ve found that the “script” matches the video better than it does for FNN.

  18. Steven
    August 28, 2007 at 04:04

    NHK also has some videos with scripts.

  19. Takeshi Gaijin
    June 21, 2008 at 02:38

    Some 3rd year Japanese students at my Uni were telling me how it takes 20 years to learn kanji! With that belief in their head, they’ll never learn it anway.

  20. mjaynec
    June 24, 2008 at 16:59

    I started using Heisig’s book about two weeks ago and I’ve already done about 500 kanji. I was talking to a friend of mine who has been studying Japanese for three years, and when I told her about my progress she was floored. She said that she knows over 100 kanji. She happens to be one of the people that goes on and on about how hard and confusing the kanji are, but I introduced her to the Heisig method so hopefully that will change.

  21. M
    July 2, 2008 at 21:25

    People keep on telling us that it’s so hard. You eventually come to believe it.

    Thanks khatzumoto for changing that and giving us motivation.

    To your method in general I have to say though, that although I don’t doubt that it works for you and many people who try to follow you, it might be a too strong strain on one’s social life for most people. Nevertheless, this doesn’t change the facts you stated.

  22. Fryie
    July 3, 2008 at 10:12

    As a student of linguistic but without more than some basic knowledge of Japanese, I tend to agree. I’m also positive that all languages are roughly equal in complexity (yes, it is incredibly difficult for an European speaker to learn a native American language like Lakhota, but that’s because they have other ways of thinking – so it would be equally difficult for the native American without European influence to learn, say, French), but I also have to add that language is not writing. Full competence in one’s mother tongue is acquired early, but writing has to be learned separately and much later. Also, spoken and written language follow different rules, the latter changing and adapting much slower and being more subject to authoritative decisions than the former. To me, this also means that there CAN be differences in the complexity of writing systems although I’m not experienced on that subject and can’t provide details. However, still admitting my lack of knowledge on the subject of Chinese and Japanese, it wouldn’t seem that wrong to me if one were to say that WRITING Japanese (or Chinese) is harder than writing, say, Italian (I didn’t want to pick English because of its horribly outdated orthography which has no more reason to exist than ASCII encoding or QWERTY keyboards have). At least, if you learn how to pronounce an Italian word, you should almost always be able to write it down; but this does not hold for a logographic writing where in fact you have to learn to different representations for each word, a spoken and a written one, which bear no systematic relation.

    That said, I still disagree with the “OMG I CAN NEVER LEARN THAT LANGUAGE” bullshit that can often be heard. I’m confident I could learn every language I wanted to if I had enough time to do so.

  23. mpz
    February 19, 2009 at 13:33

    I don’t entirely agree with the notion that kanji representation of words makes Japanese somehow special or faster to read than English because the meaning is imbued in the logographs.

    I don’t read English text letter by letter, sounding them out in my head. I read and understand words directly, much like I pick up the meaning instantly when I see a kanji compound. Given that English pronounciation and writing have become separated to such a large extent, I have no problems treating English words as just another form of logographs. They’re made up of letters, just like kanji is made up of components.

  24. Mani
    July 16, 2009 at 17:39

    As french, I dont consider english as an easy langage, because its full of “two words components”.
    There are so many situations were you have to know the meaning of this two (or more) words stuck together… English is closest to the most mysterious chinese kanjis in many senses.
    There is, too often, no logic, but knowledge.

    And now I’ll have a look on japanese, it can’t be worst!

  25. shou
    July 22, 2009 at 16:47

    >Some experiments have shown that kanji are processed faster in the brain than phonetic systems; I certainly find that kanji pack a lot of meaning-per-pixel. Meanwhile, many countries that use the supposedly simpler Roman alphabet — even Romance-language-speaking countries that don’t have the phonetic gap of English — have crappy literacy rates. Don’t even get me started about adult illiteracy in the US.

    wow, this is inspiring

    thanks for khatzumoto for lifting up beginners in studying learn Japanese, like me.

  26. Bel
    July 23, 2009 at 04:12

    Everyone’s like ‘JAPANESE IS SO HARD’ and I don’t think it is. It’s DIFFERENT, and it takes awhile to learn, but that doesn’t make it HARD. If you just have the right mindset while learning, Japanese isn’t hard. Kanji are annoying as hell and I struggle with them, but the Japanese language as a whole is just DIFFERENT, not hard. English I think is one of the hardest languages in the world. Everyone says “No, it’s easy!” and that’s because they speak it natively. I do too, but I’ve looked into the linguistics of it and it’s history and it’s complicated as hell! Japanese is much easier than English. Good article!

  27. August 2, 2009 at 07:16

    Reading through some points on kanji… wow. I have been studying Japanese for about a year (more like, 1 year 3 months ago I decided to start learning) and I know about 300 kanji, give or take a couple. That isn’t nearly as fast as I would wish, but seeing other examples here… well, ah,… I feel encouraged?

    One thing: to this I disagree: “Full competence in one’s mother tongue is acquired early, but writing has to be learned separately and much later.” My native language is Spanish, which I learned to read within my first two years (my writing… was somewhat correct but crap back then though)

    I find Japanese to be very simple… (but of course, very different from both Spanish and English). I can (finally) understand some of the Ontama show for the group capsule (finally) and other music interviews (not in their entirety, but quite a bit… my goal now is to understand full videos).

    Thanks for the posts, always motivate me.

  28. Vin Kim
    October 24, 2009 at 14:13

    >every single hearing baby on Earth somehow managed to learn every single language on Earth within the same amount of time, and began speaking at the same amount of time, and developed the same oral/aural vocabulary in the same amount of time

    This isn’t true. Korean takes the longest time for toddlers to learn.

  29. HiddenSincerity
    October 24, 2009 at 19:39

    @Vin Kim

    What isn’t true is your reference.

    Smelling some fine grade BS when I saw the title of the article, I actually checked the reference the lying idiots at Wikipedia used to support that statement and it says nothing of substance about Korean definitely taking the longest to learn of all the worlds 6000+ languages and dialect. .

    What it (the reference, not the article) does say is that it has been found that toddlers begin to use a particular grammatical pattern in Korean at around age five, although there is evidence they understand it before hand. This is mentioned almost in passing, in a context talking about Chinese.

    Also, Wexler, the author of the piece reference appears to be following a Chomskian perspective of language acquisition, which is … how to put this kindly … 40+ year old dribble from a man who was so well trusted that the rest of the linguistic community didn’t bother testing out his hypotheses and people who believe it nowadays should be shoved in a room and made to watch Prison Break season 4 for days and days and days until they repent … or come up with some actual evidence.

  30. Elisianna
    January 5, 2010 at 13:11

    Well said =P There is nothing I hate more than people saying “blah blah is the hardest language to learn” no matter what bloody language it is.

    I kinda go the opposite way of a lot of people though… I always tell everyone how easy Japanese is, especially in the beginning. This coming from someone who has taken German, French, Spanish and Italian… as soon as I came upon this language where we didn’t have to spend the entire lesson conjugating bloody verbs I was happy.

    When people start whining about Katakana, Hiragana and Kanji (Oh my!!) I tell them I taught myself Katakana and Hiragana in a couple of days and retained it… and Kanji is so much fun to learn =P

    English is a ridiculous language. I am so happy it is my first language, because I sure as hell wouldn’t want to learn it. (And I do not understand why it is so “cool” to foreign people… I read a lot of foreign magazines (especially Japanese) and they go crazy with the English.

  31. hermanblue
    January 29, 2011 at 15:30

    Call me victious. I am used to not caring too much about people mystiying the language I learn. The more they do that, the more scarce a skill it becomes for someone who enventually succeds in the language.

  32. Hetty
    January 14, 2013 at 16:27

    I really appreciate your take on language learning. It is very refreshing. Years ago I tried to teach myself Japanese. I pieced together a notebook full of vocabulary and kana. Then I kind of let it go for a few years. I picked it up again a couple of months ago but now I’m approaching it entirely differently. I’m taking my lessons in small bites and I keep going back over what I’ve already covered. I found Japanese radio stations online and have been listening to talk radio while I play Diablo. I watch Japanese cooking shows and anime without subtitles and when I hear words I recognize but can’t recall the definition of, I look them up. That repetition is helping and I don’t feel like I’m putting in much effort.

    I liked your comment about how babies manage to learn their home language just as fast as any other baby learns theirs. I have told friends and family this many times when they try to point out that one language is harder than another.

  33. 李便神
    April 28, 2013 at 10:11

    When I burnout from L2 reading all day, I imagine if I was born with English not being my native language, how ridiculously harder English would be to master as an L2 than any other language in the world. English grammar, what da shiz?! And irregularities..

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