Japanese (日本語 (nihongo)). Most anime fans dream of the day they can understand Japanese to see their favorite shows in the glorious original dubbing, without subtitles. By watching the shows in Japanese, some fans pick up some words like スーパーロボット (suupaa robboto – Super Robot) or 死ね! (shine – DIE!), but most of these words are not very practical. Others will buy a learning-book or software and try to learn, but most fans will quickly realize that Japanese is really hard! This elusive language can feel impossible to learn. And after a few weeks of intensive, non-productive self-study, most students give up and just settle with watching subtitles.
“Objection!” many fans may cry out. “Sure, Japanese is hard, but it can’t be impossible, right? Japan’s population of 128 million people can learn it, why can’t I?”
The answer is you can learn it. Anyone can learn it, but only if they put the time, blood, sweat, and tears into learning Japanese. In this article, You’ll the basics about why Japanese is so difficult, but also some strategies for learning it. And while we are in an “objectionable” mood, we’ll use the awesome Japanese video game, manga, and movie, Phoenix Wright or as it’s known in Japanese as 逆転裁判 (though it should be an anime as well) for examples about the complexities about the Japanese language. So without any further ado, let’s start the trial!
Prepare your court records, because we’re starting with the tough stuff! Written Japanese is infamous for being insanely difficult, and for good reason, it has THREE alphabets. Let’s start with the first alphabet most people learn, Hiragana (ひらがな). This is a phonetic alphabet that can be used to spell out words like the English abc’s. However, the symbols are very different from English letters, and this alphabet is used to spell out native, Japanese words. Here’s the alphabet and their sounds:
あ(a) い(i) う(u) え(e) お(o)
か(ka) き(ki) く(ku) け(ke) こ(ko)
さ(sa) し(shi) す(su) せ(se) そ(so)
た(ta) ち(chi) つ(tsu) て(te) と(to)
な(na) に(ni) ぬ(nu) ね(ne) の(no)
は(ha) ひ(hi) ふ(fu) へ(he) ほ(ho)
ま(ma) み(mi) む(mu) め(me) も(mo)
や(ya) ゆ(yu) よ(yo)
ら(ra) り(ri) る(ru) れ(re) ろ(ro)
Okay, this isn’t so bad. Sure, the symbols are different. But it’s not that complex. Here, give it a try. Try to figure out the letters in the following screenshot that Phoenix Wright is saying (highlight the text in the parenthesis to see the answer and click on the image if you need to zoom in):
Did you get it? Even if not, that’s okay. It all comes with practice. Now let’s try figuring out which symbols you need to make these familiar Japanese words. Just highlight what’s in the parenthesis to figure out if you were right. What are the right symbols for: sushi(すし), karate(からて), and samurai(さむらい)?
For the most part, the words are pronounced the same way they are spelled. However, one important exception to keep in mind is the letter は(ha), which can make a wa sound in words like konnichiwa (こんにちは).
Let’s move on with the trial. But now let’s make things a little more complicated. Mainly by adding markers, which can completely change the sounds of the letters! Here’s a list of the letters that can be changed by markers:
が(ga) ぎ(gi) ぐ(gu) げ(ge) ご(go)
ざ(za) じ(ji) ず(zu) ぜ(ze) ぞ(zo)
ば(ba) び(bi) ぶ(bu) べ(be) ぼ(bo)
ぱ(pa) ぴ(pi) ぷ(pu) ぺ(pe) ぽ(po)
Here’s another screenshot. But this time with a shady witness on the stand. Can you find the markers and the letters they change in the words he’s speaking?
But wait! We’re not done yet! There is another modification you can make to the letters. For all letters ending in the i sound, smaller versions of や(ya), ゆ(yu), and よ(yo) can be added to create even more sounds.
きゃ(kya) きゅ(kyu) きょ(kyo)
しゃ(sha) しゅ(shu) しょ(sho)
ちゃ(cha) ちゅ(chu) ちょ(cho)
にゃ(nya) にゅ(nyu) にょ(nyo)
ひゃ(hya) ひゅ(hyu) ひょ(hyo)
みゃ(mya) みゅ(myu) みょ(myo)
りゃ(rya) りゅ(ryu) りょ(ryo)
And do you remember those little markers from before? They apply here too.
ぎゃ(gya) ぎゅ(gyu) ぎょ(gyo)
じゃ(ja) じゅ(ju) じょ(jo)
びゃ(bya) びゅ(byu) びょ(byo)
ぴゃ(pya) ぴゅ(pyu) ぴょ(pyo)
Can you find the small や, ゆ, or よ?
The finally there are the small letters like つ that can be used to represent a slight extension of a sound (and can change the meaning as well (Example: さか(saka), means “hill” and さっか(sakka), means “author”)). There are also small あ’s and い’s that can be used to extend sounds as well.
Can you find the small つ? Do you see the small よ as well?
Phew! That wasn’t so bad right? Don’t answer that. So now you have the gist of the main Japanese alphabet. That’s it! You’re ready to go …
Or at least, that’s what I’d like to say. That’s right, at the beginning I said that there were three alphabets, and I’m afraid that’s just the first one. Next up is Katakana (カタカナ), which is another phonetic alphabet like Hiragana, except that this one is used for foreign words that are not natively Japanese. This alphabet uses the exact same sounds as Hiragana, but it has a whole new set of symbols to learn:
ア(a) イ(i) ウ(u) エ(e) オ(o)
カ(ka) キ(ki) ク(ku) ケ(ke) コ(ko)
サ(sa) シ(shi) ス(su) セ(se) ソ(so)
タ(ta) チ(chi) ツ(tsu) テ(te) ト(to)
ナ(na) ニ(ni) ヌ(nu) ネ(ne) ノ(no)
ハ(ha) ヒ(hi) フ(fu) ヘ(he) ホ(ho)
マ(ma)ミ(mi) ム(mu) メ(me) モ(mo)
ヤ(ya) ユ(yu) ヨ(yo)
ラ(ra) リ(ri) ル(ru) レ(re) ロ(ro)
And remember those special markers and the small ヤ(ya)’s, ユ(yu)’s, and ヨ(yo)’s? Well, guess what. They apply here too! And here’s the rundown of them as well:
ガ(ga) ギ(gi) グ(gu) ゲ(ge) ゴ(go)
ザ(za) ジ(ji) ズ(zu) ゼ(ze) ゾ(zo)
バ(ba) ビ(bi) ブ(bu) ベ(be) ボ(bo)
パ(pa) ピ(pi) プ(pu) ペ(pe) ポ(po)
Small ヤ, ユ, and ヨ:
キャ(kya) キュ(kyu) キョ(kyo)
シャ(sha) シュ(shu) ショ(sho)
チャ(cha) チュ(chu) チョ(cho)
ニャ(nya) ニュ(nyu) ニョ(nyo)
ヒャ(hya) ヒュ(hyu) ヒョ(hyo)
ミャ(mya) ミュ(myu) ミョ(myo)
リャ(rya) リュ(ryu) リョ(ryo)
Small ヤ, ユ, and ヨ with special marks:
ギャ(gya) ギュ(gyu) ギョ(gyo)
ジャ(ja) ジュ(ju) ジョ(jo)
ビャ(bya) ビュ(byu) ビョ(byo)
ピャ(pya) ピュ(pyu) ピョ(pyo)
But remember this alphabet mainly applies to foreign words, so unless your name is Japanese or Chinese, you’ll probably write your name with Katakana. You’ll also run into more familiar-sounding words like テレビ(terebi) television, アメリカ(amerika) America, ロボット(robotto) robot (the small ツ(tsu) applies here too), and コンピューター(conpyuutaa) computer (the ー is used to extend vowel sounds). But Katakana isn’t used just for foreign words either. Take a look at the panel below with the not-too-happy judge:
Notice there’s no text. But look above the text box and you’ll see some letters. Hopefully some familiar ones. That’s right, it’s Katakana! The letters spell out サイバンカン(saibankan), which means “judge.” However, that is a native Japanese word and would normally be spelled out in Hiragana, さいばんかん. But this is an exception that the video-game creators decided to make, to make it clear who’s talking. Also in the upper right-hand corner, there is some more Katakana, it spells out オプション (opushon), or “options,” which is a foreign word. Here are some more Katakana examples to try for yourself (they are mixed in with Hiragana):
And for those who are curious, Phoenix’s Japanese name is なるほど (Katakana: ナルホド) (naruhodou), which is a pun, since it is also a common phrase that means “I see.” Here’s another screenshot with some more Katakana:
Okay, that’s Hiragana and Katakana? Now is that it? I’m afraid not, since the worst has yet to come. The third and final “alphabet” is Kanji (漢字), which actually isn’t an alphabet at all. It’s adopted Chinese characters used in Japanese writing. Originally, Kanji was a pictorial language, where the characters looked like what they describe. And some still are like that, examples being mountain 山 (yama), river 川 (kawa), person 人 (hito), or tree 木 (ki). However, most are not that simple. Let’s go back to some of the words we used before and see their true Kanji: samurai 侍, karate 空手, objection 異議あり(igiari), hold it 待った (matta), judge 裁判官 (saibankan), and the Japanese title of the series itself, Turnabout Trials 逆転裁判 (gyakuten saiban). Now I don’t know about you, but I know that I would never have been able to guess which Kanji went with what word. But it gets even better. Notice that I’m not listing off the various Kanji you can expect to see, because there are literally thousands of them! You are expected to know at least 2,000 to be literate. And they can be combined into several different ways to create different pronunciations with different words. Let’s look at what appears to be a simple Kanji, the kanji for water, 水 (mizu). Here are just some of the word combinations you can get with this one kanji: 水(mizu) water, 水泳(suiei) swimming, 水曜日(suiyoubi) Wednesday, 水道 (suidou) water supply, and 水着 (mizugi) swimsuit. Granted, all of the words do relate to water (except Wednesday), but the pronunciations can be very unique. And yes, all three can be used in a sentence at the same time. Check out the opening screen of the new Phoenix Wright HD 123 (first three games on iOS and Android):
There’s a little bit of everything! So to put it bluntly, Japanese is hard. Really hard. Particularly written Japanese. And we’re not done yet!
Since I’m only writing an introduction about learning Japanese and NOT an entire textbook, I’m leaving out a lot of information. However, here is some very basic grammar that is good to remember:
- Unlike in English where the order of sentences is subject-verb-object (I-see-you). In Japanese, it’s subject-object-verb (I-you-see). The basic sentence structure is defined with particles, usually, subject は object を verb (は is pronounced with the wa sound). However, the subject of the sentence is usually implied instead.
- Verbs can also be conjugated into several different forms that can be very hard to keep track of depending on tense, whether its a positive or negative statement (to do something vs. to not do something), whether the verb is a request, and several other forms that I can’t think of at the moment.
- Nouns have usually only one main form (no singular and plural forms, numbers are implied by context clues).
- Verbs and Adjectives have different levels of politeness. For example: 食べます(tabemasu) is more polite than 食べる (taberu), though they both mean “to eat.”
- Numbers can be very difficult to understand. They are usually written in the forms we are used to seeing: 1, 2, 3, etc. but when spoken, they can change endings based on what they are describing. For example, “one person” 1人 (hitori) as opposed to “one ticket” 1チケット(ichimae chiketto). I won’t go into all of the possible variations, but it’s something to keep in mind.
- Reading: those who read manga from right to left, usually automatically assume that it is written that way. However, there are two ways to read Japanese:
- When written vertically, Japanese is read from right to left
- When written horizontally, Japanese is read from left to right (just like English, that’s how it’s written on the screen shots)
- However, in both cases, the book pages are usually oriented from right to left (hence why manga is right to left)
This is by no means an exhaustive list of grammar, just a quick intro of some of the basic grammar difficulties you’ll be getting into while learning Japanese in addition to the alphabets.
Speaking of alphabets, remember Hiragana? Can you figure out what these letters spell out?
Believe it or not listening is actually one of the easier parts of the Japanese language (at least compared to the others). For the most part, Japanese is spelled the same way it’s pronounced and once you know how to properly pronounce the phonetic alphabets (Hiragana and Katakana), you’ll know how to listen for words. This is something, where watching anime can be quite useful for your learning, because if the characters are speaking Japanese, for the most part, they’re pronouncing the words/letters correctly. If you have a friend that understands Japanese pretty well, by all means use them for practice in both speaking and listening.
So after all of that do you still want to learn Japanese? If so, here are some resources you should consider for learning this tricky language:
- Taking a class: If you have the time and money, a formal class can be really helpful. If your teacher(s) knows what he or she is doing, they can be an invaluable resource to your learning. They know most of the strange little nuances in the language and can point them out to you when they come up.
- Computer Learning: This is a good option for those who don’t have time for a class, but still want a classroom-like experience. However, computer programs can get a bit pricey. Programs like Rosetta Stone and online learning programs are helpful, but are less interactive and won’t be able to answer specific questions. There are also some free resources that function as Japanese-English dictionaries like Denshi Jisho and Google Translate.
- Textbooks: Considered an “old-fashioned” alternative to computer learning, don’t underestimate the utility of some textbooks. They can often give advice not mentioned in a computer lesson or forgotten in a class, and you can jump around to what you want to know immediately (though later chapters have information that rely on earlier ones). For learning the nuances of Japanese grammar (which can get very complicated), I recommend the Genki textbooks, which break down sentence structure down to an understandable level.
- Translating: I personally found this method to be one of the most difficult, but also one of the most effective forms of learning. For this technique you try to translate your favorite anime/manga/video game using both textbooks and online resources. The upside to this method is that you are learning real-world Japanese, but the downside is if you don’t know any of the grammar or alphabets, it can be very time consuming and very difficult, especially without help from a Japanese teacher.
- Writing Options: A few months ago, I discovered a fantastic option available to smartphone and tablet users. Download an app called Google Translate, which allows you to write in unknown letters and Kanji on the touch-screen and the tablet will look them up! This is so much easier and more practical than looking up unknown kanji in a book. The app also offers a nifty conversation option, where you can speak in English, and it will speak and write out the translation in Japanese (and vice versa). However, the translations aren’t perfect, so once you know the meaning of individual words you don’t understand, you can use more accurate translation options. Also, nearly all computers allow you to type in Japanese in a word processor or online, you just need to change the language settings and you can use your normal keyboard. After you change the language settings, just type out the sounds the letter make. For example to spell out the letter か (ka), just type out k-a, and it will replace it. There will usually be a Hiragana, Katakana, and Romanji (English letters) options. To get kanji to appear, just write out the word in Hiragana and then press the [SPACE] bar and it will change it from Hiragana to Kanji. It even works from Hiragana to Katakana as well.
How much do you need to know?
Okay, so Phoenix Wright has helped us with Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji, and we know the tools to learn the language, but the real question now is, does any of this really matter? Do you really need to know all of these nitsy details to get by? Well, it depends. If you want to fully understand your favorite anime or become a translator/Japanese teacher, then yes, you need to know all of this and much more! However, if your goal is only to visit Japan and have a rocking good time, then you can relax, because the answer is no. You don’t need to know all about Japanese to get by, because luckily for English speakers, English is the official second language in Japan. So almost everywhere there are Japanese signs, there will be English signs as well. The Japanese will give you a lot of slack as a foreigner and you can even do things like point to maps and they will understand. And if you have a tablet or smart phone, you can use the Google Translate app conversation feature! However, it will only work if there is a wi-fi connection, so you should also have a phrase-book handy as well.
So now our trial has come to an end and all of the evidence has been laid out. Now you must decide the verdict. Do you want to bite the bullet and learn Japanese? Or are you satisfied with subtitles? Only you can decide!
Now for those of you who want to go to Japan and not learn Japanese, here are a list of phrases that I found most helpful while traveling. And for those of you who want to learn Japanese, see if you can figure out the phrases without peeking!
(arigatou) Thank You
(sumimasen) Excuse me / I’m sorry
(kudasai) Please (less formal then onegaishimasu)
(iie) No (rarely used)
(gomennasai) I’m sorry.
(eigo wa wakarimasu ka) Do you understand English?
(wakarimasen) I don’t understand.
(Mo chotto yukkuri hanashite kudasai) Please speak more slowly.
(kore) This (You can point at something close to you (like an item on a menu or something in a store) and say this to ask for it)
(kore o kudasai) This, please.
(ikura desu ka) How much is it?
(onamae wa nan desu ka) What’s your name?
(watashi no name wa ___ desu) My name is ____
(dozoyoroshiku) Pleased to meet you.
(ogenki desu ka) How are you?
(Genki desu) I’m fine.
(ohayougozaimasu) Good morning
(konbanwa) Good evening
(oyasuminasai) Good night
(toire wa doko desu ka) Where’s the toilet?
(michi ni mayoi mashita) I’m lost.
(eki wa doko desu ka) Where is the train station?
So that’s the basic gist of it! Hopefully you’ve learned something new about this language and have a better grasp if you want to try to learn it or not. It’s tough, but not impossible (though it can feel that way at times). Best of luck!
More info about Phoenix Wright: There are four games available in the Ace Attorney series for the Nintendo DS (three feature Phoenix Wright and the fourth follows a new main character, Apollo Justice). There are two other games in the “Investigations” series, that have also been made that focus on solving crimes outside of the courtroom that feature the main rival of the series, Miles Edgeworth (though the second one has not been released in English … a good reason to continue studying Japanese).
A fifth game in the “Ace Attorney” series is in production and has confirmed release in the Untied States, the first three games in the Ace Attorney series have been announced for release on iOS and Android platforms, and there has been a crossover game with the popular puzzle-solving Professor Layton (not scheduled for release in the US as of this post). The games have been a wild success, which has resulted in spinoffs of several manga series (available in English), a movie (soon to be released with English subtitles), and even a musical (not released outside of Japan)! All of the series (and these images as well) are owned by CAPCOM so show your support and love and buy the originals!
CAPCOM’s Official Phoenix Wright Website
Wikipedia Article & Phoenix Wright Wiki
Final note: Since I’m also in the process of learning Japanese, my translations are less-than perfect. If you notice an error, feel free to call me out on it in the comments section. And for those who have played the games, what’s your favorite case?