Japanese writing uses three types of characters.  Kanji is the idiographic character set borrowed from the Chinese, but Kanji cannot represent particles because they are particular to the Japanese language.  Consequently, there is another character set called “Hiragana,” which is syllabic rather than ideographic.  Each Hiragana character represents one syllable, which is either a vowel, a consonant-vowel pair, or the consonant “n.”   Why “n” is special is anyone’s guess and probably buried in thousands of years of Japanese history along with the legend of the Peach Baby.


In addition to Hiragana, Japanese also uses Katakana, a character set that stands for the same sounds as Hiragana but which is generally used for special purposes, such as foreign words or brand names.  In this sense it is much like our use of italics.  Katakana can be thought of as a simplified form of Hiragana.  Indeed, equivalent Hiragana and Katakana characters are highly similar to one another, as illustrated by the following example:





On the left is the Hiragana character for “a” (pronounced like the “a” in “saw”), and on the right is the Katakana character for “a.”  One can easily transform the Hiragana character into the Katakana character by simply erasing it and then drawing the Katakana character in its place.


If you are planning to go to Japan, you should first realize that, unless you are a highly motivated individual and you are willing to spend at least 2 years of intense study, you will probably not learn to speak the Japanese language before your flight leaves.  What you will end up doing is postponing your study until about 2 weeks before your trip and then try to learn fluent Japanese in 14 days.  You will read the first 5 pages of the book, do 2 of the grammar exercises, realize that you cannot learn a language in 14 days, and read Shogun instead.  However, you can learn all of the Katakana characters in 14 days.


Why do you need to learn Katakana?


The answer is that, as mentioned above, Katakana is the character set that the Japanese use to spell foreign words.  In contrast to the foreign words of English which, as a result of poor planning, turn out to be in such languages as French, Italian, German, Hindi, Urdu and Sanskrit, most of the Japanese foreign words turn out to be English.  So if you know Katakana you can read all of the words in Japan that are of English origin.  You will also be able to read signs with brand names on them, like “ka-wa-sa-ki,” and “mi-tsu-bi-shi,” and “ho-n-da.”  You may wonder how useful such a skill is.  Imagine that you are in a room and there is no electricity, so it is pitch dark and you can see nothing.  Now imagine that someone has lit a candle.  You cannot see everything in the room clearly, but you are certainly less likely to smack your shins into a low-lying table.  No, you will not be ready to write a complete 3-part trilogy in Japanese, but you will certainly find it much easier to locate a karaoke bar.  It also turns out to be a source of amusement.  I recall one time when I was at a nice Shinto shrine in Kurashiki City.  I was contemplating the serenity and wisdom of the ages as I surveyed the ancient temples.  Then, I spotted a bench with Katakana writing on it and sounded out the syllables to reveal what I presumed would be a timeless message.  And so, the message was revealed: ro-ta-ri ku-ra-bu.  It was particularly enlightening to me because, up until that moment, I did not even know that they had a rotary club in Japan.


The method for learning the characters is straightforward.  You simply get a table of the characters and their corresponding syllables, and then you copy each character over and over again until they become committed to memory.  It may sound somewhat dull and tedious, but it can be done in about 15 minutes a day over two weeks with little trouble.  Also, you will have plenty of time to brush up on the trip to Japan.  It’s a long flight.


To be honest, it does take some time to get used to the English-to-Japanese translations of English words.  For example, you have to understand that there is no “L” in Japanese, so in most cases “L” will be translated as “R.”  Also, with the exception of the “N,” every consonant must have a following vowel.  Hence, the word “club” ends up translated as ku-ra-bu.  But the translation is part of the fun.  Without the need to translate, it would be like having the punch line explained to you every time you were told a joke.