Japanese 101

November 8, 2014, In: Oki

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’d been here for a week before I 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 to learning Japanese! 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”, “thank you,” is one of the only things I know how to say. 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. That would have been a perfect opportunity to practice!”

I reviewed my note cards on the way home: Ganbatte Kudasai is what I should have said. 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 and started learning Japanese. I imagined myself laughing with the locals in their native language, being witty. 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! Mindy is learning Japanese. 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.

Learning Japanese

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

Learning Japanese

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.

  1. Reply

    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?

    • Reply

      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!

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