Dealing with the Language
Some understanding of the Japanese language is essential if you plan to make trips out into the country alone,as few Japanese have any practical ability in English or other languages.However,it is not too difficult to acquire a basic working knowledge of spoken Japanese for use in everydays situations.The main difficulty in Japanese is the writing system,which takes several years of study because it uses Chinese characters as well as two alphabets.lt is worthwhile memorizing the alphabets and sound system of Japanese before learning vocabulary and phrases,as this will be useful in getting the correct pronunciation as well as reading menus and station names.
Kana,the Japanese alphabet system,was derived from simplified Chinese characters,as Japan had no written language before the introduction of Chinese culture about 1,300years ago.The two systems of hiragana and katakana are used for Japanese words and foreign words respectively.The pronunciation is the same for both systems,but it would seem that the Japanese like to distinguish between native words and foreign imports.There are a considerable number of foreign words used in modern Japanese,mostly from English,but they are pronounced according to the Japanese sound system,and so are often unrecognizable without an understanding of kana and plenty of practice.For example,the word "English" in Japanese kana pronunciation comes out as lgirisu and "hotel" comes out as hoteru.Most Japanese kana are equivalent to syllables in the Roman alphabet,and except for the "n" sound,Japanese does not use consonants without their being followed by a vowel sound.Pronunciation of Japanese words is very regular,and so presents few problems.The Roman alphabet,known as romaji,is also widely understood and used in Japan.
Kanji are the Chinese characters which are used in a simplified form in Japanese.There are 1,850 kanji for regular use (toyo kanji),with more being used in names.The difficulty of Japanese kanji is that one kanji may have several readings.For example,the simple kanji for mountain(山)may be read as yama,san,zan,or sometimes sen or zen.Memorization is the only way to learn the correct reading,and so even the Japanese themselves will not know the name of a place witten in kanji unless they are already familiar with it.This can prove frustratihg to travellers in remote regions of Japan where only the locals know the correct pronunciation of names of villages,rivers,lakes,mountains,etc.
When learning kanji,it's best to start with the simple ones,which are then used as radicals to build up the more complex kanji.It is easier to learn kanji recognition than the correct writing of them,and when travelling around Japan you will soon build up a considerable number which you can recognize.