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The Importance of Katakana

Couchsurfers and travelers who have spent little time in Asia ask me about the similarities between China and Japan. Although the two countries do have many counterpoints in history, the question might as well be how closely the Earth is related to the Moon – if you recall your geological timelines, you might remember that although the Moon was once part of the Earth, it separated over a billion years ago to form its own “island”. The same could be said of Japan – there is evidence to suggest that ancestors of the Chinese began to colonize the islands from the south (the Ainu are a huge exception, of course). Though I’m willing to bet few Japanese like to think of their culture as an offshoot of another. Better to be the land of the gods, ruled by the descendents of the goddess Amaterasu.

As a result, the Chinese and Japanese do have a bit in common – some from a shared history, others from Japanese monopolization of Chinese culture: the tea ceremony, silk kimono, kanji, etc. I don’t think the door swings both ways there, but I could be mistaken.

There are two major languages in modern China – Mandarin and Cantonese – though, naturally, each region or town has its own dialect and accent. None of which, however, sound in any way like Japanese. The grammar, the sentence structure, the intonation… nothing is similar.

Both written languages, on the other hand, share some common characters. I won’t pretend that a native Chinese speaker could look at a Japanese newspaper and understand everything going on, but the gist of the message would be conveyed. And vice versa. The Chinese use only their characters for the entire written language, whereas the Japanese have three distinct alphabets: hiragana, katakana, and kanji (check out the links on my toolbar).

Hiragana is a loopy script of 46 characters that children learn first. Each sound is one syllable, i.e. “ne”, “te”, “shi”, “ko”.

Kanji are the Chinese characters with a Japanese twist, though many are identical. Ex. 日本語, “ni-hon-go”

Katakana is phonetically the same as hiragana, but used exclusively for words with foreign origins. For example, the country America: アメリカ, “ah-me-ri-ka”.

Last spring, when my brother came to visit me in Kagoshima, I was eager to hear his impressions of Japan. He happens to live in Beijing, understand Mandarin, and know a lot about Chinese history. What greater contrast can you imagine between the two of us?

Although he never had a problem getting around town, he wasn’t able to understand what was inside most of the stories and office buildings. Any why?

Because in an effort to make the business seem “modern” and sophisticated, many companies would prefer a katakana name over a traditional kanji one. Many products are marketed in the same way: ice cream, cheese, hamburgers… The Chinese, lacking such a script, choose to use existing characters to describe items or actions (ex. “computer” in Chinese means “electric brain”). The Japanese just slap on a katakana sticker and consider the matter finished.

The result of course, it that to understand the Japanese language completely, well, you need to know English. Most of the words in katakana are English derivatives, and pronouncing them correctly gives no clue as to their meaning, unlike the Chinese, in which speakers can intuit the definition: “electric world… electric world… world inside of an electric device… ah… television!”