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I’m gearing up for the start of the next semester of Japanese classes with a little revision. It’s taken me till now to figure out that Microsoft Word can do furigana, only it calls it by the colloquial name ruby, and then doesn’t even use that in the menus. I suppose furigana, being a Japanese word, isn’t suitable for all of the Asian languages that Word supports, so it just refers to “Asian Phonetic Layout” instead.

Here’s an example of how it looks, using the word for deep-fried food, agemono:


Not a new concept to me, but it’s just become far more accessible thanks to this feature, which illustrates the difficulty in breaking the spoken language up by itself; the first kanji means to deep-fry, but the spoken version is just a – not exactly meaningful. After the ge, we have mono, which isn’t as bad, but it doesn’t mean food when spoken directly, it’s more like “thing” or “person”. It means that you memorize the whole word, so you can understand the spoken language, but the individual kanji so you can read the written language.

Just to underline the lesson, we have the “reading” situation I described before.

In the example I gave, seppuku vs hara-kiri, I’ve just learned one important guideline that helps it make a little more sense. It appears that you use the kun-yomi (japanese) reading when a concept is expressed as a single kanji, and the on-yomi (chinese) reading when the concept takes two kanji. I just picked a particularly bad example that can be expressed either way. Another strange example is the Japanese title of the film Spirited Away, Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi:

せん   ちひろ   かみ かく  

Note how the first character is pronounced sen; a single kanji meaning “thousand”, it’s using the on-yomi reading. The same character then forms the first half of Chihiro’s name – a kun-yomi reading of a 2-kanji compound phrase, meaning “great depths” (literally, “a thousand fathoms deep”). The whole title translates as “Sen and Chihiro’s Mysterious Disappearance”, but the point of this only becomes clear after seeing the movie and knowing at least some Japanese; Chihiro falls foul of evil witch Yubaba, who steals half her name, and (as Sen) has to work out a plan to get it back. The title, while appearing to refer to two people with different-sounding names, is a pun on how Chihiro, by having half her name stolen, has to draw on her great depths of character, regain the other half of her name, and become a more “whole” person in the process.

We have barely touched kanji in the classes: it’s all been hit-and-miss self-study. I’m going to have to start out the way schoolchildren do with the gakushuu (study) kanji, the first 80 of which are learned by the seven-year-olds in Grade 1, or by gaijin like me who don’t know any better. If I get through that lot, there are still many more to worry about, an official total of 1945 known as the 常用漢字表 (jouyou kanji hyou, commonly-used kanji list). (1945? I’m sure there’s an ironic historical subtext in there somewhere.) A year since I started learning Japanese, I’m not quite at square one… maybe square two.


Written by brian t

January 8, 2005 at 9:00 pm

Posted in japan, language

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