Monday, February 12, 2007

Old Tokyo maps online

Yahoo! Japan is featuring old Tokyo maps online (Japanese):

You can switch between maps of Tokyo from the Edo era (about 180 years ago), the Meiji era (about 120 years ago), the present, and satellite photos.

If you can read Japanese, it is amazing to discover what many famous places today were in the past. And you can understand that many mansions of daimyos (feudal lords) which were located in the center of Edo city were abolished at the end of the Samurai age and their lands were redeveloped into fundamental public facilities for a modern capital city such as government office buildings, military bases, universities, hospitals, business districts, parks and so on. It is one of the reasons why Japan could reform itself to a modern nation so quickly.

If you would like to know why there were so many daimyos' mansions in Edo city, see this wiki article.

FYI, the lot for the Tokyo campus of the University of Tsukuba, the former Tokyo Higher Normal School, was a mansion belonging to MATSUDAIRA Yorinobu who was president of a government bureaucrat training institution, and a descendant of TOKUGAWA Mitsukuni's younger brother. Tokugawa is also known as Mito Komon.

Enjoy some time travel!

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Saturday, January 13, 2007

Increase Your Kanji Power

I learned a new four-character kanji (yo ji juku go, 四字熟語) the other day, so I thought I would share it with you today.

shi sha go nyuu
meaning: rounding up (if five or more) or down (if four or less), rounding off

四 = 4
捨 = throw away
五 = 5
入 = keep (literally, insert)

Clever little compound word!


Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Kanji Practice Made Fun

Have you seen the ads on TV of people using Nintendo DS to learn kanji? I just saw one on TV this morning and I have been trying to find out more information about the whole thing. The software is called Kanken DS (漢検DS) because it is made by the people who produce the Kanji Proficiency Test (漢字能力検定, kanji nouryoku kentei, which is often shortened to 漢検, kanken).

It seems that the software is available through Amazon.co.jp for 3391 yen (which is less than it sells for at K's Denki where it was about 3900 yen). The Nintendo DS machine itself costs about 22,000 yen and is also available through Amazon.co.jp (or for a bit less than that on kakaku.com).

Here is a little thingy that will let you test out the interface. Unfortunately the sample questions are quite hard, but you should be able to get a feel for the software anyway.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A New Understanding of かしら

Today, I refined my understanding of the word かしら (kashira). This word is put at the end of a sentence to make it into a question or request for confirmation.

For example, if you want to go home, you could ask your boss the following.

kaette mo ii deshou ka
Nuance: May I go home now?

If you are talking to one of your colleagues, however, you can use this instead. (This is kind of a standard way to say it -- not overly polite, but not casual.)

kaette mo ii desu ka
Nuance: Can I go home now?

If you are chatting with friends, the following are fine.

kaette mo ii kashira
Nuance: Do you mind if I leave?

kaette mo ii kana
Nuance: I wonder if it's okay for me to leave. (Implies more doubt, like asking oneself in addition to asking the listener)

かしら is mainly used by women, but you will hear certain men use it too sometimes (very rarely). かしら is a casual way to ask a question (or ask for confirmation), but it has a nice sound, so it leaves the listener with a good impression -- AS LONG AS the listener is your friend and equal and not your superior.

I always thought that かしら was higher on the "politeness scale" because one of my very good (and very polite) friends uses it all the time. What I realize now is that she uses it with me because I am her friend AND she wants it to sound nice. My mistake was thinking that she uses it only because it is polite. (And that is a serious mistake in my thinking, because I should have recognized that she wouldn't be using very formal language with me.)

This is one of the most difficult things about learning Japanese. The choice of words depends on the relationship between the people who are talking, their gender, the situation, etc. This is, I'm sure, true of all languages to a certain extent, but it is extremely well developed in Japanese. This means that the usual language learner's trick of learning by mimicking what is said to you doesn't always work in Japanese, and can even be quite detrimental to your language development. (For example, it is very common to hear foreign men speak in a somewhat more feminine way because they learn by listening to their Japanese girlfriends and wives.)

Words in another language are like tools in your dad's workshop. Even if you know what a lot of them are, if you don't know how to use them, they are worthless, or worse yet, they may even hurt you. This means that it is important to give as much attention to learning the USAGE of the word as the MEANING by looking up examples of the word in use (http://www.alc.co.jp is good for this), asking your colleagues, and testing out the usage of words on good friends (since they are, hopefully, least likely to be offended if you use the wrong level of politeness).

So, to sum up, if you are a woman, you might want to try using かしら to make your Japanese sound more refined -- remembering that it just sounds nice and is not particularly polite. Just be sure to take account of the relationship between you and the listener (and all the other usage variables) before you do!


Monday, December 18, 2006

Tricky Japanese: Kotowatte Kudasai

Lots of people -- both foreign people and Japanese -- have asked me why I like living in Japan. I have about a million answers, but one that would definitely make my personal "Top Ten List" is the complexity of the Japanese language. I love the fact that I could stay here for the rest of my life and still be able to learn something completely new about Japanese -- a new word, a new kanji character, a new turn of phrase -- every single day. (This is definitely my "inner linguist" speaking.)

Today, I learned a new (and almost completely opposite -- don't you love it??) meaning for a word that I already knew.

The word is 断る (kotowaru)。

Until today, I thought that this word meant (and only meant) "refuse". However, I learned today, that it also means "to get someone's approval in advance".

Consider the following situation. (It's a strange situation, but this is a story about language learning, not how to write believable scenes!)

You and your colleague, Mary, send funny emails to each other all the time. One day, Mary forwards one of your emails to your boss. You don't particularly want your boss to see these silly, private exchanges between you and Mary, so you say:

jikai watashi no mail wo joushi ni tensou suru toki wa, arakajime watashi ni kotowatte kudasai.
The next time you want to forward one of my emails to the boss, please let me know in advance.

Mary tells you that Tom asked her to forward the email to the boss, so you say:

jikai watashi no mail wo joushi ni tensou suru you tanomaretara, kotowatte kudasai.
The next time someone asks you to forward one of my emails to the boss, please refuse.

Okay, the situation is a little bit strange, but do you see where things go awry? 断ってください (kotowatte kudasai) can either mean "please let me know in advance" or "please refuse" -- two rather different concepts. The probability of confusing second language learners with this word (especially by using the "get approval" meaning, as the "refuse" meaning is far more widely used) is almost 100%.

When I just started learning Japanese, this kind of discovery would make me want to throw my hands up in despair (run around screaming, punch things, hold my breath) and refuse to learn another word until this crazy language sorted itself out. But over the years I have found that everything starts to make sense after a while, regardless of how shocking it is when you first encounter it. In ten years, I will probably look back at this entry and laugh to think I ever _didn't know_ that 断る has two meanings. At least, I hope I will laugh...

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Thursday, November 23, 2006

Quick Choose!

There is a sushi shop in Tsukuba called Kaneki Zushi. I am not a connoisseur of sushi, but I have some friends who are, and they tell me that Kaneki makes good sushi. It is "kaitenzushi" (the plates circulate around the room), but it is not 100 yen per plate like some such restaurants.

Anyway, the reason I brought up Kaneki is because something caught my eye when I was there the other day: the signs for the bathrooms.

Which one would you choose for yourself? Remember, you really have to "go" and you don't have time to mess around!

They are very cool kanji indeed, but not very foreigner friendly.

I was going to write the answer in the comments section, but I think it would be more fun to ask the blog readers to guess. If you know what the answer is, or you want to guess, please use the comments section.

Perhaps it would be fun to make a "Guess the Tsukuba Kanji" game?


Sunday, July 16, 2006

Japanese Lessons Online

I posted a message to TAIRA last week about a company that will let you learn Japanese through online lessons.

This morning I found out that NHK also offers lessons online, although these ones don't seem to be interactive.

Has anyone used these services? Any comments about them? Others you can recommend?