It’s not Romaji That’s Evil—-It’s Hiragana
I have a new co-worker, who just so happens to be white. It’s very exciting, finally speaking with a real foreigner. I really gotta practice the English more. I think she’s from some place like Kansas, probably because she reminds me of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, albeit minus the little dog and red shoes. Maybe it’s the pigtails, and the fact that her aunt is named Em. Or is that M? Whatever. On Thursday, apropos of nothing, she turned to me and announced,
“I’m heading over to Japanese class tonight.”
“Oh,” I said. “That’s great.” Foreigners are always heading over to Japanese class. “How’s that going anyway?”
“Wonderful,” she replied, “we’re learning hiragana.”
“Ooh, hiragana. How about kanji?”
“That’s a bit much now,” she said. “I’m just glad to be getting off romaji.”
And suddenly I saw into the future. I can do that sometimes, although usually it requires about six beers. I saw a world of self-driving cars, hairless cats, and fat-free cheesecake. Oh, we’re in for much good stuff. Then I saw the horrible reality—-Dorothy would learn hiragana, about thirty kanji, and suddenly think she was reading and writing Japanese. So I decided to tell her the awful truth: hiragana is no better than romaji. In fact, it’s worse.
“Well, that’s wonderful,” I echoed. Ah, pussed out again. Seeroi, jeez.
The Japanese Writing System
Everybody knows that Japanese has three writing systems. Well, everybody who’s anybody. But even that’s only half correct. Educated Japanese folks actually learn an astonishing five alphabets. That’s practically double. Just round up. Anyway, they are:
1. Romaji, like the word: karate
2. Hiragana, the same word written as: からて
3. Katakana, the same word, written as: カラテ
4. Kanji, again, same word, written as: 空手
6. Phonetics, one more time, only now helpfully written so that no one could possibly pronounce it: kəˈrädē
People bag on romaji a lot, but it’s actually pretty fantastic. It’s the reason the world knows words like sushi, tofu, and samurai. Without it, Tom Cruise would never have become a Meiji-era warrior, and then where would we be? Not wearing kimonos, that’s for sure. The problem is, romaji doesn’t feel Japanese. Too many ABCs, probably.
So enter hiragana, which meets our needs perfectly. It’s satisfyingly slightly-hard to learn, and once you’ve got it, you can write every word in a lovely foreign-looking script. ひらがなひらがなひらがな。Now that feels Japanese.
Please Tell me Romaji is Evil
Now, I don’t mean to say that there aren’t problems with romaji. Granted, it does a terrible job of extending vowel sounds, making the word 大きい look like it’s pronounced “ooki” instead of closer to “oh-key.” And sure, it leads to other pronunciation inaccuracies, like when 無理 comes out as “muri,” when the sound is subtly different. But still, it’s not impossible to learn proper Japanese pronunciation with romaji. I’m pretty sure Japanese people don’t see the word “Tokyo” and all say “Tokey-O.”
Hiragana is Evil
The real culprit is hiragana, which has deceived generations of Westerners into thinking they were using Japanese.
Now, again, I don’t mean to say that hiragana isn’t Japanese. It is—-just like romaji is. And it’s certainly essential for constructing sentences and conjugating verbs. The problem isn’t that it’s used, but rather that it’s criminally over-used. It’s used instead of kanji, as though it were somehow “good enough.” Hey, it doesn’t look like English, right? So it must be Japanese. And in small doses, it is. But using it entirely, in place of kanji, isn’t Japanese at all, and will effectively hinder you in learning Japanese.
And there’s your future. You learn those two syllabaries, hiragana and katakana, and then breathe a deep sigh. Ahhhh, now you’re finally using “Japanese,” and not that demon romaji. So then you learn 30 kanji, then another 10, and another 10, until after a couple of years you’re up to like 100 kanji. Wooooow. (By the way, that’s just “wow” with the “o” extended, and in no way rhymes with “moo.”) But hiragana suffers from the same exact problem as romaji. They both prevent you from seeing the relationship between words.
It doesn’t really matter if you write “wheel” and “ring” as しゃりん and わ or sharin and wa. They both fail to show the common element, which is apparent in the kanji: 車輪 and 輪. That relationship is essential for vocabulary building, reading, and understanding the language beyond a kindergarten level.
Lie to me, Baby
So why is Japanese taught with so much hiragana? Frankly, it’s a joint deception on the part of Japanese teachers and students, and with good reason. A decade ago, if my sensei had insisted I learn two thousand kanji, I would have laughed, cried, dropped the class, and then set her Nissan on fire. I’m kind of juvenile like that. So we continued with our mutually comfortable 95% hiragana, which was actually no better than romaji. Picture how surprised I was when, after years of studying Japanese, I finally discovered that ken and inu were both the same word for dog: 犬. Sorry, did I say “surprised?” I meant “pissed,” as in Dog? Dog? How come nobody told me this? But nobody’s gonna tell you, because that’d come dangerously close to using kanji.
So by delaying serious kanji study by, in many cases, years, students are handicapped in reading, which is essential for language acquisition. Talk to people and you just find yourself repeating the same conversations over and over; it’s really through reading that we learn and grow. I mean, something other than this site, of course. Anyway, I’m pretty sure that’s why schools use books, instead of just chatting eight hours a day. Although maybe Japanese Socrates would disagree. If so, he’d better say it to me directly, since an email would be kind of ironic.
Racism in Japanese Schools? How’s That Possible?
If you look at the way many Asians study Japanese, you can see the difference. And I’m not just talking about Chinese, but people from places like the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Thailand. Schools that market to Asians are hard-core, and dive right in to reading with kanji, because everyone knows, Asians can study harder. They’re naturally good at math too. Is it racism if Japanese teachers go easy on white and black people? Or it just selling folks what they want to buy? Who’d sign up for a hard school, when you could go to a fun school? Let’s learn Japanese the fun and easy way! Just ignore the backbone of the language. Silly Asians, with their fancy books and pens.
Advice for Learning Japanese
So honestly, if you want to learn enough conversational Japanese to get by, just stick with romaji. Ignore any advice that says you should learn hiragana and katakana, because if you’re not going to learn kanji, it’s largely a waste of time. You can memorize a couple hundred phrases without the additional hassle of two new alphabets, and that’s plenty enough to lead the normal life of a foreigner in Japan.
But if you want to actually learn Japanese, then it’s time to recognize the lie. All those notebooks and flashcards filled with hiragana aren’t doing you any good, any more than drinking this six pack is going to give me six-pack abs. Although, granted, it’s a lot more fun than going to the gym, which would be something hard. And no white person wants to do that. Hey, pass the Doritos.