resources

Miscellaneous stuff. Further commentary on Buck-Tick, this web site, and things related in any way.

How to Read Japanese

Disclaimer: I am not a scholar of Japanese nor am I a teacher. I just have the fortune of being able to speak it thanks to the endless efforts of my immigrant mother trying to teach me her language. I am a native speaker of English but learned Japanese whilst living in Japan in my youth. My friends and family in Japan are fine with my skills (they're more fascinated that I know English) but I think my Japanese is poor, (technically I'm illiterate). I do have one tip for learning Japanese though: live in Japan (preferably away from gaijin) and immerse yourself in all aspects of Japanese culture and life.

Background info: in Japan there are a few different writing systems. The Japanese use two forms of writing Japanese (hiragana and katakana) as well as incorporating Chinese characters (kanji). Hiragana is for Japanese words. Katakana is for foreign words and sounds. (Sometimes it is also used for emphasis, much like how in English a word may appear in italics.) Kanji is used to help clarify the subject. Although to be literate in Japan means learning many more letters than European languages, (which is often the major obstacle for many learning Japanese as a foreign language), the incorporation of kanji is quite useful. For example, "hana" is both flower and nose. Is the Buck-Tick album "Aku No Hana" about flowers or a nose? (It's flower, by the way.) In addition to these 3 writing systems, Japan has a (continually evolving) standard of writing Japanese so that foreigners can understand. This form is called romaji, or "Roman letters".

It used to be that I used a hybrid form (of my own whim) in writing romaji on this site for the sake of foreigners to "get" the spelling/pronunciation of Japanese. However, this hybrid may have confused those who know nothing about the Japanese language and perhaps even those who study Japanese or are familiar with the language/culture to some degree. Thus, I have gone in favor of a more traditional approach to romaji, including words that have become common throughout the world. For example, the celebrity Yoko Ono's name would have been spelled on this site in the past as Youko Ono or Yohko Ono, which is truer to the spelling/pronunciation in Japanese. There are those however who choose to spell their name a certain way in romaji, especially in the album liner notes, and I have tried to faithfully transcribe those so if a person is credited as Yohko in the liner notes then that is how they are credited on my site on the album's page under credits. There are even some words that are accepted with having multiple spellings, such as the prefecture Buck-Tick is from is spelled both Gunma and Gumma. Another example is Buck-Tick's drummer Toll Yagami but I'll get to that in a minute.

[If you ever encounter romanized words and you are puzzled as to what the hell it could be, let me give a couple examples of an out of date way of romanizing Japanese words. The old way for "desk" would have been "tukue". Currently the proper or standard way is "tsukue". Previously "homework" would have been written "sukudai" and currently it is "shukudai". Map would have been "tizu" and currently it is "chizu". Thankfully you will never find words spelled in this outdated way on my site. You may encounter Japanese who do spell this way or persons of Japanese descent who spell their names in the old style. This may give an indication of how old they are, how old school their teachers were, or as to how many generations back their family emigrated.]

As katakana is used by Japanese to write foreign words (and sounds), any foreign word written in katakana in a song title, album title, etc. has been romanized back to the original on my site. Examples of this are the songs "Dress" (spelled doresu), "Speed" (spelled supi-do or supiido), "Cain" (spelled kain), etc. Do not assume though that just because a word is written in katakana that it is non-Japanese in origin. Sometimes people write a word in katakana for emphasis and there are some native Japanese words that are just commonly written in katakana now though I couldn't tell you why. (Example: ramen is often written in katakana.)

Japanese is a syllabic language. Each letter is a vowel, consonent + vowel, or simply the letter "N" which is an "un" sound and never used by itself or to start a word. Some vowels are held longer, some are held shorter. (Examples of short/long vowels follows the next paragraph.) For example, the name of the band Buck-Tick is actually Baku Chiku, meaning "firecracker". Hisashi chose to romanize it as "Buck Tick" and added a hyphen in the middle. The letters individually are: ba + ku + chi + ku. Back to Buck-Tick's drummer Toll Yagami. His first name in Japanese is not pronounced like the English word "toll". Rather, he probably thought that it is close enough, that the English word "toll" pronounced by Japanese would sound like his name so he would write his name in English. His name in Japanese is "touru", "tohru", "to-ru", or throw a macron over the "o". (Pronounce "to" (toe) as in "toenail" but hold the vowel longer, then "ru" (roo) as in "kangaroo".)

A guide to pronunciation: I would say focus at first on the vowels and not the consonants. Pronouncing the vowels properly are the key building blocks for saying Japanese words correctly. The Japanese language uses 5 vowels in their pure form, meaning there is only one way to pronounce them. The vowels are: A, I, U, E, O. All the vowels are soft and most do not 'say their name' like the expression goes in English. If you are familiar with Spanish then you already know how to properly pronounce the vowels. (At least to me, that is how I hear it. Also, one of my relatives was a speech pathologist and told me that only Japanese and Spanish have pure vowels. Disagree if you want. Other languages have similar vowels but this was the best example for my ears.) If you do not then please bare with me and my crazy explanations as I am not a language teacher. And if you're not from the colonies then you'll probably disagree with my examples as English pronunciation undergoes quite a variance around the globe.
A as in "open up and say ahhhhhhhh".
I as in "geek", or the letter E saying its name.
U as in "glue" or "ooze".
E as in "emphasize".
O as in "Oh my, Buck-Tick is good", this vowel says its name.

Vowels are always said the same way for the same amount of time (no accents) unless it is indicated to be short or long. I don't know if short is the best description and this part is much easier to explain in person where you could actually hear the words. When the vowel is short, I think the pronunciation's focus shifts to the consonant. When a vowel is long, it is held a little longer than regular. You may spell/romanize this by writing the vowel twice ("ii"), ignoring it altogether (Tokyo), or if it is "o", then you might romanize as it is spelled in Japanese, "oo" or "ou". Some spell the long "o" as "oh". Others spell the long vowels with a line over the top (like Polynesian languages for example) and while I think that might be best, that kind of font is not standard throughout the world so I don't use it here. Another option is to add a hyphen, especially when it is written in katakana because then romanization becomes a visual mimic, such as when I wrote "supi-do" above. When a vowel is 'short', it could be said that the consonant is doubled, at least that's how it's romanized. For example, "Kurutta Taiyo". It is spelled: ku + ru + (small) tsu + ta. This results in the double consonant for "ta", becoming "kurutta". Small tsu is never pronounced, it just affects the consonant behind it. Those that actually care about language and grammar and all that scholarly stuff call it a stop, hmph! I've never been one for nomenclature. If you want to know more, enroll in a class. ^_^ (or, shameless plug for my Japanese language learning podcast, you can hear me give examples of Japanese pronunciation at Naruhodo Japan)

R vs. L: When Japanese were introduced to European languages, they had to figure out a system of writing Japanese with Roman letters and well, they fucked up. The "R" of romaji is not the same as the European "R", in fact it is closer to "L". (You may notice some Japanese have trouble with both "L" and "R" when speaking languages that have both letters and it is due to the confusion caused by the fucked up romaji system.) For example my name is Mariko. This is three letters in Japanese: ma + ri + ko. It's pronunciation might be spelled something like "ma-lee-co". When I meet others, I try to say my name in a Western way and explain how normal and American (melting pot) a name it is by saying "mar" as in Mars, "i" as in spaghetti, and "ko" as in kosher. But alas, some people are still very confused and cannot say my name properly to save their life.

I hope I cleared some things up and didn't confuse you too much. I'm sure someone else has explained it much better than I somewhere else on the internet so please feel free to disregard everything you just read.

Best regards,
Mariko

[this page was last updated on 2013.01.16 @ 22:28:11 CST]