Learning Japanese (sort of)

They (I don’t actually know who ‘they’ are) always say that learning a second language is supposed to be a good brain training exercise and a few times over the years I’ve made a half-hearted attempt to learn Japanese. Mostly it was because I wanted to play imported games and/or watch anime in the original language, but I never got very far. Japanese is HARD (for me at least). First of all they have 3 (maybe more?) written languages: hiragana, katakana (??) and kanji. So before you learn what the words mean, you need to learn the ‘alphabets’ so to speak.

Disclaimer: I am not a linguist so it’s almost 100% certain I will get some/all terms wrong in this post.

About a month ago Duolingo added Japanese to its Android app and kind of on a lark I downloaded it and started ‘learning Japanese’ and I put that in quotes because a month later I know some of the hiragana and if a Japanese teacher said to me — very slowly and with perfect enunciation — “Nice to meet you” I would probably understand. Or maybe I’d just think “I know that phrase but can’t recall what it means.” More likely the latter.

Still though, I’m actually enjoying the process. My latest project is figuring out the Japanese eShop on the Switch. Next week there’s a demo of Monster Hunter XX hitting the Japanese eShop so I set up a Japanese Nintendo account so I’ll be able to download it. Of course the store is mostly in Japanese. I’m sure I could stumble through it but just for grins I decided to try to translate some of the words.

The first word on the left menu was “NEW” and I translated that one pretty easily.

The next word was ランキング

I knew I’d learned some of these characters but couldn’t bring them to the front of my brain so I went looking at hiragana charts and couldn’t find any of them. Y’know why? Those are katakana symbols. In fact that was when I learned that katakana was different from hiragana. So once I knew that, it was pretty easy since katakana is used for ‘borrowed’ words from other languages. The characters in order are pronounced RA N KI N GU. It means exactly what it sounds like: ranking. So basically this is a listing of games my ranking, or most popular. (What helps a lot is I know pretty much what to expect because this is an e-shop for games.) I was pretty proud of that.

The next one was harder: もうすぐ発売

So the first thing is, I’m copying and pasting these characters from other websites. Different websites in this case which is why they’re kind of mis-matched. The characters on the Switch aren’t exactly the same. I guess fonts are a thing no matter the alphabet you’re using. So this one is a combination of hiragana and kanji. The hiragana part was pretty easy for me. Translated into romanji (Japanese sounds spelled out in the Roman alphabet) it says mo u su gu. Then I put mousugu into a romanji to english translator and I get “soon.” Given that this is the eShop it’s pretty obvious this is the “Coming Soon” list already but I want to do the full translation.

Looking up the kanji characters is HARD. I mean it isn’t hard if you look them up from this blog post because you can cut and paste them, but I was looking at them on the Switch, which may as well have been a piece of paper. I found Jisho.org which is super cool. It lets you look up kanji characters by ‘radicals’ which are the parts of a kanji character.

So for the first character, I first selected the “legs” from the bottom half, then the crossbars. That narrowed the selection of potential kanji characters down enough that I could find the one I wanted. Here’s a pic (click it to make it big enough to see):

You can see that those two ‘radicals’ were enough to help me find the character, labeled #3 above.

But here was a curious thing. Once I found it I looked it up and translation was “departure; departing (from …); departing (at time …)​” [Definitions are coming from Jisho too.]

Was I wrong about this being a Coming Soon section? Was it a “Leaving Soon” section? I pushed on!

I used Jisho again for the last character and it means “to sell” which made sense in the context.

But here is where it all got trippy. So literally this string is saying Soon Departing Sell. But why would Nintendo be removing games from their store, that doesn’t make too much sense so early in the Switch’s life. So I dug a little further, and it turns out those two kanji characters together have a different meaning. 発売 = “sale; offering for sale; release (for sale); launch (product)​” If you think about “departing” and “releasing” you can kind of wrap your head around how these could be so similar. If you release something it departs from you, right?

Anyway so now we have confirmed what I initially suspected, that this says “Coming Soon” or I guess more technically “Releasing Soon.”

What I don’t know, though, is how I would have figured this out without the context of this being the Switch e-shop. If I’d just read it on a wall somewhere I would have translated it as something like “Won’t be on sale for much longer” which is pretty much the opposite of what it says.

I just find this all super fascinating. Will I ~ever~ be able to read/understand Japanese (I don’t even dream of being able to actually speak it)? Probably not. But just translating words is turning out to be one of the most interesting ‘puzzles’ I’ve encountered lately.