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A Little Knowledge is …

July 12, 2011

I only had an introductory Japanese 102 lesson in the University of Rochester for one semester.  But that’s enough to tell me not to accept that “Japanese is easy to understand because I already know some Chinese”.  Friends from HK encouraged me to take more Japanese classes because they were free for graduate students, but I feared interference with my thesis writing and so I did not continue.

The Japanese language uses hiragana, katakana and the kanji (also known as Chinese characters).  It’s true, I did not need special lessons in the order of the strokes when it came to writing these “漢字”(kanji) but to say I know all their meanings just because I had more than 10 years of Chinese is mere rubbish.  In fact, it turned out that amongst all the languages I learnt, Japanese is the hardest.  Below are some Japanese in kanji (which I will also include the romanji) that most Chinese would be surprise to see the meaning in Japanese:

茶碗蒸し (Chawan Mushi)  — This is a very common Japanese dish.  My granny used to cook this for dinner except it was never on a  茶碗 (cha wan) which literally means “tea bowl”.  It’s  actually steamed eggs in a tiny Japanese bowl.  So literally, it reads “tea bowl steam” in Chinese (and if you ignore the funny hiragana “し”).

御寿司 (O sushi)  — This is another very famous dish.  In fact the first kanji is usually written in hiragana “お” (honorific) and HKers know what 寿司 means even though the first character means “Longevity” and the second probably means “Department” although when combined with 机 means “Driver”.  But in English (or romanji) the word SUSHI is now universal and needs no explanation.

焼き鳥 (Yaki Tori) — If you ignore the funny hiragana “き”, the first character means “Burn” or “cook” in Chinese and the last character means “bird” in Chinese.  So, cooked bird?  No, for those who’s been to a Japanese restaurant, they know yakitori looks very much like chicken satay.  Non-Singaporean will call this dish a Kabob.  So no.  This is not any quail or BBQ turkey.

刺身 (Sashimi) — Again like the word “sushi”, very few Chinese will know this is a food merely from the Chinese characters.  The first mean “pierce” and the second means “body”.  In fact, most Chinese would think it means “tattoo”.  But upon hearing the sound SASHIMI, it needs no explanation.

大丈夫 (Daijoubu) — Yes, if I don’t put the pronounciation, in Chinese it literally reads “Big Husband” which means “Real Man” or “Male Chauvinist”.  But this is actually a very popular phrase in Japanese which means “Are you okay?” or “I’m fine, thanks”.

勉強する(Ben Kyou suru) — ignoring する, Chinese read the first two characters to mean “force(verb)” or “compel” or when one is reluctant to do something but have to.  But in Japanese, it simply means “study”.  Which is kind of consistent with the eastern world of the feeling towards studying but definitely not for me, I love studying (learning)

頑張って (Ganbatte) — This encouraging phrase is used a lot in Japanese. Most people who watch a lot of Japanese anime know its meaning because of how commonplace this phrase is.  Again ignoring the “って” most Chinese will have no idea what it means. It means “please work hard”, or “keep it up!”. Very useful phrase for saying to a friend who has to study for an exam or practise for a coming tournament/race.  Chinese will simply say “加油“。

一番     (ichiban) — Most Chinese will guess that this is the same as the Chinese “一般”, which sounds almost similar and mean “ordinary” or “just so-so”.  But the actual meaning in Japanese is “The Best” or “The Most”.  Or in Indonesian “Yang Paling…”

今日は (konnichi wa) — Ignoring the hiragana は, Chinese will swear they know these two words must mean “today”.  Okay, I admit, without the は, the Japanese will pronounce it as “kyou” which has the same exact meaning in Chinese.  But in this case, it means “Hi” or “Good Afternoon!”

有難う  (arigatou)  — Ignoring う, Chinese will think someone is in trouble because the two characters in Chinese means “got difficulty”.  But in Japanese, it means “Thank you”.  The sound ARIGATO is almost Englishized very much like SAYONARA.

鍋焼きラーメン ーーー  Okay, I threw in more than what I want to say.  The first character in Japanese is pronounced “nabe” and in Chinese it means wok (or pot).  The second was explained earlier in YAKITORI and it means “burned” or “cooked”.  The rest are combination of hiragana and katakana and it says something like RAMEN.  So ramen cooked in a pot?  Yes, this time the smart Chinese will get it, except, they wished ラーメン was written 拉面!

大学 (daigaku)、学校 (gakkou)、学生 (gakusei)、数学 (sugaku)、公園 (kouen)、図書館 (toshyokan) — No, this time, all these words mean exactly what they mean in Chinese.  So they will have no problem.  But still, remember just because you know “漢字”(kanji), does not mean you understand the Japanese newspaper 70%.  I would however say, “because you know kanji, you will misunderstand the Japanese newspaper 40% of the time”.  As the saying goes “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”.

Wait, there is one more….

蟹鍋  — The first character means “crab”.  The second means pot (explained earlier) and is pronounced NABE.  Click here to go to one of the most famous Crab/Pot restaurant in Osaka.  The problem is not in guessing the meaning of this kanji’s, the most difficult part is for Singaporeans to say this aloud.  And that’s because the first character is pronounced KANI.






Actually, the last character is not pronounced NABE here, it’s SUKI.  So it should be read kani-suki.   🙂


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