I have been studying Japanese with a bit more gusto than I did when I lived in Kanazawa. Working at an English conversation school is rather like living in a bubble of English. You use it in ever class, you use it with your boss, your coworkers and students. Unless you feel really dedicated, you don’t really need more than a rudimentary level of Japanese. This is of course why and how I lived in this country for two years with only a rudimentary level of Japanese. I could ask for directions, find a bathroom, order a steak or a beer, ask what time it was and introduce myself. However, anything more complicated than that was going to be a stretch. Reading wise I learned the two Japanese kana alphabets, hiragana (ひらがな) for Japanese words, and katakana (カタカナ) for transliterated foreign loan words. I also studied a bit of Kanji, the imported Chinese characters. With all that, I could navigate a train station, or piece together a menu to know what I wanted, or even more importantly what I didn’t want. Living in the rural suburbs of Maebashi and working at a 'real' school is a very different experience. My
students are of course much younger and much lower level than the businessmen and housewives I taught at GEOS. Though to be honest, some of the English teachers I work with can hardly string a sentence together either (though some are quite fluent). Naturally, Japanese is everywhere, the school schedules and handouts are, understandably, entirely in Japanese. If you want to have even just an inkling of what is going on around you, you had better start studying.
And study I have. I have a kanji book that will teach you how to read and write the 323 most common characters. I’m up character number 195, though I can’t say I have mastered writing all of them, I can usually read them. 195 characters seems like a lot, until you look at the list of over 2,000 daily use kanji that you need to read a newspaper and function in day to day living. Though a lot of name and place kanji aren’t on that list, so really the number of kanji your average Japanese person can read is quite a bit higher than 2,000.
Unlike many students of Japanese, and I assume Chinese as well, I actually enjoy studying the characters. It is fun to see how the concepts fit together, and how words are related. For example, the word for fireworks, 花火 is a combination of the word hana, flower, and bi, fire. That’s a pretty good conceptual representation of fireworks! Every character either contains or is a radical, a basic element that repeats and provides some idea to the theme of a word. For example, 言 is the character for talking, or saying something. It is also the base radical in any number of other communication related words like 話, to converse, 読 to read, 語, language, 試, test, and I’m sure dozens of words that I haven’t learned yet. The problem with studying kanji though is they are a very efficient way of conveying meaning, but they give no hint on how to pronounce the word. Each character has at minimum two readings, one evolved from the original Chinese pronunciation, and one from the original Japanese word that was attached to that concept before the written language arrived. Different compounds and situations call for a different pronunciation, and while some of it can be deduced, most of it must simply be memorized, at least as far as I can tell. For example, I know the characters 来, come 場, place, and 者, person. I also know the compound word 場所, basho, which means place as well. 場 here is pronounced ba. But in the new word I learned, 来場者, raijousha, which means, attendees or visitors, 場 is pronounced jou. So simply by looking at the word, I could take a stab at meaning, come place people, but I had to look it up in a dictionary to check my pronunciation. Its good I did too, because my first guess was way off! Luckily for my studies, I see this more as an intellectual challenge than a massive pain in the rear, so it has actually been motivating me to study lots of kanji, and all that work is paying off. I still can’t read everything in the school handouts, but bit by bit I can read more. My spoken language skills and listening skills are improving as well, but at a slower speed. I’ve always known I was a visually oriented person, but now I can really see how that affects my language studies. If I see something enough times, I'll remember it, but if I hear something it’s gone. I’m sure my mother could tell a few stories about me forgetting vital spoken information...