“Spelling” in Japan

Question: Do people in Japan have to learn spelling of Japanese words? Do kids in Japan participate in spelling bees? Think about it.

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Took this picture today at the middle school. The flowers that were blooming before aren’t blooming as much now, and new ones have popped up! They’re not as obvious as before, but still pretty nice, I think!

The answer to the second question is: no, Japanese kids don’t have “spelling” bees. If you’re already studying Japanese, you can skip the next two paragraphs of explanations and go on to 3 and 4.

1) English Spelling. In English, even if we haven’t seen a word before, we can guess what it means from the parts it’s made of, suffixes and prefixes. We know that “pre-” means “before,” so if we see the word “predetermine” we know it means “determine before,” and if we see the word “prehistoric,” we know it means “before history” (=very old). I think that even if you don’t study prefixes and suffixes in school, you probably measure words like that, although I could be wrong. If you’ve never seen the word “pre-fuzzified,” you might guess that something that was not fuzzy has been made (-ied) fuzzy in advance (pre-). AND we follow a spelling rule, so the y changes to an i…even though it’s not a real word.

2) Japanese “Spelling.” Japanese uses pictures for words, Chinese characters called kanji, but the concept is still the same. Characters are made up of parts called radicals, and the radicals, like suffixes and prefixes, determine what a character/word means. A simple example is the character 木, tree. When you put three of them together, you get 森, forest. Another is 弓, which is a bowstring. When you put that with |, which looks like a bow, then you get 引, which means to pull. This 目 is the character for “eye.” When you put it in other combinations, it often has to do with seeing–like 目(eye) + 艮(good) = 眼(eyesight, vision) or 目(eye) + 重(heavy) = 睡(sleepy). If you’ve never seen a word in kanji before, you can sometimes guess how to read it by looking at the parts of the word and remembering how other words are said. All the following characters have the part 古 (old)  in them, and can be read “ko”: 個、故、湖.

3) Stroke Order Challenges. Just as there are some really difficult spellings in English  (I always hesitate when trying to write words like “hygiene,” which I had to look up just now), it can be difficult to remember parts making up more rare Japanese words. In addition, while the English letters themselves are not that hard to write–I don’t think any of our letters take up more than one or two strokes, or lifting of the pen, unless someone is being reeeally particular about how they write their capital K’s or something–Japanese characters can have many strokes, and there’s a correct order for all of them that children learn in school growing up. Many adults forget or develop their own habits, though, and there’s even a game show here called “Pressure Battle” that centers around different famous people competing to get the stroke order right on commonly mistaken characters. I think I’ve seen other shows doing the same type of thing. It’s probably a good fall back topic if you can’t think of anything new to broadcast, because everyone can relate to it, it’s always interesting to try and see if you remember, and there’s soooo many characters that you will never run out of material…

4) Regional writing differences. I overheard some of the teachers at the elementary school this week discussing the writing of different Japanese characters. Even though Japan is a relatively small country compared to the US, there are regional differences in the way words are written that I think were a bit confusing for students and parents. The official textbook from the government would have the word written one way, but in newsletters sent out from the school to the parents, the words are written the Yamaguchi way, generally using more hiragana (simpler Japanese characters). Here are some examples:

“friend” – Official: 友だち / Yamaguchi: 友達

“dealing with” – Official: 取組 / Yamaguchi: 取り組み

“greeting(s)” – Official: 挨拶 / Yamaguchi: あいさつ (written in hiragana. This one was annoying one of my coworkers)

“to notice” – Official: 気付く / Yamaguchi: 気づく

If you’re looking at the paper and reading aloud, both ways would read exactly the same, but the way they are written is different. It’s like if I saw the word “color” and the word “colour,” I could read both and both are right, but going by “standard American English,” “color” would be right. The official ways are written in kanji characters, but Yamaguchi seems to use more hiragana instead. People can read and understand both, but it’s a little odd.

I knew there were different ways of speaking in each region, and I knew that there were different ways to write words (like with 取組 and 取り組み, because it would show up both ways in my dictionary), but it never occurred to me that there were different ways to write words based on which part of Japan you’re from. It also constantly blows my mind that there are so many variations of language, food, and culture in different parts of Japan, when the entire country is smaller in land area than California. Now you know!

Song of the Day: Rip Slyme, “Rakuen Baby.” This song played at my middle school today! I thought it was cool but didn’t recognize it, and chased down the girl leaving the housou room with the cd to find out what it was, haha. The CD it’s from is called “GOOD JOB!” which I find really funny.

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