Subjective versus Objective Hardness

In my decade-spanning experience of telling people I’ve studied Japanese, I’ve discovered that people who haven’t studied Japanese tend to believe with some consistency that Japanese is “hard”. Here’s an example of a common exchange:

Greg: “I study Japanese.”

Dr. Huxtable: “Wow, that’s crazy.”

Or here’s another one:

Greg: “Why yes, Greta, I do study Japanese.”

Greta von Blunderbuss: “Mein gott! How do you do it?! Isn’t it hard?! I mean, it’s Japanese!

Yes, Greta, yes it is. But it’s only hard because we don’t already know it. I’ve long stressed that Japanese is in fact, in the grand scheme of things, relatively easy. Relative to other languages, that is.

Take English. English is a great language to know already, because it’s a throbbing pain in the ass to try and learn. Ever noticed how it’s full of seemingly arbitrary rules, but also full of exceptions to those rules? “I before E, except after C, and when sounding like ‘ay’ as in neighbor and weigh.” Also, inexplicably, in words like leisure and weird. Well that’s weird.

Japanese, meanwhile, has few exceptions to its rules, which seems to reflect the culture as a whole. Rules are made to be followed. People are made to follow rules. That’s how you come up with something like karate, which is a set of rules and regulations outlining the proper way to beat someone. And like a karate chop, the rules and fundamentals of the Japanese language are, mostly, clear-cut and concise; they rarely contain conjunctions.

Japanese also dispenses with many of the erroneous elements of language, again reflecting Japan’s tendency as a culture to cut away impractical or nonfunctional elements, or at least to section them off to specific quarters where they can somehow make someone money. In terms of the language, this includes the elimination of plurals, articles, and subject-verb agreement. In fact, you often don’t even have to specify subjects or objects, meaning you can sometimes communicate a whole idea with just a verb. Example!

Have a look at this realistic English back-and-forth:

Henry Q. Halibut: “What happened to the cookies?”

Joe P. Filibuster: “I ate them.”

Now, here’s that same conversation, in Japanese, then literally translated back into English.

Hiroshi McBedwetter: “Cookie, what happened?”

Jirô Kantgetabreak: “Ate.”

It is clear from context that Jirô means that he ate them. But look how much time he saved. Although incidentally, the Japanese word for “ate” is three syllables. But that’s beside the point.

Okay, well if you’re still not convinced Japanese is simple, let’s compare sound banks. English has twenty-six letters in its alphabet, and yet there are forty-four sounds. The number of ways these sounds can be spelled exceeds 500. This is because English is rife with redundant letters and digraphs, even at a basic level: C, Q, X, Ph, and Wh each serve no unique purpose. If the English alphabet’s economy collapsed and they started downsizing letters, these would be the first to go. Japanese, by comparison, has five vowel sounds and ten other sounds. Surprised? If so, maybe it’s because you’re aware that they have two syllabaries (like alphabets, but where one character represents a whole syllable), each of which has forty-six characters. That means that even at a basic level, you’ll have to learn ninety-two characters. Why so many characters when they only have fifteen sounds? Glad you asked, audience in my head.


As it happens, the two syllabaries are two representations of the same sounds; Hiragana is your standard script, while Katakana is used primarily for borrowed words, secondarily for expressing various types of emphasis–something like how we use italics in English, except that it’s actually a whole set of characters you have to memorize, not just a tilting of the paper. Yes, this too is reflective of the Japanese culture, where outside influences are kept separate, even though they are the foundation for many of its fundamental elements. They may induct our words into their language, but they’ll never confuse them for real Japanese. They’ve got a system for that.

So you’re effectively learning two ways to write each of forty-six characters. But how’d they turn fifteen sounds into even forty-six characters?


First you’ve got one character for each vowel sound: A, I, U, E, O (あ、い、う、え、お). Then you’ve got your ten consonant sounds, each of which must be coupled with a vowel. The only consonant that can stand alone in Japanese is the n sound (ん). The others must have a vowel with them. Thus, you have a character for ka, a different character for ki, a different character for ku, and so on. There is no way to just write k. Only k plus a vowel. Eventually this adds up to forty-six. Sound hard? Well, maybe for a month or two, but consider this: After you’ve learned two write these, you can write every single sound in the Japanese language, no matter what the context. So maybe one day, you overhear a Japanese guy drop a phrase like, kinshin sôkan. “Hmm,” you say. “I wonder what in the world that means.” Luckily, you know how it sounds because you overheard it, so you can immediately type it into your trusty electronic dictionary and get the answers you crave. “Well how ’bout that,” you say not even a whole minute later. “It meant ‘incest.'”

By contrast, you can learn the English alphabet in a day, but still have no idea how to spell anything since there are five hundred combinations of those letters to choose from. If a Japanese guy overheard someone talking about pneumonic devices, he could spend hours trying to figure out how to type it into a dictionary without it ever occurring to him that it starts with a P. Why does it start with a P? To be sure, there is a reason. But not a very good one. Even native speakers have trouble with spelling, sometimes for their entire lives. Meanwhile, the phonetic, syllabic nature of Japanese’s writing system prevents such plights–at least, initially.

Some of you more well-versed folk might storm in at this point like the Rightness Police and say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, right there, cue-ball. I know about kanji. There’s at least 2000 of those little bastards you gotta learn. That’s way harder than learning to spell!” Well, you’re sort of right, but on the other hand, kanji may be the single greatest tool in learning Japanese. But that’s another post for another day.

Today we’re talking about subjective versus objective hardness. Objectively speaking, Japanese isn’t that hard. It’s a language built on minimalism and by-the-book consistency, which is great since by-the-book is probably how you’ll be studying it. Japanese is, however, subjectively hard to many native English speakers, simply because it is so different. Everything is different. The way they put together ideas, and hence the ideas they strive to put together, are different at their core. Example!

In English, we say, “I want a delicious muffin.”

We also say, “Today I want to eat a delicious muffin.”

Note that the word want in English expresses a desire, whether it be towards an object, or towards a course of action. Your desire to have a thing and your desire to do a thing are equated through the like use of the word want.

Now here’s how you’d say those same two things in Japanese:

”私はおいしいマフィンが欲しいです。” (Watashi wa oishii MUFFIN ga hoshii desu)

”私はおいしいマフィンが食べたいです。” (Watashi wa oishii MUFFIN ga tabetai desu)

Note that there is no like word for want. Wanting a thing and wanting to do something are completely unrelated concepts here. To the native English speaker, this can be quite perplexing. They’ll learn how to say “I want a thing” and think that means they can now express any idea covered by the English word want. In reality, the realm of applicable uses for a given term is defined completely differently in Japanese, and thus the Japanese student must always be cautious of context. Always.

A native Korean speaker, on the other hand, already knows a language that shares many characteristics and roots with Japanese, and thus will likely find that Japanese comes quite naturally, whereas a language like English might seem completely alien. Why do we have to say “the” and “a” and “he” and “she” to the point of tedium? Why do they equate the “sticking” of a movie theater floor with the “sticking” of a gear shifter?

For us, the key to learning Japanese and conquering this subjective hardness lies in keeping fluid mental boundaries that allow you to reshape and regroup familiar concepts. “Light blue” is only a type of blue because we say it is. Food and drink are only separate because we have separate words for them. Couldn’t badgers and ferrets be called the same thing? Couldn’t we have a word specifically for that tingly feeling you get in your head in the midst of a great quiet, when something brushes against your back (does anybody know the one I mean?)? The advantage to learning a language with such different fundamentals is that it breaks you away from the mental cage our limited vocabulary builds around us. You can literally feel it expanding your mind. When people ask me why I study Japanese, I answer, “Because I’m too much of a wuss to keep up a drug habit.” Or at least, I should.

More hot-blooded seminar action to come.

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