I’ve been living and working in Japan for 15 years, most of this time in companies where the foreigner count was below 3. So this forced me to make daily use of Japanese both in written and spoken form. As you might know the Japanese also use Chinese characters (called Kanji in Japan). They also throw two syllable alphabets of their own into the mix – just to make sure things don’t get too easy, but Kanji essentially are pictograms that carry a meaning rather than being abstractions of a phonetic value, so they are somewhat language independent.
A blessing, not a curse
When I visit our China office, I always thank the Chinese for the ingenious invention of these characters. Yes, it’s a hell of a lot characters to learn, but if you can read and write Japanese, you can grasp the meaning of most signs and billboards in China as well.
Surely there are differences in writing (simplified Chinese takes a quite radical approach) and there are some, at times embarrassing nuances in meaning of the same character between the two languages, but all in all I can muddle through even without speaking one word of Chinese.
Considering that the Japanese and Chinese languages have as much in common as Portuguese and Klingon that’s quite something.
Want to tell the Taxi driver where to go? Just write the Chinese address in big letters in your notebook and show it to him. Want something from a local who doesn’t speak a word of English? Just write it down. They’ll get the gist of what you are looking for.
Here are some of the more amusing examples of guessing the meaning of Chinese words via the Japanese language:
零度 (literally: 0 degrees) – is of course “zero” in “Cola zero”
零食 (literally: zero food) - means “snack”.
咖啡 (in Japan similar characters: 珈琲) - coffee
意大利 (guessing from Japanese reading: “i-dai-ri”) - Italy
酸奶 (sour + 奶, not used in Japan, but means milk) - yoghurt
焦糖 (burn, scorch + sugar) - caramel
And when everything else fails you will still have something to laugh about and tell to your grandchildren.