6 Problems About Studying Japanese In 1899

So you decided you want to learn Japanese. Pull up your horse and carriage and make your way to your local book store.

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It’s 1899 and you have one book available to you:

A Practical Introduction to the Study of Japanese Writing (文字のしるべ)

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This Japanese textbook, published originally in 1899, provides some incredibly interesting insight on how and why Japanese used to be learned. It’s a serious time machine trip and if you like this sort of thing, you’ll definitely have some fun poring through its highly outdated viewpoints about learning Japanese. And it’s copyright-expired free here.

I want to highlight 6 problems it introduces. Some things change. Others don’t.

6. Not much motivation

The first sentence of the book insults the study of Japanese, calling it “extremely dry.” What reasons could you possibly learn Japanese for? I don’t think they had anime yet. Or airplanes for that matter.

You were probably either a “missionary, merchant, or diplomat.” That’s it. Besides this, there really are no reasons to study. You most likely will never meet a Japanese person, never go to Japan, and never see anything Japanese.

5. Limited sources to learn from

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You will be introduced to resources such as “articles, advertiser’s puff, skittish feuilleton, postcard, and cheap telegrams.”

I understand “most” of this sentence and none of it sounds that exciting.

4. Romaji is idealized as the world savior

Many people had hoped the romaji system would be adopted by the Japanese themselves because it had the benefit of “vastly simplifying the task of learning Japanese to natives and foreigners, and would have brought the mass of the Japanese people in closer relations than is now possible with the mental habits and the literature with the West.”

That’s some powerful stuff right there.

3. Foreign loan words used to be mostly in kanji

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“Japan continues to draw from Chinese sources almost every new term needed for the representation of European things.”

“Well-nigh every technical term required in every new branch of knowledge is obtained by combining two or more well-known Chinese vocables into convenient, self-explanatory compounds.”

Thank you katakana for saving the day.

2. The font was terrible

I don’t know exactly much about print or font history, but this Japanese text is way too big.

Then again, the style of the English is also terrible, with 1 paragraph going on for pages…

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1. Needed to learn a lot more kanji

The book says most Japanese know 4000 kanji, with educated at 8000. It recommends close to 2500.

Thank you Japan for lowering these big numbers.

Feeling better about learning Japanese in 2014 and not 1899?

Skim through the book a bit and add some interesting facts in the comments section!

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


6 Problems About Studying Japanese In 1899 — 15 Comments

  1. Interesting that they call out a Japanese equivalent to the English “2 birds with one stone” expression, but it’s not 一石二鳥. I wonder if that was actually adopted more recently? I had assumed it was coincidence that we had the same idiom.

    There’s actually some great stuff in there beyond the rather unmotivating first few paragraphs. Despite his apparent longing for romanization, the author’s response to people who don’t want to learn kanji is hilarious and awesome XD

    • According to Wikipedia 一石二鳥 is taken directly from the English phrase which was around a few hundred years ago. It doesn’t say when the phrase became popular in Japan though.

      Yes, the part about him ripping into people who think they don’t need kanji is great. A lesson to anyone hesitant about the need.

  2. Talk about an English overload. I suppose if this is your only source, you’d want to fit in as much explanation as possible.

    This is a great source for looking into older Japanese though.

    • Aside from the playful nature of this post, the book actually does have some useful parts, even relevant to 2014 and it’s just fun to read the intro.

    • Extremely difficult. That and depending on where you live, could take months on a ship just to get there.

  3. It’s incredible this book was written so long ago when in the introduction at least, it describes a lot of things modern Japanese learners swear by, like learning kanji readings by learning the words they’re used in or learning to read native stuff people actually use as opposed to stuffy instructional texts.

    I’m definitely interested in seeing how far through the book I can get before I’m confused/bored.

    • Makes you wonder what books were like before this on the subject of studying Japanese.

      If the writing wasn’t set up in that old block text not seperated by paragraphs style, it would be a lot easier to read.

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