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How to Japonese

by Jasmine Louis

The blog How To Japonese should appeal to anyone studying intermediate and advanced Japanese, but don’t expect structured step-by-step courses. Launched in 2008 by Daniel Morales, a New Orleanian who first came to Japan in 2002 and currently works as a translation coordinator in Tokyo, the blog pretty much comprises whatever crosses Morales’ radar. What ties it all together is his fascination with the curiosities, idiosyncrasies and beauty of nihongo. While he excels in deconstructing unusual kanji or pointing out common mistakes made by native English-speakers, one post-category in particular neatly sums up his advice on learning Japanese: “Get used to it!” In between tips, Morales weaves in topics such as his latest favorite Japanese beer or his admiration for best-selling author Haruki Murakami. And in case you were wondering why it’s spelled Japonese, keep reading.

When did you first begin How to Japonese and what inspired you to start it?

I first started it in March 2008. I wrote a couple articles for the Fukushima JETs newsletter and had a lot of fun thinking about how I’d learned the language and the little tricks I’d picked up along the way. I figured it might make an interesting blog.

What’s the story behind the blog’s name?

I originally had the blog hosted over at Blogsome (you can still see the old version), but decided to make it more official and buy my own domain. Unfortunately How to Japanese with an “a” was already taken. I didn’t want to change things too much, so I just flipped the “a” to an “o.”

As for the original title idea, it’s just a silly play on words. I guess it can be considered my own little Engrish phrase. It made me smile and felt catchy.

How long have you been studying Japanese? Do you think its difficulty is overrated?

I’ve been studying since the summer of 2001, so just about eight years now. I think the difficulty is rated correctly. It’s not an easy language, especially for English natives, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Like any acquired skill, it’s all about consistent repetition over a long period of time.

Generally speaking, what do you think are some of the problems with the way people approach the study of Japanese?

I think one of the main problems, one that I had myself, is that we all want it too quickly. Language is not something you should rush. If you want to be able to speak it, read it and write it fluently, you should be prepared to dedicate at least five years of solid study to the language and realize beforehand that there will be ups and downs over the course. I remember days when I felt totally defeated leaving class. As long as you can get through those and are willing to put in the necessary repetitions, you’ll be fine eventually.

Also, the whole self-study thing has been romanticized recently, especially with programs like Anki and books like “Remembering the Kanji.” Teachers have become underrated. Sure, there will be some rotten ones, but good teachers can make a huge difference. You have to meet them halfway.

What’s a major goal for you as a student of Japanese?

To not get any worse at Japanese than I am right now. I’d also like to finish reading “Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World” in Japanese at some point. That was the first Murakami book I ever read — in translation, of course — and it is the main reason I started studying Japanese, so, yeah, I should get on that.

You say that you believe reading books help with spoken Japanese; what books would you recommend to an intermediate student?

Haruki Murakami is great and relatively easy to read. Manga are also good since they have so much dialogue. Naoto Yamakawa’s “One More Cup of Coffee” (「コーヒーもう一杯」) is a collection of coffee-themed short manga, all very sweet and strange and Murakami-esque. The first volume is the best. Highly recommended. I liked “Soil” by Atsushi Kaneko up through Volume 6 or so but then gave up. It reminds me of the TV show “Lost.” Lots of characters and weirdness, very little resolution.

I recommend trying to find something that isn’t available in English. Having the English will always be a crutch.

You seem to have a love affair with kanji. What are some of your favorites?

It was a hate affair for a long time until I realized exactly how efficiently they convey information. You know you’ve reached that point when you’d rather see kanji than a long string of hiragana. Now it’s a love-hate affair — I love the ones I know, hate the ones I don’t.

縁 (en, connection) is one of my longtime favorites. 囮 (otori, decoy) looks really cool. 麦酒 (biiru, beer) is fantastic. So is 牡蠣 (kaki, oysters).

What sort of blog posts have generated the most feedback from your readers?

The good ones. The bad ones rarely get any response.

My predictions about (Haruki Murakami’s novel) “1Q84″ got me a good bit of traffic even though they were mostly wrong and kind of spread the rumor that the book is about World War II, which it’s not.

What gave you the idea to “live blog” your progress as you read “1Q84″ and what’s been the response been like?

I can’t remember when I initially had the idea, but liveblogging is such an everyday part of the internet that it seems kind of obvious in retrospect. I’m surprised I was the only one doing it given how much Murakami fervor there is these days (on both sides of the aisle). It got a nice big response thanks to a couple of friendly links.

How is it to read Murakami in the original language? Language ability aside, does the experience differ dramatically from that of reading an English translation?

It’s fantastic and you should all be very jealous, heh. The English translators have all been great, but there’s nothing quite like the original Murakami when he hits his unique tone.

I think the part I enjoy most, even more than being able to read his new books right away, is searching through his past works. He was incredibly prolific in the early 1980s, so there are a lot of articles and stories that haven’t been collected or republished anywhere else. I’ve spent days searching through magazines in the National Diet Library. I hope someday there is a true Complete Works. (The current Complete Works isn’t technically “complete.”)

How has your activity on Twitter affected your blog? Do you find yourself doing less on the blog and more on Twitter?

I’m doing the same amount on the blog as always — three posts a week 月水金 (Monday, Wednesday, Friday), with the exception of public holidays and the occasional break I give myself. I’m surprised how effective Twitter has been at finding new sites to read and bringing in new readers to my site.

How do you think the Twitter scene differs from that of the blogging scene?

There isn’t much in terms of content to Twitter, but it is a great way to share links, arrange meetups (especially beer meetups), or share a witty one-liner you just thought up. I try not to use it too much, but it is fun to read.

On your blog, you mention your love of beer. How are things for beer drinkers in Japan? Is it paradise or would like you like to see more microbrews or imports?

Things are good and only getting better. There is far more beer now than there was five years ago, both domestic and import. But with quality beer at 1,000 yen a pint, sometimes more, it’s far from paradise. I’d like to see the beer tax laws and minimum brewing requirements go away. They’re nihonshu protectionism. Also, homebrewing needs to be legalized!

What’s your favorite Japanese beer?

Hmm … too much good Japanese beer to single one out. Fujizakura makes some excellent German-style beers, and I like Shiga Kogen’s ales. As for more commercial brews, Yona Yona is cheap, more readily available, and well-hopped. All of the major beers that are 100% barley are decent, but when I’m slumming it, I usually go for Yebisu or Suntory.