Wikipedia ‘deep dives’ can help re-create the joys and pains of Japanese-language immersion


Special To The Japan Times

Learning Japanese can be painful. This isn’t physical pain (unless you have a really mean teacher) but rather the anguish of mental frustration when you’re unable to understand. Breaking through that anguish without giving up is part of the learning process. The best students are constantly seeking out that sense of challenge in order to keep their skills sharp.

This is easy if you’re in Japan; there are challenges everywhere. Abroad it can be a more difficult task. Thankfully the internet has put the entirety of human knowledge at our fingertips. Sites like Twitter enable students in other countries to have some access to a Japanese experience of the world.

Another excellent site is ウィキペディア (Wikipedia). You can quickly access Japanese content for many of the articles by selecting 日本語 (Nihongo, Japanese) under the languages section in the sidebar. (Hint: It’s listed alphabetically under N rather than J.)

This is useful for menial tasks such as checking the romanization of foreign names. Was it バラク (Baraku) or バラック (Barakku) for President Obama’s given name? (Spoiler: It’s the former.) And it’s great for reading up on topics of interest to expand your Japanese vocabulary.

You can also use Japanese Wikipedia to re-create the mental anguish of language immersion — of encountering a truly alien topic and being forced to reckon with it. On the sidebar, sixth from the top, is a link titled おまかせ表示 (O-makase hyōji, literally, “entrusting the display (to Wikipedia)”), which is an excellent translation of the “random article” feature into Japanese. You might recognize the honorific of the verb 任せる (makaseru, to entrust) from the お任せ (o-makase, chef’s special) course at sushi restaurants.

You can use o-makase hyōji as the start of a Wikipedia “deep dive” to challenge your reading comprehension. Allow me to take you on a quick random tour of Wikipedia in Japanese.

My first click on o-makase hyōji brings us to 魚町駅 (Uomachi Eki, Uomachi Station) (bit.ly/uomachi), a defunct train station in Kitakyushu. There is a detailed history of the train line and the station, which closed in 1980. Although the station itself may not be of interest, we do encounter useful words such as 本線 (honsen, main line) 停留所 (teiryūjo, stop/station), and 開業 (kaigyō, begin operations). The article also links to the very interesting 廃駅 (haieki) entry (bit.ly/haiekiwiki).

I’ve purposely not given an English translation for this word because figuring out the meaning is the goal of this exercise, and the Wikipedia page provides an excellent definition in context: 廃駅とは営業を廃止した鉄道駅である (Haieki to wa eigyō o haishi shita tetsudō eki de aru, “Haieki are rail stations that have ceased operations”). The article explains that stations close either because of 廃線 (haisen, closure of the train line) or one of a number of other reasons, which it then lists in detail, such as a decrease in ridership or the construction of a new station nearby. It’s a great read.

This entry also reminds me of a series of YouTube videos Adam Dodge put together titled “Cycling Japan’s Abandoned Rail.” They are worth a watch, but be warned: They will likely leave you longing to set off on a trip of your own.

Another spin of the wheel takes us to 国定教科書 (kokutei kyōkasho, state-sponsored textbooks) (bit.ly/jpntxtbks). This is an interesting topic, as Japan’s history textbooks have been the subject of a lot of controversy over the years.

The Wikipedia entry shows us that Japan initially had a 検定済教科書 (kentei-zumi kyōkasho, approved textbook) system, in which the government approved but did not produce textbooks. However, the 1902 教科書疑獄事件 (kyōkasho gigoku jiken, textbook bribery incident) resulted in a state-sponsored system until the end of World War II.

What’s more, the Wikipedia entry for the incident (bit.ly/jpntxtbkcase) explains that it was uncovered when the headmaster from a school in Ibaraki Prefecture left his 手帳 (techō, pocket diary) on a train with details of the scheme! History is amazing, and there’s no English translation for these particular pages, which make them excellent practice reading.

One final o-makase click takes us to 明法道 (myōbōdō, study of the Ritsuryo Code) (bit.ly/myobodo). This is an excellent entry to end on because it provides us with an important lesson: Don’t force it. If you encounter something too far beyond your reading level, try to skim for loose meaning and then move on to something more suited to your study level. You don’t have to deep-read everything.

I spent a few minutes skimming the entry, which helped show me that myōbōdō was a 学科 (gakka, academic subject). I also gathered that it was related to 解釈 (kaishaku, interpretation) of 律令 (ritsuryō, the historical civil and administrative code) and that in the eighth century there was a need to 育成 (ikusei, train) more 専門家 (senmonka, experts) on the codes. Knowing this was enough for me.

As with English Wikipedia, starting at the top page gives you access to the 選り抜き記事 (erinuki kiji, featured article), which is referred to in other places as the 秀逸な記事 (shūitsuna kiji, excellent article).

This might be a good starting place for your deep dive. These articles are considered some of the best and are sure to be worth the effort it takes to understand them. But don’t be afraid to go off the beaten path and dial up a random entry for a fresh challenge.

“Cycling Japan’s Abandoned Rail” videos: youtu.be/Sfn3_nqQK28, youtu.be/_Ju7TsFy8vI, youtu.be/gZrdoqRZXss, youtu.be/UNh_-aiFAQc.