Using the internet to dig up some basics in Japanese

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

Once, many, many years ago, I found a rail pass someone left behind next to a public pay phone in Hamamatsucho Station in Tokyo’s Minato Ward.

Before handing in the pass into the stationmaster’s office for deposit in the お忘れ物承り所 (o-wasuremono uketamawari-jo, lost-and-found department), I glanced at the owner’s name and age as entered on the pass (no problem there); but the name of the station, 上石神井, left me completely mystified: I had never seen those four characters 上, 石, 神 and 井 (meaning above, stone, god and well) in combination, and hadn’t the faintest idea how they should be read. Ue-ishigamii? Jo-sekishini??

“すみませんがこの駅名はどうやって読みますか” (“Sumimasen ga kono ekimei wa dōyatte yomimasuka?” “Excuse me, but how do you read the name of this station?”), I enquired to the 駅員 (ekiin, station employee), who squinted at the pass and informed me, “Kamishakujii desu.”

Naturally there were plenty of times when a knowledgeable person was not immediately available, leaving me 朝まで寝返りを打って、眠れない (asa made negaeri o utte, nemurenai, tossing and turning until morning, unable to sleep).

Now, thanks to the wonders of the internet, I can unravel mysteries and satisfy my curiosity on the spot. Assuming I don’t know how to generate a particular string of characters, I can still run a search by inputting the individual kanji. So as I typed in romaji my computer respectively converted first to hiragana and then to kanji, thus: ue ->うえ -> 上; ishi -> いし -> 石; kami -> かみ-> 神; and ido -> いど -> 井戸. (I used backspace to remove the 戸, leaving only the 井.)

A search quickly gave me the following: 上石神井駅(Kamishakujii eki, Kamishakujii Station), which is located in the southwest part of Tokyo’s Nerima Ward. Further narrowing the search I saw that Kamishakujii Station is on the Seibu Shinjuku Line; commenced operation in 1927; and currently serves more than 40,000 passengers per day.

As my curiosity was piqued as to how Shakujii got its strange name, I proceeded to a section marked 名称の由来 (meishō no yurai, origin of the name), and learned that when the first inhabitants of the village dug a well, they excavated a 石棒 (sekibō, a rod-shaped stone), which they treated as a miraculous find. To extoll the gods, they erected the predecessor to the present-day 石神井神社 (Shakujii jinja, Shakujii Shrine).

Learning the ins and outs of the Japanese internet can be a tried-and-true method of developing street smarts for getting along in this country.

Before leaving my house, for instance, I log onto a site called Goo operated by NTT Resonant Inc. to check about 関東の運行情報 (Kantō no unkō jōhō, train operation conditions in the Kanto region).

At 10:10 a.m. last Tuesday morning, for example, I saw that on the 東急田園都市線 (Tōkyū Denentoshi-sen, main line of the Tokyu Denentoshi Line), a 列車遅延 (ressha chien, train delay) had occurred.

The site explained: たまプラーザ駅で救護活動を行った影響などで (Tama purāza eki de kyūgo katsudō o okonatta eikyō nado de, as a result of rescue activities conducted at Tama Plaza Station)、 現在も下り線(中央林間方面行)の列車に遅れが出ています (genzai mo kudarisen [Chūōrinkan hōmen yuki] no ressha ni okure ga deteimasu, even now delays are occurring on trains going away from Tokyo [in the direction of Chuorinkan]).

As I was thinking of using that line, I checked to see if 振替輸送 (furikae yusō, alternative transport) might be available to the same destination. (It was, and I took it.)

Another precaution I typically take before leaving the house between February and April, is to check the Weather News website for 花粉情報 (kafun jōhō, pollen information). If the 絵文字 (emoji, emoticon) display appears in blue, orange or red, it warns me I would be well advised to limit my time outdoors and wear a hat, face mask and other protective clothing — or else risk suffering the discomforts of 花粉症 (kafunshō, hay fever).

I’ve said this before, but the No. 1 prerequisite for navigating the internet in Japanese is learning the rules for hiragana, both for 1) general usage and 2) romaji (the roman alphabet) input on a keyboard. For example, while the grammar particle used to indicate direction of motion is vocalized the same as え (e), it must be entered as へ (he). And the particle pronounced “wa” must be written as は (“ha“).

When accessing your software’s built-in kanji dictionary, stay alert for irregularities. The syllable vocalized as “zu,” for instance, sometimes requires input not as ず (typed “zu“) but づ (a “tsu” with dakuten to indicate a voiced consonant, input by typing “du“).

More recently I’ve begun visiting sites that are similar to the fact-checking service offered by in the United States. These are the site operated by Watchdog for Accuracy in News-reporting, Japan (WANJ); Fact Check, by the Asahi Shimbun; and Fact Check Initiative Japan.

The websites are great examples of how Japan is waging its own struggle against フェイクニュース (feiku nyūsu, fake news). And if you’re on the internet, chances are you’re bound to come across a questionable article or two.