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Japanese is the official language of Japan, which has a population of over 125m. There are also around 2.5m people of Japanese origin, many of whom speak Japanese as their first language, living in Brazil and the rest of the Americas, particularly the United States. You'll also find a sizeable expatriate presence in major cities such as London, New York and Paris.

Good Reasons to Learn Japanese
  • Japanese will prepare you for global business.

    If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.Nelson Mandela As Nelson Mandela perceptively observed about the art of negotiation, it is through language that we truly reach people. According to the USTR, Japan was the fourth largest goods export market for the United States in 2011. For multi-national companies doing business with Japan, it is increasingly important to have employees who can communicate effectively in Japanese.

  • What you already know about Japanese ?

    It will be probably come as a relief that just like English, words have no gender. Japanese doesn't use articles as prolifically as English does and there's no way of showing whether a word is singular or plural. E.g. the word 友達 [tomodachi] can mean a friend, the friend, friends and so on. Sounds confusing, but once you get the hang of it, this actually makes things a lot simpler. Since Japanese uses a vast amount of foreign loan words 外来語 [gairaigo] - literally words from outside) you’ll constantly hear familiar nouns and adjectives, and not just words borrowed from English. E.g. the word for TV is テレビ [terebi], bread is パン [pan] from the Portuguese word pão and part-time worker is アルバイト [arubaito], from the German Arbeit, work.

  • How hard is it to learn ?

    You would think that those who take Japanese are interested in working in Japan, right? That is not necessarily the case. Recent graduates of Japanese have gone on to pursue graduate work in diverse areas such as Medicine, Political Theory, and Anthropology. Graduate schools are interested in students who can hit the ground running, in terms of scholastic ability and diligence. Japanese classes at Bowdoin offer good preparation for that. As a recent graduate who applied to medical schools put it, "By including Japanese in my studies, I learned a range of perspectives. In my application to medical school, I want to illustrate that my interests extend beyond math and science topics."

  • The most difficult words and tongue twisters

    The Japanese are rather fond of playing tongue twister games and here's one of the most famous, which is difficult enough to say in English, let alone Japanese!: 生麦、生米、生卵 [Nama mugi, nama gome, nama tamago], raw wheat, raw rice, raw egg.

  • Know any good Japanese jokes ?

    Japanese humour tends to be much more story-based, rather than the telling of simple gags. Whether it be the old style rakugo (storytelling by a comic in traditional dress) or the more modern manzai (comic double act having a rapid-fire conversation), the humour’s in the, often rambling, ins and outs of the story. There’s a lot of playing on words and the use of dialect for full comic effect. Here’s a very condensed version of the very famous story, Manjū Kowai, told in the rakugo tradition and stripped of all the little side stories woven into the narrative: 友人達とお酒を飲んでいると、ある一人の人物がこの世で何が一番怖いか皆に問いかけます。一人はクモ、またもう一人はナメクジ、その横の人は蛇と答えます。そのうち一人はまんじゅうが一番怖い。。と答えました。それを聞くと他の友達は良くある冗談として大量のまんじゅうを買い込み、彼を一緒に部屋に閉じ込めてしまいます。しばらくして皆が様子を見ようと扉を開けると、なんと彼はまんじゅうを全部食べてしまっているではないですか!友達の一人が言います。『なんだ、お前まんじゅうが怖いって言ったじゃあないか。このうそつきめ!本当は何が怖いか正直に言ってみろ。』と聞くと、彼は『はて、、』と言ってしばらく考え込み、『いいタイミングで聞いてくれたものだ。今はおいしいお茶が本当に怖い』。 A few friends are sitting around having some drinks. One of them asks the rest what they’re most scared of. One says spiders, another says slugs, the guy next to him snakes and so on... Finally, one of them admits it’s manjū cakes that scare him the most. So, as a practical joke, his friends go off to get heaps of manju cakes and lock him in a room with them. After a while, they open the door - only to see that he’s actually eaten all of them! "Hey!" shouts one of the friends, "I thought you said you were terrified of manjū! You liar! So come on, tell us the truth now! What is it that you're really frightened of?" "Well," says the man thinking for a while, "Funny you ask that, but at this very moment, I think I'm really scared of a nice cup of tea...."

  • If I learn Japanese, will it help me with any other languages ?

    The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is known to have written this famous aphorism: ❝The limits of my language are the limits of my world." As he suggests, our ability to imagine possible worlds are extended by learning a new language. Companies and graduate schools are interested in cultivating talented people who can function in an increasingly diverse and interconnected world. Learning a new language is the first step towards “thinking outside the box."

  • What not to say and do ?

    The Japanese teachers at Bowdoin strongly encourage study away. You can read about the exciting experiences of students who have recently been away elsewhere. Many students also go on to teach English in Japan after graduation through the JET Programme. The JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme) seeks to help enhance internationalization in Japan, by promoting mutual understanding between Japan and other nations. The programme aims to enhance foreign language education in Japan, and to promote international exchange at the local level through fostering ties between Japanese youth and foreign youth.

  • Famous quotations

    Perhaps the best-known Japanese literary form outside Japan is the Haiku. With its simple 5-7-5 syllabic structure and origins within Zen Buddhism, it's been as popular with school teachers as with the Beat writers, such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. One of the most famous Haiku poets is Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), and this is perhaps his best-known, and most evocative, work: 古池や 蛙飛びこむ 水の音 Furu ike ya Kawazu tobikomu Mizu no oto The ancient pond A frog leaps in The sound of the water.

  • First publication

    The strange thing about Japanese is that there’s very little evidence of an indigenous writing system until the Chinese characters were brought over to Japan in the 5th century AD. Even after this, it wasn't until around the 8th century that a truly distinct form of written Japanese was developed. But it was a couple of centuries later when, what is often referred to as the world's first novel, 源氏物語 [Genji Monogatari], The Tale of Genji, was written by Murasaki Shikibu in 1007.

  • How to be polite and show respect ?

    In the old days of feudal Japan, a samurai warrior would shout 身の程を知れ![Mi no hodo o shire!], Know your place! at anyone who dared to show insufficient respect. And with that, a sword would be brought swiftly down upon the unfortunate one's head. Well, you might not have to fear a sword these days but it’s still wise to always remember your place. Even if you don't have the language skills, a softening of the voice, a discreet awareness of the other person's personal space and undemonstrative body language go a long way when it comes to courtesy and showing respect.

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