Inside a Manga Cafe Cubicle
Part of the purpose of my visit to Japan is to become more fluent than before. I can happily say that I probably understand more than 30% of more conversations but 30% is frustratingly tantalizing. Some days I wish I could just upload the language into my brain Matrix style, but unfortunately, I can’t.
I am inspired by a website called alljapaneseallthetime.com. In this inspiring website, a jolly fellow named Khatzumoto inspires people to learn Japanese by constant input of interesting music, dramas, movies, manga, and following several key study methods . Khatzumoto apparently learned Japanese in 18 months and is currently tackling Cantonese.
The first step that alljapaneseallthetime.com (AJATT) is to learn Kanji. In Japanese there are three writing systems: kanji (漢字–the ideographic system that came from China; hiragana (ひらがな–which is a phonetic system used mainly for Japanese words that don’t have kanji or in children’s books; and katakana (カタカナーーwhich is another phonetic system that is used for onomatopeia, foreign words, and species of animals and flowers. Kanji are more like symbols that represent whole words and concepts. Kanji came from China but has evolved along different lines so they are not exactly the same. Also, in Chinese there are more kanji to learn since it relies exclusively on kanji (hanzi).
Chinese and other East Asian students have a great advantage in learning Japanese not because of some “Eastern” connection, but rather because knowing kanji makes it easier to learn how to read Japanese. The easier it is to read, the sooner you can learn on your own. For example, if you know that 男 means “boy” then it might be easier to remember that it is pronounced “otoko” in Japanese. It is a bit of a stretch but learning Japanese without knowing kanji is learning English without fully knowing the alphabet–it is possible but knowing it makes it much easier to advance.
Luckily, there is James Heisig’s book, “Remember the Kanji.” This book breaks down the parts of kanji into “primitives” and encourages the reader to visualize stories (mnemonics) in order to learn how read and write the kanji. My interview Heisig can be found at Kanji Clinic http://www.kanjiclinic.com/riverainterview.htm. I still have hundreds of paper cards that I made to remember the first 500 or 600 hundred kanji.
Then in an Amazon review of Heisig’s book, I discovered that there is a website designed to bring people who use Heisig’s system to share mnemonic stores and manage their learning. http://kanji.koohii.com/. This website allows people to share their different stories that allow people to remember how different kanji are written. One of the most useful features is that it operates as an SRS or Spaced Repetition System. Items that you learn come up for review and the more times that you remember it the longer interval before you are quizzed on this again. This means items that you tend to forget come up sooner while facts you’ve already mastered come up for review so don’t forget these as well. For example, in kanji.koohii.com after you’ve learned an item, it comes up again in three days; if you master the word, it comes up again in a week–then two weeks, then four, etc. The site’s graphs are a fun way to chart your progress and great ideas and discussions come up in the forum.
Photograph of kanji.koohii.com website
Another great online tool is Anki. Anki is an SRS that allows you to create your own flashcards and as you master them, they come up in an algorithmic schedule. If you learn the hard you grade yourself on how hard it was to come up with the answer: Hard, Good, Easy. The harder it was to remember the sooner it will come up again for review. I currently have around 5,000 cards. Some are waiting for my review right now and others won’t come up again for another five years.
Remembering the Kanji, SRS’s, and Anki are all tools that alljapaneseallthetime.com mentions but what is really important to the AJTT “method” is constant Japanese input and fun. This summer, for me, this is where the 漫画喫茶 or manga cafes come in. Manga cafes are a cross between internet cafes and a spa. For around to $12 to $15 for three hours you can surf the internet, read manga and magazines, watch movies, and drink all the coffee and soft drinks you want. Once you sign in you can choose between smoking and non-smoking sections and reclining (Western style), zaseki (close to the ground), or massage chairs. You can also come as a couple and sit on a small couch or in the zaseki style. You can do all of this in the semi-privacy of a cubicle.
Copies of the historical manga I am reading this summer. I spent the most time reading the manga on the right. It's an overview of World War II.
Cubicle and fun don’t usually seem to go together, but for me it’s great. As a parent of a young toddler, there is less and less space and time to think and just plain goof off–in Japanese. Thanks to Fund for Teachers I’ve been able to come to 漫画喫茶 many times over the summer. This is the place where I get chance to do the work of kanji and sentence reviews, but I’ve also gotten a chance to scan over hundreds of manga. It’s also where I have been doing my “homework”, reading the Japanese historical manga about World War II that I also study with a tutor.
One of many racks of magazines available at manga cafe.
But what has also been extremely valuable is the time that I “goof off” in Japanese. Albeit, I am an email and Facebook junkie,so sometimes I waste my time with English input. However, there are a lot of fun choices. In addition to all the manga, there is a Cinema Channel at every computer, where you can watch Japanese (and some English movies subtitled in Japanese) movies and television dramas. This summer I watched: Handsome–a movie about a restaurant owner who buys a suit that turns him into an extremely handsome man; Ramen Girl–about an American woman who persuades a strict ramen-shop owner to teach her the art of making ramen; Happy Darts–about a woman who turns her life around by learning how to play darts. …There were no English subtitles but I understood about 25% of the vocabulary of each movie and because the movies were fun comedies I understood 80% of what was going on through context.
Thousands of manga from adventure to historical are available at most manga cafes.
It is really hard to measure whether my language skills have improved over the summer. I still get tounge-twisted trying to say otherwise simple things. Following Facebook, the New York Times and talking to my daughter I surely haven’t been doing “All Japanese All the Time.” When I visited Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Kyoto, I relied on English audiotapes and explanations to make sure I bring back good information to my students. But I’ve noticed a few things. When I watch Japanese movies with Japanese subtitles that I understand what is going on twice as much thanks to my kanji and sentence study. I also struggle every now and then to find the English equivalent of words. For example,when I go to the beach my daughter uses a yukiwa or *floatation ring.* When I tried to think of the word for yukiwa in English I had to work at it, at one point simply describing it as a “personal floatation device.” I am going back to New York in three days and I wonder how much more I would have learned (and forgotten) if I had stayed longer.
Juan in his manga cafe cocoon.
Who knows? For now, I will just sign off and enjoy my last few hours in my happy little Japanese cubicle.