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Thread: The Japanese and world history

  1. #1
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    The Japanese and world history

    At school, Japanese people have to choose whether they learn Japanese history, world history or geography. Among my acquaintances, the most popular is Japanese history. When I ask them why they chose it, the same answer comes almost every time : "I can't remember all those foreign names in Katakana".

    What I am wondering is why the Japanese are taught foreign names (e.g. Western ones) in Katakana instead or Romaji (Latin character). They do learn romaji before the Kanji, and it should be easier for them to learn a name in romaji than an old Japanese name in kanji with readings that are not used anymore. Apart from English and French names, most western names have very regular readings, and those in Latin, Italian, Spanish or Portuguese should not be more difficult for them to pronounce than for Italiand or Spaniards to pronounce each others names or Japanese names.

    When Westerners learn Western history, they also have to learn names in languages they find difficult to read or pronounce. But often there is a "translation" adapted to the language's pronunciation. For example, Julius Caesar will become "Jules Cesar" in French (pronounced something like "Jul Sayzar"), and "Giulio Cesare" in Italian (pronounced something like "Joolio Chezaray"). The Latin original is anyway Iulius Caesar (pronounced Yoolioos Ka-ayzar"). The Japanese use the Latin version as it is the original. However, when it comes to English or French names, keeping the original pronuciation in Katakana is often virtually impossible. That's when finding a nice sounding alternative instead of a strange Katakana transliteration imcomprehensible to Westerners and Japanese alike becomes useful.

    But I really wonder how the Japanese choose to render some more international people's name. Take Emperor Charles V of Habsburg, the greatest ruler Europe has had after the Roman Empire and before Napoleon. His father was Austrio-French and his mother Spanish. He was born and raised in Dutch speaking Flanders with French and Latin as his educational languages. As ruler of of Austria and Holy Roman Emperor (of Germany), he spoke German fulently as well. He then became king of Spain, including about half of Italy that was then under Spanish rule. His Latin name was Carolus Quintus, but Latin was already an virtually dead language at the time, so nobody calls him like that. The French call him Charles Quint, maybe the only case of a ruler with the V (normally "cinq" in French) is read after a corruption of the Latin "Quintus". In German, he is "Karl der Fuenfte", in Dutch "Karel de vijfste" and in Spanish "Carlos primero" (Charles I) because he was in fact the first "Charles" ruling Spain. So how do the Japanese call him and why ? (or for that matters, the Koreans, Chinese, or other Asians)

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  2. #2
    Resident Realist nice gaijin's Avatar
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    I think a part of the problem stems from the trouble adult Japanese people have with pronouncing foreign names, due to the lack of instruction at an early age. When we grow and develop, we adapt the way we speak to those around us, and learn how to shape our mouths, use our tongues, lips, throat and nasal passage to form the syllables we mimic. Japanese is missing a lot of the syllables present in other languages, and real instruction starts too late to familiarize students with those foreign pronunciations, hence that thick accent that takes years of immersion to shed.

    I think having foreign names in roman characters would be a great step towards getting Japanese kids to properly pronounce those names and learn some of those lost syllables (and would probably be easier to remember since they'd stand out so much more from the rest of the text) but I think at first it would still be the same issue; the students would have trouble pronouncing and committing to memory all of those foreign names, and until they were accustomed to the correct pronunciation, they would use the same old katakana pronunciations.

  3. #3
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    In my experience as a teacher so far I have found that most Japanese do not know ANY foreign geography at all. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but there are children who don't know where France or England is. Its somewhat shocking. Methinks the problem stems to the system piling work upon young people and basically drowning them in it.
    Brush Painting, Kanji, Bukatsu, Juku, then throw english romanji and kana on the pile... What about kids just being kids ??

    as far as charles the 5th, its an excellent example, since most japanese I know have zero knowledge about eu history. Except perhaps some meiji stuff about borrowing english and german systems to help modernize the country. They won't know the data of columbus' crossing, or De Gama's discoveries or Magellan's voyage, or for that matter the birth of industrialization, the creation of working capital and use of credit.

    There is almost too much to learn AND do the other things I addressed above.

  4. #4
    Twirling dragon Maciamo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by donpaulo
    In my experience as a teacher so far I have found that most Japanese do not know ANY foreign geography at all. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but there are children who don't know where France or England is.
    I also noticed great ignorance in that regard in Japan, but also in places like Australia.

    Methinks the problem stems to the system piling work upon young people and basically drowning them in it.
    Brush Painting, Kanji, Bukatsu, Juku, then throw english romanji and kana on the pile... What about kids just being kids ??
    I have always been surprised by the number of hours Japanese kids spend at school, in juku (cram schools), yobiko (prep schools), taking private lessons or studying in libraries, trains or at home, and yet they don't seem to learn anything or forget everything once the exam passed (what's the point of studying then ?). In comparison, I studied in average 30min a WEEK outside regular school in all my school years before university and never had any problem passing exams, and I still remember most of it as if it was just a few months ago.

    I think one of the big problems is that Japanese kids are not taught how to study and remember, not the value of knowledge for itself - as opposed to stupidly study to pass the exam, which is the most useless thing one could do during their school years. The funny thing is that I had many subjects that are not included in the Japanese curriculum at all (Latin, 3 modern languages, morals, philosophy, etc.), and yet have a much better general knowledge, managed to speak 3 foreign languages (some I had for only 2 years) better than most Japanese speak English after 6 years. All this with maths-sciences oriented studies and despite the fact that I disliked studying and rarely studied at home at all at the time. So either it is the system that is terribly bad or it is their heads.

    Then Japanese teachers all have to teach in the exact same boring and non pedagogic way. I have experienced teaching in Japanese jukus, and I was scolded by the director for teaching small children to write the alphabet the way I have learnt it, i.e. in hand writing and block letters, both in capital and small letters. I was told to write exactly the same fonts as those in the book, in other words in "print" with detached letters, a way that I was taught was never written by hand. No wonder the Japanese I have met couldn't read most Westerners' hand writing, or have problems reading some unusual PC fonts.

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