Perry gets a letter

Dear bear friends:

Have I introduced my good friend, Miss Brighid? Miss Brighid is Miss Cynthia's little girl, onlys he's not little! She's all grown up and goes to college. Miss Brighid is studying anthropology and she is VERY smart.

Miss Brighid has many friends among the Japanese exchange students at her university, and some of them have asked to receive my letters! This is very exciting: an American bear in Japan is writing to Japanese students living in the U.S.

Welcome to Hiroko, Shunsuke, Nao and Kanako--I hope you will correct me when I make a mistake!

Miss Brighid has sent me a letter, all about Japanese writing. It is so good that I want to share it with you today! Here is what she wrote:

Dear Perry Bear,

What a fun trip you are having. I will tell you a few things, quickly and simply, since I know your days are very busy. Here's a few things regarding words. The funny comic books are spelled manga (it's rare I get to correct your spelling, since I am a far worse speller than Cynthia :)

A word which you can use to be cute in Tokyo with young people is "ikachii" (pronounced ee-kah-cheeee), which means "cool," or "groovy."

Also, you commited a small faux paw (get it?) by using the word "gaijin" to refer to yourself. It's hard to explain, but polite Japanese would feel a little hesitant about using gaijin around a foreigner, because it might make them feel bad. It's a little like the difference between foreigner and alien. There is a polite word, but I can't remember it right now.

As for the history of Japanese writing:

There are actually 4 systems of writing used and understood by Japanese. The first are the Chinese characters called "kanji" which were brought from China at the begining of the middle ages (I can't remember it was the 7th or 8th century). During this time many ideas and things came to Japan from China, like Buddhism and kimonos. Kanji look like little pictures and are very hard to write. Each kanji character stands for a whole word or idea, and they are very complex. The Japanese use around 10,000 of these Chinese characters (according to my friends)!

The second kind of writing used in Japan is called "hiragana." Hiragana is a "syllabary" not an alphabet. That means that each letter stands for a whole sound (like ka, ke, ki, ko, or ku), not just a vowel like "A" or a consonant like "B". Hiragana is much easier to write than kanji (Chinese characters). Each hiragana letter looks like a graceful little scribble or doodle. Hiragana was invented by Japanese poets about a thousand years ago so that people could write down the sounds of the Japanese language, not just ideas like in the Chinese kanji. Many of these pioneering poets were women.

The third kind of Japanese writing is called "katakana." Katakana is easier than hiragana to write, because each letter is like a little dash or a curve. Katakana is ONLY used to write words which are foreign. Katakana makes it easier for Japanese to say words like "bear", "Perry," or "Hello Kitty," because it's made specifically for foreign sounds. It's more like our alphabet than kanji (Chinese characters) or hiragana (Japanese syllables).

The last kind of writing which they use in Japan are the same Roman letters we use in English! The Japanese started using these when they began to trade with America and Europe in the 1800's. (The man who first convinced the Japanese to open their country was an American admiral named... Perry!) Roman letters are really only used so foreigners can read Japanese words, and because they look "neat" or "cool" to some Japanese. They don't usually use Roman letters because it is much faster to write in Japanese using hiragana.

Japanese can use all four kinds of writing together (kanji, hiragana, katakana, and Roman) in a sentence. But they usually only use kanji (Chinese) and hiragana (syllables) unless they are talking about a foriegn word. It looks very confusing to us to see so many different kinds of letters and characters in one sentence, but for the Japanese it is normal, since they have used these different kinds of writing all their lives.

The Japanese also use little symbols to express their feelings, like little hearts if they are feeling love. Americans are beginning to do this, too, with our little smiley faces and frowns called "emoticons" which are used on the internet :) All these different kinds of writing let the Japanese say many things and express their feelings in a very beautiful way.

Perry, I hope all that helps you figure out Japanese writing and tell it to the little kids. I hope you are having a good time and talk to many Japanese. They probably all think you are "kawaii" (ka-wa-EEEE), which means cute.

Look out for Sailor Moon and Haru Kiti (Hello Kitty)!


Perry writing again:

Isn't Miss Brighid smart? I didn't know that Japanese children learn FOUR different writing systems.

However, I have decided to make a Perry emoticon. Are you ready? Here it is!


That's me, smiling (with ears)

Your bear friend,

Perry Bear Ewer

Perry's Travels: