Mr. Turtle Head – Learning Japanese, Tips – Part One

Mr. Turtle Head – Learning Japanese, Tips – Part One

"Today please permits abrupt impoliteness. The true characteristic package stalk there is no other choice but to operate, reached the point where you can reform by your. The turtle head exposes completely in approximately 2 weeks. We complete also the repayment system when there was no effect. True characteristic package stalk special sight 'crane maquis'..."

You must be thinking "oh dear - Lloyd has flipped".

Nope, the Mr. Turtle Head passage from above is a classic unclear translation by a certain search engine Japanese->English translation program. And, as you can see, with hilarious results.

Like many other long-termers here in Japan, I stopped learning Japanese at a certain point and focused more and more on my career. And like many others, while my spoken Japanese is acceptable, my written ability is almost non-existent. Do I need to read and write Japanese to hold down a job? Well, apart from obvious things like "Do NOT press this button" I find that spoken mastery of the language for a foreigner is much more important than reading/writing skills. Unless you're a lawyer or something of course.

However, it can be helpful to have some mastery of the written language – if only so that you know the difference between rain and shine in the evening newspaper, and remember to pack an umbrella for the morning commute. Or, so that once your speaking is good enough you’ll be able to cope with clients wanting to start sending you emails in Japanese – an inevitable situation. So, unless you want to be known as a "right Turtle head", you really do need something better than a free translation engine.

Personally I have found two really excellent language tools to help me in my reading/writing studies – which still continue on. The first is a really fantastic book to help you remember Kanji, called, appropriately enough, "Remembering the Kanji", by James Heisig. Like many technical people, I'm not really a linguist and good language skills elude me. However, the way that Heisig's system imparts allegorical meanings to each Kanji, some related to the shape and etymology of the character, but most not, really works. His definitions are so fun, that they often create outrageous images in the mind’s eye that you just can't forget.

Let's take, for example, the kanji for "Juku" (塾), meaning Cram School. The character consists of what Heisig calls "primitives" (a different set to radicals), one for earth, one for tall, one for child, and one for round. In Heisig's world of the surreal, you can remember Juku by the fact that cram schools are normally full of sad kids who can only concentrate on preparing for exams. Their tall friends on the other hand are out on the (dirt) playing fields having a good time, accompanied by some neighborhood kids in need of burning off calories. And thus, the Juku is a place where the tall and fat kids are not...!

I've found that using Heisig's system, it is easy to remember up to 50 fresh Kanji in a day (6-hour sitting), well enough that you can both read and write. Yes, that's right, Heisig insists that you learn how to write, and yes, it does reinforce the character in your head.

If you're one of the types that start a Kanji study book and gives up after learning the first 800 characters, you will have a challenge ahead with learning the Kanji. Heisig has cunningly designed the book so that some of the most common characters are kept hidden until the end, thus forcing you to work your way through all 2,000 (approx.) characters listed. This definitely needs a sense of self-discipline, but with a system, you'll be amazed how quickly you can pick up the characters.

One word of warning, Remembering the Kanji Volume 1 does NOT teach you how the characters are pronounced, and thus you get the ironic situation of being able to write kanji your Japanese partner doesn't know, and yet you can't pronounce them! But all is not lost; there is also a Volume 2 for pronunciation. I just haven’t got that far yet.

Terrie Lloyd is the founder of DaiJob, Inc. He also writes a weekly newsletter for entrepreneurs and business people about business and political opportunities in Japan. You can find the newsletter at For further contact with Terrie, email him at