February 19, 2011 | Japanese

Another Conversation Partner

We talk about trees, the weather, and Japanese housewives' fondness for Korean movie stars.

Today I met another conversation partner from Japan, Koji, at a local café. He is in his twenties and works for a Japanese financial firm with offices in New York City.

I found him to be quite a good teacher. He was strict. He made me speak Japanese by asking me questions I could handle, about the weather and similarly simple topics. And responded to my primitive Japanese questions in Japanese. Which is good, because my listening skills are bad.

He also showed me some kanji. Again, kanji is the Japanese writing system based on symbols of Chinese origin, which I don’t know at all, having been deterred by the need to learn several thousand symbols versus the mere dozens required to grasp the kana syllabaries.

Trees, Riverside Park

He wrote “tree” for me in Japanese. (Are you allowed to use the word “draw” for the act of writing kanji? It is like art.) Anyway, the kanji for “tree” looks like a little tree. And all the different tree types (birch, oak, etc.), Koji explained, include the tree symbol in their written names. You can see how this works here

He next showed me “forest,” which is three of those tree symbols in a little pyramid arrangement. Then he showed me something in between, a pair of the “tree” kanji side by side, and told me that the pair represents something between a tree and a forest. I tried to come up with a word in English that consists of more than one tree but not as many as would be in a forest.

I couldn’t. Because as soon as we started talking trees and forests, the saying “I can’t see the forest for the trees” started rolling repeatedly through my head and blocking out all my other tree vocabulary. I am pretty hopeless on greenery anyway.

With the benefit of a Google search later, I found “grove.” And here you can see Japanese for grove (two tree symbols) and forest (three).

Me As an Actual Kindergartener (Yeah, I Was Short on Artwork Today)

Me As an Actual Kindergartener (Yeah, I Was Short on Artwork Today)

During our meeting I told Koji that a few Japanese people have looked at me like I’m a small child when I’ve tried to write things in kana.

Japanese texts consist of a mixture of kanji, hiragana, and katakana, with the overwhelming majority being kanji, I believe. Little kids learn hiragana and katakana first, and then kanji. Since I am writing only in kana, I come across as infantile, apparently.

“I am like a kindergartner,” I told Koji.

Later in the conversation he said no, more like an elementary school student.


Koji told me Korean movie stars are popular with Japanese housewives. He said some housewives will actually travel to Korea to try to meet them. 

Details such as these would be tough to find in my Japanese books. 

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