Bimoji Training for Nintendo DS

Finally a new “game” has come out for the Nintendo DS that will make me start using it again. Last night I was surfing the Nintendo channel of our Wii while putting off going to bed and came across an advertisement for 美文字トレーニング, a program that helps you improve your handwriting in Japanese. I downloaded the trial version from our Wii to my DS and was instantly hooked.

Penmanship means a lot to Japanese. From kindergarten through high school, children spend countless hours in class learning and practicing how to write properly, and even as adults people still take courses in penmanship and calligraphy. Although I’m not Japanese and never will be, I still compare myself to those around me, and everyone–including my kids–have better handwriting than I do, and it bugs me. Every time I have to put pen to paper, I’m ashamed of my chicken scratch that looks like that of a four year old stroke victim with cerebral palsy.

Here’s how it works. The program shows you a character on one of the DS’s two screens and prompts you to trace it on the other screen in the correct stroke order. When you’re done it gives you grades for balance, detail and stroke width along with praise or advice on how to improve, just like a calligraphy instructor. It covers 3,119 characters including kanji, hiragana and katakana and up to six people can keep track of their progress on one DS.

For 3,800 yen it seems well worth the price and I’m going to stop off and buy it on the way home tonight.

How many kanji do you need to know?

There are a number of official lists of kanji. I’m not an expert by any means, I’m just going by information gleamed off the net.

  • 教育漢字(kyouiku kanji): The 1oo6 characters students must learn by grade 6. Essentially, knowing these characters is a good start, but you’re far from finished.
  • 当用漢字(touyou kanji): A list of 1850 characters published first in 1946 approved for use in public documents and the media. Many characters that were in use until then were simplified; for example, 學 became 学.
  • 常用漢字(jouyou kanji): Last updated in 1981 and the successor of touyou kanji, 1945 characters that basically you ought to know as a literate adult. Used in legal and public documents, newspapers, magazines and broadcast media.
  • 新聞漢字表(shimbun kanji hyou): A standard agreed upon among newspapers based on jouyou kanji, but removing some characters and adding others. The link is to a Japanese Wikipedia article, but the explanation and outline that appears there is possibly under copyright and could be deleted from the site in the future.
  • 人名用漢字(jin meiyou kanji): Characters approved for use in people’s names. As of 2004, when the government had a heck of a time trying to update the list, there are 983 extra characters than can be used in addition to what’s already in the jouyou kanji list, or that are variants of jouyou characters, and most of them are really, really hard to read. The only way I’ll ever learn them is if I get a chip implanted in my brain someday.

Incidentally, mainland China also simplified their characters sometime after WWII but for obvious reasons they didn’t give a rat’s ass about how Japan went about doing the same thing, so in many cases the two countries simplified the same characters but in different ways.

Summing up, if you’re pretty smart, my guess is that you know around 3,000 characters or more. Multiply that number by a few factors to approximate how many readings you’d need to know for all those characters.

As for me, when reading a novel in Japanese I have to look up an average of five characters per page, and I can get through around 15 pages in 2-3 hours when I’m reading to learn. It’s tedious, frustrating, labor intensive, tiring, and makes me feel learning disabled, which is why I avoided serious studying for far too many years.

Announcing “The Japlish Podcast”

Japlish PodcastWell, I’ve put up the website with the first episode, and I think it looks really nice. All that’s left to do is convince Tony to help me create the content on a regular basis.

Here’s the concept and the reasoning behind it. Learning phrases is an important part of learning to speak a language. I find that in my mind I have a library of set phrases that I permutate into whatever I want to say. So that’s why we’re going to do phrases.

Why do silly, useless phrases? Because they’re fun, and language learning is too often the exact opposite of fun. But even if you’re learning to say something like “Please whack me in the head with a baseball bat,” you’re still learning grammar and vocabulary you’ll be able to use for real. Just not in the way we teach it.

To get started, we need your help in the form of suggestions for phrases we can teach. You can either write them here or go to the contact page at and upload an MP3 we’ll play on the show.

I don’t know if this will succeed or not because it all depends on out willingness to stick with it, and unfortunately Tony inherited from me the tendency to not finish what he starts. But if it does, the idea is to offer the first two month’s worth of lessons for free, then maybe start charging (to support our video game habit).

Other phrases I’ve thought of:

  • Stop picking my nose.
  • I’d like to drink your bath water. (sure-fire pickup line)
  • My favorite food is monkey brains.
  • Oops, I pooped my pants again.
  • Excuse me, I found this eyeball. Is it yours?
  • I learned many magic tricks while I was in prison.
  • When I grow up, I want to be a serial killer/garbage man/gas station attendant
  • I made you a bracelet from my leg hairs. I hope you like it.
  • I ate a rat for lunch.
  • I haven’t showered in three months. Don’t I smell nice?
  • Please stop licking my armpit. It tickles.

Free online Japanese lessons

A website called Mango, for some unknown reason, is offering free, high-quality, Flash-based language lessons in nine different languages, including Japanese. I took a quick look and there are 101 lessons for Japanese alone, and they teach you in hiragana from lesson one. Hover your cursor over hiragana words and it shows the phonetic pronunciation in English.

Lord only knows why the site is free and doesn’t have any advertising. Maybe from lesson 102 they’re going to teach you how to shop for Coca-Cola at Wal-Mart.

Update #1: Ha! I was right! A little Googling turned up this press release:

The site plans to offer free service through revenue generated by paid advertising as site traffic grows. That is planned to include both banner advertising and “product placement” within the actual language lessons. For example, instead of teaching someone to say “I would like to order a soda” in another language, someone would be taught “I would like to order a Coca-Cola.”

Update #2: Check out my Japlish Podcast with my son Tony.

Oh. My. God. (Unbelievably bad kanji tattoos)

I just came across a blog called “Hanzi Smatter,” which chronicles the butchering of Chinese and Japanese writing in the west.

Oh. My. God.

I can’t stop repeating that over and over as I see some of the tattoos people have gotten. They’re so horrible they’re not funny.

Chinese Tattoo Let’s use this one for an example. It’s no better or worse than any of the others, and that’s what’s so horrifying. It’s really, really bad.

First we have an old character for “money.” One of those big ancient coins, I think. Next, “fugu,” “buku” which means “poisonous blowfish.” absolutely nothing. Next, “a.” (Just the sound “ah.” No meaning whatsoever.) After that, “ouch.” And finally, “love”. Roughly translated, this means, “I’m a complete imbecile.”

Not even to mention the font. It looks like it came out of an inkjet printer.

Honestly, I don’t know what to say. I mean, I see people all the time here wearing T-shirts with English gibberish on them, but for chrissake, they can take the damn things off at the end of the day and throw them in the wash.

If anyone out there has a kanji tattoo, please, don’t ever ask me to translate it. Don’t even show it to me. After seeing so many really, really bad ones, I get the feeling that there’s probably no such thing as a “good one.”

Crazy Japanese podcast

Tell me what you think of this idea.

Last weekend when Oliver was visiting, Tony and I started playing a new game. I’d say something totally insane in English like, “May I please poke your eyes out with my chopsticks?” or “I made you a bracelet from my nosehair. I hope you like it,” and he’d translate it into Japanese. Or he’d say something equally strange in Japanese (usually having to do with poop, because he’s nine years old) and I’d say it in English.

Would this work as a podcast with audience participation? I think it would be a fun way to learn English/Japanese. Of course we’d keep it clean. Believe it or not, Tony still doesn’t know bad words in English, and I want to keep it that way. Although he did say to my mother once when he was about two years old, “You’re a FIRE BITCH!” He was just putting sounds together, and that’s what came out. You should have seen the look on her face. Priceless.


Nothing too interesting here, but I managed to fix my home PC this morning. I guess the C drive is starting to crap out intermittently. It probably got stuck or overheated, and when the machine rebooted the BIOS couldn’t find it and promoted the next drive on the list to startup. All I had to do was designate the correct drive as the boot drive and it worked.

I warned you, not interesting.

Speaking of not interesting, lately I’ve been spending all my weeknights in a Starbucks somewhere, reading the Japanese translation of Catcher in the Rye. Had I not lost my iPod I probably wouldn’t have bought the book. I use my retro-cool Sony Clie as an electronic dictionary (it kicks the Nintendo DS’s ass eight ways into next Thursday) and footnote all the new words and phrases in red pen. On the train home (usually the last one) I re-read everything and try to think of ways I’d use in daily life the phrases that are new to me, so that I’m “owning” them instead of just trying to memorize them.

The company I work for is in negotiations with a major international publisher to produce a podcast for them. One of the biggest publishers in the world by far, but you’ll never guess in a million years which one, and when I can finally tell you you’ll smack yourself in the forehead. I can’t even give you a hint. I won’t be the voice, just the producer, and when you find out who the publisher is you’ll understand why. If all goes well, it’ll start in July.

The HairCutCast

Wow, youse guys are so lucky! Two and a half podcasts flom Japan in one weekend! Oh how I envy you.

There are photos in the gallery. The truth is they’ve been there for quite a while.

Some of the topics of discussion I had with the woman who cut my hair:

  • I am a podcaster. That’s why I took all those photos while I was waiting, and it’s also why I have microphones in my ears.
  • She never heard of podcasting, but she knows about MP3 players.
  • She said, “So this is kind of like watching a video clip filmed while riding a roller coaster and feeling like you’re there, eh?”
  • She’s still using Windows 98. Needs to upgrade but not looking forward to the pain of transferring all her programs to a new computer. The other day she cut a guy’s hair who said he has three PCs that are still running Windows 95. I said he must really like it.
  • Until 8 years ago, it was illegal to run a shop like QB House because of strict sanitary regulations. Also, the minimum price for a haircut was regulated. ($30-$40 minimum) In fact, the association for hair cutters still requires members to fix their prices. QB House isn’t a member.
  • The 300th QB House in Japan will open soon. There are stores in other countries too. She mentioned Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong.
  • You get to keep the comb.

QB House links:

  • Business is booming. The number of customers is in orange, the number of stores in blue
  • The “service unit.” Nice and sterile sounding, eh? You can hold your mouse over areas of the image to see explanations most of you won’t be able to read. But it’s cool because it’s in Japanese, right?
  • The next generation cutting station will include a video monitor to bombard customers with advertisements deliver various information to customers.
  • Employment info. Full time employees make about US $22-45,000 a year. Part-timers make $10/hr and up, which means the company is really raking in money, but keep in mind that rent and electricity here are quite expensive.