Japanese, Rhythm and Learning Hiragana

Table hiragana

I live in a small home in north Seattle, which is behind another house. We are friends with the neighbors in front of us, and the daughter is now in college (she was in high-school when we first moved in), and very interested in Japanese culture. Recently, we came home and the neighbor’s daughter asked if my wife could help her with her homework. She had just started learning Japanese language in college, and was struggling with hiragana script. I had learned Japanese in college too, so I could sympathize with her. That inspired me to write this post.

Nowadays, I am very comfortable reading and writing hiragana.1 It took me a long time, but now it feels pretty natural, and my daughter can read and write hiragana naturally too (plus some kanji). Looking back, I have a better appreciation for hiragana and why it’s so important for Japanese language, so I wanted to share some insights with other language students.

First, hiragana is a syllabary, not an alphabet. Each “letter” in hiragana actually represents a full syllable in Japanese. This is different than English. In English, the word “three” is a single syllable, but has 5 letters, while “through” has 7!. Similarly, “ought” is one syllable, and the pronunciation is different than similar-looking words like “tough” or “through”. The combination of letters determines how to pronounce it, and even then, it’s not always consistent. English is painful that way.

But hiragana is different. What you see is what you get, with a couple, minor exceptions. So for example か is always the syllable “ka”. It doesn’t matter if it is at the beginning, middle or end, it’s always “ka”. Other characters like せ (se), む (mu) and て (te) are the same way: very constant, never changing.

This is very important too because each syllable in Japanese has equal weight. A frequent mistake that Westerners make, especially us Americans, is to slur syllables together and stress them when they shouldn’t. For example, when saying “hello” or “konnichiwa”, Westerners often say ko-NI-chi-wa. The first “n” is missing, and there’s too much stress on the “ni”. But this is a hard habit to break for English speakers. Using the example of “three”, it’s five letters, but it blends together into a single sound, a single syllable.

But in Japanese every syllable, each hiragana character, is one beat. No more, no less. For example, the word for Taiwan in Japanese is also taiwan, but is written as たいわん, which is four letters, four beats: ta-i-wa-n Try saying each one as a single beat. That’s much closer to how Japanese pronounce it. In English, Taiwan is two beats, “tai” and “wan”, but in Japanese, it is four.

Another, more advanced example is the phrase かわさきにいくとおもう kawasaki ni iku to omou (I think he/she will go to Kawasaki City).2 When you see this, you should think in terms of hiragana like so:

か わ さ き に い く と お も う
ka wa sa ki ni i ku to o mo u

Better yet, try clapping each beat by yourself. Make sure you give each hiragana character a single beat. It feels a bit strange, but once you get used to this, it helps you pronounce Japanese better because you aren’t blending sounds anymore. Each one is distinct and has equal weight.

But how do you memorize hiragana in the first place? When I first learned Japanese in college, the teacher gave us two weeks to learn all hiragana, and there was nothing to do but just memorize it. It sucks, but on the other hand, once you learn it once, you do’nt have to learn it again. Fortunately, nowadays, there are a lot of good materials for learning hiragana.

Also, it helps to know how they’re organized. If you look at the chart above, they are organize in rows (or sometimes columns) based on how they rhyme. All the “a” (ah) kana are in one row. All the “e” (eh) kana are in the same row, etc. There’s even a childrens songs that helps you memorize this:

Notice how each verse rhymes, just like in the chart above. So, if you struggle to memorize hiragana, try learning a song.

Also, based on personal experience, the best way to memorize is to read very basic Japanese material, like books for newborns, or something like White Rabbit’s Graded Reader series. When I was living in Ireland, and first studyign Japanese, I started with series 1 and read all the way through series 5, and this helped my reading a lot. Hiragana felt much more natural after that.

Anyhow, this is just personal advice, so take it with a grain of salt. But there’s a few pointers I would liek to share:

  • Remember: hiragana are syllables, not letters.
  • Each one is exactlly one “beat”.
  • They frequently rhyme with each other.

Good luck!

P.S. The two kana ゐ (wi) and ゑ (we) are archaic. They are never used anymore, but do appear in ancient poetry like the Hyakunin Isshu sometimes.

1 I still have bad handwriting though, both in English and Japanese. ;)

2 This is why Kanji are useful by the way: it lets you separate words. The same sentence above would normally read: 川崎に行くと思う。Once you learn how to read Kanji, this is much more readable, even without spaces.

Posted in Japanese, Language | Leave a comment

Pumpkin Patch 2014

Hi Everyone,

Halloween is fast approaching, so my family and I went to a pumpkin patch recently. The purpose, of course, is to buy pumpkins!


We went to the same farm as last year: Bob’s Corn. We like this pumpkin because it is close to Seattle, doesn’t charge for entrance, and isn’t too big or too small. They have a great corn maze for children:

Corn Maze at Bob's Corn

Cornstalks are actually very tall, if you’ve never seen them. Here’s a photo of me next to corn:


Last year, my wife was pregnant with our son, and was very tired. This year, I was carrying the baby. ;p He’s much bigger now, so my arms got very tired. Also, this year, autumn has been unusually warm and sunny so we got pretty tired and hot, and the baby was getting cranky, so we had to stop and take a break.

Also, this year, to save money, we brought our own food (we had to bring food for the baby anyway) but we did buy some delicious apple cider, kettle corn and corn of course. The corn was delicious and very cheap (13 corn for $6), so we gave some to friends and neighbors too. Kettle corn is very addicting. Once you start eating, you can’t stop. I think I ate one-third of the bag the next day. ;)

Anyhow, it’s fun to go to a farm like this because you can pick your own pumpkins out. This is a photo from last-year of the pumpkin field:


My daughter, “Princess”, loves to pick out pumpkins. We picked out several pumpkins and put them in the wheelbarrow where Little Guy was sitting:


Little Guy really liked the pumpkins. He takes one small pumpking and stacks it on another. My daughter bought several small pumpkins and made a “pumpkin family” (daddy, mommy, older sister and younger brother ;) ), so she is taking care of them now.

It’s really nice to take kids to farms like this. It helps them learn how food is grown (and makes them appreciate things more), it’s good excercise and fresh air too. Little Guy gets a bit dirty, but it’s good for kids to get a little dirty sometimes too.1 :)

1 I read an article on the BBC recently that said that many childhood allergies are caused by kids not getting enough exposure to germs, so their immune-system panics. Kids don’t get out as much as earlier generations, so this is probably making their health weaker. So, we let our kids play and explore more now.

Posted in Family, Seattle, Travel | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Letters of Nichiren to Women Followers


Recently while on a trip to Portland, OR, I stopped at the famous Powell’s City of Books, which is a huge, local bookstore that is very popular too. It was a great bookstore and I found lots of useful books that are hard to find elsewhere. In the Buddhism section I found a rare book on the letters of Nichiren published by Nichiren-Shu press, not the fringe Nichiren Shoshu and SGI publishers. Most Nichiren books in English are published by the latter.

Anyhow, the book is titled the nyonin gosho (女人御書) which is a collection of Nichiren’s letters to women followers. The book is bi-lingual, so the pages on the left are English, while the pages on the right are the Japanese version. The book was high quality and surprisingly readable.

It’s also a rare chance to read Nichiren’s letters in English from more mainstream Buddhist sources, and I’ve read several letters already. The letters give a lot of insight to Nichiren’s personality, some positive, some negative, so I wanted to post a few interesting quotations.

One of the interesting letters was to a female disciple he named Nichimyō Shonin (日妙上人) who was living alone in Kamakura, raising her infant daughter by herself. Her husband had been absent for a long time, and was not trustworthy. She was deeply devoted to Nichiren and even visited him (carrying her daughter) on Sado Island when he was in exile. Nichiren was deeply moved and wrote in 1272:


It is about 250 miles from Kamakura to Sato. You have to cross steep mountains and a swift ocean. Winds and storms attack you enroute, and the way is full of bandits and pirates….Besides, you have a small child, and you cannot depend on your husband. You have been long separated from him. I feel so sorry for you that I cannot continue to write. I do not know what to say, so I will close here.

Nichiren was unusual in his treatment of women. Most of his letters were addressed to women, not men, and frequently contained praise of women using examples from the Lotus Sutra. In this letter to Wife of Lord Shijō Kingo he writes:


Reading all Buddhist scripts other than the Lotus Sutra, I don’t want to be a woman. Some sutras say women are messengers of hell, other sutras say women are like a serpent or a bent tree, while still other sutras say that their seeds of Buddhahood are toasted….But it is only the Lotus Sutra that declares: “A woman who upholds this sutra is superior to not only other women but also men.

On the other hand, you can see Nichiren at times being kind of smug and abrasive, such as this letter to Lady Oto:


You remember how arrogant people today were before the Mongol invasion of Japan, but ever since last October, no one has been haughty. As you heard, I, Nichren, was the only one who predicted the foreign invasion….This [invasion] is solely because this nation let the priests of Shingon, Pure Land, and Ritsu Sects criticize me, who is the messenger of Shakyamuni Buddha and the practicer of the Lotus Sutra.

Anyhow, the letters of Nichiren to his female followers has been a fascinating read. It shows many sides to Nichiren, some progressive and noble, others kind of petty and abrasive. One thing is for sure, Nichiren was really committed to what he believed, and wouldn’t let popular trends and politics of the time affect his thinking:


Some people, who do not understand me, may call me self-conceited for what I say. I am not self-conceited. As a practitioner of the Lotus Sutra, I must speak out.

I hope to post more letters in the future. Although I don’t consider myself a Nichiren Buddhist, I do feel that awareness and studies of Nichiren Buddhism have been somewhat behind in the West, so I hope to get more information out. :)

Posted in Buddhism, Nichiren | 2 Comments

Autumn is here! Poem Number 69


Happy Friday, everyone! This autumn, the weather in Seattle has been pleasant and warm, and I’m excited for the coming of Halloween and Thanksgiving. So, to share in the joy, I wanted to share this poem from my other blog. Enjoy!

Originally posted on The Hyakunin Isshu:

Ceramic daylight (1910314548)

My favorite season, Autumn, is fast approaching so I thought this would be a good poem:

あらし吹く Arashi fuku
三室の山の Mimuro no yama no
もみぢ葉は Momijiba wa
龍田の川の Tatsuta no kawa no
にしきなりけり Nishiki nari keri

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

It’s the autumn leaves
of the hills of Mimuro,
where the tempests blow,
that are the woven brocade floating
on the waters of Tatsuta River!

The author, N?in H?shi (“Dharma Master” N?in, b. 988) was originally Tachibana no Nagayasu until the age of 26 when he took tonsure. From there, he traveled the provinces, composing poetry and contributed to various anthologies at the time. Because he was not tied to a politically prominent temple, he had more freedom than other monks in the Capitol to roam the countryside and write in his travels.

Professor Mostow notes that this poem is unusual because it’s very straightforward with no hidden wordplay…

View original 226 more words

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What is Eagle Talon?

While in Japan, I was watchign TV with my daughter when I saw this strange, but hilarious show called taka no tsume (鷹の爪) which means “Eagle Talon” or “Hawk Talon”, whatever.1 Apparently, according to Wikipedia, the show started as an online Flash-animation show by one man. He took stock characters from video games and other sources, and reversed roles: the superhero was the rude, arrogant bad buy, while the “bad guys” were actually heroes.

Unfortunately, there is no English translation, but you can see it here:

One of the main good guys looks like M. Bison from Street Fighter in my opinion. Anyhow, in this episode, the “hero” Deluxe Fighter is visiting elderly people for Keiro no Hi (敬老の日, “Respect for the Aged Day”). One of elderly ladies mistakes him for someone she fondly remembers, but when he acts differently, she gets annoyed. He almost blasts her a couple times, but then decides to play along. In the end, she is dying and admits that she know he was only pretending, but appreciates the effort so she gives him all the money she saved up, which was millions of yen. Just as she dies, the good guys revive her with a special raygun and she lives, thus Deluxe Man loses the inheritence money and blasts everyone.

It’s a very silly show, but fun to watch even if you only undersatnd a little Japanese. I watch it on Youtube regularly.2


P.S. Sorry guys, I accidentally hit ‘publish’ button on this post. I’ve re-written this. :)

1 The Japanese word for “eagle” is washi as far as I know, so I think the English title is slightly mistranslated. Then again, Hawk Talon is awkward to say. :p

2 Unlike Korean media, Japanese media is usually very strict about licensing and it’s hard for people outside Japan to see it. But thankfully Eagle Talon is different.

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Buddhism and Vegetarianism According to Venerable Sheng-Yen

Hi guys,

I just wanted to share this video from the famous Chinese monk, Sheng-Yen (聖嚴, died in 2009) about Buddhism and vegetarianism:

I liked this video because it was pretty balanced. He lays out some good, valid reasons why some Buddhists are vegetarian, but he also lays out reasons why some are not. A lot of it depends on which Buddhist tradition, and also the circumstances in your life. It’s a voluntary, pious practice, but not required in Buddhism (unless you belong to some monastic orders).

Anyhow, enjoy!

Posted in Buddhism, Cooking | Leave a comment

Looking Back at the 1999 Seattle Protest of the WTO

In the past weeks, I’ve been closely watching the situation in Ferguson, Missouri and now in Hong Kong on Twitter and the news. Coincidentally, I found some old photos I took from the 1999 WTO protest here in Seattle, and wanted to share them for comparison. It’s interesting how some things have changed (communication, technology) and how some things remain the same (protests and efforts to contain them).

I was in my college years then, and was an idealistic, politically-active young man. Years have passed, and Buddhism, parenting and my experiences in Hanoi, Vietnam1 have tempered this over time, but it’s interesting to look back and remember my life 15 years ago. At the time, I was living not far from the local university, and when the protests started, I decided to take the bus downtown and see for myself. I only had a cheap, portable camera, so these photos are low-quality, but since no one had camera-phones back then, I hope they prove useful for history.

I grew up in the Seattle area, but I was surprised when I arrived downtown; it looked so different. All the major downtown streets were shutdown, and you saw lots of protestors like this:

WTO protest sign

Also, the police had come out in force to block access to the meeting:

WTO police line 3

By the time I arrived, the violence had already ended. However, things were very tense. At one point, I was with a crowd at 5th avenue, between Pike and Union and I remember we were standing face to face with the police here:

Sitting at the police line

We sat down (I took this photo while sitting), starting humming some song (I forget what), and trying to convince the police to join us. They were unfazed, and eventually I left and started looking around elsewhere.

Eventually I ran into these guys, the Anarchists:

Anarchists at WTO protest

The one woman on the left spotted me, so I didn’t stay long.2 But they were getting ready to do more protests. You can see their handiwork here:

WTO Anarchist vandalism

Again, I wandered around for a while. I think this is Pine Avenue facing south, again blocked by the police:

Police Line

Midday, there was a large parade that went through and I remember seeing many, many different political groups marching together: trade unions, environmentalists, feminists, socialists, etc. I even saw a parade girls who were protesting topless and wearing body-paint. This wasn’t nearly as exciting as you might think. :P

By afternoon, things started to die down for a while. There was a lot of heckling of the police, who didn’t push people out of downtown until evening,3 but neither side really moved. You could hear Bob Marley music playing at one street corner, Anarchists wandering around, curious people like myself, and some very strange “fringe people” in general. One strange guy kept making crow-cawing noises at the police. I couldn’t figure out why he was doing that, and I didn’t like his vibe. Anyhow, after hours of this, people were getting tired or bored. Somehow I managed to miss the violence both in the morning and evening, so I have no interesting pictures.

However, I hope that readers will find comparisons between now and then interesting. You can see the rest of the album here.

So, was it worth it?

For me, it was my first and only experience with a mass-protest like that. I was definitely opposed to the WTO, and free trade, and I still am because I feel it’s hurting smaller businesses and small farmers. The NY Times has a good, balanced article from 2013 on the subject. Lenin’s work Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism was written 98 years ago, but still remains eerily true of the world economy now:

As long as capitalism remains what it is, surplus capital will be utilised not for the purpose of raising the standard of living of the masses in a given country, for this would mean a decline in profits for the capitalists, but for the purpose of increasing profits by exporting capital abroad to the backward countries. In these backward countries profits are usually high, for capital is scarce, the price of land is relatively low, wages are low, raw materials are cheap. The export of capital is made possible by a number of backward countries having already been drawn into world capitalist intercourse; main railways have either been or are being built in those countries, elementary conditions for industrial development have been created, etc.

On the other hand, I also feel that change is inevitable, and sometimes change is pretty painful. For example, when the automobile was invented, the horse and carriage industry probably suffered greatly. However, the concentration of power and risk of exploitation is definitely a cause for concern 15 years ago, and it still is today, and will probably remain that way 200, 500 or 1,000 years from now when we are all dead and are bones are dust.

Thus, it is an ever-present struggle: to assert the needs of the people and restore balance where needed. The key is to remember why we do it. If we do it out of rage or anger, we pay the price in the long-run. If we do it for the betterment of younger-generations and the community, then people will be benefit.

At least, that’s my opinion. Opinions are like noses: everyone has one. :)

1 I am often reminded of a quote from the TV Show, Babylon 5, where the character G’kar warns his people not to overthrow a dictator and setup another one. I am unable to find the quote though, alas.

2 I’ve never been a confrontational person. Some might say I am a bit of a coward. :)

3 I had left by this time. Walking around downtown all day made me tired and hungry, and I think my wife was getting worried about me. No great revolutionary, am I.

Posted in Politics, Seattle | 6 Comments