In Europe, you often find that you break out your most refined sentence in German, Spanish or French only to find to your dismay that they speak back to you in English. Some people may look at this as blessing. "Yea, I already know English! I don't have to learn another language!" But for those native English speakers who are looking to climb the latter to proficiency in another language, progress can be difficult when no one beside your Spanish teacher will give you a chance to actually try conversing. In Japan I've found that people are also eager to use English, but are most of the time more than happy to speak in Japanese with you, especially if it means making the communication a bit easier. Additionally, Japanese is both the language of state of the art technology, and ancient scriptures at the same time. How could you pass that up?
     If you're interested in starting on the road to learning Japanese, read on. If you already know the outline but would like some suggestions on learning/reading material; skip down Next Steps.

日本語: An Introduction

If you asked me "How many kanji do you know?" six months ago, I'd have given you a blank stare. Because I know this the case for too many in the Western World, let's start briefly from the beginning.

    The Japanese language has three scripts, all of which are important. What do I mean by "script"? I mean three different sets of characters that are used for different things throughout the language. The first, called "hiragana", and the second, called "katakana" (no not "katana" as in the samurai sword) are extremely similar to each other; we'll discuss more below. The third script, called "kanji", are somewhat different than the first two scripts.

  1. ひらがな - Hiragana - This set of 48 characters you may think of as a phonetic "alphabet". Five of them represent single vowel sounds like "a" [あ], "i" [い], "u" [う], "e" [え], "o" [お] (not so different right?). The other 43 hiragana represent combined sounds. We can think of each of these sounds as a combination of of a consonant and a vowel, such as "ka" [か],"ri" [り] or "ne" [ね]. This set is used primarily for native Japanese words (more on this in a bit), and to help Japanese children (and Japanese learners in general) to pronounce other words (such as "kanji words"). Hiragana are really just simplified versions of kanji.
  2. カタカナ - Katakana - This set also consists of 48 characters and is symmetric to hiragana with respect to the sound set. The only way that katakana is different from Hiragana is the actual drawing of the character. The lines used in katakana characters are somewhat straighter than the rounded lines used in hiragana characters. Katakana too are really just simplified versions of kanji.
  3. 漢字  - Kanji - Kanji literally means "Chinese character". Look here for the full history, but let it suffice to say here that they were imported from China and are exactly the same as the kanji used in Chinese script today. This website claims that a massive, ancient, Kanji reference book called the 和辞典 (daikanwajiten) contains 51, 109 kanji characters! In Japan however, knowing 2042 characters will allow you to read newspapers, decent books, and most names. 
So lets sum it up: