General Tokyo &
The bottom line: don't worry if you can't speak or read Japanese. There are many people at the Tanteidan convention who speak some English, and will go out of their way to help out. Origami is a pretty universal languaage, anyway!
That said, though, if you are completely unfamiliar with the language, you should be prepared for the potentially unsettling experience of being completely illiterate, and incapable of communicating clearly with strangers around you. Surviving this experience with grace requires patience, a relaxed attitude, and a general willingness to go with the flow.
If you are so inclined, the more you're willing to learn before you go, the more fun you'll probably have. Here are a few on-line references:
Recommendations for study materials:
Although I have not used them myself (I studied Japanese in a university classroom program) I have heard many good things about the Pimsleur system of language self-instruction. They come in a variety of levels, and have travel-specific programs, and are widely available.
If you're linguistically inclined, and highly self-motivated, I would recommend the books in the "Japanese: The Spoken Language" series (Noda and Jordan, authors; published by Yale University Press).. They are the books I used in my courses, and are an incredible resource.
There are a huge number of decent phrasebooks and pocket dictionaries on the market; pick one whose format you like. If you have a handheld computer, there are even free English <-> Japanese dictionary packages available for many operating systems. Some require customizing your handheld to display Japanese text, however, and so are probably not really appropriate for the casual traveler. Contact me for information if you're interested.
Advanced topic for the interested reader: Some notes on the writing system, or, why you can speak Japanese but still be illiterate
I'll try to be brief, but it's complicated. This is my own summary of the issues, so any errors are my own.
Japanese was a fully developed but purely spoken language (i.e. no writing system) until around 500 BC. The Japanese "borrowed" the Chinese writing system (the characters of which are now called "kanji" in modern Japanese) sometime thereafter.
The trouble is, Japanese and Chinese are, linguistically, unrelated languages, with very different grammars, and, more importantly for writing, inflectional systems for words. From what I understand of Chinese, you do not change a basic word, say, a verb, to indicate, for example, a change in tense; rather, you specify the time at which something took place, or use other helper words, or just rely on context. But, fundamentally, the sound of the main word does not change for things like tense, or number, or case, etc. Words do not have gender, either. This means you can have a symbol stand for a single word, and then you string them together appropriately as needed. (As if, in English, you could say "I went" as "[past-marker] I go".)
Japanese, on the other hand, carries much of its meaning in inflected verb forms - you create meanings for things like "want to X," "able to do X," and "will do X" or "have done X" with special verb endings. How does one represent an inflectional ending (like the "-ing" in "going" in English) if all you have is a symbol that represents "go"? Lots of things were tried, and in fact it took about 1500 years for a special syllable-based alphabet to become used for just this purpose. This script is called "hiragana." In it, each character stands for a syllable, but does not carry any meaning; the exception are certain grammatical markers that mark words as particular parts of speech. (There's a parallel script, called "katakana" which is used today primarily for writing imported or foreign words. The two scripts are collectively referred to as "kana.") So it's as if, with the English verb "going" you would have a kanji character for the root "go" and then you use the syllabic alphabet to represent the "-ing" part.
"Fine," I hear you say, "this sounds pretty reasonable." And, as far as that goes, it is. However, this "borrowing" actually happened over many centuries, and did not happen in a simple way. The symbols weren't just borrowed, whole new concepts were borrowed, for which there were no native Japanese words. To do this, new "Japanese" words were constructed, frequently consisting of the Japanese transliteration of the combined Chinese sounds for these (usually compound) words. These Chinese-based words are often found in science, religion, law and similar formal academic contexts, and have a scholarly "status" similar to Latin-based words in English. And this conceptual borrowing took place over many centuries, and the dialect of Chinese from which they were transliterated often changed, so you can have multiple sounds for a single kanji, even based on the Chinese reading. These words are extremely common, so learning these readings of kanji is fundamental to literacy.
And just to keep things interesting, even for words/concepts for which there was a native Japanese word, Chinese-based readings were created. I'm not sure why this happened - but in modern usage, usually these Chinese-based readings are used in compound word constructions, so perhaps it's related to the practice of the other Chinese-based borrowings. For instance, take the noun "mountain." There was a perfectly good native Japanese word for mountain - "yama" - before the whole writing importation thing. And, sure enough, the Japanese took the Chinese character for mountain, and it does take the reading "yama." But they also tranliterated the Chinese word for mountain as the sound "san" - and then used that reading in certain situations, like the names of mountains. Mt. Fuji is "Fuji-san" which means "Mount Fuji," not "honorable/Mr. Fuji" as some Westerners assume. (I.e. it's not the "san" you use after names, it's just "mountain" in another pronunciation.)
So, reading Japanese is complicated. This is just a very brief overview, I've left out lots of details! Adult-level literacy is extremely labor-intensive for a non-native (well, it is for a native speaker, too - they have years of school in which to study it, after all.) And true, literary-appreciation-level literacy is extremely hard to come by.
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copyright 2014 Anne R. LaVin