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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Writing Japanese Hiragana - A Book Review

When I was asked by Tuttle Publishing to provide a review for their recently revised Writing Japanese Hiragana workbook written by Jim Gleeson, I must admit I had quite a bit of trepidation.

Despite writing about Japan these past six years, I haven't been to Japan in 22 years and certainly haven't used any of the language skills I almost picked up while there.

When I arrived in 1990, I did indeed do the typical newbie thing and try and learn the language.

It took me a couple of weeks, but I learned to recognize and write all the letters within both katakana and hiragna alphabets, while eventually learning about 500 kanji alphabet after that first month.

I was a spunky bugger and did my best to try and get right into communicating with the Japanese... the thing is... you still have to learn vocabulary - actual words... and aside from accumulating a large Japanese vocabulary that would provide me with an IQ of 47, I also struggled mightily to put what I had learned into every day use.

I could have used Jim Gleeson's book: Writing Japanese Hiragana.

It is indeed, as the cover states, an introductory Japanese language workbook.

So... to provide you with a proper review, I decided I would follow the guidelines as set out by Gleeson to try and re-learn Hiragana... an alphabet I recognize but as of 2015 can't read.

It's been two weeks now, and following the workbook, I have learned. And, I think, learned well.

I began by relearning the five Japanese vowels - because that's where the workbook starts... it came back to me quite easily - except I was surprised to learn that my pen strokes were NOT in the order that Gleeson and Japan insist on. Oops! But I learned.

Then came the review. But the review also involved letters I had not yet (the beginner) learned.

'To meet a friend' was the written example... and showed the romaji way (tomodachi ni au) as well as the hiragana form of it, providing me with a workspace to practice writing the word 'au', which means 'to meet'.

That was good. My only complaint is that while it provided an English definition for 'au', it did NOT provide a translation for 'tomodachi ni' - which I still easily recall from 25 years ago, but a newbie would not know what that really means.

What is 'tomodachi'? The reader COULD surmise that it's 'friend', but what is 'ni'? I know it's an article, but maybe a brief single sentence explanation could have sufficed.

Hey - you have to start somewhere, I realize - but having a full explanation would have been better.

That's my biggest complaint of the book, however. And that's no big deal. Though Tuttle... I would gladly offer my paid input at an earlier stage for you, as I am an editor and writer and have been a literary agent.

Generally speaking, it is very easy to use... follow the written guide to form the letters... it's like teaching anyone how to write A-B-C.... little squares for you to write the letter, with guides showing you how... and then expecting you to repeat it 20 times or so until you get how the letter is formed.

Practice, after all, makes perfect.

Later 'courses' as you learn a few more letters also involve learning a few more phrases... some helpful, and others you think aren't, but really lay the basics for creating more and more complex sentences.

There are also fun and interesting cartoon drawings showing an action. One of my favorites taught me something I had no clue of.
This is a PORTION of one of the FUN sentences in Jim Gleeson's Writing Japanese Hiragana workbook produced by Tuttle Publishing.
 I drink the water gulp, gulp, gulp.

Now... even though there are three gulps in that sentence, I won't pick on it other than to note the number 'three'.

It provides the writer (me) with the opportunity to write a fun sentence in Japanese using the letters I have just learned and been learning:

But it also provides the hiragana translation that we can read: Thanks to the cartoon, I know that 'Gabu Gabu' is the equivalent of 'gulp-gulp'. And when you think about it... it sounds a lot closer to the actual sound effect of one drinking: Gabu, gabu, gabu, gabu - ahhhhh.

Anyhow, the sentence of 'I drink the water gulp, gulp, gulp.' translates to 'Gabu gabu to mizu o nomu.'

See - only two gabu gabu's... anyhow... the workbook does teach us that 'mizu' is 'water' and 'nomu' is 'to drink'.

I learned 'gabu gabu' and 'nomu' for the first time ever!

You wonder how a guy like me actually survived Japan for three years without knowing the term 'to drink'.... especially since I could drink copious quantities of Japanese alcohol.

Anyhow... I'm still going through the book, Writing Japanese Hiragana by Tuttle Publishing, but I have to admit I am enjoying myself... and I'm going to finish the workbook... I don't even have to learn Japanese any more.

The softcover book retails for US$10.95 - though it is currently on sale for US$8.21 (I visited the website), and you may order it directly from Tuttle Publishing by visiting the website - where you can find other excellent texts and books on Japan - at

Ashita anata ni renraku shimasu. I'll contact you tomorrow.
Andrew Joseph

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