Category Archives: Reviews

Learn Japanese Through Gameplay – Megami Meguri

Can you learn Japanese through playing games? Well, the right games can certainly help a great deal. And this week saw the launch of one of the best games for the purpose. And even better – it’s free!

The game is called めがみ めぐり Megami Meguri, which could perhaps be translated as Goddess Tour (though I don’t think any translation really captures the spirit of the title).

From the language-learning perspective, the most interesting things are that it is almost fully-voiced and it involves teaching human language (i.e. Japanese) from the ground up to a new-born Goddess who knows almost nothing.

The game uses artificial intelligence and the “Megami Speak Engine”, an artificial voice synthesis system developed by Capcom and Toshiba, using Toshiba’s voice synthesis engine, ToSpeak G3, as its base. The Megami Speak Engine is used in Megami Meguri by having the character make use of user-input words to converse in a near natural-sounding synthetic voice.

In fact, talking is a major part of the game. As the senior Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami, advises at one point:

話して、話して、話しまくることじゃ
Hanashite, hanashite, hanashimakuru koto ja (=da)

The makuru auxiliary verb has been explained as “to do with reckless abandon”. The meaning here could be rendered as “talk, talk, talk ’till you drop”. Because by talking, learning new words and learning all about you, your heroine grows and develops.

This means that you are spending a lot of the game interacting in Japanese and developing the character of your fledgling goddess. Her appearance and voice are your constant companions. And fortunately, since her language-learning process is not really naturalistic (this is entertainment after all) you can’t actually teach her wrong Japanese. She will develop correctly in the language. And in fact, despite not knowing the names of many simple things, she is really quite competent in Japanese from the start.

The game has essentially two overall aims, both concerned with developing the heroine as a person (or rather goddess). One is to develop the relationship between yourself and your heroine through conversations with her, the information you give her and the things you tell her about yourself. The other, as expressed by Amaterasu, is

人間に関する知識は重要だ
Ningen ni kansuru chishiki wa juuyou da
Human-related general knowledge/common sense is of great importance.

This is interesting for those who want to learn about Japanese culture as well as language. “Human-related knowledge” means in fact “Japan-related knowledge”, just as “human language” is Japanese.

You are in fact raising an intelligent and functional person who is nonetheless like a small child in relation to things Japanese – rather like you at the start of your Japanese self-immersion.

You will be traveling all over Japan. In fact, you can visit every one of the 9000+ railway stations in Japan!

Nearly everyone in Japan is a little bit of a 鉄 tetsu (railway enthusiast), and more than other countries, the railway system does still feel like the main arteries of the country. If you have spent time in Japan, just hearing the names of railway stations makes you feel natsukashii (nostalgic).

Traveling to different places you also learn about their special foods. Again, the Japanese are very interested in the 名物 meibutsu or special product of each area – usually food. You can barely mention Kobe to anyone without the subject of beef coming up, for example.

You will be learning about a lot of other things too. Things Japanese people mostly know already, but love to celebrate, presented in a way accessible to people who don’t know these things, because that is what the heroine of the game is.

And you will be learning about Japan, not only in Japanese but through Japanese eyes – learning the things that are salient to the Japanese soul, rather than the perspective of the foreign tourist (or even the foreign “otaku”).

I very much doubt if this game will ever come to the west. It is far too Japan-centric. And if it ever did, far more even than most things, it would be localized out of existence.

Pros and cons of Megami Meguri

I am not going to list pros and cons separately, as one person’s pro may be another person’s con and vice versa. But here are my thoughts.

The voice used by the heroine of Megami Meguri isn’t perfect. Actually it does sound pretty natural in intonation, and the limitations in sound production just make her seem a little nasal/muffly, which actually suits her naïve personality. Everything she says also appears as text onscreen, so understanding is not a problem. In fact she is quite understandable anyway.

There are no furigana in this game, so if you need them that could be a problem. Just about everything the heroine says is voiced, but the explanatory commentaries of Amaterasu are not. There is some good voice-acting for other characters, but not always, so if kanji are a sticking-point the game might not be ideal for you. On the other hand, there is a lot of voiced text.

3D seems to be unused. I don’t know if it will be employed for some effects, but so far I haven’t seen any. Some people don’t seem to like 3D and even turn it off, but I love it, so I found this a small disappointment.

Building a relationship with a virtual character is really the central point of this game. To me this is very important. I actually downloaded a demo of Konami’s LovePlus some time ago. I really liked the idea, though as a doll I wasn’t too interested in playing a boy or having a “waifu“.

This game seems to be doing what LovePlus does, only for a broader audience and with the huge enhancement of having your virtual partner actually talk to you.

The game is free-to-play. The business model relies on in-game purchases, but I don’t think you are ever forced to make any in order to continue. Of course, as you get more involved you may end up tempted into doing so!

It is easy to download if you have a Japanese 3DS. If you haven’t, I can only say that getting one is one of the best immersion investments you can make. People complain that 3DS is region-locked, and while I understand the complaint, from a self-immersion point of view, being locked into Japan is no bad thing, and fortunately it doesn’t lock you by the region you are in but by the region your 3DS comes from.

Obviously Megami Meguri isn’t a game for the absolute beginner, but as a supplementary immersion strategy it has some really important advantages.

Unlocking Japanese – a breakthrough in how we learn the language

unlocking-japanese-cover800Cure Tadashiku: Unlocking Japanese isn’t just another book about Japanese. It is a breakthrough in how people can learn the language.

Cure Dolly: Thank you. It’s kind of hard to say that sort of thing about your own work. Everyone thinks her book is important, after all.

But I do think that objectively we have done something here that badly needed to be done and has never been done before.

And that is, simply to explain what Japanese sentences mean, rather than what they would mean if they were English sentences.

By doing this we can cut out endless confusions and false complications. We can cut out all kinds of apparent “exceptions” and things you “just have to learn”.

Japanese is very, very regular and fundamentally a surprisingly simple language. But you do need to look at it through its own “Japanese” eyes, not through the eyes of English.

Cure Tadashiku: And that is where all the standard textbooks go wrong.

Cure Dolly: That’s right.

Cure Tadashiku: Because they are trying to make things simpler for their readers in the early stages?

Cure Dolly: Partly that, but mainly because up to now there has been no model for understanding Japanese that doesn’t lean heavily on English and European grammatical concepts. These concepts don’t fit Japanese well, so they create all kinds of unnecessary complications. By looking at Japanese as Japanese we can cut through most of them quickly and easily.

I suspect that not only does European grammar not fit Japanese, but the fact that early interpreters of Japanese grammar to Europeans were using methods related to European languages also created an expectation of and tolerance for a lot of irrational exceptions that you “just have to learn”. Because European languages really are full of them. Japanese isn’t.

European languages really do have pages and pages of irregular verbs that don’t work the same as other verbs. Japanese famously has just two irregular verbs – kuru and suru – actually a few more if you count minor irregularities, but very few. And that regularity continues throughout Japanese even in places where Europeans have been unable to see it up till now.

Most European languages other than English have “grammatical gender” which calls every object in the world masculine or feminine (some languages, like German, have more than two genders). These genders add nothing whatever to our understanding of the word, but every one “just has to be learned”.

So  when Europeans tried to explain Japanese in terms of European grammar and found places that don’t fit or that are plain irrational, they said “Oh, these must be arbitrary rules you need to learn. All languages are full of those.” But all languages aren’t full of them. Japanese isn’t.

If we understand Japanese as Japanese, it is very, very regular. The problem is that there has been no model up to now for explaining Japanese as Japanese.

Cure Tadashiku: The model wasn’t entirely your doing, was it?

Cure Dolly: No. I owe a huge debt to Dr. Jay Rubin whose work introduced me to some key concepts on which this book is built. What we have done is to take the implications of what he taught and expand them much further.

Rubin-sensei showed how every Japanese sentence has a grammatical subject, whether you can see it or not, how the wa particle never marks the grammatical subject (even when it might appear to), and how the invisible subject works. All this is explained in I Am Not an Eel.

Progressing from I Am Not an Eel, we can draw many other conclusions that follow logically. For example, the fact that there is not only always a subject (which may be invisible) but also that it is always marked by the ga-particle (though obviously that may be invisible too).

From here we are in a position to solve many of the apparently exceptional problems of Japanese. We can see things like what a logical particle is, why the so-called “passive” isn’t actually passive at all and works just like the rest, and why “conjugation” isn’t actually the right word for much of what gets called “conjugation” in the West.

This, for example, solves the problems contained in sentences like

クレープが食べたい
Creepu ga tabetai
usually translated as “I want to eat crepes”

Which have led one very prominent writer to state that there is no grammatical subject in Japanese, which essentially destroys our ability to understand the language.

Even without going so far as this writer, I would say that most learners are confused about how particles work by these apparent illogicalities. And particles are the lynchpins of the language. Misunderstanding them gives the whole language a foggy “voodoo” feeling – essentially because it is being explained as if it were a European language when it isn’t.

In fact there is nothing illogical at all about these sentences – or much else in Japanese – once you can actually see how it works. It all runs in a beautifully understandable and predictable way, all the time.

I know these issues sound a bit complicated when I try to put them briefly here…

Cure Tadashiku: But it isn’t complicated. That’s the whole point. It is the European approach that gets complicated. In the book you explain it very simply, step by step, with very little special terminology. I think anyone can pick up the basis of Unlocking Japanese in an evening, and that evening will be paying off for the rest of one’s Japanese life.

Cure Dolly: Thank you.

Cure Tadashiku: But to ask a tougher question: what would you say to someone who asks, “But how can you say you’ve got Japanese right when everyone else has gotten it wrong?”

Cure Dolly: Put simply, I don’t think there is any such thing as “right” or “wrong” in grammar. Grammar isn’t a set of rules by which people speak. It is an attempt to describe what is happening when they use (a particular) language.

European grammar isn’t “wrong” when applied to Japanese. It is just not the most efficient way to describe it and it creates artificial exceptions.

So the test of any model for describing Japanese is “how well does it work?” What we have done in Unlocking Japanese is provide a model that works very regularly and throws up almost no exceptions as compared to the “Europeanized” model.

That is because we were looking at Japanese on its own terms and not as if it were “English gone a bit wrong”. Whether this is the “correct” model is,  I think, a meaningless question. The point is that it works more efficiently and leads us to seeing Japanese as far as possible from within, rather than through foreign glasses.

It’s a bit like riding one of the first bicycles that had no gearing (that is why the front wheel was so huge) and then a geared bicycle. It isn’t that one is right and one is wrong. It is that one has looked at the other one, seen where it was inefficient, and found a way to do the job better.

That’s what is meant by a breakthrough and why I think we really can call this book a breakthrough.

Cure Tadashiku: So do you think Unlocking Japanese will eventually revolutionize Japanese learning and teaching in schools and elsewhere?

Cure Dolly: I don’t know. Dr. Rubin’s work has been quite influential, but I don’t think it has actually revolutionized teaching. The textbooks don’t, for the most part, take his ground-breaking insights into account. We have gone a lot further in Unlocking Japanese, so perhaps we have even less chance of being taken up on a general basis.

I do think, because what we do in Unlocking Japanese actually, and quite unarguably, works, that it will become more widespread over the next decade or so. Whether it will force open the ironbound doors of academia, I don’t know. That wasn’t really my aim (though it would be nice).

My aim was to provide a clear and easy path for self-learners (and others) into the beauty and simplicity of Japanese grammar.

I am not trying to replace grammar textbooks (though I have my own views on how to use them) but to give the “walkthrough” that makes real sense of them.

Cure Tadashiku: And that you have done.

Cure Dolly: Thank you.

unlocking-japanese-ad3

Denpa Ningen no RPG Free – Review

If you have a Japanese 3DS you really should download Denpa Ningen no RPG Free. As the name suggests, it is muryou, tada, roha – or as we say in English, free. And what’s more it is good. A great deal better than many games that cost thousands of times as much. Oh wait, that’s still nothing isn’t it? A great deal better than many games that cost lots and lots of yen.

And it really is excellent Japanese practice apart from being a ton of fun and a banshee of tanoshii.

denpa-ningen-RPG-freeIf you’ve never played a Denpa Ningen game before, you may not realize that the eponymous beings are little folk who inhabit the electrical waves. There are actually a lot of them in your house. Maybe not exactly in your house because I think it might be a parallel dimension or something. But co-existing spatially with your house. Don’t look now, but there is quite possibly one floating above the chryselephantine statue of Chancandre the First in the corner of your room right now – just beside the Bechstein Grand piano, floating and giggling even as you read these words.

Actually you can look now if you like because you can’t see them. You need an interdimensional viewing device to do that. Fortunately though, you have one. Or you nearly do. With a few little adjustments (which the software will make for you) your 3DS can be converted into just such a device. The kinematic below demonstrates how it works.

Once you have captured a few denpa ningen you can start your adventure. Denpa Ningen has always been a dungeon crawler, but this new version adds Doubutsu no Mori-like elements. You buy an island, and build your own house, and then expand and furnish it. You fish. But mostly you crawl dungeons because that is the way you make the money to do the other things.

Also you run into situations such as the forest being infested with bakemono that prevent the builders from getting wood. So if you want them to build for you you need to go make the forest safe by clearing out the monsters.

And some of the monsters are very interesting for example, when did you last fight a giant cake boss?

怪物のケーキ
I’ve seen some crazy monsters but this one takes the…

What about the Japanese-learning side of the game? Well, as you see from the screenshot above, the game has furigana which is one of the things I always look for in a game. Of course you wouldn’t need them on this particular screen, but there are many where they make life much easier.

denpa ningen party

There is a lot of text in the game. While you will be spending time dungeon-crawling your kawaii party meets with various dungeon denizens (other than monsters) quite frequently and the in-game dialog density, while not up to visual novel standards is on a par with many RPGs.

There is also quite a bit of voice acting which makes for some listening practice. The voices are kind of – well you know how little critters tend to talk. But then since we are all learning Japanese to make the acquaintance of cute little critters anyway, we’d better get used to it, ne?

denpa ningen RPG free

The game makes full use of the 3DS’s power. By which I don’t mean anything boring and technical. I mean it transports you into a pretty, charming 3D world-in-a-box. That is what the 3DS is for. If you wanted zombies and poorly-shaven shocktroops in photo-real (but flat) worlds you really bought the wrong toy. 3DS is a Magic Box that is bigger inside than outside and is just made to contain love and charm and cuteness.

And it talks to you in Japanese, because it loves you. And it gives you games like Denpa Ningen no RPG Free – free. And you are happy.

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Note: You need to have a Japanese NNID in order to download this free game. Don’t worry – this article tells you all about how to do that.

The Best Japanese Dictionary Money Can’t Buy: Rikaichan overview

People seem to think of Rikaichan as “that kanji-recognizing thing”. It is that of course. But it is far more. It is not only  a free Japanese dictionary, but it is what every Japanese Dictionary should be and isn’t. It is a reading-writing tool of unparalleled power and it is going to be the number one utility in your Japanese toolkit.

Why? Let me explain a little. In any foreign language you have probably tried looking up a word you find only to discover it isn’t in your dictionary. If you ask why, you are told “Oh, that’s in the passive plenipotentiary case. You have to look it up in dictionary form.”

To which you reply “but it’s a squeaking word isn’t it? People use it. I didn’t even recognize what case it was in. Why can’t I just look it up?”

Well, because your dictionary is a foot thick already. If it contained every possible case and inflection of every word it would be ten volumes. And that is what’s wrong with paper dictionaries.

Rikaichan will recognize a word whatever case it is in and tell you the case. Even if the kanji wasn’t used. Here is an example. We are worrying about the fate of a certain walking, talking mushroom:

rikaichanWhat is that word “ubawareta”? If we hover Rikaichan over it, we find out. The word in dictionary form is actually 奪う ubau, to snatch away or steal. However this is in the passive, past form, as Rikaichan also kindly informs us.

So the sentence means “Has she been snatched away by evil birds?” (I love the passive form for all the reasons Western critics hate it – but that is a whole ‘nother article).

Rikaichan also tells us that the word is transitive (vt), that it is a godan verb ending in u (v5u) and that it is a common, or popular word (P). All of these can be important pieces of information on some occasions. The P for example helps answer the question “Is this an obscure word or one I should be trying to learn?”

Now this is not just a reading tool but a writing tool. You can check your own attempts at conjugation on the fly. If you can’t remember if a ru-ending verb is ichidan or godan, just type it, hover Rikaichan, and you have the answer. Similarly it will tell you what kind of adjective a word is, whether a verb is transitive or intransitive and various other things. As you start incorporating it into your routine you will find that Rikaichan answers a good half of your grammatical questions instantly and on the fly. It will even recognize some common phrases and turns of speech.

But there is another important aspect to Rikaichan. The toolbar. The important point about this is the search box (on Mac you can add the Rikaichan search box to Firefox’s navigation bar so you don’t need the clutter of the whole toolbar – I am not sure if this works on Windows machines too). This is important because it analyzes kanji into their component parts for you. Here is an example. I entered the word 正解 seikai (correct answer or solution) into my Rikaichan search box:

rikaichan-kanji

You can click for a bigger view. As you see, you get the readings of the kanji plus a breakdown of their components. And as you see, I have the search-box alone installed beside the address bar of my browser, ready to analyze kanji at all times. The yellow box (I have it yellow as I find it less obtrusive) just pops up over whatever else is on screen. You just click to get rid of it.

I won’t comment too much on the importance of this right now because we talk about learning vocabulary/kanji in various other places. But as you take a logical, meaningful approach to Japanese vocabulary and how it fits together, I promise you, you are going to find this invaluable.

If you are serious about Japanese, Rikaichan is reason enough to choose Firefox browser. It is reason enough to use web-based word-processor so you can check your writing as you go. It is also a good reason to switch to the Thunderbird mail app if you use a mail app. Thunderbird also supports Rikaichan so you can use it to help you read and write your Japanese mail. You can also use the toolbar (or just the search box) to analyze kanji from within your mail app.

We will be talking more about the logic of learning Japanese and how beautifully it all fits together. You will find that Rikaichan makes all of this much easier and more immediately accessible.

Now read about Rikaichan’s big sister (still free, even more powerful)→