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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #33 (August 16, 2005), page 12.

Quirky learning

Breakthrough Japanese: 20 Mini Lessons for Better Conversation

By Hitomi Hirayama

Kodansha International, 2004

Paperback, 167 pages, $18.00

By Josephine Bridges

Each of the 20 lessons in Breakthrough Japanese begins with a question posed by a penguin named Mr. Pole. "‘Why a penguin?’ you may ask," writes the author, anticipating my first question. "The habitat of the penguin is vast, spanning several continents," Hitomi Hirayama explains. "When we set out to learn a new language, we should be like penguins: global creatures!" Do you like your language learning quirky? Breakthrough Japanese is right up your ice floe.

Following questions on such topics as "Doing sumo in someone else’s underwear" are brief explanatory answers such as: "The phrase hito no fundoshi de sumo o toru actually means ‘benefitting oneself at someone else’s expense.’" Illustrations of Mr. Pole and Hirayama accompany each question and answer, respectively, just in case you forget who’s who. Hitomi Hirayama, in addition to writing this book, established and directs Japanese Lunch, a language school in Tokyo, and writes "Pera-Pera Penguin’s 5-minute Japanese Class," a column that appears in one of Japan’s largest national newspapers, the Daily Yomiuri.

After the questions and answers come in-depth explanations and a wealth of examples. Examples are presented in English, Japanese script, and romanized letters, with literal English translations in tiny type beneath these. The tricky little word hai, we learn, can be used to "confirm one’s presence," "get somebody’s attention," "show understanding," "respond to a request, suggestion, or invitation," "respond to a question with ‘yes,’ and "respond to a question with ‘no.’"

Practice follows each explanation and example section. One of the things I like best about this book is that the answers are always nearby, at the bottom of the page or on the following page. "Goro-awase, a form of punning or wordplay used to remember certain things like telephone numbers," is the topic of my favorite exercise. Ads for a steak house, a temporary employment agency, a moving service company, and a flower shop are presented, and it’s up to the learner to find the number hidden within. "Ni ko ni ko ha na wa sa(kura)" means "Smiles, flowers, cherry blossoms," but it also contains the florist’s phone number: 2525-8703. Fill-in-the-blank and matching exercises are most commonly used.

Conversation practice occurs here and there in Breakthrough Japanese, and it’s sometimes illustrated. This exchange begins the conversation on the first page I opened to:

Taxi driver: So where (what country) are you from?

O-kyakusan wa doko no kuni?

Pole-san: I’m from the South Pole.

Nankyoku desu.

You can probably guess what the word "Janglish" means, but could you have figured out that chaku, the Japanese word for "arrive," and the first two syllables of the English word "melody" are combined to describe "ringing of cell phone set to music?" This is one of many entertaining quizzes that appear throughout the book. There’s even a hidden word game, which contains Japanese words for machine, squid, and ear pick. You’ll have to find the Japanese words yourself.

Idioms are among the most delightful aspects of any language, and Breakthrough Japanese is rich in them. Many commonly used Japanese expressions contain words for parts of the body, including "more than 140 that use me, the word ‘eye.’ Depending on the body part in question, an idiomatic phrase containing katai, which means "hard," can be a complaint or a compliment. In Japanese the expression atama ga katai means hard-headed, but kuchi (mouth) ga katai describes an ability to keep a secret. Mizu, the word for water, is also very popular in Japanese idioms. Yakeishi ni mizu means "water on a burning stone," and is the Japanese equivalent of "a drop in the bucket."

Maybe Rome wa ichi-nichi ni shite narazu (wasn’t built in a day), but readers are likely to enjoy whatever time it takes to build their Japanese conversation skills with Breakthrough Japanese.

To buy me, visit these retailers:

Powell's Books