Why Good Handwriting in Your Next Language Matters

In Japan, when there aren’t enough seats at a restaurant, they have a piece of paper where you can print your name and they will call you when a seat becomes available. As restaurants are quite busy at peak eating times, I had to write my name more than a few times on these pieces of paper.

I used to visit a chain ramen shop often for lunch between classes at my special one year intensive Japanese program in Yokohama (The Inter-University Center for Japanese Studies). I would walk about 15 minutes after morning classes had ended and find that my ramen shop was already busy and packed full of customers. I didn’t have to wait very long to have a seat but that still meant I needed to write my name down in order to reserve my place in line. This was not a problem for me at all and I noticed by briefly scanning the paper that I was often the only foreigner who had written down their name. It was particularly easy to see because I wrote in Katakana, the script used to write foreigner’s names, as opposed to kanji, the characters used for Japanese names.

Outside of an Osho chain ramen shop, not the one I used to frequent, though.

In Japanese, there are three scripts used for the writing system and they are all used together to form sentences. It’s almost as if they wanted you to face a living hell when it came down to writing. There are two phonetic character sets and one character set called “kanji” which are the imported Chinese characters that number in the thousands. To be able to read a newspaper or other native material, you need to know about 2,000 characters. Worse yet, each character has multiple ways of being read so that one character may be pronounced several different ways depending on context or how it is placed in the sentence. Are your nightmares getting worse yet? The Katakana script which is used for foreigner’s names is also used for sounds that you might hear; whereas the other phonetic script is used for grammar and the kanji are used for main ideas.

At any rate, one day, I wrote down my name (Kunzu for “Kunz” in Japanese, always use the last name) and took a seat to wait for my name to be called and shown a seat. After a while, I hear the waitress saying  “Kusozu? Kusozu?” and nobody moved. After a minute of her questioning the name, I finally decided that perhaps they had made an error with my name and hesitantly raised my hand. Nobody had moved but I was a little bit peeved because “kuso” in Japanese translates in the dictionary to “a piece of shit”. So, she had been yelling out something like “Shitzu? Shitzu?”

I realized what the problem was. In Katakana, the script I used to write my name, the “n” character and “so” character are extremely similar. I thought I had written it pretty clearly but either I hadn’t or the waitress had made a mistake when reading it. Needless to say, from then on, I was even more particularly careful in writing down that character in my name and I never had the problem again.

so and n katakana

The devil’s in the details

I still wonder, however, what the other customers were thinking when the waitress was yelling out “Shitzu…? Shitzu…? Shitzu??”

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