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Rizal and the Japanese Language

By Mel - Posted on 19 6月 2009

Jose RizalJose Rizal
People studying Japanese could benefit from Jose Rizal’s method in learning a new language. According to historians, Rizal memorized five new root words every night.

For those who do not know Rizal, he is the National Hero of the Philippines and he was a polymath and a polyglot. Rizal knew 22 languages including the Japanese Language. He stayed in Japan for about 6 weeks from February 28 to April 13, 1888.

Just how good was Rizal in speaking Japanese? Was his six weeks of stay in Japan enough for him to acquire proficiency in Japanese?

Watashi wa Rizal desu
It is clear that Rizal couldn’t speak Japanese well when he first came to Japan. This is evident from the fact that he needed an interpreter to introduce himself to Osei-san (Ms. Seiko Usui), a Japanese lady who eventually became his girlfriend.

"They first met one pleasant afternoon when Rizal beheld a charming girl walk past the Legation gate. With a Japanese gardener as his interpreter, our champion introduced himself to the amused lady. Rizal spoke poor Nippongo, but Seiko knew English, and thus they shared a tongue. Since then, they got together almost daily, revealing the city's sights." [1]


Like some Filipinos, Rizal looked like a Japanese. His Japanese appearance made it difficult for natives to detect that he was a gaikokujin or foreigner. This and the fact that he couldn’t speak Japanese bothered Rizal as can be seen from his letter to his friend Blumentritt:

"Here you have your friend Rizal, wonder of the Japanese, since he has a Japanese appearance, and yet does not understand Japanese.

"When I go out in the streets shopping and want to buy something,people stare at me and ill-bred boys laugh at me because I speak so strange a language. There are very few people in Tokyo who speak English, but in Yokohama many speak it. Some think I am a Europeanized Japanese who does not want to be taken as such. That often happens with the half-bred Japanese in the Philippines." [1]


Rizal, a scholar and a true patriot, wanted to study the condition of the various Japanese classes. He might have realized that in order for him to have a deeper understanding of the Japanese society, he had to learn their language. With his natural flair for languages and through the help of his girlfriend Osei-san, he was able to considerably improve his Japanese skills.

"As a couple, their spirits soared, nursing each other's sorrows. Seiko was Rizal's sweetheart, interpreter, guide and teacher. She regaled him with Japanese legends, like the 'Tale of the 47 Ronins,' which inspired Rizal so much. They treasured the sakura - an apt symbol of their swift but intense romance." [1]

In his letter to his family before he left Japan for the United States,we can have a glimpse of his innate genius for languages:

"I have stayed here longer than I intended, for the country seems to me very interesting and because in the future we shall have much to do and
deal with Japan. [How very prophetic indeed]. I'm learning Japanese. I can make myself understood in it, and though badly, I can express what I want in it..."[2]

Rizal was able to express himself in Japanese in just a month of study! Most people would have only just begun to learn their "kore, sore, are” in this short period.

How about Kanji?

I know many non-Japanese who can speak but cannot write in Japanese. The ability to write a considerable number of Kanji or the Chinese Characters differentiates a casual learner of Japanese from a serious one. So how was Rizal in terms of writing Kanji?

"There is one drawing of a woman in traditional garb hiding her face under a fan and here he wrote, in Japanese, the characters for Nippon or Japan. ”[3]

"Rizal learned enough to enjoyably understand kabuki, like Chushingura,Sendaihagi and Manjiro Nakahama, in Tokyo's Shintomiza Theater; write a few ideas in Kanji;and try his hand at sumi-e painting, producing several sketches of Japanese landscapes, flowers, people, and even a well-known scene from Sendaihagi where Nurse Masaoka cries over her son's seppuku. " [1]

Below is a sample of Rizal’s sketch containing some Kanji characters.Rizal's sketchRizal's sketch

Instant Arubaito

After a month and a half of stay in Japan, Rizal ended with regret one of his happiest travels and sailed from Yokohama to London en route to San Francisco. On board the ship to Europe was a Japanese journalist who knew no other language than his own and Rizal acted as his interpreter. Rizal writes:

"I became acquainted with a Japanese who was going to Europe, after having been imprisoned because he was a radical and because he had been
director of an independent periodical. As this Japanese did not speak any other language than Japanese, I acted as his interpreter until we reached London." [5]

Rizal’s JLPT Level

Had there been a JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) in Rizal’s time, this author thinks that Rizal would have easily passed Level 3. Level 3 requires one to study Japanese for a total of 300 hours (or 300 kanji's and 1500 words). In less than six months, he might have passed Level 2!
[4] Lineage, Life and Labors of Jose Rizal: Philippine Patriot; Austin Craig

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