Let's play a word game. I'll start with the name of a place, like a city, state, province, or country, and you tell me the name of a different place that starts with the last letter of the city I mentioned. For example, if I say Rome, you might say Ethiopia. Which would mean I need to say someplace that starts with A. So, I'll use Aichi, which is a prefecture here in Japan. Then you start with I and so on and so forth. So far, so good, right? In fact, I'll bet you've played a game like this before.
You might call it word chains or snakes and letters or any of a half a dozen other popular names. And you can play it in English, French, Spanish, Italian, or any other language that uses a variation of the Latin alphabet. And while, here in Japan, you can use the localised version of the alphabet (romaji) to play word chains, there is a far more popular version using Japanese kana called shiritori.
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First, a little background information on the Japanese kana. The Japanese language uses two syllabaries to "spell" words when not using kanji (ideograms derived from Chinese characters). These two syllabaries contain the same sounds in a common sequence (think of the alphabet song) starting with あ・ア (ah) and finishing with ん・ン (nn). In between are all the sounds used in the Japanese language. For example, the Japanese word for Japanese is "nihongo", which, in hiragana looks like this: にほんご and in Katakana looks like this: ニホンゴ. You can see that the word breaks down into four syllables as ni ho n go.
Which brings us back to shiritori. Following very similar rules to Word Chain (or whatever you want to call it), players take turns building words off of the final syllable of the previous word. For example, if I say "nomimono" (beverage) you would need to start your word with the syllable "no". So, you might use "noto" (notebook) or "nouka" (farmer).
However, while in English, the game ends when one player cannot think of another word or repeats a word previously played, in Shiritori, the game ends when one player says a word that ends in the syllable "n". In fact, the player who uses the word ending in "n" loses the game. This is because there is no word in Japanese that begins with "n". (This can be a little tricky to grasp, but any Japanese word that begins with N when written in the English alphabet actually starts with one of the following syllables: na, ni, nu, ne, no. To put it another way, the final "n" sound looks like ん or ン but the beginning sounds look like なにぬねの or ナニヌネノ.
For example, if you say "buta" (pig), then we go through “takenoko” (bamboo shoots) followed by “koala” and finally, I say "ramen," I lose because there is no way for you to continue the game. Also, you'll notice that every example I've used is a noun as that is one of the primary rules of the game along with no repeating already played words and no using noun phrases. There may be other, local, rules, so be sure to ask for clarifications on the house rules if necessary.
Shiritori is a common, fun way to pass the time on road trips, breaks between classes, or when just hanging out. It is also a fantastic way to study up on Japanese vocabulary and spelling. So, grab some friends, make sure you're up to date on the rules of the house, and get to playing! I'll start: Nihongo. Go!