I took a trip to get my Japanese library card. Luckily, it was reasonably easy, what with the help of Google Translate and a librarian with some English skill.
1. Find a library. I used Google Maps to look for libraries in nearby neighborhoods. A library is called toshokan, spelled "図書館" (diagram/figure - handwriting/book - mansion/hall). Some of the search results appeared in English with photos so I knew I was actually heading for a public library, and not a university library (or a mansion inhabited by a collector of penmanship diagrams??).
2. Ask the librarian, "kaado wo tsukurimasu ka?" This literally translates to something like, "Do you/I make a card?" But it got the point across, and maybe even helped to show that I don't know much Japanese language.
Luckily, I do know how to spell my name in katakana. There were two sets of "required" fields to enter my name. I selected katakana for the first set and English/romaji for the second set, but the system wouldn't accept the English alphabet (maybe they never tested that part of the interface?) so after I and two staff members also tried and failed to enter my English name, I just used katakana again.
I still can't write my full address in kanji - I keep forgetting how to write my neighborhood name! Luckily, it prompted me to search for my address by zip code and chome (city block). I did this and then added my building and unit number, then made sure it all matched the address as written on my residence card.
When I received the card, I had to write my name on it in katakana, which I'm still not great at, so I'm sure it looks like a child wrote it. Then the librarian took a few minutes to very kindly explain in slow, carefully-pronounced Japanese, the library hours and rules for checkout. She mustered a few English words whenever I screwed up my expression into a question mark. I hope I was successful in expressing the depth of my gratitude! Then I looked for a few easy-ish books, checked them out the same way I used to do in America (hand the librarian the card and the books, get them back with a due date receipt).
This all probably took about 30 minutes.
A few other things...
- The card can only be used by the cardholder (no sharing).
- Books checked out at any library within the ward may be returned to this library.
- The lending period for books is two weeks.
I know there are some other important tidbits, but mostly they are standard library rules such as responsibility for replacement if you lose or damage books, and being barred from all libraries in the ward if you do not return your items on time.
And the books? Oh man, is it hard to browse in another language!
- I grabbed one that had big pictures with few words, but it turned out to be pretty high-level stuff, like wordplay about how different kanji are written? It was very pretty and confusing. I hope to see this book again one day after I'm fluent.
- Another one looks like a children's book about writing letters, but it's probably for older elementary kids.
- And the last, I'm having an easier time to understand. I chose it because I understood the whole first sentence, as written in hiragana, which seemed like a good sign. It appears to be about elephants at the Ueno Zoo that I plan to see when my sister visits next week. I'm trying to make my way through the first few pages, but it's slow going. Hiragana is easy to pronounce but hard to interpret without accompanying kanji to disambiguate homophones. I'm sure it will get easier as my grammar improves!
I'll just have to keep visiting the library until I find the section with books that make sense to me. I'm hoping I'll have more luck in a section called 児童開架. (Child open rack?)
In the meantime, I'm memorizing hundreds of kanji, which has come in really handy. Even if I can't remember how to pronounce them, I can still look at signs and instructions and get a general idea of what they are talking about. Only bikes can park here, this chicken is on sale, watch out for the giant murderous crows - you know, all the important stuff.
Hooray for logographic languages!