Are Japanese People Retarded?

Are Japanese People Retarded?

When I turned around from the chalkboard, there was chubby Mr. Kamei with his plump fist stuffed inside his waistband. We were in the middle of English 301 and he’d either developed one fearsome case of poison ivy in his pants or was masturbating like crazy. This is what it’s like teaching college in Japan.

Half the class hadn’t even bothered to show up. Everybody was job hunting, or sick, or out of town. Any excuse not to come to English, even though you’re a Senior English major. All right, because.

“Jeezus, stop that,” I said, and Mr. Kamei looked a little puzzled, but pulled his hand out and ran it through his hair. Eeuuwww.

The two girls in the back were doing their make-up, the big guy working as a nightclub bouncer was unconscious with his head on the desk, and the geeky kids in the middle were updating their Line profiles. Nobody had a notebook, much less a pen, and almost nobody had bothered to bring the textbook. One girl had hers open to the wrong page and the blonde kid with the guitar had a manga stuck in the middle of his.

“Okay, great class,” I said. “For homework—and 30 percent of your grade—write a one-page paper describing what you think the world will be like in 50 years.” This was the easiest assignment I could dream up.

“This is,” I said, “the easiest assignment I could dream up. Flying cars, robot bartenders, cure for cancer, whatever. Just make sure it’s typed, double-spaced, Times New Roman, as we discussed.”

Aaaaand… next week. I get four papers, two hand-written, one in pencil on a the back of a chemistry printout. To his credit, Mr. Kamei turned in the best one, which I was hesitant to touch—a flimsy paragraph of single-spaced Arial, entitled “Will Flying Cars Cure Cancer?”

Did I mention that Japanese university’s a joke? So far I’ve taught at five, and of the thousands of students I’ve had, 98 percent couldn’t bumble their way through a rural Arkansas community college.

Request Numero Uno for teachers at Japanese universities is: Please don’t fail everyone. Sorry, that was a typo. We meant anyone. Please refer to the following grading scale: Students who show up to half the classes warrant a C, regardless of performance. Those who do crayon drawings for assignments are displaying additional artistic talent, and deserve a B. Any half-ass approximation of actual classwork (except when done by a Chinese foreign-exchange student) is worthy of an A.

To get an F, a student literally has to not exist. And still the administration will change it to a C, because even if you’re no one, well, no one fails university in Japan.

So here’s Professor Seeroi in the university Admin Office, talking to the little fat lady behind the desk:

“Excuse me, umm… but why’s Matsuda Yuki on the roster for English 306? She got an ‘F’ in 305. On account of she doesn’t exist. Never came to a single class.

“Oh, Matsuda,” said the little fat lady. “It’s okay, Ken Sensei.

“It’s Seeroi, and I seem to remember ‘okay’ as having a slightly different meaning . . .

“Her parents came in and worked everything out,” she said.

“Her parents? Well, unless they taught a crash-course in English over the summer, she still failed . . .

“No, Ken, she got a B.

“A ‘B’? Are you mental . . . ah, great. . . Fine, I’ll change my grade-book to reflect her newfound proficiency.”

As long as your parents can pay the tuition, you’re set. The standard of education might actually be lower than in high school. I suspect there are some real exams in Engineering or Physics, but hide out in the Liberal Arts and . . . let’s just say nobody’s pulling all-nighters in dorm rooms debating issues while stuffing down handfuls of Doritos or arguing philosophical points over cans of Natty Lite. I mean, it’s not exactly Trump University.

Studying for Standardized Exams

But let’s back up, to middle school, where students study for tests, with right-and-wrong answers, that determine the high school they get into. There’s little discussion, considering the pros and cons of immigration, abortion, religion, nuclear power, war, crunchy peanut butter versus smooth. Teachers stand at the board and lecture, and students are expected to memorize facts and formulas, then regurgitate them on demand. Sensei says smooth is best, you write smooth. Then you move up.

To high school, where you study for harder tests with harder formulas that determine what college you go to. Aerated peanut butter, what’s that? Who cares, just spell it right. And once you get into college, if you go, you’re largely free to screw off and stop studying. The first two years are for partying, and the next two for job-hunting. The end result being—-having never been challenged to evaluate any real-world issues—-the average Japanese college graduate literally has the reasoning skills of a middle-schooler.

The Language Advantage

About a year ago, I read a study (which I wish to hell I could locate again) that made the case that children raised with more phonetic languages, such as Spanish and Finnish, had a notable advantage over children whose native language is English, because they learned to read and write much earlier. While American, British, and Australian children puzzle over words like “plough,” “epitome,” and “Worcestershire,” children in Spain are steadily progressing through more and higher-level books, enabling them earlier access to advanced skills such as reasoning, synthesis, and discussion. They simply read at a higher level than English speakers of the same age.

Or put another way: English speakers are held back, retarded by their nutty language.

This reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that children starting school several months later than their peers enjoy a lifetime of advantages. The average six year-old is bigger and more developed, socially and intellectually, than the corresponding 5-and-1/4 year-old. Older students in the same grade thus outshine the younger ones, garnering praise and support from teachers, a process that continues through years of schooling. A small advantage that ultimately makes a huge difference.

So if Spanish-speakers are the six year-olds, English-speakers the five year-olds, then . . .

And then There’s Japanese

And then there’s . . . the language where students are still studying the alphabet into high school. Even worse than Chinese, where at least you’ve got one reading per character, Japanese folks struggle for years with how to pronounce their own words. The language itself retards—hinders—learners, putting them at a massive disadvantage. Kids in Spain are reading Kiss of the Spiderwoman , kids in America Harry Potter, and kids in Japan . . .

Naruto, the adolescent ninja. What’s Japan famous for? Literature? Movies? Music? Web design? Please. Comic books. Anime. Illustrations everywhere. You’re hard-pressed to find an instruction sheet in Japan that doesn’t include some cute bear or penguin gesturing with his little paw or flipper about how to sort your trash, sign up for health insurance, or microwave a serving of pasta.

Why is Manga so Popular in Japan?

Every bookstore, magazine stand, and school, has a significant portion of its bookshelves packed with comic books. Why? It’s generous, and a bit dismissive, to say that Japanese folks simply love “cute” things. It’s probably truer to note that a significant segment of the population isn’t accustomed to reading, or thinking, at an adult level. Young adults here read comic books for the same reason children do elsewhere: because they’re fun, funny, and not too hard. Sure, a few deal with “real” issues, but it’s not like we’re talking To Kill a Mockingbird. Who doesn’t like ninjas and pirates? No one in Japan, apparently.

Are Japanese People Retarded?

Since I gravitate toward simple answers, let’s just go with, uh, Yes. Yes, they are. Not “retarded” as in “stupid,” but rather the original meaning of the word. A little late, a little slow. Japanese folks lag behind in education simply because their language requires them to spend far longer mastering reading. This significantly delays their progress.

Japanese people themselves are aware of this; if not individually, then at least as a group. In recent years a flood of new words has entered the language, and guess what, they’re all written with the Japanese phonetic alphabet, katakana. Thousands of words—“soap, shampoo, shave cream, toothbrush, shower gel, towel”—all written in the Japanese phonetic-equivalent of English, and we’re not even out of the bathroom yet—“hair tonic, sponge, moisturizing cleanser, conditioner, face wash.” I could go on. Nobody bothers to make kanji for stuff anymore, because half the time, no one can read it.

Ever wonder why Japanese people have such trouble learning English? Just look at how well they speak their own language. Not great, is how. Granted, they’re pretty good at talking about the weather, and shopping, and food. And that can be serious too, of course. Nothing like a healthy debate over which ramen is best. There’s salt broth. . . miso broth . . . red miso broth. . . pork broth. . . shrimp broth. . . Bubba, what you mean Japan ain’t got no rich culture?

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to be harsh, just real. It’s the language I chose, too, which in retrospect was, eh, kind of retarded. But why be part of the solution when you can be part of the problem? That’s the Seeroi family motto.

Of course, it’s possible to work through Japanese and eventually read, think, and discuss issues at a high level. If it takes longer than with other languages then, well, we live longer too, so there. Plenty of time to learn all that other stuff after retirement. Ah, the Golden Years. Why rush around walking and running when crawling’s easier, not to mention more relaxing? Did I mention how cute manga is? And we can all agree that kanji’s cool, right?  Right. That’s not nothing. It may be retarded, but it’s not nothing.



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163 Comments

  1. I made a sound normally reserved for maiden aunts on their first ghost train journey when I checked your website and saw that there was a new post. It’s safe to say that I’m a fan of your writing. Kudos!

  2. You’re true genius with your authentic reasoning, Ken. I hope my boyf is less offendable when I tell him this haha (he’s japanese btw).

  3. Nice. I thank a higher power every day that my students are motivated, respectful, socialized, and frighteningly intelligent.

    Enjoyed the post very much, but after Brexit and in the face of Trump not sure the English world has many appendages left to balance on 😉

  4. Welcome back Ken, totally missed your arty blog.
    Keep it once a month please man.

    • Thanks. I agree, that’s a completely reasonable request. Now if only I could find a reasonable person to fulfill it.

  5. Great post, and nice (sort of) to hear that the higher education system, at least in your experience, is what I expected it to be (I suspected as much but had no real ‘evidence’ as such!) A friend of mine was telling me that in his English class the room was too warm, so a student got up during it and turned the cooler on, but then about a minute later another student got up and said it was too cold and turned it off. This basically continued throughout the lesson (while he was trying to teach/engage the students), until he manually disabled it (not sure how!).

    The next day he was called into the university bosses office as the student had made a complaint and he was told he had to allow them to adjust the temperature if it was too hot or too cold. He explained what was going on and he asked them what temperature he should put it at. Of course they wouldn’t give him an answer and just kept saying he should let the students decide, so he explained that that didn’t work and asked them to specify the correct temperature… no answer… ad infinitum…

    • Heh, stories like that are legion in Japan, and really serve to underscore the status of “foreigners” here. Although there’s a lot of playing nice, when it really comes down to who has the power, never forget it’s not you.

      Temperature is a good metaphor for work-life here, since at least it’s quantifiable. I’ve spent many months in classrooms that were over 90F, and others that were below 50F. As a friend of mine put it: “I’d never have moved to Japan if I knew how fucking cold it was.” You’ve gotta have the constitution of a mountain man to be an English teacher in this country.

  6. Sometimes, it helps to step back and get a bit more perspective:

    Japan: 16k bookstores
    USA: 10k bookstores

    Half the citizens, twice the bookstores. Japanese people do read. Next time you are in the train, pay attention to what people do. Japanese people still read, and it’s not all manga.

    • Sorry, gotta sneeze . . . A, a, a, a, Amazon!

      Ah, now I feel better. But regardless of where the books come from, I’m in no way suggesting that Japanese people don’t read. What I am saying is that it they have to invest far more time in learning to do so.

      I don’t think there’s any disagreement on that point. Everyone’s familiar with the fact that Japanese kids spend years in school, including evenings and weekends, learning an astonishing five alphabets, practicing kanji, and decoding the bizarre way in which the word “wonderful” is formed by combining “elementary” with “enemy” (素敵). It’s not a wonderful system.

      That slows them down. By contrast, kids in the West learn to read relatively quickly, enabling them to start expanding their world through books, conversations, or simply by playing. Japanese children can’t do that.

    • The number of bookstores in a country has nothing to do with anything. For example, Japan has many tiny bookstores near train stations, which sell mostly manga, tabloids, trashy magazines and porn, etc. They hardly qualify as a bookstore. I take the train in Tokyo everyday and it is extremely rare for me to see anyone reading something which does not fall into one of these categories.

      Japan also has the top three newspapers in the world by circulation, yet the Japanese are one of the most ignorant people in the world when it comes to knowledge of domestic and international affairs. So, you have to ask yourself, what kind of trash are these newspapers peddling? Just goes to show that citing data about numbers, be it the number of bookstores or circulation of newspapers, is a bogus argument.

      • “… yet the Japanese are one of the most ignorant people in the world when it comes to knowledge of domestic and international affairs.”

        As a Japanese, I absolutely vouch for this statement. For the most part, truer words have never been uttered. The general lack of interest among the population in such matters is quite mind-boggling to say the least. I’m constantly on the lookout for conversations with adults who possess at least an inkling of a thirst for knowledge of the wider world, but… absolutely no dice.

        A number of countries also spring to mind when it comes to this sort of utter disinterest in the world, but Japan is definitely among the top 3 in my book.

  7. Thanks Ken,

    I’m printing this up and saving for the next argument with the wife. Boy is she gonna love this!

    • Oh boy, I got a bad feeling about that. I’m starting to think this article should come with a disclaimer.

      • No worries Ken, I’ll cross out your name beforehand. Pour one out for me just in case, but then again wasting beer is just wrong.

  8. Holy cow Ken!

    You finally got an upgrade! From teaching kids who shoved fingers up your butt, to middle aged people who actually wanted to learn, and now to kids who beat their meat to your teaching.
    That’s when you know you’ve really got it.

    I’ve finally finished reading every single comment up until this point man… whew, that took me months. I’m glad to see you are teaching college, I might be going to Kyoto or Tohoku for college soon. Just went to Atlanta for the interview and 6 hours of tests, seriously, if I do make it I’m serious about those drinks homie Ken.
    Thanks for always replying and being such a cool dude.

    ~Noah (^~^)v

    • Wow, that’s excellent. You mean to attend college? Man, if you’re in my class, I expect to see your hands at all times.

  9. Magnificent, stupendous, unequivocally the most brilliant and grokking post ever!!! Too good to call a CM, its another raising of the bar Ken!! When are you going to get the public (real world) accolades for your writing that you deserve! You need to get to work earning the moolah for all of this talent DUDE!! Forget all the public reassurances of your abilities through this Blog, and the gratification it brings to your ego… Turn this ability into cold hard CASH and you can really start to live well. I’m telling you now, that as much as I will hate not reading your wisdom and wit online, I will be much happier if you can turn all that potential into a moneymaking full time successful job that will produce magnificent literary works.

    BANG BANG: write THAT DAMN BOOK and stop Fing around, because you are the type of writer that will make so many people think about things; like truth and wisdom and the beauty/ugliness of life/existence. Your ability of simplification and translating complex situations into common sense terms is very unique and precious. You could inspire and educate SO SO SO many people! AND hopefully become wealthy/comfortable enough to experience all that life has to offer.

    Can you imagine what a Seeroi Sensei could do if he had access to the upper class elements of society, where he could make sense of the rich and powerful and write the truth about what’s really going on in this world. OK, I might be going overboard with my speculations, but I think if someone like you could figure out this world a little bit, and communicate that understanding to enough people, it would help to make this world a better place. That’s all I’m asking… be a real writer and inspire as many people as you can, and hopefully get well paid for that talent too!

    • Getting a bit effusive with the praise there Bud, but I appreciate it. I think I need to retire so I have time to write this great book you keep talking about. Or at least retire from the booze and womanizing. Ah, but then where would we be?

      • Naw, don’t retire… just keep those things that distract you from becoming really free (from experiencing life to the fullest) to a modicum until you are financially set and have success as a writer. Just shift priorities a little and put more effort into honing your skills and figuring out HOW you can get your unique talent into the purview of the general public.

        I get a sense from reading your writing that you really are a GOOD decent person, despite the drinking and womanizing that you always joke about. Most importantly is your economy of words that can still evoke so much thought provoking actions and emotions from the people that read your Blog; it’s almost scary and certainly exciting to witness how much of a catalyst for discussion your thoughts have become.

        Regardless, you are someone that I have come to admire and respect and I truly thank you for all the work and effort you have put into this Blog. I’m only sorry that I can’t negotiate you a writing contract and help you create that great book that will become a success and allow you to write more and more… 🙂

      • I do want to make a point about reading comprehension, as mentioned in the “Language advantage” section of this post. I was a USCF Certified instructor and worked in my Mensa chapter as head of the Golden Knights chess program to teach Chess for over 11 years in 10 different schools and lectured at over 250 different PTAs, Schools, Universities and volunteer groups in my local area regarding chess. I found dozens of public studies around the world regarding chess and its relationship to critical thinking skills and I think that they all pointed to the correlation between advanced reasoning (required in Math and Science) and teaching chess at a young age, but it was noted in all of the studies that reasoning and reading comprehension were not related at all, in fact there was a preponderance of data indicating that those with advanced reasoning skills were often those lowest in language skills.

        I can personally attest to the huge numbers of children in the Chess programs I worked with that were almost consistently the best Math and Science students and most often the worst English and reading comprehension students. My point being that reasoning skills (those required for Math and Science) are not related to language skills/reading comprehension at all, except for the fact that those that can read better might be able to work through some of the most boring books in the library about chess… LOL. I would therefore take out the relationship mentioned regarding language advantage and reasoning and replace it with an improved conceptual or creative thinking instead.

    • I completely agree with Bud here

    • I would actually prefer if Ken got a gig at a major newspaper writing a regular column, more than him writing a book. I personally like books, but the problem is that fewer and fewer people are buying books these days. People don’t make time to read books anymore and it’s easy for books to get lost in the noise without ever getting noticed. Go to the Kinokuniya Times Square in Shinjuku and you’ll see rows of books on Japan in English, but few people actually buying these.

      Online media like blogs, news and opinion websites are much more relevant and accessible these days. That’s where people are spending most of their time and where you see some great discourse going on. I also think that Ken’s style is much better suited to writing a regular column for a news website. A book often requires a more academic and research-oriented approach to be taken seriously. This by definition makes them less accessible and I think the last thing we need is another “academic” book on Japan. Besides, a book is a long-term project and I would hate to see Ken go offline for an extended period which would take him away from this.

      • I’ll tell that to the girl from my son’s high school that just got onto the NY Times best Seller list at #14 and is now a millionaire. BTW, she is working on the movie rights now and they are talking upwards of 4 million dollars for the rights to make it into a movie. Thanks for your opinion Steve, but Books are still read and scripts for movies are often made from stories that are contained in Books. It is the fastest way to make it rich as a writer; Ask J. K. Rowling or Tom Clancy or Homer Hickam… or any other writer that’s had a book become a movie. I bet Ken could come up with a hum dinger of a novel about something regarding coming to Japan and the Japanese way of doing things and sell it to an American producer wanting to help bring our two cultures closer together… maybe, who knows. I also think Ken would be a Magnificent Storyteller type writer somewhat akin to Robert Heinlein.

  10. Woa, Having someone masturbate on your class probably was the borderline. Ken is angry. At least he wasn’t fantasizing with you.. I hope.

    Hey, manga and anime is cool (Shame on you, you could enjoy some Doritos, beer and a good late night anime). It’s all about chewing the culture and feeding it in a manner they will like, right?

    But if it’s about novels, there are some cool authors out like like Eiji Yoshikawa (instead of adolescent ninja how about a samurai?). Dunno if they are required to read it though.

    Well , I’m looking forward to hear what they wrote about how the world will be like in 50 years.

    • Actually, the hand down the pants thing wasn’t that big of a deal. I’ve seen all kinds of weird stuff here. At least he made a decent attempt at the assignment.

      Nothing wrong with manga or anime either. They’re great entertainment. I’m merely wondering if there isn’t a connection between having a really hard language and books with pictures. Illustrations are the typical solution when trying to present information to people (usually children) who can’t fully grasp written language. They’re worth a thousand words, I’m told.

      • In general, there’s a tendency for westerners to dismiss comics or image based media as inferior to literature/written work. Why? Because critical theory in the west always focuses on text and speech itself if not first. Our analytical faculties are primarily developed through text, so we are (hypothetically) trained to process things like rhetoric and dialogue on sub-textual layers. However, that level of analysis is practically absent when it comes to images, because in western culture they’re not given the same weight as text. We say that pictures are worth a thousand words, but at best, most people are only able to “read” them on a simple, superficial level.

        Manga/graphic novels and literature are equally capable of communicating complex ideas, but if anything, the wider acceptance of the former in Japan is indicative of a culture more in tune with visual or appearance based observation and reasoning. Not to mention the fact that they’ve been using sequential art to communicate ideas consistently longer than we have…just check out some emakimono picture scrolls in the National Museum.

        I’d say that a manga work on par if not more intense than to Kill a Mockingbird would be Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen) by Keiji Nakazawa. It’s also aimed at the Naruto reading crowd and focuses on some really heavy issues concerning war, bullying, and power dynamics in Japanese society among other things. I mean there’s nothing more childish than watching a 6 year old boy being forced to help preggo mom deliver his baby sister, because everyone else has either burned to death or evaporated from the atomic bomb…yep all kids stuff.

        I’m sure you are already aware, but not all manga contain super heroes or crazy fake anime high school hijinks. A lot of manga for adult women for example, explore that question of “is settling down the key to my happiness?” or “how do I deal with X situation at work?” and so forth. Because those issues are more realistic, they tend to receive live action adaptations rather then animated ones. Hataraki-man is a personal favorite of mine.

        In all seriousness do give Gen a chance if you haven’t read it…it’s a powerful read.

          • Well I’ll be damned. I tend to browse the past entries by tags, so this must’ve slipped by me as a result.

            Since you’ve read Gen, two other manga I’d recommend are “Showa: A History of Japan” and “Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths” by Shigeru Mizuki. Having fought in WWII, Mizuki is another Japanese author who didn’t pull any punches when describing the atrocities perpetrated by the Imperial Japanese Army. At times, I found it even more chilling than Gen, so it’s best not to read before bed. Graphically speaking, you’d probably take to it more as the drawings are also relatively realistic (since its for adults)…an astounding feat since Mizuki lost his dominant arm in the war.

            According to my Japanese teacher, if your reading skills are good enough to get through a Japanese high school history textbook (which mine are not), you’d be able to read the Japanese version comfortably. Otherwise, the English versions are available on Amazon.

        • It might be true that comics and manga are able to be as expressive as any western literature, and there certainly are graphic novels and art house comics that have a lot of merit, but the reality is that most comics/manga have nowhere near the depth, thought, and aesthetic rigour put into them that literature does.

          There are many trashy/bad novels, or novels that are simply mindless entertainment, but almost all comics/manga are one of those things, relying on cheap archetypal mythologies.

      • I find the idea that the “hands down pants” guy turned in the best work creepy, funny and sad.
        Standardized Testing and Common Core – oriented learning is taking off here, which I was afraid was going to stunt American children’s overall educational growth. Sadly, Japan supports my theory.

        Much as I like manga and anime (and after 40 years I’d have to call myself an otaku), there’s no substitute for literature and thought/emotional development.

        Liking the column, BTW. Keep it comin’…

        • My understanding of “otaku” in the original (Japanese) sense is that it relates more to the intensity of consumption rather than duration. In other words, people who are so obsessed with their hobbies that they forego the necessities such as developing healthy human relationships and other such social skills.

          I’m going to guess you’re not that. 😉

          While I don’t think it needs to or ever will replace literature, I believe that graphic novels have the same potential for developing critical thinking skills. It just goes about it in a visual way.

  11. Interesting read. Coincidentally, I’ve also been thinking about effect of native language to ability of learning pronunciation of another language recently. Didn’t get as far as you though.

    Now I think it, I don’t even know how a Japanese dictionary is even structured in printed/book form. I mean, how are they even arranging it? Two separate section between kanji and words? How are they even structuring the kanji lookup section?

    • A typical Japanese dictionary simply has the words listed alphabetically, using the Japanese alphabet (hiragana): あ、い、う、え、お. I think there’s some system for looking up unknown kanji, but it’s been so long since I used a paper dictionary that I can’t remember what it is. So I called a lady friend of mine.

      “Hey,” I asked, “how do you look up kanji you don’t know in a paper dictionary?

      “First, I’d look it up in my phone,” she said.

      “Well, let’s say you didn’t have a phone, then what would you do?

      “I’d guess at the readings for the kanji.” This is reasonable. After working with kanji for a few years, even I can usually make two or three stabs and get one of the readings.

      “Okay, but what if it’s a totally unknown kanji?

      “I’d ask someone else how to read it. People ask each other all the time.

      “Okay, but what if no one knew? Can’t you look it up by radicals or something? Isn’t there some system?

      “I think I’d just give up at that point.”

      So there you have it, how you look stuff up in Japanese. Use your phone, ask someone, and then give up entirely. Such a beautiful language.

      • Kanji learning dictionaries have ways to make looking up unknown kanji easier (the SKIP system, for example). But we people who don’t have Japanese as our native language are allowed to look like dummies and reach for a paper dictionary.

      • You can look up an unknown kanji by radical components and stroke count. for example, you see a 月 and count a total of 9 strokes. Dictionary will list 削、前, etc.as possibles for you to match with.

  12. I can already tell this is going to be a pretty long comment so, before I digress, let me first say how ridiculously well written this blog is. You mix factual content with humor and emotion so skillfully, it makes me want to cry. I could never get tired of your writing. If your blog was a person, I’d get it drunk, force it into marriage and handcuff it to myself so I can admire its perfection (and do lots of dirty things to it) for the rest of my life. Well, I guess you officially have a groupie now. Seriously, just write a book goddammit… Now that that’s out, let me thank you for changing my life (well, kinda).

    I discovered you a little less than a month ago when googling “reasons to learn japanese” after having returned from a trip to Thailand. Sounds a bit misleading, but Chiang Mai will always remain in my heart for being the place where I watched my very first anime, which – despite it’s obviously flawed role in japanese society, as described by you – I grew quite fond of. The finale of Death Note was a soul-crushing experience – the only way to heal the deep wounds it had left seemed to start learning Japanese. This chain of thought appeared more reasonable at the time…
    Anyway, out of all the google results, your article “Why You Shouldn’t Learn Japanese” stood out the most. It was about the only post that sharply contrasted with the sea of exuberantly positive accounts. Polyglots and mere mortals alike encouraged readers to learn the oh-so simple and super-fun Japanese language, assuring gullible novices like me that it wouldn’t take longer than a year, two at most, to become proficient in the language. I let them lull me into believing that, so you can probably imagine what a disturbance your unabashed dissent caused me.
    “Japanese is not as oh-so simple and super-fun as it sounds? Who does that Ken Seeroi think he is?”, I scoffed in skepticism but nevertheless kept reading.
    Now, up until the last two paragraphs none of the reasons you listed seemed worthy of consideration to me. Takes a lot of time and effort? Gotta stay determined despite the difficulties? Well, same applies to just about every other language. It’s virtually useless outside of Japan? Not if you watch anime, my friend. I mean, that’s useful, right? Besides, ever heard of aestheticism? That school of thought? I believe it was them who coined the phrase “Japanese for Japanese’s sake” (pun intended).
    But although the previously mentioned points didn’t discourage me, you still managed to shatter all my hopes and beliefs with that last argument: Japan’s not all that great. It’s just another place with plenty of good and bad. Wait, what? What does that mean, plenty of bad? My inebriated brain refused to believe what it had just absorbed but I couldn’t resist that weird feeling of disappointment overcoming me. I felt somewhat wary about that blog, as if it was a seemingly harmless dog that had just bitten my finger. But at the same time I was strangely drawn to it. I wanted to know how you’ve come to this conclusion, where that bittersweet tone of yours came from.
    When I was halfway through the blog, I realized that it was too late for me to go back. I haven’t even been to the country once and I already got deprived of that incomparable feeling of being an unsuspecting stranger, full of hopes and dreams, ready to conquer an uncharted territory. And not just some territory – Japaaaan… But not it was all gone. It felt like my parents had just told me that I’m adopted, on Christmas day. But then I remembered that I am a russian-orthodox and don’t actually celebrate Christmas, so it was all good.
    By now, I am through with your blog and voraciously await new posts that will get me depressed and make me question my life choices… But at the same time somehow motivate me to continue my Japanese studies. For some reason I am willing to suffer, suffer in Japan, struggling with a language I don’t yet understand, stuck in a society I might never fully grasp. And that, Seeroi-Sensei, is all thanks to you. Arigato gozaimasu.

    Okay, some final questions, then I’ll leave you alone:
    I don’t know if you have any links to that field or know anything about it at all, but if you do: Can you tell me a little about the Japanese film industry? Whether it’s difficult for foreigners to get involved in that sphere? And if the Japanese art scene is more accepting than the Japanese society in general? It has become a vague, distant dream of mine to work in film in Japan… I have read about some westerners who managed to success as filmmakers in Japan but I feel like it’s too good to be true. So turning to you, whom I believe to be a reliable source, seemed like a safe option.
    Now, this question might sound kind of silly but is it customary to give up your seat for older people when you’re on a train in Japan? Because from what I’ve heard, Japanese trains seem to neglect general moral laws that apply to the rest of the world…
    Then, do any of your (english-speaking) Japanese friends know you write a blog? And, if so, aren’t you concerned that they might be slightly pissed off if they found out that you share personal stories about their lives?
    And finally, to address this newest post of yours (which was, as always, a pleasure to read), does this low educational level also concern prestigious japanese universities such as Todai, Waseda and Keio?

    Now, I better stop typing before this comment gets longer than your post. Seriously, this took me longer to write than my college application essays…

    PS: You didn’t write anything for a while, so now that this post is out, I am truly, wholeheartedly relieved that you’re still alive. You know, I only really discovered David Bowie one week before he died, which SUCKED. It would be a shame if the same thing happened again…

    • So much comment. I was planning not to drink tonight until I read it, but man, now I’m feeling the need for a six-pack.

      So let me fire off a few answers off the top of my head.

      Film industry. I had similar thoughts when I got here. Maybe I’d be a model, actor, or yakuza boss. Singer? I’d settle for that. I approached a few people in the talent business, and their responses were fairly uniform: “what experience do you have?”

      Experience? I thought all I needed to be was white. Nope, that’s English teaching. For other jobs, it helps to actually have qualifications. So if you want to make films, you probably can, but it would help to have a background in the industry.

      Is the art scene more accepting? Of foreigners? I’d say No. Let’s move on. Give up a seat on a train? Okay, that’s a No too.

      My friends either a) can’t read English well enough to make heads or tails of the crazy stuff I write b) completely forgot I had a blog although I mentioned it repeatedly, or c) I change their names and a couple of details.

      Is the level of education still poor at prestigious universities? I’ve taught at some big-name places, and although the students’ levels were higher, the work ethic was similar. College isn’t a place you go to get an education in Japan. I’ve heard Todai is different, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

      Finally, let me say that I’m glad I’m alive too. But since it appears you cosmically killed off David Bowie a week after discovering him, now I’ve gotta wait seven days to be sure you haven’t jinxed me. Thanks a lot.

      • Ken,

        I work at a top 20 ranked university here, as well at one that is, ahem, let’s just say, far lower, and there’s no comparison between the two. The students at the former are just in a different league, in all areas—and these are for compulsory classes at both.

      • Thanks for the response. As for gathering experience in the industry, I first need to finish film school without dying from sleep deprivation. But yeah, someday, after I’ve won several Oscars and other coveted accolades, I could see myself continuing my illustrious career in Japan.

        And don’t worry about being cosmically killed off by me. This only happened to me a couple more times before… Anyway, let us know if you make it through the week. Maybe with a new post…?

        • Natalie, if you are considering pursuing your career in Japan consider again: you will exist in a bubble in which you will be infantilized. Men succumb to a worse fate inside the bubble – emasculation.

  13. “This reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that children starting school several months earlier than their peers enjoy a lifetime of advantages.”

    I think you meant to write “later” instead of “earlier”? Older children in the same class start school later than their peers.

    Btw, thanks for all your blog posts. They’ve been a source of comfort for me as I coped with living and working in Japan, and they really helped with my Japanese, too!

    • No, he didn’t mistype.
      Children starting at the oldest possible age have an advantage over younger children in the same class, since they pick up things faster, get selected for special projects and sports teams more often etc. etc. These little advantages can snowball over time. Apparently, there’s a minor baby boom in the Upper East Side each October to make use of this, courtesy of modern medical science to help the next generation of Goldman Sachs CEO’s time their birth’s just right.

  14. Did you mean to say “starting later” at “This reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that children starting school several months earlier than their peers enjoy a lifetime of advantages”? Starting earlier would make the child younger than its peers.

    • I did mean “later.” It’s fixed now. And wow, three people caught the same mistake–thanks for actually reading what I write. Guess I ought to try it too.

  15. Great to see you back with a new article, and this one is painfully true. I’ll never forget the first time I went into a Japanese middle school and met a bunch of 11 year olds. They were taking a kanji quiz that day, which I also took for shits and giggles. I passed it with flying colors; then I realized I just passed a quiz designed for 11 year olds, after only 2 years of studying the language myself. I then took a novel from the back shelf and started reading aloud to the students, who couldn’t smoothly read it themselves because there were no “furigana” included. I later discussed with the teacher what a hindrance it is for Japanese children that they can’t read books into their early teens, and told her I literally don’t remember a time in my life where I couldn’t read. It was a surreal conversation for sure. I don’t envy the Japanese…

    • That’s it, in a nutshell.

      I remember my mother reading to me, and then starting to read on my own. I guess I was around five, give or take. Not that I could read every word, but I could sound out most of them, and look up select ones where necessary.

      By contrast, Japanese kids spend hours—years actually—just writing out kanji. I guess it beats sewing Nikes or assembling iPhones, but not by much.

  16. “This reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that children starting school several months earlier than their peers enjoy a lifetime of advantages. ” Based on the rest of what you wrote in this paragraph, I think you meant to say “several months later.”

    • I did, thanks. Two other folks caught the same mistake. (It’s fixed now.) Who knew crowdsourcing the editing process would be so effective?

  17. Hello. I’ve lived in Japan for ever, attended a Japanese university for 4 years, known this blog for this half year, read all your articles. laughed out loud, and nodded hard at some of them. Your blog is so funny, informative. Although it does often leave out this huge, economic, educational divide in Japan.
    About this article. I come from a “teaching” family. We somehow end up teachers: Universities, companies, firms, schools, kindergartens, and day cares. Some students are astonishingly intelligent (not textbook clever but really intelligent). Some are slow and awkward, but I love them all.
    I was a little upset by this post. I hope you will get a job that will make you happy to teach!

    • Thanks for the comment. Hey, I love my job, and teaching. Like you, my entire family is comprised of teachers (although frequently mistaken for a troupe of circus performers).

      And again, I’m not disparaging the intelligence of Japanese people. I’m merely noting that the language presents a considerable handicap. Look at how many hours kids spend in school. I used to walk by a juku every evening at around 8 p.m. Outside it was dark, and inside were rows of children at desks under the fluorescent lights, studying into the night. Doesn’t leave a lot of time for Pokemon Go, if you know what I mean.

  18. Glad to hear I’m not the only one who made similar observations about this particular Japanese disability 🙂 Recently I acquainted one decent Chinese guy who shares the similar thinking as me, but all those years before I was increasingly wondering if it’s just me being strange, not Japanese people being unable to discuss things on some decent level.

    However, while you theory about language complexity is really interesting (something like this never crossed my mind, actually!), I myself tend to attribute this retardation (retardedness?) to the fact that the culture of debate and discussion is basically absent in Japanese culture. Like, I don’t remember when Confucius said something about discussing, disagreeing and proving that you are right and the opponent is wrong. Filial piety, respect to elders and serving to your state – that sounds more familiar. Even now, in modern times, there’s nothing resembling a general philosophy course in the university. Far from that, there’s nothing resembling an actual seminar during those “professor speaks and I sleep while my head nods automatically showing an agreement to his words” hours they call “seminar”. Dispute? Thesis-argument-conclusion? Counterargument, maybe? Nah, never heard of that.

    On the defensive side I must admit I never thought that the discussion on gastronomical matters could be co deep like it is here. While ramen soup is definitely a hot topic, my personal favorite is oden. I think the longest discussion I attended lasted for a good couple of hours. The only think is that, due to some limitations I pointed out in the previous paragraph, it was a little… repetitious must be the right world for it. Repetitious to the extend to being outright dumb, boring and without any meaning. Oops, said that aloud.

    • Cultures lacking a deep exposure to Greek philosophy tended to not accept the law of the excluded middle. This resulted in formal logic being developed and emphasized to a greater degree in Europe and the Middle East for a long time. In India and China the excluded middle was known to some but never took off. Instead there was the idea that between two conflicting ideas, the truth must lie somewhere in the middle (i.e. the middle way). That is a useful idea for keeping an open mind, but it doesn’t and didn’t lead to the development of the sort of argumentation and proof developed to the west.

      There were pros and cons to each approach. The Greek approach sometimes rigidly led to conclusions that didn’t match the physical world. The middle way between two wrong assertions is commonly just as wrong.

      • Well then, deep exposure to Greek philosophy obviously doesn’t count Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics which has the mean between two extremes as a central theme to address practical human questions. Not to also say that it is one of the most important philosophical works, had a big impact on European Middle Ages philosophy and a part to play in the development of all modern philosophy as well as European law. So much for those rigid greeks.

  19. Yes, and that’s why the Japanese would be nowhere without outside help and influence. It’s about time they admit that to themselves.

  20. I think the particularly odd thing about this problem is that there is an easy solution for the Japanese. Just stop using Kanji. They already have a native writing system that can represent every single word in their language (Hiragana), that every single person in the country knows, and is much more accessible to foreigners.

    • That won’t work, but I’ll tell you what will.

      Japanese “words” are constructed by gluing together kanji, as well as hiragana. That makes for some fearsomely long words: 原子力発電所 would become げんしりょくはつでんしょ, thus doubling the number of characters while simultaneously stripping out all of the meaning. Remember that every sound in that word is represented by a character with meaning: atompowergenerationplace.

      There’s also the homonym problem, since somehow Japanese manages to have more characters in the alphabet yet fewer sounds in total. Perplexing.

      But you know what does work? English. And that’s one reason everybody here’s so hot to learn it. It’s simple, or at least simpler, and it enables us to communicate with everyone. Japan has been on a steady path to include more English, or at worst English-esque katakana, for decades. It is literally the future. The only problem is finding the time to learn it, since everybody’s already got their plates full with Japanese.

      • I wondered for ages as to how it manages to have more letters but fewer sounds, until I realised that the explanation makes sense when you think of the hiragana with their English depiction. You’d normally start by learning Japanese characters in some kind of pattern like this:

        あ い う え お 
        か き く け こ

        And at this point you’re like ‘I know 10 characters!’ – way to go! Or something like that…

        But think about writing them as sounds using English characters:

        a i u e o
        ka ki ku ke ko

        It isn’t really 10 characters because the ‘k’ is duplicated every time. So you actually have learnt 6 sounds:

        a i u e o k

        The next bit might have been:

        ら り る れ ろ

        Which is another 5 characters, but in reality, it is only one more sound, so you’re up to 7…

        a i u e o k r

        When I tried to total the Japanese sounds when looking at the English way of writing characters I ended up with the following:

        a, i, u, e, o, k, g, s, z, t, d, n, h, b, p, m, y, r, w

        Which is only 19 in total (the few exceptions such as し, ち might bring it above 20 a bit, but not much further. Things such as きょ are really just combinations of the above as well.) When you combine the 20 ish sounds above with the fact that basically 99% of the time a vowel sound has to come after a consonant sound, the number of sounds you can make doesn’t increase much. Unlike English with 26 letters where there are far more links to allow words to sound different and be less homogenous.

        In Japanese, we have sa, shi, su, se so, where we pair the ‘s’ sound with another sound after it…

        In English, sa, sc, se, sh, si, sk, sm, sn, so, sp, sq, st, su, sw, sy, and probably some of the others could be included if at the end or in the middle of a word. Remember as well that English can combine even further such as: str, shu etc, whereas Japanese would be already be onto another ‘character’ by then!

        • Hi Michael, this video explains why Hiragana just won’t work; and why Kanji still continues to be used to this date https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O27TgLW6pCU

          Btw do you have any experience reading in Kanji vs reading hiragana text? You will tear your hair out when reading hiragana.. it is slow, painful, and hard to figure out meanings of words. With a Kanji, a brief scan of the Kanjis and you get the meaning of a one-page document at a glance! It takes time to learn Kanji yes, but your reading speed increases 10-fold..

          • Hi Savvy – thanks for this, but I think you might have replied to the wrong comment. I completely agree that Japanese is waaay easier to read with Kanji in! I was commenting on why there manages to be more letters but fewer sounds 🙂

      • “atompowergenerationplace”: Some german words are like that.

  21. I tend to go with the idea that any disinclination towards debate and argument is a deep-seated cultural one rather than stemming from the time taken to fully learn the writing system.

    As evidence, can I say that Japanese children actually get an early reading boost compared to Western children. A five to six year old Japanese child who has learnt hiragana can easily read aloud any word written in hiragana (not necessarily understanding it of course). A European child of the same age who has learnt the alphabet is still in the process of learning how the letters combine to form syllables.

    The hiragana support continues for Japanese children throughout school, enabling them to read unfamiliar words and kanji past their grade level. For example, a grade six social studies school textbook that I have has (on a rough count) furigana over about 20% of all kanji (although I would expect social studies to be introducing a lot of unfamiliar terms). Apart from that, the general level and content of the text doesn’t seem to be any different from that of Western textbooks.

    It may take some time for Japanese children to learn all the characters to read a newspaper without furigana support, but they do go on to be great newspaper readers. In 2012, Japan had the second largest newspaper readership level in the world (after Iceland). According to the World Association of Newspapers, 92% of the population receives a daily, paid-for print newspaper. The Yomiuri newspaper sells 13.5 million print copies daily. The top-selling newspaper in the UK sells 2.5 million copies daily.

    And Japan is famous for writing (the Tale of the Genji, Soseki, Tanizaki, Kawabata, Mishima, Murakami, just for starters), movies (Mizoguchi, Ozu, Kurosawa, Imamura, Miyazaki), and music (Japanese shakuhachi playing can be everything from profound and meditative to jazzy and upbeat).

    • It’s because the rest of the world is reading its news online while Japan newspapers still do business as if it’s the pre-internet era. Just my simplistic explanation to the skewed (in favour of Japan) number of newspaper sales…

    • I agree that disinclination to debate is a cultural trait, although I tend to think that language and culture influence each other. Japanese people themselves, when they speak English, adopt a different personality. They immediately switch on and become more animated. Just changing the language changes the expectations and behavior, even on an individual basis.

      On the other points, I’d have to disagree with you, but that’s okay. It’s good to hear a variety of opinions.

  22. Wow man, nice to see a new post, and what a comically insightful one at that (without going into too many superlatives, which others seem to be better at than me). I think you’ve amassed a heavy user base waiting for new posts, so if teaching time, drinking time and inspiration allow it, remember that new posts are very much appreciated!

    You make a very interesting point here, and have inadvertently sent me on a 45 minute interweb-safari about education systems and standardized tests, thanks for that. The Finnish system seems ideal (and comparable to some other Western European systems), and only now I realize that this indeed prepares students better for academic reasoning (by means of essays that require you to analyze/compare situations or think abstractly). This might possibly explain the general feeling in Europe that most US college/university graduates tend to be at the same level at 2nd year Euro-university students.

    I presumed Japanese universities were “up there” in the top 100, but now I see there are only two Japanese universities in the university top 100, so that might indeed be indicative of a ‘retarded’ development 🙂

    I’m wondering how you feel about anime in general. People who I know to be huge fans often bring up the argument that “anime allows for more intricate stories to be told, without the massive costs that come with a regular TV series, which results in dozens of shows with brilliant and complex story lines”. Having only seen a few movies/shows myself, I was starting to feel like that’s true, believing that Japanese were masters of plots behind plots. While, contrary to the proverb, I believe a thousand words are better than one picture, these shows do convey an understanding of human emotions/complexities in an easier fashion than books do.

    Other random brainfart; do you think the omitting of words in sentences, which is often explained as “Japanese are smart enough to deduce the meaning from the context”, might actually be a reflection of a poor vocabulary?

    • Thanks for the nice comment. On your last question, I certainly don’t think that Japanese folks—I might even include myself in this since I live here and use the language to communicate—have some magical ability to deduce meaning from context. We simply use fewer words.

      Why? Well, one reason is that it’s so hard to solve problems if you make a misstep. The Japanese language is all about walking on eggshells. You never know what tiny tiny thing you might say that will offend the other person, so you try not to say too much. The culture doesn’t really promote solving problems through healthy debate.

      It’s not a lack of vocabulary, let’s clear that up. Japanese adults are educated in their language. It’s simply that getting to the point of being educated costs them other opportunities, such as in discussion and critical thinking.

      As for anime, I not really familiar enough with it to make a good assessment. It might cut down on production costs, so it seems reasonable that producers could try a wider number of stories than they could with film. Although that being said, it seems like an independent filmmaker with a small cast could do as well.

      I watch a number of dramas, and they seem to represent real-life fairly well. Over half the time, the tension in a drama stems from communication failure. My general impression is that, on film, it’s harder to stray from real life, whereas in anime, it’s easier to take liberties and depict people behaving in ways they really wouldn’t. Just my random thoughts.

      • I have to disagree with that last part. I agree, that given it’s nature anime is a way more imaginative medium than film, but in my experience, anime in most cases can be a lot more grounded and realistic than movies. In many way, anime is way closer to books than it is to film. Anime, unlike film, can depict feelings, emotions and thought without having to rely on the actors’ or the staff’s skills and if they understood what the writer/director wanted to represent or not. While there is lots of spectacle on the surface, a lot of anime deals with topics and stories real-life movies wouldn’t dare touch with a ten foot pole, or simply unable to. With hand-drawn stuff you can depict your imagined story or characters in their entirety and you don’t rely on casting and location managers to find the best approximation for your budget, which will never be 100% what you imagined, just an exercise in hard compromises which will inevitably destroy at least some of the original meaning behind a story.

        For me at least (and I’d imagine a lot of anime fans as well), anime had 10000 times harder effect on me. It’s true what they say about that rabbit hole.The emotional and mental catharsis was incredible, nothing I’ve ever experience with films, and I started watching anime pretty damn late (when I was 21), so you can’t say I simply grew into it. Titles like Steins;Gate, CLANNAD: After Story, Elfen Lied, Usagi Drop, Kanon, NGE and many of the usual suspects left me with such emotional scars and memories that I can safely say were literally life-altering experiences. I never imagined simple hand-drawn animated things can be so immensely more powerful compared to real life actors and movies/plays. Leave it to the Japanese to turn everything to 11, make everything into a refined mastery, and create an artform that can so skillfully and effortlessly tug on your heartstrings and mess with your mind with such surgical precision that it shakes your world so thoroughly you can’t think straight for weeks.

        I swear, I was more surprised by this development than anyone else. As most people who never watched anime as a kid, I thought they were just simple dumb “chinese cartoons” for children. I scoffed at all the seemingly terminally insane anime fans who couldn’t stop gushing about their favorite cartoons with adolescent ninjas and yellow electric rabbits to whoever might listen. But once one of my asshole otaku friends literally sat me down over a lost bet and made me watch Neon Genesis Evangelion from start to finish and then gave me a link to a not-so-legal anime streaming site, all my preconceptions crashed and burned. I turned into the very thing I loathed for so long. It’s kinda true what they say, die as a movie purist or live long enough to see yourself become the otaku. I’m not trying to preach the gospel here, I’m just saying anime (and manga, but I never read manga) might not really be the retarded, simple, cutesy distraction only good for passing the time on long train rides as you first though. Just my $0.02…

  23. I don’t know if anyone has answered yet the question of how to look up a Kanji you don’t know – after asking another cluess person, and after giving up and crying bitter tears of frustration, and if the desire to know the meaning of the character is still in you – there is actually a way to do so with the printed Kanji dictionaries. By radical search. Each Kanji is made up of various radicals and if you can pick a radical you are familiar with, then find the list of Kanjis that contains that radical – could be over 500! From that list (which should be like an index) you will then find the page listing to find the meaning of the character, hopefully!

    • Oh also, if you’re fairly familiar with Kanji, you may be able to replicate the annoying, nameless character; and thus count the number of strokes it takes to write it, and physical dictionaries also feature indices with number of strokes in them. It’s tedious work even just thinking about it

  24. Ken:
    I know everyone tells you the same thing, but your blogs are very entertaining and well-written.

    You’ve really change my perspective on Japan and the prospect of living there. My idealized impression of the Land of Rising Sun has dramatically shifted.

    As a big fan of anime, I always dreamed of living there, even for a year. Last summer, I visited Tokyo and Kyoto; it was a unique experience, and I had a good time. However, one of the issues I faced as a Muslim is that I found it difficult finding food that doesn’t contain pork and alcohol. Obviously, I can’t read Japanese, so I wasn’t able to ascertain the ingredients of even simple Japanese food from convenience stores, let alone meals in restaurants.

    I am dentist by profession and still think about working in Japan for a year. The questions I have are:
    1) Does it seem that Japan is becoming more Muslim-friendly in terms of food? I hear that many more restaurants are receiving Halal certification in preparation for expanded tourism from Malaysia and the 2020 Olympics.
    2) Any advice on working in Japan with a dental degree? I don’t think I would be able to practice in Japan (ie. actually treat patients); I was thinking more along the lines of a 1-year professorship at a dental school or maybe working for a dental materials company.
    3) Are whole-grain foods and gyms readily available in Japan?

    Thanks a lot
    Firas

    • Thanks for the nice comment, and let me try to answer your questions.

      1. Yes. Although I’m sure it’s a tiny percentage, there is a trend toward halal foods and appealing to a Muslim audience. I know a few Muslim folks here, and have seem more and more news stories about Japan becoming more Muslim-friendly. I wrote a bit more about that here: http://www.tokyoweekender.com/2015/03/japan-becoming-a-muslim-nation/

      2. I’m out of my depth on this one. Just a couple of observations, the first being that there are non-Japanese medical professionals working here, so clearly its possible. Now, what it takes to get licensed, certified, rolled in flour and fried to a crisp, I’ve no idea, but I imagine it’s not too easy. But as they say, nothing worth doing ever is. I wish they’d quit saying that.

      The second observation is that it usually takes longer to accomplish stuff in Japan than you think it will. There’s the language barrier, of course, and a sort of built-in resistance that Japanese folks display when it comes to actually helping out, once you’re no longer a tourist. So plan the years of your life accordingly.

      3. Gyms are fairly plentiful in every medium-to-large-sized city, as are specialty-food shops. Of course, if you can adapt yourself to Japanese food, such as brown rice, then you’ll be well off. Japan has a great and varied amount of fresh food. On that score, you should be set.

      Good luck, and let me know how things work out. Cheers.

  25. G’day Ken,
    Just stumbled across your blog, had a great laugh and wanted to give you kudos like all the other love posted here. I’m actually lucky enough to be a professional lifeguard (Dad always asks when I’m going to get a real job…) here in Australia and have had the pleasure of experiencing several Japanese seasons for an alternate summer. Whilst sitting there watching grown adults get wasted on beero at 8 in the morning, pass out in the sun for 4 hours, then stumble out to sea with only an inflatable orca/watermelon/donut/car/swan/thong/insert object here and severe 3rd degree sunburn for support, I often pondered much the same question as you. A total lack of common sense and self preservation is apparently no excuse for making the most of your time when not at work.
    I didn’t delve into it as deep as you however, and, just like all good Japanese, I gave up quickly and assimilated my thoughts to align with an ‘appreciation of cultural diversity’. But dang nabbit, I’ve got some great footage of people getting repeatedly smashed in shoredumps…
    I really do love Japan and its people though. There aren’t many places in the world anymore where you can ride your bike to the beach, leave wallet/phone/passport/blank cheque in the basket and go for a swim and its there when you get back. Simple maybe, beautiful definitely.
    Keep up the awesome work tiger, chin up!!
    Danny

    • Wait, you mean those people who sit in the tall chairs at the beach actually get paid? That’s a job? But I’m sure it’s quite demanding. You have to know how to, uh, swim. And tan. I’m thinking this is my next career move.

      Seriously though, do you need to take any tests to get a lifeguard job in Japan? Or do you just stroll down the sand and say, I’m a lifeguard somewhere else, so how ’bout a job? Because that sounds pretty excellent.

      If you’ve got any of that footage on YouTube, go ahead and post a link. It sounds suitably hilarious.

  26. This is so interesting! I heard from a friend who studies linguistics that language is apparently becoming more and more simple in general all over the world. This thesis goes very well with your article and actually gives it one more real example. All the best from Croatia, where the young ones read Dostojewski in grade 8.

  27. Love you man. I mean your writing. And after this post, i think my mother tongue, vietnamese, is one of the best in the world in term of effort the kids must invest in to learn: less than 3 years and the kids can literally write every word exists in the dictionary.

    • Now that’s a language. Heh, a Japanese person would be stopped on dictionary page 1. There are so many words that sound alike that you’d be stuck going “A”? Is that 亜、会、合、明、開、空…

      Adults frequently puzzle over how to write even common words. And names? Forget it. Vietnam, here I come. P.S. Congratulations on your gold medal.

  28. Just out of curiosity…
    How are the Chinese exchange students?
    The last time I was in Tokyo, all of the English speaking clerks at the Duty Free station of Akihabara Yodobashi were Chinese.
    At the time I assumed it was cheaper than hiring one clerk for Chinese customers and another for English speakers. Now I have to wonder if there weren’t any suitable Japanese candidates.

    • That would’ve been my first thought.

      I’ve had a great number of Chinese students over the years, and they virtually always outperform Japanese students. Sorry, take out “virtually.” No doubt there are a variety of reasons for that, but in general they have a vastly different approach to learning. They’re engaged, participative, and do surprising things, like taking notes and reading the assignment.

  29. I’ve heard before that the amazing Japanese literacy rate is a feature of the language, you have to be able to read it to speak it properly. I accepted this theory, but on reading this article something twigged and for the briefest of moments, I pondered if little fat ladies are in charge of government statistics. Then I googled Japanese literacy rate to which little fat google replied “102%”.

    I’m sure there’s a proper explanation for this statistic, but I will find out after I stop laughing.

    • The folks at Google have put up the wrong statistic – it’s usually given as 99% literacy for adults 15 and over. I thought I’d try and track down the 99% literacy figure, and came up with this:

      ‘The United Nations Development Office Human Development Report for 2003 assigns Japan and nineteen other countries an adult literacy rate of 99%, where adult literacy is defined as “the percentage of people aged 15 and above who can, with understanding, both read and write a short, simple statement related to their everyday life” (United Nations Development Programme 2003). Such a definition is of course a base level and does not take cognizance in between that ability and full literacy of the kind exercised on a daily basis by sophisticated readers and writers.’ (Nanette Gottlieb, 2005, Language and Society in Japan, C.U.P., p.91)

      So the 99% figure relates to approximately grade 3 literacy, and at least twenty countries are at the level of 99%. As for the actual literacy of high school graduates in Japan, I think it’s probably very high, but not so easy to gauge.

  30. This seems to look at it the wrong way. College in Japan is really only about getting in in the first place. In the west, college is easy to get into, but a lot more difficult to get out. In Japan, getting in is particularly challenging, but after you get in, you are pretty much guaranteed to graduate.

  31. Here in the Philippines, the situation of retardation to mother language is almost the same thing – no one even bother to translate every single English word due to lack of drive from the top and that English has been prioritized all these years. In addition to that is regionalism that divides us and isolated island-ization. There are almost 190 languages and dialects in our country but none of which has the same drive to transliterate every English words into their own. There was even a letter or report during American colonization of the Philippines that in 50 years the Philippine languages will be obliterated and English will become our medium of communication. More than 50 years has passed and the almost 190 languages and dialects are still intact. The problem is we were bombarded much of English that when someone speaks it in skewed or non-Americanized manner it becomes laughable yet nobody will bat an eye if the mother language is spoken in wrong grammar. Neither the national government or the local governments bother to set up schools where we can learn any of our language. So they say, learn language fast through slips of two tongues – go get a lover who speaks different from yours and learn from there!

    However, there is still light in the end of the tunnel. During primary years, mother language is taught to children aside being a home language outside the capital. Our high school system even has to incorporate lessons of writing in old script also known in Baybayin but that’s only one time (our writing system has been romanized since Spanish conquest) which is easy through practice. We even celebrate national and cultural languages to gain knowledge of the diversity of our languages. Many local government units even encourages national publications to be published in localized content. There is even a magazine that has been diligently published in 4 major languages at least more than 6 decades now. Moreso, many segments in local language (at least inclusive to the 10 major languages) and even the regional pop songs are even broadcasted in national TV and radio which have never happened before that even we do not understand, many appreciated the efforts. There are even FB pages dedicated for our cultural languages’ awareness, be it major or regional. We know we are still have long way to go to inculcate any other Philippine language as 3rd or 4th or 5th tongue.

    Now going back to the retardation of Japanese in terms of manner of speaking in your article. I was totally floored in telling us your points of view! It explained all the weirdness I thought about Japanese’s speaking politeness. Well most of the intonations I remember are anime-ish but the first time I went to Japan and the first time I listened to Japanese conversation on a street level, I felt like each speaker is clobbered in fear or enslaved asking for deliverance. Your article explained it well! At least Japanese compensates that through ingenuity.

    I remember during my college years that many of my batchmates were apprehensive to work under a Japanese boss or company. 2 points they told me – first is Japanese companies offer lower compensation and that one will never learn/learn a little from a Japanese boss that’s why many are designating/promoting Filipino bosses lower than these Japanese bosses to deal with fellow Filipino employees. I have not worked in Japanese company but have encountered Japanese representatives in the line work I had when I was still in the corporate jungle. We do consider language barrier but I was fortunate to encounter many Japanese reps who were adept to English as if it’s their 2nd language and are quick-witted as well (of course not all of them). They do speak in Nihonggo on their own if ever just to clarify things to themselves. On the other hand, we Filipinos being cheerful, if not for the smile and laughs and saying the word “please” may be borderline rude for them. It is asked to us to be aggressive although we are the one needing to gain the Japanese services. At the end of the day, it’s all about work.

    From my previous work, there were times that I take pride in doing negotiations being a one-man foot employee then talking my way to those titled Japanese reps (back from their home office) who come to our office. When it comes to negotiating down to our company’s needs from them, there were many times that I (or any of my colleagues’ experiences) ended up being guilty to the point of being frustrated since many of spur-of-the-moment decisions had to be discussed when they return to Japan. I mean it’s a big WHAT?! for us that we badly needed the Japanese service but the solutions can’t be done in one seating! Those moments come to us then that we cannot help ourselves but to contemplate in comparing them to any other nationalities whom most of the time doing phone calls in front of us, clarifying to their respective head office if they can give in to our needs just to finish our discussion. Most of the time that simple phone call works in our favor! But with Japanese, my previous head management called them a ‘special child’ or ‘special case’. But in general, while their services are very expensive, they get things right. They have to! But, it takes time from weeks to months to settle everything. So much for the OCD!

    I enjoyed your article. I will be reading the rest in this website. Kudos!

  32. I just discovered your blog and I love it. I’ll be taking some time to go back and read all of your older posts. I lived in Tokyo from 2006-2007. Met my gaijin (Korean) wife there. So, reading your posts is a little bit like reliving my time there. It’s both nostalgic and a little voyeuristic.

  33. Hey Ken, thanks for the post! There’re also multiple readings for some Chinese characters, but it’s not as bad as Japanese with its onyomi and kunyomi.

    Btw, I’ve been trying to find a way to contact you but can’t find a contact form / email on the blog. Can you please drop me a line? Thanks!

    • Ah, thanks. I’ve been pretty reclusive as of late. I’ve no real excuse, but I’ll try to drop you a line in the next few days. Cheers.

  34. I’ve read all your articles, and to me the running theme seems like that you hate Japanese. The language I mean, you seem to like the food and the babes at least. I can’t say I disagree (to both), it really is an archaic tongue with a needlessly overcomplicated writing system, which they are too damn stubborn and culturally jealous to do anything about. But, blaming the writing system for cultural and societal problems, I just can’t make the same connections. I mean, anyone who looked into or suffered the Japanese education system themselves knows it’s borderline useless, it’s only effect being teaching kids how to cram, memorize and forget a metric fuckton of factoids/formulas and how to write standardized tests. There is no place for any personality, opinion or individuality anywhere in the system. Everyone gets stuffed into the same schools with the same curriculum, the same classes with people wearing the same uniforms. At the end of it all, looking at the same bleak future of either getting stuck doing menial labor or if you get accepted into a university then getting your body and soul slowly ground into a paste by the corporate machine.

    While I agree the difficulty of written Japanese might play into this, but I rather think escaping that living nightmare is more the reason so many people fall into this kind of escapism than it being easier to read. While the last generation dulled the existential terror with copious amounts of booze, porn and karaoke, the new generation rather dives into reading manga, light novels, watching anime or playing video games. The tools have changed, the reasons have not.

    As someone who speaks a language on par in difficulty with Japanese, I think it boils down to culture and society. While Hungarian writing might not be as monstrously complicated, the language itself is quite a unique one. Having nothing in common with any of the other languages in Europe (despite the country being smack in the middle of it) it’s even more useless in worldwide utility than Japanese, and just as much complicated and hard to pronounce. Nobody in their right mind would dare to learn Hungarian who are not born into it, unless coerced at gunpoint or something. Why? Because Hungary is completely and utterly uninteresting. What Hungary is kinda good at, namely science, food and sports, doesn’t really require language at all. Here, no one blames the language for how screwed up the school system is or why more people don’t wanna come here. No, the reason is because the country is a shithole, full of depressed and malignant people fucking each other over and screaming at clouds. Despite the language being what it is, I never thought about bringing it up as a reason for people being ignorant assholes around here, incapable of having any sort of intelligent conversation. While Hungarian is a very rich and colorful language, debates over mostly anything usually devolve into slinging expletives and throwing blame around in quite a hurry (and if you do it in person, fists might get involved). What I meant to say with all that is, language in itself is not a cause or result of anything. It’s an inseparable part of the culture, and if you gonna use the language (or writing) as a strawman to blame something cultural on it, it’s just a circular argument.

    “Ever wonder why Japanese people have such trouble learning English? Just look at how well they speak their own language. Not great, is how. ”
    I don’t agree with that at all. I can only bring my own language as an example again. Hungarian is horrendously difficult to foreigners, and yes, even to us born and living here. There is a big portion of the adult population who can’t use proper grammar and writing. But unlike the Japanese, we have no problem learning English, German or other languages at all despite them being exactly as unlike our language as Japanese. In Hungarian schools learning a second language (usually English) is mandatory, while learning even a third language by the end of college is not unheard of. What’s the difference then? The school system and the culture, is what. While the language education in Hungary has mostly kept up with the times and the more modern teaching techniques and resources, in Japan, well, you know better than anyone in here. Also, since nobody speaks Hungarian but us few living here, we have an objective need to learn foreign languages just be able to communicate with basically anyone outside of this tiny country, and we learn that need pretty early in our lives. As for Japan, there’s the ever-present cultural resistance to anything foreign, mixed with horrible teaching methods, seriously outdated resources, and the fact most them don’t see the point of learning it since they “don’t plan on leaving the country, like, ever” and you get the perfect storm for “broken Engrish” as a second language, or not even that, just abject disinterest.

    Or I could be wrong. I dunno. I was just bored at work 😀

    • You perhaps fail to grasp just how little of two effs I give about most things. I don’t hate the Japanese language, nor do I love it. I don’t personally care much one way or another.

      Objectively though, Japanese seems to present some heavy disadvantages, starting with, uh, a 2300-character alphabet where every character has multiple meanings and pronunciations. So there’s that small point. And it doesn’t seem to make things easier for anyone, including Japanese folks. But all right, that’s just the way it is. Don’t hate water for being wet.

      • “You perhaps fail to grasp just how little of two effs I give about most things.”
        Perhaps. But if that was true, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. Nor this blog that’s filled to the brim with articles and discussions about the good and bad of Japanese language for that matter 🙂
        But you are right, I don’t know you. I’m just some random internet person who only sees you through your writing. It’s entirely possible I’m reading this whole thing wrong, and I genuinely don’t like to pigeonhole people, but for me, you seem like you do care about stuff, very much so. At least that’s the Ken Seeroi I got to know from your articles over the years. Maybe you don’t give a flying eff about geopolitics, marine biology or astrophysics, but from what you wrote so far and especially HOW you wrote, speaks volumes about just what kinda person you are. And I respect and admire (in many ways even envy) that person. Especially the things you DON’T give a F about. There are too many people screaming at clouds, getting offended or just flat out rage against things nowadays. People programmed to hate, riddled with bigotry, racism, nationalism, and a whole lot of “-ism”s just screaming their heads off at anything and everything that’s not them. The fact you don’t give a rats ass about any of that, about race, creed, religion, gender, etc, automatically makes you a way better person than a pretty big portion of humans, at least in my book. I honestly want to catch a beer with you sometime, and just shoot the breeze, because I know you won’t go off on a tangent about how the jews want to enslave the world through illuminati, how eating meat is murder and how gay people are a danger to our children.
        I will keep reading your stuff, because it restores my faith in humanity.

  35. Well, according to the latest Pisa tests: http://www.bbc.com/news/business-26249042
    Japan is doing far better than the average and you can spot America and Australia far back in the pack.
    Having been a high school teacher for the last 15 years, I can certainly say that here in Australia at least, we really can’t fail any student (all student’s are equal right?). Every year when a bunch of Japanese High School students visit us for 2 weeks, they show that they can do the math and science work that our year 12 students are doing, even though these guys are the equivalent of our year 9/10 students. They can also speak English better than our students who have been studying Japanese for 12 years.

    Having worked in Japan a few years, I certainly noticed a few odd things at school, but I must say they are far more independent than the average western kid and can at least tell me what the circumference, radius and area of a circle is. Yes, thats right, a year 9 class that I had a few weeks ago here in Aus were struggling with that concept. Then again, I can understand why. With the push for STEM classes and IT featuring in every lesson, we can’t rely on our own brains any more.

    Anyway, at least you were funny as always. I hope everyone who reads your site has had the opportunity to both teach in Japan and their own countries. Until they have done both, they won’t really see why the west has fallen so far behind all of Asia.

    • I think you make a pretty interesting point. One of the dominating forces in the electronics component industry is definitely Japan. Working for an American distributor, it’s pretty interesting to see how much of this industry is dominated by them, I would say it’s well over half. I just find this entire post that he made completely ironic and funny compared to how I view the country. I mean, I think the average person in general is pretty stupid, so this really doesn’t change my view on anything. But hey, what do I know anyways.

  36. Hi Ken

    Tried to get in touch with you on Twitter and Facebook, but think I failed so putting my long-winded email into this comment instead. Hopefully it will end up moderated and not public on the site 🙂

    Ben Shearon here (sendaiben). As well as the teaching blog, I also run a site called RetireJapan to help people living in Japan learn more about personal finance and investing.

    I’d love to do a guest post for your blog about how to get started with personal finance. I’ll even try and write it in your writing style.

    No pressure, I can even write the post and you can say no if you don’t like it…

    Check out retirejapan.info and let me know if you are interested.

    As an alternative, it would also be cool if you could mention the site at some appropriate point -I think it might be useful for some of your readers at least.

    cheers

  37. Hi Ken! Long time reader, first time commenter. Very much enjoy the blog, it’s an entertaining read! I grew up bilingual (english and Chinese) in the US, so I partially see where you’re coming from. But I also don’t see eye to eye on some aspects…so allow me to counter your oversimplifications with my own! 😛

    From my perspective, the popular opinion about cram schools is that they are useful for getting ahead of the exams competition, not because kids see themselves as falling behind. That’s not to say that no student ever falls behind, but overall, the culture deems more schooling as better. Even if the public school system were to magically change overnight and eliminate all its “problems”, I guarantee that cram schools would still exist to the end of time. From elementary to high school, I was consistently in the top 20% of my classes, and yet my parents (who raised in that environment) still thought it was necessary for me to go to some form of summer school for a good 5+ years of my life. >_> As much as it pains me to say here, I kind of empathize with those Japanese uni kids. Having been subjected to a lot of academic pressures, I also felt severely burned out by the time I started college.

    On the issue of reading, it might be overwhelming at first to find the appropriate material suitable for lower level kanji, but they are out there. Look at the popular classic Journey to West for example. There’s like a gazillion versions of that story written for different age ranges, from pre-schoolers all the way to college. As you upgrade your reading skills, you have the option to pick up the more advanced version. It’s kind of like how in the west, we have many versions of fairytales and classic works rewritten for a younger audience. Even if you did learn to read when young, chances are, you’re probably making a beeline for that dumbed down version in the kids section vs. the real one.

    Reading and writing fall under those “use it or lose it” types of skills, regardless of language. I’ve observed adult English speakers forget vocabulary and spelling in a manner similar to how adult Japanese speakers can forget or misspell kanji. However, I’m pretty sure that if you continue to read consistently no matter what language, you’re bound to retain more vocabulary/kanji then those who do not. I know for certain that my high level vocabulary has dwindled since college because I haven’t felt the need to read so many academic essays as before. Maybe your Japanese friends are experiencing something similar? Since you’re a seasoned English teacher, I would assume you consistently possess a higher command of the english language than us commenters, but thank you for giving us more credit than we deserve! 😛

    From time to time, when I was younger, I sometimes felt one language made more sense to me than the other. For example, I thought about why water was called “water”. You combine a bunch of arbitrary letters/sounds to form it, and its somehow supposed to represent “water”. The kanji for water ‎水 on the other hand, went through years of evolution and its origin as squiggly waves. Somehow I felt that it was (and sometimes still is) a clearer representation of the meaning more so than the former. But eh, semantics…I guess.

    On a slight tangent, I was curious if dyslexia occurs in logographic languages (basically languages with kanji systems) and came across this interesting article. http://www.economist.com/blogs/analects/2014/09/dyslexia-chinese

    Looks like learning kanji activates a different part of the brain than alphabet learning. So people who are alphabet retarded might find it easier to learn kanji, and vice versa. Everybody wins! But in all seriousness, it could explain why a lot of people here find kanji to be retarded/deficient. If you try to prescribe an alphabetic language learning method to a logographic one like kanji, then you will certainly have a long road ahead of you…

    Cheers!

  38. “It’s probably truer to note that a significant segment of the population isn’t accustomed to reading, or thinking, at an adult level.”

    This comment struck me. How often do you see japanese reading books on the train? How often have you talked to a japanese about a book?

    Outside japan, where the japanese are supposedly more educated than the japanese in Japan, the situation seems dire. In London, I knew 35 year old man, who was an MD, who informed me that he ‘reads’ manga every night and often cries because the stories are so emotional. Fast forward some years and I’m in the US at an event and I go up to chat to a japanese lady who’s PhD student. She was quite hot (which is why I wanted to talk to her) and her name was Murakami. So guess how I break the ice. What a mistake. She said she knows of him but never read any of his books? Why? Get this: because it is about the 60s and she wasn’t born back then so she wouldn’t understand it if she read it (I think Norwegian Wood was our subject). So there you have it. You can only read books about something within your own lifetime. Because that’s what books are for. History is recorded on facebook. I left her disgusted. I should’ve talked about food.

  39. Ken, did you renew your visa this year? How was that?

  40. Ken! This article started the longest flame ever in the comments of this Japan Times article: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2016/08/24/voices/beyond-silence-lessons-learned-japanese-spouse/ (look for the first Steve Jackman comment). Enjoy :)!

    • Heh, what a surprise…a commenter extrapolating his anecdotal observations to an entire population, then dismissing another commenter’s anecdotes that contradicts his.

      I was really taken by one of the author’s metaphors in the original article where he is describing western dudes that blab to fill silence…”Others enjoy holding forth, like expat versions of Professor Higgins enlightening an Asian Eliza.”

      That play makes me reminisce about some of my former roommates. Like Higgins, they were indeed, some of the brightest people I’ve met and talked to. However when it came to the daily grind of house chores, pitching in for the cleaning supplies, and being respectful of other roommates, they left a lot to be desired. I guess they somehow thought they deserved a free pass on all this because their PHD work was contributing to the greater good? On the flip side, Japanese people are perceived to be clean, attentive to the details in front of them, sticking to a set of routines, focused on maintaining harmony…grass is always greener I guess. Ideally it would be cool if a balance was struck between both in a partner, but I suppose there’s only so much energy you have in a day.

  41. Ive readed some of your posts so i gotta ask… do you know why people in Japan make manga and anime that gives this “vibe” that Japan is amaizing place and all. Are they trying to fool us foreigners to go to Japan cuz it looks so awesome in fiction and all? I mean in all those school animes i sometimes watch they actually study, wear school uniforms, and the characters dates guys and girls for fun, and everyone seems so friendly and help each other… do they hope that Japan would be like that or… is this some kind of conspiracy???

    • Oh, and i mean no offence to you i just had to ask i’m sorry if i hurt your feelings or you took that as a offence of your country

    • It’s a conspiracy.

      But I don’t think it’s just Japan. A lot of places look better in fiction than in reality. The key is separating the two.

      A great number of Japanese people believe that Western countries are better, friendlier, happier, and have more delicious food, mostly based upon what they read or see in movies. The U.S., in particular, had a great image until a few years ago. A decade ago, you’d’ve been hard-pressed to find a Japanese woman who didn’t want to move to New York city so she could lead the glamorous life of “Sex in the City.” I met women who positively gushed about it. I was like, You do realize not all of New York looks like that, right?

      Ultimately, that stuff is being produced because we’re buying it. People love to be lied to. Nobody wants to read a manga about a broke old man driving around with a dog and a starving child before eventually dying in his car. It’s much easier to sell funny, upbeat stories. But if you’re looking for a clearer picture of Japan, you can find it through dramas, particularly if it’s not set in a high school.

  42. Hey, ken, what part of japan do you suggest visiting? A relative of mine suggested kyoto, but I wanted to get the best experience possible.

    • Kyoto is certainly a must-see. Yeah, it’s a bit touristy, but still an amazing place.

      I’d add Tokyo to the list as well. It’s kind of hard to say you’ve seen Japan without spending a few days there. You can just blast the shinkansen between Kyoto and Tokyo, which is itself worth doing.

      The good thing about seeing the touristy places is that there’s a lot to see and do in them. The bad thing is, of course, that you don’t get much of a sense of what “real life” looks like. Although the trouble with real life is that it’s kind of boring. So if you venture out into a less-trodden city, you can spend a week and not see very much. Which is fine if you’ve got the time, but most visitors don’t. By the way, how much time are you planning to spend?

      That being said, some places you might want to think about are: Hakone–near Tokyo, lots of hot springs you can dip into for a few hours. Kamakura–also near Tokyo, kind of a mini Kyoto. Nagasaki–Sweeping hillside views and some cool shopping streets. Okinawa–like Hawaii, but you’ll need a car. Osaka–kind of industrial, but a big city that’s not Tokyo. Kobe–a nice cable-car ride up the mountain, and good restaurants. Of course, most cities have good restaurants, so I don’t know why I said that.

      I’d tend to steer you away from more livable cities, like Sapporo or Kumamoto, simply because there’s less for visitors to see and do. Those places are nice to live in, but I’m not sure they’re all that good to visit.

      All in all, I’m not really much of a travel-guide kind of dude, so perhaps others can offer more compelling vacation recommendations.

      • Thanks for all the suggestions ken. tokyo is going to be my first stop as that’s where my plane lands. I’m planning to spend a day there and stay in a capsule hotel. Hakone sounds nice, I love hot springs. I think i’ll check it out. Kobe too, if it’s not too expensive.

        Personally I’m not really interested in heavy traffic industrial areas. I’d like to see some of the attractions in some of the less overcrowded areas. Maybe some shrines as well. I’m defiantly going to check out Fushimi Inari taisha.

        As for how long I’ll be staying, I’m hoping for 2 weeks, depending on my budget.

        By the way, how’s japan in winter?

        • A little chilly, but not really that bad. It’s just that the apartments have no insulation, so you’re effectively living outdoors the entire season. If you go much north of Tokyo, it does get truly wintry, however.

          Your plan sounds good, except for the part about the capsule hotel. I get why people want to stay in one, since it’s unique, but it’s kind of a terrible idea really. Please feel free to pay me 50 bucks and I’ll lock you in my closet for the night.

          • For the must-see locations, I would add Nikko (a day trip from Tokyo) and Nara (a day trip from Kyoto).

          • Well, yeah, sure it’s small. but it’s the absolute cheapest hotel possible. I’m not going to be spending much time in one anyway, most of the time i’ll be exploring japan. From what i’ve seen, regular hotels can get pretty pricey there.

            Also, one more thing, i’ve been researching a rail pass that costs about 30,000 yen. Would that be worth it, or is there some secret, amazing railway that is super cheap or something?

    • Hi Robert,

      I know it is quite annoying when people answer a question with another question and try to make simple things complicated. But since the probable number 1 reason of disliking a trip is having the wrong expectations, there are a few questions that are certainly worth answering before asking for any country (not only Japan) travel advice:

      – Do you prefer cities or nature? Lively or calm places?
      (I am more of a big city person and I agree with Ken that Tokyo and Kyoto are the top sights in Japan. But I also know people who hated Tokyo and found it terribly overcrowded, but in the other hand, loved places like the Japanese Alps or Hokkaido’s national parks, Kyushu’s hot spring villages, Yakushima, Mount Koya, etc.)

      – Which time of the year are going?
      (The same place in Japan can look quite different depending on the season of the year, e.g. Kyoto)

      – Have you been to the country before?
      (If you have been to Tokyo or Osaka before, you wouldn’t be very impressed by, say, Fukuoka)

      – Do you have a lot of time exploration or would like to focus on the main sights?
      (I mean, some people say that they like “exploring” but get bored easily. Don’t expect every neighborhood and city in Japan to offer something new and interesting, as in any country in the World)

      – Would you like to avoid places and times of the year with a large concentration of tourists, even though they may be the most interesting sights?
      (Perhaps the most important question)

      – Do you have any other special hobbies (food, manga/anime, martial arts, meditation, fishing, hiking, etc.)

      I actually haven’t met anyone who disliked Kyoto. Ok, maybe it’s just a coincidence. But Kyoto’s main sights (Kinkaku-ji, Kiyomizu-dera, Arashiyama’s bamboo forest, etc.), although they can be really overcrowded, are certainly awe-inspiring. Beyond that, there are also less popular sights which still deserve a visit (like the Okochi-sanso garden, the Shoren-in, the Ryoan-ji), and charming neighbourhoods such as Northern Higashiyama, Arashiyama and Gion, as well as beautiful villages nearby like Kurama and Kibune. I guess the only thing to dislike about Kyoto is the fact that it’s public transportation is slow and under-dimensioned for the number of tourists that the city gets. But well, this may be a incentive to walk and explore more. For me, the best time time to visit Kyoto is autumn foliage season, but it’s also one of the most crowded times, so well, it’s up to you.

      I wouldn’t visit Kyoto just for the Fushimi Inari. It’s a must see, but (in my opinion) not my favorite attraction in the city, and it gets repetitive after 1 hour or so of walking. But hey, if you are a spiritual person and believes that each step your climb raises your level of enlightenment or something like that, it may be worth making to the top. But then again, if you are a spiritual person you should definitely check other attractions in Kyoto. And also Mount Koya in Wakayama prefecture.

      Anyway, hope you enjoy your trip.

      • Hi Demo Gorgon,

        Thankfully I’m not taking any trips with you.

      • 1 i would say that i’m more of a country person, as that’s where i live. i’ve not had much experience in big cities, except new york of course. i’m fine going out of my comfort zone to experience japan.

        2 I’m aiming for early spring.

        3 no, i’ve never even been out of country before.

        4 i love exploring, that’s part of the fun, getting lost and discovering something cool.

        5 Honestly, i can’t stand annoying tourists. i could put up with them if it’s something really cool, but general i try to avoid the more touristy places.

        6 of japan related hobbies, i like anime, hiking, japanese food and sightseeing some cool places.

        Thanks for the advice. Honestly i just wanted to see the shrines because i thought they looked cool. i was just researching cool things to do in kyoto and the fushimi inari looked like a fun place.

        • If you are interested in the fushimi inari, I would strongly suggest you to do the walk at night (compatibly with the train times). Much less crowded and much more romantic.

  43. I like the question on the sample Finnish school finals test:
    “Compare chlamydia and condyloma.”

    Well, obvs, Chlamydia is a girl’s name, and Condyloma must be a boy’s name. Like that Welsh poet who didn’t like electric guitars.

  44. …may be retarded but they really have a fresh view on stuff that I am into it like: rock; motorcycles; art; design in general; surfboards art; etc.
    Kind of a naif and refreshing approach in many stages on those fields.
    The bottom line of all these is STD; Standardization=Japan.

  45. This might be kinda random but hey… fancy a beer, or five on me next week sometime Sun-Tues – I’m passing through the Tokyo area and am a long time reader / lurker and I think I’d be cool to maybe actually have an actual conversation with someone rather than just sitting in bars on my own getting drunk and being too shy to well… say anything to anyone given the shambolic state of my Japanese.

    • Shambolic sounds pretty serious. You may want to get that checked out.

      Beer, I love that. Unfortunately, I’ve moved away from Tokyo, and have taken to in hiding in the mountains. Can’t be too safe, you know. But thanks, seriously.

  46. So “Sexiest” and “Virgin” are terms that are incompatible?…, hmmmm. Does that mean that Japanese Virgins are sexually retarded?…, double hmmmm! I smell some Irony here somewhere!!!

  47. Tried to think of something cool to say to you, but everything falls flat, so I’ll tell you how I really feel : I love you. No, really.
    Okay, seriously, I know what you’ve written is exaggerated, but what is your honest opinion of Japanese university students? I thought those studying the sciences are pretty smart, but I don’t know much about the humanities students.

    • Ah, thanks, love you too.

      So what I really think … okay, absolutely, I’m not saying that there aren’t some smart Japanese people. I mean, I haven’t met everyone yet, so I’m still holding on to the premise that there’s a smart person out there, somewhere.

      But let’s work from a different angle for a second. Let’s assume, just for the sake of argument, that some languages are harder to learn than others, even for native speakers; that is, for children learning their own native language.

      If that’s true—and I think it likely—then those children would lag behind children of countries with relatively easier-to-learn languages. How far behind? Six months? A year? Two years? Could the difference in languages even influence their entire lives?

      And, Japanese. The language that many adults still have trouble reading and writing. The language of a nation that’s famously taciturn.

      Not much shocks me about Japan anymore. What never fails to shock me, however, are Western people, because y’all talk so damn much. Yap yap yap, like chihuahuas … in a year, a Western person’s got to utter tens of thousands more words than his or her Japanese counterpart.

      But I digress. Sorry, I do that. Because American.

      So your question was, Are students, particularly of the sciences, smart? I must say that I’ve come to know a lot of very smart university scientists here, both students and faculty. It’s quite possible that the Japanese educational system is advantageous to people in such disciplines. On the other hand, I can’t say that they were particularly expressive. In that, I’d say they were on par with most of the nation, i.e. slightly below your average house cat when it comes to conversation.

      So these “Japanese university students” of which you speak, what nation are they in? Do you mean Japanese people in Japan, or people who look “Japanese” studying abroad? Because I’d argue there’s a pretty significant difference.

      Anyway, it’s late, and enough rant, so I’ll sign off with

      Love,

      Ken

      • Ken,

        Love your work. Some of it is very funny. As one American to another, I’d have to say that this perspective of yours is radically different than the one I’ve had over the last two weeks. Maybe it’s because I’m going to a school you don’t teach at?

        Any way, your comment thingy is asking for my email address, so if you want to catch a drink and debate the finer touches of Japanese communication, feel free to use it. Or something like that. I’ll buy.

        Also, this offer expires in July of 2017.

      • Hi, thanks for replying!

        Haha! I suppose there is some truth to what you’re saying. But I think that the Japanese language is the cause for fewer and fewer people turning to books in a different sense also. I feel like there is not a lot of truly riveting reading material in Japanese (mangas do not count). To put it simply, since there’s nothing that you feel like reading, you just don’t. Like, in English, there’s just a countless number of books that are interesting, fiction or non-fiction, and they all contain absurdly different viewpoints which means you never get bored. I mean, don’t you think so? Even if there are Japanese translations of some good books, it’s just not the same. Reading in English can be an exhilarating experience because of the way the language is structured, but in Japanese? Kinda meh.

        About the differences in the daily conversation of Westerners and the Japanese, you are spot on. They just don’t talk; and if they do, it’s mostly a bunch of nonsense. The important topics are far too ‘offensive’ to discuss. Speaking of how the Japanese talk, I read this article which you might find interesting too:
        http://www.mag2.com/p/news/220887/4
        I didn’t even realize I hated their habit of dramatizing everything until I read about it!

        And ‘slightly below your average house cat’ haha! I see. They just never picked up the skills, huh.

        And I meant Japanese people in Japan. True, their personalities do a complete 180 once they get used to life abroad.

        One last thing to write: I want to share something about my Japanese homestay guest that I had come over last month. This guy was a university student and very talkative and all, but never once did he bother to ask me about my life or my lifestyle. He went ON AND ON about how great Japan is. Which I don’t mind much, but conversation’s a two-way street, you know? Anyway, he was from Osaka and he kept saying how people from Osaka are thought to be foreigners because of how much they differ from the rest of Japan. I was like lolwut? Now, I’m Indian. We Indians are so diverse; I’m sure his tiny brain cannot even begin to fathom it. That’s when I realized that no matter how educated, these Japanese will never get over how ‘special’ Japanese culture is. Ugh.

        Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Japan (the good and bad) but sometimes it gets a little overwhelming.

  48. If I were Japanese, I would be seriously offended by this blog entry. I recognize sarcasm, but this is just over-the-top, really.

  49. First of all I must say I have enjoyed inmensely Ken Sentarou´s writings, this one included, but it makes me sad that I think Sentarou still hasn´t grasped what kanji really are, they are pictures with meaning, not alphabets, that is what hiragana and katakana is for, and they work fine, the ability of the japanese to speak and think in their language is not hindered by their writing system, I have to agree however, that kanji hinders writing..in the beginning, but it also gives posibilities to express things in writing that aren´t present from just phonetic information, you are probably familia with the case of the three different いし, i.e, 意思、意志、遺志
    the first one being willpower/will, the second intention (of a person to do something), and the last the will of a dead person (what the deceased wanted to be done after their death etc), now since the written hiragana version, and the spoken word aren’t distinguishable, and in this case even context might prove unhelpful, the fact that 意思 (is made out of will plus thought), (will plus intention), and the third dead plus thought, i.e, The writing system makes it possible
    to express more things than mere spoken language could. The same is true for japanese plurals like 河川 (river plus river = many rivers).

    Now

    the other thing is about the multiple meanings that each kanji has, it is true that the meanings are multiple,
    but this is due to two reasons first and the major reason, is through extension of an earlier meaning,
    and ALL LANGUAGES work like that English very much included, since you teach uni I expect that you
    mean what extention of a meaning means, but for anyone else that happens to read this I’ll try to explain.
    lets take the “word” “hit” as in the transitive verb to hit, something or someone, it has
    come to mean a “hit song” “a hit from the bong” “a hit man” “a hit on the primeminister” etc, all extensions
    of the original meaning. Kanji works like this also, to see the etymology of a kanji,
    and all the different meanings (well all the officially accept meanings), consult your electronic dictionary
    新漢語林 *しんかんごりん dictionary both under 字義 and 解字, the first one being a list of the meaning, and the second one
    the etymology with explanation of possible phonetic and meaning parts present in the kanji.

    I hope this will be of help, and keep up with the good writing.

  50. Oh I just realised that I forgot to add the second reason, that is multiple origins sometimes several chinese kanji merged into another kanji, (usually just cause they looked the same).

  51. Just discovered your site while in Tokyo for 10 days for work (on my way out today, currently slurping a bowl of Narita ramen before flying back home to Honolulu). Your writing is fantastic and made my stay here so much better than the previous ones, as I did a sort of “3 ken seeroi posts a day” therapy, thus saving hundreds of dollars in psychiatric care. Even with my limited experienced in japan (about 10 trips, longest one was one month, but never for vacation), I am amazed how much what you write resonates with me and explains simple but somewhat elusive truths. And the comments are also super interesting… How does that even happen???

    Keep up the good work! but damn you for clueing me in to those black pepper Calbee things!

    • Thanks much, Hank. Glad you were able to divert funds from psychological well-being into Calbee’s chips. That’s been my strategy for years. Not so good for your waistline or blood pressure but otherwise, eh, feelin’ pretty good.

  52. I like how japanese sounds. There’s something poetic about it.

    Slightly curious: How are the childern of brazilian immigrants coping with the japanese school system?

    • I can’t say for sure, and I’d be happy to hear from someone with direct experience with those children. What I’ve noticed is that kids who look “Japanese” and speak it from an early age seem to assimilate just fine. Some Brazilians don’t look that different from Japanese, so that’s probably an advantage. On the other hand, children who appear overly “foreign” have a harder time. Often a much harder time.

  53. How do you manage to be such an amazing cynical guy, Ken, and reply to the ‘War and Peace’ novels that your fans write you here? Astounding. Like, I’m in awe of your grace.

    I come here to get my Japan-yearning fix and I like at times reading through the comments of your other fans and their replies and yet, after a point I’m like, man, I don’t want to read randomCitizen29047’s life history.

    • You know, I like hearing what people have to say. Granted, sometimes things get a bit long-winded or off topic, but that’s okay. I can read pretty fast.

      Also, working in a foreign-language environment has really influenced me a lot. If I ask a question of a non-native English speaker, I have to listen patiently for him or her to formulate an answer. That’s not always easy for folks to do, and I appreciate the effort. Conversely, when I’m speaking Japanese, I’m thankful to the people around me who overlook mistakes and listen for the message I’m trying to convey.

      So maybe that’s what I try to do here.

  54. *F words replaced by “bublabuu” for public decency*

    BUBLABUU you man. I bublabuuing hate your stupid idiotic bublabuuing post and everything about it. Bublabuu it!!
    とりあいず*Rant over*

    Ok, so I always had this deep underlying belief (fear) that I was limiting myself by shifting to Japan, intellectually and professionally. Up until now, I did not have anyone/anything conform to this fear of mine. And then this bublabuuing post of yours comes along. BUBLABUU you man.
    I mean Japan is far better than where I come from; technologically, lifestyle-wise, salary-wise, everything except culture may be. I know it sounds weird that the only thing my country is richer than Japan could, very well may be culture. But, I could have gone to any other country which is equally better in all these aspects, and also has easier language. I chose this god forsaken country for no apparent reason.

    I can use about 4 languages pretty proficiently. But, all these came through immersion since childhood never having to put any hard work. I always dreamed of learning some other language by putting in some conscious effort. God knows why I chose Japanese for this.
    My mother tongue has all sorts of sounds and vocalization that we can do, and it’s not too difficult to get the pronunciation right for any of these Japanese shits. The problem is in remembering them and not getting them all bublabuuing mixed up.
    So coming back to my fear, as I got along working on my Japanese, I had this constant doubt that I may never be able to use this language to learn anything. I have just been to talk about weather and my home country right now. My job requires me to be able to talk about nitrogen, hydrogen, iron, steel, valves, pumps, pressure, discharge and all those technical shits. My fear is by the time I get to that level, I may be looking for denture samples. Basically, I might just be wasting my time on this.

    I have lost my chain of thought now. But, basically this post has been a big turn off from Japanese learning for me right now. I might get my motivation back in a few hours or days. But, for now bublabuu you!!

    Tl;dr
    Thought Japanese learning was waste of time and wouldn’t amount to much, never had anyone agreeing to it till this post!

    as usual, well written and all that…

    • Thanks for the bublabuu comment. I feel your pain. Whether Japanese is a waste of time or not, I can’t really say. Anyway, there’s probably a better question to ask.

      And that is: what else could you be doing with the time? If nothing, then learning Japanese is, sure, better than nothing. It’s probably better than watching TV or playing video games all day, too. But is it better than reading good books, or taking walks in the woods? Maybe not.

      As far as a career goes, you could get almost any qualification in less time. I’ve got a friend who became a lawyer in less time than it took me to sound like a 4 year-old in Japanese. In fact, you could probably learn Spanish, then get a Ph.d, and then become a Michelin-starred chef in less time.

      And I suspect that before very long, something like Google Translate is going to make the whole endeavor a moot point.

  55. Really interesting and definitely raises a few dry, knowing chuckles. I have been teaching in the Japanese university system for more than a decade and can totally relate to this. Especially at one place I won’t name, where we were all told that our grades were “suggestions” and any sports stars who failed for non-attendance were automatically upgraded to a pass. We also had a beauty queen who won some sort of international title. I saw her once only in the classroom and she never submitted any work, but the admin gave her the highest grade in my class because the media narrative was “Miss X is a top-ranked student from Y University”.

    The general English communication classes for students across the board are attended by kids who have to come and don’t care, rather like British schoolboys having to struggle through Latin or French back in the day. I think that most students in Japan bring the same type of devotion to English speaking that my classmates brought to their language studies…they just don’t give a toss.

    However, my perspective all of this changed when I moved from being a sessional teacher at half a dozen places to an Associate Professor working full-time at one institution. Suddenly, I was teaching at a higher-ranked place and my classes were content-based, not English communication. I could teach Shakespeare or Foucault and students would work really hard on it, producing some fine work. They had chosen these ‘academic’ courses, so were motivated to put in the time. Now, as a tenured member of staff, I am teaching seminars and mostly dealing with bright 3rd- and 4th-year students as well as some very clever grad school kids. Some of my kids have gone on to grad school in Europe, the US or Australia, where they are doing well and keeping up just fine with the other students. One of mine recently scored the highest possible grade for her Masters from a major European University.

    This experience of ‘real teaching’ is completely different from the 1st- and 2nd-year cattle call English communication classes. I haven’t taught a course of the latter type type for several years now and couldn’t be happier. I only have to teach 4-5 classes a week (all content, no language teaching) and have the opportunity to pursue and publish research, so feel like a proper academic again. In terms of level and student ability, it’s almost like teaching back in the UK.

  56. JAMESR has made a good point. Institutions come in various levels. Colleagues who teach at national universities have sometimes revealed a very different picture from some of the private institutions where I have taught. On bad days, I have tarred them with being moron factories. But even in those places there may be departments that are far more lustrous than the ones I work in.

    The demographic decline has made some things worse. The kid who once would have been working in the bakery or digging up a road is now at a desk in the back row asleep and using his textbook as a pillow. And at a private university he is a CUSTOMER, and he must never be offended. These days, the lecturer who once hosed down a student with a fire extinguisher for not bringing a textbook and then had lunch with a professor emeritus would be fired before his scooter engine cooled in the parking lot. Some of the complaints that get you called on the carpet like a bad dog would have been laughed at even ten years ago — and not even tendered twenty years ago.

    Of course I think that students have rights, and they should expect some respect and professional instruction from their teachers. On the other hand, there is a colouring of ‘fear and loathing’ creeping into some corners of tertiary education. Japanese and foreign teachers seem to agree that it has boosted levels of stress.

    BTW — the hosing incident actually happened.

  57. I honestly don’t get why this issue doesn’t get more attention (online & offline). I myself feel like I am becoming more stupid after 2 consecutive years (is that even proper grammar?) of living here. It’s like your mind just dozes off because everything is decided for you – and all the guidance and surveillance, it’s just too much to hear yourself thinking.

    And most foreigners don’t even seem to bother? Is it because most people sacrifice this intellectual part for security? Like in Huxley’s Brave New World? I also sometimes feel like I am going crazy because it seems like I am the only one who feels like something is going really wrong in this society that is encouraging people to turn off their brains (a lot of people I know here don’t really see it as a big issue… or maybe they have no idea what I am talking about). Hence I am glad to find at least one post like yours!

    • “And most foreigners don’t even seem to bother?”

      This brings to mind a foreign friend of mine. We were talking about women and I was saying how it was hard to find a Japanese lady I could actually hold a real conversation with.

      His reply was, “That’s not their role.” I was like, Well how’re you gonna have a long-term relationship with someone you can’t even discuss issues with? And he replied, Dude, when I want to talk to someone, I call you.

      So maybe that’s it. You want safety and stability, Japanese people can deliver that. But if you want to actually discuss something more than the weather or delicious food, phone a foreign friend.

      • There are Japanese people who care deeply about these things. You find them outside Japan.

        One of my Japanese friends is currently struggling to earn enough to come back to Australia. She left here after having a breakdown when a Japanese friend of hers texted her, asking her to come to see him back home. She said no, she couldn’t do that right now. He committed suicide right after.

        She just told me she is now working every day: three eleven-hour shifts, three eight-hour shifts, two six-hour shifts. I can understand if many people are too zombified to care about a good chat.

        But what about viewing university philosophy or astronomy departments and their grad students as potential dating pools?

        • ok obviously maths is not my thing

        • I certainly agree that being outside of Japan increases ones chances of being interested in thoughtful conversation. But it kind of begs the question: if you live outside of Japan for a substantial length of time, well, how Japanese are you? I’m assuming identity isn’t all just the shape of one’s eyes and nose.

          I do like the idea of creepily hanging outside the university Philosophy department waiting for co-eds to emerge. Thanks for the suggestion.

        • I can only reply to that this way:

          Japanese grad students intellectual level regarding creative, open-minded thinking <<<< European/American grad students intellectual level regarding creative open-minded thinking

          Not in each and every case but yeah, I'm with Ken on this, they have a very very different form of intelligence. More like robots. It makes true fulfilling relationships with them almost impossible if you're from a more 'liberal' country.

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