I have a lot of great ideas. Really, just a ton. Oh sure, to the untrained eye, I’m kicking it on the balcony drinking Asahi beer and watching sardine trains packed with commuters ride into the sunset, but really, I’m thinking. Hard. Like about my tiny Japanese apartment, and how to make it more livable. So, first I bought a sofa-bed. It’s a little lumpy. Then a lamp. That came from Ikea, so actually it’s great. They really understand furniture, those Swedes. And meatballs. Then I thought, Hey, how about a little hydroelectric power plant? That’d be a nice addition.
Surprisingly, there aren’t many YouTube videos about doing this at home. But I figured, Well, how hard can it be? I mean, I’ve got a sink, and what am I gonna use it for? Washing dishes? Heh, that’d be the day.
I guess I should probably mention that at my apartment, I pay for electricity, but not water. Why? Because Japan—-how’s that? I live in a land full of mysteries. Anyway, so my brilliant idea was to save a few monthly yen by constructing a scale-model generator in my kitchen and just letting the tap run forever. Ken Seeroi, livin’ off the grid. Hey, I’ve got a lot of free time.
So that was one excellent idea. My next, possibly worse, idea was for a book to help people learn Japanese. I decided to do this while pulling copper wire and popsicle sticks out of my drain, along with copious amounts of rubber cement. Who knew hydrology could be so complicated?
Curriculum for Learning Japanese
My qualifications for describing how to learn Japanese include spending more than a decade studying the language and, well, eh, that’s about it. I mean, ever meet somebody who knits? And they’re all like, Oh, now here’s this little cap I knitted for Joshua. And that’s the cute scarf I made for Sylvia. And in this closet, why I knitted all these jeans out of the fur of Persian kittens. They’re very, very soft. So that’s how I am with Japanese, only I don’t get to wear anything warm and basically all Japanese people just want to speak English with me anyway. Well, whatever. I spend a lot of time studying, is what I’m trying to say.
And one of the things that’s always struck me is that there’s really no curriculum, no program, for learning Japanese. Beginners are awash in books and CDs all claiming to be the greatest; then materials start drying up about the intermediate level, until advanced learners are left with vapor. Downloading random episodes of One Piece isn’t really much of a learning plan.
So if you’ve read the, uh, internet, then you know that resources for learning Japanese are few and scattered, consisting of a patchwork of random ideas that somebody’s uncle pulled out of his butt, along with broken links to file-sharing sites. Learners are bedeviled with questions like:
What do I study next? and
Why Can’t I just buy real materials off Amazon instead of spending weeks searching PirateBay while wondering when the NSA is going to rappel into my apartment?
What Japanese learners really need is a clear, step-by-step roadmap for how to learn the language, along with solid resources. So I figured, hey, that’d be a good book. And who better to write it than Ken Seeroi? Well, lots of people probably, but anyway here I am. So I inserted a fresh sheet of A4 paper into my MacBook, and started hunting and pecking.
How to Learn Japanese
1. Learn 46 hiragana characters
2. Learn 46 katakana characters
3, Learn 100 survival phrases
4. Listen to Japanese podcasts and conversational lessons
5. Learn 50 basic grammar points
6. Have simple conversations via Skype
7. Read graded readers
8. Learn 2100 kanji
9. Learn 200 more grammar points
10, Have intermediate conversations with random strangers
11. Learn 10,000 vocabulary words
12. Read a mountain of books, magazines, and newspapers
13. Read your cereal boxes and shampoo bottles
14. Learn all the grammar in the world
15. Abandon your family and friends, sell everything you own, and move to Japan
16. Talk to Japanese people and realize they wish you’d just speak English
And at that point, you’d be about 1/3 of the way toward being able to have a normal, adult conversation.
So then once I’d typed up the exciting Table of Contents, it dawned on me why nobody’s written this book.
Because nobody in their right mind would buy the damn thing. And even if a hundred people in the whole world did, how many would complete the program? About one, maybe. And he’d be that dude locked in a room scrawling equations all over the walls.
I think most people who’ve mastered Japanese understand this. They know how hard it was, how long it took, and that ridiculously few others are going to go to that much trouble to speak an arcane language. You’d be better off constructing a windmill on your veranda to power your Ikea lamp. Still working on that one, by the way.
Books for Japanese Learners
So nobody spends a year writing a book that nobody’d want to buy, and that virtually everybody who read it would fail at. Instead here’s the book you end up with:
Man, I’d sell that book like hotcakes. Or I’d 3-D print it on hotcakes and then sell those. And then I’d record a TEDx video telling the world how I learned Japanese by “hacking” the language, laying around in my boxers drinking beer, watching Japanese TV, and creating a perpetual motion motion machine instead of taking boring classes. Then I’d purchase half a million of Facebook likes, network with gurus in “the blogging community” claiming the same thing, and nobody’d even care if I could speak Japanese or not, because I’d given the world what it wanted. A way off the hook.
And that’s why no one tells you what it takes to learn Japanese. Because nobody wants that truth. There’s no market for it. Step-by-step plan? Curriculum? Man, who’s got time for that? It’s 2014! Why pay “the establishment” for power every month like a sucker when you can hot-wire your kitchen? And just wait till next month when that windmill starts churning. We’ll see who’s the sucker then.
Learning Japanese from Japanese People
But surely Japanese people can help you learn Japanese, right? Funny thing about that. From the very first time I landed in Japan, I was surprised by how little anyone wanted to help me learn the language. Particularly men. Oh, they loved speaking English with me, but when it came to Japanese, it was like I’d snatched the remote off their coffee table and changed the channel. So over the years, I’ve had to surround myself with Japanese women. Man, my life is hard, I tell you.
So I’ve got this friend who lives near Ueno zoo, an American guy who’s been studying the language for about eight years, and the other day he called me with a question.
“Ken,” he said, “I need you to interpret some Japanese for me.
“Why don’t you ask a Japanese person?
“Right. Sorry. Okay, what was the question?
“So I asked out this girl at Starbucks . . .
“The one with the ginormous ass?” I’m very subtle like that.
“No, someone new. A cheerleader. Or she was a few years ago.
“Well, once a cheerleader, always a cheerleader, in my book.
“So what does ‘I like sweets’ mean?” he asked.
“It means she doesn’t want to sleep with you.
“Ah, I thought so,” he said, dejectedly. “But why?
“Because you’ve got no fashion sense?
“No,” he said, “I mean, why does it mean that?
“Oh. ‘I like sweets’ means she wants you to take her to a cafe and buy her tiny cakes. It’s a lunchtime date. If she really wanted you, she’d say she likes izakaya.
“Because that translates to what?
“That’s a night date. It means she’ll have a few drinks, and then it’ll get late, and then maybe she’ll miss the last train.
“How come whenever I ask Japanese guys, they never explain this stuff?” he lamented.
“I think there’s a reason,” I said.
Well, two reasons, actually. The first is that Japanese people suck at explaining things. It’s just not a culture that uses a lot of, you know, words. Now I don’t mean telling—Here’s how you should hold your chopsticks; here’s where we change into the teeny-tiny slippers—oh, they’re great at that. I mean explaining, like why the train system in the world’s largest city completely shuts down after midnight.
Okay, so maybe that’s an overly broad statement. I mean, there’s 127 million people in the nation, and surely somebody’s good at explaining something. I just haven’t met that person. Seriously, somebody please explain to me why the trains stop running. Okay, now somebody Japanese.
Or like, remember the original Karate Kid movie? Yeah, I know, not exactly a Japanese movie, but still, there’s a kernel of truth to it. Remember how the kid shows up and he’s like, Mr. Miyagi, teach me karate. And if Mr. Miyagi had been a white dude, he’d have said, Sure. You make a fist like this, and then you punch people. Got it? Good. Now go practice for a year.
But does Mr. Miyagi do that? No, he takes a simple request, and instead of giving a straightforward answer like a normal human being, he makes the kid wash his car. Yeah, I know, that seems all zen and all, but when you actually live in Japan, and you go to your coworker and say “Hey, Miyagi, you know how to use this fax machine?” and he says “Paint my fence,” it’s not so amusing any more.
Japanese People Don’t Want you to Speak Japanese
So there’s that. And there’s another reason that eluded me for years. See, I used to think that Japanese people were always speaking English to me because
A: My Japanese wasn’t good enough, or
B: They wanted to practice their English
One of my roommates helped me understand C: They’d rather I don’t.
This was when I lived in a big house with a bunch of Japanese people and I was the only white guy. It’s a lot less great than it sounds. Well, maybe it doesn’t even sound that great. But anyway, I had this roommate, and every time I’d speak Japanese to him, he’d answer me in English.
“Konnichiwa,” I’d say.
“Hello,” he’d reply.
Oh, he was very annoying. So one day I just laid it out.
“Look,” I said, “I just want to be like everybody else in this house. We all speak Japanese. We’re in freaking Japan. You speak Japanese to everyone else, so why not me?”
And he hemmed and hawed for a bit, then finally blurted out, “Because it’s the only thing I can do better than you! You know, what else do I have?”
Of course, he said it in English, so that was kind of a dick thing, but I saw his point.
And then it dawned on me, the reality. With every salaryman that sat down next to me in a bar and started trying to have a conversation using childishly simple English punctuated with random bits of Japanese. He didn’t want me to be like him. Here he was, working sixteen hours a day, supporting a wife and child who didn’t even live in the same city, going home to a tiny box of an apartment, eating Cup Noodle every night, and now he’s going to accept me as “one of them”? Impossible.
His great accomplishment in life is that he survived years of beatings and beratings from his senseis, sitting in freezing classrooms writing millions of tiny characters to master this obscure language, and now here’s this white guy next to him who can jet off anywhere in the world and who’s speaking his language as a hobby?
There are just some things that the universe wants to resist. White rappers. Chinese guys in cowboy hats. Black sushi chefs. Non-Asians speaking Japanese. Yeah, it’s racial, and no, it’s not good. But speaking Japanese isn’t like speaking English. It’s not just another language. It means something. It’s the language of a people who are planting fields of rice in the pouring rain, who were incinerated by nuclear weapons, and who sent their young sons to die in suicide planes for a war they knew they’d never win. This isn’t ancient history. Japanese people are still struggling, working constantly for no reason other than pride. Pride is all they have. Pride in their long hours, their flag’s blood-red sun, droopy national anthem, and enigmatic language. Lots of people can use chopsticks. Anyone can change into little slippers. But the language—-that’s the one thing that sets them apart. If a bunch of “foreigners” can do it just as well, then what do they have left?
Well, the good news is that I finally gave up on both the power plant and the windmill, which freed up some time for writing. It’s not really a big deal anyway. My electric bill’s only about 30 bucks a month, since I live in a shoebox of an apartment and only heat water to make Cup Noodle. And now I also have more time to study Japanese, so maybe in another twenty years I’ll finally master this consarned language. And once I do, then I can help everybody else to do the same. Uh yeah, probably not. Because if you could do it too, then I wouldn’t look so amazing, and we can’t have that. See, it’s a Japanese thing; you wouldn’t understand.