How to Write Japanese

You gotta love Anna. Seriously, because everyone loves Anna. She’s a busty, blonde Swiss-German who grew up playing the piano and speaking Swiss. And German. And English. And now she speaks perfect Japanese. God, I hate her.

Nah, just kidding. Anna’s okay. In high school, she “picked up” French, Spanish, and Italian. Well, they’re all like the same language, but still she deserves credit for one. Then in college, she majored in Japanese and ended up moving to Japan and becoming an interpreter. Not an English teacher like, um, some people. Okay, now I hate her again.

So when I heard her chatting in flawless Japanese with a group of Japanese teachers at a conference, I waited till she went to the buffet table before I made my move. As she was picking up warm shrimp croquettes and slices of cold roast beef, I sidled next to her and whispered, “You should try the tamago yaki.” Words no woman can resist, I’ve found.

“Is it good?” she asked.

“With a bit of grated daikon and a touch of soy sauce,” I replied, “heavenly.”

She obligingly put a couple of pieces on her plate.

“So how’d you do it?” I asked. “The Japanese, I mean. Here, don’t forget the soy sauce.

“I grew up speaking several languages,” she replied, “plus my parents are musicians. Thanks.

“Fair enough. Maybe my real question is, How can I do it?

“You probably can’t,” she answered flatly.

Now see, I appreciate that. That’s called—-oh, what’s the English word for it?—-Oh yeah, The truth. it’s been so long I forgot what it’s called. Because you go through life with folks telling you all the great stuff you can do—-be President, star in the NBA, win the Math Olympics, speak Japanese in 3 months—-but those people are—-oh, what’s that word again?—-Oh yeah, Liars. After putting in ten-thousand hours in Japanese, I can hold a decent conversation, but still the homeless guy sleeping under the blue tarp by the river blows me away. Plus he’s got a better jump shot and can do long division. Really gotta stop challenging that guy to games of Horse and sudoku.

Playing Your Strengths

But you know, that makes sense, what Anna said. Because some people are sumo wrestlers and others are high jumpers, but nobody’s good at both. So I’ll concede that a multi-lingual musician has advantages I don’t have. Yeah, well, at least I can become President of the United States, so screw you, Anna. Still, I wanted to come away from the conversation with something. And since sex appeared to be off the table, I decided to settle for advice on Japanese.

“What would you suggest?” I asked.

“Well, what really helped me,” she said helpfully, “was writing things out by hand.

“By hand?

“Yeah, you know, like with a pen?

“A pen? So writing in Japanese, with a pen?

“Writing,” she said.

This was terrible news. Because when I started out a decade ago, all I ever wanted to do was speak Japanese. Then after several years of half-ass conversations, my sensei’s husband told me one truth: “You gotta learn to read,” he said. So I did. I spent a few more years teaching myself kanji and struggling through newspaper articles, until I could finally decode the directions on the back of the ramen noodles. Turns out you have to boil the water first. Glad I went to the trouble of learning this useful language.

And now, here was more bad news. But the thing about Ken Seeroi is, He’s a fighter. Like if somebody says he can’t have one more beer and it’s time to leave the bar, does Ken Seeroi back down? Hell no, he doesn’t. Unless of course you’re physically larger or in any way threatening, and then, all right, I’ll go home. Remind me to stop dating such butch women already.

Anyway, what Anna said, I tried it, and it works. Damn, why are people smarter than me always right? Very annoying, intelligence.

So what I did was . . .

Disclaimer on Studying Japanese

First of all, you probably don’t really want to study Japanese. I know it seems like fun, but really it, uh, isn’t. Well, I mean, I guess if you’re confined to solitary for shanking your cellmate it could be a good use of your time, but otherwise, jeez, go outside and see a tree or a cloud or go fishing or something. Secondly, get a life. People in Japan just want you to speak English anyway. But if you’re dead-set on it, yeah that’s cool too. Hey, knock yourself out. But where were we? Right.

Writing Kanji

So what I did was to write everything in Japanese. By hand. By which I mean, by pen. Everything, in kanji where appropriate. Now, some people will say, Well we use computers to write nowadays. To which I can only reply, Uh, so what? and Oh yeah, bullshit.

So after writing scores of shopping lists and newspaper excerpts and tearful love notes to amply-proportioned Swiss-German girls, two things happened.

One, I noticed the subtle distinctions between kanji better. Writing things by hand really highlights the differences between similar kanji—- 拭 武 式 —-that get glossed over during reading.

Secondly, and more importantly, writing finally took Japanese from being a foreign language to a real language. My language. Sure, everyone says “Oh, your Japanese is so good,” but that’s not what they mean. What they mean is, It’s good for a someone who looks like “you.” You’ve got a great high-jump, for a sumo wrestler. Wow, half a meter, Bobby Chubs, that’s impressive. Keep up the good work. Japanese people spend surprisingly little time complimenting one other on how well they use their own language. But it’s very easy to buy into that thinking: yeah, my Japanese is great, all things considered. Where “all things” equates to “being white.”

If you think about it for even a second, it would be insane to meet someone who studied Portuguese or Hindi or English for years and yet couldn’t write the language. And I don’t mean spelling mistakes. I mean, couldn’t write it at all. The only reason it’s acceptable in Japan is because Japanese-looking people assume that foreign-looking people can’t do it. So it’s okay. We understand, you’re handicapped.

Sorry, but to functionally live as a member of society, it’s not enough to be able to speak, or even read. Which is to say that, when the insurance adjuster comes to your apartment, if you can’t write “I had a couple cocktails and somehow mistook the closet for the bathroom” there’s something wrong. But practice your writing and, hey, problem solved. Finally, some respect.

How to Write Japanese

So how do you do it? Well, it isn’t the Math Olympics, but here are a few thoughts.

1. Seize the day. If—-and it’s a huge if—-you really want to speak Japanese beyond “My name’s Bobby and here’s my hobby,” then you need reading and writing. And those take a long damn time. If you’re gonna slim down for the high jump, then Sumo Bob, you need to start today.

2. Stroke order. Look, it’s important, but don’t get bent out of shape. Imagine if every time you wrote your name in English, you penned all of the characters in a different sequence. You started “G” and “A” with the horizontal lines first, or a “Z” backwards, half of the time. That’d be schizophrenic. So to avoid making yourself mental, it’s best to write every character the same way every time. That takes a bit of research and practice. Yeah, it takes a long time.

3. Forget about writing neatly. Look, you either got it or you don’t. My handwriting in English is terrible. And in Japanese, uh, same thing. Somehow, I don’t think that’s gonna change. But I will say, the more you do it, the better you become, so that’s something. So rather than write ten words perfectly, write a thousand words. That’ll help.

4. Stop being gay. And I don’t mean sexually. Like, I think it’s great if you’re homosexual. Do all the freaky bedroom and public restroom stuff you want, I don’t care. But stop sitting cross-legged on a tatami mat crafting each character with some brush and special ink, ’cause that’s going over the line. They’re just freaking words. If you did that with Italian, three guys named Giuseppe would jump out of a Camaro and beat the shit out of you, so stop treating Japanese like some special case.

5. This probably should be number 1, but Change your mindset. Every time I write my address at the post office, they’re like “Oh wow!” But every other Japanese person can do it, so Yeah, what. I doubt anyone says as much to Koreans. Or Filipinos. Or Peruvians. The only way to be part of a society is to think and behave like you’re part of it, and you can’t do so by being a retard. You don’t have to be Rosa Parks, but at least stop mentally moving yourself the back of the bus.

The Benefits of Writing Japanese

So then, a few months later, I ran into Anna in Shinjuku. It was late at night and she was with two Japanese girls. They all looked smoking hot, but that was probably just because I’d had a couple cocktails and was about to go pee in my closet.

“This is my Ken,” she said, introducing me. “Ken can write Japanese.”

“Woooow,” said the two girls.

“So can you, Anna,” I noted, and everybody laughed.

“Anna’s Japanese,” said one of the girls, and they laughed again.

“Interest you in some karaoke?” I propositioned.

“Ah, we better make the last train,” said Anna. “After, all, it’s Tuesday.”

“Is it?” I said. “I thought it was Saturday,” and I really did.

“Write me another letter, Ken Seeroi!” she called over her shoulder as they turned to the station. And suddenly I was engulfed by a million people running for the trains, then in a moment, alone in Shinjuku.

I realized I’d once again missed the last train. But no worries—-Ken Seeroi is that man of experience. I knew I’d either grab a taxi or crash in a cheap internet cafe and the next morning pick up a convenience-store dress shirt and razor and make it to work just fine.  So I headed out into the warm, foggy night for one more yatai beer and a quiver of chicken skewers and felt great because I’d finally found a use for all those years of learning Japanese. At last I could communicate with the notoriously reticent Swiss-Germans. And that made it all worthwhile.

55 Replies to “How to Write Japanese”

  1. Musical people do seem to get a boost don’t they. The bastards. Growing up bi/tri-lingual too. My partner grew up with Mandarin and Shanghai dialect (which is pretty much a different language), and kind of “picked up” Japanese and English with a mixture of fairly light study + TV. Just aint fair.

    ““You probably can’t,” she answered flatly.”


    If you are a monolingual and want to become bilingual, the best person to seek advice from would be a person who started out monolingual and now speaks another language or more well. People like Steve Kaufmann for example.

    I would never tell a person it can’t be done. I would be honest with them about what it takes. And I know that most people aren’t likely to have the stars align in terms of their will/motivation to do what is necessary. But it isn’t something you need to be born with. And you can always keep improving. Over time the piling up of little and not so little efforts really does change who we are. I sucked in my first year. And the year after that. And for another five years after that. Then I kind of sucked for another three. I was ok for a few more years. And now at +12 I’m not bad. Good enough to interpret and translate in a business setting full time without my brain frying. Chinese is at +3 years half-assing it, and I can following some basic dramas. I know in ten years I’ll be pretty good.

    1. Important point about the “good for a foreigner” bit. Nothing will set you back as much as low expectations of what you can do from others and from yourself.

    2. Well, it’s certainly pointless comparing oneself to others. Everybody learns at a different rate. One point is that learners should beware of taking advice from bilinguals with the message “You can learn Japanese in x amount of time.” Just because they could do it quickly doesn’t mean you can.

      12 years seems like a reasonable estimate for how long it takes to learn Japanese. Actually a little on the fast side, but I understand you’re trying to be encouraging.

      1. Hehe. May well be. Actually I used to think a couple of years of immersion was enough… And I still do. If you can dedicate yourself 12 hours a day that is. Not many people with adult responsibilities can manage that. And not many younger people have that kind of motivation. Its that old opportunity cost you’ve talked about. But then again it’s easier than ever to access native material anywhere at any time thanks to technological developments. That you can actually read a bit here and listen to a bit there and with an hour or so a day be pretty good in a few years is an amazing development. Being a self-trained bilingual is going to gradually become somewhat less rare I think.

        1. So 12 hours a day for a couple of years? Then you’ll like my college graduation program. You study for 12 hours straight, then slam a six pack, make out with two girls, and fall asleep in a dumpster, every day for six months. Boom, bachelor’s degree. We should really be career counselors.

        2. Maybe even less than a couple of years with the right environment and motivation. Take foreign sumo wrestlers. Within a year, they have a command of the language that would take most students years to develop. And that’s on top of their grueling training schedule!

          1. Well, I’ve got my doubts… First of all, I assume they’re attending classes in Japanese as part of their training. Then, a lot of wrestlers come from other Asian nations, where there are significant language similarities. Finally, there’s no reason to assume they only started the moment they arrived in Japan.

            You might look at Western baseball and basketball players as a counterpoint. I’ve never heard any of them speak unusually well. But maybe they’re all just lazy.

          2. True, a lot of the foreign wrestlers come from Mongolia, but I’m referring to the European wrestlers. I’ve seen a few little news clips about wrestlers like Kotoshuu (Bulgaria), Oosunaarashi (Egypt), and others like them and, if we are to believe what they say, they did not know any Japanese before joining their stables.

            Although this is a bit of a dated blog post, the author has some interesting thoughts on the very point you bring up – foreign sumo wrestlers vs. other foreign athletes:

            1. Hmmm. Sounds like I’m gonna have to write a post about this. Thanks for the inspiration. Can you send links to the news clips you mentioned?

  2. Interesting piece Seeroi Sensei. You think Anna realizes how intellectually stimulating she is? Go Fight, win and populate Ken. By the way, here in the US, the new “common core” curriculum that is being taught at most public education schools is getting rid of writing English and is no longer teaching cursive writing. Seems like America is going backwards in development to dumb down the education system for all the illegals flowing into the country. I wish that all of those common core supporters would read this article!

    1. English is such a simple language to write, it’s hard to see why anyone would want to omit that education. Actually, one of the things that consistently impresses Japanese folks isn’t any skill at writing kanji, but rather the ability to form cursive letters in English.

  3. Thank you, Mr. Seeroi-Sir, for thoroughly shattering my illusions about learning japanese. I really appreciate that, no kiddin’. Realistic viewpoints and assessments are hard to come by these days. As you pointed out somewhere else – the internet makes it look like it’s a piece of cake to learn a new language, and that the world is all shiny and full of possibilities. It’s good to hear the voice of reason (that would be you), telling me not to get carried away by all that flattery encouragement talk. Everybody should have a Seeroi-Sensei.
    However, i shall keep on learning japanese. It might be a waste of time, but on the other hand I’m horrible at fishing, and I’m even worse at watching trees or clouds.
    So Yeah, keep up the good work, Sir, your blog is a fountain of joy to me.

    1. Well you know, I really enjoy learning Japanese. Not sure it’s the smartest thing in the world, but hey, at least it keeps me off the streets, hypothetically. So I’m behind you 100 percent. Okay, fifty. But still, that’s pretty good.

      I never wanted to burst anybody’s bubble, but rather just clarify the size of the bubble. You know, some things in life look hard, and some easy, but usually, eh, they’re all hard.

      Like playing the piano. Now, that looks hard. Lots of keys and and all that sheet music, jeez. But competing in Formula 1, hey, that’s probably a piece of cake. It’s got the same 3 pedals as a piano but a steering wheel in place of the keyboard—how hard could it be? Plus, I already know how to drive a car.

      But Japanese…Christ, just look at it. It looks hard as hell. And guess what? Yeah.

      Seriously, how much arrogance does it take to say, You’ve been learning your language the wrong way for hundreds of years, and here I am, some white dude, and I’ve figured out a “hack” to learn in a few months what takes you silly Asians years.

      But I guess it’s easy if you do away with the kanji. All that sheet music’s just standing in the way of you playing the piano. You don’t need teachers and rules. Free your mind.

      And by the way, Japanese people still haven’t thanked us for inventing romaji, thus dispensing with the need to learn all those troublesome characters. You’re welcome.

  4. “This probably should be number 1, but Change your mindset. Every time I write my address at the post office, they’re like “Oh wow!” But every other Japanese person can do it”

    LOL. Nice one. You need some “re-tweet” function in here for those juicy quotes.

    1. Thanks much. I’m still holding out for the time when I can tweet things with my mind, just by thinking them. Come on, 2016.

  5. In my (now defunct) Japanese project, writing was my strongest area. I have several pads of graph paper filled with kanji and Japanese writing. I always thought it was weird how swarms of fully grown adults would go to the trouble of learning a second language, but remain completely illiterate in it.

    But then again, I failed to obtain fluency. I’m not in a position to judge anyone.

    1. Sounds like you made the only rational choice. Unless you have an overwhelming need to learn Japanese, it’s probably not a great plan. It’s insanity to devote years of serious study just so you can rock into the local sushi bar and have a conversation with the chef. Especially when you could just speak English with him anyway, if you were dying to talk to the dude that badly.

      So it doesn’t sound like you failed. I’d say you succeeded.

  6. Again with the “hard truth” and “tough love”, Seeroi? What’s odd is, you are not the first person to learn Japanese and then discourage people from doing so, I’ve seen this many times, like from Victor (gimmeabreakman) and a few other jvloggers. What’s more odd, I do not disagree.
    From the outside it kinda looks like you guys have the key to the rainbow candy factory, and from the inside you shout “Nah, don’t come in here guys, it really sucks…”. It really sounds like you just don’t want people to have all the fun you are having knowing Japanese. BUT, after learning Japanese myself for a few years now, I can’t help but agree with you.
    For the oblivious, Japanese seems like a magical be-all-end-all Holy Grail, the language of anime, J-pop, video games, Japanese movies and culture and gorgeous women, etc. It’s so exotic, and learning it might seem like a way to finally enjoy all those things “for real” (hell even move to Japan or some crazy shit like that). But if you look at it rationally for a second, it’s really not worth it for at least 90% of the foreigners who try. For one, the utility of the language is at best questionable. Japanese is spoken in exactly one single, small island nation on Earth. Second, it’s natively spoken by people who will probably never speak Japanese to you unless they absolutely have to (like, you hold them at gunpoint or something). Like you said too, they’ll most probably will try to grind their broken Engrish on you, stare at you silently or just ignore your presence altogether. Unless they are drunk. But talking to depressed, shitfaced salarymen in seedy dive bars and run down izakayas is not exactly the best reason to learn an entire foreign language. And third, and possibly the biggest reason: you can get by just fine with English and the international flailing-around body language, and the natives will even EXPECT YOU TO. Like you said, Japanese people are fully aware how incredibly hard their language is for foreigners, and won’t expect you to learn it, quite the opposite actually, they will forever expect you to NOT speak Japanese, ever, and they will be genuinely surprised when you actually do. Also, there is the homogenized society and xenophobia problem, the fact that you as a foreigner will never “belong”. You’ll never be Japanese, not matter how hard you try, no matter if you speak the language perfectly, it’s utterly obvious you are a gaijin, and you’ll forever be treated like one.
    In comparison, for the time and effort it takes to learn Japanese from zero to a reasonable everyday communication level, you can learn at least two or three other languages easily, or learn to parasail, tame lions, open a titty bar or get a degree in astrophysics or just about anything would be more worthwhile than learning such a hard language with so little utility and payoff, unless your ultimate dream is to watch anime without subtitles or order udon in perfect Japanese. So unless someone plans to live the rest of their life in Japan, it’s really not worth it in the long run IMHO.
    I started out serious enough, I spent at least an hour day doing internet courses, practicing kana and learning grammar, but after a while, it just seemed like a waste with barely anything to show for it. So for a long time now I just kinda-sorta do it. I practice vocabulary on my phone on the toilet or scribble some kana or kanji during boring meetings at work, and I binge-watch anime series sometimes, but I no longer take a chunk of my free time to spend it on actual studying. After a few years of this, I still find my Japanese improving slowly, but I also found it doesn’t intrude on my hobbies or other stuff at all, which is just the way I like it.
    So if anyone else is reading this besides me, and you are thinking about learning Japanese, think about this first: If you are not immediately planning on moving to Japan and spending the rest of your life there: don’t. If you are just INTERESTED in learning Japanese, you can slot in a bit of kana practice or vocab/grammar here and there and you slowly gonna improve bit by bit, but don’t be too serious about it, or you really gonna regret the effort and time you wasted later.

    1. You pretty much said it all, and solid advice at that. I’d only add that, if it really were a rainbow candy factory in here, I’d be crowing about it from the top of Lollipop Mountain. Sadly, it’s rather the opposite. It takes years of learning the language just to discover that your chocolate bunny is hollow on the inside.

      Okay, maybe that’s a bit dramatic. But Japan is a nation with great PR and a compelling back story filled with fictionalized samurai and geisha. The reality is that it’s just a normal country with its share of good and bad, like everywhere else. But the food’s good, and once in a while you see a cool toilet, so I guess that’s reason enough to learn the language.

      1. Well said, Seeroi. But that’s exactly the thing, though. Japan has great PR, and they are actively working on it too, like there’s that CoolJapan thing. (Well, frankly it’s just some old people’s misguided attempt to make Japan more popular, which is kinda stupid, since they can’t do anything that anime, jpop, their badass history and rainbow-soaked popculture didn’t do already, but whatever…)
        So after going through such hassle to advertise Japan as the single coolest place on Earth, it seems ridiculously stupid, when you actually move to their country, they flat out treat you like they don’t want you there. “It’s okay as long as you just want to look around, eat our food and enjoy our cheap sake and fucking expensive karaoke, but after you are done spending all your foreign money, please leave. If you stay and wanna take our already cramped living space, steal our jobs and bang our women, we gonna make your life a living hell by forever treating you like you are some sort of strange beast who just washed ashore with amnesia.”

        Yea, maybe that was also a bit too dramatic. What I meant to say is, the chocolate bunny IS empty on the inside. If you decide to move to Japan, it’s up to you to fill that hole (because the Japanese sure as hell won’t). If it’s enough for you that the food is good, the beer is cheap, you can see cool toilets, and you don’t mind always being the outsider, the token white guy and everyone forever treating you like you just stepped off the boat, then all the more power to ya. To each their own, I guess.
        A few years ago, I remember I was about to jump on the first plane to Japan with a one way ticket and never look back. Now, I’m glad I didn’t. I still love Japan and everything about it to oblivion, but I found that I can also do that from here. Hungary might not be the greatest place to live right now (it’s pretty shit, actually), but at least I have a job here, a tiny apartment, I already speak the language and I can go outside and go into a bar without people staring at me or swarming me for English lessons. I might not feel like I belong here, but at least I don’t feel like an alien either. It took me while to realize that moving to Japan is a bad idea for me right now. I have personal issues and money problems I have to work out, and moving there won’t solve anything, in fact, it would only make it worse. In a few years, when I get rid of all this baggage, then maybe, but definitely not in the near future. However, I’ll still continue my half-assed Japanese studies, listen to BABYMETAL, watch copious amounts of anime, mail-order a genuine yukata (those things are comfy as all hell!) and dream about the day I’ll taste my first real ramen and get horribly lost in Shinjuku 😀

        1. If anyone reading this is considering learning Japanese to a decent level of fluency in the four skills – speaking, listening, reading and writing – the unfortunate reality is that it’s going to take a lot more time and effort than say learning French or German if you’re an English speaker, and, in fact, most people just get discouraged and give up part way. And even if you do succeed, as pointed out posts above, you will only be able to use it to any degree if you have some active connection with Japan, mostly by going to live there and trying to find a job.

          However, don’t think that everyone will want to try their English on you. My advice is to get out of the big cities to any one of the many reasonable-sized (often delightful – sometimes industrial and gritty) provincial cities where the pace is slower, there’s no subway (buses) and no salarymen. You’ll find lots of kind, genuine folk who are delighted to speak Japanese to you.

          In fact, they won’t even try to speak English, except maybe to haul out a dictionary occasionally and point to some words. They probably figure that if you’re in this neck of the woods, you’re more than just a tourist. If your Japanese is still not too great, try to think of some neutral hobby or sport that you have some skill at. You can join a group of like-minded people where you don’t need a lot of language to get by and still feel like a valued member. (For me, it’s classical music. I’m a very middling flute player and mediocre choral singer, but that’s been enough to make me friends who share my love of music.)

          And even if you decide the game’s not worth the candle, and you’d rather pull up stakes and go home, don’t feel that the time has been wasted. It may be a hollow bunny, but you’ve followed it down the rabbit hole, and … hey! I’ll have what he’s smoking …

  7. Man…. with posts like these it makes me wonder what sort of state of mind I was in when I decided to pick up Japanese in college. Maybe I should drop this whole “learn a third language” nonsense and stick to perfecting my native language of Korean.

    1. It’s like holding onto a rising balloon. How long have you been studying? At some point, you’re too high to let go, and might as well just keep on sailing.

      1. I studied it for 3 years in college, but now that I am out of college only time I hear/use Japanese is in my Judo dojo

    2. If you are having doubts, then you really should. I’m sorry, but I have to disagree with Seeroi here. As someone smarter than me once said “it’s never too late to bail on a bad investment”. If you keep doing it, despite losing interest, then you’ll just lose precious time and pile on the regret.
      Looks like your English is pretty good, so kudos for that. But I found, that Japanese is a different animal. If you are not going to be a professional translator/interpreter or not immediately planning on moving to Japan and spending an unspecified portion of your life there, I suggest against slamming your head against the wall. It’s kinda like learning lion taming. Your friends might think it’s cool, and you can dazzle them with your lion taming skills when you visit the zoo or the circus, but ultimately it’s utility is very limited for the amount of effort it requires to learn, so unless you are planning to move to Africa and live among the wild beasts, it’s not a good investment of your time and energy.
      Maybe you can do what I do, and just half-ass it, spend like 10 minutes a day on Japanese, like get an app for your smartphone so you can fiddle with it on the loo or at the bus stop, watch the odd anime, etc. You’ll still improve a little bit each day, so you are not giving up Japanese altogether, but you’ll have plenty of time and energy left over to do the other stuff you actually care about at this point in your life.

      1. I consider English to be my primary language now. While I do translation services for Korean, I find myself thinking and using English a lot more than Korean. I was initially lured in by the supposed similarities between korean and japanese. I found that to be true in some cases, but it still doesn’t change the fact that it is a tough language to learn

        1. Funny thing you should say that, but that’s the case for me too. I found that for at least 5 years now, even thought I live in Hungary, I use English way more every day than my mother tongue….and I’m strangely okay with that.
          I do most of my work in English, I talk to people around the world in English, I watch movies in English, I play games in English, hell, I even think in English most of the time now. It’s not that I don’t like Hungarian, but English now feels better somehow. Kinda stupid really, since as you might know, Hungarian one of most difficult languages to learn in the world (right next to Chinese and Japanese), and I can effortlessly speak perfect Hungarian, but I rather go for English given a chance… I wonder why that is…

          1. In comparing Hungarian to English, do you find that you think differently about things? Would you tend to describe things differently if you use your native language versus English? What makes English better?

            Your posts provide a really good analysis. My interest in Japan was sparked by discovering BABYMETAL and that was a doorway to other Japanese music. I have been reading this blog and others trying to learn more about life in Japan. I have concluded that apart from acquiring some basic conversational skills, I really would be wasting my time at this point in my life if I were to delve into a full-blown study of Japanese. I am turning 60, I have financial independence, I can afford extended stays if I am flexible, and I will only ever be a tourist at this point in my life.

            Your style of writing is very readable and compelling. You write well. I don’t mean to pry into your personal life but I think you could do well as a writer. You certainly get the reader’s attention and you keep it.

  8. It’s things like the kanji and the the stroke order that made me shy away from learning japanese. I’ve always loved japan, but the thought of spending years memorizing those crazy symbols was overwhelming. I think I made the right choice. I’ll leave the japanese language to the japanese. I can just sit back and enjoy their food and entertainment.

    1. Well I mean, who doesn’t enjoy a cold beer on a hot summer’s day. And it’s been hot a lot lately.

    1. That sounds like a sound suggestion.

      I also want to underscore one point—I tried (and still try) to change my thinking about Japanese, to where I’m not just using it for Anki or other study methods, but to where it’s my primary language. Kind of like, Well, if I had been born here, this is just how I’d write stuff down. So not just on my iPhone, but everywhere.

  9. Ken, nice blog. This is useful advice for learning Japanese, but I’ve got a question. Your echoing your friends advice. What I would like to know is what original advice Ken Seeroi has on learning Japanese, particularly for us Americans who have grown up only knowing one language. Thanks.

    1. Ah, good question.

      A lot of the advice I post about learning Japanese actually comes from people far smarter than myself. Whenever I meet someone who seems like they’ve “figured it out,” I press them for information on how they did it. Then I try it out, and if it seems sound, perhaps write a bit about it.

      So to put it simply, Anna’s advice is my advice. Reading and writing Japanese are the way forward. They are the shortcut. Which is to say that, by ignoring them and trying to learn the language as a collection of sounds, you’re really taking the long way around. That works in the short-term, but to get past the intermediate stage, you absolutely need the kanji. It turns out that written language is actually useful. And here I thought it was just something Japanese folks had thrown in for the hell of it, like that instruction manual that comes in the glovebox of every car.

  10. Hey, Ken,

    There’s another blogger you may enjoy. While he doesn’t write about Japan, he does write about women, work, music, booze, and life in general. His approach is somewhat different, but you are both excellent writers and I think you’d enjoy it.

    (Imagine the last link as a large, rusty, yet somehow razor sharp bear trap for commentariat that encourages your drinking habits as the only way to write a good article.)

    1. Thanks for the links—pretty entertaining stuff. For some reason he reminds me of a whole lot of people I’ve known.

  11. I agree with most of the advice above, but don’t forget that Japanese characters evolved over many years to be written with brushes, and that’s how little children learn to write at school, at least part of the time.

    Why should that matter? The problem is that the two most commonly used fonts for printed Japanese – Mincho and Gothic – subtly stylize the characters in such a way as often to disguise the strokes, making it difficult to work out what the handwritten form should be, and and making them harder to learn.

    An obvious example is the printed forms of the characters for “person” and “enter”, which don’t look much like the handwritten forms. A less-obvious example is where a straight stroke comes down, then has a sharp hook to the right. Most fonts make that look like two quite separate strokes.

    However, if you learn a script font first (based on brush writing), it’s much easier to “see” the strokes in stylized printed versions. You don’t have to practice writing the characters with a brush, but one of the pen-like rubber-tipped brushettes on sale everywhere (in Japan) is fun to play with. However, a pen or pencil is fine.

    I think primary school kids textbooks are printed in a font called “Schoolbook”, which reasonably closely models what their handwriting should look like, and I think this font is also used in part in the Genki textbooks.

    Another thing is the size of characters when you are learning them. To learn a character, you need to see it fairly big at first, and write it at least a moderate size at first. Later on, you will be able to recognize it when it is tiny, smudged, scrawled, backwards on one of those flags by the roadside …

    1. That’s excellent advice. It’s true a lot of typeface fonts mask the strokes and their directions. Also the size thing—man, that’s one of the challenges of this language. A little tiny English “g” may be hard to read, but it pales in comparison to a character like 霊. I think that’s why you need to learn Japanese before the age of twelve: just so you can see it.

      1. I did a bit of checking, and the handwriting-based font that the schoolkids in Japan learn is called 教科書 (kyoukasho / kyokasho – “textbook”). The text sections of Genki are mostly written in this font, and it forms a good basis for learning to handwrite Japanese (better than Mincho and Gothic, which are the two fonts that ship with Microsoft Word).

        If you can learn to handwrite three or four hundred kanji, the rest will become automatic, as all the elements mostly just keep piling up on top of each other. The good news is that you only have to learn shapes and stroke orders, not meanings, readings or compounds, so it is much faster than learning to read. Also, it helps cement the learning to read and speak process.

        So far, so good. You’ve learnt how to handwrite lots of kanji—which will wow most Japanese, who think that just learning to read anything more difficult than 山 and川 is way too difficult for the average (non-Asian) foreigner. But your handwriting will look like a primary-school teacher’s writing on the blackboard—very precise. Japanese writers both stylize and simplify handwriting. This is too big a topic to go into here, but it is worth pursuing.

        So how to pursue? The first step is to download some handwriting fonts. Below are links to two websites with links to free handwriting fonts (this is pretty much the only two):

        The link to Epson fonts contains a kyoukasho font (epkyouka). Elsewhere there is a link to a kanji stroke order font which numbers all the strokes. The only problem is is that the font has to be quite large before you can read the numbers. After that, there are loads of handwriting fonts with stylistic variations to explore.

        If you are printing out kanji to begin learning to handwrite them, they need to be fairly large. I like about 60 point size (maybe 40 kanji to an A4 page with reduced margins). This will help with the strokes of more complex kanji. Also, you can buy pads of thin, see-through paper to lay over the kanji you are learning, and write on the paper above (it’s low-tech, I know—please adapt it to your technology). Contrary to the books that get you to write the same character umpteen times in a row, I think it is more interesting to approach a page of different characters—as said before, the elements keep repeating, anyhow.

  12. Hey Ken, hope things are going well.

    You know, when I read your posts, sometimes I wonder how much of the way you write about Japanese language and culture is stylistic versus how much is sincerely heartfelt. It gives me the impression you might’ve made a lot of sacrifice learning a language and trying to assimilate to a culture wanting to achieve a certain ideal, only to discover over the years that what you wanted to achieve was never really on the table in the first place.

    Yet still you persevere, continuing to learn Japanese and living in the country anyway.

    I’ve quit my job now, booked my flights and am moving out of my flat. No turning back now!

    1. You’re spot on. Here’s the thing about “Japanese culture”: that we actually believe there is such a thing. Japanese folks push this idea every day, and Westerners eat it up. There’s a special way to take a bath, a special way to hold your chopsticks, a special way to greet people.

      And when visitors come to Japan, they buy into it. But ask yourself—if you were going to, say, Australia, would you worry about it? What’s the proper etiquette when visiting an Australian home? How should I greet my Australian hosts so as not to offend them? How do I use an Australian bathroom? It seems laughable to even think that. But why? Why make Japan out to be somehow special.

      So yeah, I bought into it too, backed up by every Japanese person I met who told me, We have special ways for doing and saying everything. Don’t bow like that. Bow like this.

      And perhaps what I’ve learned over the years is that, actually, Japan’s not that special. You just think it’s special. And a lot of what Japanese folks are doing just boils down to an us-versus-them attitude. Oh, those “foreign” people, they wear their shoes in the house, but we Japanese, we don’t. Oh, those people use clothes dryers and have home insulation, but we Japanese, for whatever bizarre justification you care to insert, we don’t.

      Not that Japan’s a bad place. It’s just not as special as it’s hyped to be.

      And the language, well, that’s really just something I misjudged. I thought it would be a lot easier to learn, and that I could somehow avoid that pesky kanji.

      But glad to hear you’re on your way! I’m sure you’ll have a ton of adventures and love Japan. At least for a while.

  13. Hey Ken. How are you doing?

    First time for me to write a comment even though I have been reading your blog for a while.
    As usual I love the way you write your stories.

    Since last year I feel like I have attained a glass ceiling as to learning the kanjis. I tried many method but nothing worked out. When I write using a computer, I can use evolved kanjis but when reading it does not work – logical as in the first way the computer selects for me the list of potential kanjis. Of course I tried reading books. But reading momotaro’s story 20 times ends up being boring and reading adults books is very tedious (2 hours for 1 page…) and going to the batting center is more fun.

    So the idea of writing seems quite interesting but what to write? In your case, what did you? Copy some texts a thousand times? (What king of texts?) Write your own texts? (Love letters for Swiss-German girls? I know no Swiss-German girl that speaks Japanese).

    So any details on what to write would be greatly appreciated. I mean any idea would be great for me.


    1. Going to the batting center is more fun. Yeah, but good question.

      So as part of my studies, I review sentences daily with Anki, occasionally use a textbook, and sometimes watch a Nihongo no Mori lesson. In every case, whenever I see a sentence, I copy it down. Just once, that’s it.

      I mean, time and location permitting, of course. I still study while standing on the train, walking, and in the elevator, and in those cases I don’t worry about writing.

      If you’re like me, then there are some kanji you know cold, while lots of others you can’t remember or confuse with similar kanji. Like 食. I can write that all day. That’s because it’s conceptually simple, and I’ve written it a thousand times.

      So by writing out sentences, it helps to clarify the meaning of the kanji, it slows you down enough to actually notice the components, and it simply gives you repetition. Those are all good things, and will help you. Sure, you won’t go from zero to 100, but even zero to five is something. It’s the little stuff that adds up.

      In addition, I also try to write notes in daily life using Japanese, with kanji of course. That’s quite a bit harder, but it’s a mindset change. If you were born here, that’s what you’d do. So if you want to live in Japan, and essentially be Japanese, you need to start behaving like everybody else. Otherwise you’re perpetually stuck in that box of Oh-your-Japanese-is-so-good (for someone who looks like you).

      1. It really means that I have to change my mindset and grasp each occasion to write.

        Seems that taking small steps everyday and keeping this mindset is the only way to improve…
        Where is the magical method where I do not have to put any effort to progress???


  14. Woo!

    Another great article by Ken Seeroi, sorry for the late comment but since my last comment I decided to read every single comment on all of your articles. Awesome, really good job at replying to all of them so eloquently, albeit there were 2-3 that were so harshly aimed at you. I felt really bad, because it really takes some time to write an article. Sitting infront of a computer, or a laptop sitting infront of you 0_0 it feels like nothing until the time is noticed. {Holy cow it has already been an hour!?!} Anyways, uh~, love your site’ and I’m going to keep reading till death do us apart!

    ~Noah (^~^)v

  15. Hello,
    Thanks for a great article!
    By the way, do you have any tips on how to speak Japanese better?
    I can read, write and listen (though I don’t understand every single word, I can pick up the gist of the talk). My problem is I can barely speak at all. When people talk to me, although I understand them, I struggle to make a reply. Words come to mind but I can’t form a proper sentence or use grammar to correctly express my thoughts. I am still using very, very basic grammar that is enough for greetings and small talks but would never allow me to have a real conversation. I interact with the Japanese every day and have the chance to talk but still not getting anywhere, then I’ve been wondering if my brain’s been developing normally all this time.
    So, how do you get better at speaking?

    1. One of the cool things about being a language teacher is getting to observe literally thousands of learners during the process of acquiring a new language. And one of the surprising discoveries, at least for me, was that vocabulary and grammar mastery doesn’t correlate well at all with speaking ability. In fact, I’d bet there’s actually an inverse correlation. Which is to say that the people who should technically be the best are, more often than not, uh, simply not.

      Even early on, you can see it. 19 out of 20 people are seriously studying, but there’s always that one idiot screwing around, making stupid jokes, acting like an ass. Everybody hates that guy. Yeah, it’s always a guy too. But damn if he doesn’t find a way to get his point across. His grammar’s atrocious, he mixes up words, but he’s just happy-go-lucky and doesn’t give a shit. He’ll never become a translator or pass an exam with flying colors, but he bumbles through conversations and manages to survive.

      I think there are some lessons to be learned from that individual, but I’ll just cut to the point. If you want solutions, here’s what I’d suggest: hire a tutor. Then meet that person as often as you can. And I mean a tutor, not just some rando who happens to speak Japanese.

      A good tutor will keep you on track, and support your efforts. Make sure you tell him or her that a) you want to concentrate on speaking; and b) you want a systematic program that enables you to practice new language patterns every time you meet. You pay money, they come prepared; that’s how it works.

      Some situational drills would serve you well. You walk into a restaurant/airplane/party/bathroom stall and the other person says…and then you reply… and you practice that. You already know the patterns and vocabulary. What you haven’t done is drill: I say this; you say that, fast and automatically.

      I think the common wisdom would be to say, If you want to get better at speaking, speak. A lot. But to me, that’s unrealistically simple. The thing about a tutor is they won’t (or better not) pressure you. They exist to create a safe environment. You can try things out, make mistakes, and realize it doesn’t matter, in your own time. Once you’ve gained some fluidity with that person, you can start branching out further into real conversations.

      Of course, it goes without saying that people don’t speak the way they’re supposed to. There’s nothing smooth, correct, or even sensible about real conversation. Getting used to that, responding anyway, even doing it yourself, is the essence of conversation. Know whaddahmean?

  16. Captains Log:
    Successfully pirated Remembering the Kanji~
    Two days in, and I have memorized 35 kanji, starting lesson three tomorrow.

    1. Spock here:
      I suspect that most people on Heisig’s method reach a point where they realise that the rate they are learning new kanji is less than the rate they are forgetting the old, so by going forwards they are effectively going backwards, at which point they give up.

      1. Update:
        I accidentally ruined all the flash cards in the washer (of course I did, cause I’m a gods be damned idiot)
        I scavenged and found quite a few flash cards.
        Currently have 90-something memorized, now looking for a faster way to do it in order get a large enough vocabulary to start reading (that’s how I learned english)

        Also, I have a very large vocabulary in english and I’m very good at picking out context clues for words I don’t know. Will that help or hinder me in japanese?

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