The Real Japanese Learners

Making the Jump from Intermediate to Advanced Japanese

Recently, a reader posed an interesting question:

I’ve done the entire Pimsleur system, gone half way through Rosetta Stone, through RTK1, taken up an SRS, spent countless hours listening to Japanese audio, watching untranslated Japanese TV, trying to read sentences, and I feel I have very little to show for it.

I’ve read that people who are good at identifying patterns are also good at learning language. This is interesting because I suck at identifying patterns. Consequently, whenever watching/listening to something in Japanese, my brain seems to think it would be a better idea to start thinking about English things rather than listening closely.

I was wondering, how did you go from having a promising beginning to being fluent? You once mentioned that about 90% of people who say they’re going to learn Japanese eventually give up.  What I’d like to know is how you got past that point, and became a part of the 10% that make it all the way through.

Everyone Needs a Hobby

This was interesting because I was sitting in the park a few months ago, at night, drinking beer.  What can I say, it’s a hobby of mine.  I believe some snacks were also involved.  And while I was enjoying a relaxing midnight picnic, a guy sat down on the bench next to mine.  This was surprising for two reasons.  The first was that there were actually two benches anywhere in Japan.  It’s freaking hard to find a seat in this country sometimes, honestly.  The second is because, well, some strange dude was sitting next to me in the dark.  That’s pretty obvious, I guess.

“English teacher?” he asked in English.  He didn’t look Japanese, but still, Ken Seeroi takes no chances.

“Yeah,” I replied in Japanese.  I don’t care who you are, I speak Japanese at you, regardless.  “How ’bout you?”

“I’m studying Japanese,” he said in Japanese.

“Where you from?


“Really?” I said.  “Want some snacks?”

“Great,” he said.  Then, “Man, are these salty.

“Yeah, but they go well with beer.  I mean, if you had one.  Anyway, why’re you in Japan?

“I actually wanted to go to the U.S.,” he said, “but I couldn’t get accepted to university, so I came here.  After I’m done with language school, I’ll start college.”

Underground Japanese Language Schools

Okay, let me stop at this point and explain what’s going on, other than two random dudes sitting in the park at night, which I guess is weird enough anyway.  But hey, you know, it’s Japan.

The thing is, there are two types of language schools in Japan:  the ones you’ll find if you google for them in English, and the faceless, almost underground ones you won’t.  I know this because I happened to be dating a Japanese teacher at the time who worked at one of these hidden schools.  Now, I know what you’re thinking:  what are the chances that Ken Seeroi would be dating a Japanese teacher at one of these schools?  And the answer is, Eh, pretty good actually, considering I was dating about eight girls at the time.  That really improves one’s odds.

As a result, I’d met dozens of students like the park guy, and heard their stories, as well as the stories of the teachers.  They were a far cry from the well-lit Japanese schools targeted at Westerners, with students all looking like an American Apparel ad, coming to study “at their own pace.”  Gaijin with money attend schools with cheerful staff who arrange izakaya parties and “authentic Japanese experience” field trips to see kimonos, or flower arranging, or pottery making.  Stuff like that.  In their spare time, students hang out in Irish bars chatting up Japanese folks who mostly want to speak English anyway.

The Real Japanese Learners

But there are scores, if not hundreds, of schools that Westerners never see.  They advertise heavily overseas, in countries like India, China, Korea, and Nepal.  Students there take classes all day, five days a week, then work nights in convenience stores, net cafes, and izakaya, taking orders and washing dishes for parties of Western language school students, after which they come home to small, cheap apartments, cook dinner, and do tons of homework.  They don’t hang out in Irish bars.  Japanese girls don’t dig them.  They are, simply, immigrants.  They endure poor treatment and discrimination, and they’re not in love with Japan, nor is Japan with them.   It’s just a place with an opportunity to go to school, and maybe start a better life.  They’ve never heard of RTK or SRS or AJATT.  The only acronym they know is STFUAS.  And they become good at Japanese, pretty quickly.

Breaking into Advanced Japanese

So how do you go from intermediate to advanced Japanese?  Let me illustrate that with a simple story about two guys named Phillip and, uh, Ben LeRoi.  See, Ben bought a gym membership and worked out three times a week, using a program that included free weights, machines, and resistance bands.  He drank protein shakes and creatine powder, logged his performance, and spent a lot of time looking in the mirror wondering why his lats weren’t more defined.  At least, I think those were lats.  Whatever.  Phillip, by contrast, got busted for pot and went to prison for a year.  And when he came out, Phillip was huge.  A year before, they’d both been two skinny dudes, and now Phillip was a monster and Ben was just full of protein shakes.

“Jesus, Phil,” Ben said.  “What the hell happened to, like, your body?

“Push-ups,” he said.  “Nothing else to do.  Jail’s boring.”

Now, if you looked at a gym membership like a bet—like, out of 100 people who buy memberships, how many end up looking great?—it wouldn’t be a very good wager, since 90% of the people don’t come out looking any better than they did going in.  But prison?  Man, a lot of those dudes are pretty huge.  They don’t have special machines or muscle-building diets.  They just work out, all day.  Prison’s the place you want to be.

So, honestly, your problem isn’t pattern recognition, or SRS methodology, or your language filter, or your intake of Omega-3 fatty acid.  It’s just that you need to study way effing more.  Everyone who studies Japanese is in the same boat, struggling to make progress.  It’s a hard freaking language.

But before you get your sister to lock you in a shed with a stack of textbooks and slide pizzas under the door for the next few years, there’s one more thing you should consider.

The Lying Game

You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.  That’s some straight-up Word of God for you.  So realize there’s a whole internet of people enthusiastically writing about this or that mnemonic method, and how many cards they enter into Anki, and how magical their learning program is.  They’re all excited about their hobby.  But those aren’t the droids you’re looking for.  You’d be better off listening to convicts, immigrants, and all the people who aren’t writing about studying Japanese because they’re locked in sheds.

At the same time, there’s the constant noise about how easy it is.  Learning Japanese is easy.  You can do it in 18 months.  Or three months.  Or just make up some random number.  There’s an entire industry of people lying to you.  Actually, that sounds kind of bad.  Let’s just say, “spreading untruths.”  There, much better.

But I was also lying when I said that 90% of the people give up.  That number factored in all those folks from China and India studying their asses off.  (Sorry, I was just trying to be encouraging.)  For Westerners, the real number is more like 99%.  Once you see how massive the task actually is, and that there’s no miracle method, and that it takes a long time, Poof, you’re out like a genie.

Forget a Better Mousetrap, Build a Mouse-Proof House

But the answer isn’t just Work Harder.  You need a completely much better method.

Thanks to the magic of the internet, we now have a forum in which everyone can share their own expert method.  So helpful, that internet, what with the Google and all.  And the common thread is:  “Self-Study!  You can learn better on your own!”  Which is awesome, because really, who wants to do things the old-fashioned way?  Learn language from people?  How very 1985 of you.

There’s kind of two ways to do everything, right?  Just say right.  Like, if you wanted to take a road trip.  Maybe go see the Grand Canyon or something.  Now, you could go online and find a bunch of people who’d love to tell you how to build your own car from bailing wire and recycled tin cans, for free.  And you could do that and it’d be fun.  You’d spend a couple of years soldering and stapling together your very own Fard or Hondo and drive its five wheels and three headlights all the way to the Grand Canyon on a gallon of corn oil.  Or you could just go buy a freaking real car.

What I’m trying to say is, you shouldn’t listen to anyone about studying Japanese.  Not Tim, or Benny, or Khatz, or me.  (Whoa, just kidding about me.)  Because when you really want to get something done, you hire a professional.  Which bring us to Ken Seeroi’s Golden Rule for Studying Japanese and Pretty Much Everything Else:

Don’t screw around.

That’s it.  If building a car is your hobby, great.  But if it’s a trip you want to take, then freaking pedal your Schwinn down to Honda and buy a Civic, because they’ve already perfected that shit.  I mean, I guess you could start assembling a 747 in your backyard too.  Just think how much you’d save on airfare to Japan.

How to Learn Japanese the Hardest Way Possible

If you ask anybody, they’ll say, Ken Seeroi?  He’s that dude who’s always studying Japanese.  Actually, they’d probably say, He’s that fool with the beer leaning against the bar trying to pick up chicks.  Whatever.  When it comes to Japanese, I’ve done everythingPimleur, Rosetta Stone, JapanesePod 101, killed my sensei in a duel.  All that stuff.  According to Anki, I reviewed 34,000 flashcards lastanki-stats year.  That, plus several NHK News stories and 15 sentences with new vocabulary every day, for over 10 years. That’s in addition to living in Japan, watching Japanese TV, working in a Japanese environment, and hanging out with people (okay, chicks) who don’t speak English.

And here’s the bad news . . .

I’m now just about at an intermediate stage.  Because being able to read and converse are the basics for starting to learn the language.

Despite being fluent in Japanese, I still find myself baffled by tons of things I can’t understand, see posters that make no sense, and walk into the ladies’ dressing room at the onsen.  Hey, it was a mistake.  I have a pattern recognition problem.  Don’t hate on the handicapped, lady.

How to Learn Japanese the Easiest Way Possible

So after a decade of mostly self-study, I feel pretty good about telling you, Yeah, don’t do that.  What you really want to do is enroll in a Japanese language school, in Japan, like the Yamasa Institute.  They’re professionals.  Teaching people Japanese is what they do.  And don’t go twice a week for six months like it’s some hobby.  Go full-time, like my friend Amelia:  five days a week for two years.  She made it, and it didn’t take her a decade.  Every day plus homework and stay away from Irish bars, and you’ll be there.

But Language School is Expensive!

Yeah, so’s everything.  Cars, clothes, snowboards, your i-Whatever.  You gotta decide, is this something you really want to do?  If it is, then don’t screw around.  Go to school and get it done.  If not, then there’s 99 other people you can share your experience with.  Sorry for the tough love, but you know, I work in the school system here.  When young Takeshi has a problem paying attention in class, Ms. Fukuyama doesn’t sit him down and say, Gee Takeshi, what seems to be the problem?  Is there anything you’d like to share with me?  Instead, Fukuyama-sensei takes off her shoe and beats Takeshi in the face repeatedly until Takeshi realizes the error of his ways and agrees to shut up and focus.  Saw that last week, and I was like, Hmm, good to know.  Did not know that “shoe” was an educational tool.

Where to go From Here

So how do you improve your Japanese?  Never fear.  When all else fails, Ken Seeroi is the man with the plan.  Maybe not always a good plan, but hey, at least some plan.  So here you go:

1. My first advice is, Take a chill.  Step back and acknowledge that maybe this is a bigger undertaking than you thought it was.  Dig on the fact that there’s no “easy method,” no secret you can purchase, or magic beans you can eat.  Mushrooms, yes; beans, no.

2. Don’t go all crazy and start studying harder, or more.  Do not convince someone to lock you in a shed.  And certainly don’t create some “immersive environment” where you surround yourself with Japanese all the time.  That’s like a patented method for burning out and becoming one of the 99%, while simultaneously alienating all your friends and inviting your family to stage an intervention.

3. Instead, get a part-time job washing dishes for a sushi restaurant and save 200 dollars a week for a year.  And quit buying stuff you don’t need.  Like I could save thousands of dollars a year just by not buying coffee and beer.  I mean, theoretically.  Let’s not get all crazy—a guy’s gotta survive after all.

4. Meanwhile, absolutely, continue your self-study, but decide upon a course of learning that’s smart and realistic.  Learn 10 new words a day.  Work your way through a textbook.  Take notes and review them.  Set a daily schedule, and then stick with it—all that basic, unglamorous stuff.  And eat fish.  Lots of fish.  Yeah, that’ll help.

5. Don’t waste time.  Don’t watch movies you don’t understand.  Don’t change your operating system to Japanese.  Quit screwing around.  Actually study, instead of reading about studying.  Work hard, and it’ll pay off.

6. And then after a year, when your maneki neko bank is full, enroll in a Japanese language institute, one of the nice ones.  That way, even if your Japanese sucks, eh, maybe you can at least make some cool pottery.  You can probably become a full-on pottery master in 18 months.  I’m pretty sure.

83 Replies to “The Real Japanese Learners”

  1. I’d say Ken is basically right on the money. Figure out why you want to learn Japanese. For me, I work in finance and wanted to exercise “the other part of my brain”. I had an interest to learn about Japan its culture and 20th century history. But if you don’t have something motivating you, you will likely stop.

    I tried self study for a couple years. It was fine for learning the kana and simple Japanese, but I realized it was unlikely that I was going to progress without something interactive. For me, since I work in NYC, I’m able to take class twice a week. I also have a language partner I Skype once a week and several pen-pals. It forces me study so that I can interact with my friends. It’s a language – you really need something interactive.

    But reading and kanji recognition are always going to be a struggle. I’m 2 plus years in and since I do this “part time” I’ve only got about 100 kanji memorized. My vocabulary is much bigger. But keep in mind, unlike a romance language, you will be learning a lot of new words that are unlike English. And in my experience katakana-go (Western words in Japanese) are actually harder than Japanese. The pronunciation is just plain comical to an English speaker and the meanings aren’t exactly the same as in English.

    My last point with regard to movies and TV is you will need to distinguish plain conversational Japanese, the dialects frequently associated with conversational Japanese, and polite (and standardized) Japanese. You will understand much more that is said on NHK News than you will a yakuza film. What do they actually say in yakuza films… Ken?

    Anyhow that’s my 100en…

    1. You know, it’s funny. Even the yakuza I’ve met don’t talk like movie yakuza. The only people who talk like that are teenagers. I heartily recommend studying it for anyone who wants to sound like a 15 year-old boy.

      But for real, you brought up an important point, which is that language isn’t like Science, or Mathematics, or even intellectual recreations like playing chess. Its core purpose is to enable communication between people. And much of that communication happens face to face, in real time. There’s no way to study or prepare well for that. It just takes lots of training and practice. Interactivity is the essence of language.

      So props to you for having the discipline to take classes and Skype even though you’re all the way in New York. Like they say, Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Ganbatte!

  2. As always a very interesting post hidden behind a lot of humor or vice versa?! *g*

    I like the comparison with the prison and the gym! 😉

    I can’t agree with the Japanese language school advice, though. I think it’s not necessarily the best method or the best / fastest / safest way to learn Japanese.

    When I first came to Japan (although I had more than just basic command of Japanese at that time) my goal was to earn enough money at my full-time job and as soon as I would have enough money, I’d quit my job and apply for 1-2 years at a Japanese Language School, full-time of course.
    (Yes, I love superlong sentences …)

    However, I just couldn’t wait and wanted to understand the world around me more. So, I spent the first two years in Japan studying like crazy before and after work.

    By the time I finally had enough money for the school, my Japanese was so good (not good enough, never will be) that attending such a school would have been a waste of money – in my case.

    People who lack self-discipline should join such a school, but I’m of the opinion that it’s not the right way for everybody. 🙂

    1. Yeah, I feel you on that. Self-study is very popular. There are a lot of advantages, right? You can do it whenever you want, customize it to your needs, and it’s free.

      But maybe you’re thinking too much from your own perspective, which is that of a student. (One who was already talented in two languages, by the way.) Think from the opposite perspective, that of a coach, or even a business manager.

      Like, what if you were Commander-in-Chief of the Army? You’ve got hundreds of thousands of new recruits and you need to get them trained, in shape, and ready to do difficult tasks as perfectly as possible. Those men and women come from all backgrounds, from all over the world. And you have to get the maximum number of people to a high level of competency within a limited amount of time.

      Now, you could do one of two things. You could give everyone stacks of DVD’s, books, and MP3 files and say, “Study hard! Do lots of push-ups and run through the mud! Don’t forget to shine your boots once in a while! See you in a year!”

      That would be cheap. No need for drill sergeants or barracks or all that pesky running around chanting. And at the end of a year, how good would your army be?

      No one knows, of course, because there are too many variables and there’s no way to control or adjust for problems. But if you put everyone through boot camp, with instructors, you can ensure the outcomes much more closely. Which is why it exists. It’s also one reason we still have office buildings, and don’t just let everyone work from home in their underwear.

      Self-study is a good supplement to classes, and no doubt the Army’s using it. But to make it the main method—leaving everything up to each person’s individual schedule and level of discipline—would be irresponsible. And trust me, no one knows irresponsible better than Ken Seeroi.

      1. Hehe. I really like your comparisons.
        Absolutely, I agree!

        Like I said it depends on the person. Studying in a language school is not for everybody just like self-study doesn’t work out for everybody.
        It depends on the individual.

        I won’t deny the fact that there are a LOT of advantages if you choose a language school.
        Actually I just want(ed) to encourage those people who (for whatever reason) cannot attend a language school. They shouldn’t give up. There are other ways to learn Japanese.

        1. Absolutely, I certainly agree with that. I don’t want to discourage anyone from learning Japanese. Quite the contrary—I want the maximum number of people possible to succeed.

          In this article, I’m trying to sketch out what I consider to be a solid method, to provide a high success rate for a high number of people. But if there are constraints that prevent a person from pursuing that course of action, there are certainly others. Can’t take classes in Japan? Take them online. Can’t afford that? Do a language exchange. Got no internet? Read a textbook. No textbook? Just sit around and think Japanese thoughts. There are many options.

  3. Ken,

    Have you had any experience with online classes? I mean, the real classes, not the prerecorded MP3s, since those are, IMO, just another form of self-study.

    I was studying with local college for a couple of years, and then with a private tutor, but there are still miles to go. My goal is conversational Japanese for travel, not business.

    Oh, and I’m not a native English speaker either, to make matters worse.

    1. I’d like to hear from somebody with more experience than myself, but here’s what I can tell you.

      I used to do language exchange via a site called The Mixxer, and it was great for making online friends, but terrible for actually learning anything. But that was the fault of the method, not the media, because it wasn’t an actual class, more like just chatting about random stuff.

      No matter how you meet your teacher, the important thing is that he or she actually has a curricula and lessons. You want somebody who can help you practice ten new words or five new grammar structures every time you meet, so that after a couple of months, all that learning builds up and you have results. Laypeople don’t think in those terms, but good teachers do, I think. If I were a good teacher, that’s what I would think, anyway.

      So that being said, I have taught online language lessons. Those, I believe were pretty good, to the extent that I had a good plan and followed it. So, just to reiterate, it’s more important to find a school or teacher with a proven curriculum than it is to meet face to face. A well-planned Skype lesson is better than a poorly-planned face-to-face session. Okay, I guess I said that about three times, so I’ll let it go.

      I don’t think online classes can do everything, however. It’s probably hard to do four hours a day online, whereas you could do that in a physical school relatively easily. I wonder if anyone’s actually tried that online? There’s also the “too-convenient” factor. It’s a little too easy to reschedule online classes, which isn’t really good.

      But perhaps the biggest drawback to online is the additional psychological distance. There’s something about having a person right in your face that gives your brain that added jolt, that feeling of “this is important—better remember it.” It’s much easier to zone out (even for the teacher) when you’re in your own home. For some reason, I’m always thinking about the fridge, and snacks and stuff. Probably just some defect in my brain though.

  4. Hey Ken, thanks for writing this article! I was seriously worried if it was my intake of Omega-3 fatty acid, so thanks for clearing that up.

    In all seriousness, I like the “don’t screw around” advice. I’ve actually taken this up already in some ways. Lately when studying, I’ve been thinking, “pretend it’s your job to do this”, and that seems to be keeping me motivated longer.

    One thing that left me wondering though was your second point on the Where to go From Here list.

    “2. Don’t go all crazy and start studying harder, or more. Do not convince someone to lock you in a shed. And certainly don’t create some ‘immersive environment’ where you surround yourself with Japanese all the time. That’s like a patented method for burning out and becoming one of the 99%, while simultaneously alienating all your friends and inviting your family to stage an intervention.”

    What if you don’t burn out? What if you manage to make it enjoyable enough to keep going with it? …or is the idea of not burning out even more far-fetched than self study?

    Thanks again Ken for writing this great article 🙂

    1. Yeah, I actually think studying Japanese is a lot of fun. Maybe not like doing-a-kegstand kind of fun, but let’s say, like an-afternoon-at-the-zoo kind of fun. Sometimes I put in a full day doing nothing but studying Japanese. I don’t really see that as work; it’s actually awesome. But more importantly are the days when it’s not awesome, when it’s boring. Those are the days that really count. That’s when you’ve got to make sure you stick with your core plan, so you don’t start forgetting information.

      I don’t think burn-out is inevitable, at all. But I’d say burn-out is closely related to expectations, and that’s what concerns me. When you set up high expectations, everything’s golden at first. You study 8 hours a day, do a million Anki cards, read War and Peace in Japanese. And that’s fine, so long as you don’t make that level your baseline. Because the day’s coming when you don’t meet your expectations, because you drank too much shochu, then had a fight with your girlfriend, and finally woke up in front of an unfamiliar train station wondering how you got there. We’ve all had times like that, I know. And how you deal with those days is going to determine your success. On bad days, I can still find 45 minutes to study, so that’s what I do. But if my expectation was to study for 4 hours, I’d never meet that. Then I’d be disappointed in myself, and probably get discouraged, and eventually give up. So I guess what I’m saying is: it’s good to have low expectations. Set a low bar and feel good when you cross it. Because keeping going every day is what’s really important.

  5. One good thing about teaching at a small cram school is that I am surrounded by Japanese all day, every day. These kids might be students of English, but they sure as hell don’t want to speak it. Ever. And so although I’ve just started seriously studying six months ago, every single word I learn enables me to better interact with my environment.

    It’s hard to measure progress when you get almost no feedback (and finishing Pimsleur or Rosetta Stone’s “milestones” are hardly feedback). The thing about kids is that if you make even one small language mistake it’s the funniest thing in the entire God-damned world. Japanese has like 10 different words for ‘to wear’ depending on the item. Go ahead and mix one up in front of a nine year old–you’ll feel stupid for a week.

    Trapped with these little monsters for hours a day, with no Japanese teacher to back me up, with only my fists and my angry face and my meager-but-improving Japanese to keep me safe, I know *exactly* how much progress I’m making, and conversely, just how far I have to go. So to the guy who asked the original question, you might know a lot more than you think, it’s just a matter of feedback. When you get feedback every day (which may be difficult for you), you’re fully aware of how far you’ve come. Six months ago my general solution to kids not paying attention was beating them with their workbooks. Now I’m chastising them like a pro. And also getting chastised like a pro every time I fuck up even a single syllable. Which is every other sentence.

    1. Yeah, there is really something powerful about personal interaction. The first time someone yells dame at you, or screws up their face and says iyada, you’re gonna remember that.

      I don’t know if you ever get this, but kids, especially older ones, sometimes mock my pronunciation, or the cadence of my speech. That’s valuable feedback. I guess one way to gauge progress is by measuring how much people make fun of you.

      1. What the shit happened to your everything?

        Yeah, I get it frequently, but it’s in English or Japanese. Or even Spanish. Or basically anything I say. And honestly? It isn’t a bad measure. The first time I tried to tell them not to play around in Japanese they all looked at me and laughed for about five minutes. Recently I’ve gotten it down so well that I’ve even gotten some respectful little “Yes, excuse me, I understand” apologies, bow and all. From my kids? That’s amazing progress.

        1. I assume you’re referring to the new web design, to which I can only answer, Major shit, is what. That’s what passes for progress here at Japanese Rule of 7. Anyway, hope you like it!

          Yeah, getting kids anywhere to act like anything but apes is pretty much a fantasy. I’m just happy if they don’t try to grab my junk or stick their fingers up my butt. I really don’t understand the Japanese fascination with that.

          1. New site is looking good.

            My tolerance for violation is way, way higher than I ever imagined it would have to be–Not that anybody ever imagines little kids grabbing their junk is a problem they’re going to have to deal with (especially not in Japan). Seriously, my tolerance for being accosted is like that of a middle-aged waitress. In Egypt.

            Just yesterday some little girl (hell not even that little, she’s 8) grabbed me by the crotch, hard, and held on. Normally I just ask if they’re perverted or something but this time all I could gasp out was that it fucking hurt. She giggled, told her friends that boys were funny, and then turned to me and asked in all seriousness, “Why does it hurt?” Now she *gently* grabs my dick every week. So nice, the Japanese.

            But yeah, if not for my improving Japanese I’d spend 10 minutes teaching and 40 minutes chasing the little bastards around the room beating them with their workbooks. The ratio of time spent beating to time spent teaching correlates 1:1 with the ratio of time I spend messing around on the internet vs. studying their heathen language. Anyway, it’s hard to know what you’ve got if you don’t get a chance to use it.

            1. When you say “it’s hard to know what you’ve got if you don’t get a chance to use it,” I assume you’re talking about your junk, in which case you really gotta get some better exercise for that stuff.

              Yeah, as the years have gone by, I’ve also gotten a little more strict with the kids. Hell, with the adults too. I guess that just comes with living here, and noticing how people relate to each other. When I first got here, I was okay with the role where they’d stand me in front of the classroom and say, Okay, now make with the funny talk like your people do. But now I just expect to be treated like everybody else.

              But you’re damned sure never going to get any respect in this country if you don’t speak their heathen language, so I guess I better get back to it. My ratio’s getting all out of whack, what with the English and all.

  6. I agree with most of what you say, interesting read.

    IMO you can learn just as well as you do from language school, if not more (depending on the person ofc) but as you said; personal interaction is powerful.

    The speaking ability is something that a language school really can help improve, and that would be the biggest reason for me attending one.

    Great article, nice with different views on learning Japanese.

    1. Thanks, I appreciate that. I certainly don’t mean to disparage self-study, since, well, I do it every day. It’s true that somebody who put in the same time and effort as they did in a school would get great results. That’s hard to do on your own, I think, but some people obviously do it.

      Personally, I’ve been considering joining a 塾 (cram school) lately, and taking classes with the Japanese high school kids, learning the same things they learn, five days a week. I think if I could survive a year of that, it’d have to improve my Japanese tremendously. I met a Korean guy who was doing that, and it seemed to be working for him. But the thing that scares me the most, honestly, is the time commitment. Two hours every night would be powerful, but still, two hours every night. Jeez that’s a lot.

  7. Did you do something recently with the web site? Suddenly everything looks completely different and distorted since my last visit. I have an old computer, might this be the problem?

    1. Hi Bud,

      Yes, yesterday the website underwent a major revision. If it’s looking jumbled, you probably just need to delete your cookies (not toss), and clear your history. That should fix it right up.


      1. Deleted cookies and history and everything in cache and it still looks the same. Text is 3 inches wide in middle of page and it’s like scrolling down a mountain to get to the end…LOL! Pictures are small or compressed looking and some are unviewable. Tried using compatibility view with same result. I’m still thinking it has to do with me using XP OS and old computer, but I still don’t have any idea how to fix it. I go to hundreds of websites all over the world and this has never happened to any web pages I’ve viewed. Could you explain exactly what you changed? Maybe I should get another web browser possibly?

        1. Hmm. That’s concerning. The new theme is compatible back to Internet Explorer 7, or so they say. I think what I’d try is downloading and installing the latest FireFox or Google Chrome browser, and see how that works. Maybe it’s just your web browser that’s a bit out of date, and not your whole system. At least, that’s what I’m hoping.

          1. Eureka,

            It looks better with the internet explorer but best with Firefox. I won’t use anything Google, I don’t trust them anymore. I was using a derivative browser called slim browser and its updated regularly, but I guess it finally got outmoded. Everything looks copacetic now, so thanks for the advice.

            BTW, you ever read anything by Robert Heinlein? He’s a very interesting person and developed a writing style that also reminds me of your ability to weave a great story. Read his “Glory Road” or “Time enough for Love” or even his “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”, but my favorite is “Stranger in a Strange Land”.

            He had a very ribald sense of humor and was also a great social deviant of the highest order… and I mean that in the best possible way of course. He was from a different generation than you, so some of his writing is going to be very dated, but I think you can enjoy looking at his works for some inspiration for your book.

            Since I started viewing your blog, I also started watching Asian drama’s that have been subbed and I had an epiphany the other day after watching “Wake Love Up” a Taiwanese Drama. It suddenly dawned on me that Japanese women don’t talk enough when dealing with the opposite sex (in the dramas I watched), while the Chinese women talk too much. Am I misinformed or is that a cultural thing for Japanese women? Hmmmmm!

            1. Glad you got that worked out, Bud! I use Firefox myself, mostly so I can use the Rikaichan plug-in for reading Japanese.

              Yes, I read “Stranger in a Strange Land” many years ago. I used the word “grok” in one of my articles here, which was a reference to Heinlein’s work. Don’t know how many people picked that up, though. Probably none, actually.

              You’re right on the money when it comes to Japanese people not speaking very much (it’s not just the women, that’s for sure). I’d bet if you counted the number of words spoken by the average Japanese versus the average American in a day, it would be less than half. That number goes down considerably for men, and even more so whenever there’s a problem. Conversation can flow freely so long as everything’s fine, but once there’s even the hint of an uncomfortable situation, the immediate reaction seems to be silence.

              I’ve often thought how much easier it must be to study language in the U.S. Everybody talks all the time, for no reason—waiters, people in line, the checkout lady at the grocery store. Someone who wanted to learn English would be surrounded by conversation, whether they wanted it or not. In Japan, by contrast, it’s quite common to go all day without uttering a word to anyone, unless you have a specific reason for doing so.

  8. Ken…what happened to the website? Change is hard? This is why I like living in Japan…minimal changes. Now this….

    1. Ah, but change is good. Like how Japan used to have a rainy season, but this year it’s nice and dry. That’s good, right? Now you can go to the beach more often. I’m sure there can be no drawbacks.

  9. First of all, man what’s with the new website layout? It’s all weird and web 2.0-ish. Anyways onto my point! I study Japanese Languages at College/University and so I’m obviously doing it the being taught way. Hopefully this should give me the language skills I need, which considering it’s for 3 years I’d be disappointed if it didn’t.

    I think the post is good though, and I agree with the school vs. self-study thing. Being able to have some degree of interaction and a greater motivator really do help a lot!

    Why don’t you go to school though Ken?

    1. What, me take my own advice? Stop with that crazy talk.

      Well, first of all, I think it’s awesome that you’re taking a serious approach to the language. After three years, you’ll have a great base. Then just move to Japan and you’ll be fluent in three months.

      So about me . . . I have taken some classes, just not enough. I did 3 semesters in college, which gave me the basic skills, then attended two language institutes here in Japan. The problem I’ve always had was that I worked at the same time, so I only went to language school one or two times a week for about 90 minutes each time. That’s better than nothing, but a far cry from the 4-5 hours a day of full-time.  Throughout it all, I’ve maintained a routine of self-study, which has given me steady progress, but it’s clearly a slower path.

      I’ll almost certainly take classes again. I’m trying to figure if I could manage 90 minutes a day after work these days. It’s kind of a lot, not to mention all the distractions that come with living here. Japan’s a hard place to learn Japanese, that’s for sure.

      1. Fair enough, I guess time constraints can be a problem.

        What kind of distractions come with living in Japan though? Now you’ve got me curious?

        Also back to what I said about uni, yeah it is a serious approach I suppose. I just want to work as a translator or something like that I suppose. Either way it’ll make getting a job that isn’t teaching English easier.

        1. “What kind of distractions come with living in Japan though? Now you’ve got me curious?”

          Whoa, like what kind of sand do they have at the beach?

          So the answer is: Absolutely and completely everything, starting with the fact that it’s all in Japanese. Like, you know all that stuff that’s complex in your own country? Notices from the bank and parking tickets and paying taxes? Like, even if it was in English it would be challenging? Yeah, that’s all going to happen in Japanese. Reading maps, making reservations, picking train lines, all that stuff. And ever have a situation where like you bought a DVD player and then you took it home and plugged it in and it didn’t work, and then you had to take it back? And then the lady at the store was like, Well, it’s not in the original packaging, and you’re like, Of course it’s not lady, I had to unwrap it to plug it in and find out it didn’t work. But all the shrink wrap and zip ties are here in the box, see?

          And then there’s all the good stuff. Even a medium-sized city in Japan makes New York or Paris look like a cow pasture. For example, I’ve heard you could eat at a different restaurant in San Francisco every night for the rest of your life without going to the same place twice. Now, why you’d want to do that, I don’t know, but anyway, in Tokyo there’s about a thousand times more restaurants than in San Francisco. Just eating out in Japan is like a full-time job.

          Restaurants not your thing? How about a bar, or a coffee shop? I mean, check this out: There are 260 Starbucks in Tokyo alone. That doesn’t even begin to count the Japanese coffee chains. You could make a hobby out of just going to Starbucks.

          So whatever you’re into—whether it’s golf or Shakespeare or maid cafes—you’re gonna find it here. Then when you start to make friends, people are going to invite you to go places, near and far. Your weekends will fill up and your laundry will pile up. You will sleep in strange places and buy underwear from convenience stores. Your sleep schedule will be irregular and your diet will go to hell. Or maybe that’s just me. But I don’t think so. Japan is infinitely distracting.

  10. Can’t agree with you more! This is definitely the way to learn a language.

    I think that taking a course IN THE COUNTRY is extremely important. Japanese was one of my majors and although I studied it for three years, when I got that degree in my hand I could barely hold a basic conversation. It was, well, embarrassing to say the least.

    Then I moved to middle-of-nowhere Japan after graduating and I finally got to put all of that basic grammar and kanji knowledge from my degree to use. I had no formal education in the inaka, so I just self studied after work and used what I could in my daily life (but self study was extremely important!). I also gave myself a goal—to pass JLPT—otherwise I wouldn’t study. I also paid 5000 yen for the test, so putting that to waste would be a shame (I mean, I could pay for some nomihodai or something with that money). Having a goal is really important, whether it’s to pass JLPT or get into a Japanese grad course, etc.., it will give you motivation to study (just ‘speaking Japanese’ is a bit too broad of a goal).

    After Japanese I decided to learn Chinese. I basically did what you suggested in your post. I signed up for a Chinese course in Beijing which was 4-5 hours, 5 days a week of Chinese study. After the 5 hour classes, I would see a language exchange partner and practice 2 days a week. I did this for 5-6 months and I became conversational. I then moved to Shanghai, got a job, and 6 months later I was confident to say—yes, I speak Chinese.

    So in short, study time was:
    Japanese = 5 years
    Chinese = 1 year

    Of course, knowing kanji already helped a ton and, imho, Chinese is much easier than Japanese…

    But I think the method of learning the language is what made all the difference. Having 5 months of nothing but language dedication with instructors that are teaching it to you right WHILE living in the environment and getting daily practice? Yeah. That’s how you up your skills.

    And I’m really interested in what you said about maybe going to a Japanese cram school—you should go and then blog about it, haha.

    Anyway, nice post!
    (PS, I think the new layout looks nice, much more modern than before!)

    1. Thanks, Ken Seeroi be all about the modern.

      Definitely, the question we all have to ask is: Where am I gonna be a year from now? I mean, in terms of Japanese ability, that is. Not like, Oh, lying on the beach drinking a pina colada. And if you’ve self-studied at all, you probably know the answer, which is, eh, somewhat better than you are today. But just somewhat. And if we looked at it objectively, with the high attrition rate, you might become one of the many who decide things are just not working out in this relationship. Maybe take a little break. Then sayonara.

      But anyone who goes to language school full-time for a year, will be way more awesome than he or she is today. Plus you’re a lot less likely to drop out with classmates all around, not to mention that you forked over a ton of cash.

      I also like what you said about “speaking Japanese” being too broad of a goal. That’s really true. Anybody who’s studied for a few months can claim to speak the language. And many people do. It’s good to have quantifiable goals.

  11. I am not a native English speaker, but I can confidently say that I can hold a perfectly normal conversation with a native speaker (minus the accent but that doesn’t matter does it). That’s far from being perfect but good enough for me. Yes we did have have English as a subject in school, but that was more about learning and appreciating literature (usually classical literature) than learning how to speak and converse in the language. I must say that I’ve never made any consicous effort to learn English. I was aware of how bad it was; even so I never ‘studied’ English (apart from what we had to do for school that is). What actually played a big role in my improvement was reading; and lots of it. And I am not talking about things like textbooks (I don’t mean English textbooks, I mean textbooks written in English). I read lots and lots of contemporary novels and short stories and stuff like that. Also I was exposed to the internet at a relatively young age (which isn’t young anymore seeing as how 3 year old kids are running around with ipads and iphones and what not), so instead of reading the formal English found in newspapers or textbooks, I read pieces written in a more casual tone (articles, forums and blogs, like this one for instance). But I wasn’t reading because I wanted to learng English; I read it simply because most of the internet is in English. Of course I’d have hints of internet culture when I speak English, but I won’t blame myself. I was never fond of watching English television, drama, soaps etc. I hardly watch any television at all, and when I do, it’s usually just the National geographic so, then I have formal English again. I realised that understanding the meaning of a word in context by reading it again and again in lots of different situations taught me far more than looking it up in the dictionary.

    And so with japanese my plan is to keep studying grammar and vocabulary (and also kanji) but at the same time do some basic reading. I’ll probably start with some children’s books and then move on to proper stories and novels. If there’s a kanji that I don’t know I’d look it up in a dictionary (which wouldn’t teach me how to use that word) but as long as I continue reading I’ll sooner or later figure it out. I’ll pretend that I’m not reading to improve my japanese, but because I really want to read what the guy’s written and who knows, may be someday I wouldn’t have to pretend at all.

    Oh and if you haven’t already watched this, I think you should. Fits your situation (almost).

    1. What language did you grow up using? Since you’ve already mastered English, you should be able to apply some of the same techniques toward Japanese. I’ll be interested to see how long it takes you. I have a feeling you’re going to make relatively quick progress.

      I couldn’t agree more that reading is the key. I’ve heard the same thing repeatedly from people who speak foreign languages at a high level. I’d venture to say that it’s even more important for Japanese, since the words are related visually, rather than simply audibly.

      And thanks for the video. That pretty much sums up how I feel about judging people by appearance.

      1. In India we have 29 states and most of them have a regional language (somewhat like Europe where you have lots of small countries and each with its own language). So even though I wasn’t born in the state where my parents were from, I learned the language because that’s what we spoke at home (I didn’t know the script for a long time since we never had that language in school, so I couldn’t write, but I taught that myself when i was 12). Then there’s Hindi, a language which most Indians know regardless of which state they come from and I used it with everyone else. We learn English in school and pretty much everyone knows English as well, although the level of proficiency varies considerably.

      2. Hi Ken! I was rereading your older articles and I came upon this really old comment of mine. Reading the stuff I wrote back when I was starting out is really amusing to me right now haha. I figured I might as well give you a 5 year status update.

        I passed the jlpt N3 level some time ago (yay now I can confidently hold my own against a 5 year old Japanese kid). I am going to Kyoto University in Oct for my PhD. Hopefully by the time I complete my degree in 5 years I can comfortably converse with 10 year olds 😀

        1. Man, that is fantastic. From what I’ve seen, only about 5% of all Japanese learners make it as far as you have, if that. And congrats on getting into Kyoto University; that’s quite an achievement in itself. Will the coursework be in Japanese? I’d love to know a little more about the program you’ve chosen.

          Most of all, thanks for keeping in touch. I really enjoy hearing about how things have turned out for people over the years.

    1. Thanks very much! Comments like that are what keep me going. Well, those plus large cans of Japanese malt liquor and citrus-flavored potato chips. Man, convenience stores in this country are awesome. Anyway, thanks.

  12. “3. Instead, get a part-time job washing dishes for a sushi restaurant and save 200 dollars a week for a year. And quit buying stuff you don’t need. Like I could save thousands of dollars a year just by not buying coffee and beer. I mean, theoretically. Let’s not get all crazy—a guy’s gotta survive after all.”

    Great advice…if you’re a 20-something with no spouse, no kids, and no career. The rest of us will just have to plod on the best we can, I guess.

    1. Yeah, I know. I’m in that same boat. Well, I don’t have a wife and kids, but I do have a job. Okay, so I’m not in the same boat. Whatever. What I meant is that there are a lot of reasons that might prevent a person from dropping everything and uprooting their life to attend Japanese language school, and I feel you on that.

      There’s a million situations in the world, and we’ve all gotta do the best we can with what we’ve got. Like I’m sure there’s people out there with no internet, like reading this right now on papyrus or something. Well, I’m not sure, but that’s what I think, maybe.

      Anyway, I really wrote this to present a perspective different from the mantra of “self-study rocks, classes suck.” That’s all over the internet, fueled in part by sites selling self-study methods.

      Self-study’s fine. And if that’s all you got, that’s what you do. I’m doing it too. Got no basketball? I guess we can still play a game by throwing rocks into a can. But for anyone who has the option, I’d say get your ass to school. If you can make it happen, make it happen.

    1. That makes two of us, Malduit. Sentence making in correct order for me too is difficult. Glad I could add some cheer to your day.

      1. Really? You are quite prolific for someone who professes as much. I am glad you are there to bounce ideas off of. It’s true there is so much that goes into a sentence: a fixed subject, chronology/tense, an object/goal. What I mean is, one is bound by the sentence structure of the language one is using. It can make our yearnings for any honest expression difficult. And then there are all the conventions…I suppose on a more fanciful note, I keep dreaming that I am in that film, where I am looking for human survivors, but find bodies lying next to pods with tendrils attached to their faces.

        1. Well, thanks, but I always want to write more and better. I have yet to reach my prolific potential. All this studying Japanese doesn’t help either . . . that stuff’s really time consuming.

          1. You’re welcome, Ken. I think industry is good. Then again, who’s to say that what one has isn’t already enough, isn’t exactly where one is supposed to be?

  13. Got a quick question, the other night I was watching a new Japanese show called “Keiji 110kg”, about a heavy set policeman that gets promoted to detective, and I was astounded that everyone was calling an overweight man a Fatso, from kids to women to policemen to co-workers. Was this a translation thing, a comedy effect or is this common practice in public for people to talk that way to others in Japan. I also noticed that people in Japanese Dramas call the elderly “Old Man” or “Old woman” in public. From where I live people are usually much kinder to the elderly, though I’m certain rude people act that way. In polite society in the South you “Sir” or “Maam” all the elderly, or at least that was the way it used to be.

    By the way, I did notice you using grok and I responded that I groked you in one of my first posts, that’s why I was interested in what you thought about R. Heinlein. He was a little bit of a hell raiser when he was young and in the Navy (was reported to be an accomplished drinker also) and became an international person just as you have done. He got married young and let his wives influence him greatly, so that might be where you have set down a different course in life. I have met 3 prominent authors early in their careers and I feel like I might have met another, so I have a great anticipation for you to put together a book soon, Ganbatte! がんばって!

    1. That is high praise indeed, which I shall endeavor to live up to. I just gotta get my inspiration/perspiration ratio in order, but my doctor should be able to fix that up. Or perhaps my bartender.

      In answer to your question, well, it’s complicated. I suspect the detective comedy was exaggerating in order to be comedic, but that being said, it’s not uncommon for people to comment upon others’ physical appearance, including weight, age, and bodily features. Apologists like to say, Well that’s just the culture, but it’s probably safe to say there’s something deeper at work.

      One factor is that Japanese people don’t openly relate to one another very often, so their social skills can be a bit ham-handed. In the West, many folks have spent hundreds of hours in discussions, arguments, and problem solving by the time they become adults. Not everybody’s skilled in those matters, but most people have experience. That’s not really the case in Japan. I often hear stories where people haven’t spoken to friends, loved ones, or family members for years. They might not know anything substantial about their sibling, their spouse, or (especially) their father. So when they do finally open their mouths, I’m often impressed at how spectacularly inappropriate they can be. Sometimes worse than me, if that’s even possible.

      It also pays to remember that Japanese society is hierarchical, and people use subtle (and not so subtle) put-downs to establish pecking order. This bullying happens in schools, but also continues into the workplace. It’s also, perhaps of course, directed at foreigners as well, in what Arudō Debito terms “micro-agressions.”

      None of which is to say that Japanese society is any better or worse than society anywhere. It’s got it’s share of pluses and minuses. Trying to understand the causes behind those is, if nothing else, interesting.

      1. Your description of interaction between Japanese is so spot on correct that you have to admit you DO recognize patterns of social behavior on a macro scale. No sooner than I had read your response than I watched the latest episode of Daini Gakusho, where two Japanese women that were once close friends have to rediscover each other as circumstances bring them back into contact after 17 years of not talking to one another. The series seems to deal with their inability to console or show emotion to one another though they want to be best friends and their attempt to show their real feelings is almost painful to watch as they deal with life’s problems. They finally decide in this last episode to use their love for the violin to communicate thru music and it is such a beautiful and touching scene set against their past awkward discussions and inability to communication that it brought tears to my eyes.

        It was as if this TV series acknowledges what you just bespoke and was teaching the viewer that there are other ways to get around the Ham-handed social relations that exist in their society. It was very touching and telling about the Japanese and for me made their difficulties just the more endearing to me.

        Then I watched the comedy drama “Otomesan” the TV series about the battle between a Mother-in-law and her son’s wife. Her son is working as a temp worker in a store and the regular employee is bullying her son with his “micro-aggression” when he overhears the son talking to his wife over the phone during a work break and is jealous of his lovey-dovey discussions. He demands that the temp worker show him a picture of his wife because he says, he “can’t believe a temp worker could have a hot wife” and then orders the temp worker to comply or get fired. This kind of behavior doesn’t often happen in our society and it mystified me as to why the temp worker/son would let him get away with it and didn’t just say FU and knock the hell out of the Otaku looking regular employee that was intruding into his personal life.

        That’s also another part of Japanese culture that I don’t understand; why do people in business situations think they can intrude into their employees personal life or that the school can discipline students for their actions outside of the school environment or that parents can protest to the school regarding another child’s actions outside of the classroom. Short of a major crime that would not happen in schools here in the US. Is it because these schools are private and require entrance exams to screen out the wrong type of kids? I could see them using that reasoning to keep the ELITE nature of a school intact, but I saw this in dramas that even dealt with problem children going to school on an island, like the Drama: “Shima no Sensei”. I know with the latest NSA scandal going on and the government justifying getting into everyone’s computers and phone conversations, it might seem like the US is also losing our rights to privacy, but I think this kind of behavior is intolerable and down right rude… whew, I feel so much better now that I have made myself feel superior…ROFL! :0

        1. You always ask great questions, Bud. These are rooted particularly deeply in Japanese culture.

          I’ll begin by saying that I’m not a social anthropologist, just some dude who lives in Japan. There’s a lot of people here who might give you a different answer, and I don’t pretend to be the expert on all things Japanese. That being said, I feel like your questions warrant my best efforts, so here goes.

          In the case of the temp worker, while there are a few factors involved, the key concept is that in Japan, the company is king. Let’s compare that to the U.S. for a moment, where the worker is actually king. A U.S. company that has a good employee will do a great deal to keep that individual—give him or her raises, bonuses, allow medical leave, council that person if they have difficulty. Managers know that turnover is expensive, and good workers are hard to find, so a large part of a manager’s job is keeping employees satisfied and motivated.

          In Japan, the exact opposite is true. Do a good job and it’s possible you’ll get no recognition or compensation, even for years. You might well get a salary reduction. Come in a minute late and you’ll be reprimanded. Do it again and you could get fired. Worse, I’ve seen many situations where companies contractually limit the number of years an employee can work, to 3 or 5 years, for example. That means that once an employee is well-trained and successful in their job, they’ll be shown the door and a completely new person will replace them. It’s a baffling system for which I have never heard a good explanation, but that’s the way it is, and people buy into it.

          In the case of privacy, what I see happening is that Japanese people have been raised to believe that they’re all in one big boat together, sink or swim. They frequently refer to themselves as having an island mentality, as though Japan were some tiny speck in the middle of the Pacific. That thinking makes it everyone’s responsibility to point out everything to everyone.

          It’s a little bit like if you saw someone drop an empty hamburger wrapper on the sidewalk in front of your house. You’d be well within your rights to reprimand that person for it. You could even extend that same thing to your neighborhood. Don’t litter in my neighborhood! But could you make the same complaint if you went to another city and saw someone toss out a hamburger wrapper? Not as easily, because it’s not your business what they do in New Orleans if you’re from Cleveland. Proximity matters.

          But the island mentality extends the boundaries of your neighborhood. It makes everything on the island your neighborhood (so long as you’re Japanese). You believe that you’re all in this one tiny place together, and that if something goes wrong in one sector, it will impact everyone. So of course you’re going to point it out, privacy be damned.

          Because of that (and probably a bunch of other reasons), Japanese people are very careful about their private lives, and not quick to share personal information. It’s not a society that functions by trust and goodwill, but by rules and reprimands.

          So those are a few of my thoughts this Thursday.

  14. I studied Japanese for one week and was fluent. I kid you not. I went to Japan after that one week and could pretty much communicate fine with anybody. Anyway, you can find out how I did it in my ebook, “The Ultimate Language Hacker’s Guide to Extreme AJATTing with Asynchronously Double Timeboxed Reverse MCD Decks”.

    *Just ignore the almost five years of classes I took before that point, because classes suck and are worthless, right?

    **Also, please ignore the fact that it took 6 months after finishing classes for me to pass JLPT N2, and than another year to pass JLPT N1. I mean, the JLPT sucks and doesn’t even really measure fluency, right? And, really, all that N1 stuff is just so obscure, they’re practically having you read the original Genji Monogatari and kanbun diaries on that reading section, amirite?

    ***Also, ignore the fact that even now, if a Japanese person wanted to have an in depth conversation with me about politics or something, I’d probably struggle to find appropriate vocabulary and have to frequently ask for clarification to understand. But, you know, who even bothers having conversations like that in their native language? So, really, that vocab doesn’t even count. If I turned on the English news and somebody said something like “the bill was vetoed by the President over budget concerns”, I mean, it’d totally be like Greek to me. I don’t even know what a “President” is, really. I just like to talk about myself and my pet hobby.

    Did I mention my ebook?

    1. That’s awesome. I must know your secret. If you can accept e-payments I’d be happy to purchase your book. Just give me the okay and I’ll start inserting yen into the CD drive. Alternately, I can fax you some yen.

  15. I’m one of those folks that picks up on language very quickly. However, like most people, I have days where having a place to go where others are focused on learning is ideal.So, yeah, once I’m in Japan, language lessons with a school are part of the plan. In the interim, I’m going to lighten up on the independent learning and go the online teacher route. Easier to learn in context. In full force usage and in a safe environment where a teacher will correct your mistakes. Thanks for this, keep writing and I’ll keep reading.

    1. Thanks much. Great decision to attend language school. I really believe classes are underrated in this age of self-learning. There’s something about the immediacy of speaking with another individual that really hammers home the information. It’s like the difference between playing tennis with a pro and playing tennis with a wall.

  16. hi Ken!

    After a little bit of investigation I decided to make the first step with hiragana (my thoughts “because it has 6000 or so fewer signs than Kanji so I will master it probably a bit quicker”) 3 days ago.
    After thinking about learning japanese for a couple of years now.
    I also had to learn english and a third language (not succesfully because not much interested) so I know learning a language takes its time and needs livelong practicing.
    I can now read “Mo-Chi” ^^ Wiki helped me in finding out what “Mo-Chi” is (surprise: something to eat!)

    My question as newbie is…which path do I have to take? How do begin…right? How to move on?
    I have no possibilties to go to a japanese teaching school here, and I doubt there are japanese speaking people here around also. (I live here in post socialistic east germany near the polish border (We’ve got fields, farms, cows and pigs but not much else)…far away from japanese tourist traps like “Neu Schwanstein” or “Oktoberfest” in Bavaria or big cities with schools teaching japanese…I even doubt schools like this exist in Berlin)

    So my only hope now is the web!
    -are there any websites, programs (like Rosetta Stone/Pimsleur)or books you would recommend to me?
    -would it make even sense to make online contact now (as a newbie) to a japanese or should I do first make more “homeworks” before doing that?

    1. Well, that’s a big question. Of course, it’s nice to make contact with native speakers, because it makes the language concrete, as something you can begin using right away. It can also guide you in your initial learning, since you’ll be motivated to seek out ways to express yourself.

      In terms of self-study, you’re right to learn hiragana and katakana first. You can knock those out pretty quickly.

      I used both Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone (in addition to about a million other things). Pimsleur in particular is quite good, but it’s also expensive. It will help you become conversational on a limited number of topics fairly quickly.

      Having a decent textbook can be helpful as well. I used Genki, and it gave me a decent grounding in the language.

      For websites, a lot of people recommend Tae Kim’s site. I’ve never really used it myself, but it is free, so that’s a good thing.

      I’d also encourage you to start learning and using kanji today. It’s not an optional part of the language! It’s essential, just as the ABCs are for English. And since there’s so much of it to learn, you might as well get going now. Don’t try to fool yourself into thinking that you can just “learn to speak.” You’ll end up badly handicapped as you continue.

      But having said this much, I know I really haven’t answered your question. One of the things that frustrates me, as a teacher, is the lack of a clear curriculum for learning Japanese. You know, “What do I do first?” and then “What do I do next?” I haven’t really seen that laid out in a step-by-step method that would ensure success. Most of the curricula I’ve seen on the net tends to be mass collections of half-assed materials on file-sharing sites, and a lot of the schedules (“learn Japanese in X months!”) seem guaranteed to result people burning out and dropping out in flames.

      I’ve thought many times about writing my own curricula for people who want to learn Japanese, but it seems a large task with a minimal target audience. Also, the drop-out rate is a real concern. Without a lot of support, I think many people will start, go a little ways, and then quit. So that’s something I feel is not being properly addressed, ensuring that people have correct expectations and support. We tend to see the opposite on the net, with wild promises being made that will leave people disheartened.

      So maybe if I haven’t laid out a plan for you, at least I’ve given you some things to think about.

  17. Very funny and insightful. I was so so frustrated when the JLPT used to claim it took 900 hours of study to pass Level 1 (I guess they don’t publish those estimates anymore). But I studied Japanese full-time in US (government training center) 4 hours per day one-on-one with a native speaker for 40 weeks (800 hours) followed by 6 weeks intensive training and living with Japanese family in Kanazawa (120 hours) followed by working full time in a Japanese government office (100% Japanese speaking) for 1 year with 6 hours of one-on-one supplementary training per week at the Naganuma School in Tokyo (300 hours). I returned to the US and took JLPT preparation class (100 hours) which brings me to, oh, more than 1300 class hours not to mention a huge amount of homework and living/working in the language. The result? Failed JLPT level 2…..twice. Now, regardless of what you may be thinking, I am not an idiot and can actually communicate pretty well in Japanese, but passing these tests and being really good in all facets of the language – not muddling through – is a huge undertaking. Prison indeed.

    1. Yeah, that sounds familiar. And few people have access to the high-quality resources you did. I’ve always been baffled by that figure of 900 hours. Maybe it’s for people who have Japanese as their native language.

      The truth is, learning Japanese is a massive undertaking. But it’s pretty hard to sell people stuff with that message, and God knows the internet’s all about peddling self-help. So let’s just say it’s easy, and then everybody’s a winner.

      1. I think the 10,000 hour rule postulated by Malcolm Gladwell (as in 10,000 hours of practice are needed to be successful at anything – in the book “Outliers”) holds true. It really is a matter of putting in the time, but one needs to be realistic about the magnitude of the time involved. Given the practice/homework plus class time, I have probably put in 4-5,000 hours actually practicing Japanese. I guess another 5-6,000 are in order…

    2. Oh yeah. But it would be OK if there was some kind of pot of gold waiting for you at the other end. That’s why I don’t really get why anybody would brag about their JLPT. I mean, I have level one. Annnnnd…. what? That gives me what exactly? My options aren’t much different to before. Teach English, or check other people’s English, all for less than I would get washing dishes in my home country where we have actual labor laws. Gaah. At least I never studied specifically for the damn thing, all those books look boring as heck.

      1. I think there should actually be a JLPT Zero, The Final Level. So that after years of memorizing kanji, thousands of vocabulary words, and a few hundred obscure grammar points, they sit you down and give you a 2-1/2 hour test in English to see how well you can speak with six year-olds and half-drunk salarymen. Pass that, and you’ll finally be ready for life in Japan.

      2. Well, it depends. I see value in having the credential, particularly if you are in another field and need to work with the Japanese. I have a friend in Mongolia who had to maintain JLPT level 1 (retake the test every 3 years) to stay employed at the Japan International Cooperation Agency office there. Since I work in that field across Asia, I often come across people who need a current high-level credential in the Japanese language to compete for consulting assignments procured by the Japanese government. But I take your point. A high JLPT level in and of itself does not bring showers of riches.

        1. Yes, I can certainly see that many people need it for an external reason, or as a supplement to some other skills. When it comes to getting a job here in Tokyo though I think I would be better off with a degree in English teaching. I got turned down by Westgate recently, Japanese speaking Kyoto U. graduate that I am. Kind of scratching my head as to how that happened, but I guess because I’m not “qualified”. If I don’t get an offer from a translation joint soon it will be off to Gaba with me.

  18. OK, I have realized that I never gave a comment in response to this article before Ken, so here it is. I shall try and be careful to read through for smelling mistakes, OH I MEAN SPELLING MISTAKES, before I hit that “post comment” button. Honest to god I really did write “smelling” by mistake there. It is weird how your English can start to screw around when you start using it less…

    OK, so… mostly I agree. Mostly. One thing you are dead right about, is that being literate and being able to hold a conversation, well that gets you in the door. A fourteen year old Australian is “fluent” in English. But if you compare them to a twenty four year old? Or a thirty four year old? A lot of people don’t stop to consider just how much linguistic growth goes on -after- fluency. I was extremely confident after bursting through the fluency barrier and arriving in Japan for grad school. I could READ damnit! Not only that but I could HEAR. AJATT was like hallelujah hallelujah for I have seen the light. It was an amazing feeling to start actually piecing together all those little bits and pieces of popular culture, and to become able to start getting rather niche jokes involving word play or cultural expectations. It was great being able to read a book from cover to cover, or watch a TV series without subtitles. But then reality caught up. In order to handle graduate school level stuff it is not enough to understand. You need to understand -fast-. Processing a sentence at half speed or a quarter speed doesn’t just make comprehension of a given text half or a quarter slower. Rather it makes an exponential difference, because you start to forget what was going on at the beginning. It makes it that much harder to get a “full picture” of what is going on. The same occurs in reverse when writing. So, I can quickly review what I have written in English, and tweak it to preserve flow and comprehensibility. With Japanese? Much harder. When I write in Japanese, it is a real struggle to make any damn sense. I can do it, but it takes TIME, and time in grad school is a precious bloody commodity.

    Thankfully, nobody expected that much of me. And looking back, I can see why. Who would expect much from a person with the linguistic skills of a fifteen-to-sixteen year old? OK, so I wasn’t eight, or ten, or eleven. I knew a lot of hard words. But regardless, it was just too damn hard. So now I am mister JLPT N1, mister J-University graduate. I can give other people advice on how its done, and get plenty of people gushing on Lang-8 when I write something there. But the truth is I am still a remedial student. I did a little test a while back that said I know 25,000 words or so. You know how many a Japanese university graduate will get? Apparently 50,000. Yup. So I am a middle school student in many ways. That might take years and years yet to fix. I’ve set myself a goal to read a hundred books over the next few years, and write a few paragraphs about each one. That should do something for pushing my reading and writing skills up. The problem of course is motivation. I’m not married to a Japanese woman, and my Chinese partner understandably hates it here and hates her exploitative insane-hours job. At some point it is not a question of “technique” or “method”, but just… why? Why do it? You need to supply that why, and nobody can do it for you.

    Now regarding what you said about self study. If I was giving advice to somebody with no background in foreign languages, I would definitely recommend class. I think you are correct to do this. However, if somebody already knows a foreign language or two, I think class becomes much less important because you already know the ropes. I’m not taking any classes for Chinese, and I’ll be damned if I ever do. I don’t want to pay the money, and I don’t think the benefits are worth it for somebody with experience. So I am definitely a proponent of self study in certain cases. Involving other human beings is great for the social aspect, but even if you are not living in the country of the target language you can do that using skype exchanges, stuff like lang-8, etc.

    I would like to qualify what you wrote about hard work, also. We language learners just looove analogies, so here is a juicy one for you. Getting that damn rocket into space. A certain amount of thrust just won’t bloody do much. You can constantly be studying Japanese for that hour a day, day after day, and five years later still suck pretty bad. What you need is escape velocity. Get that same total of hours spend over five years, and condense it into one year, and you have a different result. You change the deeply ingrained habits we hold regarding what we listening to, what we read, who we talk to. That goes a long, long way. While I was griping above about how much work is involved in actually becoming good, being capable of understanding what is said, or holding a conversation (like 15,000 word vocab or there abouts) shouldn’t be -that- hard. You just need to condense your damn effort. Doing things in the language, actually trying to swim instead of sink, is a big benefit to those people you mention doing various バイト while trying to survive in country. It helps that nobody babies them but expects them to work damn hard. English speakers typically flake out because they are standing in the shallow end and they can always just quit and go home if they aren’t home already.

    1. I agree with everything you said, Danchan, but I would add one note of caution.

      I’ve found that people generally give advice that’s in line with their current level.

      There’s a temptation to throw people into the deep end, to literally immerse them, and say “Swim, dammit!” But the real result is that people dye out in droves. Like lemming.

      Basically, we forget what it’s like to be a beginner or an intermediate, or to just learn a bit of Japanese for fun. Not many people are ready for Navy SEAL training in Japanese. Sure, people who are fluent in two or more languages may be prepared to study for several hours a day, for months at a time, but most people aren’t there yet.

      I figure if I’ve got a thousand people at the starting line, my objective is to get as many as possible to the finish, without everybody quitting on me. Any language program where most of the participants drop out is not a well-constructed program.

      It might be we’re in so deep, we can barely remember what it’s like to be approaching this language for the first time.

      1. This is the problem I have with The Korean when he writes about how he learned English and how you “just gotta suck it up”.

        For him that might fly, because he had strong motivation to build a future for himself in the states and not let his parents down. But for other people you need to make sure they are actually enjoying themselves if they are going to keep going for long. If I was designing a Japanese 101 class at a university I would certainly keep that in mind. In my own case there were far too many tests (like one every week) which caused students a lot of bloody stress. Less tests, more listening training, reading training in a safe environment where people feel like it is OK to fail. The challenge of course would be how to come up with a marking rubric for such a program for administration purposes, but I can think of several ways that could be tackled.

        1. Heh, yeah, rote memorizing 30,000 words. That’s right up there with my Don’t-eat-anything-for-a-really-long-time diet. Guaranteed that the pounds will just drop right off, with no possible negative effects.

          By the way, I’m right there with you when it comes to providing an environment where failure is okay. I wish we had a lot more of that, particularly in Japan.

    1. I read it years ago, and my first thought was Jeez, well apparently anybody can write a book. But I know that it’s a lot easier to say things than do them, so okay, I’ll defer judgement until the day I write one. Instead, let me just quote one of the 1-star Amazon reviewers, who said it better than I ever could: “I have no clue what the hell this guy is talking about nor has it really help[ed] me in understanding Japanese any better.”

      So thanks for the praise and the recommendation, but that pretty much sums up my feelings on said book. But then, you know, I’m kind of picky.

      1. Going to agree with you there Ken. That’s one of the worst books Kodansha put out in their overpriced series, right up with the one with one where the old guy denies the Bataan death march ever happened because Japanese culture isn`t like that and you foreign people just don’t understand it correctly.

        What he has to say about Kanji in particular is really ignorant and racist.

        1. I have to agree with Ken. I bought that book and thought it was a waste of time and money. But there was one moment in it which sticks in my mind, where he talks of the excitement you feel when you think “Hey, I’m reading Japanese!” That’s real, and no-one deny yourself that moment.

  19. The dude is totally on a rant – but I bet thats what his classes are like…

    All my Japanese teachers have been Japanese so their explanations on things have been a little less than floral shall we say – so I liked this dude’s wit and humour. 1 star is a bit rough.

  20. Thanks for this, Ken. I will be heading down to the Yamasa Institute to check out the school and Okazaki at the end of the month. Senmon Gakko requires 6 months in a Japanese language school, I have been living here for 3 years, I think I’ll need a year of school at least. When I went to Japanese Open Campuses last summer I could barely figure WTF was being said.

    Seeing the distance between where one is and where one needs to be can be frightening…or exciting…or both. I haven’t fully decided how I feel about it yet.

  21. One thing people need to ask themselves is “Why are you actually learning Japanese?” It’s not spoken to any great degree outside of Japan, so to maintain an active connection with the language, you need to live in Japan. For the rest of your life, or thereabouts.

    And do what? Mostly teach English. Is that what you want?

    For that reason, the folks who breeze in, take Japanese classes twice a week and feel chuffed that they’ve got off romaji onto hiragana might be having the last laugh.

    1. I think you’re right. There’s definitely a point of diminishing returns. The true key to success in Japanese probably lies in studying just enough to get by, but no more. Spending a few months in learning survival phrases, how to count, and a few pleasantries is definitely worth it. Investing years learning to hold actual conversations with natives who’d largely prefer you speak English anyway, eh, not so worth it.

      Playing a game of pick-up basketball is fun, but maybe not everybody wants to aspire to join the NBA.

  22. Really interesting article! I had no idea about those underground schools.

    I’m currently planning to enroll in a japanese language school for at least 1 year.
    I’ve been studying japanese by myself for a very long time and even though I’ve become really good at reading and understanding, I still have a lot of trouble expressing myself in japanese,and it’s simply because of lack of practice. I always read, read and read but almost never write. There’s 0 chances of using japanese where I live and no japanese people around. So I think traveling to Japan and attending a language school would be a great option to have some interaction with other people while using japanese.

    Problem is I still don’t know where. I’d love to go to a school like the ones you described, where they offer additional courses like flower arrangement or pottery. That’d be really cool! And I’d also like to stay with a japanese family and have the opportunity to visit the main cities and the most famous touristic attractions.

    I wonder if $5000 would be enough for all that. Err, I actually think it’s not. Maybe I should consider $7000 instead.

    The only thing I know for sure is Tokyo is out of the question. I was thinking of Kyoto or a smaller city.
    Yamasa Institute looks really interesting. I’ll take a closer look at it later.

  23. I always find your articles a delightful means of escape from the daily work grind… such as now. Yep, I’m writing this comment via an office PC. Pretending to type an e-mail. Because I ran out of work to do. But I still have to pretend that I’m busy. I’ll probably start shredding some papers after this. Anyways, yeah, I really like your articles because it doesn’t contain much BS. It’s a refreshing perspective from the ones I usually come across. This particular article got me thinking a lot about my current situation with the studying-working routine here in Japan.

    Technically, I am kinda in-between the gaijin scale, since I am half-Japanese, but I spent a big chunk of my life outside Japan. I basically got here after college, and the only Japanese I recall were the basic greetings I learned when I was 4, which isn’t much. Due to.. uhm… financial restrictions, I never really went to a proper language class, started doing manual labor in factories, and since I was young and stupid, I never really cared about learning the language properly… Until recently. I was hired at a university office here in Japan because;
    1) I can speak English (though it is not my mother tongue. So if this comment has a buttload of grammatical errors, please forgive me.)
    2) I knew a little Japanese (though since I learned it through working at a factory, it was the informal kind of Japanese.)
    3) My degree was in line with medicine. (I was assigned to work at the 医学研究室)
    4) And they did not have to provide a visa. (Since I am technically a citizen)

    This job really pushed me to start learning the proper grammar rules, vocabulary and of course, the abominable Kanji, and it blew my mind. I never understood the scale of how much I had to learn, and on how much time I have to put into it. But since I still can’t afford to enroll at a Language school, I am currently studying through textbooks, software applications, etc. My boss is kind enough to let me due Kanji drills if I don’t have much work to do. Being forcibly exposed to Japanese on a daily basis helps a lot (the only other person who speaks English fluently here is my boss). But still I feel that my progress is really, really slow. And I feel burnt out a lot. And I have also been thinking about having an actual professional teach me. Because checking your own progress by taking the JLPT is too nerve wrecking and also, it means I can only receive proper, objective assessment twice a year. Unfortunately, around my area, there aren’t classes that I can find that can fit my schedule. And private lessons offered by language schools are way out of my budget. Do you know of any reliable sources where I can find a freelance Nihongo teacher? Will that make my progress way faster?

    As for the motivation to learn Japanese, well.. I’m stuck here. And I kind of actually enjoy learning it. Probably because I am tied to it. Though most times I end up googling “How to not smash your head against the wall with tears in your eyes while learning Kanji.” and things like “Why am I so stupid im so done with this so done” (Btw, that’s how I found your website, something about avoiding a meltdown in Japan.)

    1. Clearly, the best thing about the internet is that it gives us all something to do that looks like work, but really isn’t. Al Gore, my man.

      I love your question, “Will that make my progress way faster?” Because nothing short of placing a spaghetti strainer on your head and attaching a live pair of jumper cables is going to make that happen.

      However, if you want to improve your spoken Japanese, then I’d suggest either hiring an online turor or starting to flirt heavily with the guy/girl next to you in the coffee shop. Exposure, as you noted, helps a bunch. Feeling massively burned out? Heh, talk to the hand. But to really improve your overall ability, you’re gonna have to improve your kanji-reading considerably, because that’s going to assist you in building the necessary vocabulary. That means reading and studying, a lot. See, isn’t learning Japanese fun?

      Well, at least kanji’s a reasonably effective shortcut to learning Japanese. I mean, it’s the world’s longest shortcut, but it’s all we’ve got for this accursed language.

    1. Sounds like a real problem but Puri’s situation just made me facepalm. Sociology and Women’s Studies? That’s the archetypal “worthless degree,” even in the US. Imagine how much more so in male-dominated Japan. At least a vocational school will teach a marketable skill, although studying tourism is likely to set her up for low wages for life.

  24. First off, I just want to say I love your blog. I discovered it yesterday, and I have been procrastinating an essay I have due soon mostly by reading your blog posts. In fact, the essay I am procrastinating is for a scholarship I am applying for to help fund my studies next year as an exchange student at a Japanese University. I will be attending classes there, but aside from my Japanese language classes, the rest will unfortunately be in English. Joining a club and having a host-family will certainly put me in positions where I will have to use the language, but still. I am nervous that I won’t progress as much as I am hoping to. It is my goal to get a part-time job there, so I will be in a position where I will be forced to improve my ability in the language.

    The underground language schools sound like the perfect thing, but how do you find the time to do them if you are a full-time student at a Uni or working? I doubt I will be able to enroll at one of those schools next year, but perhaps after I graduate and find a job here I could go. But even then, if those schools are like 3 – 5 hours everyday, how do you find the time to go if you are employed?

    I have studied Japanese for 2 years (taking classes at my college and self-studying on my off time). I am at the point where I would not dream of quitting, because that would essentially be throwing away 2 years of life away. But I am also afraid that I have embarked on a Sisyphean like task where I will never become fluent no matter how hard I try. So, are those language schools doable if you have a full-time occupation (like work or school). And if not, then how can I realistically attend one?

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