Anyone with an interest in Japan should learn a little Japanese, I really believe. Daily life is much better when you know a few key phrases: Hello. My name is. Please. May I? No really, please. Why not? Oh come on, please. You sure? Last chance. Well fine, be that way. Sorry for causing a scene. Even if I pay you? No? Hmph, well I didn’t want to anyway.
But when I say “a little” of the language, I mean it. Beyond a handful of survival sentences, you should give a really good think to whether or not you want to continue learning Japanese.
So this is Phase II of the Japanese Rule of 7 Learn Yo’ Ass Some Japanese project. Phase I was here. Phase III? Well, okay I haven’t written that yet. Hey, what can I say, I’m lazy. Anyway, where were we? Oh yeah, Phase II. The “selection” phase. For this, you’re going to want to find yourself a really tall mountain. The taller the better, preferably with a sturdy pine tree. Climb to the mountaintop and sit there. If there is a pine tree, then climb to the top of that and sit there instead. Then stay there for exactly one week. You should probably pack some sandwiches, now that I think about it, and maybe some beers too. Just think how refreshing they’d be. And while you’re there with your pine cones and sandwiches and beer, ask yourself: Do I really want to study Japanese? No, really. Because here’s what it’s all about.
It’s Going to Take Time. A Really Freaking Long Time
I want to tell the world that learning Japanese is easy and fun. Because that would be great and the world would like that, and then I could sell the world some secret method that I dreamed up and I’d be rich and the world would be happy. But on a scale of 1 to Hot-Tub-at-the-Playboy-Mansion, learning Japanese slots in somewhere between soldering together your own black-and-white TV and copying the Bible by hand while wearing a Medieval monk outfit. Plus, it takes a long time.
Look, everyone thinks they can learn Japanese quickly, fueled in part, no doubt, by the number of websites claiming to help you do so if you buy their products. But honestly, when I look at the very few people I actually know who’ve succeeded, it’s clear why. They got up at 4 a.m. every morning to do speaking drills, or wrote 50,000 flash cards, or went to language school five hours a day. Myself, I can honestly say I’ve spent at least 4,000 hours actively studying, and that’s not counting watching Japanese movies, singing karaoke, having conversations all day long in Japanese, and working in Japan.
Part of the problem lies with ever-loftier goals. At first, I thought it would be enough just to master some survival phrases. But every time I met someone, they asked me questions I couldn’t answer. So I learned more, until I could finally have a conversation. Then I wanted to have a longer, more interesting conversation, until eventually I realized what I really needed was to make myself understood in both speech and writing at roughly the same level I’m at in English. In other words, even fluency wasn’t enough. It’s a little bit like putting yourself through high school and college all over again, alone, in Japanese.
If I had to say how long it would take to get reasonably good at Japanese, I’d estimate a minimum of 3 to 7 years, and possibly much more, depending upon how much time you devote and how many advantages you bring to the table.
Safe Return Doubtful
Of the hundreds of people I’ve seen study Japanese over the years, only about ten succeeded in speaking the language with any level of competency. The rest eventually stopped. You might want to give some thought to undertaking a project with a higher dropout rate than that of the Navy SEALs. Just saying.
Of course, you can spend the years of your life any way you like, but it seems a shame to buy a cookbook, go to the store for eggs, flour and a cake pan, come home and mix up a batter, put it in the oven, and then half an hour later yank open the oven and throw the whole thing out the window. In other words, either bake the cake or do not. There is no try. Pretty sure Yoda said that.
Most people seem to last about a year and a half. They’re all balls-out at the start, and then after several months it dawns on them that it’s a much bigger task than they were led to believe. So be aware of how long it’s going to take. If you want to spend the years, you absolutely can do it. But think about whether you want to spend a decade on Japanese before you set out. Doing it halfway seems kind of a waste of time.
This is a term economists use to make you feel bad about your behavior. If you spent $10 on a delicious dinner, well, see there Ken, that’s $10 you could have invested in the stock market, and now you’d be rich and could have two delicious dinners. That kind of stuff.
Studying Japanese takes some money, but more importantly, it takes time. In the 3 to 7 years you spent learning Japanese, you could have learned to play the guitar, and now you’d be in a cool rock band and getting lots of sex. Or you could have gone to the gym and now you’d have abs of steel, and get lots of sex. Or gone back to college and had sex. Contrary to what you might think, learning Japanese will not help you have sex in Japan. At least not nearly as much as English will. More on that in a minute.
I don’t like the word “problem.” I prefer “challenge.” And one of the challenges—oh the hell with it—the problem with Japanese is that it’s pretty much only useful in Japan. So how long are you going to be in Japan? Let’s say you turn out to be some super prodigy kind of dude and learn Japanese in just two years. Great, now I hate you. Whatever. If you stay in Japan for two years, then that’s 1:1 and maybe it was worth the time investment. But what if it takes you five years to learn and you only stay for a year? See what I’m saying? I’ve known people who spent years learning Japanese and watching anime and reading manga and then once they got here . . . eh, it wasn’t as great as they thought it’d be, and they went home. Open window, insert cake.
You Really Don’t Need Japanese
Of the roughly 20 countries I’ve been to, Japan is probably the most set up to accommodate people who don’t speak the local language. Many foreigners live here with no more than a handful of simple phrases and do just fine. Lots of signs and menus are in English, and the entire population has received at least six years of English education. Even if you try to speak Japanese, it may not work. Sometimes no matter how perfectly you ask a question in Japanese, you’ll get an answer in English, or at least dumbed-down Japanese. Contrary to many countries that demand you speak the local language, Japan sometimes seems to prefer you don’t speak Japanese.
Japanese can Make you Less Popular
You know David Blaine, the magician guy? Think about like him at a party. People see him and they just wig out, like, Wow, David Blaine! Do some card tricks or hold your breath for ten minutes or something! And he’s like, Nah, I just want to drink a beer like everybody else. That would suck, right? You’d be like, I went to a party with stupid David Blaine and he didn’t even levitate or anything.
Well that’s you in Japan, unless you look super Japanese, and then people will be confused until they figure out you’re secretly white. Your magic trick is that you can speak English. That’s what everyone wants you to do. And every time you do it, and tell them about how big the cheeseburgers are back home and how people wear shoes inside the house, their eyes will light up and they’ll be like, Wow, amazing!
And every time you speak Japanese, people will say, “Oh, your Japanese is so good.” And then they’ll try to speak English with you. You can say the most profound thing ever in Japanese, make the funniest joke, talk about the earth being taken over by space robots, whatever—and all you’ll get back is “Heeeeey.” But say any stupid thing off the top of your head in English and everybody will bust up laughing. English is a pretty upbeat language; Japanese, eh, not so much. And when it comes to meeting people of the opposite sex, and potentially even having that sex, well, they don’t want you to be like everybody else. They want the magic. Just saying.
Japan Isn’t all That
If you came to Japan for a vacation, you probably had a pretty mind-blowing time. Everything was new, and everything was interesting. But it was also, in a sense, free, because you used money you’d saved up or you credit-carded it or something. Either way, you didn’t have to work in Japan in exchange for the experience you were having.
But once you live and work here, that changes. You can go clubbing, take trips to onsen, hang out all night in karaoke booths, but you have to work in order to make those things possible. And the more fun you want to have, the more you have to work. That realization changes the equation. It’s not fun for free once you live here.
Now, I like Japan, don’t get me wrong. And I like conversing in Japanese, and reading and writing it. But Japan’s still just a place, with plenty of both good and bad. That’s why it’s called Japan, and not Heaven. The architecture—mmm, it’s not so great. The natural scenery—yeah, that’s not so great either. The people—ah jeez, well, you get the idea. But hey, at least the food’s good. That’s something.
So if you’ve never wanted to learn Japanese, here’s your big chance to do absolutely butt nothing. On the other hand, if you still really, really want to study Japanese, and make it a significant part of your life’s work, then I’m 100 percent behind you. Well, maybe like 90, but that’s pretty good anyway. So it’s probably safe to come down out of the tree now and continue on to Phase III. I mean, as soon as I write it. Okay, maybe you better stay up there a bit longer.
155 Replies to “Why You Shouldn’t Learn Japanese”
You raise so many good points, Ken. I know exactly what you mean about the “ever-loftier” goals thing. Since I only started learning Japanese last year, I’m at the stage of mastering survival phrases, but in the process of trying out those survival phrases with Japanese friends, I feel myself getting sucked deeper into the learn-more-Japanese vortex.
You know since I got the job in Japan, a lot of my friends are asking me, “Why Japan?”. I can’t even explain why I’m drawn to Japan – I mean, there’s the amazing food and crazy vending machines, but when it comes down to it, all I know is that it’s the one place in the world I really want to experience.
I don’t even know how far I want to take my Japanese learning. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to become a sensei, but I definitely don’t want to only be able to say basic stuff. I guess my vague aim is to able to watch live-action/anime and read manga without translations, and to hold a conversation with friends?
Think I’ll just take it slow and figure it out along the way! And out of curiosity, when you decided on Japan, did you have an answer to my friends’ questions: “Why Japan?”
Before I moved here, I’d visited a number of times, and my basic impression was, This place is awesome! Everything was crazy. People were everywhere, I couldn’t read anything, I couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on, it was like being at Disneyland on acid. I loved it. So that’s what I told people.
Moving to Japan felt like being born again. I had to learn everything from scratch all over again. Not just how to communicate, but even how to walk, how to gesture, how to use the toilet. That was a great time. Everybody likes that part about Japan. At least, anybody who enjoys adventure and new experiences. Okay, so that’s not everybody. But it was me.
The challenge is after all that wears off. It’ll probably take a couple of years to go away if you really immerse yourself in the culture and figure out what’s really going on. Some people don’t though; they just stay in the gaijin bubble, and they’re probably happier. But if you really want to learn about Japan, then of course you’ll see the not-so-good parts too, and how they relate to the good parts. That circular nature of pluses and minuses in the culture is what’s really interesting to me. But don’t worry about any that at first. For now, just get over here with an open mind and enjoy the good stuff.
Yeah, I think the craziness of Japan is definitely a draw-card, though that in itself seems a bit of a crazy reason sometimes. I love the contradictions Japan has in its culture.
But I agree, if you stick around long enough, you’ll see parts that are not-so-good. I think that’s the challenge of every country – like you said, it’s called Japan, not Heaven.
My mom is thinking about moving to Japan but we don’t know how to speak the language. Then reading this is making me wonder do I need to learn it. I am not sure about what to do because if I move to Japan with my family I would need to go to their schools and I would have to live my life there. I really am a little nervous about what my mom will say. If she says yes we are moving to Japan and we both know nothing about it. I am really confused and I don’t know what to do.
Thanks for the comment, Christina. I’ll be pleased to add to your confusion.
First of all, if you’re planning to live in Japan for several years, then being able to speak, read, and write Japanese will be extremely helpful. No doubt about it.
That being said, you should know right away that learning Japanese is really hard. Unless you’re a monolingual person from a Western country. Then it’s really, really hard. People telling you otherwise are lying their collective asses off.
And what I’m talking about isn’t the ability to make pleasantries or memorize a few hundred sentences. You can do that much with a few months of study. I’m talking about the ability to actually hold real conversations, and read the stuff around you. And by the way, don’t discount how important reading is. It’s pretty helpful to be able to distinguish a restaurant from a barbershop. (Tip: if it looks like a quaint little restaurant, it’s probably a hair salon.)
The other thing you’ve got to consider is who you’re talking to. Anybody under the age of 40 has literally spent years learning English, and knows hundreds, if not thousands, of English (or English-esque) words. How well those words can be used in conversation will vary by individual, but generally the longer you speak with someone and the more comfortable they feel, the more likely they are to try out their English. All of which means that the more English they know, the less Japanese you need to know. Many foreign-born people live here for years without knowing any Japanese. Probably the majority, really.
On top of that, there’s a pretty significant portion of the population that is capable of having a conversation in English. Maybe 5 or 10 percent of Japanese people can do this. So you might have to ask 10 or 20 people, but eventually you’ll find someone who can effectively speak English. Probably not even that many, really.
It’s arguably more important for you to learn how to speak English, in a way that non-native speakers understand. So that you don’t approach someone with, “Pardon me, but um, could you, uhh, possibly tell me the way to the nearest train station?” Instead try, “Where is the station?” or just “Station?” with a shrug while pointing to a map. You get extra points for pronouncing “station” as stay-shon. Presto, now you’re speaking Japanese.
In your case, the real question is, What kind of school will you be enrolled in, and what grade will you be in? There are private “international schools” where the only Japanese you’re likely to get will be a few classes a week. On the flip side, if you’re enrolled in a public school, then well, Congratulations, you’ll probably learn a lot of Japanese, since people will speak it at you eight hours a day.
In general, I’d say not to worry too much. Japan isn’t a scary place. It’s confusing as eff at first, but once you figure out how things work (which has little to do with the language), you’ll be just fine.
Write back if you like. I’d be interested in hearing a few more details, such as what kind of job your mother is considering, and how she settled upon Japan.
Number of sovereign countries where Spanish is the de jure or de facto official language: 21
Number of sovereign countries where French is the de jure or de facto official language: 29
Number of sovereign countries where Arabic is the de jure or de facto official language: 24
Not to mention English, which not only is an official or de defacto language in like 65 countries, but is also the de facto language of business, academia, and travel worldwide.
And now let’s take a look at Japanese:
Number of sovereign countries where Japanese is the de jure or de facto official language: …one
I mean, it’s a cool language, but is it worth the effort for most people? I’d much rather be studying Spanish. And thank God I was born in an English speaking country.
That said, I’ve been here a year and probably have 3 more in front of me so… eh, why not. I guess. Maybe you’re right, maybe I ought to learn to play the guitar and get dem ladies.
Yeah, a couple of things to think about. One is where you want to spend your time. You could get a Master’s degree in two years, and that’s way more useful than Japanese—especially in Japan. Plus it’s way easier than studying Japanese, because, uh, your studies are all in English.
The other thing is, even if you learned more Japanese, it wouldn’t necessarily ensure you’d have a better time here. Some things will be better, for sure, but some things, amazingly, will be worse. That’s kind of the irony of learning Japanese.
Here’s the thing. I’m only in Japan because I just so happened to be dating a Japanese girl my last few months at uni and after a year of travel I quite honestly had nothing better to do than move here. I literally just showed up with a resume and hoped for the best. I’ve no great love of the land or its culture, but I don’t have much against it either. Japan’s a cool place, and I could do much worse.
I decided when I moved here that I’d pick up the language. I spent the first two-thirds of my life in a small town (I’m talking 1500 people) where the general goal in life is to double your body weight immediately after high school and then produce as many offspring as possible. Learning something as esoteric as Japanese is just about the antithesis of everything I was raised on. I mean it’s study a useless language or get a degree in something like philosophy… but I’ve already done that!
A master’s isn’t a bad idea, but I’m already going back to school after I wrap things up here. I’m going to be pursuing a terminal degree, and an ancillary MA wouldn’t really do much for me.
There’s probably a couple dozen more worthwhile hobbies than studying Japanese, but in the six or so months since I’ve started seriously studying it’s been nothing but helpful. I’m trapped in a tiny room with Japanese kids five hours a day, and without any Japanese they’d eat me alive. Literally, some of them bite.
I don’t know. It just feels like a waste to spend half a decade here and not pick up the language, even if that language will do next to nothing for me once I leave the country. Part of this I’m sure has to do with my location. I’d probably be much less inclined to study were I in Tokyo or a larger school district with a lot of gaijin friends. But It’s just me out in the sticks and if I don’t speak Japanese there’s no point speaking — beyond “Hello!” everyone here goes wide-eyed at English or even at white skin. Japanese are generally happiest when white people are doing white things, but I’m tired of being a one-trick pony. I’m also tired of having my girlfriend walk me through the simplest of things as if I were a child.
But I still might be better off learning guitar. “I’m sorry officer, I don’t understand why you’ve pulled me over, but here–let me sing you a song!” Probably more useful than 日本語。
So, you came from a small town overseas . . . and now you live in a small town in Japan. Hmmm. So it’s like same rice field, different country?
Yeah, I know what it’s like to be trapped in a room with Japanese kids. I’ve done that job, and it’s like trying to herd cats. Speaking Japanese is super helpful.
Studying Japanese is certainly interesting, and I enjoy it. The key is, I think, to make sure you get out of it what you invest in, since it’s pretty time consuming. But if you’re gonna do it, more power to you. I support you. A full ninety percent.
Well, I talk about living in the sticks, but at the end of the day there’s roughly a million people living within a 25km radius of me. Gunma isn’t Tokyo or Chiba or Yokohama, but it sure as hell isn’t rural Pennsylvania either. I do want to spend my last year in Tokyo (or maybe Kyushu, can’t beat the weather), but for now I know I’ll never find a job that pays me this much for “working” five hours a day. I might party harder in Tokyo, but I’ll sure as hell work harder and spend more to do it.
Anyway, yeah, opportunity cost is something everybody really ought to consider with …well, basically anything they invest themselves in. Especially something as time-intensive as language learning. But if all goes well at the bare minimum I’ll be able to claim literacy in what for most of the world is literally an alien language. That makes me cool, right? Surely the ladies will be impressed. Or the neck-beards living knee-deep in anime paraphernalia in their parent’s basements. One of the two.
That’s the funny thing about Japan, right? Even in a place that’s super remote, there’s always a million people. I don’t understand it.
Yeah, teaching kids is an easy gig, really. You just hang out, speak a little Japanese, a little English, then go home. Not the most rewarding job on the planet, but you could do a sight worse.
Hey Randy, I’ve been here nearly 23 years. Got married to a Japanese woman with a good job, which has made it extremely difficult to move back. My advice is do NOT spend a decade here. In fact, if possible, do not spend five years here. It gets more and more difficult to move back after 5 or 10 years. After 15 years, people in the U.S. will think you are an alien from outer space. ‘How will you readjust to working in the U.S.?’ Think about it. They would not be able to ask such a question to a Chinese or Japanese or Hispanic with the right to work in the U.S. because it would be discrimination. But if you are white, you are open game. And another thing to think about is, while you are living in Japan, employers will treat you as a short-term hire, so they have no incentive to encourage you to learn skills for the future. Every year you stay in Japan, you will fall behind. It is a sinkhole. Don’t get stuck.
I sometimes hear things like this from people who’ve been here a long time. It’s not always easy to move back, especially if your spouse has a good job here or wouldn’t be able to get a decent job in your home country. It’s hard enough to uproot and look for work if you’re single, but with a wife and/or children depending on you, that’s a formidable challenge. Good stuff to think about before committing to a long-term stay in Japan.
Japanese has good value professionally. For example, in the electronics industry, being able to communicate fluently with Japanese manufacturers is a good thing because so often their English is pretty terrible and super hard to understand. Plus if you ever want to move to Japan to work professionally as a business professional, I think you really need to be able to read and write the language fluently. Here’s the thing, having the experience of working as a professional in America is a great asset for the globalization of a company that’s looking to expand internationally. So, I wouldn’t necessarily call it esoteric. It definitely opens up future opportunities if you’re willing to relocate to that country. When you’re able to discuss things past a basic level and the barrier of language is gone, it opens up a world of different opportunities and new experience (emphasis on professional).
But Chinese is only spoken officially in two sovereign countries: Singapore and China, and yet it is much more than just twice as useful as Japanese.
I generally agree with you. I can’t really say that learning Japanese helped me along that much. I did have one job were Japanese was absolutely necessary, but it was also the worst paid job I ever had. Okay, no, just remembered that I had three others, but they were only one months and two weeks, but very well paid, so maybe not that bad after all… hm.
Now I basically use it only when on vacation in Japan, but hey, it works. I like to travel to places within Japan with all that natural scenic beauty that no one seems to know about and as those places are mostly remote talking Japanese comes in handy. I regularly get invited to food as well as it seems that I absolutely HAVE to try that local specialty (and no, I’m certainly no looker and make no secret of being in a relationship). No idea if that might happen more often if I spoke only English or less often, but I like getting the tour by locals and I doubt that most of them speak enough English (like you said, if they could, they’d probably prefer to try it on me).
So was it worth it? I’d say yes. Maybe not for the money but for the experiences I’ve made thanks to speaking Japanese. Besides, I might squeeze some more use out of it until I die. Who says it couldn’t be really worth it in the long run.
No doubt being able to speak (and read) Japanese opens a lot of doors here. You couldn’t come close to understanding the place without it. So, like you, I’m thankful for that experience.
On the other hand, I miss the blissful naivety of my first visits, when everyone seemed so polite and friendly.
Like they say, You gotta be careful what you wish for. Or at least, I say that, all too often.
So first of all nice article, I like how you were honest about it and didn’t hide it up or any of that junk. I found what you said interesting, I’m super determined to learn and I think a lot of people fail because they are either too passive (“Meh, I’ll just do a bit every day) or they don’t actually want to learn. Where as I want to learn it quite a lot so I’m pretty optimistic. I don’t really care if I don’t like Japan. I just find the language interesting so that’s another advantage I have.
My friend learned Japanese in 4 years upto a JLPT 2 I think? He told me about his experience and about setting goals to help yourself improve, he also reads a lot of stuff in games or on TV.
How long have you been learning Japanese Ken? I’m going to try and get as much done as possible before I go there so I set myself a goal of 5-6 years! That includes reading and writing though.
I’ve been at it for over 10 years, thanks for asking. I don’t remember the exact month I started, but I know I was younger, more handsome, and in better shape. Nah, I’m still pretty handsome. I just gotta get a new mirror. Anyway, in those 10 years, I can tell you I’ve missed exactly one day of studying. And by “studying” I mean reading, plus looking stuff up, then writing it down or typing it in, and reviewing it, which usually takes an hour or more a day. I don’t count watching TV, listening to the radio, or hanging out for hours in boozy izakayas talking with random drunk Japanese people, although all that stuff helps.
5 to 6 years should do you right. Learning to read is essential, just like it is in English, of course. You’d have a hard time learning much if you couldn’t read. Writing, at least on the computer, should come rather naturally as a result of being able to read. Handwriting is another matter. Mine looks pretty terrible in any language. Thank God someone invented the keyboard.
10 years! Wow, I can tell you’re determined! You’ve only missed one day of studying too? I assume you enjoy learning the language then.
I remember reading before that you became fluent in the language a while ago but you realised fluency was based on context. Like informational “silos” a good analogy in my opinion. Are you much better now? I mean can you read things like magazines etc? Or do you only stick to more basic things?
Bombarding you with questions as always haha. Thanks for replying either way man.
At this point, studying Japanese is so deeply ingrained in my daily routine that it’s hard to imagine not doing it. I don’t even know if I like it or not; it’s just what I do, like a religious ritual or something. Kind of weird, actually.
As far as daily life goes, I’ve pretty much got the patterns all sussed out. I rarely encounter a situation where I’m surprised. For example, when I go to McDonald’s for an Egg McMuffin, I know what to expect when I walk up to the counter. The first thing they’re going to ask is the Japanese equivalent of “Will you be eating here, or is this to go?” Or if the person freaks out because I’m white, they’ll just look perplexed, point at the counter and say in Japanese, “Here? Here?” I know to expect that too.
I can read most things, but it takes effort, unlike English, where it’s just cake. So I probably don’t read as much Japanese as I should, which makes it a vicious circle, since the more you read, the better you get at it. But eh, we do what we can, day by day.
That’s cool, I guess a large part of learning is having the time to learn and choosing what you yourself want to learn right? I mean what’s the point on getting really good at reading if you don’t want to? And patterns/routines are an important part of any language. Actually scratch that they’re an important part of pretty much everything ever.
Patterns and routines . . . absolutely. Anything you’re doing that builds upon itself is going to be helped along by having a solid routine, especially an esoteric language. You’re right on the money with that.
“what’s the point on getting really good at reading if you don’t want to?”
Well, just a quick note about that.
If you can’t read, you’ll be confronted with a mailbox full of stuff that makes no sense. Every menu will be a series of squiggles, and every time you ride the train, all the colorful ads will be for things you can’t figure out. But if you can read, you’ll learn from everything around you, and your Japanese will improve tremendously.
Not to mention that in your own study, you’ll need to write things down. Doing that in, say, only hiragana would quickly become a mess. For Japanese, you need kanji.
Sounds all reasonable enough. I think my endgoal would be high level reading.
Hi Ken, thanks a lot for your great article. I have been studying Japanese for a while after living in Kanagawa for a year in 2005, and I guess what really attracts me to the language is that feeling of having to relearn EVERYTHING. As you put it, “Not just how to communicate, but even how to walk, how to gesture, how to use the toilet. That was a great time. Everybody likes that part about Japan.”. Feeling stupid is a great feeling.
I’ve just come back from a trip to Kyushu where I am hoping to move to next year (I know a lot of people affected by this Japan nostalgia even years after they left, worryingly with a much greater frequency when comparing it with people in other countries), so I talked to some long term expats that I met during the trip. For several of them, the magic is inversely proportional to their language ability – after a while, it disappears and all you are left with is just another place with crazy bureaucracy and stinky dried squids. Since 99% of the blogs on Japan out there seem to be written by fresh-faced JETs that sound like bunnies on speed endlessly marvelling at high tech toilets and schoolgirl uniforms, can you shed some light on what Japan is like once the mystical halo around kanji characters disappears?
Thanks so much for your comment. Now there’s a freaking great question.
Well, it’s now Golden Week. Or Golden Weekend. Since when is having Friday and Monday off a week? Whatever, that means that I’m slacking off even more than usual, if that’s even possible. It’s like a vacation from a vacation. Anyway, when I get back, I’ll write a full-on post about this.
Don’t forget the fact that if you learn enough Spanish at work then they will expect you to take part in all the meetings and you’ll be append in all the boring rules and expectations of those places.. Much better to be ignorant, left out and free.
Yeah, something similar happens in Japan. The more of the language you speak, the more you’re expected to behave appropriately and do what everyone else does. Fortunately, perhaps, you’re considered such a “foreigner” in many workplaces that you’re not bound by the same rules. Maybe it’s discrimination, but eh, it’s kind of hard to complain when you leave the office four hours before everyone else.
A few years ago I threw the Japanese cake out the window so hard that my neighbor’s wife [edited by Ken Seeroi because it was too embarrassing even for him]. No joke: http://thelanguagedojo.com/2010/12/pick-culture-language-2/
Making people blush on the other side of the planet is all in a day’s work.
Anyway, there’s definitely a huge difference between enjoying a culture on a surface level (I can’t speak the language, but look at these crazy new foods and neon lights everywhere!) and actually integrating into the system (working/living there). The first time I vacationed in Korea I had the best month of my life; the second time, when I worked as a teacher, I was ready to explode. The third time, when I worked at a youth hostel, I had the time of my life again (it was essentially a free three-month vacation). The first and third times I relied on English 95% of the time, but still made tons of amazing new friends and went on all sorts of crazy adventures.
It’s natural to want to learn a language, but sometimes we’re blinded to what integrating into the system really means, until it’s too late. That’s my two cents.
If you’ll excuse me, I gotta run; my neighbor’s wife is at the door.
Yeah, I always say that if I ever move to another country, the first thing I’m going to do is not learn the language. And yeah, I’m talking to you, Thailand.
Gotta keep that fresh-off-the-plane feeling as long as possible.
As someone that’s been living here for two years now, you’ve raised some really interesting points in this article (sorry — long time lurker, first time poster!). I felt myself nodding a lot as I read further and further along.
However, often when I read your advice and impressions of certain experiences, I feel like some of those things don’t apply in other parts of Japan. I know that everyone has a different experience here, but a lot of what you write about definitely applies to someone living/working in Tokyo/urban areas, but not in other inaka areas.
I’m living in Akita, in the top part of Tohoku and whilst many things are definitely written in English here, it can be a challenge for foreigners (though why people would head up here in the first place is their own fault ;)).
When you say the architecture/nature is not so great, where are you comparing it to? I think the natural scenery here is breathtaking, and I’ve visited many places in Japan! Do I sense a little jaded-ness in your views of J-land?
Thanks for writing, seriously. Jaded? Who, me? Chinese statues pale by comparison. So yeah, you’re right, my impressions of Japan vary depending upon where I’m at, who I met three hours ago, whether it’s cloudy right now, and how long its been since my last onigiri. So there’s a lot of ways of looking at things, even within my own mind. I just try to be real and hit some of the high and low points, with the hope that somehow things balance out in the middle.
Now, with you living up in Akita and me down here, whoa, we’re barely even in the same country. I think Tokyo’s got more in common with New York City than it does with Akita. Maybe the crazy stuff I write applies to Japan in a lot of places, but I’m not sure it covers all the forest hobbits and mountain people you’ve got up there. Please tell me you’ve at least got a few Starbucks. That’s a coffee shop, by the way.
So in terms of the Japanese language, I think it makes sense to do a bit of cost-benefit analysis. But no doubt its usefulness increases in proportion to one’s distance from indoor plumbing. And if someone wants to go down the path I (and presumably you) did, then more power to them.
Humorous, but, Interesting article. Thanks. I don’t know how long you’ve been in Japan but I am now going into my 31st year here. Prior to that I majored and graduated in Japanese language studies at the University of Hawaii while resident in Honolulu. A couple things I have observed and come to learn over the years since living in Japan, the more Japanese you speak, read, write, comprehend, etc., the more the psychological barriers go up. The other point is, the more Japanese you learn and understand, and the more you attempt to acculturate and assimilate yourself into Japanese society, the more you will be accepted into the system…. is way off in left field and incorrect thinking. Once a ‘gaijin’ (lit. outside person) always a gaijin. We make friends on an individual basis and I do have them. But society at large… aside from superficial surface level acceptance, trying to get under their skin… into their infrastructure, you ARE, and always WILL, be that ‘outside person’….. outside of what? That social bubble to which the ‘gaijin’ does not belong. Thus 「外人で属しないはず」The 「我々日本人」factor you will always be confronted with. Try to get a job as a taxi driver, or work for one of the rail lines, or acquire a position in local politics. Try to avoid the ‘complex’ factor, even if you acquire citizenship (should you be so lucky (or desirous))
If I had the opportunity to take a time trip to the past and redo things, and if I knew then what I know now, I never would have studied Japanese. But, it was a practical thing to do in those days working for the airline industry in a prime tourist destination, and, in consideration of tourism from Japan to Hawaii was #2 after North America. But, every thing is cause and affect. I DID in fact study it, and DID in fact move to Japan without any in depth knowledge of the society on a daily basis. Now that I am here and have acquired the skills and the exposure over the years, one must use the talents, knowledge, skills one acquires and exploit them to one’s own advantage. Having knowledge of Japanese language has paid off in various ways over the years I think though it will be in variance compared to what a newbie will find these days, wanting to come to Japan for the first time to ‘trip out’ on the far east without any in depth insight what they will get into.
31 years, crikey. I actually had the chance to move to Japan around that time, and chose not to, because I didn’t think I’d like the food. Then 20 years later, I came back because of the food. Life’s ironic like that.
Even before finally moving here in 2008, I’d often heard the mantra, “You’ll NEVER be accepted into Japanese society.” But hey, Ken Seeroi scoffs at naysayers. That’d never apply to him, what with his charm, language skills, and stunning good looks and all.
So maybe I was a little bit . . . let’s not say wrong. Let’s just say, “mistaken.” That’s better. I also never considered what being an outsider would mean in practical terms, when it came to making friends or getting along at work. And now it actually seems like the longer I’m here, and the better my Japanese becomes, the less I fit in. At least when you’re fresh off the plane, people know how to deal with you. The speak pidgin English and help you put on your slippers the right way. But once you know your way around and can manage the language, they don’t know what the hell to do. I mean, Japan’s still a good place, but the people, eh, kinda triflin’ sometimes.
At any rate, I’d be interested in your perceptions of how Japan’s changed over the years. A lot of old-timers speak fondly of “the ’90s,” when salaries were higher and there was a brighter outlook for the future, or such is my understanding.
Ken-sensei, with regard to TEFL in Japan, wages haven’t risen at least since the early 80’s. Something for prospective ALT’s to consider. In the 80’s I heard that the Golden Age for TEFL wages was the 60’s!
That’s right, being an ALT has never been a path to riches, a situation which continues to decline. At best, it’s a way to spend a couple years in Japan with enough money for rent and food, and a wee bit left over for either fun or savings but not both.
That being said, it’s too easy to look at the past and think of what could or should’ve been. I mean, in 1961, if you’d taken $1000 made as an ALT and invested it in Berskshire Hathaway, you’d have $17 million today.
Nah, we’re here now, so what you gonna do?
Ken-sensei, any dissapointment of not not becoming rich via TEFL in Japan is offset with the pleasure of being there by choice. Just think of all that Japanese food, and booze. Organic nigorizake is my addiction. When that fails to take the edge off I just remember Jack Hawkins’ immortal words in Ben Hur 1959, here’s the scene, in case you haven’t seen it…
Remember 41, “Row well and live”.
That scene is eerily similar to the Japanese working environment.
Hey Ken, I’d like to ask you a question about learning Japanese.
I’ve done the entire Pimsleurs comprehensive system, I’ve gone about half way through Rosetta Stone (…never again…), I’ve gone through RTK1, taken up using 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 guess I’m on my own to figure that out, but either way, I was wondering, how did you go from having a promising beginning to being fluent? Like, during the long haul of being intermediate, what did you consistently do to bootstrap your way to fluency, or at least to an advanced stage?
I believe you once mentioned how you felt about 90% of people who say they’re going to learn Japanese eventually give up. I think I’ve passed the point where the first 80% fall off, and nearing the part where the last of the 90% give up. What I’d like to know is how you got past that point, and became a part of the 10% that did make it all the way through.
Any advice would be appreciated! Thanks! 🙂
I feel you, I really do. Years ago, I did the whole Pimsleur program, and Rosetta Stone (which I felt was pretty good, actually), and just about every other package you’ve ever heard of, and I was in roughly the same place you are. I think a whole lot of people end up in that boat.
Which is why this is such a great question. I’ll write the next post about this. Probably. Nah, I will. Well, almost certainly. Anyway, thanks for the inspiration.
Wow thanks Ken, I’m really looking forward to hearing what you have to say! 🙂
That makes two of us!
Okay, here it is:
The Real Japanese Learners
“And every time you speak Japanese, people will say, “Oh, your Japanese is so good.” And then they’ll try to speak English with you. You can say the most profound thing ever in Japanese, make the funniest joke, talk about the earth being taken over by space robots, whatever—and all you’ll get back is “Heeeeey.” – this response probably indicates that what you said made no sense to the people listening and they just responded as best they could. Or what you said was just KY.
” English is a pretty upbeat language; Japanese, eh, not so much.” I think this is just a matter of not having mastered Japanese.
” Contrary to many countries that demand you speak the local language, Japan sometimes seems to prefer you don’t speak Japanese.” This is only ever the case if your Japanese is so awful even the native’s broken English is easier to communicate in. Only a very tiny minority of people here can express themselves eloquently in English.
If more westerners here actually competed with the Chinese/Korean/etc. immigrants in terms of Japanese ability and actually tried to integrate with the local culture without having preconceptions, they might realize there’s a lot more opportunities here for them than just teaching English and a real possibility for them to not be on the outside of society. It’s a wonder how westerners have a good reputation here. Can you imagine how any minority group that didn’t bother attaining fluency in English would be treated in any western country?
Agreed. It’s amazing that Westerners get along so well despite their lack of Japanese abilities, and get treated as well as they do. On the other hand, there is definitely a push-back against a person who looks non “Japanese” trying to integrate too far. Even people who grew up in this country suffer from it.
This was exaggeratedly negative.
Probably one of the reasons to learn Japanese is not to ‘get laid’ but to get a decent and reserved Japanese girlfriend. So your constant reference to ‘getting laid’ is probably a reflection of your sexual frustration and not the frustration a person seeking something different may experience.
Japanese do not have coitus fortuitously like having dinner is for the USA standards, unless they have been baptised with the western-liberal hegemony.
Your appeals to popularity also become weary after a while. Is popularity all you are aiming at in life?
Have you been watching and influenced too much by sitcoms, TV publicity spots and reality shows from the USA?
They are talking back to you in English because they want to practice their English as well. It is called a cultural exchange. Why do you believe to be privileged to practice your Japanese, but they shouldn’t possess the right to practice their English?
The fact that you live in Japan does not turn you into a native Japanese. They are curious about your culture as much as you are curious about them.
Japanese are also very advanced in robotics, software engineering and high-tech agriculture. Let alone all the videogames and manga that captivates the youngsters. That is reason enough.
Students should carry a portable mp3 player and listen to Japanese all day if they are outside of Japan. It is much faster that way.
“This was exaggeratedly negative.”
Seems a tad ironic, but okay.
As for popularity, it’s certainly not all I’m aiming for in life. I’d also like to be rich and thin. Actually, that would probably make me popular. I gotta go on a diet. Oh, why is food so delicious?
You must be really secure sitting up in your ivory tower. I guess you never read any good, funny and ribald stories, which is why you come off as a narrow-minded snobbish prick. I happen to love ken’s satirical viewpoints and use of hyperbole to poke fun at himself and others, while you obviously can’t relate to the common man. Good luck trying to understand the world, before you become a priggish buffoon.
You crack me up, Bud. “Priggish buffoon?” I love it—that’s right up there with “Die, octopus.”
But it’s all good. I understand that everyone has a point of view, and sometimes people don’t agree with me. And that’s okay, although I would like comments to stay polite. But then I’d also like to have more closet space and faucet that runs hot and cold beer. So I guess I want a lot of things. Hopefully Santa will be bring me a sack of money. That would solve all my problems.
Ya know Ken; I just wanted you to know that this guy was not right in the mind. So I looked him up a little and
[Edited out by Ken Seeroi. Sorry.]
He posted this on: http://www.criminalwisdom.com/hysterical-literature-the-orgasm-as-art/ , so I thought Priggish buffoon was most apropos. Anyone that uses four names definitely has an identity problem!!
Don’t let people like this poser discourage you Ken, just write your book and I’m sure you will have success. You have a gift; this blog is proof of that and it’s a great start for a book about something you know a lot about: JAPAN. I still think “Gaijin Decoded” is the perfect title and your blog here is a perfect starting point for writing about what a gaijin is and can expect in Japan. You could even collaborate with zooming (Jasmine) if you needed someone with extremely good organizational skills. BTW, after viewing her photographs, her visual senses are extraordinary and might come in handy if you wish to illustrate your book. She thinks like an architect and has exceptional 3D awareness. Zooming’s web site reminds me of the German Scientists I used to work with at NASA: very precise and punctual and extremely competent (and she’s very creative). What she lacks is in story telling, which you have in spades, so maybe you can benefit one another…. hmmmmm!
You’ve always been incredibly supportive, and you’ve got a great sense of humor. Thank you, really.
I have to apologize for editing out your example of Carlos’ writing, but I want to minimize the negativity and not incite some sort of flame war. I left the link in case anybody’s really interested. I don’t want to start any personal attacks between readers. Those aimed at me, well, that’s another matter. I put stuff out there for the whole world to read, and sometimes it’s a wee bit controversial, so I suppose I have to expect a certain amount of blowback. Still, I hope people will be polite, advance the discussion, and ask questions rather than just flat-out arguing. Guess I’ll hope for world peace while I’m at it too. And a Beermeister. Man, that’d look pretty sweet on my balcony.
You’re certainly right about Zooming Japan. Jasmine has wonderful photos and great organizational skills, as well as being a good writer in her own right. We’d probably make a great team. I anxiously await her marriage proposal, which I’m sure is coming any day.
Thanks for the article Ken,
I think before getting to the point of my comment, I just want to say that I’m a dumb high school kid about to go to community college. So I really don’t have much insight on anything, especially college or the practicality of foreign languages. I think the reason why learning Japanese suddenly came back up in mind is because I was curious about learning guitar a few years back and now that I am learning it I’m glad I took a class. I feel maybe the same thing might happen with Japanese, but I’m 100% sure that comparing learning an instrument and learning a language is unfair. I took French and Spanish in high school and disliked them. I think what’s driving me to learn the language is curiosity. My curiosity isn’t a burning passion but a rather naive one. When you say just learning a little Japanese is good, it encouraged me to take a year and see how it goes. You’re right it’s what you give up and what you get in return.
Sorry for such a long comment, I like how you have experience learning the language and living in Japan too. The article is as honest as it gets.
I think it’s great that you’re motivated to learn Japanese. A friend of mine once told me, “All knowledge is useful,” and that’s always stuck with me. Everything you learn eventually becomes a piece of who you are, and helps you grow as a person.
I found a lot of parallels between learning the guitar and learning Japanese. Both are relatively easy to do poorly, and incredibly hard to do well. But maybe that’s anything. Certainly they both require a lot of dedication and practice.
I also took French and Spanish in high school and college, and didn’t like them. What’s weird though is now, I’m tempted to go back and re-learn them. After Japanese, they’d be a piece of cake. Anyone who tells you there aren’t easier and harder languages is either a fool or lying.
Anyway, good luck with your studies, and let me know how it goes.
I’ve been learning for 7 years, I guess I should stop because of this post.
Well, everybody needs a hobby.
You know, I’ve been at it for over ten years, and at this rate it’ll probably be another decade before I can read what’s printed on the side of my box of laundry detergent. Pretty sure it has something to do with soap though. And possibly clothes, but I can’t be certain.
So if I were thinking about picking up the language, and I read “7 years” or “over ten,” I’d be like Holy Eff, that’s a lot of time.
So I’m not trying to discourage anyone, but people ought to really think about this, because there’s a lot of things you could learn, or do, with that time that might be more useful or beneficial.
On the other hand, well, everyone needs a hobby, and pursuing anything with dedication is admirable. So if Japanese is your thing, then great, more power to you. Certainly learning Japanese is better than watching TV and eating potato chips all day, although that does sound delicious now that I think about it. I’ve enjoyed learning the language myself. It is fun, in its own way, and it’s a big part of my life. It has opened some doors in Japan, although perhaps it’s closed others, but still, holy eff, it’s taken a lot of time.
YES: You should stop “Si…” (I’ll just name you Sigh-sama) because 7 is a lucky number, so don’t risk 8 years! If you can’t read between the lines of this post, you’ll never understand Japanese anyway – ‘Cause they are so inscrutable’!!
hey ken, Im here again ahaha before I start sorry again for my rip English . So yeah I really fucked up now.
I dont know what to do, where do I start. I really really want to learn Japanese because I want to enter a
Senior Highschool next year but here I am just killin time and I hate it Because Im just wasting my time
reading craps on fb. Dude please I need some advice on how to do this thing
Thanks in Advance
Happy Holidays 🙂
Interesting thread. I have been learning Japanese for 3 or 4 years (I lose track). My progress is painfully slow but I really enjoy the sense of achievement. I also know some Spanish and Korean and have developed a reputation as ‘language guy’ amongst my friends and colleagues.
I really like the sense of community and humour on this site.
When I think about studying Japanese, the first two words that come to mind are “painful” and “slow.” So that sounds about right. But I agree, there’s a gratifying sense of achievement, albeit one that’s painfully slow. But gratifying nonetheless.
I’ve recently been dreaming about language learning. Many famous philosophers/scholars could read/write Latin, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit and numerous modern languages.
What do you think about learning Japanese simply as a fan of Japanese anime, manga, and visual novels? Especially with VNs, I’ve heard that learning to read Japanese has a lot of benefits (since apparently very few of them are translated).
I always have seen Japanese culture as amazing, only through the eyes of anime and manga. I don’t much wish to live or work there. I don’t know anyone or have friends that speak Japanese. This would be purely for my #1 hobby.
What would you say to learning Japanese for these reasons?
Honestly subtitles never bothered me. As long as I hear the Japanese voices (even though I don’t understand what they’re saying), their emotion, style, and pitch are all I need to understand the character’s personalities. It’s a strange phenomenon when it comes to Japanese voice actors. I’ve come to love and respect that style and emotion in voice acting so much that American voice actors are just plain boring now.
I think it’s a fine reason for learning Japanese. The only thing I’d say is, set a goal, and understand what it’s going to take to reach it.
In your case, you want to read, so it’s realistically going to take you several years of steady work. If you’re okay with that, then party on.
Hi Ken, I hope everything is well. This is the second time I read this post. The first time I read it a few weeks ago, I was actually crushed. See, I always had this desire to learn Japanese because I wanted to be able to understand untranslated manga and anime. So some years ago, I started buying those little grammar books and dictionaries. I also printed Japanese lessons off of the Internet. I didn’t consider taking Japanese lessons then because I was still in school (high school to be exact) and school was priority. Anyway, fast forward to the present. I already graduated from college and am now working. I saved up enough to afford enrolling in up to two semesters of Japanese lessons in a local language institute (there’s a total of 6 modules in that school I think). Sadly, I don’t think it’s still good idea to still pursue it. I have not yet enrolled but I do study on my own using Pimsleur and Anki. I am ashamed to admit that I do not have any solid routine. I just study when I feel like it.
I’ve been reading your blog (from the very first post in 2008!) and I’ve come to a lot of realizations especially on the pursuit of learning Japanese. All your posts about studying the language made me assess my own reasons in attempting to do. I think that your analogy on baking is spot on. I don’t want to start something which I might eventually give up. There’s already tons of fansubbed anime and scanlated manga so it is probably best to just be content with those. My reason for learning, I realize, is a bit superficial.
My dream of working in Japan is another reason I wanted to learn. I thought that being proficient in Japanese would make it possible for me do so. But as what l have learned from you,it is not necessary to be able to speak Japanese to work and survive in Japan. That gives me hope at least.
I am seriously learning a LOT from your site. I am sure a lot of people does. The information I get here made me reconsider some of my major life decisions. Thank you for coming up with great articles all the time. I love every single one of them. I read all the comments too. Your site is an excellent resource for anyone interested in Japan.
Oh, this is already a very long comment. Sorry about that. I really just want to express my gratitude.
You’re amazing Ken Seeroi. Please keep on writing. I love you!
Careful, you’re only reinforcing my already overinflated sense of self-worth. But thanks, seriously.
You know, I used to be a marathon runner. And that was pretty rewarding, but it also took up a tremendous amount of time, and in retrospect, may not have been all that healthy. I feel a lot better now just going out for 30 minutes three times a week. It also frees up time for drinking beer and eating potato chips. So now I’m much healthier. Well, whatever.
But anywhere, where was I? Oh yeah, so that’s kind of how I feel about studying Japanese. I mean, it’s a pretty heavy hobby, you know? I’ve probably put in 10,000 hours over the years. Not that it isn’t useful—but there’s a lot one could do with that time. Like run marathons, for example.
Anyway, learning Japanese is a great use of your free time, assuming you’ve got no job, no friends, and are perhaps serving a lengthy prison sentence. For people who actually have a life, eh, I’m not so sure. But anyway, thanks for reading. Love you too.
Hey, I wanted to thank you for opening my eyes a bit to the reality of learning a new language. I recently started learning Japanese, no longer than 3 months ago, and it has been something I do frequently next to playing music and working out and gaming. Until recently my only motivation was anime which some friends recently got me into, but I started expanding after I read a few articles and comments and found some Japanese natives near where I live to talk to. Like you said, the language itself has very little uses outside of Japan so I thought giving it some use would help me stay into it and not feel as a waste of my precious youth. The people I talk to really are just in need of learning English but I figured that I could learn a bit from them so I can better understand and be more resourceful to others that I meet. I haven’t done any in person communication, just by e-mails and text, but will get there.
Again, just wanted to thank you for your attitude and inspiring me to go all in or all out, which I feel applies to a lot more than just language.. Oh, and that sense of humor is awesome, never gets old.
Wow, recently so many nice comments—did the internet change and I missed something?
Thanks so much for your input. You said a couple of things that I think are really pertinent. First, learning Japanese helps tremendously when serving as a resource to those learning English. Anyone who aspires to be a language teacher should spend some time learning the language of his or her students. Not only will you understand what they do and don’t know, but you’ll further appreciate just how freaking hard it is.
The other thing you mentioned, about better understanding people, really rings true. Unfortunately, this requires a much larger (read, “massive”) commitment, but the truth is you’ll never understand Japanese people until you’re able to speak their language at a fairly high level. When Japanese people speak English, they’re one person, but when they speak Japanese, they’re somebody else entirely. And you will be too, for better or worse. To be honest, it’s actually probably for the worse, and that’s one of the bummers about learning Japanese. Not exactly the funnest language on the planet, in case you haven’t noticed. But it is intellectually challenging, if you’re into that kind of stuff, so that’s something.
Is it really that tedious? 0.0 Maybe I have a slight advantage… First, I’m chinese so pronounciation is not really an issue… (Korean just makes my mouth melt into putty though…) Second, I’m a huge anime fan… So I can pretty much listen to any japanese person talk and I can get the gist of what they are saying. I don’t know if thus sorta stuff would help… I know pronounciation and stuff was difficult for many people. Just from the people around me trying to speak chinese…
Well, also I started learning it recently from a freeapp called Learn Japanese -Hiragana,Katakana… Etc. I don’t know if it’s a good or accurate app for a someone like me… Any idea?
I might come to Japan for masters degree for only reason that I love the culture I mean stuff animes project it differently to me(I binge watched my teen romantic comedy is wrong as I expected season 2 (snafu).. Read your two articles for more than 50 mins and almost half of comments here. It seems like a challenge and I think I will take it cuz experience over everything else. That said I will learn basic terms from today onwards kinda do some research(your article helps a lot). And devote 40 mins to it daily.. My biggest concern is will watching anime get boring somehow? Also if you can reccomend easy online gateways.. Like your facilities website for a headstart. Some routines etc.. I love your opinions
40 minutes a day is a reasonable investment. Unfortunately, I’m afraid it won’t be enough to give you a significant command of the language. So you’d either need to be okay with that—which is fine—or you’d need to up your time commitment. If you’re looking for online resources, I’d search for an online teacher and sign up for some classes, in addition to vigorously pursuing your own studies.
If you look at the Index of Articles, the ones tagged with “Learning Japanese” should provide you some additional guidance. All of it brilliant, of course.
I think that I may disagree with the article here. I live in Los Angeles and there are places where a person can practice using Japanese notably at Little Tokyo and Little Osaka. I am currently learning Japanese, but I only want to visit Japan a few times in my lifetime. I have studied Spanish for more than 20 years and I wanted to learn another language that contrasted sharply with Spanish, so I chose Japanese. I would really prefer to visit a Spanish country over Japan except a few places in Japan that I want to visit. The point was to learn the contrasts between Spanish and Japanese. That’s why I decided to learn it. Further there may be some loopholes to some of the reasons given such as mnemonics regarding the Kanji and the Michel Thomas program and Learn-in-Your-Car program cover most of the language and are rather inexpensive.
Here is what I suggest though: Learn a more useful language such as Spanish or French first and then take up Japanese and it will be made much easier to learn.
Finally, to Ken Seeroi, thank you for your insightful article. While I differ, it was quite thoughtful and really appreciate it.
I fully agree, learn a more useful language like French or Spanish first, not just because you can use it in far more places, but because it’s much easier for English speakers.
I fully agree with Ken that a little Japanese is great to learn, but the full deal is a long slog, littered with the abandoned packs of those who gave up along the way.
Thanks much. I hear you too. If you want to learn Japanese, by all means, knock yourself out.
A lot of people learn Japanese because, well, just because they want to. And that’s cool. I want to sit around in my underpants drinking beer all day too. But if somebody said, Hey, there’s something better you could do with your time, yeah, I’d have to acknowledge that sentiment. Still, if I enjoy it, that’s what I’m gonna do.
With Japanese, it takes a decade of dedicated study to get even halfway decent, and even then people will treat you like a space alien if you don’t look, you know, “Asian.” Now, is there something better you could do with those ten years? That’s all I’m asking.
I personally studied for about 3 years on my own, then moved to Japan. After around 1 year in Japan, I became fluent. Now that I think about it, my reason for starting to study the language was basically non-existent. Still a better activity than watching TV I guess.
I really don’t understand why you make it sound like> learning japanese = wasting your whole life on it.
I started learning japanese when I was 12 and it’s been 11 years ever since, and not even once have I felt like I’ve sacrificed my social life or the opportunity to learn other things because of it.
Sure, when I tell people I’ve been at it for over 10 years they’re always like “Wow, that’s a huge amount of time!”, but the funny thing is it doesn’t feel that long for me, and I think it’s because I really enjoy learning japanese, I’ve always had a genuine interest in it. It’s been one of my favorite hobbies and the time I’ve spent on it, for me, has been time well spent .
Also, I’m of the opinion that anything you undertake in life is going to demand time and dedication from you. Sure, I could have spent all those hours of japanese study doing “something more rewarding” but the thing is learning japanese IS rewarding for me, and I didn’t have to give anything up for it.
My japanese level is currently high enough to understand tv series and movies without subs. I went over the 1000 kanji a long time ago, and yet, I still keep coming across a LOT of unknown vocabulary whenever I pick a book or a magazine, especially if it has academic content.
Yes, learning japanese is frustrating. Yes, it seems like an impossible task to accomplish.
And, YES, I’m fully aware that I’ll need at least another 10 years before I can confidently say: “Hey, I can speak japanese”. But, guess what? I don’t mind because I love it. Maybe if people stopped trying to work out how much money they’re going to get from their japanese or how many people they’re going to impress with it, maybe then the percentage of people dropping their japanese studies would decrease significantly.
Thanks for writing in, and that’s a good comment. I enjoy studying Japanese too. But it’s important to make a distinction between things we enjoy and things that are good ideas. Just because I like it doesn’t mean it’s objectively a smart thing to do.
Now, if you’re confident you’ll live 1,000 years, then yeah, spending 20 on Japanese is no big deal. But I mean, wow, Prince was 57 when he died. Michael Jackson, 50. So maybe we might only manage two or three big things our entire lives. If Japanese is the hill you want to die on, then okay, cool. I chose that path too, and here in Japan, it’s brought me about as much pain as pleasure. So, maybe just call that a wash.
But is it the best course of action? Well, let’s think—what else might a person do? Honestly, the best thing I ever did was to get a Master’s degree, so that’s an easy one to recommend. It only took two years, I learned a ton, and it’s helped me immensely in my life here in Japan. Far more than having learned Japanese.
So yeah, it’s probably better than smoking heroin, but I’m still not convinced that there isn’t something that’s more useful, profitable, or fun. So objectively, I’d say find that thing, and do that.
No offense, but you sound like you’re 80 or about to die. So, you’ve spent a lot of time learning japanese, so what? You still managed to get a Master’s degree which has proved really useful to you. Now, supposing you’re not actually 80, you still have a lot of years ahead (not everyone dies at 50), so if you’re feeling kind of frustrated why not spend those years doing something you find more meaningful?
Now, you say you enjoy learning japanese so I think that should be reason enough to be happy about all those hours you’ve spent on it. Not everything we learn in life has to be profitable or “useful”. At least you can read and understand any book or magazine you buy. And more importantly, you can understand people. Just think of all those foreigners who spend years in Japan having no idea of the language. How can they live like that? Which takes me to my next point…
A lot of people get old and die without ever learning anything different from what they do in their jobs so I don’t see the harm in trying to learn something new even if it’s practically useless.
With all that said, I still don’t understand why you make it sound like learning japanese is such a big sacrifice. You talk of people waking up at 4 and spending more than 5 hours a day studying, but, personally, I haven’t experienced any of that. Quite on the contrary, I think my learning process has been pretty sporadic since it was my choice and not an obligation. I had to learn english and french for school and college so japanese was always the last option set aside for whenever I had any free time.
I’m not saying japanese is easy to learn. It’s actually really, really difficult and I still have a lot of trouble with it but it’s not like you have to waste your whole life learning it. Of the 10+ years I’ve been studying japanese, I’ve wasted more time watching Tv ad movies than actually studying japanese.
And anyway, for most people, learning japanese is something of a fad. Most of them are teenagers crazy about anime who take a few classes and then give up. Let’s just hope they find something better to do with their time.
By the way, thank you for replying to comments.
It’s really nice of you considering the article it’s from 2013.
I don’t care. I will still study and master the language. Will get myself to stay in Japan one day as a PR. If not, I’ll just study said language so I can understand Japanese live action TV series like Super Sentai, Anime, Manga and Japanese exclusive video games.
I’ve been watching anime for maybe 7 years nows and it’s amazing how much Japanese I can understand without the subtitles. I hate learning to speak languages so this is just the result of learning via “the baby way” I don’t know how to speak it or even understand the words it’s more like a feeling that translates it. Kinda like when you see a car and you know it’s a car because everyone else around you calls it a car, but it reverse. You hear a word or phrase and you know what’s it means because the subtiles always translated it as that. (Finding patterns and applying it to everything else I guess) Feeling and expression is also a huge part of it too.
I also seem to do the same thing with Spanish but when a non native try’s to speak Spanish I can’t understand it as well because the lack of expression i think.
Now that I think about it I’m not good at even understanding my mother tongue vocally. But that might just be a mental disability for me.
P.s. My brain is always spouting nonsense, so I never you if the translations are right or not. Just the other day I thought my naighbor’s dog was a boy named buster ( girl named Sidney)but it was wrong. Can’t trust those gut feelings you know?
That’s right. Maybe the test would be to blindly pick a random 10-minute anime segment that you haven’t seen and listen to it without looking at the screen. Because I know what you mean, it’s easy to get that “gut feeling” that you understand things.
Not that that’s bad, but it’s a bit vague, right? If you try translating the dialog, that’ll give you a pretty excellent indication of just how amazing your understanding is.
You know, I’d actualy be really interested in knowing “how much” japanese you can really understand.
I hope you’re not like one of my friends who, after watching dozens of anime, claims he can understand japanese just because he recognizes phrases like “chotto matte” or “ohayou gozaimasu”.
I was recommended this website by way of my cousin. I am not positive
whether this publish is written by him as nobody else understand such precise
approximately my difficulty. You are amazing!
My reason for studying Japanese: I host students from my school’s sister school in Japan and will host until my sister is out of school. Definitely not aiming to be more than intermediate at the most, it’s a cool language and all, but I’m happy just knowing enough to say basic things. 🙂
This would go well with any article here on learning Japanese, so I simply chose this one to comment on at random. Any foreigner with work experience at a Japanese company while at least having some command of the language should watch this film for a laugh to ease their pain, as should anybody contemplating wasting years on studying Japanese to enter the corporate world in Japan — as a warning ^^
STUPEUR ET TREMBLEMENTS (FEAR AND TREMBLING)
That looks interesting. Thanks for the link—I’ll check it out.
If you live here you need it. Case closed. How can you expect to have any meaningful relationship with another human being if you don’t speak their native language? It’s obnoxious to live anywhere without at least trying to learn their native tongue. Don’t discourage people from trying to immerse themselves in another culture.
If you are a non smoker, Japan will be hell for you. Every restaurant you go, you will be surrounded by smokers. Also if you are planning to work in Japan, most Japanese companies won’t pay you for the overtime, so you will end up working hours and hours after 5 until midnight for no pay. Also the Japanese working environment is so tense, serious and up tight that they will allow no talking during hours. How about during break time? No, there will be no break time nigher. You just have to work from 8AM to midnight and if you are lucky, you get to go home every 3 to 4o days. Also Japanese still wear suits no matter what during summer, so you will be sweating like a jerk for the whole summer. Yes, Japanese still in this modern society wear suits. Also JPOP and retarded Japanese TV will destroy your brain cells by the time you go back to your country.
Well, in my personal experience working in Japan for about 2 years. I think that the only companies that don’t pay overtime, and work their employees to the point of insanity, will either go bancrupt after a few years, or are just cheap mediocre companies that most likely loose employees all the time, which means it’s not worth working for them in the first place. I changed companies immediately after I ended up in one of those, only to find something with better pay, no overtime, no suits, and free booze after work.
If you want to learn Japanese for its own sake, sure go ahead. If you are thinking employers will be lined up to pay you a fat check for your kanji fu, think again.
I started at 16 and went at it until 29. Not to say I studied all the time, but like the author I must have put in around 4000+ hours of study, and countless hours of immersion (5 years in Japan, anime, video games, etc.)
What do I have to show for it today? Nothing, unless you count a child born to a cheating slut in Japan, LOL.
The author is right that you’ll lose your magic appeal if you speak fluent Japanese. The goofy American with his thick Japanese accent however will have no trouble. If people keep complimenting your Japanese, that means they could tell by your accent that you’re not Japanese. One time I confused some hot girls who thought I was Japanese. I told them I was born in Kyushu. Was that cool? Yeah, but what I had achieved was blend in with the drearily ordinary – I had successfully blended in as another one of the 129 million Japanese besides my appearance.
There is near 0 demand for my Japanese skills today. I could to English > Japanese translation, but it’s not what it’s made out to be. This is simply because today translation rates are determined by world market supply and demand. If you want to earn a higher rate, try translating into a language belonging to a wealthy group: Norwegian, Icelandic, or some such. Except that’s not going to work very well unless you’re either a native of the language or spend years studying very hard in order to feign bilingual ability.
If you want to become a poor translator, translate a language such as Thai > English. The reason you won’t be getting good rates is that you will be competing against other English natives who live in Thailand and are willing to drop their prices.
I echo the comment of Y above: Japan is not a good place if you want to drop smoking. Nor is it a good place if you want to avoid becoming an alcoholic. I picked up the habit of drinking from a friend, and for 4 years I drank almost a 6 pack of beers every day. I also smoked a pack.
Once I got back to Norway however I simply dropped both habits nearly immediately. It didn’t feel culturally acceptable to drink, and I started to feel more shameful about it (like a good pietous Christian even tho I’m not religious!). Smoking was a no brainer. Why would I pay $15 per pack of smokes? While in Japan it was around $4.
Other bad things in Japan:
– kafunshou or pollen allergy. The cedar trees in Japan are horrible. If you only occasionally have allergic reactions in Europe, don’t be surprised if your nose gets blocked about a month a year while in Japan.
– Terrible summer heat … Get a car if you wish to get to work without already being drenched in sweat. Westerners seem to sweat more than the Japanese, and our sweat is more smelly. Get used to embarrassing yourself.
If you want just the good stuff, learn about 500 words and go to Japan for 1-2 years to teach or whatever. Better yet, find an online job and just go wherever in the world you like, whenever you like.
In my experience the first 3-6 months in Japan are the most magical. 2nd year and beyond will likely see diminishing returns, until after a few years the place will be just as boring and mundane as your original home country.
Yeah, that seems about right. Nothing like the voice of truth to dash one’s hopes and dreams.
But, but what about “cute” Japan? That glistening world of anime-character bentos and skinny men wearing mascot character costumes? Surely it’s gotta count for something. Japan’s a magical country, because I read about it on Quora. Please just tell me about the land of anime, chicks in sailor-girl costumes, and hilarious toilets. Really, please.
I know that this is has been said many times before and is pretty self evident but the novelty of living in another country invariably wears off after the initial euphoria, regardless of the country. The harsh realities soon sink in. It’s no surprise that Japan is not an exception. I don’t think this should be a deterrent. Enjoy the good times whilst they last and know when to call it quits when it all becomes mundane and boring.
I’ve been learning Japanese since 2013, and I moved to Kobe a few months ago. I take tennis lessons, I study Japanese, I teach English, and I live a pretty boring life by the standards of what people probably imagine they’ll do when they come to Japan. To me, Japanese is a fun challenge, so I don’t really see how I’m going to look back at it as though it’s lost time. People play MMOs for thousands of hours. People watch seasons and seasons of TV shows. Everyone is going to have things that they do just because they enjoy them, and not because they’re looking to get a return on investment. The fact that I can get some return from my choice of activity is a bonus. Go learn Japanese if you want to, people. I get that there’s a market for the “shooting down people’s dreams” angle when it comes to Japan, but do what you enjoy if you enjoy it.
I agree with you, and if that’s your dream, as it is mine, then have at it. Because it’s not lost time. It’s spent time.
You sound like my friend Mike, who just bought a $2000 laptop. I was like, Mike, you’re an English teacher, and you’re in debt. How long’s it gonna to pay that thing off? But hey, he wants it. Mike knows what it costs, and how much he can save per month, so he can do the math.
The thing about Japanese is, Let’s just know what it costs. You’ve spend 3 years, and I’ve spent 12. If that’s how you want to spend the years of your life, cool, great. All I’m saying is, make sure you think about what else you could do with that time. Thank God you can’t buy on credit.
To be fair, I do a lot of things just because I enjoy the challenge. I can 5-ball juggle, which has taken hundreds of hours of practice, and the only thing I “get” out of it is occasionally shocking people (usually students). But even if I never showed anyone, it just feels good to complete a challenge. I get the whole opportunity cost thing, and I guess your point is that most people start kind of half-assedly and those are the people you’re warning should stop? Language learning has benefits beyond communication, so I wouldn’t poopoo a language learning decision, even if the person picked something obscure and of no commercial value. But if people have unrealistic expectations for what the process will be like, or what they’ll get out of it, then yeah, they should reevaluate their decision.
Of course, “Why you should take opportunity cost into account when making life decisions” would probably get fewer hits than “Don’t learn Japanese!” 😉
Heh, yeah. It’s amazing what a little make-up and some high heels do for an article.
Five ball juggling? That sounds incredibly cool. I’m gonna start learning that, right after I master Japanese.
I really agree with you about the benefits of language learning, even beyond its practical application. And undoubtedly, Japanese is useful while you live here. Although you lose the ability to play the gaijin card, which is perhaps more valuable.
The only real negative is, for me, the time. Certainly, studying Japanese is a better use of one’s time than, say, smoking heroin. The question is, is there anything that’s better to do than spend a decade studying Japanese? My sense is, yeah, probably. Get a black belt in karate. Become a lawyer. Impress people with card tricks. But you know, hindsight and all. At least I can walk into a restaurant and say “That’s okay, I don’t need the English menu.” That’s gotta be worth something.
You do seem to make it sound like when I say “3 years of studying Japanese” and when you say “12 years of studying Japanese” that we didn’t do anything else in that time. We’re talking about some number of hours per week, with plenty of time for other recreational activities. My school also encourages me to study Japanese, so I do that while I’m getting paid often. I spend a good chunk of time on language software and reviewing grammar every day, but I also go to club activities at school, hang out with my friends, and go to several tennis lessons a week. Japanese certainly isn’t taking over my life… and if I’m just riding the train or something, I might as well be productive at the same time.
Oh, and I guess it kind of goes without saying that taking tennis lessons in Japan basically doubles as Japanese study, unless you can find yourself someone who speaks English. I’m the only foreigner at the tennis school and 99% of all the communication from the instructors is Japanese.
Funny, I play tennis here too, and 99% of the communication is in Japanese’d English. Backuhando. Saavu. Booru. Netto. Ruv fifuteen. Ruv Sirty. Racketto. Courto. Outo. Innu. Daabaruse. Not to mention, uh, tennisu. I think we’re playing the same sport. You sure we’re studying the same language?
I realize you’re kidding around, but obviously I’m talking about actual instructions.
Not knowing any Japanese other than what I pick up watching English subbed videos, I’m curious: What’s with the odd vowel endings on Nipponified English words like the examples you gave in your tennis class? A few others I’ve noticed: Fight-o, cake-ee, telev-ee, bike-u, fetch-i, pants-u, etc. (Yeah, I realize this isn’t correct Romaji, I’m going for phonetics here.) Is it something about Japanese grammar that requires these endings?
its the kana ‘alphabet’. every sound is either 1) vowel only 2) consonent +vowel together 3) N
So every word ends with a vowel or ‘n’.
Some sounds are written in romaji as two consonents plus a vowel ‘shi’, ‘tsu’, etc. But they are just one kana each.
So your example words would convert to roughly: Fi-to, ka-ke-e, te-re-bi, bi-ku, fe-ti-chi, pa-n-tsu
Look up a kana list and you will see what I mean, its like
a i u e o あいうえお
ta chi tsu te to たちつてと
na ni nu ne no なにぬねの
ra ri ru re ro らりるれろ
Sometimes the insertion of vowels into english syllables can sound kind of funny, for example ma-ku-do-na-ru-do (Mcdonalds)
I am 31 years old…unemployed for the moment and felt like learning this language for earning livelihood in the coming days….(freelance translator)…average time frame which came up on this article is around 5 years!! Just to learn! your article should contain a spoiler warning…yes very blunt and humorous however very demotivating at the end….
Hi Ken, my name is Jessica and I am messaging because I wanted to hear your feedback on a Japanese-learning issue I have and I feel that your 10 years of Japanese practice and exposure is top notch to help.
A brief background: I just happened to stumble upon your blog when I google searched “why you should learn Japanese” and listed in the results was your post “Why you shouldn’t learn Japanese.” I wanted to say that what your post was about was better than I expected and gave me some much needed insight. And then I read another 2-3 blog posts which I enjoyed v much. Moreover, I enjoy your writing style.
My issue is that I am figuring out whether I should learn Japanese again and commit to the expected lifetime of learning.
I took 4 years of Japanese in high school from the ages of 13-17 and haven’t practiced since. I am now 25 and working at ANA in California as a temporary translator (English-Spanish) for their website, helping review translations for their new Mexico-Tokyo route.
I am bilingual, having learned Spanish growing up and practiced writing, reading and speaking in college. My current job utilizes my Spanish-speaking skills. But I work at a Japanese company and I was wondering if I should capitalize on my advantages (bilingual, young, exposure to Japanese language and culture) to practice Japanese.
I know hiragana, katakana, some kanji (could remember more if I practiced again and followed your tips to learning Japanese), and lots of exposure to everything else.
I am pretty frustrated as I would love to know Japanese better and want to interact with my coworkers (although I am probably more fun to them as a gaijin and would lose my flair once I became more like them).
Reasons why I wouldn’t want to are that I would want to learn French instead if it came down to committing to a language, having studied abroad in Paris and having fallen in love with the city (and boys). But I don’t have an advantage in French and when I went there I only spoke a little from my guide book, etc. It was mad enjoyable, probably more so than if I had tried learning the whole language beforehand.
Also, I’m not a geek in the way you described in one of your articles. I don’t want to spend mad amounts of time studying something I don’t want to do without seeing the reason for it. My plans are to be financially stable, have lots of fun with a boyfriend, and have fun experiences and I don’t think learning Japanese will contribute to that. How much do you think the life-plan you create for yourself has to do with practicing Japanese?
I’m thinking I could improve my Spanish skills and use that as a major skill to have over trying to develop my Japanese. ( I will probably use your tips on improving Japanese to improve my Spanish). My boss says I should improve my Japanese to improve job-seeking rather than try to learn French from scratch. I might actually just improve my Spanish and English and have basic knowledge of both Japanese and French for when I visit those countries.
I hope you can reply, Ken!!!
Oh yea, also, I wanted to say a few things about working at a Japanese company when I am not Japanese or Asian and where the majority of people are Japanese (there are some other gaijin like me but ~95% Japanese) and where all management is from Japan.
It feels weird. It feels weird a lot of the time. I can never have anyone be themselves with me so I always feel alienated lol
I went out with a few of them and man do they change persona. At work everyone is work, work, work and outside is different
I am seen as special and I am afraid when the day comes when I will no longer be seen as special lol. Everyone is super nice to me and some think I am “the most valuable person here” because of what I do.
By that same vein, anytime I do speak Japanese it is all “ooh” and “ahh” haha it is so silly and I never feel all that close to them. I feel like a fun object better seen from afar. I don’t get that deep connection I seek, or that anyone seeks sometimes, because I’m not Asian looking. There are a couple of Chinese girls who speak fluent Japanese but they are treated the same as if they were Japanese.
Perhaps I shouldn’t wish to have others be themselves around me because that would take the magic away?
And oh man, leaving work on time feels like someone wants to stab me. But I do it anyway and have to live with the guilt for 5 minutes (or longer) after leaving, everyday. How do you cope with that, if you work at a Japanese company?
I’ve had a lot of jobs here in Japan—20, 30? I don’t know, but really a lot. And when I’m in the role of a Japanese worker, I stay until the bitter end. We’re here till midnight again? Roll up my sleeves. On the other hand, when I’m treated like a “foreigner,” and expected to behave as such, that’s what I do. Sayonara, suckers.
No one wants to feel like a perpetual outsider, but when being on the inside is painful and pointless, well, it’s hard to say which is worse. Heh, welcome to Japan.
Thanks for the good question. I’m heading out to go camping now; let me get back to you in a couple of days. Cheers, Ken
Hi Jessica! I work at a Japanese company in Socal too, and recently finished a three year assignment living in Tokyo. Actually there used to be an ANA office right across the street. You sound like you are on the right track – I think that learning enough Japanese to easily go to a restaurant is great, but there is not much point killing yourself to “improve job seeking”. As you have picked up on, Japanese don’t see any value in you as a Japanese speaker — you are valuable to them as a foreigner. Now, if you love being a translator and want to get a permanent job at ANA, maybe worth the investment – I am guessing there is more demand for Japanese translation than French translation. Anyways I strongly applaud your long-term thinking.
By the way, it is completely typical in Japanese office for there to be no personal communication among coworkers during workday. As you noticed, after hours nomikai is the only place where personalities come out. You dont need to feel bad at all leaving office before them, actually you are doing them a favor to help them feel superior as Japanese that they work long hours. You could mention that you are trying to help Japan overcome Karoshi – I guess you saw the recent news about the poor woman from Dentsu..
I think you hit the nail on the head when you asked, “How much do you think the life-plan you create for yourself has to do with practicing Japanese?” Because you’re not simply learning a language; you’re changing the course of your life.
I’m sure there are people who manage to simply use Japanese as a tool. That is, they remain their “foreign” selves, and simply speak Japanese words. But personally, I can’t imagine how—the cognitive dissonance is just too great. After years of immersing yourself in the culture, falling in love with Japanese people, eating the food, sharing joys and sorrows, giving and receiving gifts, surrounding yourself with Japanese values and behaviors, you start to become like them. It’s pretty hard for a butcher to remain a vegetarian.
So when you see your co-workers still at the office after the sun goes down, right now you can leave. But once you adopt their language, and by extension, values, you won’t be able to. When the car gets stuck in the snow, everybody gets out and pushes. You don’t just hop out and yell over your shoulder to your friends, See ya later. That’s what you’re doing now. Because really, they’re not your friends. Even if you think they are, they know you’re not.
Incidentally, this is why Japanese people don’t accept outsiders into their culture. They recognize you’re just going to peace out when the going gets tough. So I’d argue that you’ve got to decide, Just how deep do you want to go with this Japanese stuff? It’s all a fun hobby until someone jumps in front of a train.
Other cultures, well, maybe they aren’t that different. I think you can safely acquire French without losing your own identity. For Japanese, I really question whether that’s possible.
You say you want to interact better with your Japanese co-workers. If so, then realize that there’s another side to them, beyond the English-speaking, Western persona they adopt with you. You can see it in how they treat each other at the office, and how they—cautiously and often with fake joviality—treat each other while drinking and at karaoke. Is that the person you’re striving to be?
In short, in addition to requiring a massive time investment, learning Japanese involves a change of mindset, and maybe not for the better. On the flip side, it could be that’s why so many Japanese folks want to learn English.
You have nailed it..After living here for 6 odd years i have similar feelings.When i first came here for internship people were extremely kind,helpful and co-operative beyond imagination.This made me love Japan and I decided to immerse myself completely in to language and culture of this country.As years passed,I could see beyond layers and realized its so stifling to deal with Japanese people at work.Over period of time,the kindness and co-operative attitude turned in to living hell..The more I spoke Japanese the more I was expected to behave like them.Seeing beyond layers made me realized Japanese are so un-accepting of people coming from different races.I had thought that the problem was with my cause I dont speak the language and dont know the culture.The more you try to learn they have more stupid and irrational excuses to reject you!My experiences with Japanese companies was full of abuse..I have been told on face during nomikai that I speak amazing Japanese but that talking to me does not make my co-workers feel like I am one of them.In others words you are out of circle…I envy interns in my company who came from foreign companies…it reminded me of my intial years of receiving gentlemen treatment in Japan…Someone said that clever gaijins work for gaishikeis in Japan…After all these years I feel thats so true..Having worked for 6 years in 2 jcompanies where I was taught nothing or was given any skills but just to do some work that team didnt like has created setback in career.I wonder if i will be able to secure job back home.
If we took all of the things long-term expats in Japan say, and somehow averaged them all together, it would result in a comment very much like the one you wrote.
The generalization of “Japanese don’t see any valued in you as a Japanese speaker” is important to remember. And hard to come to terms with sometimes. It’s a unique strength in your current company and while it can be annoying to be labeled it can open many doors not available to others.
Short of odd that the Dentsu suicide is getting press now after she took her life December 2015. Now they tell their staff that the building is closed to all workers by 11pm. Not really helpful in reducing the overall work load!
Thanks for the humorous yet practical post. It’s a helpful reminder for me as I have a renewed interest in greatly improving my (pathetic) Japanese. I recently returned from a family reunion in Japan and I’m in a contemplative mood.
I’m the product of a Japanese mother and an American father and I was born and raised in the States. English was the primary language of our household though I’m told Japanese was my first language till I started school and it quickly flew out the window. Throughout my life I’ve harbored some regret that I wasn’t bilingual like many of my friends were and I also believed and hoped that by learning my mother’s native tongue I could come to better understand her and maybe connect more with my Japanese relatives who I’ve grown fond of. Over time I did some self study and took some college courses but it certainly wasn’t enough. Life eventually got in the way and lo and behold I’m in my 30’s now.
I appreciate your insights on the subject of learning Japanese as it gives me good things to think about, namely what goals I have, or what I’m specifically seeking. I’m not after fluency but I do desire to have decent conversations in Japanese or at least understand a lot more than I do now. I’m confident that with some regular studying I can get past things like “what are your hobbies?” and “I like to watch gymnastics” (sad, I know). I have no fantasies that improvement comes without commitment and this is what I’m trying to hash out right now. Clearly, I’m driven by a personal motivation as it’s otherwise not as practical as say, Spanish, nor is it a necessity for me. What I also question is how I want to make this interest of mine happen. Do I pursue language classes locally or would I consider studying abroad short term (I have a little bit of mobility right now in my life)? These are things on my mind.
I’m glad I stumbled upon your blog which makes you laugh and think at the same time. Good stuff.
Cool, your expectations and motivations sound perfectly realistic. I’m sure that with some study—okay, a lot of study—you can reach fluency, although that’s just the start of learning the language.
I’ll only add that I honestly think it may be easier to learn Japanese outside of Japan. I mean, here you’ll get really good at saying “Uh yeah, I’d like a bag for these twelve bottles of beer,” and “no cream, just black, thanks,” but other than that, there’s a lot of stuff that’s simply time-consuming. (The opposite sex comes to mind.) Whereas if you locked yourself in the room above your mother’s garage, you’d probably do more actual studying. As for which is more fun, well, that’s a different matter.
Cool, well I feel like garbage now. Been studying Japanese for 2 and a half years now, mostly for the purpose that I enjoyed the culture and wanted to spend time in another country. Not really worth it in the end though, huh?
Would you say it’s worth it at least as some background experience for a master’s degree in some international study?
Let me try to clarify my message here, since it seems it’s sometimes misinterpreted.
If you want to study Japanese just because you like it, hey that’s fine. There’s plenty of stuff we all do that doesn’t provide oodles of tangible benefits. Walks in the woods, playing the trombone, baking bread, whatever. Maybe some day you’ll become a professional pastry chef, who knows, but mostly you’re doing it just because you enjoy it. Nothing wrong with that.
When it comes to Japanese, bear in mind that it takes a lotta, lotta, time. Like two and a half years, and you’re still working on it. That’s significant. So it’s good to ask a couple of questions: how much will you need to use it, or even be able to? And most importantly, what else could you do with that time? Because two and a half years is just about the amount of time it takes to get a Master’s degree.
To answer your question specifically…if your International Studies degree would be dealing with Japan, or you intend to work in Japan for several years, then yes, it’s probably worth it.
But I suspect the real reason you want to study Japanese is just because you enjoy it, and that’s all good. But think twice before you let a hobby take over your life. Otherwise, you’ll be sitting in Japan at 5 a.m. writing blog comments about it.
Thanks for the quick reply, I appreciate it. I think I’ll keep studying for an hour a day (barring Japanese homework), try for the JET program in Japan, and see how I feel once I spend some time there.
Sounds like a reasonable plan. By the way, have you been here before?
japans nature isnt all that?! are you joking. also no way does knowing japanese make you less popular.
Thank you for your input. Rest assured that our Quality Control department is following up to ensure Mr. Seeroi’s subsequent articles more closely align with your views of Japan.
Future posts are slated to include titles such as “Japanese People, Could They be any more Polite?” “Homes of Tokyo, Not as Freezing Cold as You’ve Been led to Believe” and “Onsens, What You Mean I Gotta Show my Junk?” Hopefully these will meet with your approval.
Stop being so patronising. From your articles and how you describe Japans nature it seems you most likely live in Tokyo and most likely haven’t ventured out of Tokyo more than a handful although most likely to the obvious trips to Kyoto and Osaka when you first arrived. Do some research try somewhere naturey you’ll be amazed what you can find.
Hm. And if I listed all the prefectures I’ve hiked, mountains climbed, and forests camped in, would it even convince you? I’m thinking not. If I described the years spent living in the Japanese countryside, alongside the farmers and fishermen of three different islands, would that? Still no? The seasons spent planting rice and harvesting buckwheat? Really no? If you’ve read much of this site, you know I don’t live in Tokyo.
Look, sorry for being patronizing, really. But if you have a different experience of Japan, cool. I’m willing to hear you out. Is it too much to ask that you provide the same courtesy? I mean, considering it is my site and all.
I was so excited on learning japanese, but this topic just let me down…
Nice article man. I read this only hours after learning hiragana after my 4th day. I totally agree with your points made. But Im learning Japanese because it’s gonna be my future. I met miki the leader of the crazy 88 from kill Bill a while back and he’s a real samurai from Japan has a dojo cool guy had dinner with him we did sword stuff he said I should be his student but there was the language barrier. But fast forward a year and a half later I met my girlfriend she used to live in Japan and she wants to move back and I have no qualms with that I learned it so fast I feel like I was meant to. I know the food there is great and it’s definitely different and dope as hell from what i hear and I feel like it’s gonna be a major part of my future. I’m moving on to katakana in a few days to soak up the hiragana completely. I figure katakana shouldn’t take too much longer than hiragana.
Hi Ken, is it true that you’ll learn to speak japanese quickly if you first learn to speak chinese? We’ll my brother and his family moved in Taiwan so.. i don’t know well.. i guess he just trying convince me there .. hehe
Ok here is the truth. I plan to study in Japan for my Doctoral degree in Engineering and at the same time gain friends or connection and lure them to do business with me. But as you mention, if it’s not worth it and i’d rather stick improving my English. Love to hear your comments though. Thanks
Mary, if I may – coming to study for a PhD in engineering in Japan could be a career mistake, regardless of whether you plan to stay in academia or move to industry afterwards. I would strongly suggest to get your doctorate somewhere else where you can get a large international network of contacts and collaborators (Europe is great for that), and then come to Japan afterwards as a postdoc/assistant professor.
The danger is that your career here would be very insular (lots of domestic conferences, few international collaborations, no teaching experience) when especially now you need to make yourself known at an international level. You tend to be given more responsibility and more limelight in western institutions, while in Japan you are treated more like a student.
Either way, best of luck, it’s a tough but beautiful experience.
It will be “quicker” but by no means “quickly”. Chinese and Japanese have many characters in common, but many characters used in Chinese are not used in Japanese and vice-versa. The language structure is completely different; in fact, Japanese grammar is much more similar to Korean than to Chinese. So, it’s like saying that learning German makes it easy to learn French because both use the Roman alphabet.
And moreover…. you have to learn Chinese first, which is probably not easier than learning Japanese.
That sounds 100% correct.
If you don’t already know Chinese, then learning Chinese to learn Japanese sounds crazy.
I’ll also add that being able to speak English well is valuable in Japan. Arguably more so than speaking Japanese.
I love your site. Thanks for your insights.
At least for now, I only want to be able to order food, understand store clerks, know the kana, read essential kanji, and so forth.
I am starting my second year in Japan. What are your thoughts on the least difficult JLPT’s?
Those sound like eminently sensible ambitions.
As for the JLPT, at any level, I must say it seems like a pretty massive waste of time. It’s a standardized exam, and doesn’t really reflect the language you need much of the time. I think there are better ways of learning Japanese than studying for the JLPT.
I have to admit I’ve been studying japanese for while and I’m starting to have second thoughts. It’s feels like running a 1000km a marathone while carrying a sumo wrestler on your back. It started as a hobby but it’s drawing me deeper and deeper and now I’m confused. I want to continue because I love the language but I know it will take a lot of time. I also want to stop but if I did that I would feel sorry. Even if I’m just doing some sentences on anki right now, I can’t give up because it would be like forsaking a part of me. I think it’s partly sunken cost fallacy. Or it’s the fact I have dropped too many hobbies and I want to stick with something. I don’t even know if I’m going to need the language , it’s just a hobby I started because it looked much more interesting than, say, french and spanish.
If you want to come to Japan only as a tourist, studying Japanese for that would be a waste of time. Japanese students are required to have English exposure at their schools for several years (despite their education being very poor). As a tourist, just point, grunt, and use very basic, slow English. If necessary, use Google Translate for them. If you want to live in Japan, on the other hand, I will let someone else answer that.
I don’t know what I’m going to do. It started as a hobby but it’s becoming more and more time consuming. But I invested a lot of time in japanese. I have a good number of kanji I can recognise and in many cases read and I’m starting to build my vocabulary. It dawned on me that maybe I’m not ready for the long commitment but at the same time I’m not ready to stop. I would be missing a part of my life and waste all my previous work (that might be sunk cost fallacy). I’m not sure if I’m going to do some prolonged stay or not, I don’t know if my opportunities after majoring in nanotechnology would be so good and It seems like being an expat in japan and stay there for a really long time would be a decision I might regret.
Luuke…I’m your future, Luke…
Well, learning Japanese is kind of like learning to juggle. If you stick with it long enough and practice a lot, eventually you’ll be able to keep four balls in the air. Not many people can do that; quite an accomplishment. And then after a while, you’ll be able to do five, then six. And you’re all like, Check me out! I’m a dude who can juggle six balls! And everyone you meet is like, uh, Meh. Because nobody cares about your geeky little pursuit you spent all those hours alone in your back yard perfecting. Except for other people into juggling, of course, and most of them either resent you because they can only manage five balls, or look down on you because they can do seven.
It’s also pretty unlikely you’ll ever join the circus and make a career out of juggling, but maybe someday you can be that clown who entertains children at parties. Or an English teacher, which is kinda the same thing.
So let’s just see studying Japanese for what it is—a slightly weird, nerdy pursuit with few practical applications. Even if you could get a job in Japan—Jesus, nobody wants a job in Japan. So why keep going? I don’t know.
Look at your heroes—whether that’s Mick Jagger or Jaromir Jagr, Bruce Willis or Will Smith—people who are famous, cool, rich. How many of them speak Japanese?
So why keep going? I ask myself that every day. I can’t say I recommend it, but I keep going. Sorry, I guess that’s not very inspirational. But if Japanese is something you’re really into, then maybe that’s enough.
I lived in Japan for about 14 months and became bitter and disillusioned by many things there, including its natives. I actually never arrived with the idea that Japan was going to be a utopia, but nevertheless I ended up very disappointed.
Admittedly, one of the myths that I did fall for was that “Japanese people are kind.” In Japan, when you finally realize how significant the surface is, compared to intentions, true feelings, and content, it might upset you.
As an innocent example, gift-giving is particularly popular in Japan and began as religious offerings. Yet the box, wrapping, or bag in which the gift is contained is absolutely crucial, and gifts are notorious for being recycled to others. It’s just an institutionalized practice: “I’m going to give you X, so that you will carry out Y for me in the future.”
You will never know if living in Japan is a good fit for you until you actually try it. Due to the superficial pleasantries, the desire of the natives to impress you about their own culture, and the heavy concern with appearances, even being a tourist in Japan can be quite deceptive in regards to making a decision like wanting to live there.
On the topic of the Japanese language, I found that Japanese people were often haughty, overprotective, condescending, and unkind about a foreigner’s attempt at using their language. Here’s just one example: if you tell a Starbucks clerk that you only understand a tiny amount of Japanese, don’t be surprised if she smirks, looks at the Japanese people near you, and then begins to communicate with you in fluent Japanese sentences at a normal speed.
In the US at least, we seem to be more encouraging, inclusive, and humble about foreigners trying to learn English.
Needless to say, incidents like the Starbucks one helped me decide to stop learning Japanese. Why would I want to communicate with people like that?
I never mocked their poor English. If they admitted that their English was poor, I would speak slowly and use very basic English.
Another myth is that “Japanese people are humble.” What a load of nonsense. I’ve never met such proud people.
Where did that come from? The stereotype that Japanese people are humble and kind, I mean. I have nice Japanese friends who take care of me every time I visit but I also have met passive aggressive ones. They’re just like people everywhere else. Some are kind, some are not.
Regarding haughtiness, it’s probably the result of brainwashing. Some people from the US are also like that, no? They are convinced the US is the best country in the world.
This didn’t take long to find, but here you go:
Have I additionally mentioned that “Japanese people are so freaking polite?!” When they go out of their ways to passive-aggressively bump into you without apologizing for it, their uniquely unique politeness blows my mind!
They only do that when they have backup, and you are alone, though. Remember, Japan is a uniquely unique group-oriented, “traditional” culture!
But for real, the profuse apologies, profuse rejection of compliments, honorific speech, robotic and automatic utterances of “irasshaimase,” bowing, and do on… it’s an act played by lifelong actors who have a strong fear of individuality and authority. Enjoy the show, I guess.
When it comes to national pride, at least one difference between the States and Japan is that Americans don’t air TV shows that seek constant validation from foreigners. Japan airs its insecurity across the nation.
Plus, American education encourages questioning, but Japanese classrooms do not. There, Japan is supposedly the best. There, Japan is a WWII victim. That’s, as you mentioned yourself, brainwashing.
Hello Ken, I’m interested in Japan and I’m thinking of visiting there someday and I really love reading your articles. It inspires me to think about my decisions thoroughly. I wonder, do you have a mailing list? I want to subscribe. Cheers 🙂
Ah, thanks much. Yes, try this out: http://feeds.feedburner.com/japaneseruleof7
I think it works, but please let me know if that’s not the case.
Your article is so insightful for me personally. I’m embarrassed by all the time, money and effort I’ve put in to trying to learn Japanese. I have learned a lot about Japanese history and culture, but the language has not stuck. I kept thinking that the next book, the next online course or the next app would be the one to break the barrier.
I need to let it go and not feel awful about it. I still love the Japanese language, but I ‘m going to have to love it from afar.
Thanks you for your insights.
I feel ya, I really do.
The one big mistake I made in learning Japanese was failing to understand the scope of what I’d undertaken.
At first, I thought it’d be like building a doghouse—just get a few tools, a bit of odd lumber scraps, and nail that sucker together over a long weekend. After all, that’s what everybody tells you—learning the language is easy. Won’t take long at all. And initially everything went along great. I got straight A’s in three semesters of college Japanese. I’d have the thing mastered in no time flat.
And then a couple of years in, it occurred to me that what I was really building was a full-on house. Turns out I needed a lot more material, plus actual know-how for pouring concrete and connecting wiring. At that point, I was taking twice-weekly language classes in Tokyo, plus working with a tutor.
And now after about fifteen years, it seems the task is more akin to constructing an entire city, brick by brick. Yeah, I’m still working on that. Get back to me around the year 2080, once I finish reading the Encyclopedia Britannica in Japanese.
Of course, everyone needs to decide for themselves whether learning the language is worth it or not. Just know what you’re getting into. It’s a fun hobby, for about the next century.
Yeah when I run into someone and they find out I speak Japanese, they assume that I learned it for my wife, hah! No, I first started learning because of another Japanese girl I met in college in the US, and then I really had to learn it when I started working in Japan in a job where I would be fired if I didn’t speak business Japanese. Not THAT’S motivation!
I don’t think I spoke any English to my wife until we moved to the US…
Do you live in Japan?
You say you are going to have to love it from afar.
So I am guessing currently you are not in Japan.
Mr Seeroi would not like me saying this, but living in Japan may be the thing that would break the barrier for you.
Maybe, but I often think about how much more time I could spend learning Japanese, before I actually lived in Japan.
Common wisdom also states that getting a Japanese girlfriend will help you learn Japanese. Personally, I can report a tremendous comprehension increase in phrases such as “where were you last night?” and “You folded the laundry all wrong.”
How about, “Baka ja nai!?”. After 27 years of marriage to J-wife, I hear that a lot. She copied her best friend back in Japan who says it, in public, to her husband, without hesitation.
I don’t plan on living in Japan. My main reason for trying to learn the language is that I love Japanese film. Horror, comedy, drama , sci-fi, I love them all. I can still love and enjoy them with the small bits of Japanese that have stuck.
I do need to re-visit this article every time I think that a new book/app/course is THE ONE that will make my 63-year-old brain work.
Oddly enough, I *have* been able to excel at other hobbies I have picked up in recent years. They involve working with my hands and creating objects of beauty.
Again, I thank you for your thoughts! ありがとうございます!
Ah, that’s the right approach. I really need to keep that in mind. We spend far too much time focusing on challenges, and not enough time on what we’re good at.
Actually, I started thinking for a lot longer about the opportunity costs of language learning lately, as mentioned in this article. I’m on my fourth language and I do about 3-4 hours a day, 6 days a week, for just about a decade now.
But I started thinking, it takes about 2000-4000+ hours to get (conversationally) fluent… What else could I have done in that time? And that’s when I got depressed because I started considering dozens of possibilities… Imagine you had a date with the opposite sex for 4 hours per date (go somewhere fun, watch a movie, eat, and maybe do other “activities” for a good 40 minutes or so…). You could do that 1000 times in the time it takes to learn a language!!!
I have over 65,000 sentences in Anki over the years and now I’m starting to think I really messed up in terms of life priorities. Shit.
Well, probably not the worst thing you could spend time on. It’s not like you spent the last 10 years in piano bars, drinking cheap brandy and chatting up loose women. Sigh. Well, at least I do a stunning rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Personally, having studied French and Spanish in the past, I feel like the cost-benefit for those languages is far better than Japanese. Japanese takes too long to learn, and even when you gain some proficiency it’s useful in exactly zero nations since everyone here would just love to speak English anyway.
The sad truth is that language learning is quickly becoming obsolete. I hate to say it, but we gotta be realistic. All over the world, people are crazy for English, and machine interpretation to rival humans will happen within our lifetimes. Assuming we don’t die before next Thursday.
None of this argues that learning Japanese is inherently a waste of time. That’s not my point. If it’s your hobby, something fun to do, then cool. Go ‘head on wit yer xylophone practice. It’s just that the benefits are increasingly outweighed by the costs.
My sense is that anybody with the focus and drive enough to learn Japanese could do many more valuable things—start a business, get a Ph.d, write a novel. But…if you don’t have the ambition or vision to do anything greater with your life, then yeah, studying Japanese isn’t half bad.
The first foreign language I started learning was Japanese and I got to a decent intermediate level because meeting my future Korean wife and dropping Japanese in favour of studying Korean instead. Even though I’ve now been studying Korean for longer than I studied Japanese I still find Japanese infinitely easier even though they are in reality around the same difficulty level (a lot of people think Japanese is possibly harder). I think the fact I was having fun learning Japanese as a hobby rather than something I felt like I had to do is what makes it seem easier. If you force yourself like I did with Korean, it’s going to be a massive struggle. But hey, at least I can be garbage at two languages instead of just one now.