How being able to speak Japanese has changed my life in Japan

KanjiI’ve been wanting to write this little post for some time. It’s not aimed at people who are perfectly happy not using Japanese whilst living in Japan (which I think is perfectly OK). It’s aimed at those considering studying Japanese. My hope is that it provides at least one person with a little inspiration.


It’s perfectly possible to live a very happy life in Tokyo without using Japanese. Our dear friend John John managed it for 30 odd years, and never seemed to have a problem (although he did have a lot of bilingual friends willing to help out when his VCR went kaput !). I also lived in Tokyo for about a year with a very limited Japanese vocabulary. Those were happy times, and I don’t recall feeling frustrated at not being able to speak Japanese.

My Japan-related History 2003-2008 in 6 short paragraphs

Prompted by the expiration of my visa (with no hope of a renewal) and a huge amount of debt, in 2003 I left Japan and returned to the UK.

I had a simple goal: to be back to Japan within five years with a university degree that would allow me to obtain a work visa (I’d previously bought a degree off the internet for US$300 but was laughed out of Otaru Immigration office).

Once back in the UK I applied to do a foundation course – with virtually no qualifications to my name and having been out of education for 7 years I needed to learn how to learn again. One year later that was complete, and I received an offer from the University of Sheffield to study Japanese at the highly respected School of East Asian Studies.

Graduation 2008There then followed 4 really tough years of study. We started off with about 50 people in our class – 16 of us made it though to the end (above, with Nagai sensei and Kitaka sensei. Note my appallingly cheesy grin). Though though it was, it was bloomin’ marvellous, and I would recommend the course to anyone.

Last July I graduated on a Tuesday, got married to my daringu *Twinkle* on a Friday, and returned to Japan shortly after that upon receiving my spouse visa.

It took me a while to settle back in. Having rejected a job offer from GABA that I’d secured over the phone from the UK I was unsure as to what I would do for a while. Also, I’d not used my Japanese for a while and seemed to have forgotten an awful lot. It was an uncomfortable yet exciting time.

Graduation, July 2008

Being able to speak Japanese and the impact it has upon my life

It’s now just over 6 months since my return. For reasons given in my previous mumble I’m now feeling very much at home. But there’s another reason I feel a lot more at home now that I didn’t go into in that post, and that’s my ability to speak Japanese.

Why? Simply put, it gives me more choices in how I live my life.

As I sat in the meeting room above the local gym, I had a little out-of-body moment. There I was, sitting in a room of local Japanese grannies and grandads, participating in a meeting to discuss how our local park should be run.

Wow! This is pretty cool! I thought. Six years ago when I used almost nothing but English in Japan I wouldn’t have been able to participate at all. I wouldn’t even have had the choice.

At work too I’m now using more and more Japanese. As my English telephone conversation classes peter out (it’s the end of the season) so I’m doing more work on creating marketing materials. This means working with the sales team, none of whom speak much English. In meetings with my (Japanese) boss I now find it far more natural to use Japanese – wow, I’m doing business in Japanese! OK, so I make a tonne of mistakes and my keigo is going through one of those non-existent phases – but it doesn’t matter. The important thing is I can communicate (and I’m continuing to study before work to help fill the 3 billion cubic metres of room for improvement).

Yesterday, I decided that I wanted to spend some time with a friend of ours who was made homeless a couple of years back and now sells the Big Issue outside Shibuya Station (East Exit, Ogura-san). He’d not been there for months, but yesterday, in accordance with what some call coincidence, he was there as we dashed to change to the subway. I quickly arranged to meet him after work, and last night, I did. I’ll talk more about what happened on the podcast, but just to say it was an enlightening experience – and something that could never had happened had I not learnt to speak Japanese.

I can sort stuff out at the bank by myself, I can run errands for *Twinkle* (where previously I would have had to get her to run errands for me). I can volunteer to help at the local city hall, I can speak with non-English speakers at parties and bars… I can do anything that I couldn’t do before due to the language barrier.

Speaking of *Twinkle*, it gives her greater freedom too. I don’t want there to be a language barrier between us – statistics show that intercultural couples are far more likely to divorce than others, language difficulties being one of the causes. I want her to be free to choose to use the language that most suits her feelings. I want to be friends with her friends, to communicate with them on the same level as she does. I want to be able to do stuff with her that requires Japanese language skills. I don’t want to be a husband who needs constant translations and explanations, or whose input needs to be translated back for others.

(I’ll repeat here that I’m not having a go at people who don’t speak Japanese. I don’t see Japanese speakers as being in any way ‘superior’ to those who don’t. We’ve all made our own choices and we all have our own priorities, and the way we lead our lives is entirely up to us)

Life is hard enough as it is without an optional language barrier making things more challenging.

And for me personally, I have another big reason for learning Japanese: for our (as yet not-conceived) children. I feel it is very important for me that I be able to communicate with them in their native language (which is likely to be Japanese). Yes, I’ll probably be using English with them a lot of the time as well, but I never want to be in a situation (probably later on in their lives) where I can’t understand what they are trying to tell me, or where I can’t respond in Japanese if the situation suggests that that would be best.

Take away all the benefits I feel on a daily basis, and that alone is enough.

So, no matter what the time and financial costs, if you are considering learning Japanese, I’d say go for it! The pay-back is potentially so enormous that it will dwarf the initial investment.

And of course the good news is, if an idiot like me can learn Japanese, anyone can!

頑張りましょう!

Volunteering, earthquakes and my dream house

purple flowers_0101As I mentioned on Twitter, *Twinkle’s* come down with a nasty itchy rash covering her whole body. It’s pretty spectacular. What’s equally spectacular is how quickly it appeared, and how much it’s faded following a night of rest. She’s still not 100% though, so is taking the day off, and is as snug as an itchy bug in a rug on the futon behind me.

We’re pretty sure its due to tiredness (last week’s conference saw her doing crazy hours) – so rest is what she needs. Incidentally, I used the NHS (National Health Service) Self-help guide – highly recommended.

I spent a couple of hours at Meguro ward city hall this morning, discussing how I might be of assistance to the Meguro International Friendship Association (MIFA). My motivation for volunteering was the frustration I’ve felt at not putting myself in situations where I have to use Japanese, which has resulted in a slip in my language abilities. This seems ideal. My main role is to give advice and feedback on their services, from the gaijin perspective. I’ll also be helping them get their website up to date (spent quite a while trying to explain RSS today!), and figuring out new ways of reaching foreigners in the area who are unaware of the services they provide.

I also did some translation and proof-reading. I’m glad I did that as it made me realise that *Twinkle’s* not emptying the bath after using it was not laziness, but is actually something that everyone is recommended to do in case of earthquake.

It’s also prompted me to decided to get provisions in for when the earthquake does strike. We’ll be getting a few sacks of no-wash rice later today (to be used in rotation), and a variety of other food for emergency use, oh, and a cardboard-box toilet.

The dangerous (tall and heavy) items we do have are already secured to the walls, so that’s cool.

Whilst of course there’s no way of telling whether the big quake will strike in our lifetimes, I think it’s worth taking precautions just in case.

Yesterday was a pretty interesting day. Following a run from Shinjuku to Roppongi via the Imperial Palace, I taught English for an hour in a Shibuya cafe, then headed out to visit someone who owns an Amway business, and had built a pretty stunning house on a hilltop next to a large ‘wild’ park.

It was a really funky place. To reach the entrance you climb a short flight of stairs and then cross some stepping-stones across a big (shallow) pond, which is actually the roof of their garage (which houses a very sexy talking Mercedes). Passing by the lift (for when they get old and are unable to use the stairs), you enter tatami-floored reception room. Going upstairs you’re greeted by a huge glass-walled living room, featuring one of the longest tables I’ve seen outside of a film, and a grand piano (that had to be lifted in by crane through the window).

Photos were not allowed – the home security company complained that they could not do their job with so many photos of the place floating around online.

We laughed when we were shown the wife’s bedroom closet – it was almost big enough to fit our entire flat in!

Dinner was the freshest seafood (caught by their fisherman friend), washed down with some rather nice champagne.

Personally, nice though it was, I wouldn’t choose to live in such a house.

My dream house is entirely self-sufficient in terms of energy generation / use, and has a vegee garden that keeps us going in fresh produce for much of the year. It has every energy-saving gadget installed you could imagine – the toilet even does a self-assement of its contents before flushing, and adjusts the flush accordingly. We have a garden on the roof too. Flowers, deckchairs, and a special light funnel channelling natural warmth and light to the rooms below, including the branch office of our charitable organisation.

The house systems are fully controllable from my iPhone, wherever I am in the world.

It’s mounted on large ball bearings so as to prevent earthquake damage [demo].

There is ample room for guests in the annex, which has its own kitchen and bathroom, and an open-door policy. Both short and long stays are possible for those either on holiday in Japan, or in trouble.

The whole house is networked with a main server acting as a central entertainment repository whilst also maintaining the house systems. It runs Mac OS (XI?).

There is a car in the garage. It is an Audi that runs on compressed air. Zero emissions.

The point of having such a house is not just to be happy with the home we live in. We hold frequent open days to demonstrate the steps people can take to reduce their impact on the environment, and offer a consultancy service to those interested in reducing their own home carbon footprints.

We have a log-cabin retreat in the woods too, comfortably housing up to 30 people at a time, where various holistic sessions are run year round.

Is this just a dream? At the moment, yes of course, but it’s a dream I believe will come true.

Best get to work then.

Coldplay Live

coldplay, Live at Saitama Super Stadium, Feb 2009
It was around 8.55am when I got an email from my friend and teacher Nami. Would I like to go and see Coldplay perform live at Saitama Super Stadium tonight? She’d got a couple of tickets for 3500 yen each – almost a third of the normal price.

With telephone conversation calls going on until 7pm, there was no way I was going to get there for the (7pm) start, but fortunately they had a support act, and then there was a short delay, so in the end they only appeared on stage after I’d arrived.

Good of them to wait.

It was bloomin amazing.

Those who know the ins and outs of my Japan story may recall that Coldplay have in a way been the soundtrack to the last 7 years of my life, releasing a new album to mark the start of each new era. Thus, it was a pretty emotional experience for me right from the start.

But more than past lifetimes, it was the band’s achievements that I was moved by. I mean, look at this amazing sight. Thousands of fans loving what they were doing. The four of them loving what they were doing.

Ha. That’s pretty damn groovy I thought.

And I thought again of that quote.

Don’t die with your music still in you.

night

Budding potential

gazanias_77001

The past few days have been tremendously exciting. Having made the decision to actively pursue my passion, which centres around podcasting but has various attachments (podcasting alone not being a sustainable business), I’ve found myself becoming increasingly excited. For the first time in a long time I can feel that passion, that excitement that comes when you commit to tackling a big challenge.

I’ve long wanted to get back into podcasting, ever since I made my first poorly-produced and almost embarrassingly crap podcast (which has now seen approximately 9000 downloads). The only reason I’m not embarrassed about it is because being embarrassed about it wouldn’t actually be helpful to me. Instead, I’m using it as a lesson in what not to do.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few days doing research (learning that podcasts in themselves don’t really generate revenue was the first important lesson!) scribbling down ideas, transferring them to a business plan, talking about them with friends, and then scribbling down a whole load more ideas and adjusting the plan. I’ve been loving it. Today, sitting in a local cafe for a couple of hours I could barely contain my excitement as I came up with a bunch of ideas that magically tied the podcast-centric idea to the online publishing company that myself and two friends started setting up last year.

I see this project as being inclusive, supporting the non-Japanese community in Japan, and producing original, engaging material for people both local and abroad who have an interest in the country.

I also see it as being a lot of fun. And having a bit of a weird name that sticks in people’s minds. Oh, and time consuming.

The more I think about it though, the more I see how in a way a lot of what I’ve done up until now leads to this idea.

I’m also aware that this is not my ultimate goal, but rather the next big step I need to take.

Deciding to ‘grow up’ has been a helpful decision to make. Whilst it doesn’t mean changing my personality or abandoning the sense of wonder I feel on a daily basis as I go about life, it does mean that in situations where in the past I may have backed out through fear, I can now tell myself that it’s OK, and continue.

I mean, come on, there is no failure, there’s only learning.

Incidentally, now feels like an exceptionally good time for a new start as the first blossoms are appearing in the local parks. Spring is my favourite season, and often seems me walking around gazing at the emerging leaves and flowers in amazement at their beauty. Just writing about it brings a grin to my face. The thought of all that ‘potential’ held in the buds now forming, amazing.

Anyway, I’d best get to bed. Today’s photo by the way is one that you may be familiar with – it’s one of mum and dad’s gazanias, which are extraordinarily beautiful. One of my favourites.

Good night.

Time to grow up?

bogey changing belarus 05
Changing the bogeys – crossing the border from Russia to Belarus, Sep 2007. Photo taken from an adjoining carriage that’s also jacked right up.

Listening to Branson’s autobiography again today has really hit me hard.

That, and talk with my colleague George (who is rapidly becoming an entrepreneur extraordinaire) regarding several ideas for ventures here in Tokyo that is pushing me to face my fears and get on and do what I need to do.

I’ve come a long way I know, but I still see myself being held back by a big nagging doubt about whether I can suceed in business or not.

The balance between talk and action in my life is way out. Look at me now. I’m blogging, not acting.

Ok, so I’ve created a (yet to be launched) website for my venture, but I can feel myself resisting stepping forward and acting to do what’s needed in the real world. I tend to do things bit by bit, avoiding looking the plan in the eye, skirting the edges. I’ve built websites before, I can do that. They’re within my comfort zone, no matter what the content (within reason).

By going out there and interviewing people, networking in real life, actually producing something other than a website – this is outside of my comfort zone and the fear is only too apparent.

There’s never been a better time for action though. I’ve met someone who shares my passion for my idea, and will make a great co-producer. As of today I’m hooked up with a couple of entrepreneurial networks (via Linked in), and have been invited to speak at an upcoming event for the sake of furthering my idea / carrying out research.

We have no dependents, we can afford to take risks (within reason) – without some risk nothing will change.

I spoke with *Twinkle* tonight about this strong feeling that things have to change – her reaction was one of delight. ‘It’s about time you grew up’ – exactly what I’ve been thinking myself all week.

She has been concerned that Joseph would never grow up sufficiently to be a father – she’s not said this before, but I’m not surprised. I identify wholly with what she is telling me. (I hope you see the irony following my privious post.

It’s time I assert myself. Remain humble and eager to learn from others, but stop kowtowing to fear, and stop thinking that everyone knows better than me.

I desperately want to succeed in the business realm. I’m not motivated by money (although the need for money by those around me does motivate me to a certain extent). I’m motivated by wanting to create something amazing that makes a positive difference to others in some way, by the idea of doing what I love every day, being free to put my precious limited time towards what I consider to be the most important thing that I can put my time towards.

It really is time I grew up.


I’d like to express my thanks to my family, friends and Mumblers who have consistently expressed their belief in my ability to realise my dreams. I invite you to continue to stay tuned and see what happens here over the next 1, 3 and 5 years.

Ok. So let’s do it.