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!

A new study set-up

My old study-setup

I’m very much an advocate of taking action to change one’s surroundings should they not be conducive to feeling at ease. For example, a friend of mine has been having issues at work involving smoke from an adjoining (smoking) room filling her office, but rather than just complain about it she went out and bought some plastic sheets and a couple of heaters, in order to seal the gap between above the partition wall and deal with the resulting lack of hot air that was blow through by the air conditioner. She is now going to be happier in the short term, and live longer too.

My new getting-up-at-6am routine is going really well – I love it, and manage to get a tonne of stuff done in the 90 minutes extra that I have each day. Studying Japanese is the main activity. This involves me going through my electronic dictionary’s history to review words I’d looked up the previous day, and transferring them to Anki and paper flash cards (sometimes an iPhone interface is just too distracting). I’ve also got a couple of text books to work through, oh, and I’ve restarted my Japanese blog.

It’s appalling how much I’ve forgotten since I stopped studying, so the entries you’ll find on there are more reminiscent of the stuff I was writing at the end of my first year at uni than what you might expect from a graduate. I’m not embarrassed about this. I know I can do better, and I know that given frequent practice I will do better.

I’ve decided to use my photos as the theme, writing about where / why they were taken. Simple, yet very personal to me. I like that.

It also prevents me from using the excuse that “I have nothing to write about”.

Another thing I’ve done to encourage study is buy myself a proper desk. The Japanese-style coffee table was doing my knees / legs no good at all, and left me in quite a bit of pain if I sat there too long. Thus, I popped down to the local department store and bought a fairly cheap table, and two metres of cloth for a table cloth. I love it!

The storage shelf thing that was in this room has been moved next door, although the two sets of stationary drawers remain close at hand under the two tables.

I’ve also decided to stop using my MacBook as a laptop at home. By plugging in an external monitor and keyboard it’s possible to use Mac laptops when they’re closed – I keep it under the desk out of the way.

There are a few reasons I’ve done this:

  1. It gives me more space on the desk for study materials;
  2. I don’t have to look at all the trailing wires emerging from my Macbook;
  3. My mind associates this monitor / keyboard with study / ‘work’ and not all the stuff I associate my Macbook with.

It really makes a big difference. I’m far more productive now I have a space designed for what I need to do. Kind of no-brainer really.

Anyway, it’s bath-time now, then muesli, then off to the office to continue work on the new website for students. I’m using Joomla in order to ensure that the site can be updated for many years to come by people other than myself. As with WordPress, I am staggered by the improvements Joomla has seen in recent years. A world away from the thing I dabbled with a while back!

Have a productive day!

Japanese lesson, and cake

Been a funny day today. In some ways a little frustrating, as I spent about 4 hours trying to do the simplest bit of coding in MS Office Access, but failing. I’m hoping I have an early morning breakthrough tomorrow as I have every time I’ve run into a difficult problem with it so far.

Despite the frustration, I didn’t really feel all that frustrated. Which I was happy about. Those books work wonders :-p

The view from the office balcony: looking between the neighbours

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Last night’s sloppy blog post did cause me a bit of disappointment, disappointment with myself. However, I’ve decided to take it as one of those precious lessons, and thus something to be grateful for, not regretful of.

Work at the office is starting to pick up now, with my telephone-conversation ‘classes’ (5 minute phone calls on topics such as personal info / directions / social issues in Japan) now taking up about four hours a day. [My job is firstly: taking 5 min conversation calls and marking written essays from my 300 students. Secondly: recruiting teachers for in-company classes throughout Japan]. The lower level calls are pretty easy, allowing me a little brain rest as I go through the routine. I find the higher level students really stimulating though, especially those who have lived abroad or are non-Japanese – being exposed to other cultures makes a huge difference in terms of attitude towards life.

As the departure of my British colleague approaches so I’m being slowly trained in what will be my new job. My core role will be recruiting new teachers, which necessitates a lot of good ole’ human interaction, not just with potential employees, but also with many of my Japanese colleagues. This is something I positively look forward to – I really want to improve my Japanese, and this will provide me many opportunities for doing so.

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It will also give me the opportunity to develop a new teacher-recruitment workflow. Whilst the existing system works, it is pretty laborious, requiring far too many tedious stages that could either be automated or scrapped. I’ve started thinking how I might work this. Ideally, I’d like to be able to use my Mac to get it all sorted as Japanese Windows XP is pretty pants when it comes to automation (and more importantly it lacks the sex appeal of Leopard), but there may be some issues with data security, i.e. carrying a laptop to and from work each day. One way around that could be to keep everything on the shared server, and just use my mac as a portal. Well, we’ll see.

Tonight I had my first tandem learning session with my new (qualified) Japanese teacher, who also taught my classmate Phil and whose brother taught another classmate of mine (all ‘coincidentally’). Bloomin’ marvellous.

As mentioned in previous posts, whilst I do use Japanese at home with *Twinkle* at times, on the whole we’re using English so that she doesn’t forget what she already knows …the idea being that I use Japanese everywhere else. Which I do, but not very well. I’m too inclined to fall back on familiar grammar patterns, or simply Japonize English words. At work I tend to give up when I hit unknowns, like today when trying to explain the problem I was having with my database. Everyone speaks at least a little English, so it’s only too easy to do.

My new teacher, Nami, gives me the opportunity to take the time I need to recall the vocab I’ve already learnt (but is buried at the back of my head). She corrects my persistent errors, and explains terms that I hear often but don’t quite understand. She teaches me new vocab. Reminds me of kanji meanings. Prompts me to use polite Japanese.

Polite Japanese is possibly my weakest point. Yes, I can use it if I think about it, but I have a bad habit of slipping into casual speech. With Nami, I deliberately stick to polite / formal japanese in order to help develop that habit within me, as I’ll need it if I’m going to do business in Japan.

She also took the time to explain to me the ‘all new’ Japanese Language Proficiency test, being introduced in 2010. I won’t go into details here – my ex-classmate from Bristol has done a good job of outlining the changes a here if you’d like to know more – but basically, after 2009 it’s going to get a lot harder as previous exam papers will no longer be published.

She’ll not only be helping me learn the actual language, but will also be teaching me specific exam techniques that help one to pass JLPT.

I’m inspired by Nami (she also happens to be the first Japanese person I’ve met whose been as happy as I am to see Obama elected), and thus will be taking JLPT level 1 next July (as of next year the top two levels, 1 and 2 will be biannual). This excites me. She reminded me how much I love the Japanese language, and how much I love getting better at it. It’s vital I have a goal to work towards – this is perfect. It would be only too easy to just get by with what Japanese I’ve got. There’s nothing wrong with that as such, but it’s not what I want for me.

How stiff are your whites?


eggwhites_0440

Living with *Twinkle* continues to be absolutely bloomin fantastic. We’re both getting home pretty late most weekday nights, me with teaching and *Twinkle* with our Amway business. But we get to cuddle up together under a tonne of the warmest wooly blankets at night, and that’s nice. The honeymoon period is far from over.

Green Tea and Strawberry Cake

cake making_0483

I’ve started taking a more active role with our Amway business lately, and am finding it very rewarding. More than anything, it gives me the opportunity to meet a lot of like-minded (mostly young) people, all looking for an alternative to the usual diet of graduate jobs (not that there’s anything wrong with them if that’s what you want to do). It also tends to involve eating a lot of good food, or, as was the case last night, cake. We had a professional cake chef (there must be a proper name for them) come up from Wakayama and teach us how to make various kinds of real simple and quick cakes. Reminded me of home – mum’s home-made cakes are one thing I miss.

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cakes up close_0459

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Anyway anyway, I’d best tidy up and put the hottlebots on. It’s getting chilly, and this house has an amazing ability to amplify the outside temperature, Need to be up early too for the second jog of the week 🙂

xxx

It’s a small, small world

Photographic entertainment is provided by yesterday’s Office Halloween party (sorry for the repetition to those of you who have already seen them in my site feed).

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For the past two weeks I’ve been looking for someone to do tandem learning with. That is, someone who will teach me Japanese in exchange for me teaching them English.

One might think that having just spent 4 years studying Japanese the last thing I’d want (or need) is more Japanese lessons. Not so. I didn’t put as much into my course in my final year as I could have done (a conscious decision that I don’t regret to split my energy between my course and extra-curricular activities), thus I failed to internalise a lot of the vocab I was learning.

I’d like to emphasise that this is in no way a criticism of our course, which was bloomin marvellous. If anyone wants to learn Japanese in the UK, Sheffield is the place to go, no doubt (n.b. I may be biased). But of course, you only get out what you put in, thus a lot of my course-mates have much better Japanese than me.

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Whatever, I’ve come such a long way, and am constantly delighted by the fact that I (of all people) have learnt to speak Japanese. However, I do tend to stick to the grammar patterns that I’m really familiar with, avoiding the use of complex structures. It was brought home to me just how far I’ve gone down this road when the other night *Twinkle* applauded my use of a complex pattern – it should be normal, not praiseworthy.

So I put the thought out there – I need a Japanese teacher – and tonight she presented herself (although I didn’t know she was a teacher until after we’d been chatting for a while).

She contacted me having seen my profile on www.findateacher.net, and requested a trial English lesson. We met at a subway station near my office and made our way to a nice little cafe. We chatted a bit more, with her explaining why she wanted to study English.

obc halloween party_0274

Then she stopped, and with a mysterious look on her face said, ‘actually, I’ve got some photos to show you’. Confused, I took the envelope in her hand and took out the photos…

…and blow me down if it wasn’t Phil, my coursemate from Sheffield! I was stunned, and naturally clammering for an explanation.

She explained how Phil had been one of her first students shortly after she qualified as a teacher, when he was living in Tokyo a year or so back. It was only after she’d initially contacted me last Friday that she’d mailed Phil to ask if he’d heard of someone called ‘Joseph Tame’ who’d studied at Sheffield. Seeing that I was quite a bit older she assumed that we wouldn’t know each other …and thus was very surprised when Phil replied that he did indeed know me!

Spot Joseph

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So that’s how it went. We’ve decided to meet on a weekly basis for language exchange – my calls for a teacher have been answered. Thank you Universe!