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!

Picking it up again

Little Pink Hat

Another of my favourites from Tokyo – the little pink-hat girl rides high above the crowds (Shibuya’s Hachiko crossing).

Posts / pages, pages / posts… Ah, the complexities of the English language. Apologies to those of you who received an ‘About the Tame’ post via my feed, my mistake when attempting to transfer some of the static content on TameGoesWild to this WP database.

The last few days have been pretty tricky, with the work-project-home balance being tipped right up causing the kind of grief that can be crippling to general wellbeingness. Still, got things more-or-less back on track now.

It’s reminded me though of one thing I’ve come to accept as OK this past year – the stops and starts that naturally accompany efforts to create new habitual actions (something that’s pretty relevant 6 weeks into a new year). Such actions might be exercise, eating healthily, writing, learning a language or good posture. In the past, I might maintain a new good habit for a week or two, then one morning find myself ‘too busy’ or ‘too stressed’ to make time for it that day.

I’d then use that slip-up as an excuse to not to do it the next day either, and then stop altogether. “Oh, well, I failed at that. I’ll do it again one day”, perceiving the effort to restart the habit so enormous that it would require weeks of mental preparation.

Which of course it doesn’t. It just requires an instantaneous decision followed by action.

Knowing this has saved me a fair bit of grief. It means I’ve been able to give up being down on myself for ‘failing’, and allowed me to restart whatever positive habitual habit is without this sense that it’s a huge struggle in which I will have ‘succeed’ or ‘fail’.


We visited my in-laws last night. With a trip to go and see granny in Western Tokyo on the cards for today, the whole family had gathered. It was a really fun evening! Great food, a lot of laughter, oh, and they also happen to speak Japanese, thus resulting in me revelling in the language bath.

I actually have very few chances to use my Japanese, thus, when the opportunity arises there’s no shutting me up. I’m actually planning to start doing some kind of voluntary work that will enable me to use my Japanese – I’m thinking one evening a week, local neighbourhood organisation, befriending oldies etc. Either that, or find some hypnosis technique to help *Twinkle* forget her English when at home.

Anyway, best get on.

ttfn

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.

Taking positive action to bring about change

As many of you may know, I’m an audiobook junkie. Due to my attitude towards the use of time, reading physical paper and ink books is difficult. I feel uncomfortable using my time in that way. If friends give me books, I start to read them, but usually by the time I reach page twenty I’ve either decided that the book is not worth my time, or that the book is worth getting on Audible. If an audio version is not available, I either pass the book on, or keep it for those rare occasions when I feel comfortable with the idea of reading.

Anyhow, I’m lucky to have a fellow audiobook junkie here in Tokyo – someone with whom I can swap recommended listens. Recently, he recommended ‘Manage your tune, Master your life‘ by Robin Sharma, a very short audiobook that had helped him make some positive changes. I downloaded it this morning (in addition to Obama’s speech which is available for free), and listened to it whilst on the train to the city office.

In brief, Robin points out just how precious our time is, and how important it is that we do not postpone the things that matter most to us. He gives practical advice – one suggestion being to join the 5am club. Having started my own 6am club last week, I can vouch for the amazing difference it makes to have an extra hour in the morning. Whereas many people wake up and find that they are chasing their day before it’s even started, if you get up that little bit earlier, you will find that not only can you get a ton of stuff done before the daily routine begins, but also that you entire day will be more orderly and productive. From experience, I’d say that’s very true.

Listening to Robin’s session today, I was finally compelled to do something that I’ve been wanting to do for about a month now but have been lacking in courage to face – quit one of my part-time teaching jobs. I love the students (and judging by the emotional scenes tonight the feeling was mutual), and found myself learning a lot through working there. But (as I mentioned last night) I’ve got other projects that represent my passion, and the feeling of frustration in not being able to make time to pursue them has reached epic proportions.

It was funny though. When I gave them notice this afternoon, I felt compelled to re-write my email and explain why I was quitting, and pass on some of the advice from the audiobook. I talked about 2009 being the Year of Change. I wasn’t entirely sure why, I’d only ever exchanged very short emails with them about scheduling. But next thing I knew, the member of staff who deals with foreign teachers was asking me to come in a bit early – they needed to talk to me. It turned out they since last week they have been at exactly the same crossroads as me. There were further emotional scenes.

I think we humans are pretty good at knowing when we’re not acting in harmony with spirit. If we practice being in touch, we can tell if a job is no longer in congruence with our true paths. But taking that next step – causing inconvenience and possibly upset, stepping into the unknown in the face of (sometimes strong) opposition from those around us, is incredibly hard sometimes. But it has to be taken if we’re to move forward.

I’m glad I took that step today. In the grand scheme of things it was insignificant, but carries a lot of meaning for me as I continue on my journey.

Thought on New Years resolutions

ri-kun the tortoise_2245

Ri-kun on the tatami

I finished reading Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope” this evening. [Wikipedia] [official site]. The New York Times accurately described it as “much more of a political document. Portions of the volume read like outtakes from a stump speech, and the bulk of it is devoted to laying out Mr. Obama’s policy positions on a host of issues, from education to health care to the war in Iraq.”

Whilst it might sound like it would be a right yawn for someone like me who has little interest in politics, I liked it a lot (although admittedly, I did fast-forward through some chapters that in which he talked in detail about the US political process). It served to give me a feel for Obama as a person, and I must say, he seems to be a bloomin’ nice chap. I also found myself thinking that I’m like his wife, Michelle, in some ways.

I’m now listening to ‘Tribes’ by Seth Godin, which focuses upon marketing in the age of Twitter and Facebook. It’s received mixed reviews, with some people noting that it just reads like a load of blog posts, that there’s nothing new in it and that it lacks depth. All true perhaps, but that doesn’t bother me. As someone very much interested in the uses of social networking services in marketing / creating communities / building businesses, I find it fascinating – and inspiring too. There’s a fair amount of inspirational stuff in it that can be found in many other ‘You can do it’ books – but I need to hear this.

I am an ideas person, but I fear putting my ideas into action. Ideas for a publishing company. Ideas for a Penguin business. Every day, lots of ideas.

I think much of this fear stems from a fear of what others may think of me, a fear that is utterly ridiculous and serves no useful purpose in my life – it only holds me back. It kind of p*sses me off really.

I know I’ve come a long way, but I could do so much better. The fact is that those people who really know me know that I’m a good, trustworthy person – with flaws. Thus, they forgive me my errors in judgement and continue to support me, in return for my support and love of them. I don’t need to fear losing those who are precious to me (they include all of my friends).

But what of those who think I’m stupid, misguided or deceitful, and then treat me with contempt? I’m scared of being treated with contempt.

But that’s ridiculous. Looking back over the past 15 years or so, I can’t think of a single occasion when someone important to me has treated me with genuine contempt. Why do I even entertain these ideas? I’m a good person, I know I am, and I don’t need to have these fears.

These past few days I have begun mulling over my New Year’s resolutions for 2009. One that I’ve been considering is ‘Action without Fear’.

Crikey. That’s a bit scary.

The thing is, there’s no point in making such a resolution unless I act on it. That will require a conscious effort on a daily basis. I think if I do adopt it, it will need to be classed as an ‘experiment’ limited to a period of say, 3 months (long enough to see tangible results?), with regular progress reviews built in. You might think that overkill, but when it comes to things that are uncomfortable and require self-motivated/self-enforced persistence, I need to use all the tools available to me to succeed. (Look at me with my iPhone and Jogging schedule).

I also recognise that I need a tangible goal to aim for. It could be having my photos on public display, generating a certain amount of income from Amway, registering a certain number of artists with Three Seeds – it could include all three, and of course more.

I think ‘change’ will be the key word for 2009. I, like everyone else on Earth, am afforded the opportunity to change almost any aspect of my life every single day, yet I fail to appreciate that most of the time. I subjugate myself to the status quo – it’s easier that way.

But that’s not good enough! I have a responsibility to be the best that I can be.

No, I shouldn’t need a New Year to make changes, but I don’t feel strong enough to act alone at the moment. The calendar will be my ally.

Anyway, it’s time for bed. We’re having our Christmas Day tomorrow as it’s a national holiday (emperor’s birthday) – everyone is able to gather at the family home just north of Tokyo. Excited!