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!

12 Responses

  1. One thing that I’ve found interesting, though absolutely unsurprising, is how hard it has been for you to keep up your Japanese ability despite actually living in Japan. You have a Japanese wife, work in a Japanese office (rather than a conversation school where you’d have to speak English all the time rather than just part of the time), have Japanese in-laws, and school acquaintances and friends in place already from your university days. Your life is rife with natural opportunity, but you still have to make a special effort to improve and use your Japanese.

    This is something a lot of people don’t understand about life abroad. In a multi-cultural setting, it isn’t always a given that you’re going to spend all of your time (or even much of it) speaking the native language. For T. and I, it’s even harder because we’re both American and English teachers. Except for the occasional question or issue, we have few occasions to use Japanese unless we’re making a concerted effort to do so. I think this is how people can end up living in a foreign country for decades and not being fluent. As adults, we have so many other things to attend to (working, cooking, cleaning, exercising, building other skills in relevant areas and then wanting to spend some time doing some relaxing and enjoyable things), it becomes that much harder to push the language issue. When you have very little opportunity to speak and many demands on your time, you’re likely just not to put in the hours.

    1. Thanks for your comment orchid64.

      I think I’m fortunate in that I had prior warning that my Japanese level was unlikely to make any big improvements just by being here – my experience back in 2001/2002 taught me that. Without knowing that I don’t think I would have been all that proactive about ensuring that I didn’t lose what I’d worked so hard at to gain. It also helps that my Japanese degree cost an absolute fortune, and I don’t want to see the investment go to waste!

      Thinking of my friend John John, he decided to spend the time he might have spent on Japanese language study on other challenging and worthwhile pursuits. He reminded me of you in a way in that he also knew Japan inside-out, and had a lot of stories up his sleeve. His lack of Japanese didn’t impact at all on his sense of being at home here. I think it was the ease with which he cooly dealt with daily life armed with only a handful of Japanese words at his disposal that made me feel a lot more relaxed when I first arrived in Tokyo in November 2000. Right from the start I could see that there was no right or wrong when it came to learning / not learning a local language. It was just a matter of choice.

      I think really there needs to be some other motivating force to get one to put in the time and energy to learn a language. Otherwise, it just seems a bit pointless, especially when, like you said, we now have so many other choices as to what to do with ourselves! (Thus, I think it’s only natural and sensible that the two of you don’t spend every evening working through a Japanese grammar text book!)

  2. I really enjoyed this post Joseph, and felt that you articulated many of the things that I’ve felt about living in Japan and speaking Japanese. You’re right about the freedom to choose what you get out of your time in Japan. We all know people have lived in Japan for years, and that are surrounded by bilingual friends. That choice is theirs to make.

    One reason I continue to push myself to become even better at Japanese is for my kids. Living in Australia, I can’t imagine them being to impressed if I can’t help them with their Kanji homework.

    1. Thank you Brett, I really appreciate your feedback.

      I thought it important I post this because I remember many times when the study got really tough, and no matter how hard I tried I didn’t seem to be going anywhere. But looking back now I feel that every bit of study was worthwhile. For example, I may have forgotten the correct uses of a number of grammar patterns I studied two years ago, but I know that when I hear them in use, a little bell will ring and that bit of learning will be brought out from the basement and into the daylight.

      I find it such a source of delight that I can communicate my ideas – it makes every day fun.

      Thanks also for the inspiration and motivation you provide through your online activities.

  3. Hm. If you don’t mind, I would like to propose a re-write of this entry:

    “Learn Japanese and you will be able understand what is going on”

    That’s pretty much the main thrust of it, isn’t it? It’s not exactly rocket-science Joseph…

    However, I concur wholeheartedly with your motivations to learn for the sake of your future children. It would be unforgivable if your kids grew up only knowing English (or, more pertinently, considering you are living in Japan, Japanese). If they did, they would be denied an essential part of their heritage. They would share both of your genes, therefore I believe (as you do) that it is important that they share your heritage(s) too.

    Unlike you, I’m afraid I would not be so forgiving of expats who never bother to learn the language. At best, they are lazy, at worst, ignorant and disrespectful of their host country. I honestly cannot understand why someone would not want to learn.

    1. Thanks anonymous, good to see you over here.

      You may of course propose a re-write of the title, but the main thrust of my article is not just understanding what’s going on, it’s about how learning a language changes lives through increasing the number of available opportunities. But i can understand why you might take a disliking to the original title – probably reminds you of some self-development book by Paul McKenna :-p

      Good to have an opposing opinion. Of course I totally disagree with your judgemental attitude, but that’s nothing new!

      Hope all’s going well for you back there. We must have a cup of tea next time I visit the area.

  4. Thank you for your fantastic post. I’ve been here in Japan for five months, having no experience with the language at all before coming. I am amaze at how many things I can do in the country without speaking a word of the language. It is true that one has to make a concerted effort to study when in Japan, especially as an English teacher of whom English is expected from nearly everyone he meets.

    I think also that the barrier of kanji looms very high above the head of English speakers here. Many I have talked to reach a certain level of auditory understanding, and then stop learning kanji, and therefore cannot read much of what is around, and their vocabulary is very limited.

    I am therefore attempting to learn kanji at the same time I learn how to interact, and I hope to be able soon to feel as you do: confident in my ability to strike up a conversation with whomever I please. However, this comes from a student new to 日本語! I am sure my childish enthusiasm could wane as easily for me as it has for so may others. Your post has, therefore, served well to encourage me in my quest.

    1. Gregory, thanks for your comment. I’m happy that I have been able to offer a little encouragement.

      It really is worth the effort. Even now, after several years of Japanese study, I still feel delight when I learn something new.

      Ganbatte!

  5. Hi Joseph:

    ‘lazy, ignorant and disrespectful here’;-)

    I really appreciate your compassionate approach to this issue, and hope that that compassion spreads amongst those who are, unsurprisingly, less forgiving.

    I can guarantee that your post made me inch a bit closer to making the effort, again, to learn. Let’s hope a business is as good a motivator as a child or a relationship!

    best,
    Terri

  6. All so very interesting….I’m the old(er) guy, 42, who really enjoys following this blog because my experience in Japan was 20 years ago: 1986-87 and 1988-89. My first year I lived with a Japanese family- all I spoke at home for a year was Japanese, and spent all day at University learning the language. I had no choice but to learn it. The second year, I was an English teacher in a remote part of Japan (Tohoku) and although I was supposed to only speak English, up there they were relieved and happy to have a Japanese speaker. These were the days before internet, cell phones, computers… to call home I had to call the operator to connect me to a “trunk line”…Anyway, I think today’s technology makes it easier to live there and never learn the language, especially in a place like Tokyo. I don’t want to sound as harsh as the other guy who commented, but I have to agree a little bit with him- it’s hard for me to understand or respect someone who lives in a foreign land and has no interest in and makes no effort to learn a little bit of the language. There are times in life when being “judgemental”, if you want to call it that, is both necessary and helpful 🙂 If that person fails miserably in learning the language, so what- they deserve credit for at least trying.

    Joseph- ask your wife to only speak to you in Japanese, 100% of the time…that goes for your co-workers too, even the non-Japanese ones. My American friends and I were often seen on the subway in Nagoya chatting away in Japanese (what a sight!) Our aim was to speak it everywhere and anywhere. Of course you’ll come up against many Japanese who will reply to you in English and patently refuse to indulge your effort, but be persistent. You’re in their country and every convo is an opportunity to learn their language better.

    1. Thanks so much for your reply, really appreciate you sharing your story JC.

      My wife and I do often speak in Japanese, but not 100% of the time. The thing is, she doesn’t want to forget her Japanese!

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