J is for Japan

Just in case you thought that living in Japan for five years has made me fluent in Japanese, this post is here to prove you wrong. While Living Abroad in Japan has indeed improved my Japanese ability beyond what I had learned in high school, and in spite of Japanese being the easiest language I have learned so far (yes English included) I have yet to come anywhere near to mastery of it. At best I can hold a casual conversation and buy my groceries. Complicated things like talking to the folks at Immigration is completely beyond my abilities. (Speaking of which, I have enough paperwork piled up from my trips to Immigration to make A Japanese Visa Handbook.)

One of the things that makes Japanese so hard is learning to read again completely from scratch. With each Chinese character having several potential readings and meanings depending on which other character it is paired with, even reading Japanese Names can be impossible if you haven’t memorized you Basic Kanji Book.

If you’re thinking that you don’t need to read, or even speak Japanese to be able to communicate, I have to burst your bubble of optimism. Even a simple look at A History of Japan will show you that social communication that has been evolving in this country for thousands of years is a great deal more different than what we are used to in the west. There are a lot of potential missteps to Making Out in Japanese, but if you think you can hack it, I invite you to give it a try. Take a Womansword for it, though; it’s a lot harder than it looks.


29 thoughts on “J is for Japan

  1. I’m currently helping international residents learn the Japanese language. I’m a native speaker of Japanese, but I am always amazed by its complexity and idiosyncrasies.

    I’m interested to read “Womansword.”

    Speaking of Japanese names, more and more parents are giving their babies bizarre names these days. Some of them seem to believe that the more difficult it is to read their names, the better they are. I would prefer a simple name that everyone can read easily.


    • Womansword is a fascinating book. I absolutely recommend reading it. And I agree with the strange names. As a teacher of young children over here, in the past couple of years I’ve noticed a lot of children with strange names. Sometimes I ask my boss about it, and he shakes his head and says, “It’s not common” or “I’ve never heard it before.” I didn’t know that new parents are doing it because they think the strange names are better.

  2. My son has been in Japan for almost 20 years now. He couldn’t speak or read it at all when he went there (from Australia) to be with his Japanese girlfriend. He teaches English, but has learned a lot of the language and also to a fairly high level in Kanji, so he gets by very well. His daughter is completely bi-lingual, which will stand her in good stead in the future. 🙂

  3. My husband travels to China on business a lot and over the years has mastered a bit of language, enough to essay into speech occasionally. They’re are polite enough to receive his efforts with praise! I used to be good at languages at school (French and German) but don’t think I could now face Japanese or Cantonese etc. I still like German the best because of it feels more logical to me.

    • French was really difficult for me. I think the thing I like most about Japanese is that it’s a whole new system from English. French was too much like my native language. I think my brain kept getting confused, but with Japanese it was like learning everything from scratch, and it was a lot easier on me.

  4. A Japanese Visa Handbook? Now that sounds like a book with a built-in audience waiting. Always wanted to learn Japanese so I’m fascinated to hear it is the easiest language you’ve learned.

    • It’s a good book, but it leaves out a lot of key information on some of the easier but not as common visas. It is also years out of date, unfortunately. Japanese is a relatively easy language, at least in my opinion. I’m not very good with languages, and I’ll probably never master it, but I’m conversational.

  5. I learned a few words in Japanese while I was in Tokyo for a meeting but had a Japanese friend of mine write a short introduction to the paper I was presenting in Japanese. He TRIED to teach me how to speak the introduction but I think my inflections were pretty humorous because there was a lot of giggling in the audience!

    • The inflections can be difficult. I haven’t mastered all of them, but I can do it well enough now that most people think I know the language better than I actually do. 😛

  6. One of those books has certainly piqued my interest for a forthcoming (as yet unplanned) second trip to Japan.
    Language is so important, after 11 years now here in France I am at ease in the language, but will never be bi-lingual. One of the many reasons why I wish I’d moved here earlier.

    • I feel the same about Japan. I’ve been here for five years and while I learned much more than I did while studying in Canada, I’m not going to master the language. For one, I don’t have that strong of an interest in it, so I don’t (and in fact can’t) devote the time needed to really nail it. Secondly, We’ll be leaving in about a year, so there’s no point in studying it to mastery anyway.

    • It’s such a great book! The only probably is that it’s a couple years old, so some of the terms might be out of date. Same with the “Making Out in Japanese” book. Still, they are fascinating reads.

    • You don’t really need the language to visit here. All the important stuff is in English and you’ll be able to find people who speak English to help you out if you get lost.

    • In Japan, young people especially want to practice English, which I can understand. There’s not a lot of opportunities for them to do so, here. It’s adorable when you get a particularly brave elementary schooler who will grin at you and shout, “Hello!”

      I don’t get the impression that people feel sorry for me when they switch to English. Most of the time they try it because they don’t know I can speak some Japanese, or they switch because they want to be helpful.

  7. Six years of efforts at learning another language is one to be applauded, Alex. Just the idea of the complexities and nuances of another culture’s language is mind-boggling–especially when I think of our own native tongue and how I pity folks who are first trying to grapple with some of its absurdities.
    Back in school, when I studied opera, we were tutored in 11 different languages. Not for the sake of conversation or comprehension, but rather only pronunciation. I recall having to sing pieces from a Japanese opera. Not my strong suit. By any stretch of the imagination.
    Another wonderfully interesting post (and a couple of books I would love to check out!).

    • And this is what happens when I have both you and Alex side by side in my open tabs. Sorry, NJ. I’ll post your name on her blog once I’ve read her “J” post and written a comment. Cheers 🙄

    • I sometimes think my students are superheroes for being able to understand as much English as they do. English is a terrible language when compared to some others. It’s completely without reason.

      Pronunciation is actually my strong suit. Grammar is difficult for me, but because I can make it sound like I know the language, people think I know more than I do. That’s it’s own difficulty right there.

      Holy cow! Opera, huh? That’s a cool life experience! 🙂

  8. Wow. It must be very difficult to live in a country where you don’t speak the language fluently. It’s one of my dreams to visit Japan one day. I’m a huge fan of their mythology and their media. 🙂

    • It was a really big challenge when I first moved here. I was terrified to even go to the grocery story, lest I forget the very specific thing I needed to say. I got over the fear though partly out of necessity and partly because the people here are really understanding. Things are a lot better now. I know how to get by on my own and have a conversation.

      It’s a nice place to visit if you have a chance. Older people especially will be delighted to know about your interest in cultural Japan.

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