Anyone with an interest in Japan should learn a little Japanese, I really believe. Daily life is much better when you know a few key phrases: Hello. My name is. Please. May I? No really, please. Why not? Oh come on, please. You sure? Last chance. Well fine, be that way. Sorry for causing a scene. Even if I pay you? No? Hmph, well I didn’t want to anyway.
But when I say “a little” of the language, I mean it. Beyond a handful of survival sentences, you should give a really good think to whether or not you want to continue learning Japanese.
So this is Phase II of the Japanese Rule of 7 Learn Some Japanese project. Phase I was here. Phase III? Well, okay I haven’t written that yet. Hey, what can I say, I’m lazy. Anyway, where were we? Oh yeah, Phase II. The “selection” phase. For this, you’re going to want to find yourself a really tall mountain. The taller the better, preferably with a sturdy pine tree. Climb to the mountaintop and sit there. If there is a pine tree, then climb to the top of that and sit there instead. Then stay there for exactly one week. You should probably pack some sandwiches, now that I think about it, and maybe some beers too. Just think how refreshing they’d be. And while you’re there with your pine cones and sandwiches and beer, ask yourself: Do I really want to study Japanese? No, really. Because here’s what it’s all about.
It’s Going to Take Time. A Really Freaking Long Time
I want to tell the world that learning Japanese is easy and fun. Because that would be great and the world would like that, and then I could sell the world some secret method that I dreamed up and I’d be rich and the world would be happy. But on a scale of 1 to Hot-Tub-at-the-Playboy-Mansion, learning Japanese slots in somewhere between soldering together your own black-and-white TV and copying the Bible by hand while wearing a Medieval monk outfit. Plus, it takes a long time.
Look, everyone thinks they can learn Japanese quickly, fueled in part, no doubt, by the number of websites claiming to help you do so if you buy their products. But honestly, when I look at the very few people I actually know who’ve succeeded, it’s clear why. They got up at 4 a.m. every morning to do speaking drills, or wrote 50,000 flash cards, or went to language school five hours a day. Myself, I can honestly say I’ve spent at least 4,000 hours actively studying, and that’s not counting watching Japanese movies, singing karaoke, having conversations all day long in Japanese, and working in Japan.
Part of the problem lies with ever-loftier goals. At first, I thought it would be enough just to master some survival phrases. But every time I met someone, they asked me questions I couldn’t answer. So I learned more, until I could finally have a conversation. Then I wanted to have a longer, more interesting conversation, until eventually I realized what I really needed was to make myself understood in both speech and writing at roughly the same level I’m at in English. In other words, even fluency wasn’t enough. It’s a little bit like putting yourself through high school and college all over again, alone, in Japanese.
If I had to say how long it would take to get reasonably good at Japanese, I’d estimate a minimum of 3 to 7 years, and possibly much more, depending upon how much time you devote and how many advantages you bring to the table.
Safe Return Doubtful
Of the hundreds of people I’ve seen study Japanese over the years, only about 10 succeeded in speaking the language with any level of competency. The rest eventually stopped. You might want to give some thought to undertaking a project with a higher dropout rate than that oShackletonf the Navy SEALs. Just saying.
Of course, you can spend the years of your life any way you like, but it seems a shame to buy a cookbook, go to the store for eggs, flour and a cake pan, come home and mix up a batter, put it in the oven, and then half an hour later yank open the oven and throw the whole thing out the window. In other words, either bake the cake or do not. There is no try. Pretty sure Yoda said that.
Most people seem to last about a year and a half. They’re all balls-out at the start, and then after several months it dawns on them that it’s a much bigger task than they were led to believe. So be aware of how long it’s going to take. If you want to spend the years, you absolutely can do it. But think about whether you want to spend a decade on Japanese before you set out. Doing it halfway seems kind of a waste of time.
This is a term economists use to make you feel bad about your behavior. If you spent $10 on a delicious dinner, well, see there Ken, that’s $10 you could have invested in the stock market, and now you’d be rich and could have two delicious dinners. That kind of stuff.
Studying Japanese takes some money, but more importantly, it takes time. In the 3 to 7 years you spent learning Japanese, you could have learned to play the guitar, and now you’d be in a cool rock band. Or you could have gone to the gym and now you’d have abs of steel. Or gone back to college.
I don’t like the word “problem.” I prefer “challenge.” And one of the challenges — oh the hell with it—the problem with Japanese is that it’s pretty much only useful in Japan. So how long are you going to be in Japan? Let’s say you turn out to be some super prodigy kind of dude and learn Japanese in just two years. Great, now I hate you. Whatever. If you stay in Japan for two years, then that’s 1:1 and maybe it was worth the time investment. But what if it takes you five years to learn and you only stay for a year? See what I’m saying? I’ve known people who spent years learning Japanese and watching anime and reading manga and then once they got here . . . eh, it wasn’t as great as they thought it’d be, and they went home. Open window, insert cake.
You Really Don’t Need Japanese
Of the roughly 20 countries I’ve been to, Japan is probably the most set up to accommodate people who don’t speak the local language. Many foreigners live here with no more than a handful of simple phrases and do just fine. Lots of signs and menus are in English, and the entire population has received at least six years of English education. Even if you try to speak Japanese, it may not work. Sometimes no matter how perfectly you ask a question in Japanese, you’ll get an answer in English, or at least dumbed-down Japanese. Contrary to many countries that demand you speak the local language, Japan sometimes seems to prefer you don’t speak Japanese.
Japanese Can Make You Less Popular
You know David Blaine, the magician guy? Think about like him at a party. People see him and they just wig out, like, wow, David Blaine! Do some card tricks or hold your breath for 10 minutes or something! And he’s like, Nah, I just want to drink a beer like everybody else. That would suck, right? You’d be like, I went to a party with stupid David Blaine and he didn’t even levitate or anything.
Well that’s you in Japan, unless you look super Japanese, and then people will be confused until they figure out you’re secretly white. Your magic trick is that you can speak English. That’s what everyone wants you to do. And every time you do it, and tell them about how big the cheeseburgers are back home and how people wear shoes inside the house, their eyes will light up and they’ll be like, wow, amazing!
And every time you speak Japanese, people will say, “Oh, your Japanese is so good.” And then they’ll try to speak English with you. You can say the most profound thing ever in Japanese, make the funniest joke, talk about the earth being taken over by space robots, whatever — and all you’ll get back is “Heeeeey.” But say any stupid thing off the top of your head in English and everybody will bust up laughing. English is a pretty upbeat language; Japanese, eh, not so much.
Japan Isn’t all That
If you came to Japan for a vacation, you probably had a pretty mind-blowing time. Everything was new, and everything was interesting. But it was also, in a sense, free, because you used money you’d saved up or you credit-carded it or something. Either way, you didn’t have to work in Japan in exchange for the experience you were having.
But once you live and work here, that changes. You can go clubbing, take trips to onsen, hang out all night in karaoke booths, but you have to work in order to make those things possible. And the more fun you want to have, the more you have to work. That realization changes the equation. It’s not fun for free once you live here.
Now, I like Japan, don’t get me wrong. And I like conversing in Japanese, and reading and writing it. But Japan’s still just a place, with plenty of both good and bad. That’s why it’s called Japan, and not heaven. The architecture — mmm, it’s not so great. The natural scenery — yeah, that’s not so great either. The people — ah jeez, well, you get the idea. But hey, at least the food’s good. That’s something.
So if you’ve never wanted to learn Japanese, here’s your big chance to do absolutely butt nothing. On the other hand, if you still really, really want to study Japanese, and make it a significant part of your life’s work, then I’m 100 percent behind you. Well, maybe like 90, but that’s pretty good anyway. So it’s probably safe to come down out of the tree now and continue on to Phase III. I mean, as soon as I write it. Okay, maybe you better stay up there a bit longer.