Learning Japanese – The Path Less Traveled

Japanese – a language with as rich a heritage as the country that created it.

While having existed verbally for millennia, it was brought into written format from Chinese merchants from the mainland between 500 – 700 A.D., and expanded upon over time to adapt it into a unique creation that could more fully express the diverse society of the people that cherish it. The modern character set comprises 3,000 common characters, and 25,000 less-common characters from the older Kanji – each with an artful style to the brush strokes, many of which look similar to the real-world object the word signifies.

And, as many of the more inquisitive anime appreciators can attest, is an interesting topic for learning, in many regards.

Sadly, as many intercultural studies students at universities will testify to, anime appreciators, weeaboos, or “American Otaku” more often than not end up taking a horribly-skewed approach to learning the language that leaves them not only with very little real-world knowledge and benefit, but also with a distorted image of Japan as a whole. (anime has a way of “romanticizing” the more interesting aspects of Japan, after all)

While I don’t claim to know everything about the language or the culture, I wanted to take a minute to share my process for learning Japanese – as it’s heavily based off of academically-sound process and procedure, and has worked very well for me thus far. Best of all, it’s remarkably affordable to do compared to the $25,000 – $35,000 you’d likely spend to get a Bachelor’s Degree in Intercultural Relations at an American university.

What NOT To Do

The first fatal error that you can make when taking up Japanese is thinking that it will be easy.

It will be moderately difficult, along with being highly time-consuming and provoking of contemplative thought. Anticipate the journey being a multi-year effort.

​You may have seen some of the colorful advertisements throughout the Internet for “Learn Japanese in 10 Easy Lessons!” or “1-Month To Excellent Japanese!” sales pitches – these are almost always clickbait and not worth your time. Cell phone apps that allow you to practice words or phrases can offer a little insight into the language, but fall vastly short in providing knowledge on the necessary grammatical structure that Japanese language uses to the point they’re the equivalent of flash card aids for intermediate-level students.

One of the more popularized methods of learning a new language, Rosetta Stone, isn’t a great method of learning the language, either – unless coupled together with several other lingual study aids that offer more grammatical and slang dialog insight (not to mention a go-getter type of studying mentality).

​While your choice of study materials is without doubt the biggest factor in your overall lingual success here, the second-largest factor is a bit less renowned – but carries with it the catalyst to getting benefits out of your Japanese studies in the real world, particularly the business and economic sector. Speaking of..

Don’t JUST Learn The Language

Let’s suppose you know the Japanese language well enough that you could interact with someone else who speaks it proficiently; this is an incredible feat that’s worthy of note, to be sure.

  ….so, what can you do with this knowledge in and of itself?

Maybe interact with some folks at anime conventions in Japanese? Visit some Oriental restaurants and converse in the native tongue of the owners? Impress a few of your friends? Do some small-scale or personal translation work on the side?

​That’s great and all, but that’s pretty much the limit of your interaction.

You couldn’t really go over to Japan and do many things worthy of note, because you’re not acquainted with Japanese:

  1. Culture
  2. Social ettiquette
  3. Food/cooking
  4. Locales
  5. Lifestyle
  6. Pop culture
  7. History
  8. The list goes on…

Contrary to what many weeaboos or “American Otaku” may believe, anime paints a very limited, almost “closeted”, and often outright wrong perspective of what Japan is really like. As such, they’re often surprised to hear that Japan is radically different from America in terms of culture, and is one of the most unforgiving cultures in the world in terms of accidentally stepping outside of the social respect-based established norms. You can’t simply set foot in Japan and think that things there are like America, just with a slight twist – they aren’t.

In a study performed in 2016, an international business corporation in Sweden found that over 78%​ of housing and apartment complexes in Tokyo will not allow foreigners to live in them. When questioned as to why, the #1 answer they gave uniformly across the board was “foreigners don’t understand the local culture and/or language enough, and it causes a large amount of problems for both them and the people around them”.

In a similar case study interviewing roughly 300 Japanese at random on the streets of Tokyo in 2017, when asked about what their thoughts on foreigners in Japan was, the most-received answer was to the effect of “the biggest complaint we have about foreigners visiting here is that they don’t bother to learn anything about our culture, customs, and language beforehand” – and it causes problems on a frequent basis with law enforcement.

The message I’m trying to convey here is that in addition to learning the Japanese language, in order to be able to do practically anything worthy of note with it, you need to take a broad primer on Japan as a whole as well.

Laying Out A Battle Plan

To successfully learn both the Japanese language and the culture, you have two realistic options depending on the factors you have at play.

You can choose to go to college/university for a Bachelor’s Degree in Intercultural Relations, which might also offer you the chance to study abroad in Japan for 6-12 months. This approach is mentally the easiest path to take, as you’ll be guided through nearly all of the process of learning, as well as having the assurance that you’ll have a few letters behind your name at the end to prove you have market value in what you learned. In addition, having the chance to live in Japan for a short time frame and give yourself an opportunity for full cultural immersion can prove incredibly helpful in your endeavors. The offset to this method is cost – this is easily the most expensive option.

Alternatively, you can opt to do the entirety of what you need to do in terms of personal study instead. By building out your own comprehensive study program for Japan, you can customize more aspects of what you want to learn and build out a plan that’s completely unique to your interests. Studying abroad becomes next to impossible with this method, leaving you to try a few different things to recreate a sense of cultural immersion back home to compensate. While this offers 80-90% the level of comprehensiveness that a college-based approach would when done correctly, it gives you the ability to study at your own pace (in my case, accelerated), as well as coming in financially at 1/20th the cost of university-based options.

What you choose is up to you. Both approaches have pros and cons, while giving you a tremendous amount of benefit towards your goal.

My Personalized Approach

For me, it took a single consultation with a local university to ingrain into me that I was going the route of self-study in my Japanese pursuits when they quoted me $32,000 for the level of education that I wanted. I’m not poor by any measure, but I was convinced I could build out something similar for myself for FAR less.

So, with their course curriculum for their Bachelor’s Degree in Japanese-based International Relations in hand, I set out to “recreate” as much of their course as I could, just in a personal study format with an emphasis on not breaking the bank too hard.

To do this, I first cut out all the General Education credits from their degree program (because, let’s be honest, gen-eds are throwaway knowledge in the industry most of the time, anyway). This left me with about 2.5 years of equivalent college-level study time spread out over all of the necessary topics. I created a “road map” of all of the classes necessary for graduation and what subjects they were in, and started work on building out as close of a recreation of this as possible while also offering more depth in regional Japan, classical customs/ettiquette, and animation history/market economy. Instead of a degree at the end, I wanted to rather document my knowledge proficiency by achieving at least one level of JLPT certification (Japanese Language Proficiency Test), or JET certification (Japanese-English Translator) if I was feeling particularly brave.

To test my theory on my prototype “road map”, I bought the university’s required textbook for Japanese History 101 as well as the same textbook, just one revision older. The older revision cost less than 1/10th the price of the latest revision, a difference of over $130. My thought was that if I could get a similar level of understanding from the previous revision and the current one, I could cut the vast majority of the money out of the necessary study materials by doing this.

I found that in the particular example I did, the differences were fairly minor overall. A small amount of new content was added, but nothing in terms of the pre-existing content had really changed to a notable degree.

While I applied this approach to most of the recreated course content, the only area I didn’t “cheap out” in was study of the language itself – because I needed to have as current of a knowledge of the pop slang and sayings as possible. The majority of my money was spent here on a variety of programs, using Genki as the primary course with several other more minor players (Tuttle, Rosetta, etc.) as secondaries.

As with the college courses I based my approach off of, it was necessary to make “tests” of decent quality for each chapter of course reading to ensure that my knowledge was up to snuff, as well as combining random questions from each chapter into a “finals” test at the end. I found that since I was making the test questions myself, I retained the material a lot better than if I had encountered the same questions as something that I hadn’t produced myself – which is a trait I’d learned over time from making certification exam cram sheets, as well.

Adapting The Approach – Post-Development Thoughts

As with anything in life, getting things flawlessly right the first time is a luxury that few can manage.

​Being the equivalent of about a year’s worth of credit hours into my makeshift study program, I wanted to get an idea of how it equated to a few different folk’s experience who had actually gone through the university route and actually studied abroad in Japan as part of that.

Having a few conversations with university-going folks, much to my surprise, I found that my “homebrew” Japanese program actually matched up to theirs pretty well in nearly all areas. Multiple people actually asked me if I’d gone to school for Japanese Relations because my grasp of the Japanese regions, culture, history, and economy was unnaturally high, to which I was proud to answer that “No, I didn’t go to school for Japanese studies; I’m just an international businessman who reads a LOT of books.”

The two places where I noticeably fell short in contrast to their understanding was my grasp of the Japanese language, and my understanding of daily Japanese life because I’d never been to Japan before to experience part of it.

​While I could argue that being only a year into my program, my grasp of the Japanese language shouldn’t be as high as that of someone who’s taken 3 years of it (including living there, for full immersion), I noted that I needed to fortify my Japanese lingual studies further to ensure that I could end up in the same, or preferably better, position to people who’d studied abroad. As such, I added in going to Japanese restaurants, food stores, and local communications groups to help fortify my language understanding more and learn faster.

Then, of course, there was the fact that I couldn’t study abroad in Japan because with my approach, I’d refused to use a university program (universities are usually the entities that have enough bargaining power overseas to allow foreign exchange student programs, so this tactic wasn’t available to me). In addition, I didn’t want to forego my day job here to try and study abroad for 6 months because the money I’m making from my “9 to 5” is what’s paying the bills for OC’s server hosting, both at present and for future endeavors.

The only option left to me was to somehow try and recreate a variant of a Japanese culture immersion experience here State-side, which was a tall order. I had to accept that no matter what I did, I couldn’t do this to the same degree that actually living in Japan would provide…    but I did have a few options.

Firstly, I was fortunate in the regard that my diet involved a lot of oriental foods to begin with, so I shifted things to buy several Japanese cookbooks and modify my diet to be 50% Japanese food, with 25% of that food being new each week. Secondly, my weekly music palate was retrofitted to be predominantly Japanese music – even if there were words I didn’t know yet, it helped offer a motivation to learn them. Thirdly, while it hurt a bit while finding what to watch and what NOT to watch, I added some Japanese television into my evening regimen. Fourthly, I upped my daily dose of Japanese language as well as culture primer to help compensate for the gap.

​I’ll add another update at the end of this year as to if these changes helped. I’m pushing myself fairly hard to try and make up the difference here, but I’m confident it’s going to put me pretty darn close to the university program’s equivalent, if not giving me an edge over it.

The cost of my makeshift Japanese program will come to just under $1,500 in the end in terms of extra expenditure.

Is My Approach Better?

It’s really hard to say; I honestly think that it’s worse than a university-based alternative overall, but that’s a simple personal opinion.

I guess as long as my program gets me to my end goal, it might not really matter apart from the fact it saved me a bunch of money and I really don’t need too many more letters behind my name as-is.

One thing’s for sure – it’s certainly better than being a weeaboo or “American Otaku” who lopsidedly claims to want to be Japanese or argues that they’re “incredibly understanding of the Japanese culture” while only watching anime to base this claim off of.

Be cultured. Understand your world. Try new things.

And, most importantly, strive to change your world for the better. Trust me, it’s well worth it.  🙂

Caleb Huggenberger is a 31 year-old systems engineer, old-school guitar and amplifier builder, and Eastern culture enthusiast. Outside of long work days, he enjoys electronics engineering, cast iron campfire cooking, and homesteading on his acreage in the Indiana countryside.

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