Learn Japanese

POSTED BY DANNY CHOO On Wed 2006/11/15 16:00 JST in Japan

So why did I choose Japanese?
Back in the UK, I remember watching a children’s program called Blue Peter where the presenters came to Japan to cover Tokyo culture. Cant remember what age I was but I swore to myself that I would live and work in Japan someday.

It all started with my interest in gaming. My first machine was an imported Sega Megadrive. I wanted to know more about the machine and up n coming games so I got my booty along to a Japanese bookstore in Piccadilly called the Japan Center. They had tons of imported books from Japan which they sold for an arm and a leg. Got my first copy of Megadrive Fan and remember not being able to read a word of Japanese. Many games at the time used katakana for English names so I started to figure out the pronunciation for certain characters.
I used to be a hard core gamer at the time and got crap like the Sega Megadrive and cool stuff like the PC Engine Duo. Where did I get the money at the time to buy stuff like that? I used to sell Kylie Minogue merchandise – but that’s a different story which I will go into one day ^^

My parents are Chinese Malaysian. They moved to the UK 40 years ago and of all places, they decided to choose a dump called Hackney to live in ^^; I was brought up on English and Cantonese at home but unfortunately I didn’t have any Chinese education at all. Given my appearance, I always get the “yeah but you had a head start in Kanji” but alas - I didn’t have the luxury of being able to read kanji.

I soon got myself a text book called “Japanese for everyone” ( avail at Amazon.com or #''#0870408534,Japanese for Everyone,Amazon.co.jp#''# ) – the cover is crap but I learnt much of the basic grammar patterns from that book. Its also the book that I used to learn to read and write.
The book that helped me learn Kanji was “A Guide to Learning Japanese Characters” by Tuttle (avail at Amazon.com or #''#0804820384,Guide Kanji,Amazon.co.jp#''# ). The book explains the origins of each of the Joyo Kanji (1945 most commonly used kanji) and gives you a mnemonic to remember each character – a fantastic must-have book for those learning kanji.

When doing my rounds in the Japan Center one day, I chanced upon the cover of Young Jump magazine which featured the most gorgeous thing I ever saw – t’was an idol called Nishida Hikaru. Added the magazine to my weekly stash and from then on wanted to know more about her so started to buy a ton of idol magazines (including BOMB - Hikaru on the cover in the above image). My Japanese reading capabilities from this point forward started to improve ten fold as I needed to be able to read to find out more about her ^^;
The following is a list of the things that I done and the events that got me to my Japanese level today – hopefully there will be a few ideas that you can use for your Japanese learning too.

  • Put up classified ads on the Japan Center message board asking for language exchange. Apart from books, the Japan Center also sold a lot of Japanese grub and other stuff which attracted many Japanese customers – many who were students over in London to study English. Through the ad, I was able to meet quite a few Japanese folks.
  • I made a point of reading the weekly free Japanese journals that were handed out at the Japan Center and through the classified ads, I found out about an English/Japanese language exchange class held in Bond Street somewhere. Native Japanese speakers who were learning English would go to meet native English speakers and chat about stuff. Made a ton of Japanese friends through activities like this. I do feel that its important to spend time with Japanese folks as language is not all about the grammar – its about the culture too and you will learn much of the culture and mannerisms through being with the Japanese.
  • I bought a ton of videos from a Japanese book shop in St Pauls. They had somebody in Japan who recorded Japanese variety programs including anime. When the videos got a bit old, the lady at the shop would sell them to me for about a pound each. I needed an NTSC video player to play the videos and I bought one with the annual grant that I received ^^;
  • Bought a ton of manga including the whole series of Ranma 1/2 and Crayon Shin Chan. Both of these manga had furigana which helped me learn Kanji at the same time. Furigana is the hiragana pronunciation that you see above kanji from time to time.
  • I also listened to a lot of JPOP (including Nishida Hikaru) and what I like about Japanese CDs is that they always come with the lyrics – learning through music was a good method.
  • Japanese dramas while at times can be far fetched, you get to see a lot of “daily” Japan and hear “daily” words n phrases. I still watch dramas and am currently watching Sailor Fuku to Kikanjyu – love it.
  • I set my tape player to run at 5 am in the morning at a low volume. The theory was that I would subconsciously hear the Japanese tape which would slowly brain wash me with the lingo.
  • I set goals for myself like taking the Japanese language proficiency test. I managed to pass level 4 and then level 2 the following year through self study. Applying for the test and then studying for it was another good learning method which kept me focused while I was still living in London. After I passed level 2, my Japanese was good enough to get me into the second year of a Japanese language BA at London University.
  • I wanted to make sure I spent time in Japan but needed cash. While I was at university, I took a part time job at a Japanese restaurant called Benihana in Chelsea London. I worked nights after school everyday so that I could save up for a plane ticket to come to Japan every year - and blow most of the remaining money on the first day in Akihabara on Idol DVDs and anime goodies ^^;
  • I thought I would make good use of peeing and pooing time so I made kanji charts which I put up in the toilet. I had one chart of “currently learning” kanji above the toilet for pee time and one beside the toilet for poo time. Those who poo standing up only need one chart.
  • To speed up the learning of Kanji, I decided not to learn the stroke order. Each kanji should really be written in a particular way from top to bottom but my kanji are written from bottom to top ^^; As long as the kanji looks the same when Im finished writing then that was good for me.
  • I contacted the publisher who released all the anime titles at the time in the UK (I think it was Island Communications) as I wanted some free anime booty. I met with the CEO and I ended up writing for the fan club magazine. Island would give me video tapes of Anime titles that they were considering releasing in the UK. Some of the titles were pre-production releases and I would write up reviews. The demo tapes didn’t have any subtitles at the time and this part time job served as another reason to keep on studying.
  • After a while I started to translate freelance for simple publications which also helped me in my Japanese learning efforts and make a bit of cash on the side.
  • During my later years at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies – London University), I got myself a part time job at London Heathrow airport as ground staff escorting poor lost Japan Airlines passengers between terminals and arranging tarmac transfers – t’was fun and paid well at 10 pounds an hour (well it was good at the time). This was another good opportunity to use my Japanese and mingle with Japanese folk.
  • I took out a loan for a computer mainly because I wanted it to help with my Japanese studies. At the time, English Windows 95 had lousy support for Japanese so I learnt how to partition the drive and install Japanese Windows. Using a Japanese OS was great as it helped me pick up Japanese computing words.
  • We were all on dail up at the time and I remember my phone bill being about 200 pounds after discovering the internet and how much anime stuff I could download at 56K.
    It was through buying the computer and self studying Windows that got me into the IT field which started off as a computer engineer for Japan Airlines.

  • After Japan Airlines, I got a job with Nature – the scientific journal. The position was to be based in Tokyo. I remember reading the job description at the time…
  • “Need somebody who is a native English speaker who can speak Japanese, Chinese and who is proficient in current web technologies.”
    I took it upon myself to study HTML during my breaks at JAL and ended up producing a working prototype of a homepage for JALs computing and airline support division. Without this knowledge, I probably would not have got the job at Nature and wouldn’t be in Japan (gulp).
    Nature sent me to Tokyo for a week of tests which included verbal communication, and forecasting in Excel (the position was Marketing). By this time I was quietly confident with my Japanese speaking skills and passed all the speaking, translating etc tests.
    It was my first time working in an office with Japanese people. Nature served as an important step in picking up Japanese through listening and learning the phrases used in an everyday Japanese office. From then on it was on to Job Dragon as a contents producer, Amazon as Website Manager and now at Microsoft as a CGM (Consumer Generated Media) Product Manager – those who are interested can have a peek at my resume. Hmmmm, this is turning out to be more of my life story rather than a tips list on how to learn Japanese ^^;

The main ingredient to learning any language is passion. With passion, one can achieve anything. There were about 30 to 40 (can’t remember exact number) people who took the same Japanese course as me at university. Only 3 or 4 people made it to the end (including the guy that came to Japan initially on JET who I mention in this post). Many of the people who took the course were taking it because “Japan is where all the money is” and “I like Japanese girls”. While having a girl (like Hikaru) as a reason to spur language development is good, its also important to be passionate about the language and culture (and not just the girl).

So, for those who want to live and work here, how important is it to be able to speak Japanese?
Well one is going to have to be able to speak at least a few words and phrases to get by – important stuff like "your toilet smells" (for example). I know many folks who don’t really speak Japanese who do well in Japan. However, I have found that many people who have a good command of Japanese seem to be in senior positions and earn . I speak through experience as a hiring manager and through the people I know in the industry and am not speaking on behalf of everybody. In Japan, Its all about who you know (the same everywhere I suppose but especially in Japan) – the more people you know, the more opportunities are opened to you and the language will help you in this area. You ideas are best conveyed directly instead of going through a translator.
While my Japanese is far from perfect, I do speak comfortably-ish and you can listen to be babbling on a TV show (that show was live and I was nervous so I sounded like a pratt) and in a recent interview.

I’d better stop here before you nod off completely but hopefully there should be some pointers in here for those who are serious about learning Japanese.