Top 10 Reasons Why Expats Who Live In Japan Don’t Know Japanese

A lot of people from foreign countries — including people of Japanese descent — come to Japan without a lick of Japanese. And stay that way. For years. Here’s why. I just made this list up based on personal observations, so it’s not complete or definitive. If you have any ideas, feel free to add or whatever.

1. Bad Company
Foreigners who don’t know Japanese have a rough time meeting Japanese people. So they hang out with other foreigners. Result? They get great practice at everything but Japanese. They form their own communities, visit foreign-centric websites, watch movies from back home. Dude, you can even go to a karaoke bar and only play American or Chinese songs. They essentially do the reverse of all Japanese all the time — “anything but Japanese language and people wherever and whenever possible”. They ghetto-ize themselves, creating a foreign enclave in Japan, an enclave that comforts and accepts them for not knowing the language of the country in which they have chosen to live.

2. Getting By
You can get by in Japan without Japanese. Emphasis on the “get by”, as in “survive”, not “succeed” or “thrive”. You can make it. It’ll suck — you won’t know what most signs mean, you won’t be able to negotiate or search for cheaper housing, you won’t be able to search the Internet for the best deals on electronics, you won’t be able to have meaningful conversations with people. But you’ll muddle through. You can take trains, go shopping, point at pictures in restaurants, and learn basic survival phrases. And anything you really can’t do (like go to government offices), your bilingual Japanese girlfriend can help you with.

3. School
Sorry, school. But Japanese language school is about the worst thing that ever happened. Part of this is because a lot of the teachers are either..

4. Condescending Japanese People
A lot of Japanese people, I’m told, are basically taught nihonjinron (日本人論) in middle school (I don’t know whether this is true or not). And what that basically says is that Japan and Japanese are unlike anything else in the world, no foreigner could ever “get it”, and even you Japanese kids will barely get it without years of formal education. Anyway, where the belief comes from is irrelevant, the point is that people go into adulthood believing this. If you don’t know Japanese but have Japanese friends, coworkers or teachers, then a lot of these people may not believe that you can learn Japanese to a meaningful level.

Thanks to the suckiness of school, a lot of Japanese people have “learn” English — that is, if habitually spelling and saying “sorry” as “solly” can be constituted as learning English: they “failed” at learning English; they expect you to fail at learning Japanese. That’s a poisonous attitude to be exposed to. Having said that, there are many Japanese people who will encourage you and give you the benefit of the doubt, so you still have the responsibility to overcome this.

Or…

5. Well-Meaning, Do-Gooder Native Speakers
Now, you’d think that I’d be all for native speakers. And I am. But there’s a proviso — I focus on what native speakers do, and what native speakers say, but not on what native speakers say to do. Native speakers have no freaking clue…how they did it. They don’t remember being babies because they were babies. You and I get to be babies as adults, so it’s different. Anyway, so, these native speakers perhaps try to figure out how they did it, and they figure it must have been due to school, since, after all, they spent all this time there, right? Wrong. For one thing, they knew Japanese before they went to school — all “normal” toddlers can talk quite fluently. OK, but what about reading and writing? You can’t deny the effect of school on literacy, can you, Khatzumoto? I can. Two points. First, lots of Americans go to school, and look at what that did for their literacy, even with an allegedly “easier” writing system. Second, and more importantly, the way most Japanese kids learn to read is the very embodiment of inefficiency.

Apparently, after WW2, the day they were going to decide the new kanji policy, they locked all the smart people out of the Monbukagakusho/文部科學省 (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology=MEXT) building, and by coincidence the village idiot was left locked inside the ministry building — and so he wrote the kanji policy — and when the smart people finally got the spare keys for the building, they didn’t have time to change the policy because the US military occupation government had set a firm deadline, so they just handed in the document that was there (the one the village idiot wrote), with the result that kids in 5th grade (in Japanese public schools) learn “幹”, “版”, “導”, “刊” and “容” BUT HAVE TO WAIT UNTIL 6TH GRADE to learn “干”, “片”, “寸” and “穴”.

Now, the initiated will have realized that kids in Japanese government schools are routinely learning structural-composite kanji before learning their structural components; like building a skyscraper and then building its foundations, or eating a banana and then attempting to peel it, or attempting to run a program before turning your computer on. It’s as if the village idiot wrote the school policy — oh, wait, he did! The village idiot was like “hmm…what is the most illogical, inconsistent, ridiculous way I can do this so that it makes kanji seem difficult?”; he was one malicious motherlover of a village idiot.

Fortunately, the Japanese kids who were and are victims of this policy were just that — kids. And as we all know, kids know how to be resilient even when presented with bad logic; they’re persistent like that. And so, the Japanese school system takes it’s sweet-as-poundcake time teaching 1-2 years’ worth of kanji in 10-12 years; all because of one village idiot. The system stays alive because most kids do make it through — they may not understand how the kanji system actually works, but they can read and write and function. Hey, it’s good enough for government work, right? Besides, neither the kids nor the teachers have anything better to do than, oh, take the longest, hardest, most confusing possible road to literacy, do they?

Now, take this idea and try it on an adult. Try to teach an adult an illogical method of reading a logical writing system; try to teach her to peel a banana, throw away the fruit and eat the peel. It will only work if you can get her to keep doing it for 10-12 years, which you won’t — the adult will break.

There is a big bright side: many Japanese people realize the way kanji-learning is being handled by state schools is bunk — I’ve seen private schools on TV that politely ignore the village idiot list. Smart people in the government are working even as we speak, trying to fix the village idiot’s mistakes in various ways. Plus, there’s the Heisig Method.

Anyway, where was I — yeah, so if a native speaker tries to help you with the method of learning Japanese, she’ll probably try to school you. This is NG. Do what she does — watch Japanese shows, spend time with Japanese people, read Japanese books, eat Japanese food. Talk like she does, or her brother does or mother does or her father does, as appropriate for age and gender. But, generally, do not do what she tells you to do; she knows what she’s saying, but she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

6. Well It’s Too Late Now Syndrome
So, let’s say you’re foreign. And you’ve been here 5, 10, 15 years. And you still only know survival Japanese. But you weren’t lazy, right? You tried. You bought all the books and tapes and hired a tutor and went to Japanese school and wrote out kanji. But it didn’t work, you think it’s too late now and it’s just “too hard”. A lot of people think that. They’re wrong, but they think that. Forget about the past, think about now — it’s always the right time to start.

7. Discouragement + Lack of Persistence
Good old negative thinking. Seeing what you can’t do instead of what you can do. People make fun of you, you feel bad, you give up. You three-day-monk it, your water doesn’t boil, you give up. Stop stopping and stop giving up — the hard parts, the days when you don’t feel like doing it, when you want to stop this Japanese act and just go back to being “you”, those are the days when you need to practice even more. You can learn to overcome those days — just see them as part of the legend “I wanted to give up, but by Jordan I kept going!”.

8. Bad Learning Methods…Lots of Bad Learning Methods
Money and resources will not do the work for you (unless you plan to make a neural implant a-la-Matrix, in which case, call me, because I’d be first in line to get a USB port in the back of my head…actually, not first, but as soon as they had a stable version) where was I? Oh, yeah — buying books and materials may feel good, and may give you the impression that you’re “putting your money where your mouth is”, but if you don’t also USE the books, then all you’ve done is spend money.

9. English-language Internet fora about Japanese
This affects people whether or not they’re in Japan. You see, folks, it’s a big Internet out there. And there are lots of cool fora, where you can argue your head off. A lot of people studying Japanese spend a lot of time in these fora, day in day out, petty feud to petty feud, pet theory against pet theory. Talking ABOUT Japanese but not doing it…as if their theories would somehow lead to a solution. These people have confused being obsessed with Japanese with obsessively doing Japanese. The latter gets you good, the former just gets you into heated arguments.

You’re not going to see a forum on this site until we can work out a way to make it truly useful, not just a flamewar arena.

10. Low-A$$ Expectations
“A little bit a day”. “10 minutes a day”. “One or two hours a day”. Forget it. That won’t get you anywhere. You’re trying to learn a language here, not…pick sock lint from between your toes. Don’t get me wrong — I urge, I DEMAND that people have fun and only fun doing Japanese. But, one does actually need to do it. Don’t fear Japanese, don’t be intimidated by it. But respect it enough to give it ample time on a daily basis.

Remember, friends: Japanese is a human language — a learned behavior. It is not carried by blood, it is carried by environment, behavior and lifestyle. Millions of people of Japanese descent — Japanese-Latin-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Japanese returnees abandoned as children in China after WW2 — have zero Japanese skills or awkward, heavily-accented Japanese. Conversely, millions of non-Japanese people have native-level written and spoken Japanese. Zainichis, foreigners on TV, and cetera. There is no magic to it. Change your environment, behavior and lifestyle, and you will change with them.

  25 comments for “Top 10 Reasons Why Expats Who Live In Japan Don’t Know Japanese

  1. Yousef
    December 9, 2007 at 19:37

    Long time reader, first time poster. ^^

    This is a great post (as usual). Of course this is primarily a language learning blog, but I like your posts about the cultural stuff as well. It’s nice to read about Japan from the viewpoint of someone who actually made an effort to integrate and learn the language, not just from arrogant, I-wish-I-were-back-home English teachers (no offense to any English teachers reading this, I’m one myself!) or anthropologists who have to make whacked out theories about the country to impress their academic peers and sell a few books.

    I think number 1 (as well as 4 and 5) is the reason why the myth of going to a country to learn the language is…well…a myth. My biggest regret is not properly studying Korean before coming to Korea.

    And number 2….man….I don’t know how people are OK with living like that. When I had to rely on my friends for the simplest tasks, it was painfully humiliating.

    ah, sorry this message is running a bit long. Just wanted to say I hope to see more of these culture posts along with the language learning stuff. It’s good to have that little cultural “touch” to make your language very fluent, and hard to find good ways of achieving that touch.

  2. Chiro-kun
    December 9, 2007 at 23:40

    Hehe nice post! Bad Company…yeah I have that a lot lol (not only for Japanese). If you were in India (in grade 11th-12th) you would see that there was a mad rush for IIT (Indian Institute for Technology) sorta like the Toudai craze I guess. And yeah, there are coaching institutes and parents constantly telling you that it’s difficult, impossible or “aim for IIT and you’ll get something lower”. Thanks to this wonderful blog, I’ve managed to get past that bull and integrate my studies with my Japanese (up to 1200 kanji, yay!). Anyways, enough ranting….gotta do more kanji!! 😀

  3. December 10, 2007 at 14:32

    Must. Motivate. Self. Finish. Heisig. Before. 2008.

  4. Mark Quinn
    December 12, 2007 at 02:12

    Hi Khatz

    I especially sympathise with point 4 – my girlfriend is Japanese and, although I wouldn’t say she is condescending, she certainly feels there is a limit to what I can learn in Japanese and also the time period.

    She tells me that it is very unlikely that I will be able to speak until AT LEAST 5 YEARS! What?!

    It is not nice, but I guess the solution is just to ignore this (albeit unintentional) negativity!

    It is also very funny to hear the constant negativity directed towards Heisig from a native speaker – I mean it took her YEARS to learn kanji and she is still very down on this method – I suppose it is too unconvetional “you don’t need to learn that character…blah..blah…..”

    Anyway, this just makes me want to try even harder as now I have even more of a point to prove and, like you say, at least I’m moving towards my goal rather than just sitting around thinking about it.

    Anyway, thanks for the ongoing inspiration.

    Mark

  5. Brittany
    December 12, 2007 at 17:14

    “And anything you really can’t do (like go to government offices), your bilingual Japanese girlfriend can help you with.” Haha, this I love 😀

    My boyfriend’s dad has been living in Japan for the last 15 years or so and barely speaks a lick of Japanese, but he’s married to a Japanese woman so he doesn’t have very many problems. He’s totally fluent at ordering beer, though, as that’s the one thing his wife won’t do for him

  6. Mark
    December 14, 2007 at 09:11

    Yep, you’re absolutey right about this.

    “1. Bad Company”

    This one was interesting – I read recently on the BBC website (quoting an American scientific study) that researchers have recently concluded in that study that by far the most important reason that otherwise very talented/intelligent people do not fulfill their potential is the influence of (a less talented/intelligent/ambitious) peer group. Sadly, in spite of a bit of a dig on the BBC webiste (news.bbc.co.uk), I can’t find the story now, but interesting nonetheless.

    So, lesson to us all – don’t hang out with losers – that’s people who want to endlessly debate the pros and cons of the various bl**dy useless conventional methods of learning Japanese in this case…

    Mark

  7. Haf
    December 27, 2007 at 09:58

    About No. 5, learning the Kanji, I was wondering if there is any other order apart from the village idiot order and the Heisig method in which to learn the kanji best. Is there any material online?

    I currently use the village idiot order, as all of my learning material use it. Blargh
    But I don’t want to use the Heisig method, since I developed my own method to recognize components and memorize them.

  8. khatzumoto
    December 27, 2007 at 11:02

    It sounds like you answered your own question. If you have your own method and it works…then I’d say keep using it 🙂 .

    I applied the Heisig method to www.zhongwen.com, so I had to made up a lot of my own keyword names.

  9. Chelsey
    April 9, 2008 at 13:11

    Hi Khatz,
    I have a Japanese roommate and two Japanese conversation partners (none of whom I speak to in Japanese intensively). I’m not that advanced in my speaking, hence the reason we don’t speak in Japanese that often. I’m wondering if it would be good to talk to them in Japanese or if it would damage my skills…I’ve been studying for 4 years, but am just now getting “good” at speaking….

    PS: I like your site. 🙂

  10. khatzumoto
    April 16, 2008 at 10:34

    >I’m wondering if it would be good to talk to them in Japanese
    It would, if and only iff you have them CORRECT you mercilessly. Tell them, the smallest mistake, awkward pronunciation must be pointed out, even (if they’re cruel people) ridiculed mercilessly. And if you find yourself making too many mistakes, then an input-heavy silent period may be in order. I had to take one of those at one point.

  11. Pandi
    July 26, 2008 at 05:15

    Ha, I love this. =D
    I agree with 8 and 10. I remember seeing those commercials with that stuff; you can’t get far with only 10 minutes a day. You would lose all that information during the day, and would have to spend another 10 minutes the next day on that same material.

  12. Smilax
    August 7, 2008 at 05:05

    I think you mean “monbukagakushou” instead of “monbugakusho”.
    文部科学省… right? @_@

  13. Joey Jelasic
    December 19, 2009 at 08:37

    This is so true!

    for nanpa its all about the non-verbals anyway ; )

  14. earn
    August 22, 2010 at 18:27

    Hi Khatzumoto!
    This is my 2nd day peeking into your blog and I’m so in love with it~!
    Currently I’m studying Korean and I’m so0o using your methods [man!how could i miss your blog last year] because I’ve been trying various methods that didn’t work and I’m now very, absolutely whole-heartedly believe, THIS IS IT!!!

    Thanks for being so motivating and inspiring and-all-those-kinda-praises!!!

  15. December 18, 2010 at 11:07

    you really have hit the nail on the head in so many ways. I’ve been studying Japanese for a long time now, in high school, in university, and I spent a year at a Japanese university and I decided to try out the teaching english/living in Japan thing, but so many people, in both of those situations, as you said, create this enclave for themselves. Its insane. There are, however, plenty of opportunities to get yourself out of that, though.

    The other thing that I’m happy you touched on was the nihonjin-ron. So many of my Japanese teachers (and textbooks!) have been condescending about foreigners learning Japanese. People and materials that are not positive or supportive are in no way creating a suitable environment for a language learner.

    thanks for a great post!

  16. lisbet
    November 2, 2011 at 23:32

    Having taken Japanese classes in Japan, my experience was actually that most of the teachers are very very enthusiastic and sweet, but are just terrible teachers. They have little training and little practice and you’re better off doing it at home apart from one thing- the Nihongo “cafes” many of them offer- for a small fee one can show up and speak only Japanese with other learners in a low pressure environment, about the topic of the week. That, my friends, was worthwhile… because I met other foreign researchers, and I got to practice my nihongo without the panic that comes with talking to native speakers in Japan (for me- but I panic talking to people in general due to being very shy.)

  17. NaomiD
    May 29, 2013 at 15:08

    Thanks for this wonderful article, Khatz. However, you say to not spend one or two hours practicing Japanese. I’m confused though. What does practice in this case constitute. I just started, and I’m learning kana before kanji. I’ve got 20 kanji down, and I have my schedule down to 10 new kanji a day with ample review time. There’s not much I can do with that, but I’m listening to Japanese music and talk radio and podcasts practically ALL day even in my sleep, on top of watching J-drama. Right now I can’t think of any other ways to practice the Japanese I CURRENTLY know short of playing my copy of Ore no Ryouri that I’ve been playing. Please accentuate on what you mean here?

  18. Jennifer
    April 4, 2014 at 13:16

    I grew up in Tokyo, and then moved back to teach English in Skizuoka-ken in my twenties. I had certain assumptions, as all foreigners do when they first move there. I loved Japan, and since I’d grown up with the culture, I expected to integrate easily. Sure, I looked different, and my Japanese would sound different, but I would be able to eventually find my place.

    I think one of the main reasons why expats don’t learn the language is that after awhile, foreigners realize that no matter how much they bend themselves into a pretzel, they will never fit in. Sure, some will date or even marry Nihongin, but they are quirky oddities: the funny gaijin, the genius who actually knows how to use chopsticks, any caricature or personae the Japanese can create in order to place gaijin into their comfortable definitions of what a gaijin should be.

    It’s human nature to want to fit in, and in a homogeneous society where “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down,” it can be psychologically devastating to realize that you will, in fact, never fit in. Not really. I’d imagine that on a subconscious level expats refuse to learn the language as a way of saying “F– you” to that cultural mentality.

  19. Ben
    February 2, 2015 at 03:47

    I definitely agree with how Japanese people are perceived to be borderline pretentious when it comes to the complexities of their language (at least by foreigners). But I think I have a lot of trust in the Japanese Education system, and they didn’t necessarily screw up the kanji lists. I’ve had a small taste of a Japanese local school, and the kanji learnt is categorised in topics, so for example in 3rd grade you learn kanji that is often used in literature, while in older years its focused on journals and articles. Most importantly you learn a mix of characters with simple and complex strokes; it just seems unfair to compare a small handful of kanji learnt by 5th and 6th graders.

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