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What Can A Lawyer Teach You About Learning Japanese? (The King of Japanese Legal Test Prep Drops Mad Knowledge)

So, remember the Twyla Tharp “Dancing to Japanese Fluency” thing from before? Good times, huh? And remember how, in the course of all the dancing talk, we made mention of a little Japanese book with a powerful idea? And remember how we promised to get into a lot of detail about it someday?

No? Yes?

Whatever. Anyway, strap in, strap on and strap up because we are going to discuss, dissect and…some other word that begins with “d”, what is, in my arrogant opinion, literally one of the greatest works of nonfiction ever produced in the history of mankind.

I am not joking. This is not hyperbole. This is pure, solid gold.

[The Power of Continuing / The Power to Continue: The Royal Road to Success in Work and Study by Makoto ITOU / 続ける力―仕事・勉強で成功する王道 (幻冬舎新書) | 伊藤 真 | 本 |]

There are not enough words in my painfully limited vocabulary to describe how awesome, how powerful, how beautiful, how actionable this book is. Usually, I just tell people to “read it” because I can’t actually express how good it is.

OMG! OMG! OMG! I’m getting excited just *thinking* about telling you about it! Eek!

And we are going to work through it so you can taste the awesomeness, too.

You know, I really, truly, madly, deeply, sincerely hope you’ve got your swimming trunks on, because you’re about to get drenched in knowledge.

No, really.

You are.

You’ll get wet. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Like, don’t write back to me and be all like: “Khatz, WTF? I’m drenched in knowledge, son! Coulda used a heads-up with regard to waterproof clothing”: this is your heads-up!

OK. Brass tacks.


The author. Makoto ITOU. Who the heck is he and why the heck should you care? Well, if you’d calm down for more than three freaking seconds, I might have a chance to tell you.

Standing at a majestic 6’2″, ITOU Makoto was born in Tokyo and raised in Germany. He wasn’t 6 foot 2 when he was born. Presumably, Germany did that to him. Fast-forward to college, he studied law at Tokyo University and passed the bar exam while still an undergrad there. This is considered to be, how you say in the seemple Eenglish, a big deal.

Sidenote: Until relatively recently, you didn’t need a law degree — or if I recall correctly, any degree at all, to take become a lawyer in Japan. All you needed to do was pass the bar exam. Pure meritocracy. Black and white. It was simple, straightforward and beautiful. Straightforward, but legendarily difficult without an SRS.

With the violent drop in Japan’s birthrate (and, beginning in 2006, the absolute decline of Japan’s population), schools and universities have been desperate for bodies. Combine that with the protectionista-unionista mindset common to any professional guild, and now one needs a law degree to become a lawyer in the Japan. Not only that, but there’s now an upper limit to the number of tries you get at the taking the bar exam. It used to be unlimited retries — like playing “Super Mario Bros.” on an emulator. Now, you only get, like, three or four lives.

ITOU is a practicing lawyer (and a noted constitutional scholar; he’s a big believer in the post-war Japanese constitution, particularly the pacifist Article 9). But what he’s really famous for, far moreso than actually practicing law, is the fine work of helping other people become lawyers by teaching them how to pass the bar exam with flying colors.

Where were we…?
Oh yeah!

You see, Japanese people are, it turns out, human beings (who’da thunk it? Well, apparently not all the people who insist on over-mystifying people from Asia). And like human beings around the world, they enjoy being scared. They enjoy telling and believing stories about things being “difficult” or “impossible”. ITOU basically spends time busting kneecaps and/or myths about the exam’s difficulty, and, by extension, about the difficulty of learning anything at all.

He is a driven, pragmatic, systematic and successful optimist and spending any amount of time with him (or his words) will make you one, too. “The Power of Continuing” is to learning as the “Inner Game of Golf” and the “Inner Game of Tennis” were to…I dunno…golf and tennis — both a philosophical meditation from a master of his field and a practical manual for life that you can actually transmute into action.

ITOU’s are not airy-fairy pothead musings or vague proclamations, but brutally clear, direct and efficient steps that you can take starting today.

OK! Enough introduction! Let’s start letting the man speak and his wisdom for himself…itself…themselves?…Dunno what pronoun to use here. Screw it! Let’s go!

You can do it all night long

■「やればできる!必ずできる!」: “You can do it if you try. You will be able to to do it if you keep trying. “必ず” — it is inevitable.”
[Japanese character readings for the nerd in you] 必ず=かならず

As long as you continue, you can’t lose

■「すべての成功は「続ける力」から生まれる。そして「続ける力」はだれもが持っている。あなたがこれまで飽きっぽく、思うように成果を上げられなかったのは、その力を引き出す方法を知らなかっただけなのだ。」: “All success is born from the ability to continue. And anybody can continue.” This is a potent choice of words. ITOU doesn’t say we need to “persist” or “be persistent” only to “continue”. Just continue. He continues: “The only reason why you haven’t succeeded up until now is because you didn’t know how to draw this power out of yourself.”
[Japanese character readings] 続ける=つづける

■「続ける限り『負け』は無い」: “As long as you continue, you won’t lose; you can’t lose.”

■「一流の人は『続ける技術』を持っている」: “The great ones are great at continuing. They have techniques for continuing.”

Talent does not exist

■Quoting Shogi (Japanese chess) Grand Master Yoshiharu HABU (羽生善治):「・・・同じ情熱を傾けられる事が才能だと思っている・・・継続出来る情熱を持てる人の方が、長い目で見ると伸びるのだ。」: “[I used to think that talent was this magical momentary thing, but now I think that] the ability to keep coming back to the same thing with that same intensity is, I think, the true meaning of talent. In the long run, the people who can continue being passionate about something are the ones who grow and succeed.”

■「法律の勉強は語学学習に似て、マスターする為には知識だけでなく、「慣れ」が必要です。」: “Studying the law is a lot like learning a language. You don’t need to master it, you need to get used to it.”

■「・・・不合格のまま終わる人は、頭が悪かったのではなく、勉強を続けられなかっただけの場合が殆どです。」: “People who fail at the bar exam [or learning a language] aren’t stupid: they just didn’t continue studying.”

The power to continue doesn’t discriminate

■「・・・『続ける力」さえあればどんな夢でも叶うというのは・・・私・・・の体験から得た、実感的真実です。」: “It is my experience that the truth is this: if you can continue, you can make any dream come true.”

■「・・・『続ける力」は誰にでも平等に与えられています。」: “The power to continue doesn’t discriminate. Everybody has it in equal amounts.”

■Not content to simply be tall, handsome and awesome, Mako-chan also manages to echo the wisdom of blogger Susan B., who herself points out that: “good decisions are not based on momentary desires”. Put another way, if you don’t love a language enough to spend the rest of your life on it, you won’t even love it enough to spend all of the next two years on it. In the words of Makoto (yeah. We’re on a first-name basis. Deal with it 😛 ):
「続けないのは『意思が弱いから」ではない・・・本当に好きな事なら続けられる筈」: “‘Lack of willpower’ is not why people don’t continue…If you really loved doing it, you’d be able to continue”.

It’s hard because it’s too easy

■It’s not painful or complex, it’s simple and boring:
(“Whether it’s memorizing English vocab, practicing your baseball swing or prevented a slideback in your diet, work that needs to be continued is, in general, boring. Work that’s painful and complex is actually easier to continue than work that is simple, straightforward and boring”).
And that, darling, is why the AJATT method, such as it is, focusses so much on having fun learning and making learning fun, because if you can take care of that, then everything is simple. In truth, there is no AJATT method except to have fun and make fun. That’s the Prime Directive. Everything else, even SRS usage, is subordinate to that. Human beings will risk their lives and pee in their pants if it’s for fun and adventure (bungee jumping, skydiving, freediving, mountaineering, space travel, anyone?), but you can scarcely get even the grown-up ones to wash their own dishes if it’s boring.

One is reminded of the wisdom of Jim Rohn (paraphrase): “Success is easy; you only have to do easy things to succeed; the problem is that the things that are easy to do are easy NOT to do”.

■How to keep going when it’s simple and boring:
“The trick to keeping going when things are boring is to ruthlessly reduce the number of things you need to do [80/20 principle] and make them less boring [by reducing the time available to do them”
Here, Makoto essentially channels the Pareto Principle and Parkison’s Law. When he was studying the Japanese Bar Exam, much of which involves handwritten essay answers, his sempais warned him that having bad handwriting would automatically lower his score. He needed to get good at handwriting again. But, no longer being a kid in middle school, he didn’t have the time to do it. He quickly figured out how to do improve by a lot by doing a little: write kanji bigger, write kana smaller, and keep his characters aligned along vertical and horizontal axes. He practiced writing out common legalese phrases like that for just five minutes a day, and his scores rose as if he knew more. He didn’t know more, he just wrote better.

Slumps are normal

■You don’t “have” time, you make time
“Failure to continue does not come from lack of time”
Nobody “has” time. You MAKE time. You make it by turning your exceptions (e.g. Japanese) into habits, from turning them into things you don’t just do once in a while, but always do, every day. Don’t “work hard”, don’t “overcome” just make friends with the language.

■You’re having a slump because you’re awesome
“The fact that you’re having a slump means that you’ve actually been working hard and improving”
Everybody goes through lows. Times when you (feel like you) are not progressing. This is normal. Don’t let yourself get too worked up about it and fall into the abyss. One or two things going badly does not mean the whole project is going badly. Don’t amputate your leg just because it’s got a scab on it. Don’t burn down a library to fix a typo.

All your problems are small

“Don’t globalize a local problem”
Yeah, you’re having trouble with your Japanese. Doesn’t mean you’re stupid. Doesn’t mean Japanese is stupid or too hard. It just means you have some cogs in the immersion/SRS machine that need fixing.

“Genius is finite. Hard work is infinite”
Genius, if it even exists, will only take you so far. “Hard work” — i.e. persistence, tenacity and experimentation — will take you everywhere.

“Never eternalize a short-term problem”
This advice applies to both the suicidal and the infanctidal. Think of history, Makoto advises, think of the history of our planet, of the entire universe. On this scale, all your problems are just a speck of dust. Sucking at something is a natural — but temporary — state. It can only become permanent if we choose to make it so. Once we starve the child to death, whatever food we throw at her thereafter shall be of no use. We often run away when we suck. But maybe that’s exactly when we should be staying. Just as no animal needs its parents’ attention more than when it’s a baby, you, a virtual (but very real) Japanese baby, need all the Japanese you can get right here, right now, right when you suck, precisely because you suck…You need Japanese and you need it badly. In fact, you need it more than a “real” Japanese person does: they’ve had their fill; they can wait.”

Don’t compare, don’t despair

“Comparing yourself to other people is meaningless.”
Nobody is better than you. Nobody is worse than you. They’re just different.

“Find, create and go to places where you will be shamed…do not fear shame.”
Get your shame in now. Get it out of the way now, while you’re practicing, so you won’t have to deal with it later. Don’t be afraid to look and sound bad at Japanese in front of your SRS, while shadowing by yourself, or in front of people who are able and willing to correct you.

“Not giving a crap what people think is an important part of the power continue”
When you don’t care, you can grow. You can shamelessly do the basics — you don’t need to (seem to) be awesome already. You can shamelessly practice kanji, shamelessly shadow, shamelessly ask questions, shamelessly receive correction. And, ironically, that’s exactly the type of attitude that will ultimately make you truly awesome.

Never, never, never, never, never, never…

“Don’t quit. Never quit.”
It’s that simple.

OK, that’s it for now. This entire book is one long, amazing quote and my copy is underlined (red pen, baby) up the wazoo. I would basically have to type out the entire book in order to share it with you. Not gonna do that. That kind of copyright infringement is not the point of this exercise. So we’re gonna leave it here.

Go get the book if you’re interested and want more goodness — there is a Kindle version if you like to keep things digital all the way. Personally, I prefer to buy physical books and then get them converted into PDFs by services like and 1dollarscan; despite the extra time delay it’s just a superior reading experience; Kindle books are better than nothing, but also actually kinda slow, buggy and generally schyte compared to what they could be. But more on that another time, perhaps in an article on creating and maintaining a Japanese reading environment 🙂 .

The Power of Continuing / The Power to Continue: The Royal Road to Success in Work and Study by Makoto ITOU / 続ける力―仕事・勉強で成功する王道 (幻冬舎新書) | 伊藤 真

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