Learning Japanese

On a video call with an old colleague of mine, I mentioned that I was learning Japanese. He asked me why, and I gave him a trite answer. The reality is, I did not have a good answer for him.

Still, at some point at the end of 2019, I had made an unconscious decision to learn Japanese.

A few years ago (March/April 2016 to be exact) I went on a walking trip in Japan. This had been suggested by my Father as a way to let 3 generations of our family (him, me, and my nephew) to bond and perhaps build a stronger family bond (we have never been a close family)

I have to admit that it was not high on my agenda. I had heard of Japan of course, but the language and customs were so foreign to me, that I approached it with trepidation. I did, however, acquiesce, and went along with it. My wife even got in on the fun, and booked a few days before hand with some of here friends.

Thankfully, it was Cherry Blossom season, so at a minimum, I knew I would see some pretty things, even though such things can be seen elsewhere in the world.

I have to say though, that this overseas trip, far more than any other I have ever done, had a very lasting effect on me. I felt, in some sense, that I had found my place in the world (even though I will never be Japanese no matter what, unlike in Australia where you can become an Australian - I am proof - I am originally from South Africa). I felt like a blind person who was suddenly given the gift of sight. Everything I saw and experienced on that trip changed me in ways that I would not realise until a few years later.

When I was in my teens, we had some Japanese animation shows (very badly dubbed into English) that kind of set the scene for how I saw the Japanese culture and people (we also had Monkey - which I still watch and am still so surprised at the deep wisdom and humor that is encapsulated in this show). In other words, not that sophisticated, and lets face it, the English dubs were terrible. So my thoughts were full of stereotypes and other very negative things. Not surprising that the prospect of a trip to Japan, where the language is so foreign, and the writing even more so, filled me with trepidation and fear.

However, the trip I went on (which was a guided tour of Japan with Oku Japan - I cannot recommend theses folks highly enough) changed everything for me. I think it was the time on Mount Koya, where we got to experience what it is like to be a Buddhist pilgrim, and sat in on morning "prayers" that changed it all.

Ever since this trip, I think it has been simmering under the surface in everything I do. Fast forward to late 2019, when thanks to the wonders of streaming (where I was no longer tied to what free to air decided I was allowed to watch or where Foxtel decided what was good enough for an Aussie audience) I discovered Anime. It started with Black Lagoon on Netflix, which blew my mind. Here was an animated show that was gritty, hard and violent. And yet had more emotion than a Disney production. And the production values were brilliant - a cut above the sound and art of Saturday afternoon mass produced crap that comes out of the grand old U.S. of A to which I had grown accustomed to. Here was a product that did not pander to the meek. It was unashamedly adult.

This was followed by A Certain Scientific Railgun - which blew my mind. So well produced, so tender in its story, and yet so powerful in its message, that I became obsessed. Here was a show that I wanted to watch, not just listen and read the subtitles. It was this show that embedded in my head the thought that I would rather listen and understand this show (and the culture around it) rather than have to read the subtitles and miss what was going on - the attention to detail on this show was epic (to me at least) where because I was reading the subtitles I missed some subtle interplay between the characters.

It was this show that convinced me that I wanted to learn the language. But not just the language. It woke something inside of me that had been planted in 2016 when I first visited Japan - I cannot explain it further than that.

So here I am 3 months after I started to seriously try to learn the Japanese language. Every day I struggle, thinking I have such a long way to go. But am still heartened when I watch an anime show, and I can understand a sentence without reading the subtitles, or realise that the translation is not exactly right, since there are a lot of words/phrases in Japanese that do not have a direct translation, and require a bit of "Poetic License" from the translator.

I know about 200 to 500 words, which is so far from enough it is not even funny. However, I can read (very slowly) hiragana and Katakana, and probably know about 50 Kanji (to the point where someone at work had some Japanese sweets, and I could read the Kanji on it). I have such a long way to go, but after 3 months, and still so excited about the prospect of learning this language that it borders on obsession. Who knows where this will lead? At the moment, the thought of actually living in Japan for 12 months fills me with an excitement I have not felt in years, even though I am sure that the fantasy is far from the reality. I mean, we have had a few Japanese homestay students, and that has probably helped to ignite the flame so to speak, but being able to live in such a foreign country (where I would never be fully accepted - and I am fine with that by the way) fills me with equal parts dread and excitement.

With Covid19, I think a lot of us have come to realise that life is short, and that there is not that much time to do the things that excite and inspire you. I feel very grateful that I found something to inspire me at this stage of my life. Who knows how far I will go? I mean, learning 2200 Kanji characters is no mean feat, particularly when native speakers still have trouble with it.

So what have I used to get to the low level that I am currently at:

  • The Genki Books
  • Duolingo - seriously, this has helped so much. I have learnt a lot doing this for 30 minutes everyday
  • JapanesePod 101 - The marketing is very "American" and "Amway:" ish. But I have to admit that it has helped a ton
  • Remember the Kanji books - such an innovative way to learn
  • Watching sooooooo much Anime with subtitles. I refuse to watch Anime with English dub - it does such a great disservice to the original artists. I can only imagine how awful it would be to watch something like Star Wars dubbed into another language - it would lose so much
  • Time. And commitment. And a deep interest
  • Watching YouTube. Honestly, this is the best resource in the world for learning things (just please do not get your political news from here) - Channels such as Ask Japanese or Abroad on Japan give such a wonderful insight into Japanese culture and life, I have no idea how we coped without such a rich resource (read Encyclopedia Britannica probably and hoped that it was not too tainted by British Imperialist leanings)

So in short, I am on a journey, which I have no idea where it will lead me. But I do know that it has sparked an interest I never knew existed before. And for that, I am truly grateful.


Richard is a Director and the principal Consultant at Dev iQ Pty Ltd. He specialises in SharePoint, Team Foundation Server/Visual Studio and .NET Development.

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