Japanese as she is spoke

Any foreigner who moves to Japan has to resign himself to the task of learning the language; I think this is a given; Lord knows I go on about it often enough. Once you’re actually in Japan you’ll find, simply due to necessity and being surrounded by the language, you’ll learn a lot quicker than you did studying back home, if indeed you ever made that effort. That said, I can tell you from personal experience that learning by osmosis does not work! But what options are there? Well, a few.

Get a girlfriend
Hmm, though obviously the most fun way of studying, it I also the one with most pitfalls. Due to communication barriers it is not entirely unlikely the girl you’ll manage to pick up (or boy if you’re of the other (sex or persuasion)) will be able to speak English somewhat. Plus you will be relying on her to become your personal teacher, which is actually hard work. When you or she comes home from work can the energy be mustered to actually go through all that hoopla? Probably not, and you’ll lazily revert to English.
Having a Japanese partner is great for picking up slang and vulgate but probably doesn’t substitute a real school experience. Plus there is the added danger of accidentally learning “girly Japanese”, making you the laughing stock of your male colleagues as you suddenly say something very effete.
Also, think of the way you speak your own mother tongue. Asking your girlfriend, who speaks Japanese intuitively, to explain the finer details of the past perfect, intransitive verbs or proper use of adjectives will cause a lot of head-scratching and “eehhh?”-ing.

Self study
Alternatively you can just buy the books and spend your waking hours at home studying. It is not unheard of, though one can’t help but think of these people as somewhat swotty. Working all day and studying all night just somehow doesn’t feel right. It certainly takes a massive effort and a lonely existence, but it can be done, it has been done.

Be a student
You could become an actual, bona fide, full-time student. Apply to a school, study 8 hours a day and be taught by real teachers. Obviously this is fairly expensive and takes a lot of energy, plus a student Visa only allows for 20 hours of part-time work a week. But if you’re in a hurry this may not be a bad way to go. Sure, you could study Japanese at college at home, but as mentioned above, just being in Japan helps enormously. Sometimes students who have spent a few years studying the language at home come to Japan only to find their level is barely as good as that of a profligate English teacher who just picked up some phrases from his many loose girlfriends.
If you have resigned yourself to learning the language this way you may want to consider splashing out a bit more and actually doing it in the country itself. The only problem is that you’ll probably share your classes with a lot of Koreans who, because the language is grammatically similar to their own, will shoot up quickly and leave you far behind, possibly hurting your ego and confidence somewhat.

Go to language school
Probably the very best way is to pick up a few hours of study a week after work at one of the many language schools in Tokyo.
There are two types of lesson you can follow: the group lessons, where you share a class with a handful of other foreign nationals, which can cost somewhere in the range of 2,500 to 4,000 Yen per session (20-30USD, 15-25 Euro). A session can be anything from 50 minutes to an hour and a half, depending on the school. Or there are private lessons, just you and your teacher, which cost about double as much, sometimes going up as high as 10,000 Yen (85USD, 65 Euro) per lesson.
Obviously a private tutor can adapt the lessons to fit your weaknesses but there is something to be said for the competition of group lessons too; you don’t want to be the div who never gets it, so that could be an impetus to do your homework.
The quality of the study relies heavily on the quality of your teacher and that is, as in most things, entirely hit or miss and based solely on luck. At reputable schools the chance of being assigned a good teacher may be somewhat higher but in the end the possibility of getting a bad one is equally as real.
Some schools I have heard good things about are Meguro Language Center, ARC Academy and Kai Japanese Language School but try before you buy; schools usually offer free introductory lessons and it is advisable you follow them, though be aware that the teacher who gives those may not be the teacher you end up with!

Student Teachers
Alternatively you can support student teachers, and your wallet, by scouring the wanted ads in free magazines like Metropolis or Tokyo Notice Board to find those students aiming for teaching degrees willing to do some on-the-side experience training. What usually happens is that you meet up in a public place, coffee-shops are the ideal for this, and do a few lessons a week there. Though their experience is obviously lacking, prices can be as low as 1,500 Yen (12USD, 10 Euro) and a few cups of coffee a lesson. Also, coffee-shops can be very noisy substitute classrooms though if you know when and where to go it shouldn’t be that much of a problem.

Language Exchange
The idea of coffee-shop learning can sometimes be done as a mutually beneficial and free experience. Someone wants to learn English, you want to learn Japanese, so you meet up and theoretically teach each other. The problem with this is you’re unlikely to find someone who can actually teach, offering in stead opportunities to chit-chat, which, to be fair, helps but is not entirely enough to master a language.
Another word of caution: “language exchange” is usually the way women with a penchant for foreigners get to meet and snare their pink-skinned boyfriends. The “language exchange” ads in magazines often read like “Japanese wants to meet foreigner for marriage” personals.

Go to the ward office
What not everybody is aware of is that your local ward office also provides incredibly cheap lessons for its foreign constituents. When you’re there, as you inevitably will be when you get your foreigner registration card, ask them for some information. Lessons can be as cheap as a couple of hundred yen per lesson, though I have no idea of the quality. They’re probably ideal for those will nil or almost no ability whatsoever, though they may provide advanced lessons to. Worth checking out, as it is probably the best deal you will find when it comes to studying in Japan.

As you can see there are plenty of options for studying the language, which is good as you have absolutely no other choice but to hit those books; living in Japan without any Japanese ability is a virtual impossibility unless you are happy to drift around like a semi-aware zombie while your poor wife/girlfriend does all the translating for you.
Don’t count on your employer to sponsor your study either; very few do, but if you think of it from their point of view, why should they shell out more for foreign employees who carry the responsibility of learning Japanese themselves?

I hope you’ve been taking notes. The next post will be a test.


  1. Bang on, from my experience. Specifically, though I didn't get a Japanese gf with language learning in mind, that synopsis of the pitfalls is very accurate. The other bits definitely line up with my showdowns with the language too.

    Drinking and karaoke are also good ways to supplement the learning (though they don't work well, when used in isolation). Drinking, to reduce Japanese culturally-ingrained shyness (or your own), while Karaoke can help when you want to learn kanji as it's more interactive than reading or studying on your own.

  2. Totally agree with trs about drinking and karaoke - you need to go out and talk to people in Japanese to be able to really get anywhere when it comes to speaking.

    I have a professional and pretty good Japanese teacher who teaches me privately (in Mosburger though, not a classroom) for 3000 yen for a two hour lesson. I think that's pretty good value, and perhaps it is possible to find similar deals in Tokyo.

    Not sure if I would be better off in a class environment with others to compete with or not - I think I would just get frustrated that I had to actually do some study during the week to keep up rather than just going at my own pace.

    My girlfriend speaks English way better than I speak Japanese, so although she is a great help when I push myself to study and speak Japanese, she isn't when I get lazy and just speak English.

    So, er, I agree with your post almost 100% :)

  3. You could become a JET and get paid to study at work and pull the gf/karaoke/drinking card at night!
    *shifty eyes*

  4. Karaoke and alcohol (and cigarettes) are a great way to *practise* Japanese, rather than study it. My biggest problem was my confidence. Because most people (often rightfully) expect you to not speak Japanese, when you do they are surprised and fail to hear what you said. Then they ask you to repeat and you think "damn, what did I say? Did I say something stupid?" I still get nervous sweat when talking to shopclerks occasionally.
    Alcohol is definitely good to combat that. Most people, including myself, believe my Japanese ability increases tenfold when i'm thick.

    3000 Yen for a two hour private lessons indeed sounds like a very good bargain, apart from the Mosburger part. How did you find that deal?

  5. It doesn't have to be in Mosburger, but although my teacher works at a school, she doesn't teach her private lessons on the school premises, so we just meet somewhere. Mos Burger just happens to be convenient for both of us, and my lesson is on saturday morning at 9:30, so it's not busy or noisy.

    That bit about being surprised also works the other way. I tend to think in English when I am working, so if someone sneaks up behind me and asks me to export something or clean the bathroom (yes, we have that at our company too) then I often don't understand what they were saying because a. I wasn't listening and b. because I was thinking in English. Often I will pull a puzzled face and they start trying to speak in English when most of the time just repeating it in Japanese will do.

    I do have low confidence in my Japanese ability though, and it certainly doesn't help :( When I'm pissed, what do I care if I use the wrong tense or don't bother using the passive etc?


  6. I'm following the dirt-cheap lessons from the ward office, and they're not bad. You can't complain at 300Yen for every 6 hours worth! One time, my regular teacher was on holiday, and I ended up with a different teacher -- which turned out to be much better. =/