Japanese: Easy or difficult?

By on September 10, 2014

Anybody who doesn’t “look” Japanese or even East Asian and has ever attempted to learn Japanese tends to hear one phrase above all others from friends, colleagues, neighbors, and total strangers: “Japanese is difficult.” But is it really?

As a 24-year resident of western Japan (Kyoto and Nara) who needs to translate and interpret into English a variety of political, social, and economic topics in Japanese quickly and accurately, I no longer find it so. But my view reflects my experiences. The basic answer to that question for beginnings depends on where in life you are (geographically and otherwise), what your motivation is, and how and where you study. It also depends on the type of Japanese language education you pursue.

Not everyone has the benefit of studying in a classroom setting for hours on end, But a thoroughly disciplined approach from the beginning is necessary.

The editor may not like me saying this, but my advice for beginners is simple: don’t learn Japanese in Tokyo if you don’t have to, because there are too many distractions and too many Japanese anxious to use you as their English teacher. This is not about “going native”.

Learning Japanese here is fun!

It’s about learning, however painfully and embarrassingly, Japanese and then exposing your abilities to those who will be patient with your efforts and not simply switch to English the first time you stumble over a word or search for the right phrase.

The advantage of learning Japanese outside Tokyo is that you’ll find you simply have to speak and understand at a higher level, because the level of general English ability in Japan tends to drop off the farther away from central Tokyo you wander. But let’s say circumstances mean you need to learn Japanese in Tokyo. What to do?

First, decide if you want to learn Japanese or simply memorize phrases. To reach an intermediate level of understanding takes anywhere from one to two years of disciplined study. Not too difficult, really, with the plethora of audio-visual study aids available today, but it’s not like picking up French or Spanish.

Second, find a good teacher. Not a “language exchange partner” but a qualified teacher who, hopefully, has taught Japanese as a second language. Reading is difficult, no doubt about it.

But it’s easier if you learn the way Japanese children do: write down a kanji on the front and its English meaning on the back of an index card, and then flick through your cards on the train, the bus, while sitting in a coffee shop, or instead of reading a book until you’ve memorized the batch.

Preparing for your JLPT?

This may not be the modern, smart-phone/tablet way of doing things, but it’s the proper way to learn how to read and write.  And while we`re at it, buy yourself a copy of the New Nelson Japanese-English Character Dictionary. It’s a doorstop of a book to be sure. But get the “hard copy” anyway. It builds discipline because it builds patience and organizes your brain for Japanese study more effectively than the latest downloadable learning app ever could.

Finally — and this is the hardest part—avoid those who constantly tell you “Japanese is difficult”. Maybe they’re just offering sympathy. But hearing it repeatedly discourages even the sunniest disposition. Instead, find people who speak to you in Japanese as they would to their own friends and neighbors and don’t let your mistakes slide.

In sum, a disciplined approach to learning combined with a relaxed, friendly approach to putting what you’ve learned into practice with people who act natural in Japanese around you will make you realize that, when it comes to Japan, “difficulty” of the language is the least of your concerns.

Eric Johnston is Deputy Editor at The Japan Times Osaka bureau

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