“Time is a created thing. To say ‘I don’t have time’ is like saying ‘I don’t want to’.” Lao Tzu
At first glance, I thought this Lao Tzu quote was unduly negative. I felt seen. I felt a touch triggered… but I LITERALLY DON’T HAVE TIME, OK? I’m very very extremely busy! It’s not that I don’t WANT TO! OF COURSE I’d love to learn Japanese… but I just don’t have enough TIME.
When I thought about the quote more deeply, however, I realised that the message is actually highly empowering. It’s about letting go. Let go of the feeling of ‘wanting’ to do all the things, or in this case, learn ALL the Japanese. It’s about clarity, focus and intentionally creating time for what you wish to include in your life.
If a long-awaited trip to Japan seems to be sneaking up on you all of a sudden, you might be feeling the pressure and decide there just isn’t enough time for you to learn any Japanese before you go.
Why not make it ridiculously simple?
In this article are 3 ridiculously simple questions to ask yourself that will help you strip learning Japanese back to the most basic essentials – to make it work for YOU.
1. What Japanese Do You NOT Want to Learn?
It might seem counterintuitive to start this way. Nonetheless, the root cause of OVERWHELM when learning Japanese is one easy-to-correct error: that is, approaching it as if it were a headlong, direct race from A-Z (with A being beginner level and Z being ‘native level’ fluency).
A journey starts with one step. There are so many areas you might like to explore along the way, once you get going. If you are a total beginner preparing for a holiday to Japan, you might be gently strolling from A-B by learning a friendly Japanese greeting, for example. Instead of a A-Z sprint, though, all learning is a journey of many stages, right?
Or, you could be returning to Japanese study after life (work, relationships, health, etc.) got in the way, and meandering around at the G-J area and considering taking a JLPT level 4. Or, at various points you might like to stop off at C, or P, or T. You might decide you like it there, grab a bento box and spread out your picnic blanket with the intention of staying for some time!
Now, it is true that when you start learning something new, you ‘don’t know what you don’t know’ – so you can’t predict the future and know exactly how far you want to go with your learning or where you might like to stop off.
But if you, like me, are one of those people who is constantly magnetically attracted to all things Japan-related, I urge you to take a look at learning the language in the most empowering way possible.
Let go of preconceived notions what is the ‘right’ way or attachment to a rigid timeline. You don’t need to learn things that are neither fun for you, nor functional right now, at this stage in your life, to meet your needs!
Here is a list of things I do NOT currently want to do:
- I do NOT want to cram kanji
- I do NOT want to use a textbook
- I do NOT want to learn to read the newspaper
- I do NOT want to learn to talk about politics
- I do NOT want to learn translation skills
- I do NOT want to interview people for my podcast in Japanese
This eliminates so many possible goals that I can really focus on things that I truly love to include in my daily life.
“The problem with trying to make time for everything that feels important—or just for enough of what feels important—is that you definitely never will.” Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman
As an example, I have let go of my urge to cram kanji. I do love kanji – the logographic Chinese characters that form main content words in Japanese – and I thought that I WANTED to learn them all. Well… if not ALL, then I certainly wanted to learn at least the 2136 Joyo kanji that are taught through primary & secondary school… IT FEELS IMPORTANT – BUT I DON’T HAVE THE TIME.
Instead I have flipped my urge into a thought that is much more empowering for me: I don’t WANT TO use my limited time for this at the moment. I don’t actually choose to. Rather, I allow myself a relaxing daily practise that gently explores my interest in kanji and is gazillions of times better than being frozen in a state of throat-constricting overwhelm!
I give myself permission to simply ENJOY kanji characters & appreciate them from an aesthetic point of view.
How I do it: I pick a kanji flashcard from my deck every week and practice writing it as calligraphy on my Buddha board (a type of whiteboard that you write on with brush dipped in water, and watch what you’ve written slowly fade away as it dries). It’s a mindful practice that brings me a highly satisfying feeling of creativity.
Here are some other things you might NOT want to learn:
- NOT to write the phonetic scripts – hiragana and katakana (use ‘romaji’ or Roman letters instead)
- NOT to read the phonetic scripts – hiragana and katakana (use ‘romaji’ or Roman letters instead)
- NOT to ask directions (use an app instead)
- NOT to focus on grammatical sentence structures (rather, rote learn some key vocabulary, words & phrases instead)
- and so on…
Letting go of things on our ‘to do’ list; letting go of unnecessarily high expectations of ourselves is very freeing. It’s about getting intentional; stopping clinging to the ‘wanting’ of things that are honestly just not our top priorities.
2. What Do You LOVE MOST About Japan?
What it is that you really enjoy about Japan at this precise moment in life? There’s no right or wrong answers here. Below I’ll list some things that people typically LOVE about Japan:
- Food – ingredients, cooking, visiting restaurants
- Drink – tea, matcha and sake
- Film – of so many genres
- Design – architecture, ergonomics
- Clothes – fashion, practicality, Cosplay
- Traditional Arts – ikebana (flower arranging), Shodo (calligraphy)
- Gardens – Zen gardens, Bonsai
What do you want to concentrate on? It’s totally cool to just massively geek out on what you like best and explore that. Explore the vocabulary surrounding your current top area of interest. Immerse yourself in the history, or the technique, or simply absorb the aesthetics. Cherry pick what you want, and leave out the rest.
Taking the path of least resistance to learning means you might find you are already be doing things that you can ‘count’ as ‘learning Japanese’ – for example, reading Japan related books, or watching Japan-related Netflix shows. Bonus!
In my case, what really floats my boat is learning about the kind of ‘lost in translation’ words and phrases that express Japanese ways of thinking, speaking and doing things. I absolutely can’t get enough of concepts represented by philosophical concepts such as ‘Wabi Sabi’, ‘Ikigai’ and ‘Kaizen’. I really enjoy reading and reflecting on books about Zen, travel, mindfulness, cooking, craftsmanship and design.
Whilst reading these books (in English) does not offer me anything in the way of communicative language skills, the knowledge I extract does give me a background understanding of aspects of Japanese culture, which in turn offers insight into the motivation of Japanese individuals & the potential of deeper connections.
3. What Japanese DO I HAVE TIME to Learn?
Ok, so you have eliminated things that you don’t want to do at this time, and considered the things that you love the most. Now, let’s strip learning Japanese back to the absolute ESSENTIALS.
Here are my top suggestions for short timeframes:
If you only have a few days:
I suggest you forget about the language & focus on the ETIQUETTE. Japanese people have many specific ways of doing daily things. There are basic rules that people may be too polite to let you know about (i.e. not eating whilst walking on the street), as well as infractions that are so easy to do but are seriously frowned upon (i.e. speaking loudly on your mobile phone, especially on public transport). Knowledge of the basic etiquette is crucial to enjoying your time in Japan.
It can be intimidating as there is so much to learn, but it isn’t expected as a visitor that you would know all the ins & outs of the notorious complicated Japanese etiquette systems. It’s fine to make mistakes, however, there are things that many Japanese take for granted as their social responsibility that simply don’t occur to non-Japanese people. For that reason, I recommend to this book everyone:
Amy’s Guide To Best Behaviour in Japan: Do It Right and Be Polite (Amazon Affiliate Link)
It is a fairly recently published & non-stuffy guide to the basics. I so wish I’d had it when I first when to Japan and had no idea what was going on! I would have avoided so many faux pas. Even now, though I feel quite familiar with Japanese customs, I nonetheless learned all sorts of useful tips from this book.
If you only have a few weeks:
- Etiquette (as above) + ‘Magic Phrases’
Everyday, commonplace phrases in Japanese can have a magical effect on people and situations you encounter. Oft-said phrases are literally music to Japanese people’s ears.
This is true in English as well of course – think about the stupefying rudeness of leaving out the word ‘thank you’. I have attempted to train my children to always say thank you – I don’t care if it sounds robotic! I believe people treat you very differently when they perceive you to be polite and have ‘manners’. A respectful attitude will get you everywhere. Nowhere more so than in Japan!
5 Magic Japanese Phrases
- Arigatou gozaimasu – thank you
- Sumimensen – excuse me
- Gomen Nasai – I’m sorry
- Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu – untranslatable utterance of cooperation and meaning well (see this BBC article ‘Is this phrase the Swiss Army knife of Japanese?‘)
- Hai – Yes
Don’t be shy about your pronunciation, practise these phrases lots, and sprinkle them about liberally!
If you only have a few months:
- Etiquette + ‘Magic Phrases’ + Kana + Survival Japanese + Communicative Japanese
You can learn a lot in a few months! Beginner Japanese is incredibly satisfying – and the good news is that it is much more simple than you may fear. There’s a steep but straightforward path up the mountain.
Learning kana (hiragana & katakana) can be achieved with self study on apps and can be easy if you have a good memory & practice little & often. It is so helpful to learn, since each characters is a phoneme, and learning how they are said will lead naturally to the correct pronunciation of Japanese words.
‘Survival Japanese‘ will is for those functional interactions, such as ordering in a restaurant, asking directions and asking how much something costs, for example.
‘Communicative Japanese‘ will include personal introductions, talking about likes and dislikes and the weather, for example. This type of ‘smalltalk’ is often considered tedious, but it can really help you to create moments of connection with locals.
The thing about communicative Japanese is that it is difficult to learn without someone to communicate with. It’s so important to speak Japanese out loud, to get used to ourselves making Japanese sounds. We need to practise conversation in order to shift our identity into someone who can really communicate in Japanese, with confidence.
If you have a few months or longer it can be a great experience to take 1-1 lessons with a private Japanese tutor. Many of our Japanese learners start with a block booking of our minimum 15 hours. Thus often taken as weekly 10 lessons of 90 minutes, so that takes about 2.5 – 3 months.
We can usually make the connection with a native Japanese tutor, considering your preferred time, place (online or in person), and level within about week. Get in touch with me, Vanessa, if you’d like to book a consultation!
Thank you so much for reading, and if you take one thing away from this article, I hope that it is the knowing that you needn’t avoid filling that Japan-shaped hole in your heart because you fear you haven’t got time.
Create a little corner for some Japan joy! ♡