How Teaching Yourself Japanese Is Like Conveyor Belt Sushi

Ever been to a kaiten-zushi restaurant? I love the weirdly futuristic simplicity of the conveyor belt concept. Tantalising morsels of white, red and orange fish, laid like glistening gems on their thrones of rice glide regally past.

You grab what delights you most, and devour it. Actually, the kaiten zushi experience is such an apt metaphor for Japanese study – in fact, for life in general…

The choice can seem overwhelming, and you aren’t sure what to pick. Sometimes you get put off by accidentally picking something that’s not to your taste. Raw squid? Salmon Roe? Octopus balls? We all get it wrong sometimes. Other times a new flavour surprises you, and you acquire a taste for it.

You don’t need to gobble up everything that passes. You need to become more familiar, more discerning. In fact, the likelihood of getting exactly what you want increases every time we try again – you might even summon the courage to ask the sushi chef with the big sharp knives for directly for what you want. Ask, and it is given.

If you’ve been following my series about the ‘OMOSHIROI’ method, you’ll know that I believe learning Japanese should be just to your taste – that is, both fun and interesting TO YOU.

And the way to make things fun and interesting is YOUR WAY – to really consider what it is you enjoy, and grab it / do it / read it / learn it / watch it / listen to it / eat it! More! Little and often.

Look, I just want to say that I do understand sometimes there are things that must be swallowed whole. There are grammar points to be memorised, there are Japanese Language Proficiency tests to be passed. At times, we must apply our grey matter very seriously to absorbing facts and repetition of rules.

However, truth be told, I think that most of us, myself included can benefit by generally lightening up and enjoying the process of learning more.

In this episode, I will talk about my top picks for ‘How to Teach Yourself Japanese’, including specific Japanese learning resources and recommendations (books, podcasts, activities) to cover three crucial areas of learning – Japanese language, Japanese mind-set and Japanese lifestyle.

Japanese Language Learning Books

Have you ever been to a large bookshop, say, Waterstones Piccadilly or the Foyles on Charing Cross Road and browsed through the Japanese learning section?

Yeah, well, don’t hold your breath. I have to say, no matter how enthusiastic you might be, the Japanese textbook section is always a bit disappointing!

With a background in teaching English as a Foreign Language, I know that for years now, English language textbooks have looked like magazines, featuring cutting edge (in fact, one of the series is called ‘Cutting Edge’) contemporary topics such as technology, the environment, travel, etc. all really attractively laid out and dynamically presented.

Japanese textbooks, on the other hand, are generally printed in plain black and white, with sparse stick-figure illustrations, and seem to focus mostly on dialogues about Jones-san talking to Suzuki-san asking the location of the bus stop.

That said, Japanese textbooks serve as a useful springboard to further study. It can be very helpful to have a textbook as a foundation, if it works for you personally to work through the material in this way.

Most traditional group language classes use either the long-standing publications of ‘Japanese for Busy People’ (first published in 1984) or ‘Minna No Nihongo’. I used Minna No Nihongo in group classes myself, with teacher to bring it to life! Japanese for Busy People is sometimes unpopular for using just romaji (the Roman alphabet) in the beginner level book, but depending on your ambitions, that might be just what you want.

Newer Japanese textbook series include ‘Japanese From Zero’ and ‘Genki’. A main difference between them is that Japanese from Zero teaches kana very slowly. The first book teaches only one hiragana line per chapter, and then only the sounds learned are shown in kana, the rest in romaji. It was written by an American man who has a Japanese wife, and there is quite a bit of accompanying support online.

Genki is one of the most popular textbooks, and it was mainly written by Japanese university professors. It moves more quickly, with Chapter 1 teaching hiragana, chapter 2 katakana, and from chapter 3 there are kanji.

To make up for the disappointment of the unflashy textbooks which are a little bit much of a muchness, I’d like to recommend a few Japan guides which have been released recently, that are packed with cultural information and fab photos:

  • ‘Be More Japan: The Art of Japanese Living’ – is a fantastic book for Japan fans, published in 2019. It’s a travel guide, but it’s a long way from the boring old Lonely Planet guides I used to use. It’s a DK Eyewitness book, and if you are familiar with the brand, you’ll know their publications tend to have a lot of lovely illustrations.
  • ‘How to Live Japanese’ by Yutaka Yuzawa – is a brilliant book, although it isn’t quite sure what it wants to be. The title should probably be ‘How the Japanese Live’ as it’s a kind of cultural reference guide, rather than a do-it-yourself kind of guide, but it is very interesting.
  • ‘Tokyo’ by Steve Wide & Michelle Mackintosh is the most aesthetically pleasing and deeply approachable guide to Tokyo, and Japanese living, that I’ve ever seen. I’m dying to get my hands on the other books written by this Australian Japanophile husband and wife team, on Onsen, Kyoto Precincts, etc.

And I’d also like to recommended the gorgeous ‘Hai Hiragana’ flashcards, to add some colour to your studies. They are beautifully designed mnemonic cards with visual hints to remember the characters. What makes them really special, is that the designers have chosen many Japanese things to illustrate the phonemes.

Japanese Mind-set Learning Resources

When in Rome, do as the Romans do a Japanese colleague once suggested to me. I’m all for it, but what if you really have no idea what the Romans are doing? And what if the Romans are basically too polite to tell you what they are doing, what you should do, or if you are doing something they don’t want you to do?

Learning as much as possible about Japanese ways of thinking and doing things will be a huge benefit for anyone planning to travel to Japan, and will mean you get shouted at and told off less, which is always a HUGE bonus.

I’ll never forget being on a train in Japan, with some friends who were visiting from the UK, when we were all in our twenties. The train was very quiet, there were hardly any people on it, and Katie had casually draped her leg over Al’s, as they sat next to each other on the bench seat. There was certainly nothing weird or overtly sexy about their behaviour.

Suddenly a train conductor passed and became incensed by their public display of affection. ‘This is NOT AMERICA!’ he barked at them in Japanese, ‘There are children on this train!’.

Now, it’s almost impossible to stop all misunderstandings from happening, and he was likely just a grumpy old man having a bad day. We didn’t realise that we were doing anything which could be offensive.

However, I have to admit, I’d never read a book about Japanese etiquette, which does seem a dry topic. But no longer does it have to be!

I’m delighted to recommend ‘Amy’s Guide to Best Behaviour in Japan – Do It Right and Be Polite’by American ex-pat author, Amy Chavez.

It is a fresh and modern take on everything from bath and toilet etiquette, to ordering in bars and restaurants, how I wish this book had been available when I first went to Japan! Amy even explains what the weird tap on the back of the loo is for.

Another genre of books I’d highly recommend if you are interested in the type of self-help / philosophy / travel books which have become so popular recently is the ‘Japanese wisdom explained afresh’ category. I’ve mentioned before my writing mentor, Beth Kempton’s wonderful book, ‘Wabi Sabi’.

There are other books available about many Japanese ideas, from ikigai to zen. If you want any book recommendations, feel free to get in touch with me! I love talking about J-books!

Podcasts are another really simple and accessible way to learn about the Japanese mind-set, and two of the most popular ones about Japan are ‘Tofugu’ and ‘Abroad in Japan’. Tofugu is great because they include episodes about specific language learning points, but also much more general overviews of the culture. Abroad in Japan is full of anecdotes told from the point of view of the hosts, Pete and Chris.

Japanese Lifestyle Recommendations

Are one of those people, like me, who struggles to breathe if you put an entire piece of nigari sushi in your mouth at once? Yes, me too, I have to bite them and it sometimes makes a terrible mess. Ok, I’ve seriously bitten off more than I can chew here –  trying to define a ‘Japanese lifestyle’!

In the interests of simplicity, I would like to choose ‘food’ and ‘karaoke’ as areas of the daily lifestyle in Japan that you will be hard pressed to escape on a visit.

So, in March this year I went to an event. Remember those? I saw real people in the flesh. I got to talking to a man was going on honeymoon to Japan in the spring. It was their first time to visit Japan, and he showed me their itinerary. It was INCREDIBLE. He’d spent six months of evenings after work with his partner looking up where they wanted to go and carefully planning.

I asked him what Japanese restaurants in London were his favourites. Oh, he said, I don’t know, I haven’t really tried any Japanese food. I was like: whaaaaaat???! Honestly, you could have scraped my jaw off the floor. London is so plentifully supplied with excellent Japanese restaurants!

I suppose there’s no way that you’d necessarily realise how important food is in Japanese culture until you go. There’s so much else to think about when planning a trip – the gardens, the temples, the cities, the shinkansen journeys. And after all, the French are foodies, but we wouldn’t prepare for a trip to France by eating loads of French food in London. We’d just enjoy it whilst there.

Nonetheless, Japanese food can be such an acquired taste, that I believe that acquiring it ahead of your trip will make your experience so much better. You’ll know what to order in restaurants and what not to. There is just so much to take in on a trip to Japan, that being baffled by the food can be not just an adventure, but an annoying distraction, or even a disappointment.

When my mum came to visit me in Japan, she was given a very beautiful box of sweets by some friends when she left, and she took it on the plane with her. She was excited about having a treat and assumed the sweets would be full of chocolate.

But every sweet that she bit into was full of anko – sweet red bean paste. Yuck! She said and spat it out. Like mushed up baked beans, she said. I disagree by the way – I love azuki beans.

Of course, getting familiar Japanese food won’t just mean we have a better trip to Japan, but enjoy more varied nutrition, textures, colours, flavour and experiences in the meantime.

The second area I have chosen as representative of a Japanese lifestyle is karaoke. I’ve always kind of hated it. A colleague of mine in Japan was such an excellent singer. When she finished her turn, I was so embarrassed to take mine. I really disliked the way that karaoke can put you on the spot in front of an audience, and that people seemed to ‘expect’ a performance.

Nonetheless, I found myself at karaoke countless times. I resisted it and make far too much use of the frequent ‘nomihodai’ offers (all you can drink) to summon the courage. It always seemed to get a bit messy.

Instead of resisting it, what if I’d embraced it instead? I love music and I enjoy many types. If I had just picked several songs and practised them properly (did you know that Japanese people are often known to go to karaoke by themselves in order to practise?) I would have had a much better time.

I’ll leave you here with the words of Frank Sinatra – this has traditionally been a big favourite with Japanese salarymen at karaoke.

  • I planned each charted course
  • Each careful step on the byway
  • And more, much more than this
  • I DID IT MY WAY

Thanks so much for reading!I hope this episode has given you some ideas about including Japanese textbooks, guidebooks, podcast and experiences in your daily life. If you would like further recommendations, get in touch! I love talking about all things Japan-related.

If you are serious about learning Japanese YOUR WAY and would like someone to point you in the right direction, do get in touch with me, Vanessa and we can talk about connecting you with a 1-1 Japanese tutor.

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