Is it Worth Learning Japanese? 3 Questions to Ask Yourself


You might not be offended by the F WORD, but I am.

In the last month, I’ve had two consultation calls with Japanese learners where they just kept dropping the F BOMB – without even thinking about it.

FLUENCY.💣

The learners, both complete beginners, wanted to get fluent in Japanese. Quick! Now! Yesterday if possible!

One had a time scale of 6 months, and the other a year. Now, I’m not one to rain on anyone’s parade, but I needed to break to the sad news that going from zero to Japanese hero in such a short time would be… well, unlikely.

One of them took it well. The other was insulted. But why do you think I can’t become fluent in a year if I study every day? she said. I explained that it very much depended on what fluency really means to her. Also, she would need to be highly motivated to reach that level so quickly, and devote almost all of her time to this goal to make it happen.

On the other hand, I just spoke to a guy who has been studying Japanese for a long time, but who is now feeling particularly unmotivated, given the global pandemic situation in 2020. Millions of trips to Japan have been cancelled or postponed indefinitely. He said: why bother now when I don’t even know when I’ll be able to go to Japan?

I know that there have been lots of headlines about people learning languages during lockdown.

So, I’d like to focus on 3 really important questions to ask yourself when it comes to making a decision on whether learning Japanese is right for you, right now. And, importantly, what Japanese to learn.

What I will cover will be, firstly, what problem will learning Japanese solve for you, in your life? Why do you want to learn Japanese?  Secondly, are you even aiming for fluency and what does the F word mean to you? Finally, what’s been stopping you learning Japanese? What obstacles might get in your way?

  1. What Problem Will Learning Japanese Solve in My Life?

How will learning Japanese help you progress in your personal life or in your work or studies? What real problems in your life will learning Japanese solve?

  • I want to be able to order food confidently in Japanese restaurant
  • I want to be transferred to Japan through my work
  • I want to successfully pass a JLPT level (Japanese Language Proficiency Test)
  • I don’t want rely on my Japanese partner to translate everything for me

Do these any of these sound familiar to you? They are all very solid reasons to learn Japanese. 

But let’s dig a little deeper.

Let me tell you a story about Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota.

Toyoda-san’s father was a well-respected carpenter, but the family was poor and lived in a small village in the countryside. Looking for a way out of poverty, the young Toyoda totally geeked out on LOOMS. (Not cars! I know, right?).

He was a determined problem-solver. In 1891, at the tender age of 24, he had invented and received a patent for his revolutionary design of the ‘Toyoda Wooden Hand Loom’ (it only needed one hand to operate, instead of two).

You could say, success loomed large (ahem).

Anyhow, the Toyota company’s success was thanks to a deceptively simple problem-solving technique Toyoda-san developed.  It goes deep into the root problems as they arise, to offer insight to their real cause.

The technique is known as ‘The 5 WHYS’.

When looking to fix a problem, he kept on asking WHY until the underlying issue was found.

So for example, if something went wrong with the threads on a loom, Toyoda-san would be looking not just to fix that glitch, but further back into the mechanism – why had it occurred? If it was because, say, a wooden piece had become warped, why was that? Why was that type of wood used there? Where was it from? Why not use metal? etc.

So, in applying the 5 whys technique to myself, I find that problem that Japanese solves for me is that it smooths out the tangles in my brain. I find it both fascinating and reassuring. But why is that? Well, I have found that learning Japanese helps me understand what’s important in life better.

In fact, it has been a huge factor for me in improving, and maintaining, my mental health. Why is that? Well, I have, over time, come to define this as a ‘Japanese mindset’ – certain key concepts reflected in Japanese ways of speaking, thinking and doing things.

Indeed, the Japanese language I am particularly motivated to learn is often used to express philosophical wisdom.

I can’t get enough of those marvellous ‘lost in translation’ words that are so helpful in pinning down the key concepts that make up a Japanese perception of the world.

Some examples of these wonderfully expressive words have, quite recently, become much more familiar in the West. This is thanks to some insightful books of the very same names which have recently been published in English:

  • Wabi-sabi: the understanding that everything is impermanent, imperfect and incomplete. It has often been translated as an aesthetic term, as items can visibly embody it. However, the book ‘Wabi Sabi: Japanese wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect life’ by Beth Kempton explains it as a whole new way of looking at the world, and how to apply it to your life.
  • Ikigai: there are about a dozen books available on this Japanese concept of finding your personal reason to get out of bed every morning. The Venn diagram put forward by Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles in their book ‘Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life’ has been hugely popular, and also controversial with those who say it is far removed from the true definition of Ikigai. I found a little book called ‘Ikigai & Other Japanese Words to Live By’ by Dr Mari Fujimoto to be a more elegant and thorough explanation.
  • Shinrin-yoku: there are also several books explaining forest bathing – that is, a type of nature therapy by mindfully being in forests. I like forest therapy researcher Yoshifumi Miyazaki’s book entitled ‘Shinrin-yoku: The Japanese Way of Forest Bathing for Health and Relaxation’. It’s full of beautiful images and science-backed wisdom.

There are many more books available: Kaizen, Kintsugi, Chowa, Omoiyari, Shinto, Zen… and each offer an interpretation of an aspect of a Japanese wisdom tradition.

After trying to absorb the essence of these terms, I am keen to apply my understanding to my own lifestyle. To apply it practically means I can enjoy life more – with simple, sustaining rituals and indeed, objects.

For example, choosing my tea, my teacup and my teapot carefully and using them mindfully, in order to create a tiny, grounding everyday ritual.

I personally look at this learning and application of Japanese mindset as my ‘mission’ or ‘quest’. It keeps me sane.

Your WHY is crucial – but it doesn’t need to be deep or long-term or philosophical. It absolutely DOES NOT need to be an uphill slog towards the ever-elusive FLUENCY. It is fine to dabble. It’s your choice! But it is all about our own, unique purpose and motivation.  INTENTIONALITY is key.

  1. What Does Fluency Mean to Me, Personally?

Given that my life pretty much revolves around all things Japanese, people are sometimes shocked when I tell them I’m not a fluent speaker.

I classify myself as a ‘situationally fluent’ user of Japanese. I’m not anywhere near a native-level of proficiency, and what’s more, that’s fine with me.

There are some situations when I can come across as quite fluent, some social situations, for example. Negotiating the train system, the 7-11 transactions or ordering in a restaurant when travelling in Japan are usually not a problem. I can conduct meetings in Japanese, if the client has no spoken English. I can tell some hilarious jokes. Also, giving rehearsed short speeches in Japanese is possible for me.

My mother, however, is convinced I am a fluent Japanese speaker.

She is a British native English speaker, and a monoglot. She often has asked why I don’t get a job as a translator, or work in a Japanese company. When I explain that I am not fluent, she thinks I am being modest, because she sees evidence in me that fulfils her idea of what fluency is.

Some dictionary definitions of the word ‘fluent’ (adjective) are: to be able to express oneself easily and articulately; be able to speak or write a particular language easily and accurately, (of a foreign language) spoken accurately and with facility.

So dictionary definition of fluency – it says: be able to speak OR write. You might like to think about which is more important to you? Will you learn them both to the same level? How far might you like to go with it? You might not know at first, but it’s so helpful to set goals & then move the goalposts if need be, later on.

You may already be aware that Japanese is rendered in three interrelated writing systems. Hiragana is essentially a phonetic alphabet system, which gives every syllable in Japanese a symbol. Katakana is the same sounds, but in a different writing system – it is used to write foreign words, so is very useful for reading menus in an Italian restaurant in Japan, for example. Finally, kanji are the more complex looking Chinese-descended characters which form words, and must be learned by stroke order.

I love learning the writing system, but I have two young children and currently NO NEED to reach a high literacy level in Japanese.

Finding that I was neglecting it entirely, at the beginning of the year I came across a Tim Feriss video (you know, 4 Hour Work Week guy) in which he demonstrates a ‘Buddha Board’ where you can write calligraphy in water, and it disappears as it dries. I immediately grabbed one, and a pack of kanji flash cards and now I practice just 1 or 2 every day, as a meditative part of my morning routine. I LOVE IT.

Sometimes learners of Japanese tell me that they’d like to be able to read a newspaper. I ask them – why? Newspapers are available in English. But seriously, to read a Japanese newspaper, you need to know approximately 2000 kanji. Of course, it is an admirable goal to learn 2000 kanji, but it’s a near native level of proficiency and you’d need a much stronger motivation than simply to read a newspaper.

So, in summary, I believe fluency is a journey, not a destination. I will always seek to improve. But for me, it works to take tiny steps. Ask yourself: what does fluency mean to me, personally? What situations would you like to be fluent in? Of course, to aim for a native, or near-native level speaker proficiency is an admirable goal. But is it really necessary for you, now, or in the future?

  1. What’s Stopping Me?

Haha, you speak Japanese like a child!’ laughed a new friend. She had already nicknamed me ‘Ichigo-pan-chan’ after a mascot I had on my pencil case. I felt a bit foolish. I faked a laugh but a lump rose to my throat.

Looking back, a lot of us can pinpoint specific experiences with random people, or in classes that have made us feel ridiculous about learning a language. That experience could have put me off if I’d taken it to heart, and I would have missed out on so much by limiting myself based on one silly person’s opinion or perception.

It’s a good idea, when you are trying to move forward, to look back and pick out any of those negative experiences you may have had in the past. Chuck them out of your brain. Haters gonna hate! You might find that one stranger’s stupid attitude or a tired teacher’s throwaway comment has unconsciously influenced your attitude learning for years.

Our hidden limiting beliefs can be uprooted to help us move forward.

Is it too hard to learn Japanese? People often ask me if Japanese is too difficult for them to learn. And I say, that beginner level Japanese can be surprisingly quick and pain-free to learn. Students are often really excited by how much they can learn quickly. If it does seem too hard, that’s because the goal has not been broken down into manageable steps. How do you eat an elephant? Bite by bite.

Another common concern is time – as evidenced by the people I spoke to who wanted to get fluent immediately, people often want things to happen fast. But we have to make time for things to develop! I always start consultations by asking learners why they are feeling motivation to learn Japanese RIGHT NOW. That is, why now? Will you be able to fit study into your life? How much, and when? An hour on Wednesdays? 15 minutes every day? It’s important to get granular on your schedule. Recently we have taken on some new students for online 1-1- lessons with Japanese tutors, who are finding it easier to fit in to their schedules now they are working from home.

Cost can be another obstacle to learning Japanese. Private tuition is not for everybody. If it seems too expensive to you, that’s because it doesn’t hold enough ‘value’. Perhaps you need to look at how to get the most from your time with a tutor.

Or, perhaps you need to study independently, in different ways, using books, apps, flashcards and other programmes, until you feel ready.

Learning Japanese can seem overwhelming. It can seem a bit exclusive, even. Difficult to get into. But the truth is, it’s never been more accessible. Japanese culture is hugely popular all over the world and we can easily get hold of resources such as film, books, music and study resources online.

But if it does seem overwhelming, that’s because it can be hard to know where to start. Like I said in the previous show, there is a seed of desire to learn. We need to tend to it and plan carefully to create the right environment for growth.

Thank you so much for reading. If the Omoshiroi approach to learning Japanese resonates with you, I’d like to invite you again to head over to JapaneseLondon.com/playbook to get a planner to nail your Japanese learning plan.

The playbook is an e-book with an interactive element so you don’t need to print it out. Once you’ve got your plans down, do email them over to me and I will give you my feedback, including any recommendations for how to go forward with your Japanese learning.

Or, if you are after personal attention to guide you, I also  connect learners of Japanese to private, 1-1 native-speaking Japanese tutors.

Love Japan? Live in London?
Sign up here for a weekly shot.