The Real Reason You May Fail to Learn Japanese

My 7-year-old’s middle name is Zen.

No, really, it is.

We gave him the name hoping naively that it might, I don’t know… infuse qualities of calm into his nature?

He is, ermm, not calm. He is like a tightly coiled spring, ready to bounce off unpredictably in any direction. His spirit animal is, I think, Tigger.

2020’s adventure in ‘home schooling’ rapidly led to clenched fists, hyperventilating, hiding under the desk, shouting ‘NO!’. And that was just me!

All the lessons in the meaning of Zen are for mummy.

Something I had to quickly understand is to follow the path of least resistance. Make it easy. Make it fun. Make it interesting. This inspired me to think more deeply about learning Japanese, and how it can be Omoshiroi.

Really, this applies to all learning, doesn’t it? EVERYTHING we do in life. It’s just got to be compelling and enjoyable, or else we resist doing it.

In kids, this resistance to applying themselves to focusing on a task is more commonly known as ‘naughty behaviour’. It is seen as defiant. Yet, learning through play is children’s natural state of being, their default setting, and we need to make things fun & interesting to channel this flow of energy.

In adults, resistance turns up as ‘self-sabotage’. You’ve DECIDED to do it, you LIKE doing it, you WANT to do it, yet you can’t GET yourself to do it. It’s so frustrating and I think it is one of the main challenges of being human.

Resistance is the Real Reason You May Fail to Learn Japanese

If you want to learn Japanese, you may have thought – perhaps unconsciously – that would be very ‘difficult’ and that strict discipline to somehow cram the language into your brain with intense study sessions is the way to do it – but happily, it really isn’t.

At this point, I’d just like to clarify that what I mean by ‘fail to learn Japanese’. What I’m talking about is self-sabotage. It’s giving up before you want to. Before you have decided to. It leaves you hanging, with an unclosed loop, and an empty, unfulfilled feeling.

To fail does not mean changing your mind, taking a break, or not becoming fluent. The key is to INTENTIONALLY DECIDE.

The real reason people fail to learn Japanese is not that the language is too hard, or that it takes too much time, or that it costs too much money (although these are very handy excuses).

The real root reason is RESISTANCE. Resistance is FEAR.

Fear sets off the body’s ‘fight or flight’ reaction. The good news is that moving away from that fear-based reaction does not require a complex plan, or worse still, force.

3 Steps to Smash Your Resistance to Learning Japanese

It can be SO FRUSTRATING to gently coax your inner child out from under the desk. It can be incredibly challenging to stay patient and consistent, and be kind to yourself. But we know that dragging them out, kicking and screaming will only win you more resistance.

So, I’d love to share 3 practical steps I’ve been working on for myself, and which you can take right away to combat resistance (and they don’t involve any bribery with Percy Pigs).

The first crucial step is to break down learning goals into tiny, miniscule steps; the second step is to make learning easier by cementing every day habits, and the third is about how creating a ‘language community’ can offer both meaningful social interaction and in turn, accountability.

Step 1: Break Your Learning Up into Small Chunks

I don’t know about you, but when something has been driving me nuts, hanging around on my ‘to do’ list for ever, I always find the task is not actually a task – because it’s too big and involves multiple decisions and actions. If I have written ‘learn Japanese’ on my list, I’m obviously never going to be able to cross that off!

I’d say the main reason why people fail to learn Japanese is because they want to eat the fruit without first having even planted the seeds. Wanting to jump straight to the results is totally natural. Wow, I feel like that every day about one thing or another – study, exercise, diet, writing, podcasting… the list goes on. To go against this natural instinct involves focusing in on the details and granular planning.

Japanese is NOT too hard for you to learn. But it can be overwhelming and does require plenty of focused attention. If you’ve been following my OMOSHIROI method, you will have examined your BIG WHY for learning Japanese – your past, your current interests, your future vision. Plus, you will have set goals which will make a real difference in your life.

The small steps are your tactics.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  1. What are my top 3 goals in learning Japanese language and culture?
  2. What resources have I decided to utilise to reach those goals? (this could be apps, textbooks, lessons, flashcards, group lessons, a Japanese tutor)
  3. Examine the resources. What chunk or unit of work from those resources can I fit in to my schedule, and when exactly? It is best to hugely underestimate (i.e. learn 1 kanji per week by practising it whilst my coffee brews) than overestimate (i.e. learn 10 kanji per week all at once).

Once you have broken the tactics down into pieces which cannot be reduced any further, you need to slot those pieces into your day.

Step 2: Get the Habit of Learning Japanese

It’s natural to feel that when you have decided WHY you want to do something, and WHAT you want to do, that you should be able to summon the will-power to JUST DO IT. If only it were that easy!

I just read a book by James Clear, called ‘Atomic Habits’ and it was really eye-opening for me. Have you read it? It’s an odd combination of tiny, simple hints that on one hand seem somehow really obvious, but on the other are also very powerful in application.

Yesterday I shared a post on Instagram with my favourite quote from the book, and it got (by far) the highest reach that any of my posts have ever enjoyed. Here’s the quote, in case you missed it:

“Bamboo can barely be seen for the first five years as it builds extensive root systems underground before exploding ninety feet into the air with six weeks.”

If you ever feel like you are not making progress fast enough, this quote says it all.

James Clear offers a model to create habits that stick, to create tiny, 1% improvements with results that snowball. I’ll just give a super quick summary here.

Atomic Habits: How to Create Good Habits.

Habits, good or bad, consist of cue, a craving, a response and a reward. So if you want to establish a desired habit, you need to take these steps:

  • Cue – Make it obvious
  • Craving – Make it attractive
  • Response – Make it easy
  • Reward – Make it satisfying

Let’s see how to apply these tips to examples of learning Japanese consistently:

  • Cue – Make it obvious => Put your Japanese study materials where they are clearly visible in your home (or on your desk).
  • Craving – Make it attractive => Follow a simple routine that’s fun and efficient that fits within your schedule (for example, practice writing for five minutes, followed by reviewing 1 page of your textbook).
  • Response – Make it easy => Take Japanese lessons online at home, or choose a tutor in the most convenient location as possible.
  • Reward – Make it satisfying => Log the lesson, and what you did, as daily wins in your journal, spreadsheet or calendar. Progress makes you feel good, it’s a reward in itself.

It’s easy to think the small steps are too small to bother with – put Japanese learning resources in a clearly visible place – duh! However, I find if I leave out some calligraphy positioned on my desk, I am 100% more likely to do it.

Step 3: Create Your Japanese Language Community

When I returned to London after living in Japan for three years, I didn’t want to leave all that I loved about Japan behind me.

I became totally obsessed with finding Japanese places, Japan-related groups, businesses and individuals, and other things here in London.  I just find so many aspects of Japanese ways of speaking, thinking and doing things so fascinating and inspiring.

After extensive research, I can say, hand on heart, that London is THE BEST place in the world to be, if you love Japan (except Japan – obviously).  But actually… in some ways, it’s even better!

And it’s not just that all the Japanese films are subtitled in English (though that’s pretty awesome). When we experience Japanese culture and attend events in the UK, things are explained to us in an easy-to-understand way. It’s so accessible! We are so lucky.

Here are some ideas to establish a ‘Japanese Language community’ of your very own:

1. Join a Japanese Club

I really enjoy The Japan Society’s Bilingual Speaking Club, where half of the session is conducted in Japanese only. This is fantastic for intermediate or higher levels. The Japan Society also offers other online events, such as a book club and a film club.

Try searching to find out about local clubs where you can explore any and every interest, from afternoon tea to Zen, with a group of like-minded people. There are various niche meetups related to other aspects of Japanese culture.

Conversation clubs are a wonderful option for language exchange and friendship – there are several in to join in London and online.

Be sure to sign up for my newsletter – sign up here to be the first to hear about the Japanese London Conversation Club events that I have planned for 2021.

2. Go to Japan-related Events & Make Friends

If you are looking for events where you meet can bilingual speakers of English/Japanese:

all offer amazing, often free, events which attract people interested in all aspects of Japanese culture. During 2020, they have put on a variety of really interesting online events.

However, I do find there is a slight problem when you want to practice: it’s easier than ever to default to English when speaking to Japanese people in the UK. Ex-pats of course often speak do a very good level of English. Also, always ask before you practise (not everyone wants to be a Japanese teacher!).

On the other hand, Japanese people you meet in the UK may well have learned the skill of speaking an easier-to-understand Japanese (like the way we modify English by dropping idioms and colloquialisms when speaking to non-native speakers, and it is a definitely is a kind of skill). This makes it easier to have a successful beginner level Japanese conversation.

3. Take Japanese Lessons with a Private 1-to-1 tutor

A problem I used to have when I went out socially to practice Japanese was that not only that it’s so easy to revert to English, but also I always got over involved in the ‘nomunication’ aspect. If you haven’t heard the word before, ‘nomunication’ is a ‘Japlish’ word combining the Japanese word ‘nomu’ (to drink) with ‘communication’ which is often used as a loan word in Japanese. A beer or three loosens the tongue but does not sharpen the memory!

I find that to actually improve my speaking, private 1-to-1 lessons give an opportunity to speak at length with your tutor, making mistakes and correcting them as you go along. Your tutor is a language coach; a trusted guide who will help to navigate through your studies, provide accountability, and keep you motivated.

If you are interested in getting a Japanese tutor, please do get in touch with me, Vanessa to arrange a consultation.

Japanese tuition has worked really well online in 2020. Like everyone else, I didn’t know what to expect, as we had been delivering most lessons in person. Now I’m not going to lie – the transition was challenging – but I have been pleasantly surprised.

Online lessons work very well to focus on the spoken communication skills of speaking and listening. Removing the commute to a location has also meant some students find it easier to keep up with their lessons. The way I see lessons going in 2021 is that I will continue to match tutors and students bearing location in mind, so that when they want to meet in person, they can. I imagine that in-person lessons may take place every other lessons, or once a month, with the other lessons taking place online.

Thank you so much for reading / listening! I sincerely hope that taking the 3 steps of breaking your learning up into small steps, getting tiny habits of learning Japanese, and creating your Japanese language community will help you smash resistance to smithereens!

I’ll be back in 2021 with my next Japanese London Living series of podcasts. So I can let you know when I’m starting, please do sign up to my newsletter today!

Yoroshiku onegaishimasu!

If the OMOSHIROI approach to learning Japanese resonates with you, I’d like to invite you again to head over to 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.

To read the other articles in ‘The OMOSHIROI Method’ series, click the links below:

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