Before I came to Japan, my Japanese language skill had atrophied significantly. Despite studying the language for years, I had not taken a Japanese course for at least a year. I told my friends about one of my greater fears: that when I arrived, I would struggle to communicate well. Invariably they would reply by saying, “Don’t worry, your Japanese will definitely improve a lot because you will be living there!”
Over the last two months, I’ve realized that my friends were mostly right. Tokyo is an international city, so English is common enough that a person with weak Japanese can still get by. However, even in the Tokyo area there are times where understanding the language is absolutely necessary. Improving my everyday “survival” Japanese has been a constant adventure, because Japan is very eager to give pop quizzes.
Not that long ago I had a very persistent cough, and went to a pharmacy near my dorm to buy some medicine. I immediately realized that I was in over my head when I started trying to read the names of any of the products. Completely lost and without any friends who could help me, I asked an employee for help. Initially we had trouble communicating, and behind her polite smile I saw confusion in her eyes. Unable to remember the word for my illness, I tried to describe my symptoms to her in Japanese. Eventually, her face shifted from a look of awkward confusion to a smile as she realized what I needed. Relieved, I walked out of the pharmacy with a box of ibuprofen, a few new words and phrases, and the satisfaction of having solved the issue using only Japanese.
Opportunities for language learning take many forms. Thanks to my Japanese friends, I have slowly picked up on slang and other nuances of informal conversation. Although there is much to learn in the classroom, you would never be taught what is now one of my favorite words, "yabai." Yabai literally means “risky,” but as slang it can be translated to mean something like “Oh my god!” Young Japanese people use it often and creatively. A large furry insect suddenly appearing before you is yabai. A fellow student losing their wallet somewhere in a remote suburb of Osaka is yabai. Doing well on a stressful placement test or interview is also yabai. It is a term that can be both negative and positive, and after several weeks in Tokyo yabai has become a natural part of my speech.
Thanks to interactions such as these, I can feel my vocabulary expanding, my pronunciation improving, and so much more. At the same time however, I still find myself struggling to say what I want or retrieve words from the far corners of my memory. Earlier, I said say that my friends were only mostly right. Despite all the possibilities for growth in Japan, stagnation is still possible if you avoid (intentionally or not) experiences that challenge you.
It is surprisingly easy to stay in an “American bubble” while studying abroad. There is always a temptation to stick together with your American friends, and speak English instead of Japanese. The temptation to speak in English isn’t just limited to American friends. Many of my Japanese friends, especially those who are epals, have very strong English. Just as I am eager to improve my Japanese skill, my Japanese friends are eager to improve their English skill. Although it is possible to maintain a healthy balance between the two languages, it’s easier to slide into a primarily-English conversation than a primarily-Japanese conversation. It doesn’t help when you make the conscious decision to hang out at the English-only floor of Building 8, the recently opened language learning center on campus. Even people that have a decent amount of Japanese language experience behind them can succumb to the temptation. I am no exception, and it took several gentle “reminders” to use Japanese before I realized it.
I remember feeling a bit helpless when I went out to dinner with my friend Chiaki just before the Golden Week holidays. The menu had no pictures and was written mostly in katakana, the Japanese alphabet that is often used to write loan words, and kanji, Chinese characters. I could only read at a slow pace and had trouble piecing together what any of the menu items were. In the end, Chiaki had to order for both of us. I thought about how often I just pointed at a picture and said “Kore, onegaishimasu!” (That one, please!) instead of actually trying to read menus. Sure, I had 4-5 years of Japanese language study behind me, but was I really using what I learned? Was I becoming a burden by not trying to apply myself?
Although that concern faded for a few days, it returned with a vengeance when I was in Kansai during Golden Week. That week, I explored the Kansai area with most of my dorm mates and a three epals: Mikito, Natsumi, and Masanobu. For the majority of the week however, the latter two had plans in other areas of Kansai, so Mikito was the only Japanese student in our group. He frequently had to act as a guide and translator for the Americans in the group. Looking up restaurants online, navigating the Osaka train network, trying to explain the various tourist sites we were seeing… I think it put a lot of pressure on him. When we joined up with Natsumi and Masanobu at the end of the week, I remember Mikito telling them, “I’m so thankful to see you! I really missed speaking Japanese…”
Those experiences were a month ago, but I still think about them now. Sometimes I think back on all the times where just a bit more Japanese practice would have helped me be more independent or less of a trouble for other people. Since those days, I have pushed myself to gradually use more and more Japanese. I send Japanese text messages, use Japanese when friend calls on the LINE, and even start conversations in Japanese with my American friends.
Last weekend, I asked Natsumi how my Japanese skill has changed. As my epal, she would know better than anyone else at KUIS. She told me, “It’s improved so much since I met you! Your pronunciation is even starting to resemble a Japanese person’s!”
With only one month left in Japan, I realize I should have been doing this sooner. After all, while in Japan, I should be speaking Japanese! But history is history, and it’s never too late to start trying to grow.
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<p>Timothy is a third-year East Asian Studies/Diplomacy and World Affairs double major from Occidental College in Los Angeles. Prior to studying abroad, Timothy’s studies have centered on historical and contemporary East Asian and Asian American experiences. He further focuses on social movements and minority rights, and is Vice President of Asian Pacific Americans for Liberation, a cultural/political student organization at his home college. He will be spending his time in Tokyo learning about Japan’s unique history and culture, visiting cat cafes, working hard to improve his Japanese language skills, petting cats, eating as much curry rice as possible, and purchasing cute cat-related items.</p>