Learning Japanese: a five year retrospective

Next week, my younger brother will get on a plane to Canada, where he will embark on four years of an undergraduate education at a top university. He will have registered for a first-level Japanese course, and have the freedom to explore a whole new language at an exciting time of his life.

I will also miss him a lot. Who will take care of the plants in his room?

Five years ago, I also went off to college, where I was first exposed to the Japanese language. My first-level Japanese course eventually led me to make a deep dive into the study of Japanese language and society, even though Japanese had nothing to do with my international politics major.

One question I get asked is how my Japanese got “so good.” Another is why I chose Japanese in the first place.

These are problematic questions, not least because I do not wish to brag about my Japanese. First, I don’t think my Japanese is that good. Second, there are plenty of second or third-language Japanese speakers or non-‘ethnic Japanese’ speakers who are also really good at Japanese. Third, to get fluent in any language, every language speaker needs to put in the work. Fourth, a language is only as “important” for your life as you perceive the language to be. I hope to cover all four aspects in detail on my blog one day.

In the meantime, here is an overview of my Japanese language study in the last five years of my life.

Year One (2013)

I entered Georgetown University in August 2013 with absolutely no intention of learning Japanese. In fact, to fulfil my foreign language requirement, I enrolled in a first-level French class, somewhat at my mother’s behest.

After witnessing the French professor spend 15 minutes trying to open Mozilla Firefox, and then reading off the semester’s syllabus for the next 30 minutes before wishing us a bonne semestre at the end of the period, I realized two things. First, I did not have to follow my mother’s wishes for what to study in college. Second, I really wanted to get out of that dark basement classroom in the Intercultural Center. I knew that it would not be a bonne semestre indeed.

During international student orientation, a Taiwanese student had talked about enrolling into a first-level Japanese class. After looking up when that class was scheduled, I immediately ran across campus into Walsh Building, a boxy 1950s four-storey tower where the Japanese class was scheduled to begin in five minutes. When I entered the classroom, the professor was already leading the class through the first five hiragana characters. That was the moment, quite literally, when I decided to switch to Japanese to fulfil my language requirement for graduation.

Plus, the Japanese professor had a red chilli pepper on Rate My Professors.

So I took my first ever Japanese language class in August 2013. And boy was it hard. I somehow forced myself to memorise the hiragana syllabary using mnemonics. But when the professor placed two hiragana syllables together out of order to form a word, e.g. はな (flower), I was horrified. How was I going to remember all these words?

I was further horrified to learn that the Japanese language had not one, but three writing systems, one of which (if I may say pejoratively) is created from random distortions of hanzi characters (hiragana), one of which is created from random strokes of hanzi characters (katakana), and one of which is lifted from hanzi characters themselves (kanji). So 母はハハハハと言いました would be はははははははといいました without the three distinct systems. But that also meant doing three times the work.

Nonetheless, I dove into the work. The pace of the class was intense, and so was the tempo of the vocabulary quizzes and grammar worksheets that I received every other day. Studying a new language felt like a reprieve from the really heavy (but fascinating) readings I was assigned on diplomatic bandwagoning, W.E.B. Du Bois, and coyotes on the U.S.-Mexican Border.

I fell in love with making Quizlet sets. During my nerdy, celibate weeknights in Darnall Hall, I would listen to new Japanese words on Quizlet, which would helpfully read back in new vocabulary using speech synthesis.

I fell in love with the weekly drill sessions my class had with the Japanese graduate students. My classmates in those drill sessions became some of my best friends in the four years I spent at Georgetown. We would stay behind after class and write random Japanese phrases we knew on the chalkboard and giggled all evening.

I fell in love with the Japanese language so much that I decided to apply to a summer program called Princeton in Ishikawa. It was the most intense, challenging, but rewarding summer experience of my life—far more difficult than a completing a vacation scheme at a commercial law firm, or shepherding dozens of high school kids at a college dorm for Georgetown summer school. Japanese language summer programs tend to attract people with very similar interests, and Princeton in Ishikawa was no exception.

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The night before the 2014 Hyakumangoku Matsuri in Kanazawa, Ishikawa.

Princeton in Ishikawa was also the first time I experienced Japan as a Japanese speaker (well, kind of).

It was in that summer that I fell in love with Japan itself.

Year Two (2014)

I returned to Georgetown freshly awed by what I saw during my time at Princeton in Ishikawa. I spent the year in a less intensive third-level Japanese course, slowly nursing my way through what I had learned in those eight weeks again with an excellent language textbook called Tobira.

I also hung around the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures each week for free coffee during the Japanese language tables. Slowly but surely, however, and for a wide variety of reasons, my friends decided to stop taking Japanese and began to pursue Korean or other languages instead.

In my second year of study, I began to take my Japanese outside the classroom.

Through a referral from a classmate in my first-level Japanese class, I did the first ever internship in my life at the Washington, D.C. bureau of a major television news network based in Tokyo. I didn’t really do much at the internship but for falling asleep during interviews, scroll through the Federal News Service Daybook for talking shops about U.S.-Japan strategy (oh, the Obama days!), and posing in front of the lectern in a State Department briefing room, but I was really excited to actually work in an office for the first time in my life.

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One of the many vanilla speaking events I went to during my summer at Washington, D.C. I think all the camera crews came just in case Ambassador Sasae (second from right on the panel) spoke something important.

Although I couldn’t speak a useful word of Japanese at the office (and so did another American producer who worked there at the time) I would secretly hoard old, discarded copies of Bungeishunjū magazine home from the office recycle bin. Who wouldn’t a free source of Japanese-language reading material about the dangers of factory-made convenience store food and other sensationalist celebrity scoops?

The summer following my sophomore year at Georgetown was a lot less fun. The smarter alumni in my Princeton in Ishikawa cohort returned to Kanazawa to do internships at the local newspaper or television station. In retrospect, as I scroll through the PII website which documents their escapades, I now wonder why I didn’t do the same. In any case, I had a brain fart about wanting to stay in Washington, D.C. for a summer to work in unpaid internships (during the day, and to support the said unpaid internships, work the thankless job of being a summer RA, during which I shepherded dozens of high school kids at a college dorm for Georgetown summer school).

On the other hand, I met a really cool mentor while working for a small Waseda University-affiliated academic organization. He would school me on formal letter writing and business etiquette. And while he was extremely strict with me on keigo, it was all in good fun. And as with the stereotype of most Japanese men his age, he had a soft spot for golf courses, which he would spend looking up for much of his work day.

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We’re still in touch, and he still has a lot of kodawari about my writing style.

Year Three (2015)

When I attended the Georgetown admitted students’ reception at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondent’s Club, someone told me that my undergraduate years would disappear in a heartbeat. By the fall of 2015, half a heartbeat away from graduating with a bachelor’s degree, I found myself living with two frenemies who would grow to hate each other in the following year’s undergraduate student government elections.

I also decided that I wanted to get away from Georgetown really badly. A week before my school’s study abroad application deadlines, I contacted the advisor responsible for East Asia about my intention to do an exchange semester at Waseda University.

In the meantime, I took a class called “Media Japanese” where I began reading Japanese-language newspapers and magazine articles in earnest. I became obsessed with the Asahi Shimbun. A friend introduced me to an app called SmartNews, which is still my favorite way to consume random bits of media on my phone in the morning.

The lingua franca I used with exchange students at Georgetown who came from Japan gradually transitioned from English to Japanese. This was a little overwhelming for my roommates whenever I held evening gatherings, where we would make doria and share nibbles from a local grocer near Dupont Circle called Hana Market, in my house.

A lot happened during my time at Waseda University. I ate a Shack Shack burger and drank Angry Orchard cider at the U.S. ambassador’s residence, received a giant hug from a sobbing Canadian man outside my share house in Tabata, exploded a number of sauce packets when warming up customers’ bento boxes in an industrial microwave, sold manga warning about the sexual exploitation of children for charity, threw up in the toilet of Meguro station on my way home from Yokohama, survived a harrowing two-hour drive in Okinawa, tried my hand at a job interview with Deloitte Japan, and a lot more. Oh, and I barely passed the N1 level of the JLPT exam.

Waseda University had a lot more resources compared to Georgetown for Japanese language learning. Waseda’s Center for Japanese Language library had a huge collection of JLPT books for anyone to borrow. I also enrolled in a helpful pronunciation class where the really nice professor tried to make everyone sound like a NHK announcer. She was really effective at chipping away my American Japanese accent.

Years Four and Five (2016-17)

Cherry blossoms in bloom by the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., in April 2017.

In my final year at Georgetown University, I finally passed the Japanese language proficiency test required for graduation, though I barely comprehended the article I had to analyze—a report about the Emperor of Japan’s proposal to abdicate from the throne. Passing the test formally marked the end point of all the efforts I made, so I could focus on more of the fun stuff, like being a Goodwill Ambassador for the National Cherry Blossom Festival, which at times felt like being a real-life Effie Trinket.

Nonetheless, I decided to take a translation class for my final semester of my undergraduate education. To date, I still don’t know if it was a good idea to spent fifteen weeks of my life reading the assigned material, which were dozens of pages from one single far-right racist magazine called Hanada that the professor claimed was on every desk of every Liberal Democratic Party politician.

When I graduated from Georgetown University, I was worried about leaving behind my Japanese language as well. But through some luck and a chance Facebook message from a Georgetown professor, I became acquainted with the Japanese studies program at The University of Hong Kong, my new alma mater. Eventually, I got to help out at the HKU-UTokyo Summer Program, during which I re-learned my Japanese and rediscovered the vast age gap (mentally?) I now had with the visiting University of Tokyo undergraduates.


This retrospective unearthed a lot of personal memories, which I hope to cover in some detail and am happy to share over time on this blog.

One never stops learning a foreign language. Like watching (non-Japanese) bacon strips sizzling on a saucepan, the fun doesn’t stop and never stops. There are still so many things I want to do in my life with my Japanese abilities, and this blog is just one of them.

And so the journey continues.