by Jonathan Broom
Most foreigners here are aware of the eagerness of many Japanese to master, and use, the English language—indeed, many (myself included) have benefited financially from their enthusiasm. This must be the only country in the world where a native English-speaker can make money for being… well, a native English-speaker.
But is the same true of Tokyo’s foreign community? How many of us have really made much effort to learn Japanese, instead subscribing to the “We’ll-pick-it-up-as-we-go-along” theory? Let’s face it: In an international city like Tokyo, do we really need to learn the language?
The answer, unequivocally, has to be a resounding YES. For a start, it makes sound financial sense. It stands to reason that, for those of us trying to do business in Tokyo, there’s a straight choice: speak Japanese or employ a Japanese speaker (and a measure of trust). Surely those business meetings would be a lot more straightforward if one did not have to rely on a third party to interpret. Not to mention basic politeness, so important to the Japanese.
And what of the famed Japanese culture? How many of us really feel that we are making the most of our stay—long or short — in this fascinating country? Last September, some friends of mine spent a bum-numbing three hours at a Noh play: they laughed about it afterwards — a good experience, glad they’d been, all part of life’s rich tapestry, etc. The universal consensus was that it was boring. On what grounds? The Japanese in the audience were rapt throughout, and applauded enthusiastically at the finish. So was it the play that was dull, or my friends’ lack of understanding?
Then there’s that bit about representing one’s country. I’m sure everyone has a gripe or two about Japan, but it is worth remembering at all times that as foreigners we are here as guests of the Japanese government and people. The Far Hast Network daily exhorts its listeners to the “good ambassadors” for the United States: FEN, exists primarily for the benefit of U.S. service personnel stationed in Japan—however, some members of the (foreign) public would do well to take note. A crack at learning the language would be a good start.
And, in truth, relying on FEN’s risible “Phrase of the Day” by the earnest — very earnest — young gentleman so carefully enunciating each tortured phrase is definitely not the answer to the language problem.
So, how does one approach the problem of learning Japanese? The thing is that, as languages go, it’s a tough one, at least for those whose native tongue is of European origin. An English-speaker studying a European language quickly realizes that there are many common reference points —many words are the same, or are of similar derivation, and most Western European languages use the Roman alphabet. Japanese is not so helpful. What, therefore, to do? Learn hiragana? Katakana? Kanji! Try to ignore the lettering — just concentrate on the speaking?
A first step might be to define what you want from a Japanese school: what level of Japanese are you at now, what level do you want to attain, within what period of time, and how much time you are prepared to commit, on a weekly basis, to the study of Japanese. Then comes the question of cost — how much arc you prepared to allocate to Japanese study, over your given period? Finally, the proximity of the school to your home or office might be important.
Then comes the tricky part. There are literally thousands of Japanese schools in Tokyo; on one level, of course, this is good for the consumer, however, there is such a thing as an “embarrasse de richesse.” Also, quantity does not necessarily mean quality. Some Japanese schools have a less than enviable reputation.
The answer most probably, then, is to employ the same methods you’d use when shopping for an item which possibly could be of less use in the long run. Shop around. Enquire among your Japanese-speaking gaijin friends as to where they acquired their lingual expertise. Take the time to call various language schools, make a visit, talk with the administrators and, perhaps, one or two of the instructors.
Take advantage of the frequently offered “free trial lessons” used as an inducement by many schools to provide them with a chance to show their wares. One thing not to do is postpone this important move any longer than you already have. In fact, I’m taking my own advice and increasing my own language lesson schedule immediately. Well, as soon as I can get around to it, at any rate. Good luck!