Why Learn Japanese?
The other day I was sitting in the bus on my way to work here in Taiwan when, out of the blue, an old lady turned to me and asked why I was studying Japanese. I gave a simple response, the only one that still matters after all these years, holding up the book that I had been reading: I like Japanese stories. A lot.
She fired back, almost before I’d finished talking: Yeah, but you live in Taiwan. Not Japan. It would be much more useful to learn Mandarin.
And she was right. My life here would be much, much easier if I spoke Mandarin instead of Japanese. It’d make it easier to interact with my wife’s family, it would have made getting belay certified much less of a nightmare and I’d also know what the hell I was eating at the night market. It’d probably look pretty slick on my resume, too.
I’ve got a lot of genuine reasons that I should learn Mandarin.
But I like Japanese stories. A lot.
Common reasons to learn Japanese
If you Google reasons to learn Japanese, you’ll find many pages abound with trite platitudes. If you’ve read even one such page, you’ve probably heard that Japanese will:
– Expand your mind
– Help you to appreciate your own culture
– Make you stand out from the crowd
– Help you connect to others who share a different perspective than you
– Change your life
Amidst all the cliché pandering, you’ll also find a few more tangible reasons to study Japanese tucked away here and there. You might find that:
– Amongst companies submitting patents worldwide, 7 of the top 10 are Japanese.
– Japan boasts the world’s 3rd highest GDP .
– Supposedly, there are fewer bilingual JP:EN translators than other language pairs.
– Melon Pan, the world’s most delicious food, comes from Japan
You might even be living in Japan and hold the much more practical reason that your daily life is occasionally impeded by not being able to speak Japanese. I once received a fine for taking a picture of a sign on top of a holy mountain in Ishikawa that said, and I quote, “no photography allowed”. Oops.
Murakami Haruki on Why you Shouldn’t Learn Japanese
If you’ve been clicking through blog articles such as these, Murakami Haruki has some words for you:
The thing about humans – no matter what they wish for, no matter how far they go, a person can never become anything other than themselves. ー Murakami Haruki, Birthday Girl
Before you sharpen your pitchforks, I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t learn Japanese.
Let there be no doubt about it, I firmly believe that you should learn Japanese.
What I’m trying to say is that you shouldn’t learn Japanese because of some dream about how it will transform your future. As Murakami Haruki says: no matter whatever you might achieve, at the end of the day you’re still going to be the same person… just, well, you’ll be able to speak Japanese. But:
– You won’t get a great job just because you speak Japanese.
– You won’t suddenly have a great social life just because you speak Japanese.
– You won’t become a happier or more interesting person just because you speak Japanese.
– You won’t become satisfied with yourself just because you speak Japanese.
– You won’t suddenly marvel at life and the universe just because you speak Japanese
Dogen on why he went to Japan
When reflecting on why he felt drawn to come to Japan, the popular YouTuber Dogen comments that, despite all of the reasons he’s stumbled across in his lifetime, from anime and video games to his wife and kids, he’s no longer sure why, exactly, he came to Japan (but glad he did). He then goes on to say:
I think that more than karate or J-Pop, more than FLCL or Final Fantasy, we’re motivated by whatever it is that made all those miracles possible. I think that we came to Japan looking for manifestations of the magic we feel in these things,hoping to find that and make it part of our day-to-day lives.
The entire video hits homeーand as an aside, all of his stuff can be turned into lessons on LingQーbut this bit really hits home for me. I think that the most important reason that can possibly exist for learning Japaneseーor, well, anythingーis because of this sense of magic you find in it and a desire to weave that magic into the threads of your everyday life.
Whatever your reason for learning Japanese, it should come from the here and now.
Alan Watts on Tomorrow’s Br… Melon Pan
The main point of the above sections are that I think any attempts to learn Japanese for your future – no matter how good or pressing a reason you may have – will turn out to be futile. That has less to do with you or Japanese and more to do with the entire notion of doing something for the future.
The future is a conceptーit doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as tomorrow. There never will be because time is always now. That’s one of the things we discover when we stop talking to ourselves and stop thinking. We find there is only present, only an eternal now.
– Alan Watts
The fact that Japanese might turn into a good job, might lead you to meet a few lifelong friends and might change the way you think about life is all fine and well, but you can’t live on tomorrow’s bread. You’ve first got to get through today. If you’ve got any idea how long it takes to learn Japanese, you’re probably going to have to get through a lot of days before getting to that bread – or melon pan, if I may.
The best way to improve the odds you’ll actually learn Japanese is to make a genuine connection with the language in the here and now. Find joy in something Japanese, a little something that makes you look forward to the day ahead. Japanese is a big language with a rich history and an incredible culture.
I don’t often make sweeping statements, but it is with utter certainty that I can assure you that no matter who you are, you can find such a something hidden away somewhere in Japanese. Indeed, you must. Not only is it the most effective way to learn a language, it is the only way to learn a language.
Frogs in a Well, or Why you Should Learn Japanese
You’ve probably heard this old Japanese proverb before:
A frog in a well cannot conceive of the ocean.
This proverb is normally used in a sort of scathing way to criticize somebody with a narrow mind. As the original quote from Zhuangzi goes on to conclude, it is only after leaving one’s banks and seeing the “great ocean”, thus knowing one’s own inferiority, is it possible to conceive of the “great principles” of life.
I, however, would like to call testament to the fact that the vast majority of frogs are perfectly content despite not ever having left their wells. That they cannot conceive of the ocean means nothing other than that they don’t need it – their little wells provide all they need for a satisfying and meaningful life.
Each language is sort of like a well. You’re in an English well right now, but that isn’t the only one that exists. There are 126.8 million people living in Japan, and many of them go their entire lives never speaking a language other than Japanese to any reasonable level of proficiency. The takeaway is that there is enough content within the Japanese language to have provided centuries of Japanese people with meaningful, satisfying lives.
This well was capable of providing for hundreds of millions of people from all walks of life, and if you take a dip in it, it will provide for you.
The only reasons you should learn Japanese
At the end of the day, I can’t tell you why you should learn Japanese. However, I can show you a bit of why I learned Japanese, and why I continue studying it even though I live in Taiwan (and really should be learning Mandarin). Please explore for yourself, I’ve tried to include something for everyone.
Learn Japanese for the music
– Want something that’ll make you feel nostalgic, even if you don’t understand it? Mucc, a visual kei band, has got you covered.
– Perhaps you’re in the mood to cry? Let Yamasaki Masayoshi tell you how his life changed after he lost his wife in an earthquake.
– Or maybe you’re more in the mood for a feel-good song – in that case, you should look no further than Unlimited Tone.
– How about something a little faster paced with a quirky little feel? Take an Odd Loop with the band Frederic.
– What about something a little (okay a lot) brighter, if you’ll allow me a Flash of guilty pleasure from the band Perfume.
– Not your style? What about A Bullet of Truth from King Giddra, some hard rap.
– Maybe you’re looking for something a bit smoother with a nice message? Don’t care if I’m broke by Kohh.
– Don’t mind me casually slipping in the song that made me fall in love with Japanese music, どこかでは昇る by Mrs. Green Apple.
– Maybe you can take a stab at describing this one for me – I’m not sure how.
– Rock all night long? Hello Sleepwalkers.
– ONE OK ROCK doesn’t need an introduction. You probably know them already.
– You probably haven’t heard of Sokoninaru, another J-rock band, which is a shame.
– Yonezu Kenshi probably fits into this rock/pop area, but something in his discography probably fits into every genre. When life gives you lemons?
– Sick of this timeline and want to go back to the good old days? スピッツ.
– Maybe you’re looking for something uniquely Japanese?
Learn Japanese for J-dramas
– Dig cheesy romance? It isn’t too late to save my stupid youth.
– What about burst-out laughing romcoms? Then you need Ossan’s Love.
– Maybe you watch dramas to peek under the fabric of society? The Weakest Beast.
– What about suspense? From now on, you’re Mr. Hiraagi’s hostage.
– Wondering about the meaning of life? So is this god of death.
– What about forbidden romance? Or need I say more than Shun Ogori?
Learn Japanese for anime
– If you’ve read this far, check out the horror anime that started my Japanese journey.
– You might as well figure out what the life of a samurai is actually (cough) like.
– If you can put up with Gintama, you can put up with a polar bear who owns a cafe.
– If you still need to cry, you should check out Angel Beats!.
– Still curious about the meaning of life? Take a ride on the Death Parade.
– Nervous about AI and the widespread use of data? I’m sorry, Psycho-Pass won’t help.
– Do you know what the Japanese equivalent of falling into a tub of nuclear waste and coming out a superhero is? Or, at the least, a demihuman.
– Seeking grand revelations about the nature of life with every episode? Join Kino on their journey.
Learn Japanese for the YouTube scene
– Go on some crazy adventures and answer the important questions with Hajime – like how much of your eraser you can use in one class while the teacher isn’t looking.
– Learn how to make the world’s most delicious food with probably my favorite person on the internet.
– Delve into the nature of happiness with Osho Taigu.
– Give a few views to my favorite Japanese comedy duo, バイきんぐ
– Get a Korean guy’s perspective on living on Japan with 留学生じん.
– Follow motivation channels in English? You might as well follow a Japanese one.
– Talk about pretty much everything in life with Inoue Joe – like why Japanese is the hardest language (is it, though?)
– Wish you could write beautiful Japanese? Now you can.
– Regret not doing all the cool stuff you should have done when you were a kid? Live vicariously through Fischer.
– Need more? We’ve got an entire post about Japanese YouTubers.
Learn Japanese for the literature.
– You’ve probably heard about how Japanese is so unique because it can omit subjects. Check out a masterful example of such an omission in the short story Hyakumonogatari in Kitamura Kaoru’s 1950 Toss Back.
– Interested in that quote from Murakami Haruki earlier? Many more like it are to be found in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, a special English compilation of 24 iconic stories.
– This post also ends with a quote, and if you’ve ever wanted to get a peek into the minds of famous authors, you can get one in the essay compilation Decades by Isaka Kotaro.
– Question your morals and world perspective during a boat ride to prison down the Takase river with Ogai Mori.
– Learn the nature of beauty – or, perhaps, poignance – with Dazai Osamu. Some people are so weak that they fear even happiness.
It was that ephemeral time of day where the afternoon slowly melted into evening. Slowly at first, and then suddenly with an incredible speed, pockets of dusk began eating away at the remaining sunlight.
One of the favourite lines I have ever read, written by Itaru Sakamura in the introduction of あした晴れるるか.
If you’re looking for a way to turn music videos, novels, short stories, YouTube videos, etc. into Japanese lessons, look no further. With LingQ you can upload content you’re interested in and learn the words and phrases. It’s never been easier to learn a language. You can turn anything online into a lesson. Check out LingQ today.
Wrapping Up with Isaka Kotaro
Many Japanese authors publish not only stories but also essays―about writing, their perspectives on life, and about everything, really. The below quote sets the pace for a collection of essays by one of my favorite authors, Isaka Kotaro, and I think it’s a fitting place to wrap up this post:
You only get one life―and a short one, at that. But if you live a life of imagination, oh, what a happy life it can be.
I don’t know you, and for that reason, it’s impossible for me to tell you why you should learn Japanese.
That being said, at some point down the line, if you take regular dips into this well of Japanese, you’ll stumble into something that piques your imagination. Something that gives you a friendly little push to get through another day on the grind, something that brings you a bit of happiness. Something that slowly creeps up and becomes a part of your routine, that becomes as natural as breathing.
A small little something that, mundane as it may be, is an integral stitch in the fabric of your everyday life. A bit of magic that, for a second, lets you become something more than yourself.
Whatever it is, that―and only that―is why you should learn Japanese.
If nothing else, it’s the reason that I like Japanese stories. A lot.
Enjoyed this post? Check out polyglot and LingQ cofounder Steve Kaufmann’s YouTube video for some tips for learning Japanese!
Sami is slowly dancing his way around the world, learning languages as he goes.