The Biggest Secret about Learning Japanese

The Biggest Secret about Learning Japanese post image
Secret about Learning Japanese

The monkeys at Toshogu Shrine aren’t telling me something. I know it.

Some people study Japanese for hours a day. Others might only spend a few minutes of daily practice. Either way that is a good amount of time to use for something. Time that could be used vegging out in front of the TV or playing iPhone games. And everyone knows those are essential life-changing activities.

Study Japanese could also be the source of a lot of stress and anxiety. Test-taking can make some people very nervous. And not getting the score you wanted can make you so frustrated you want to throw your books out the window.

So, one of the biggest and most closely kept secret about learning Japanese might come as a bit of a surprise to you. You may very well go crazy wondering why nobody told you it before. The big secret is that you don’t need to study Japanese.

You don’t need it to get a job (as long as you natively speak English) in Japan. You don’t need it to live in Japan. And you don’t even need it to travel in Japan. If you speak English natively or semi-natively you’ll never need to speak Japanese.

Let me explain.

Life as an English Teacher in Japan

If you come to Japan as an English teacher (like I did), life is generally pretty sweet. Nobody expects you to know any Japanese at all, so they do their best to surround you with English stuff.

Depending on which path you take, someone will probably meet you at the airport and take you to where you will be living, which has already been arranged and they will generally babysit you during any interaction with Japanese people including going to get a cell phone and hooking up your gas.

And to be honest, you don’t need Japanese to go shopping either. You just see stuff that you want to buy and check out. Nobody is going to ask you any questions really. They might ask if you need chopsticks, but that is about it.

Now with the Internet, you don’t even have to leave your favorite TV shows behind. You can grab what you want to watch through various means and be done with it. You can pretty much wall yourself off from Japanese and live a good life. Take in the sights in your free time and call it a day.

And if you live in Japan, you know there are people that have lived here for well over 10 years and don’t speak any Japanese at all. They don’t need to because they teach English at a university, private school, or high school and don’t need Japanese to live.

Why Study if you don’t Need it?

It’s a tremendous amount of hard work to study a language. You may very well spend hours of time studying and you will probably spend at least a couple thousand yen for classes, materials and other resources. I personally spend around 5000 yen a month on materials and I think some would consider that being a little cheap.

You’ll also inevitably go through a lot of failures. You will probably be misunderstood a lot and you will probably misunderstand a lot of people as well. You’ll embarrass yourself, as I have several times.

But, why do we go on dates? I mean unless you are extremely lucky, you’ll go through more failures dating than wins (at least in my experience). And you have to get dressed up and spend money on dates and do some hard work here and there to keep relationships going. So why do we do it?

Well, when I first came to Japan I saw Japanese as a friend. Something that helped me get around and check into hotels or ask where the bathroom was. It was a pretty good friend because it was always with me. I didn’t have to call it up and ask it to come with me.

Of course, I didn’t need it. I could have just fumbled around until I found what I needed or had a friend do it for me, but I didn’t want to abuse my new friends, so I tried to learn as much as I could and managed to get pretty conversational and pass N4 within about a year and 3 months while still having a life.

But, then my Japanese stagnated mostly because I just needed a friend. Somebody to be there every once in awhile to help me out while in Japan. And this is where I think anyone casually studying a language should be because it is good to have a friend and it doesn’t take that much time and effort.

It wasn’t really until I made the decision to stay in Japan long-term that I made up my mind to be fluent. I wanted to be able to handle things as the head of the household on my own instead of relying on my wife to walk me through everything.

Through this process of trying to be as fluent as possible, I’ve discovered a lot more benefits to being fluent and passing the N1 than just having the qualifications for a job. Being able to express yourself well in another language helps you to almost literally see the world in a different way.

It also helps you to communicate in your native language a lot better because you notice things about it that you didn’t see before. Things like different levels of directness or politeness or how to explain things in simpler terms.

So, in some ways I guess you could say I fell in love with learning Japanese. Like any healthy relationship, Japanese and I started out as friends and then it moved into something more serious. And just like a serious relationship, it has helped me to understand myself, my way of thinking, and how the world, in general, comes together.

So, no you don’t need to learn Japanese. As the saying goes, all you need to do in life is die and pay taxes (and you can cheat on both of those). But, taking the extra time and effort it takes to become fluent will really enrich your life, keep your brain working longer, and help you make new friends.

If you don’t need it, why do YOU study?

Why do you study Japanese? Do you want to work in Japan? Do you want to watch jDramas? Learn about the culture? Let me know in the comments.

{ 21 comments… add one }
  • Irene May 18, 2013, 10:34 am

    I currently hold the N4 level. However, I am seriously considering doing my graduate studies in Japan. Thus, I plan to keep studying and hopefully get the N3 before submitting any application to the MEXT scholarship. Sometimes I wonder if it is worth to study so many hours while being in my homecountry, since if I make it to Japan I will still be somewhat forced to learn the language anyway. Any thoughts?

    • Clayton MacKnight May 19, 2013, 3:49 pm

      Hmm, that is a good question, but I think it is worth it to keep studying before you get here. I would recommend trying to learn as much grammar and vocabulary as you can, so when you get here you can focus a lot on building up your listening and speaking skills. Of course you can’t just study grammar and vocabulary all day, but focusing on that more will come in handy once you get here. Skills are generally a lot easier to pick up than language knowledge.

      Even if you are in Japan, you will have to spend SOME time on grammar and vocabulary, but you can do that in any country really, so might as well do it before you come because you can’t get rich listening and speaking practice outside of Japan (easily or cheaply anyway).

      • Shinji November 1, 2013, 3:27 am

        Hi Irene, a few months late to reply, but just discovered the article by chance.

        True that while in Japan, you can learn faster, but…
        I am in Japan since 2 years. I learn a bit more than N5 level before coming. I believe this helped me greatly. I passed N4 last year, 108/120 points, which is really not good. Still i am trying to get N3 in dec 2013, but struggling with the grammar, talking speed and amount of words remaining to be learned. I’m still struggling to ask the most basic stuffs at shops and get a correct sentence out of my mouth. I have to rely on others most of the time, after 2 years in Japan.

        So, if I learned Japanese more seriously while in my home country until 2 years ago, I would be enjoying Japanese life much more now…

        So, keep up! 🙂

  • Miglena May 19, 2013, 8:31 am

    Hi, I’m Megi,
    I’m learning Japanese because first of all I like the language…no I love it 🙂 Also I like Japanese culture and people, manga, music. My Japanese is not very good. I couldn’t pass N3 last time but now I’m studying harder and I’m sure that next time I will make it 🙂 I’ve been in Japan two times and I’m agree that you don’t need to know Japanese to live there but for me it’s important to speak in Japanese. Not because I want to prove to Japanese people that I can speak their language but because knowing Japanese makes me feel closer to Japan.

    I want to thank you for this wonderful blog, it’s really helpful 🙂

    Wish you all a great day!


    P.S. Sorry for my English, I’m not a native speaker 🙂

    • Clayton MacKnight May 19, 2013, 3:52 pm


      First of all, great English, so don’t worry about that.

      Second, I agree with feeling closer to Japan. I think if you don’t really become fluent with the language, you always feel like a visitor here, which in some ways is quite nice, but you miss out on an amazing opportunity to pretty much see into another world.

      Thanks for compliments!

      Keep studying!

  • Alexander May 19, 2013, 9:26 am

    This is interesting. I always was thinking that knowing Japanese is something vital if you want to live there.
    I’m trying to study Japanese because I’m willing to translate visual novels and other stuff on my own language – Russian. Also currently it’s a hobby of mine. Yeah, now I’m thinking of Japanese as a friend : )

    • Clayton MacKnight May 19, 2013, 3:54 pm

      There are some people that have lived her for 20 or 30 years and can just order at a restaurant. 🙂

      Realistically, my Japanese should be a lot better, but I’ve been more focused on other side projects until the last 2 years or so. I’m glad I started really studying it in earnest though.

  • Kay May 22, 2013, 2:17 am

    I learn just because I like Japan!

    Also I translate AKB48 variety shows into English ^_~
    Going to Japan this summer for an exchange program at a high school so I hope to improve even further~ Currently N2.

  • Afoofoo May 24, 2013, 11:36 pm

    I want to be friends with a granny next door and eat mochi together and meet her dashing grandson!

    And work my days away on a rice paddy…

    And become a chef (probably the one who peels potatoes) and listen to the grumpy sushi chef talk about his love of cats…

    In fact, the book Under The Tuscan Sun is like a literary manifestation of all my fantasies. I think it’s just eccentric locals that attract me! Though I’ll probably end up eating some meager bento all alone in a park if I ever go to Japan…

    • Clayton MacKnight May 26, 2013, 11:01 am

      You’d be surprised, if you try to get out as much as possible, the locals can be quite friendly especially if you speak any Japanese at all.

  • Cure Dolly May 25, 2013, 2:24 am

    Japanese culture is not my culture but it is the nearest thing to my culture I have found so far in this world. Having spent most of my life in countries where I barely speak the language nowhere feels like home and no culture feels like mine. Japanese language and culture are no exception but for reasons I cannot quite explain they fill me with a love I find nowhere else.

    • Clayton MacKnight May 26, 2013, 11:03 am

      Wow, did your family move around a lot when you were little? Sounds fun and a little stressful at the same time. Japan does have a unique quality that makes you feel like you are part of the group.

  • tokyoterri May 25, 2013, 3:19 am

    I’m learning for work: I live and work in Japan. To be honest, if I didn’t have to learn it, or any new language, I wouldn’t: it adds a tremendous amount of stress to my day.

    I get discouraged easily, and don’t have a significant other as a motivation, so I read blogs like this to make me feel as if it’s at least possible to get better…

    I’m going to try working with a private teacher starting next month, in the hope that having a person I don’t want to disappoint (besides myself) will help me to keep learning consistently…

    • Clayton MacKnight May 26, 2013, 11:20 am

      It is hard to keep focused and keep going sometimes. I think just using a service like Polyglot Club (free). There you can find exchange partners and such. Even if your level is incredibly low, don’t be afraid, the people I’ve met there are very active and talkative, and what’s the worst that can happen?

      Having a regular conversation partner can be a huge boost for motivation.

  • Gi May 29, 2013, 3:17 pm

    For me, there are no practical reasons to study Japanese. It’s just because I have to, since I was 12. Now I’m 40.

  • VCB August 26, 2013, 10:37 pm

    Since the day I started learning Japanese 5 years(ish) ago, I haven’t once regretted it, for the majority of this time I barely had chance to use it, I just found it very interesting.

    I have friends in Malaysia and China who speak Japanese at various levels which makes for a fun bit of practice (Speaking other than English sometimes is pretty fun no?).

    Later this week I will finally move to Japan where my girlfriend is waiting. We speak 95% Japanese to one another. I don’t need Japanese for my first job (eikawa) but expect I will need it for 99% of companies in my field.

    I’m getting sidetracked…. I guess like you I just fell in love with Japanese and learning it is a natural thing for me, actually being given a chance to use it (beyond watching anime etc.) feels like an awesome bonus. 😀

    • Clayton MacKnight August 27, 2013, 11:46 pm

      That’s great story, I wish you luck with your new adventure here in Japan. Sounds like it should be a blast for you.

  • Mr. Simmons November 27, 2013, 4:06 pm

    I’m studying Japanese because I have yellow fever, I think that Japanese is the most badass language on Earth, and I want to be an English professor for Japanese people, or a Japanese professor for English people.

  • CJ January 6, 2016, 11:32 pm

    Hi Clayton,

    Thanks for an insightful blog! Please help me understand:
    My motivation – since teenage, I’ve always been fascinated with the Japanese language & culture therefore there was an urge to learn (which I didn’t because coming from Singapore & being in a competitive bilingual school was already getting my hands full). Now, in my consulting job I need to visit Japan periodically every few months for a week (which is not long) but every time when I’m there I always have a tinge of regret for not knowing the language because I feel that I miss out a lot in having a better understanding of the culture. I’ve always to read the books & magazines!
    I’ve been told by people who learnt Japanese that once you know the culture that I would be shocked that it’s very different from what I think it is & may be disappointed. And it’s not a very inclusive culture unless you are able to converse very well because somehow there’s a certain invisible barrier that you cannot penetrate unless you act & one of them.
    My question is if they know that I’m a foreigner but trying hard to learn Japanese, will they be receptive? If I ever reach a high level of proficiency, will they always consider me an outsider still? Trouble is being partially Chinese, I’ve always been mistaken as Japanese in Japan & even ticked off people for pretending not to understand Japanese when they spoke to me!

    Thanks a million!

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