Learning Japanese

I made the decision to move to Japan to learn Japanese. I set out to study for 4 months at a Japanese language school back in November, and so far it has been a transformative experience. I am halfway through my program and reflecting on my experience so far.

This is my 3rd time in Japan. I first visited in 2019 for two weeks, then again in October 2022 for two months, and now in November 2023 for four months. And with each visit, my understanding and appreciation grows.

Japan is great to visit. It is clean, affordable, and convenient. Even with zero Japanese, it is easy to navigate daily life using Google Translate. Transportation is extremely well run 1 and there are plenty of healthy options when eating out or getting convenient food. As a foreigner, there’s an endless list of things to do and areas to explore—historical landmarks, getting up and close with deer, and other Japan exclusive experiences like Ichiran Ramen or Shibuya Crossing.

During my previous trip in October 2022, I was able to do all of it and it was simply amazing. Part of the trip I did as a solo traveler, and some experiences have shaped who I am. But despite that, I felt like something was missing — my desire to connect with people. I enjoy being able to understand people of different backgrounds and cultures, and without knowing Japanese it’s next to impossible to do. It was on this trip I knew I wanted to learn Japanese.

There’s no shortage of Japanese language schools for foreigners across Japan 2. After researching several schools, I discovered GenkiJACS on Reddit 3. Rereading it now, it matches my experience so far.

The good

I started with and am still in the “beginner level” courses. I agree with the review, in that the beginner curriculum is well thought out, teachers are prepared, and the way everything feels cohesive. Classes are kept to a small cohort, with a maximum of 8, and it feels like a great student to teacher ratio. There are four 50 minute classes a day and they go by really quick. Majority of classes are interactive and engaging, but I have definitely had a few days that felt like a bore.

The staff in the Kyoto location are extremely considerate. Early on I had expressed desires to move up to the next class, equivalent to moving forward 4 weeks, because I felt like I already knew the material being taught. They gave me the opportunity to take a test on the material and move forward if I wanted to. While I did pass the test, ultimately I decided to stay at the same level so I could build a robust foundation.

The bad

The pace can feel slow. Typically, it is about 1 to 2 textbook lessons a week, and some classes have felt like a waste of time, at least in the beginning. For example, we spent an entire 50 minute class drilling これ・それ・あれ. To be fair though, it is crucial for people with little to no Japanese experience to grasp the basic concepts, but to me it felt excessive.

Inconsistent class scheduling was also mentioned in the Reddit post. There is not a set schedule, and this makes it harder to have a daily routine or to plan trips in advance. There are 3 different class start and end times which is nice, but schedules for the week are released the Friday before.

The different

There is wide diversity in the students, in age and in motivations, to name a few. My classmates have spanned all ages, from teenagers, to working adults, and to retired folks. In terms of motivation, some attend as a way to visit Japan4, some are there to learn Japanese for work or relationships, etc. But for me, as someone primarily motivated to learn Japanese, it can be an unpleasant experience when a classmate bog down the class due to differing motivations. On the other hand, interacting with diverse people from all over has been eye opening.

The next half

I have been in a mental slump, mostly from being homesick during the holidays. They are drastically different in Japan. There is no Thanksgiving, so I was surprised when I saw Christmas decorations being set up immediately after Halloween on November 1st. Christmas is also different. It is celebrated but as a romantic day for couples. Imagine a Christmas themed Valentine’s, exchanging gifts with your significant other instead of chocolates. Lastly, New Year’s is also different—no large ball drops, no kissing to rein in the New Year. Instead, it is the time for family gatherings and for many, also as a time to clean the house and start the year anew.

Lifewise, I am preparing for what comes next. I have started preparing for software engineering interviews (hi Leetcode). And I still intend to study Japanese after my program ends and I return home. One of my goals this year is to get to an N3 level of Japanese.

p.s. A month has passed between writing this and publishing it. A lot has happened in that time and I will write a follow up after my program ends.

  1. Although I’ve read that buses in the countryside aren’t as punctual as in the cities. ↩︎

  2. You can find an aggregate listing of Japanese programs here, https://study.gaijinpot.com/school/↩︎

  3. https://www.reddit.com/r/LearnJapanese/comments/tgb8g7/is_genki_jacs_a_good_choice/ ↩︎

  4. I learned from German classmates that there’s an Education Leave that’s mandated by the German government. Very neat. After hearing about how it functions, it would be great if we had something similar in America. ↩︎