If learning Japanese means more to you than memorizing everything on a sushi menu, then “The Land of the Rising Sun” is the best place for you to study Japanese. Learning Japanese in Japan will open doors to a competitive job market, leave you with endless memories of karaoke nights, offer day trips to temples (get ready to take your shoes off!), and get you hooked on grilled eel and rice bowls. While Japanese has an intimidating amount of scripts and characters, the fact that it is so intriguing might turn it into your newest Ikigai (reason to wake up in the morning).
Whether it’s crowded skyscrapers or secluded rice fields, this little island packs a punch when it comes to geographical diversity. Decide what atmosphere you feel most comfortable and inspired in, then hop on over to learn Japanese in Japan.
Calling Tokyo a “city of extremes” is an understatement. This megalopolis’ metro map alone puts London’s to shame. Tokyo encompasses the innovative, yet playful spirit of Japan, as evidenced by its immense arcade; video game, anime, and manga aficionados will be in heaven in Tokyo. The city’s technology scene is no small fry, but if peace and quiet is more your thing, spend an afternoon geisha-watching under one of Shinjuku Gyoen Park’s 1,500 cherry trees. The amount of people, businesses, museums, markets, and festivals in Tokyo offers endless chances to become a black-belt Japanese speaker.
If picturesque scenery and flowery architecture is your cup of tea, then consider studying in Kyoto, Japan’s cultural capital. On your bike ride to class you can cruise past several of Kyoto’s 2,000 temples, shrines, and palaces. Summers are hot in Kyoto, but you can cool down with a green tea ice cream cone while strolling past the Golden Temple and its reflection. Kyoto houses some of Japan’s top-ranked universities, is calmer in atmosphere, and, on average, costs less to study Japanese than Tokyo.
Fukuoka is one of Japan’s oldest cities, so history lovers can take a break from class to marvel at Fukuoka Castle’s remaining stone walls and ramparts. Art enthusiasts won’t be disappointed at the Fukuoka Art Museum, with its Dali and Rothko collections. Sports fan? Cheer on the SoftBank Hawks at a baseball game and grab tickets to the professional Sumo tournament held in November. After all of this exploring, fill up on some hearty, locally-famous Hakata rāmen (egg noodles).
For true cultural and linguistic immersion, consider a smaller town for your Japanese language courses in Japan, such as Oita. This city is not nearly as exposed to English as the nation’s metropolises, so you’ll be forced to use Japanese more. When in doubt, draw pictures and make locals chuckle with your improvised gestures; the Japanese will appreciate your efforts and play along enthusiastically.
Japanese Language Programs in Japan
In one of the cleanest, most efficient countries in the world, you can expect to get a lot out of your time studying Japanese in Japan. Sign up for your favourite teaching method, and then get ready to study your heart out!
Taking university courses appeals to students who would like their credits to transfer back to their home universities. While the Japanese enjoy a very structured lifestyle, it’s ironic that at universities, classroom culture tends to be less structured than in other countries. Japan’s educational system is competitive and rigorous up until college. Since students have studied intensely to make it to that point, it’s assumed that they can balance their coursework responsibly. Nonetheless, many of university teachers speak English and will most likely enforce similar classroom expectations found in your home country.
When studying Japanese in Japan at a university, it’s common for students to be housed in a dormitory. One advantage to this is that you can knock on a neighboring student’s door at 10 p.m., knowing they’ll be up and willing to help you pronounce Dōmo arigatōgozaimashita (thank you). If the college lifestyle isn’t for you, then independent apartments might do the trick; just don’t spend too much time cooped up watching Netflix. If you do need a break, then at least set those subtitles to Japanese!
A fantastic way to compliment formal Japanese language courses in Japan is taking private lessons through an intensive Japanese language program. Some programs will even place you in the home of your private sensei (teacher), and you can choose how many hours a week to have one-on-one lessons (while you’re both sitting on the floor at lunch, ask them how to slurp Udon noodles correctly). Intensive Japanese language courses in Japan are the best way to learn Japanese in real-life settings, but the price tag is a bit higher.
As with any homestay, living with locals is an excellent way to practice your new language skills consistently. The small drawback of having limited privacy will be overshadowed by the once-in-a-lifetime chance to live with people willing to help you practice at any hour of the day.
You could also take group classes at a Japanese language school in Japan, which provide a very customized experience. Learning Japanese in Japan in small groups offers students more flexible time commitments than universities, but not as much one-on-one time as private tutors. However, language exchanges can often be arranged and extracurricular activities will introduce you to new friends and cultural happenings.
The amount of time and discipline you apply to your Japanese language studies will be reflected in how well you speak. Everyone learns new languages at different rates, but be prepared to dedicate a few months to master the intricate calligraphy of the Japanese alphabet. If you’ve known how to properly hold chopsticks for years and are an advanced speaker, then look into taking the Japanese Language Proficiency test to evaluate your fluency.
Japanese Subtleties & Nuances in Japan
Japan is the only country that claims Japanese as its official language, making it the perfect place to learn Japanese via linguistic immersion. Practice often, do your homework, and allow room for error as you study Japanese in Japan.
One thing to watch out for is the different dialects being spoken throughout Japan. Tokyo’s dialect is seen as the “standard,” while the Okinawan or Ryukyuan dialects are the next most spoken dialects in Japan. Also keep in mind that the Kansai dialect of Japanese in Osaka is a bit more direct than others.
To an English speaker, Japanese seems very indirect. Though things rarely are stated directly, you’ll get used to feeling like you’re talking around things. While the grammar isn't very complex, you must remember what structure and words to use depending on who you're speaking to.
Japanese can be a very gendered language, since there are words that women use and words that men use. When referring to oneself, a woman would say watasi while a man would use ore or boku. Therefore, if you identify outside of a gender binary, Japanese can be tricky to navigate.
Another peculiarity is that Japanese is read in the opposite direction as you’re reading this sentence, from right to left instead of from left to right. You’ll have to get used to reading and writing in a completely different way. For some, the hardest part may be remembering and drawing the thousands of characters, as well as the order of the strokes used (yes, you can tell!).
Luckily, the pronunciation of Japanese isn’t very hard. Since the tones aren’t the same ones used in Mandarin or Cantonese, you can generally sound them out as if you were speaking a Romance language. Romanji refers to Japanese characters written as English letters, so it’s phonetic. Even the kana (syllabic scripts) are phonetic, once you learn how to read the hiragana, katakana, and kanji scripts. Pretty soon, you’ll be puzzled at the lack of phonetics and structure in English.
Benefits & Challenges
Kudos to you for diving into a new language that is in no way similar to English, with the exception of a few words like intanetto (internet) and kamera (camera). After getting used to the overwhelming amount of characters in the alphabet, you’ll come to appreciate the simplicity within the complexity of Japanese. The structure and sounds in Japanese are organized, easy to understand, and follow a pattern, so learning Japanese in Japan will give you some perspective about the lack of grammatical structure in English.
Japanese isn’t as commonly spoken as Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, or English, so you’ll need to be disciplined enough to practice it when few other people around you speak it. However, adding Japanese language skills to your resume will give it a huge boost, especially if you’re interested in studying international business.
Taking the time to learn Japanese in Japan may seem more daunting than eating uni (sea urchin, a culinary favorite in Japan), but if you’re patient, organized, and willing to make mistakes, you’ll reap the rewards of learning a language not many people have the pleasure of speaking. Japan’s a little country that packs a big economic and cultural punch, so those who take the time to learn Japanese will walk away knowing how to wield this elegant and powerful tongue.