Some rants about perceptions of Japanese as a second language

I don’t spend that much time thinking about Japanese. It’s just my life, you know? But I have my moments. Lately i’ve been having a lot of them, with the start of the new semester.

Some notable moments:

  • it turns out that some scholarships require Chinese/Korean students to have over 170points on their N1, whereas other foreigners only need 100 to qualify.
  • When I got here, no one ever asked me about my score on N1 for admission. It wasn’t a problem that I was self-taught. It wasn’t a problem that my application was full of mistakes and my conversation skills were non-existent, it was deemed sufficient. Apparently, that was only the case for me, as Chinese students go through rigorous examination and unless they are very fluent, have high scores on their N1, and tutors are asked to keep an eye out for their real level. Not being from a Japanese language background nad not having exchange experience is reason to not get accepted.
  • I haven’t studied Japanese since I got here, but my Chinese friends have.
  • Chinese colleagues who were at the same level as me when we got admitted have improved tremendously because of this, whereas my Japanese is still kind of shite.
  • I am never expected to write or speak perfectly. My asian friends are.
  • I get many compliments and positive feedback formy Japanese. my asian friends don’t.
  • My kouhai (Chinese) had one mistake on her N1 and is mad about not having a perfect score, so she is taking it again. She has been living here for less than 6 months and speaks perfectly. I will probably never be at her level. yet, she wants to improve. I haven’t thought about the N1 since I passed it.
  • I was talking to a friend about maybe studying kanji together, since we are in the same situation (living here for years, functionally fluent, in Japanese language PhDs, can’t write for shite.) We are now trying hard to study together, and maybe take a low level kanken this year. We are not even thinking about aiming past level 2, and are currently barely passing practice tests for level 5.
  • When I write things down at baito, I am getting icnreasingly self-conscious when I use hiragana for common words because I never practice writing.
  • I have been praising my kohai’s to butter them up to my advisor, and mentioned that I barely passed the N1. My senpai turned to me and smilingly said だろう?This was 5 years ago before I moved here, don’t be a prick. But they believe that.
  • In my head, I am still the self-taught beginner who barely passed the N1, even though obviously I have improved tremendously since.

So yeah, I have been thinking about it. It’s weird how Chinese learners are thrown under the bus like this, even though the ones who ‘easily’ pass the exams are those who spent 4-10 years vigorously studying the language, went to top programmes, invested money in exchange programmes and so on. And yet non-east asians are thrown every bone for the least effort. Maybe that’s why we never really improve.

I’m thinking of taking te N1 this year to see where I am at now. I won’t study for it, because I want to see. Though it has been many years since I have sat down for a test.

Lately I realised that anki is an app and I have a smartphone now, so I installed it and am doing reps again. it feels weird. I7ve been doing reps in chinese, spanish, german and whatever language I feel like learning for a bit, but Japanese feels so foreign to me now, as a study target. I feel the improvement immediately and wonder why I neglected it for so long. The excuse that you don’t see those kanjis is a fraud, you see them and just glance past them. I opened up my old dictionary deck and ran into 3 of those ‘low frequency words’ in a single day. I wrote down some kanjis in random orders and ran into them the next day. I had to write an e-mail and once again I had a friend native check it cause I am still so insecure about my keigo, even after so many hundreds of keigo e-mails that I have written. I had my friend native check a presentation and, as usual, I had aboutone mistake per sentence. Not bad ones. Fewer than before. But they are still there, in my everyday life, defining how I am seen in the eyes of other.

I will never be happy with languages, and I shouldn’t be happy with Japanese. I just hope I won’t end up hating it like I hate English…

2016 has come to an end

And what an underwhelming year this has been. Hey, if you’ve never set any resolutions to begin with, then technically you haven’t failed any, yeah?

Questions for 2017:

  • Will I still be here continuing a comfortable status quo in a country where I am surrounded by amazing people and decent opportunities, or will I be plunged back into the quagmire that is Eastern Europe? Find out via telegram on March 15th!
  • Will I ever finish writing my dissertation? No one cares because it’s shite anyway (But it’ll be submitted on time and pass anyway).
  • Will I ever start learning Japanese again? Probably not (But frankly I’ve come to terms with the fact that no one will ever really care, and I’m cool with that).
  • Will I manage to confess to the cute girl in my lab before graduation?
  • With most of my labmates graduating this April, what will become of the tight-knit group of giggles, skinship, and nihilistic indulgence that has defined my grad school experience?
  • Will I finally cough up the dough and rent a ridiculously overpriced hakama for my graduation party?

My 2017 resolution is to be a bit less meh about everything. 2016 wasn’t even a bad year, it just had the misfortune of following up an amazing 2015 and simply fades in comparison. I did face some fears (lots of talking in front of large groups, bilingually even), have some fun, pet some cats, read some books, what not. I’m sure it was a hell of a great year compared to 2008-2012. I’m just not feeling it for some reason.

That harsh moment

Me and Japanese, we’ve had our ups and downs but we’ve been pretty smooth. I like talking in Japanese. I have very little problems with it. I’m technically doing grad school in Japanese. I like Japanese-language me, who is so quirky and funny and lighthearted. I can interpret japanese better than I can my own native language. I can give academic presentations in Japanese, and they’re full of jokes and the audience loves them. For all intents and purposes I consider myself fluent in the language.

It’s time to move on from my grad school, and I have to face the reality that I am not, in fact, fluent.

See, japanese people are very kind when it comes to language. Unlike English speakers they never mock your accent or poor grammar. Unlike portuguese or chinese speakers, they can understand you even if you make mistakes. Unlike the speakers of most languages in the world, they don’t mind the fact that you are illiterate, and english words are acceptable substitutes for when you can’t be arsed to learn the Japanese one.

I have my Ph.D admission next semester and I have had to come to terms with the fact that my laziness is limiting my opportunities. Every time I see ‘admission exam in Japanese’, I know that I can’t pass it and should look somewhere else. Because I can’t handwrite in Japanese, and I sure as hell cannot write a native-like essay in the language. Give me time, a computer and a proofreader and it’s not a problem; but most people do not have time, computers, and proofreaders.

Since I moved here I’ve been relying on the kindess and understanding of others. I’ve been having to read a lot so I kept on reading translations because I’d get a deeper understanding of the text (and in a shorter amount of time). I’ve been avoiding handwriting like the plague, stopped studying, and well, stopped trying. It is only now that I treasure my admission sans essay, the fact that I can write reports in English, and the friends I have to help me out. I see some of my non-English speaking colleagues writing their entire dissertation in flawless Japanese, even though my Japanese was better than their 2 years ago. I can see their growth; They can see the lack of mine. Until now I’ve been jokingly answering ‘no way’ when my colleagues would ask me ‘when are you going to work on your japanese already?’; it’s time to reap what I’ve sown.

Foreigners and the 4 seasons

There are many tales of questions and remarks that foreigners are sick of hearing from Japanese people, some more audacious or annoying than others. Ranging from somewhat understandable (Your Japanese is so good!) to the somewhat demeaning (you can use chopsticks!) to kind of ignorant (English is your native language right?), there is one question that you hear every Westerner blog complaining or mocking about at some point because of its sheer silliness.

‘Does your country have 4 seasons?’

(Note: I’ve been asked this a total of 3 times in 2 1/2 years, and neither time was the speaker surprised with my answer)

I have to admit, coming from Europe, it was a weird question to hear. Before I came to Japan, a lovely foreigner in Japan blog informed me that Japanese people are taught in schools that 4 seasons are unique to Japan. I’ve heard countless rants about the topic from other foreigners. And I had to agree, what a silly thing to remark! All countries have 4 seasons.

But wait, no. No they don’t. And it is actually a rare instance of Japanese people being culturally sensitive to foreigners. Because you see, a lot of countries don’t have 4 seasons. It’s us Europeans&North Americans who assume that 4 seasons is the norm. If you ignore China for a moment, you will see that the greatest sources of foreigners in Japan all come from countries that do not have 4 seasons (or if they do, they are considerably lighter differences). Many of them are on the other side of the equator, so the seasons are reversed.


These are just the countries from tropical climate zones of the Earth where all twelve months have mean temperatures above 18.0 °C (64.4 °F). 2 season-climates are still prominent a few degrees south and north of this.

So when a Japanese person is asking if your country has 4 seasons, they are not doing it out of ignorance or because 4 seasons is some ultimate achievement. They are genuinely asking because they know that seasons vary according to geographic location. They’re being nice. It’s a (not so rare) case of criticism about Japan being ignorant revealing the ignorance of the speaker.

(Post triggered by )



Start of the new year. My 3rd year in Japan, the year I graduate and should start prepping for the next stage. I’ve been petting fluffy animals all of March to emotionally prepare for this. I can do this.

The sakuras have turned green, a third of my colleagues have dyed their hair black and are walking around in black suits, the word ‘thesis’ is looming heavily in the air.

New exchange students are walking around in awe at being in Japan, I continue to not know any of them >.> but it’s nice to take in the atmosphere from a distance.

Facebook keeps showing me pictures from when I got here, 2 years ago, which leads to some interesting daily introspection about my life.

We got our grades and it turns out that I got a couple of Bs last semester, which was oddly depressing to find out about.

I am still a sloth because my brain refuses to admit that the holiday is over.


Foreigners confuse me

I was complaining almost 2 years ago about how much easier it is to connect to foreigners than Japanese people, and while that is still somehow true, I’ve realised sometime last year that meeting foreigners is incredibly awkward. And the reason is language and the way that I get hung up about it.

If you’re in a group with foreigners and foreign-adopted Japanese people (the kind who are conversational+ in English, have almost only foreigner friends, go to bars that are 50%+ foreigners, and have probably lived abroad for 1-15 years), no problem. Talk in English with the occasional other common language and let complaints or comments about Japan take over 90% of your small talk. All is good. I’ve made many friends that way.

If you’re meeting with foreigner friends and it’s all foreigners and foreign-adopted Japanese people then again, all is good. It was a bit weird to realise that I celebrate most things twice, once with my English-speaking group and once with my Japanese-speaking group, but hey, double-Christmas celebrations.

But then you’re in a normal situation and you see a foreigner, and I don’t know about you people, but my social skills disappear.

Sometimes I run into a foreigner in a normal situation (shop clerk, random person who decided to take the same class, whatnot). I never know what to do. Should I English? Should I Japanese? Should I other language? There is this intense silence because I never know what language to use. Usually the other person is in the same situation, unless they’re only in Japan for a short while, in which case they save me by starting the conversation in English. Common friends are also a god-send, as they decide the language.

Sometimes they’re not native English speakers and frankly I’d have an easier time in another language, but I don’t want to offend their English skills. Sometimes I can save myself by explaining that I hate talking in English (which is true). More often, it’s just awkward. It’s particularly bad if they’re fluent in Japanese but want to improve their English/don’t realise that they’re hard to understand, since I can’t escape the situation without either a boring conversation or a faux pas. It’s also awkward if they’re Asian and I start talking Japanese, and they’re flustered since it’s probably the 1000th time they’ve had to explain their lack of skill to someone.

Sometimes I decide to introduce my friends to one another. And to my surprise, it can get super awkward. I’m used to talking to them in a certain language and I’m not good at switching (and this happens to them as well). Or they just talk in English at an otherwise all-Japanese speaking table, despite being fluent in Japanese, since they don’t have any friends that talk Japanese to them. It stands out. My Japanese friends get uncomfortable and they switch to English and the conversation quality plummets. Occasionally they just ignore it and stick to Japanese. I become aware of my own Japanese, as now I have someone listening who actually cares about what grammar point I use (note: if the natives aren’t correcting someone’s grammar, don’t take it upon yourself to be a hero and correct their grammar; it kills their self-confidence). If it’s the other way around and my Japanese friend does their best in a mostly English speaking environment, it stands out if we keep talking in Japanese to one another, but I don’t like pushing people towards English.

Sometimes it’s even a problem among foreign friends, since I have people with whom I talk in Spanish, people with whom I talk in Romanian, Brazilian friends who automatically switch to Portuguese when in the same room, etc… and I have a hard time switching. I always feel like a terrible person when I have trouble switching.

Then there’s that one other foreigner at the table situation. Everyone else is talking in Japanese so it’s only polite to also talk Japanese – I don’t want to make them feel excluded. However, it usually becomes obvious that English would facilitate communication. Cue awkwardness.My friend invited me to some gathering the other day, and suddenly I was at the table with 3 Japanese people and a bloke from the US. I stumbled, and gave it a shot in Japanese. He answered back in Japanese. OK. Then it became a bit obvious that he was having some trouble understanding me (foreigners are always harder to understand than natives, this is normal in any language). English would’ve saved us, but neither of us wanted to be awkward about it. He was fairly quiet. High level, but it was obvious that some vocab would slip by him at times, and he had a thick accent. He’d been living here for 8 years, and it came up that he is going back to the US next month. My friend asked him how come; he looked at me and said that ‘8 years is a long time’. I was instantly reminded of Ken’s post. At some point he had to leave, so he got up and shook my hand, barely waving goodbye to the others. The whole ordeal struck me as kind of depressing, though I couldn’t explain exactly why.

Then there’s the people who get integrated here and actively begin avoiding foreigners (which it seems that I am guilty of). There’s this one other foreign bloke at the concerts I go to. He seems nice. He’s definitely been here for longer than I have since he knows everyone there. And, like many other people there, he has definitely noticed me what with being in the same room on a regular basis and all. Some of the Japanese people at concerts start chatting me up, most just ignore me. But with him, we do this incredibly awkward thing where we make sudden eye contact and then look away. One time when crowdsurfing he gave me a boot to the face and as he was getting up to apologise he saw who I was, and we both blushed and looked away like some third-rate anime. Neither of us wants to be that guy who starts chatting up the other foreigner in the room. This is probably the epitome of how socially awkward this can get. Then again, this being me, I wonder if perhaps I just stared at him too long and he just stares back in confusion. One day, I will walk up to him and introduce myself… or maybe I should just start going to other concerts.

I wish there were some sort of universal etiquette for this so that I wouldn’t have to keep discovering new things that I am awkward about.

Side effects to learning Japanese

When you decide to get serious about Japanese, you have to learn discipline. Study every day. If only a little bit.

For someone as lazy as me, this was difficult. I had had streaks of trying hard, but never for too long, and they rarely continued past the point of steady progress. Struggling with Japanese has taught me that it doesn’t matter if you feel the progress, if you feel the point, if you’re any good, if you have problems, if you have talent; what matters is that you keep at it.

Even if serendipity had not allowed Japanese to become such a great part of my life (never had I dreamed of even visiting Japan, tbh), I think that the discipline would have helped me a lot in life. And it does; it really changes the way you perceive studying. I sometimes notice myself having made progress in grad school, and I’m like Woot, aren’t you glad you’re so obsessive despite your self-defeatism? Lately I’ve been noticing the same thing with Chinese, Spanish, and my moocs. I don’t dedicate that much time to them, really. But I’m doing it (almost) daily, and I don’t find myself judging my progress, but my dedication. The question is not ‘is my Chinese any good?’ (of course at this level I am still terrible), but ‘have I been working on it?’ (yep, I have!)

You learn to treasure every hint at progress; any reference that you catch, any word that you manage to make out, any random occurrence that you know is a product of your hard work. Even if you don’t have cues, learning to work with online resources has allowed me to take solace in the fact that I may not *feel* the progress, but at least I have palpable proof that I have been working. It’s great, it really is.

streak zh