When you live in Japan, it’s practically a guarantee that you’ll pick up the language right away… right? But plenty of expats know this isn’t the case. Life, after all happens, and just because you live here doesn’t mean you’ll instantly pick up the language. If you really want to see results, I will share some methods that have worked for me. These are the 4 ways I learned Japanese in Japan:
1. Work in the Service Industry
Before I became a blogger/writer, and way before I began a my career in early childhood education, I worked full-time in fashion retail.
Among the shopping malls I worked in was the iconic Shibuya 109 (this was in the heyday of gyaru fashion). I had a functional grasp of conversational Japanese that immediately evolved as I interacted with Japanese customers daily.
As my language skills improved, I became responsible for writing daily sales reports which were handwritten and faxed to headquarters once our shop closed for the day. I even trained teenage Japanese staff on how to use Japanese honorifics!
When you have a side job, you’re not just learning Japanese. You’ll also have extra cash in your pocket and may even get perks like shopping discounts or free/reduced meals. I miss my staff discounts, which is probably why I’m so obsessed with earning points when I shop!
2. Watch Owarai
One of my first Japanese boyfriends got me hooked on Japanese comedy shows. At first, it was a struggle to train my ears to keep up with the Kansai dialect typical of comedians as well as the rough masculine forms of speech. The three shows that I can depend on for laughs are:
Subernai Hanashi (すべらない話)
Comedians sit around a table and tell humorous stories ranging from LPT (life point tips) to extremely NSFW TIFU (today I f**** up) tales. Most of them are of the NSFW variety (especially the older episodes), so be careful when watching with the volume up! Available on Amazon Prime Video.
Moya Moya Summers 2 (モヤモヤさまぁ〜ず2)
Summers, yet another comedic duo, team up with a female announcer (Oe Mariko- the O.G.; Kanno Eri-second generation; Fukuda Noriko-current), and the three visit various cities across Japan and even across the globe. The “moya moya” in the title stems from the cast’s uncertainty as to who or what they will encounter as they venture into a new place. But ot doesn’t feel like a travel show. Each episode of Moya Moya Summers is like traveling with your BFF and joking about what’s on the menu or a shopkeeper’s attitude. Available on Amazon Prime Video.
TIP: If you’re ever in Hawaii and don’t know what souvenirs to bring back for Japanese friends/coworkers, get something with the (literal) Moya Moya Summers seal of approval.
Hakase to Jyoushu Komakasugite Tsutawaranai Monomane Senshu-Ken (細かすぎて伝わらないモノマネ選手権)
The show is hosted by the comedic duo Tunnels and judged by a guest panel. Amatuer comedians come on stage and do their best impersonations, the more obscure the better. Honestly, each act is straight out of r/OddlySpecific. Unfortunately, most clips have been removed from YouTube, but if you can find some, it’s a crazy crash course on Japanese pop culture and sports. DVD Available on Amazon Japan
3. Use Japanese Subtitles
We said “sayonara” to cable years ago, and I don’t regret it all thanks to my Fire Stick. When my girl is sleeping, I sneak out of the futon and head to the living room. There, I turn down the volume super low and turn on the Japanese subtitles to enjoy some “mommy me time.” I honestly didn’t mind the constant newborn feeding stage after giving birth because I was too busy watching Luke Cage and Daredevil all night long on Netflix!
Some domestic variety and comedy programs have subtitles to emphasize certain comedic or dramatic moments. I find that is a great way to train your ears and to learn the readings for kanji. You can also learn how to use certain phrases or words in a conversation to make your Japanese sound more natural.
Recently my daughter and I use the Amazon Music app to do at-home karaoke. She loves singing and identifying all the hiragana that she’s learned so far at homeschool.
TIP: Browse the kids’ section on Netflix with Japanese subtitles if you want to watch entertainment with furigana!
4. Get a Hobby
I took up scuba diving a few years ago on a whim- partly because I was amused to find a scuba school in the middle of Shinjuku and partly because they were having a winter campaign for new students. (Despite having worked extensively in retail, I really can’t help myself when the words “campaign” and “For a limited time!” are involved.)
While I could speak Japanese, I had to put in extra work to understand scuba-related vocabulary for tests and for communicating with instructors and fellow students. (I also mentally kicked myself for zoning out in high school physics classes after telling myself that I’ll never use Boyle’s law in my adult life. Never say never!)
In 2016, I went driver’s school in Japan to get my driver’s license. Again, in addition to studying the rules of the road, I had to put in extra work memorizing specific Japanese terms and understanding the tricky grammar of the written tests which are designed to deliberately trick test takers.
I’ve also taken Korean cooking classes at a local restaurant for 2 years, and I took up archery at the community sports center after seeing an ad for beginners in the local newspaper.
Last year, I learned how to host my on blog, and this year I’m studying for an exam for the Japan Cosmetics Licensing Association. I hope to not only expand my vocabulary but also to learn more about Japanese cosmetics and proper skincare. You can check out my Japanese-English skincare dictionary here!
I hope these methods will help you achieve the desired results in your Japanese language study. Have any suggestions or other methods to share?