It started with a language requirement

I have this bad tendency of never looking back in the past. As a result, I often have an extremely spotty memory of past events and the order in which they occurred. I also have another bad habit of never keeping anything around. Looking back, I really wished I had kept a journal of my Japanese studies so that I can better remember how I personally learned Japanese. Instead of crying over split milk, I decided to dig into my crusty memories and document what I remember before I forget it any further.

I hope I don’t sound like I’m trying to show off or anything. My intent was to write an interesting account of my personal experiences with Japanese. Feel free to share your own experiences with learning the language. You also might want to think about starting a journal and keeping all your old material together so you don’t end up in my position now.

Holy crap, class every day??

I started learning Japanese in my sophomore year in the fall of 2000. I had considered taking Japanese or Chinese during my freshman year but balked at the fact that unlike every other class, language classes met every weekday and often as early as 9 IN THE MORNING.

I had thought I could squeak by the language requirement by taking a proficiency exam in Korean. Then I spoke with a fellow student whose Korean was 10x better than me. I was freaked when she told me how hard the test was involving reading articles, writing essays, and other crazy activities in Korean. Unluckily for me, the college recently hired a Harvard grad from Korea to teach East-Asian History and he took over the role of conducting the test. So in my sophomore year, I bit the bullet and prepared myself to take Japanese class every weekday and IN THE MORNING so that I could graduate.

I sucked most of the first year

Don't use this

Don't use this texbook, trust me

We spent about 2 weeks learning Hiragana and I remember how difficult it was to memorize all the characters. I spend hours practicing on the whiteboard and would still space out on certain characters like 「ぬ」. I also remember lamenting the fact that 「学生」 sounded like “gaksei” instead of “gakusei” on an audio quiz.

I personally went through all the stuff I complain about in this blog. The Japanese curriculum recently switched to Nakama, which is not a very good textbook (though there are worse textbooks out there). It was weeks before we even learned any verbs and we started out with the freaking masu-form. I was also very confused by the “emphasis” explanation of 「んです」 and completely baffled when the teacher wrote 「Aさんは、何が好きですか。」 since it used both 「は」 AND 「が」. My poor knowledge of Korean certainly didn’t give me much of an advantage. Finally, casual form and slang wasn’t taught in that class nor in any of the more advanced classes.

Anyway, I was a pretty big slacker in Japanese 101. The only time I went to the Japanese club activities was at the end when “tea night” became “sake night”. The second and third year students spoke some stuff to me in Japanese and I was like, “Oh god, where’s the booze?”

I think it was somewhere between Japanese 102 and 103 (we were on trimesters) that I really started to pick up the pace. I really wish I could say what got me started putting so much extra time and effort on Japanese but I think it was for a number of reasons that came about gradually. I started hanging out with the Language Assistant and still remember our conversations about Japanese while walking around campus. It was from her that I learned casual speech and that you can do amazing things like modify a word more than once, for instance 「みたくなる」. I also asked her to coach me to make sure I was pronouncing every sound correctly, in particular 「つ」 and 「ふ」. (I have to admit Korean did help me with the 「ら、り、る、れ、ろ」 sounds.)

Even though we did end up going out for a while, I’d like to stress that it was my insistence on constantly asking questions and trying to speak in Japanese as much as possible that really improved it. I also asked her to correct my mistakes every time and took her corrections with the utmost appreciation and followup questions unlike other students who just got annoyed and brushed it off.

I think it was so easy to talk to her in Japanese because she knew exactly what I knew and how much I could understand. She was also very good at “dumbing down” or simplifying her Japanese for me. So I was very lucky to have such a tailored teacher and conversation partner. The only drawback was my girly Japanese since everything I knew about Japanese was from a girl.


In the summer, I stayed on campus to do an internship for an internet startup in Minneapolis. I didn’t do much at my internship (it was during the bubble) but I picked up what meager Japanese material I could find at the library and studied with Jim Breen’s WWWJDIC. I quickly went through all of Nakama 2, which we started in Japanese 103 (you can imagine how boring 204 and 205 became after that) and waded through “An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese“, which was pretty challenging. By the way, I don’t recommend either book though the latter wasn’t that bad as self-study material. However, the grammar explanations for patterns such as 「にとって」 and 「として」 are confusing and didn’t really help me much. My housemate also kindly lent me some comics to study, specifically 烈火の炎. I never got too far with that however because it was still too advanced for me at the time.

I think this was also the time I really started learning Kanji not by themselves but along with the vocabulary. I remember going to the school library and spending hours on the blackboard writing out the words I encountered in Kanji.

Also, for about a month, a bunch of students from 中央大学 came over to do an English summer program at my school. Hanging out with them after work was one of the best times of my life and really motivated me to improve my Japanese. The fact that I couldn’t understand any of their conversations was also another factor. They once tried to explain 「やばい」 to me because I kept hearing it all the time and I never really did get it until much later. (Hint: It means “dangerous”!)

At the end of the first year, I would say I was at a low intermediate level. I could speak Japanese but my vocabulary was limited and I still couldn’t understand many conversations in Japanese at all. The sad thing is, in terms of college courses, the fact that I could even speak at all put me past Japanese 204, 205, and 206. Needless to say, I had no trouble getting straight A’s in all those classes except 206, which I skipped for an advanced elective since 206 wasn’t part of the language requirement. (I got an “A” in that too by the way.)

Fluency in 2 years before setting foot in Japan

My second year was pretty much a continuation of my studies using what I could get my hands on and the WWWJDIC. When I had no internet, I used JWPce on my laptop instead. The fact that I had absolutely nothing else to do and was bored out of my mind during most of my breaks really helped

I really don’t remember what I studied but I think it was just random stuff of no particular interest. I didn’t have access to a lot of Japanese works to study from and didn’t know where to find them. I think it was mostly anything I could find in Japanese at libraries and a 「きまぐれオレンジ☆ロード」 light novel I picked up somewhere, which I never even came close to finishing anyway. I’m sure I looked at some random stuff online too though I didn’t have the skill or dedication to read any Japanese news. I also installed Windows 2000 on my laptop so that I could install a Japanese version of IE/Explorer and other Japanese programs. I think every little bit of Japanese studied here and there really added up, even if it was just a paragraph or even a sentence.

I also spent a lot of time with the International students from Japan and the Language Assistant (which changes every year). Though we were just friends, I even unofficially helped her grade the workbooks from time to time.

At this point, after having met some really great people from Japan, I was determined to do study abroad in the fall of my senior year. I applied to the Waseda program as part of the ACM (finally, a good thing about going to a Midwest college!) and was soon on my way to go to Japan for the very first time.

After the end of the second year, I would say I was at a high intermediate level. My vocabulary (with Kanji of course) was greatly increased and while I didn’t understand everything, I could speak pretty fluently and understand the gist of most conversations.

Studying abroad and getting a job

Taken during study abroad

Taken during study abroad

I arrived in Japan for the first time in my life in the fall of 2002. This was after staying a month in Korea with my Aunt and a full 5-10 lbs heavier from pigging out on the amazing food. I was nervous and excited but also pretty confident in my Japanese. So I was shocked when I couldn’t understand a word when I went to stores and restaurants. It took a little time before I could adjust to the unique language such as 「店内でお召し上がりでしょうか?」 and the speed in which they spoke.

One of the first things I did in Japan was buy an electronic dictionary. Due to my student budget, I selected a cheaper, low-end Casio EX-word. Though the WWWJDIC and edict dictionary were long time pals, I could finally do some studying without having to use a computer or laptop. I really wish I know how many words I’ve looked up in those tools. I would guess somewhere in the thousands or even tens of thousands of words.

Anyway, all that studying must have payed off because when it came time to take our Japanese placement exam, I managed to finish the entire test while most gave up early as the test got progressively harder. Our Japanese language classes were divided into a total of 13 levels and I passed into level 13 for both Japanese and the Kanji classes. We didn’t even get any textbooks like the other students because most of the material were articles and documentaries such as プロジェクトX 挑戦者たち. The only other person to make it through level 13 in our ACM group had actually gone to High School in Japan! In total, there were 5 or so additional students from the GLCA and other schools and all of them had lived in Japan at some time before.

Needless to say, the class was insanely hard but I still managed to get through 3 months with a B+. After another month in Korea during Winter break, I returned to Minnesota to finish up my Computer Science degree. I also continued taking advanced Japanese electives, which seemed like a breeze after my ordeal at Waseda and continued to boost my overall GPA. I’m pretty sure this is also when I started writing my guide to Japanese grammar.

While I was preparing for my senior CS presentation and exam, I realized I needed a job. I thought, “What a great idea it would be to advance both my CS career and Japanese by working at a Japanese tech company!” My great idea brought on some stressful times as I had to fly twice to Japan (the first time at my expense), and stay with friends and host family to interview in Japan. This is all the while I was still taking classes. I actually did my paper midterm exam (take-home obviously) from my friend’s computer in Japan. Fortunately, it was all worth it as I finally got the job after anxiously waiting a month after graduation for all the paperwork and whatnot to go through the monster that is Hitachi.

At the end of my third year, I was at a very Advanced level having close to an adult vocabulary and able to successfully interview (multiple times) in Japanese to land a job with a Japanese company. I could also live comfortably in Japan and do day-to-day activities. However, I still didn’t have those native ears and had trouble understanding people in very noisy environments or middle-aged men who mumbled. I also had little experience in business Japanese. Obviously, this wouldn’t be a problem for long.

The death of a salaryman

Though the next three years working as a salaryman in Japan were very stressful times, it certainly did improve my Japanese. At first, it was embarrassing that I still couldn’t understand a lot of what my bosses were saying because they spoke so quickly and with almost no enunciation. But after a couple years, I got used to it and even started sounding like a middle-aged salaryman myself. And what do you know, I got some good job skills at the same time. I even mastered the dreaded phone!


I finished up the remainder of most of the grammar guide during this time. I also took the JLPT level 1 just to have something to prove I knew Japanese. Thanks to company policy, I also took the TOEIC every year and got a perfect score but I don’t think that’s going to help me with anything…

Also, my trusty Casio EX-word finally died and I replaced it with a Korean-equipped EX-word XD-H7600 just in case I wanted to study Korean ever. Unfortunately, this never happened. Around my 5th or 6th year, I also began to take an interest in Chinese and bought a Canon wordtank G90 to study Chinese. I do still use that one for my Chinese studies but not as often as I’d like.

After 4 or 5 years of studying Japanese, I’m at a near-native or 帰国子女 level. I can follow all conversations even with the most hard to understand people even with dialects and in crowded situations such as the cafeteria or 居酒屋. The only part I’m still missing is a lot of cultural information such as famous actors, locations, history, etc.

Not much going on now

Now that I’m back in the States and after almost 8 years, I really don’t do much in terms of learning Japanese. Sure, I read the occasional novel and buy One Piece every 3 months, but my Japanese has been pretty much the same for the last 2 or 3 years even while I was living in Japan. The major difference is that I’m missing out on recent and popular culture that I was finally starting to accumulate.

Lately, I’ve mostly been thinking about effective ways to teach Japanese and why the success rate for mastering it is so low. Of course, I also spend a lot of time on this blog and increasingly more time on the textbook.

I’d also like to improve my Chinese but I’m leisurely taking my time (started several years ago and still not at my first-year Japanese level). Maybe that will change if an opportunity involving China turns up.

Did my experiences shed any light on mastering Japanese? I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like to start studying Japanese today with all this new stuff such as podcasts and social networks. In particular, I wonder how much my own grammar guide would have helped me if someone else had wrote it 8 years ago. What do you think?

22 thoughts on “It started with a language requirement

  1. Very interesting article.

    One thing for sure, your grammar guide would have helped you a lot. I learn pretty slow at the moment since my vocabulary and kanji skills are low, but I should be getting kanji in kontext + workbok 1 in a couple of days and I hope that should solve my problem. About your textbook, any idea of when it’s going to be finnished? A release date.

  2. First time poster here.

    Just wanted to say, excellent article, and you most definitely don’t sound like you’re bragging about how you learned Japanese, because I think you make it quite clear you put a lot of hard work and dedication into mastering it (even if it didn’t always feel that way to you).

    Anyway, time to stop procrastinating on my ten page paper due tomorrow so I can get back to pretending I understand The O.C. in Japanese. 😛

    Oh, and don’t be surprised if I shoot you an e-mail sometime in the near/far future (I’m not so great at being punctual with e-mail), after reading this I have a few questions specific questions that I think you could potentially give me some help with.

  3. Thank you for the read. One thing I was wondering though was at what age did you start learning? (just curiosity)

  4. Thanks for that very interesting read. I can very much identify with having
    wanted to tell my teacher that what she had just said was “gaksei” and not
    “gakusei” as she claimed.

    I’ve also just started a blog in an attempt to chronicle my adventures in learning Korean and Japanese, but
    my first real post is still a draft.

    Your post was pretty encouraging too; a nice story about how it is after
    all possible to pick up a foreign language from zero, and how you had been
    able to put it to good use by living and working there.

    But may I ask why you have left Japan?

  5. @AlexanderW
    No release date planned since it’s something I do in my free time. I can tell you that I’m not even finished with the first chapter.

    I was 18 when I started learning Japanese, a couple months away from turning 19.

    The salaryman life style and overtime became too much for me to take.

  6. Great article. I’ve been wondering about your progression ‘story’ ever since I chanced upon your grammar guide. After reading all this, it seems like the key for your motivation/fluency was proactive social integration w/ Japanese people.

  7. And using online and electronic dictionaries… a LOT.

    Your comment brings up an important point though. You should really only learn languages that you like including it’s people and culture. I failed miserably at Spanish in High School because the reason I took it was for making my transcript look good for College. I had no interest in Spanish itself or in the numerous Spanish-speaking countries and so was doomed to failure.

  8. Good read. I wish I put that kind of effort into Japanese back when I started it at 16 so that I’d be essentially fluent by now. Unfortunately I didn’t know anything about language and studying in general so I didn’t really do much, and to be honest I’ve only really put a month and a half into studying Japanese actively (low and intermediate classes are too slow to be considered studying). It’s been four years since I started the language and the only thing I feel I do well is have conversations, and even that is hindered by my low vocabulary of maybe 1700 words. I’m hoping to get back into it this fall.

    I think your story is more impressive than that of Khatzumoto’s, by the way. His is just a fat, effortless advertisement of success, while yours actually shows perseverence and effort.

  9. Ha! No way I would have studied anything at 16! I was too busy playing Chrono Trigger or working so that I could afford to buy Chrono Trigger.

    I don’t know what Khatzumoto’s version is like but if he’s any good at Japanese, I’m sure he worked very hard at it.

  10. I’m glad to see your blog is still online. I stumbled upon your latest one randomly the other day and wanted to say that I get amused by many of your posts as well how I can relate to some of your experiences. But you know… After 2 freakin years of learning Japanese, it is still difficult to define the difference between Wa and GA!!!!! AHHH!! —nightmares—

    It doesn’t matter how many books you have, or any kind of resources… Some aspects of Japanese is just hard to learn! @___@

  11. Thanks for sharing your story. I started studying Japanese under very similar circumstance to you. After about a year of classes I somehow became very serious about Japanese and was unsatisfied with the pace and quality of the university Japanese I was learning. Luckily I found your grammar guide online which filled a lot of gaps in my Japanese knowledge and I can say that played a crucial role in allowing me to make my first feeble attempts at reading and listening to real-life Japanese (a very important step for myself and I suspect for many other learners). Last year I got 1kyuu and although I still have LOTS to learn my foundation is pretty solid. Still haven’t been to Japan yet but I’m going there next year to live and work. Thank you for the effort you put into your grammar guide and blog.

  12. Congratulations on passing 1kyuu without even going to Japan! Yet more proof that you don’t have to live there to learn it. I’m sure you’ll have great experiences there next year.

    And thank you for letting me know how useful the guide was. All the positive feedback I’ve received motivates me to continue onto greater endeavors and confirms that all the work was worth it.

  13. I’ve been living in Japan teaching English for the past year and one month. I’m dead set on learning Japanese to fluency, and there are two people that have inspired me in this endeavor: Tae Kim and Khatzumoto (I don’t understand the above poster’s snippy comment towards him…). However, Tae Kim has done more than inspire me. Through the guide and such excellent and clear explanation he’s basically given me a solid grasp of the mechanics of Japanese, for free. I can’t express how grateful I am.

    I left America with knowledge of katakana, hiragana, maybe 50 kanji, and grammar that did not extend beyond 「XはYです」. With Khatzumoto’s suggestion (demand?) of constant immersion and fun material, coupled with Tae Kim’s amazing explanations of the fundamentals, I can now have a semi-fluent conversation on a variety of topics, understand enough in a real-life context that I don’t feel stressed out or confused, watch TV, anime, read manga, enjoy Japanese video games; my only problem is vocabulary, and that’s on a constant upswing. After making a thorough effort to understand everything in Tae Kim’s guide, I then picked up both a 日本語能力試験 3級 and 2級 comprehensive grammar study book. I realized I already had a thorough understanding of literally everything covered in the level 3 book, and half of the level 2 book (the grammar points I didn’t really understand yet aren’t really different than new vocab words anyway…).

    That’s proof to me of Tae Kim’s amazing explanatory power. Thanks for the encouragement and enlightenment man, I wouldn’t be enjoying my life here in Japan nearly as much if it weren’t for you! Alright, that sounds kinda wonky, but it’s true! Whenever the textbook comes out, I’ll be buying 20 copies.

  14. Thanks Daniel!

    Yep, vocabulary is definitely the marathon of any language acquisition. There’s a long period of time where you learn and learn and never seem to make much progress. I hope to address at least a good portion by having lots of reading material with rich context in my textbook. But right now, it’ll all just talk. I should get working on it already!

  15. Your guide has really helped me in finding a starting point and an agenda for my learning. Surprisingly, I found your approach to get started with kana and kanji really appealing. I came across your guide when I was completely stuck in my self-study and did not know where to go – I got fed up with learning those romanji conversations and vocabulary from some of my books I picked up at the local book store. I agree with you that you have to have an strong interest in the country itself in order to go through the troubles learning its language.

    You’ve really done great work with your guide. You also gave me the assurance I can master it. Many thanks to you! Keep going, writing, blogging, and all. By the way, I partiuclarly love your humor in the guide – it makes me smile even in the middle of great frustration. You don’t find that in any text book.

  16. Hi! Im from mexico, ive been reading your old blog, and this blog. i love it, its giving me confidence about learning japanese, the only thing i dont like, is all the time i probably will have to spend doing this.

    ive read Khatzumoto a little, he says he learned japanese doing “fun stuff”. well, believe it, i learned english that way. (thats probably the cause why you are reading syntax or grammar errors in this post! haha!)

    My mom sent me to english classes to times. Both, i cleared A+. They both were beginner level classes, but i was really advanced at that time, and the school didnt let me take an exam to start a few levels up. So they forced me to start from level 1 Of course i leave it!

    I just loved english, i see a lot of movies, cartoons, manuals, everything since i was a child, i think, since i was 8 or since supernintendo, i started wanting to learn english. Somehow, i just grew up, and now im 21, and with my TOELF approved, that means that im more than 75% of english, i really dont know my score, my exam was like 4 years ago.

    Now, im sick of english, i think i can understand, write, but talking is a little hard, i think thats beacause i never practice. Just writing a lot. But not speaking.

    Anyway! That is for everyone who want to learn japanese too, you can learn easy! 100% sure! But only if you want. And is really exiting learning a language REALLY different, i know NOTHING about japanese, and im sure i will ENJOY learning. it will be worth.

    i will join the forums! To stay in contact!

  17. Granted, Nakama isn’t the best of books, but for beginners, I didn’t see it as being that awful. I think it’s good to have at least the masu form be your base, considering there was a guy in the class I just finished who didn’t seem to understand how to use it after apparently studying Japanese for 8 years. I’ve always just assumed anyways that it’s better to be too polite in most situations than not polite enough and potentially getting yourself into a bad situation.

    I had the same exact experience when I did my study abroad in Japan. I went from being top of the class to not being able to understand anything! And I was overwhelmed by all the kanji surrounding me on a daily basis. When I returned after graduation I wasn’t quite as overwhelmed, though, so it’s nice to see improvement in action.

    I’m glad that you wrote the grammar guide because it’s really helped me and it still helps me today. So, thank you very much!

    To the poster above me who said there is no humor in textbooks, you are not using the right textbooks. I’ve found some awesomely hilarious sentences as examples for grammar structures, especially in, “Minna no Nihongo.”

  18. This is my first comment, but I’ve been lurking for a long time. Your story was very inspiring in a way, but also sort of depressing in that I’m not progressing even half as quickly as you did. だが、がんばらなきゃダメです。

    I started reading your guide soon after Katrina and it has helped immensely. I decided I wanted to learn Japanese in 5th or 6th grade, finally bothered to learn the kana in 8th grade, and was absolutely lost after that until I found your guide in 9th grade. Your blog posts have also been a great help. I’m about to enter 12th grade now and I’m, unfortunately, still not very good at Japanese. The first real text that I read all the way through was 走れメロス thanks to you. Now, I’m working my way through ハリー・ポッターと賢者の石 at roughly two pages an hour. My writing, hearing, and speaking skills suck even more than my reading skills, but, though I intend to major in French, I’m hoping to fix that through the Japanese club at my intended college and the JET program afterward.

    I think I’m getting sort of carried away and telling my life story at this point though. The point is, if you’ll excuse the capslock, “THANK YOU MR. KIM! Please keep up the good work!” I’m a huge fan! And I don’t care if I speak fluent Japanese or have given up or what by the time you finish your textbook; I’m buying it.

    Thank you!


  19. @Miki
    I think not knowing the masu-form after 8 years is indicative of a lot more problems than the choice of textbooks! As far as Nakama goes, it’s not great but it’s better than most other textbooks.

    Don’t be discouraged by not being as “quick”. First of all, you started way earlier than me and 走れマロス is already very advanced! Also, I think the best speed is the one that’s right for you. I’m taking it easy with Chinese and that’s ok. It’ll take longer but you’ll eventually get there as long as you keep at it.

  20. What can I say… first of all, thank you for the time and effort you’ve put into the guide, and thank you for writing this blog (it’s very interesting :p).

    Mainly what I wanted to say is OH MY GOD ONLY 5 YEARS?!

    Maaan, I’ve learnt French for 5 years and I still can’t say a word. But of course I didn’t get a good teacher until the last two years, and even then most of our lesson time was spent on him trying to teach less-interested (diplomatic huh) people their verb conjugations.

    Anyway, I think reading this entry has awakened my (ferociously) competitive side and I’m gonna study until I explode. There we go.

    Just out of curiousity… I’ve gone through, pillaged, and am in the process of absorbing every piece of information on your guide… but where next? I had a look at the books in Borders, but I understood everything in them already. I’m too afraid to say I’m intermediate since I’m not o_o

    Haha, there I was thinking I’d keep this short and sweet…

    Well, thank you again!

  21. It’s easier to do when you’re young and in school.

    As for what next, definitely don’t go to any US bookstore. I would suggest thinking about where your interests lie and getting material that is interesting to you. Other than that, I can’t really be more specific without knowing more about your situation.

  22. Many thanks for putting in all the effort into making the guide and for sharing your story. Personally I think your guide is what everybody should read first when starting out on Japanese. I tell everyone I know studying Japanese to read it!
    Thanks for making something concise, informative and interesting to read.

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