Learn Japanese through the Conditioned Response Method


After the success of my first published book, “Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you,” I am now ready to start my second book, “Learning Japanese: What the textbooks won’t tell you.” Allow me to share with you the Conditioned Response Method (CRM). With this method, you will be speaking excellent Japanese by the end of this column.

CRM is a method of learning Japanese through conditioned responses to Japanese situations. I came up with this method after two observations in Japan: 1. That students were taught English by having to memorize grammatical English phrases; and 2. That one of the most disappointing things about learning Japanese is that once you finally understand it, you realize no one is saying anything important anyway. Ditto kanji. Somehow after all that work to learn kanji, you expect it to say something important. Instead, you spend all that time learning kanji only to be able to read signs that say, “No parking or you’ll be towed!” or “Don’t litter, you scumbag!”

Back to the first observation, it has long been known that Japanese students have a history of unsuccessfully learning English by memorizing phrases out of context. That doesn’t mean, however, that Japanese cannot be learned this way. This is because Japanese is far more predictable than English. Part of learning Japanese is learning how to react appropriately to situations.

As a result, much of Japanese communication is a series of sentences that are canned statements. “It’s hot today” in summer (“Atsui desu ne”) and “It’s cold today” in winter (“Samui desu ne”) are common greetings. Once you have these two phrases mastered, you’ll be able to greet anyone on any day of the year, since all days are either “hot” or “cold,” according to the Japanese. See? It’s easy. Who said it had to be interesting?

That concludes the introduction of the book. Ready to learn more? The first chapter is called “Inspired Japanese.” This is how it works. I’m going to give you the setting and ask you to imagine the pictures yourself. This way I don’t have to pay an artist to draw them in the book. If you really do not feel creative enough, imagine your favorite artist drawing these pictures. These images will inspire you to speak Japanese. OK, ready?

Imagine: A mountain of garbage sitting on the curb.

If you are walking with a friend past this mountain of garbage, what would you say? If you were speaking English, you might say “Yuck!” or “Reminds me of my recent trip to Mount Fuji.” But in Japanese, there is only one thing you can say: “Gomi ooi desu ne.” (“That’s a lot of garbage.”) This is because Japanese observations tend to merely state the obvious, just like “Atsui desu ne” and “Samui desu ne.” Got it? You’re on your way to fluency! Next.

Imagine: A “balloon arch,” those blowup arches they use as entrances to outdoor events in Japan such as sports festivals or holiday festivals.

If you are walking with a friend and you see this odd looking “balloon arch,” what do you say? In English you might say, “That’s a very silly looking thing” or “Do you think there’s actually a patent on that?” But there is only one possibility in Japanese: “Balloon arch desu ne.” (“That’s a balloon arch, isn’t it?”)

Imagine: You’re eating octopus heads. It’s your first time, and will surely be your last.

Whereas in English we might say, “This is disgusting,” or “I think I’m going to throw up,” in Japanese there is only one response: “Oishii desu!” (“It’s delicious!”) Food is always “Oishii!” With this knowledge alone, you are on your way to becoming an excellent Japanese speaker.

Imagine: You’re lost. You’ve taken the wrong train and there are no signs in English. You ask someone to help you but they have no idea what you’re trying to say in Japanese. They cock their heads, wince, look perplexed. Undeterred, you forge on in incomprehensible Japanese and finally get your point across.

When you thank the Japanese person and apologize for taking up 20 minutes of his time, what will his conditioned response be? “No problem” or “Glad I could help”? No. He will say: “Nihongo jozu desu ne!” (Your Japanese is excellent!”)

See? I told you you’d be able to speak excellent Japanese by the end of this column.