I respect people who possess a high-level of Japanese proficiency the same way I respect people who are well-built. I don’t respect the results of the effort so much as the discipline required to attain it. I can’t deny that focus and perseverance are character traits I lack and thus envy in others because I’ve never maintained a focus on anything out of a desire to better myself — only out of fear of failure, a desire to escape or because I was coerced into it.
Just as shame about my body has occasionally encouraged me to buy weights and protein powder (which remain unused and in the cupboard), shame about living in a country and not knowing the language can also be a strong motivator. Shame has never worked for me in the long run, though.
After a lengthy on-off relationship with learning Japanese, I find it gets harder and harder to pick the books back up again. Most people realize the obvious: I live in Japan, learning the language means I can understand the culture better. The thing is, I didn’t move to Japan for the culture. I moved to Japan after I graduated because I didn’t know what else to do.
“Go home, man,” some people say. But I don’t want to go home. I enjoy teaching English and writing in my free time, and being seen as a gaijin (foreigner) is a status that I’m comfortable with.
However, this year I made it my resolution to return to the books instead of hitting the gym. The only way I could get back into studying Japanese, however, was to acknowledge the argument that it could well be a total waste of time — but that acquiring skills is a more valuable waste time than reading lengthy biographies and binge-watching American TV series, things I regularly do instead of studying. Now I feel like if I can get through the struggle of learning a language with thunderous voices in my head telling me to go watch “The Walking Dead” — that’s a skill that I can transfer to other challenges that take time, effort and … discipline.
The voices of temptation aren’t the only ones I hear, there’s another one in my head that I call the “brain training motivator.” OK, so my interactions with people in Japan are frustrating and the capitalist wonderland that is Tokyo depresses me. These are overwhelmingly negative thoughts, so it’s better to occupy my time with an activity that can provide me with some mental aerobics, like a crossword or playing a brain-training game on the Nintendo DS. Really, making lists of kanji isn’t much different. The brain-training motivator has always worked better on me than the argument that I should learn about the culture. That’s probably because my mood about Japan fluctuates wildly whereas there’s a consistency in wanting to better my mind.
Another argument I use to battle the negative monster inside my head is the “therapy” argument. This is an idea I learned from Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History”: When you get stressed out, you should think in another language:
“When you’re worried about something, have you tried thinking in a different language? … It slows you down. Keep your thoughts from running wild. A good discipline in any circumstance.”
Tartt’s advice works for me, since I cannot think the same complex and potentially toxic thoughts in Japanese. And by not thinking these thoughts, I don’t feel the pain and anxiety associated with them. Therefore, studying Japanese can also be an important grounding tool.
I’ve also found on a practical level that if I have a problem learning it’s better to find a way to make it fun. I’ll always remember how one of my former teachers introduced my classmates and I to Plato’s “The Republic” via Keanu Reeve’s “The Matrix.” I use the same strategy by tying to watch anime and read manga like “Doraemon.” It’s hard sometimes because I have a preconceived negative idea about anime from the few shows and non-Ghibli movies I’ve seen. But likes can change, and a lot of what we like simply comes down to repeated exposure.
Because of that, I think the idea of liking something can be cultivated. Obsessions? Not so much. I wish I was naturally obsessed with Japanese study instead of needing to do a lot of mental warm-ups to get me to even open the textbook. I can’t pick my obsessions, but the reason I have become so consumed with other obsessions is out of fear of facing reality — and since studying Japanese represents that reality, it makes sense that it has been off my obsession radar. It doesn’t take discipline to have an obsession, though, so maybe I’m wrongly categorizing Japanese study.
I grapple with existential questions a lot and struggle to find meaning in a lot of things in life, but there’s meaning in developing skills. Skills can help us deal with our negative feelings and even though so many things can be taken away from us — our jobs, our homes, our family — a skill stays with you, so it makes sense to cultivate it.
I’ve failed Level 4 of the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test twice already, and being stuck at such a low level is embarrassing in itself. But I’m going for it again on July 5 with all of these motivations in my head alongside the words of the avant-garde novelist Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
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