Most foreigners who spend a significant amount of time in Japan make an effort to learn the language. Some dedicate themselves to Japanese language acquisition and attain a high level of functionality. Others struggle mightily with anything beyond the basics.

A handful have brains wired to learn languages, start at a very young age, or have a Herculean work ethic, and achieve something approximating native-level fluency. Most of us muddle through. This article is for the muddlers.

I’m no Dave Spector, but I’ve had modest but genuine success with Japanese despite lacking any particular knack for languages (just ask the Spanish and Hebrew teachers of my youth). While foreigners can prosper in Japan without speaking Japanese, the ability to speak, read and write well enough to express and comprehend complex thoughts in the language makes life immeasurably richer. Japanese is trulythe gift that keeps on giving.

Like many other Japan Times’ readers, I’ve picked up a few Japanese language tips and tricks. I share a few here.

Be prepared

When speaking your mother tongue, it doesn’t take much effort to express yourself intelligibly. That’s not necessarily true when speaking a second language, especially for complex or unfamiliar subjects.

Fortunately life is not just a string of unpredictable encounters. In business settings, you will typically know the agenda in advance. Even in a social context, you can often anticipate what will be discussed.

Forewarned is forearmed. Spend a little time before the meeting mentally deliberating, in Japanese, what you want to say and how you will respond to questions. If no one’s looking, move your lips while doing it.

Build an inventory

When you come across a particularly effective way of expressing something in Japanese, store it in your memory. Practice it until you can deploy it naturally.

You’ll only have a small inventory at first so you may end up repeating the same phrases and stories. It’s OK. To paraphrase former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, we must speak Japanese with the words that we have, not the words that we want or wish to have at a later time.

Leave your ego at the border

When speaking Japanese you will make mistakes, stumble for words, make inappropriate utterances, speak with an accent and — very possibly — come across dumber than you are in your native language. Get over yourself.

You will often be faced with a choice between speaking broken Japanese or listening to broken English. Sacrifice your ego and go with Japanese. Even if you can’t say everything you want or understand everything you’re told, you’ll usually still come out of a conversation with a more complete and nuanced picture than if you had stuck with English.

If you don’t fully understand, pretend. You don’t need to understand everything, just enough.


It’s easy to neglect writing in Japanese since so many Japanese have good English reading skills and writing in Japanese is so hard. Do it anyway. Your Japanese correspondents will be at least as forgiving of your mistakes in written Japanese as you would be of theirs in English. For complicated or sensitive content, ask a native speaker to proofread.

You can also vet your Japanese text by doing an Internet search of a phrase you have written to find examples of others stringing the same words together. Revise your text based on the search results.

Watch TV dramas

Japanese television dramas offer something for everyone. Personally, I have gotten a lot out of business-oriented dramas, such as “Hanzawa Naoki” (banking) and “Hagetaka” (mergers and acquisitions). There is a drama for every workplace or activity you may find yourself in.


If complete fluency will always be beyond your grasp, you can still attain mastery of Japanese in selected subject areas. Focus on your industry, profession or hobbies. Given limitations on time and aptitude, it’s better to go deep than wide.

Get free stuff

Take advantage of the abundance of free Japanese lessons and material available online, such as those offered by Nihongo no Mori (www.nihongonomori.com). Nihongo no Mori’s lessons are generally practical and the instructors are excellent.

Sing karaoke

Learn a few Japanese songs for karaoke purposes, particularly songs in a conversational style. Many enka songs fit the bill.

Even if you are (like me) a lousy singer, picking up a few songs can help you improve the pronunciation and cadence of your spoken Japanese.

Frequent hostess clubs

If you spend enough time in Japan, you may find yourself dragged (kicking and screaming, or not) to a hostess club. A hostess club is like Berlitz but with plusher furniture and alcohol. Like at Berlitz, the staff will never tell you to shut up. Use the opportunity to practice your Japanese. (Forgive me, female readers, if this approach to learning Japanese is not as accessible to you. I can’t speak with any authority about host clubs.)

Many hostesses are able to speak intelligently on a wide range of subjects. (The same cannot always be said of their clientele, who frequently seem to have one-track minds.) I recall a conversation with one hostess who spent her spare time reading the works of Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler. (Adler developed the theoretical underpinnings of the inferiority complex; hostesses profitably apply those theories in practice.)

Japanese is a journey, not a destination. There is no single path to learning and no fixed pace. Good luck.

Glenn Newman (gnewman@newmanlaw.net) is a former long-term resident of — and now, a frequent visitor to — Japan.

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