My first introduction to Japanese was through anime music. Not even through anime! My parents weren’t the type to have anything beyond the four available terrestrial channels and anime wasn’t on “normal TV”. One of my friends sent me – through painstakingly slow dial-up internet – Cruel Angel’s Thesis and Tamashii no Refrain, and I listened to the Cruel Angel’s Thesis so much that even my dad started learning the lyrics. I found and printed out the romaji and English translation to sing along to and I think I might have listened to nothing else for a good three weeks.
After that, one of my school friends made me a mix CD of anime theme songs she’d downloaded. I had still never watched a single anime, but oh boy did I know the music! From there, a different friend introduced me to Dir en Grey, and thus began my love affair with the “Visual kei” genre.
Only, a mere handful of years after I started getting into Vkei, several artists came to Europe on tour. My beloved Miyavi came in both 2007 and 2008, and I saw him both times (first in Germany and then in England). While I loved the music, I didn’t necessarily feel the need to understand all of the lyrics of all of the bands and besides, if you were lucky, translations could occasionally be found online. Not once did I feel the need to go to Japan.
So despite years of being interested in Japanese music (of multiple genres), I never learned anything. When I first came here in October 2010 I couldn’t speak a word and relied on my friends the whole time. When I came back in 2011 I wasn’t much better, and although I was fractionally less hopeless when I moved here in 2012, I would by no means say I could speak Japanese.
In October 2010, a drama called Nagareboshi started airing, and I started downloading it to watch in England. Dedicated fans made subtitles to match the raw video files, but it would understandably take a couple of days (at least) between the video file being available and the fansubs being released. I don’t know what it was about that drama, but I loved it. I couldn’t wait for the next episode. I desperately wanted to know what was going to happen to Takenouchi Yutaka and Ueto Aya’s characters. And I started trying to watch it raw, without the fansubs, pausing every few seconds to try to write down words so that I could look up their meanings in a desperate attempt to follow the story. And so, my tiny ability to understand things began to sprout and grow.
Now, some people can live here and not speak a lick of Japanese after more than a decade. I am almost impressed by these people, because it takes a certain ability to pick up absolutely nothing. At work, while it was technically my head teacher’s job to translate and act as an intermediary between the Japanese and foreign staff, she was pretty cold and standoffish and just flat-out didn’t translate a lot of the time. Fortunately, my manager and I got along amazingly (given that neither of us could communicate that well in each other’s language) and when she and I went out for drinks after work with some of the students I gradually felt my spindly, shaky Japanese legs begin to get stronger.
In early 2014, I had chronic headaches and back pain, so started going to a massage place/osteopath to see if they could fix me. The people there didn’t speak any English, and that was an enormous help! We had to find a way to communicate, and – bless them – they used simple enough expressions to explain the words I didn’t understand, and helped my vocabulary grow.
And then I met my husband.
To start with, he tried really hard to communicate with me in English. But honestly, over time, he used Japanese more and more and I also used English less and less. Even our text messages/Line conversations started off in English and are now entirely in Japanese! I honestly don’t even know when I became able to read and write Japanese, it just sort of happened organically along the way. I really struggle to write by hand, though – the need to write anything with a pen occurs so rarely and I’ve always forgotten how to write kanji by the next time it becomes necessary.
I broke my leg in 2017 and had to stay in hospital for a while. There too, the nurses and hospital staff could only speak Japanese, so instead of everyday conversation it became “everyday conversation plus hospital conversation”, which came in useful the next time I had to stay in hospital, for a shredded ACL later that year.
The biggest test, though, was probably driving school. I had never learned to drive back in England, and in early 2019, we enrolled me in the nearest good driving school. I was terrified. I had no confidence whatsoever, but my husband was convinced that I could do it.
“Can you read kanji?” they asked.
“Uhh,” I replied. “It depends?”
They gave me a piece of paper with a bunch of driving-related kanji on and had me sit at a desk. “See if you can write the furigana for these,” they said.
I could barely write a thing.
“Hmm,” they said.
“Don’t worry!” said my husband. “I’ll help her! And she’ll study hard!”
And with that, I was accepted into driving school.
You know what? I did study hard. I went to classes at the driving school almost every day and followed everything the instructors said. Even the day after my early miscarriage I was practicing, driving around the area between Yokohama and Kamakura with agonising cramps while my sweet old instructor Mr. M sympathised, told me about his deceased wife’s miscarriages, and was ever so kind. And finally, the time came for me to take the tests to graduate from the driving school and be ready to go to the test centre to take the real (paper) exam.
Maybe I’ll write about learning to drive in Japan another day.
But I passed the test! I did it! Me! It gave my confidence a huge boost, and probably helped me feel brave enough to try job interviews in Japanese too.
The thing is, though, that I’ve still never actually studied Japanese. Everything’s just sort of happened by osmosis, I guess. I don’t think I know how to study – as a language it’s so different (compared to the European languages I learned a bit of at school) and without a teacher I wouldn’t know where to begin. Even though I got offered a job that included translation, even though I’ve already done some translation work for a university professor or two, I feel like a huge fraud. I’ve never taken any of the JLPTs. I’ve never sat down to read a book in Japanese, or write an essay. I can follow politicians when they give speeches, have conversations with all manner of people, and make people shocked when they realise that the person they spoke to on the phone isn’t actually Japanese, but it’s all always me 100% winging it and just using the language that feels right. I have no concrete evidence that I’m not screwing things up. And somehow once again, I find myself with no confidence.
I wonder if that will ever change? Those of you who have actually studied a language (any language) to a higher level, do you ever have moments of doubt that you’re using the grammar correctly, or choosing the right words? Or did learning from teachers and textbooks give you faith in your abilities? I’ve always wanted to attend a language school or something, but either the timing was off and it interfered with work, or the level of class offered was way too low. Do you think taking tests helps you feel more capable, or is it a waste of time? I really want to get advice, but since I’ve never studied and honestly don’t really know how to study, I always feel pretty useless… 😅