The Japanese language has got to be one of the world’s hardest languages to learn. In addition to the hiragana (ひらがな) and katakana (カタカナ), which are two different alphabets each with their own uses; the language requires the use of kanji (漢字), which are complex characters that can be tedious to write and read with its many strokes and its various readings. Moreover, the grammar of the Japanese language can be quite complicated as its use depends heavily on the context. Yet with all of these difficulties, many people around the world still choose to pick up Japanese as a second language, including myself.

My history with the Japanese language

My first encounter with the language came when I was only seven years old. At the time, I was already fascinated with Japanese culture and media, playing Samurai-themed video games and watching Doraemon or Crayon Shin-chan on television every Sunday morning. My mother had studied at Tokyo for her college education and has spent a total of seven years there. Knowing this, I would always bug her into teaching me how to speak Japanese. To my disappointment, despite being perfectly fluent in the language before, 20 years of not using the language made her forget most of it; and she could only teach me to say basic phrases such as ohayou gozaimasu or watashi no namae wa

Doraemon the robot cat and his friends.

Although my fascination with Japanese culture did not change, I gave up on learning the language because I always thought “why should I?” For most of my life, I never had plans to study in Japan as I wanted to go to the USA for college instead. However, during my final year of high school, I had a change of heart. My mother started talking me into studying in Japan like she did, telling me that she had an unforgettable college life there and also discussing  the tuition fee in the United States being far too expensive. After finding out that some Japanese universities have English-taught degree programs, I decided to try and apply to some of them. I did not know what to expect of studying there, and at the same time, I was even a little scared because I could not speak the language. However, for some reason, I was also very excited to study in Japan because I thought that it was such an amazing country and that it would be such a one-of-a-kind experience. After being accepted to my first-choice university located in Tokyo, I immediately took the offer and left all my plans to go to college in the USA.

Tokyo Tower on a clear day.

Initial difficulties upon arrival

Before leaving for Japan, I decided not to stress too much about learning the language because since my university offers Japanese-language courses from native Japanese teachers, I thought that it would be better to start learning once I’m there so I could get a solid basic foundation. The first few weeks in Tokyo then became a little hard, most people in the country are not very confident in speaking English and many signs are still written in Japanese. I would always have my fluent friend to come with me when getting a SIM card, setting up a bank account, and even to the supermarket! These difficulties didn’t discourage me, however, and it actually made me even more excited to finally study the language.

Bright street signs in night-time Tokyo.

Starting Japanese courses in University

Once university started, I was placed into the most basic level in the Japanese course, which was held every weekday morning. I remember that in the very first week, we had to practice saying basic phrases and were already expected to start writing in hiragana. There were homework and quizzes almost every class, and when we started learning harder kanji and basic keigo (a much more polite form of speaking) expressions, I got a little overwhelmed and truly understood the difficulty of learning Japanese. Nonetheless, I was having so much fun learning it. Despite being quite the pain, kanji characters always left a very interesting impression to me, thinking that the strokes were very artistic. Also, outside of class, I would try to speak the language and use the grammatical patterns I learned in class with my Japanese friends. Of course, I would make many mistakes, but my friends would always politely correct me and that way, I was able to slowly understand how the language works, and learning the language became more natural. I was also grateful to have a kind instructor throughout the course who would always encourage the whole class to pronounce words and phrases repeatedly to remember and get used to them, which I think really worked!

Kanji words written on a textbook.

Still a long, long way to go

Today, I have a much better grasp of the Japanese language after learning it continuously over one and a half year at my university. I’m able to speak and understand most daily-life and some work-related situations, and also able to read and write simple articles and essays. However, my journey of learning Japanese is definitely not over and I actually still have a very long way ahead. Because I plan on staying in Japan for the long-term, I aim to gain even higher fluency in the language and also plan on taking the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) soon. It’s not going to be easy, but I still have plenty of time in this country that I plan on making use of. Ganbarou!