5 Surprising Benefits of Learning Japanese
For some, Japan is all about anime, manga, samurai, geisha, sushi, game shows, Hello Kitty, Harajuku, kawaii…
But you know deep down there’s more to Japan than that.
Likewise, there’s more to gain by learning Japanese than just anime geek-a-thons!
So to get you even more excited about learning Japanese, here are five surprising benefits of choosing to learn the language.
- 1. Take a Peek at Why Japan Is (Not) “So Weird”
- 2. Tackle an “Impossible” Language
- 3. Unlock a Notoriously Tough Market (Find a Career!)
- 4. Develop a Second Perspective: Think Differently
- 5. Literally Drink the Night Away with Your Friends/Co-workers
1. Take a Peek at Why Japan Is (Not) “So Weird”
Probably one of the most common questions on the internet is often asked by bewildered kids faced with outrageous, out-of-context gifs that defy their frame of reference: “Why is Japan so weird?” The key phrase to help in answering this is the aforementioned out-of-context!
Sure, it may be tempting to believe the snippets of “culture” that for some reason turn up in reputable newspapers: that Japanese people are pervs with scary subcultures, and that when they’re not wearing the ubiquitous black business suit, they’re wearing fundoshi. It’s become something of a point of agreement that Japan is incomprehensibly bonkers.
But the age-old wisdom is that to even begin to understand a culture, you have to understand the language. And to understand the language, you must understand the history. Japan is a mountainous island which historically closed its doors for 200 years and developed a culture so removed from Western conceptions of society that it may cause a deeper 分からない (わからない – I don’t get it!) factor than we’re used to.
And there is a lot of cultural context to wade through. Consider this, though: Would you want to wrap all your country’s Honey Boo Boos and Jersey Shores into a greasy Taco Bell box and ship it off to Japan as an ambassador? All I’m saying is that perhaps because of the frighteningly unfamiliar characters and the uncertain context of these gameshow gifs, we tend to throw Japan into a particularly harsh light. Because really, if all we’re analyzing are gifs from an already ridiculous concept for a show, how is this any different from Johnny Knoxville?
If interested, this article goes into the over-generalization a bit in an interesting switch-around.
2. Tackle an “Impossible” Language
We’ve all heard it, and though we might grudgingly admit we’ve said it ourselves, we know that those intimidating Asian languages are not, in fact, truly impossible. Let’s get back to those “frighteningly unfamiliar characters.” Faced with a written language that uses pictures instead of roman lettering already throws you for a loop, in that you have no reference from which to draw the phonetic pronunciation.
With Japanese, you’re both in luck and in for some troubles. I’ll give you the bad news first: Unlike Chinese, Japanese kanji does not have just one phonetic pronunciation per character—so settle in for a lot of familiarization time. However, the good news is that the phonetic sounds all fall pretty much within the range of sounds that we make in the English language, and there isn’t a whole lot of variation in tone.
Long story short? No tones. Less languid in rhythm, it’s more like playing the drums than playing the violin.
With that as a bit of a leg-up into the learning process, it’s also worth taking into account the admirable amount of discipline and persistence that comes with learning such a different language. There are a lot of people who would give up at the first sign of trouble. But you aren’t the kind of person who gives up that easily. When you’re faced with difficulty, you reiterate your desired outcomes, recognize that improvement is an ongoing process and you soldier on.
Japanese teaches you that although it’s tricky, there is value in improving yourself continuously. This goes for any difficult pursuit: Learn this, and you can learn anything. Added bonus? Mandarin having lent a lot of characters to Japanese, and Korean having just 40 letters in its alphabet, other Asian languages are going to look less like Everest after this one!
And with how far we’ve come along in technology, specifically in the education sector, “difficult” languages like Japanese are more accessible than ever. From language exchange platforms like Tandem to online immersion programs like FluentU, more and more people are able to effectively communicate with natives, regardless if they’re actually in Japan or not.
3. Unlock a Notoriously Tough Market (Find a Career!)
Let’s talk about this from two angles. First angle: Ever tried inputting business-level Japanese into Google translate? What comes out is often hilariously inaccurate gibberish. While that may be good for a solitary laugh or two (while onlookers watch you fearfully), this is immensely indicative of the level of free translation software nowadays.
In my opinion, the software often fails to be able to translate the nuances which are not directly translatable into English, and especially has trouble with differences in syntax. Observe:
お好み焼きやすき焼きは、人数がいた方が食べやすいね。(おこのみやきや すきやきは、にんずうが いたほうが たべやすいね。)
Looks like this in English:
Okonomiyaki and sukiyaki, I is easy to eat those who had a number of people.
Unless you’re feeling cannibalistic and are likely to eat humans who have already consumed a number of people, aided by the power of two popular Japanese dishes, then I trust you will never be able to use this sentence in English.
The more accurate translation is as follows:
I guess okonomiyaki and sukiyaki are easier to eat with a lot of people, aren’t they?
Now this lack of reliable translation software is a mild inconvenience if you’re traveling, but what if you’re trying to get through a high-stakes business transaction? If you can manage to successfully manipulate Japanese into the very different syntax of English or any other language with Jenga-master-like proficiency, you’ve got yourself a job. Throw in a little business acumen and you could apply to any translation company.
The second angle: Japan has for a long time been a very challenging place to do business. Whether it’s directors trying to film there, a fast-food company trying to open a chain there or salespeople trying to navigate the subtle communication practices of Japanese culture, the different laws, bureaucracy and language make things complicated.
Even with a native helping you out while you struggle to communicate your point, there are some cultural aspects that just do not translate. Instead of being a cultural bulldozer, learn Japanese! A little bit of the history and a pension for adaptation, and you’ll be able to understand why people use と思います (と おもいます – I think) so often. And why that man is bowing to the invisible person on the other side of the phone line. He’s not crazy—it’s just a force of habit!
If you’re hoping to move to Japan and don’t want to go the English teacher route, then study up on your Japanese industry jargon and try your luck in pharmaceuticals or electronics manufacturing!
4. Develop a Second Perspective: Think Differently
Ask anyone who knows several languages and they’ll tell you: Sometimes certain things are just expressed better when they’re not in English. You’ll find there are words in Japanese with a totally different flavor than their English counterparts—if there is a counterpart at all.
Take a few classic examples:
a. 懐かしい (なつかしい) – something that causes nostalgia/ “brings back memories”
例 (れい – example):
おー！この曲は何年ぶりかな？懐かしいなぁ．．． (おー！このきょくは なんねんぶり かな？なつかしいなあ．．．)
(Wow! How many years has it been since I’ve heard this song? It really takes me back…)
This word is everywhere. Everyone uses it, and it’s a simple word that allows you to express that something was precious to you—or that you’re recalling “the good old days,” whenever and wherever those days may be!
b. めんどくさい – (a tad crude) way to say something is “a pain”
あー、みんな一人一人を呼ぶのはめんどくさいな．．． (あー、みんな ひとりひとりをよぶのは めんどくさいな．．．)
(Man, calling everyone individually is such a pain!)
This is a great way to remark on something that would be tiresome, annoying or otherwise tedious to have to do. In English, you may have expressed this sentiment with an “Aaargh…“
For other fun ways to express difficult-to-describe emotions, bask in the wonders of Japanese emotional onomatopoeia. Ever felt like you’re frustrated because of unidentified feelings and didn’t know how to describe this obscurity? もやもや. Done.
Basically, the cool part is this: Imagine your pre-Japanese mind as a one-track train. It’s plowing along on its familiar path, taking in the familiar scenery and making connections between things it’s been seeing all its life. This is how you make sense of the world.
But imagine that suddenly, you pull a lever (i.e. start learning Japanese) and you switch tracks into an area you’ve never seen before. Suddenly things that used to make sense look a little different from this perspective; you’ve got new information with which to process things you’ve known all your life. And it changes your opinion. You can switch back and forth from track to track, but now your view of the world has expanded!
In addition, as a detour from the emphasis placed on extroversion and outwardly expressing opinions in North America, Japanese people tend to place a greater emphasis on cooperation, agreement and also silence. Aren’t one to throw your opinion around? Like to express things more ambiguously and invite agreement/polite doubt in conversation? Japanese is the language for you.
5. Literally Drink the Night Away with Your Friends/Co-workers
All right, so I’m going to be contested on the validity of this benefit, but I do mean literally. If it’s your thing, one of the awesome parts about learning Japanese is the all-in culture of drinking in Japan. From the cathartic rush of the first お疲れビール (おつかれびーる – “good work” beer) after a tough day, to the “end of the night” when you occasionally emerge from the dark karaoke booth into blazing sunlight, drinking can be a bit of a long-haul.
There’s nothing like the camaraderie of drinking buddies, when polite -ます forms of speaking are dropped and you can try out some of the more fun slang you’ve learned. If you’ve been stuck in a textbook, this is your playground!
Aside from the good-ole-fashion fun, for many, drinking is a way to get past the firm, conservative/professional demeanor during working hours to the more relaxed, outgoing and inhibition-less “buddy” after hours. This is often regarded as a valuable part of business: a chance to let your client, your coworker, your boss, tell you what’s really going through their mind regarding that business proposal, and for you to reciprocate if it’s fitting to do so.
Plus, you get to play with a whole other world of terrifying drinking games.
A word of responsibility: Don’t get pulled into having too much fun… the peer pressure is insane.
If any of these reasons strike a chord in you, and I sincerely hope they do, then let’s go. That train to a different perspective on life is moving, and there’s every reason to just jump on—whether it takes you to tolerance, personal achievement, money, mind expansion or an 居酒屋 (いざかや – drinking tavern).
If nothing else, you’ll get out of a rut and go somewhere new!