Beyond the Textbook: How to Learn Japanese in Japan

You’ve made up your mind: You’re going to Japan.

Fantastic! I couldn’t recommend a better step for continuing your studies.

We’ve said it before: Immersion is the key to fluency, and if you go to Japan to learn Japanese, you’re opting for the ultimate deep-end dive.

Now you’ve got to figure out how you’ll actually get there, and what you’ll do when you’re there.

Fortunately, you’ve got tons of options, and this guide will get you packing your bags for your Japanese adventure in no time.

How to Learn Japanese in Japan and Have a Great Time Doing It!

Where to Start: Choosing the Best Path

Everyone is different, and you’re going to have to decide whether you want the university experience with a study abroad program or a taste of the Japanese working life.

In my opinion, these options are preferable to strictly language-education schools, since university or work programs will connect you with a community and culture where you’ll be using your Japanese in the real world. Going to Japan is a big commitment, so you should make sure to take full advantage of your environment.

However, I also realize that it’s not possible for everyone to go to Japan for six months or a year. Some of you may be looking for a short-term course to introduce you to the language and culture. If that’s the case, I’d recommend that you check out this overview of many Japanese language schools and academies throughout the country. You can find one that fits your schedule, needs and interests.

You can also get yourself ready for the experience by simulating an immersive experience with FluentU.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

You can try FluentU for free for 2 weeks. Click here to check out the website or download the iOS app or Android app.

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Use FluentU’s annotated subtitles, interactive vocabulary lists, flashcards and more to brush up on your Japanese before you embark on your language-learning journey.

In this post, we’ll focus on university-style study abroad programs as well as some common work options for foreigners. Finally, to help you get the most learning (and fun!) out of your experience, I’ll give you some suggestions about how to live your life in Japan.

With that in mind, let’s start with some programs that will have you living the Japanese college life.

Study Abroad

If you’re considering signing up for a study abroad program, then stop considering and just do it, especially if you’re currently enrolled in a university. There’s no better educational opportunity than taking your Japanese studies to Japan and, if you can swing it, a year there will advance your fluency miles beyond where it was when you started.

As a rule of thumb, you should find a program that has very close ties with a Japanese university and a plethora of opportunities to interact with Japanese students. Making friends and participating in the culture is your key not only to enhancing your grasp of the language, but also to invigorating your drive to continue learning and improving.

Here are a couple of noteworthy study abroad programs:

IES Tokyo

IES Tokyo is an excellent program that allows you to tailor the study abroad experience to your liking. A partnership with Kanda University of International Studies means that you’ll be surrounded by Japanese students who are as thrilled about meeting you as you are to meet them.

Their e-pal program will have you exchanging messages before you even land, and when you arrive you can jump straight into a potential group of friends and acquaintances. That’s all combined with a flexible course schedule that’s as intensive on Japanese classes as you want it to be, along with a healthy option of culture courses to boot. You’ll be in the perfect position to learn Japanese the way that suits you best.

Temple University, Japan Campus

This is another great option for those looking to spend a semester or year in Japan. Located in central Tokyo, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to explore one of the world’s largest and most interesting cities. Besides being a steal for Pennsylvania residents (if you happen to be one), the number of course options are staggering. And when you’re not in class, the university will fully support you in getting to know your Japanese counterparts, providing you with all kinds of programs throughout the year to help you become active in the student community.

Kansai Gaidai

This program will take you to Osaka, giving you some great opportunities to experience life outside of eastern Japan. The language and culture will have a slightly different spin, but with a student body invested in international exchange, you’re sure to come away with an invaluable experience and some great friends.

Don’t worry about only learning the Kansai dialect, either. The formal courses offered won’t disappoint those looking for an intensive Japanese course load. You should definitely apply for the Speaking Partner Program, too. From your very first day, it’ll give you an immediate connection with a current student, opening yet another avenue to get you immersed and involved in Japanese life.

Japanese Language Program at Keio University

If you aren’t currently enrolled in a university, the Japanese Language Program at Keio University accepts those who have completed their university degrees. While the coursework is very college-like, with homework assignments and attendance requirements, it’s a fantastic opportunity for those looking to take their studies to Japan, while retaining a university environment.

There’s also the opportunity to attend international courses at the university, which will increase your chances of meeting more Japanese students. With flexible course load options, this program is also suitable for those who may want to work while pursuing their Japanese study goals.

Working in Japan

If you’ve already graduated, there are still plenty of paths to get you to Nippon. Working in Japan can give you the opportunity to pay off those pesky student loans while learning the language and absorbing the culture in an adult environment. And that’s without even mentioning all the soft skills you’ll pick up in the process.

Teach English in Japan

Teaching English is the most-traveled path to Japan for those on a work visa, and the premier option for teaching in Japan is the JET Program.

With an extensive support system and more-than-modest salary and benefits, you can live your Japanese life without having to worry about whether or not you can afford another “melon pan” at Family Mart.

To prepare teachers for their experience in Japan, JET offers free online language and culture courses for all levels. Additionally, JETs (participants in the program) normally have more chances to interact with their schools and communities, which is where the real language learning occurs. You most likely won’t be treated like an English-speaking machine and hustled from one class to another, as is the case with some private programs. Getting involved with the school clubs and festivals and teacher parties means you’ll be able to put together a very fulfilling lifestyle, one that will certainly help you along in your path to fluency.

If teaching isn’t your thing, then apply with JET for the Coordinator for International Relations position. It’s a more standard, white-collar job, but it does require a high level of Japanese.

Interac is next on the teaching totem pole. The pay and benefits are a cut below JET, but the program serves more urban areas, meaning you’re less likely to be placed too far out in the countryside, and more likely to be somewhere closer to the action. There is some support for teachers and a handy guide for lesson plans but, like JET, your situation will vary dramatically depending on where you are placed.

There’s also AEON, another private teaching company with a student base covering a more diverse age group. You could be teaching smaller children or older adults, and most likely you’ll be doing both. Classes can run outside of normal business hours, which might even fit your lifestyle better than the traditional school structure.

Other Work Options

If teaching English isn’t your thing, keep an eye open at your current job (or potential future jobs) for possibilities to transfer to the company’s office in Japan.

Companies are always looking for talent they can send overseas to grow and develop skills to bring back to the home office, and your motivation to study the language and adopt the culture give you a definite leg-up on the competition.

For those learners who are more established in their careers, this may prove to be the best course, and you’ll find that learning the specialized language for your field of work can be great boost to your studies.

You can also look on different Japanese job search sites that cater to foreigners but, as mentioned before, a lot depends on your personal circumstances, so your mileage will vary.

What to Do Once You’re in Japan

Now we get to the fun part! Here are some can’t-miss tips to help you get adjusted to your Japan lifestyle and to learn tons while you do it.

Get a Hobby

After you get off the plane, the best thing to do is to find a hobby—ikebana, judo, basketball, cooking, anything—and then commit to doing it at least once a week. You want to create a space for yourself where you only speak Japanese and, more importantly, where people only expect you to speak Japanese.

Don’t let yourself be pigeon-holed into the foreign student or English teacher persona when you’re on your own time. It may be difficult at first, but it’ll definitely be worth it if you make efforts to get out and be social, instead of staying in and reading an English book.

Buy Japanese Reading Material

Speaking of books, buy lots of Japanese books, and be sure to go beyond textbooks. Printed material is comparatively cheap in Japan, especially if you buy used books (99% of which are like new). This is a great time to hop into a manga cafe, see what you like, and then hop over to Book Off to buy the whole series. It’s an excellent investment in your learning materials, and they’ll always give you a conversation starter for guests and new acquaintances.

From Time to Time, Be a Couch Potato

Watch some TV, too! Get into the habit of watching shows on the same day at the same time. To get you started, I recommend “ホンマでっかTV” (ほんまでっかTV)—(“Honma Dekka TV”) and “しゃべくり007”—(“Shabekuri 007”).

“Honma Dekka TV” is a variety show that brings in scientists and researchers to discuss sensational findings while comedians riff on the content presented, so it’s a gold mine of new science vocabulary mixed with topical slang. “Shabekuri 007” is a talk show where one or two entertainers discuss their personal lives in front of the seven regular comedians who comprise the show. Topics are often silly and always lighthearted, but you’ll get a sense of the ebb and flow of spontaneous comedy in Japan, and can even pick up some versatile one-liners for your personal use.

As you watch, you’ll find that your listening and reading  skills both improve, since you’ll be keeping up with the subtitles while enjoying your shows. There’s never been a better excuse to be a couch potato, that’s for sure.

Off You Go!

Most importantly, though, remember this: If you want to get to Japan, there’s definitely a way there, and there’s a place where you can fit in after you arrive.

Sometimes all you need is the commitment to take the first step.

When Victor isn’t having upsettingly-lucid dreams of shopping in combinis, he keeps a comedy blog where you can find some insights into life in Japan filtered through a healthy dose of humor. Check it out here.

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