Monday, January 26, 2015

5 Reasons I'm Glad I Studied Japanese

It should go without saying that you'll have a richer experience in a foreign country if you can speak the language, but since I started working in the lovely eikaiwa industry (don't judge!), I've met so many native English speakers who come to live and work here with little or no Japanese language ability. I admire them for their courage, but am so glad I studied Japanese as much as I did before I came! There's no way I'm even close to mastering Japanese and it's easy to get discouraged in the never-ending story of a second language...when so many people around the world speak English anyway! But here are five reasons that make it worthwhile to me:

1. Making Friends
This is pretty obvious. If I got a dollar for every time a new acquaintance said "Oh phew I'm glad you speak Japanese because I'm no good at English" I'd have like $17. Speaking Japanese allows me to communicate with a wider variety of people--including little kids, immigrants to Japan from other countries, old folks in the countryside, etc. After I left university, the number of people I met who could speak English dropped dramatically. Speaking Japanese can also help you avoid the kinds of "friends" who just want to practice their English and aren't really interested in you as a person--you're not dependent on them for your social life. 
Also, as an exchange student, I lived in a dorm with Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese, Malaysian, Finnish, British, New Zealander (?), German, French, Polish, and Dutch students. The one language we ALL had in common was Japanese. Studying Japanese together allowed us to connect even though we had very little else in common. 

2. Independence 
Also pretty obvious. My first job in Japan, the company provided me with everything: an apartment, a bank account, a cell phone, all the paperwork in English translation, even a guidebook on the culture. They were clearly ready to support the fresh-off-the-boat types. It was very helpful, but can you imagine having to go to the doctor with YOUR BOSS because you can't speak Japanese? Nope. But that kind of dependency was part of the company's strategy, I think. I knew if I didn't like the job, I could quit and find a new job and apartment by myself. For my coworkers who had never been in Japan before, that option was mind-boggling to even consider, leading to some sticking out disappointing situations because they felt they had no other choice.  
Romantically as well, I felt confident I could come to Japan and date my Japanese boyfriend (now husband) without any awkwardness of a dependent situation when we hadn't yet committed to marriage. My boyfriend was very supportive in a lot of ways, but he never had to hold my hand as I took baby-steps in Japanese life. I wouldn't have liked that and I'm glad I passed that stage before I met him.

3. Discoveries Off the Beaten Path
There are at least two stories I can think of that are good examples. One was when I traveled to Okinawa with a friend. We had gone to the famous Shuri Castle, and were wandering around some little narrow streets in the area, one of which went through a neighborhood. As we walked along it, we came upon a rain-smeared handwritten paper sign that said "300-year-old Akagi Tree this way" in Japanese. So we followed the tiny overgrown path and discovered a magical place--the largest tree I'd ever seen, sheltered by a huge vine-covered volcanic cliff, and an Okinawan-style shrine. After looking up the trees, I found they had once grown all over the Naha area, but were largely destroyed in WWII. I don't think we would have followed that path and discovered the trees if we couldn't read Japanese. We wouldn't have known what it was about at all! 
The other time Japanese allowed a rich experience was when I went to Nikko by myself. All the information about local onsen (hot springs baths) was in Japanese. And I love onsen, so I visited many small ones that turned out to be amazing, using information that was meant for Japanese tourists and not foreign ones.

4. Job Opportunities
Although I haven't personally taken advantage of this yet, I do know foreigners in Japan can get more job opportunities (i.e. other than eikaiwa!) if they're fluent Japanese speakers. Of course you usually need another marketable skill or two, like accounting or sales or translation or tech-y experience, but two languages definitely make you more attractive to most international companies than one!
I'm hoping my skills will also one day open doors for me back in the U.S.--I love Japanese and I enjoy teaching, so if I can speak Japanese well, I might just be able to enter a niche with less competition than if I only spoke English.

5. Cooking
This one might be less interesting than the others but for me it's so worth it! Now that I'm all married and wife-y I cook. Pretty much every day! I'm not a natural at cooking and need to follow a recipe carefully for stuff to taste good. My husband is Japanese and though he loves Western dishes, I enjoy being able to cook us a big pot of miso soup, or a quick oyako-don dish, or a roasted mackerel. You can find a lot of those recipes in English too, but I like using a online service called CookPad--all the recipes are uploaded by users, nearly all in Japanese, so I can find authentic recipes for the homiest Japanese comfort foods. I think being able to make Japanese dishes will be a great omiyage (souvenir) to my family should we one day move to America--I can help keep my husband's Japanese heritage alive in our family.

How about you? If you've ever studied a foreign language, what were the benefits? If you've been to Japan, what was your experience with/without speaking Japanese?

FAQ: Our Story

To tell our story, I decided to write answers to questions we often get. First, a little about us. I’m Leah, originally from the Seattle area, from a Christian homeschooling family. I’m 25, my husband Yuya is 27 and hails from Shizuoka, Japan. Before we met, Yuya studied abroad in Ohio for a year, became a Christian, and decided to go to grad school to study the foreign countries he found so fascinating.  

How did you guys meet?

We met while I was studying abroad in Kyoto, in the winter of 2011. I had come to Japan to continue my studies in Japanese and Yuya was getting his master’s degree in International Relations at the same university. We met in a campus Bible study group. I remember sitting across from Yuya the day we met. I was talking about how I wanted to make more Japanese friends, and Yuya suddenly asked, “Do you ever feel discriminated against in Japan?” and I thought, “Wow, I can be real with this guy!” He sparked a conversation about culture and life that is still continuing.

Which language do you speak together? 

Our first two years together it was all Japanese. Then when he came to the U.S. the first time, we got more comfortable using English together, and now we use both languages pretty equally. It depends on the day and the sort of conversation we’re having!

How do you get along with his parents?

I remember when I met them for the first time. I was so shy and quiet! Afterwards I worried I should have talked more about myself, but Yuya assured me I’d made a great impression just being my reserved self. Yuya’s dad said, “She’s just a Japanese girl born with blonde hair!” That was encouraging, though when we announced our intentions to marry, their first question for us was, “Will you give us a proper Buddhist funeral when we die?” I was surprised that was their first concern. After more beers, his dad said, “Well, I don’t care if you have your pastor bury me under a cross. But your mom wants to leave a proper Japanese grave for future generations to take care of.” How to take care of them as they get older, and still pursue our dream of raising children in the U.S., is one big dilemma we currently face.

What did your parents think of you marrying a Japanese man and moving so far away from home?

My parents supported my studies and me going abroad, but at first it was awkward talking to them about Yuya. After we’d met and dated for 4 months, I returned home to finish my degree and graduate. I planned to find a job in Japan and go back to be with Yuya the next year, but if I started talking about it, my mom would often change the subject. Yuya came to Seattle to visit that Christmas and it was then my family warmed up to him, and to us as a couple. Fast-forward two years later, at our wedding in Seattle. My new husband’s immediate family, his 3 best friends (his groomsmen) and two of our female friends had come all the way from Japan to attend our wedding. During the reception my mom stood up and said, “People keep asking me ‘aren’t you sad to lose your daughter to Japan?’ but God has really been speaking to my heart since I met all you folks from Japan. I’m not losing a daughter, I’m gaining wonderful friends and family.” Needless to say, most of us cried.

Will you live in Japan your whole life?

We hope not. Years before we met, Yuya studied abroad in the U.S. for a year and has wanted to go back ever since. Now we live in Kyoto, it’s lovely and life is very convenient here, we met and dated here, his family is here, and we have many dear friends here, but we both feel a little claustrophobic in the city life and social pressures. Yuya is a devout Christian and has an individualistic personality that is not “typical Japanese” so he doesn’t feel he fits his own culture very well. We’re thinking my home country offers more freedoms to be different.

What do you like about Yuya?

He’s so unique and so himself. Our backgrounds, hobbies, native languages and personalities are so different, but deep down, we’re cut from the same cloth. It’s funny, in an international relationship you’d think the surface things (hobbies, etc.) match up the most easily while the deeper things (faith, values, worldview) don’t match very well, but for us it’s the opposite. He expresses the same amazement at how similar we are where it counts. Yuya helps me be the best me. He teaches me a lot about trusting God. I always feel loved and safe and home when I’m with him. Oh, and he likes my favorite musical Les Miserables. We’re less than a year into marriage but every day I’m so glad we chose each other.