Learning Japanese

I don’t speak Japanese.

Quite a shocking truth, I know. Okay, maybe it’s not so shocking. After all, it would probably be a safe bet to say that, in most cases, people who study a martial art don’t speak the native language of the country from which the art originated. In Kokikai, we use fewer Japanese terms than in other forms of aikido. This is in large part because of Sensei’s interest in Kokikai being an international martial art. It’s probably also due in part to the fact that Japanese is a difficult language to learn for many, and learning it does not mean one has a better understanding of Kokikai (or any other martial art, for that matter).

However, I have always found the Japanese language to be fascinating, and definitely one that I would like to learn even if I never had started my Kokikai studies. I’ve also been fortunate to meet two friends, both american, who are fluent in Japanese. Both of them, independently, gave me the following advice regarding learning the language:

  1. Move to Japan.
  2. Study for 10 years.
  3. Give up.

Very encouraging, isn’t it?

But just because something is difficult to do, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try! That attitude has helped me make the transition from teaching at a YMCA to having a full-time dojo and keeps me plugging away at understanding tsuki kotegaeshi. Also, the fact that this Fall I’m helping host an International Convention of Kokikai students–many of whom are coming from Japan–has given me some incentive to learn at least a little Japanese. Perhaps in 10 years, I may give up, but I’ll deal with that when the time comes.

Since I don’t have the time to go to school again, I’ve been looking at different ways of learning Japanese. One option is software from Rosetta Stone–available at a mall kiosk near you! While I have heard good things about this program, and could likely purchase the software as a business expense, I have cringed a bit at shelling out $300 for the product. There are many free sites available, but most of these are text only–I need to hear the language if I’m ever going to be able to speak even a little of it.

Right now, then, I have settled on trying out a web site I found: www.japanesepod101.com. I’ve already listened to their first “lesson”: it focused on saying “How are you?” and introducing yourself. The sites podcasts seem to be free, but they charge for lesson notes, which I think are important. (I’d hate to think I’m saying how are you, only to find that I misheard the podcast!) I have no illusions that I will be fluent in Japanese through the use of this web site; but if I can move myself from “barely understand a word of it outside the dojo” to “I can speak a small smattering of it,” well, I think that would be a good start.

I’m interest in anyone else’s opinions on learning Japanese–what resources you used, and so on. Feel free to let me know what you think.

7 thoughts on “Learning Japanese

  1. I kind of like Declan’s flashcards (http://www.declan-software.com/japanese/index.htm), which have the words in kanji and a sound clip of the pronunciation. There are also built-in quizzes. They do have phrases, but it seems more vocabulary-driven.

    “…in most cases, people who study a martial art don’t speak the native language of the country from which the art originated.”

    Except for those who are coming from Japan to the convention, of course. 😉

    Good luck in your Japanese studies.

  2. Yoko,

    You win the award for fastest comment! I think I just posted this entry a few minutes ago!

    And you’re right, I should have said: “…in most cases, people who study a martial art outside of the art’s country of origin do not speak the native language of that art.”

    I’ll definitely check out Declan’s flashcards. Thanks for the tip!

  3. On language learning, I just wanted to recommend that you check out what’s available at or through the libraries you have access to. For example, my local public library subscribes to Rosetta Stone and you can access the lessons online from your own computer. And of course there’s the traditional library catalog for language-on-tape courses and such.

  4. Yo Dave,

    Long time!

    If you are serious about self study, you may want to look into the “Japanese for Busy People” textbook series. The adventures of Sumisu-san (Mr. Smith) and Tanaka-san are steeped in cultural material that will be useless in Seattle (since you have so few subways, you rarely need to meet at the kaisatsu guchi or buy tickets there) BUT it does have well organized basic Japanese structure and usage lessons that are written in both romaji and kana. If you want to learn to speak quickly, do not bother learning kana it will just slow you down.

    Good Luck!

  5. Hrrmmm…

    I just spoke to a colleague who has recently started to learn Japanese. He mentioned that he got a lot out of learning the kana as that provided him with the correct basis for pronouncing Japanese words.

    I’ll stick to my guns on this one though. If you learn correct romaji pronunciation rules then you should get that as well. As an added benefit you will also learn the correct pronunciations for all those Japanese words that are still part of the Kokikai vocab (e.g. “kosa tori” NOT “koza tori” — please note, that was not me being an Aikikai weenie, we call it “ai hanmi katatedori”. I was being a linguistic weenie.) Get it well enough and you will never be able to look at the word “Karaoke” and pronounce it “Carey Oky” again! BTW, that one still causes fingernails-on-chalkboard shivers…

    Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu!

  6. It seems that you already are in contact with people who know Japanese, but I found that having a conversation partner to practice with was the most valuable thing I did while I was studying Japanese.

  7. I’ve studied Japanese using “Japanese for busy people vol. 1” for 3 months, and even that was very helpful when I went to Japan. The book gives you grammar and vocabulary, but most importantly the examples are like fill in the blanks, so when you know more vocabulary you can already express quite a lot. And I honestly believe that learning at least hiragana makes it far easier to understand Japanese and why a word is read a certain way.
    Here’s a free resource from York University in Toronto:
    check out AP/JP1000 6.0 Elementary Modern Standard Japanese at

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