My Story

Before coming to Japan, most foreigners start learning Japanese beforehand. Japan is known to be a monolingual country with a small population that actually truly knows how to speak English (even worse, other languages). For a country that requires English as a language classes for years in their education, most would expect a bilingual population. However, that is absolutely not the case.

To make matters worse for me, I was not one of those foreigners who prepared beforehand. I did not take any Japanese classes. I did not listen to J-Pop or watch anime. I did not even try Duolingo or any of those basic Japanese language apps one can easily download on the phone.

Yet, I chose Waseda University.

Waseda University originally wasn’t my first choice, but the day I decided to visit Waseda University, and see it from beyond the Internet pictures and blogs, changed my college path drastically. When I entered the South Gates of Waseda, I was in complete awe. As I walked down the paved path, tall trees towered and welcomed me, then led me to the heart of Waseda campus. There, the Okuma Statue stood in all his glory, gazing at the Okuma Auditorium straight ahead, where the symbolic clock tower, the representation of the beginning of Waseda University, perched. From then on, I wanted nothing more than to be a Waseda University student.

As one can tell, Japan was a last-minute decision for me. Even though I had a summer to prepare, I did not bother to learn Japanese beforehand, thinking to myself that I was going to learn it anyway: why pay for additional Japanese classes? But when I came to my Japanese level 1 class and my first Japanese class ever, my teacher held a diagnostic test on katakana and hiragana. Needless to say, I knew nothing. I stared at the sheet of paper and asked myself, “What even is hiragana and katakana?” After, my teacher took and glanced at my blank piece of paper – by the look of her face, I knew she was not happy. She quickly announced at the front of the class “If you don’t know any hiragana and katakana, I highly recommend you drop this class and take level 0.” How much lower of a Japanese level could I get, I thought. “Next week’s class, the same hiragana and katakana test will be given to you to see if you can stay in this class or not,” my teacher added. Then, she dumped a thick package with all practice sheets on how to write and pronounce the hiragana and katakana. My heart dropped at the sight.

Figure 1: My First Japanese Class (Comprehensive Japanese Level 1)

That same day, I studied at the lobby of my dorm, trying my best with the first few characters. But nothing would stay in my head because I have never been exposed to learning characters, except maybe learning the alphabet when I was 2 years old, but obviously, I barely remembered that. I had no idea how to study for 46 characters – how to write and read them – in one week. I remember feeling the tears quickly build up, my heart sinking to my stomach, and the general feeling of being so stressed as I stared and counted the seemingly endless pages of the workbook. But I was more motivated than discouraged so, every day for hours, I practiced my ‘a, i, u, e, o… ka, ki, ku, ke, ko…”

And in just one week, I learned my hiragana and katakana.

Now, it has been a year since, and looking back at that instance, my Japanese has grown immensely: from knowing nothing to being able to read, speak, and write Japanese (including kanji) – not perfectly or fluently, but definitely better than Day 1. I will admit that my experiences with the Japanese language were definitely not easy. Learning in such an intensive pace brought so much pressure that some instances I would get so frustrated and cry. Plus, being unable to understand anything, such as being around friends who spoke to some extent, added to my frustrations. In fact, even now, I still get frustrated with learning Japanese.

Yet, throughout all the hardships, I would not take a single moment back because these experiences made me stronger and all-in-all benefitted me greatly. I can look back and be proud that I made it. I can remind myself while I face other obstacles that if I can make it through my first year in Japan, then I can make it through anything.

Ultimately, I don’t regret my decision of Japan. It was my decision to choose a completely unfamiliar environment and challenge myself immensely. I am glad I chose Japan and I am glad I chose Waseda University.

My Message

Honestly, learning Japanese is going to be one of the hardest and longest skills to achieve. This is not meant to discourage you because although it seems much for just one skill to be added to a resume, it is the journey that matters the most. I am still in the path to fluency and I can confidently say, in one year, learning Japanese has also changed me as a person, and for the better. I have learned:

  1. Patience – learning Japanese, or any language for a matter, will take time. It is completely okay to pace yourself so you don’t lose your love for the language.
  2. Hard Work – along with patience is hard work; you cannot learn without effort.
  3. Open-mindedness – learning a language is not just learning grammar, speaking, etc.; it is learning a country’s culture.

I have to commend any English speaker who exits their own comfort zone to learn a language like Japanese. You are learning a whole new way of writing, speaking: all in all, communicating. The grammar of Japanese and English are complete opposites. It is okay to admit you are having a hard times; not to admit defeat but to keep trying.

There is no other path but improvement. がんばれ!

Figure 2: After One Year in Japan

B.P (Student Staff Leader)