The Day Learning Japanese Paid Off

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Soon after I arrived in Japan in August 2012, I decided to take up jogging in the evenings after work.

I’ve always despised jogging. To me, the concept of moving around on foot, at varying speeds on a variety of surfaces was a tedious and wasteful way to expend my free time.

It was always time better spent eating chocolate whilst endlessly trawling through Wikipedia, reading things I’d forget about eight minutes later.

However, during my first month in Japan, I’d started running alongside a bustling strip of highway through the town where I live and suddenly I saw the real appeal of jogging.

Whilst listening to questionably good 80’s music, I would run through the warm, humid, late night air, passing dozens of restaurants, shops and karaoke bars, as well as thousands of neon signs I couldn’t read, but which nonetheless looked stunning.

It became clear to me that the treadmills facing the cracked concrete walls of my run down gym and the repetitive UK streets I’d grown accustomed to had been sapping the life out of my desire to want to jog.

In my new environment however, jogging had changed from a dull pursuit to a way of discovering the new world around me.

I would jog whilst spectating the locals hunched over bowls of noodles, reading manga comic books, through the windows of noodle bars, as the smell of fried pork and beef seeped out on to the pavement and smacked me in the face.

And like a game of space invaders, I would move from left to right as I ran to avoid the fleets of smiling, friendly drunkards toking cigarettes outside the all night karaoke bars.

The same week I started jogging was the same week I sat down to seriously start learning Japanese. It was an exciting time, as I’d deluded myself into thinking I would become fluent in Japanese in three months and would subsequently become a millionaire through a series of books and videos on how to learn Japanese in just 3 months.

–        It was a flawless plan that simply couldn’t fail.

In my first month, in August 2012, I could say a handful of words and I’d memorized some useful expressions, but I still couldn’t read any of the three Japanese writing systems (Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji).

And after I’d studied all evening after work, I’d throw on my jogging gear and go for a run.

Life was wonderful and if somebody had thrown a hand grenade at me on a Wednesday evening in August 2012 and blown me up, the surrounding area would have been sprayed with a wave of happiness, blood and optimism.

But after three months, the ‘honeymoon’ period and initial euphoria of living in a new and exciting environment began to fade and I found myself becoming progressively frustrated for several reasons.

The first was the brutal reality that I hadn’t really been jogging at all.

All the times I’d been going for a run, I’d actually just been jogging for six minutes, before being reduced to a puddle of sweat and spending the rest of the journey stumbling back home for 30 minutes, like a calorie-deprived intoxicated zombie.

I would then reward myself for my ‘hardcore’ work-out and ability to jog for such a considerable length of time, by collapsing into a nearby Family Mart convenience store, subsequently purchasing delicious, reasonably-priced, fried chicken.

Consequently, it actually meant that by jogging regularly, my health began to progressively decline.

At the same time, after three months of studying Japanese I could still barely read a single one of the many hundreds of signs I passed as I ran. I’d successfully learnt two of the three writing systems, Hiragana and Katakana, but it turned out that 99% of words in Japan are written in Kanji – a writing system specifically designed to make learners question their sanity and personal willpower, due to the many years of study it can take to learn.

The jog soon turned into a cruel reminder of just how crap I really was. As I jogged half-dead alongside the highway, trying to desperately read my surroundings that I’d now jogged passed dozens of times, yet still couldn’t comprehend, I felt a sense of hopelessness at myself and learning Japanese.

Upon arriving three months earlier, I’d prophesized to my Japanese work colleagues that I would be able to converse fluently in a matter of months, to which my Japanese colleagues would gasp and exclaim “Incredible!”

And amongst this praise and the incomprehensibly stupid naivety I was displaying, I had genuinely started to believe my own predictions. Predictions that I’d ultimately conjured up just to impress people.

So when after three months had passed and I’d still barely begun to learn the language, it was beginning to feel like someone had lined up my hopes and dreams against a wall and had shot them in the face.

Fortunately, before my addiction to Family Mart fried chicken could kill me off, the winter and half of Siberia arrived in north Japan and the prospect of jogging in a giant refrigerator on top of three feet of snow would ensure I wouldn’t jog from December all the way around to April.

I decided to use my new found free time spent hibernating inside my apartment to re-double my efforts and flood my head with Japanese vocabulary and over 2,000 Japanese kanji characters.

Over the next 4 months, I worked my way through two Japanese textbooks (Japan Times’ Genki I / II series), a book on how to write kanji (‘Heisig’s Remembering the Kanji’) and began watching Japanese anime and tv dramas (‘Deathnote,’ ‘GTO’ and ‘Hotaru no Hikari’) on YouTube.

I even read a book on memory (‘You Can Have An Amazing Memory’) for the first time, as I realized the real battle I was facing was learning HOW to learn a new language in the first place and how to memorise the ridiculous amount of information I was being confronted with on a daily basis.

By the time April 2013 came round, it had felt like a lifetime had passed since December, due to the sheer amount of studying I’d done. Never in my life had I studied so hard for such a sustained period of time; up to five hours a day almost every day I’d been dedicated to studying Japanese.

But it was starting to pay off on a grand scale.

At work I could pick up the topics of conversations between students and colleagues, I could write almost 2,000 kanji characters from memory and I’d learnt around 2,000 new words.

My speaking was still awful and I was terrified from speaking Japanese (more on that next time), but I had recently had a breakthrough in reading words written in kanji for the first time and things were starting to get really exciting.

But it all finally came together on that first jog of the year in April 2013.

For on that warm evening in April, I threw on my jogging gear and headed for the same usual stretch of highway, without knowing it was going to be quite a different experience.

As I neared the highway and had the arduous task of choosing between kicking off the jog listening to Billy Idol or Duran Duran (ultimately settling for Billy Idol), I prepared myself for the inevitable situation of passing out after a four minute run by downing a bottle of water and doing some last minute stretches.

–        Then I started jogging.

And as I began to jog a magical thing happened.

As my eyes brushed over the brightly lit neon signs once smothered in indecipherable meaningless squiggly lines, words and images suddenly began to appear in my imagination, without me even thinking.

激安ビデオ Dirt cheap video!

中華飯店 Chinese restaurant!

靴 Shoes!

東北機工 Tohoku Organisation!

It was like nothing I’d ever experienced. I was looking at squiggly lines that had meant nothing just months earlier and now they meant something.

They were forming images and thoughts in my head just by glancing at them. I wasn’t even trying to think. My head was turning the squiggly lines into symbols as if by magic. It was like a fireworks display in my head.

It was like Christmas, winning the lottery and consuming premium fried chicken all at once.

–        On a Saturday.

–        But even better.

A subtle barrier between me and the highway I’d jogged down for so long had come crashing down. The small window-less buildings I had never set foot in, for fear of not knowing what they were, turned out to be ramen and soba noodle shops. There were even several stores selling pornographic videos!

There were shoe shops, bars and izakaiyas (Japanese pubs) that had been hidden from my view up until now and it honestly felt like I had somehow transcended time and space and arrived in a new world.

People often ask me why I didn’t learn Japanese before coming to Japan and to be honest, it’s a fair question.

There were many factors – studying for a degree whilst holding two jobs and not knowing if I’d actually be able to get a job in Japan anyway were the key defining factors.

But quite honestly I wouldn’t be lying if I said one of the key reasons was because I wanted to experience life in Japan before and after understanding Japanese and experience the transition first hand, from zero knowledge.

To me, that day jogging alongside the highway was the marker defining the point in which I was just some foreign guy bumbling around like a mere tourist and somebody who could genuinely feel like something more.

Granted I was still crap at Japanese, but a huge roadblock was out of the way and more importantly a head a sense of hope and confidence to see me through my studies. The pathway to learning Japanese no longer seemed impossibly blocked and I’d been able to lay down some solid foundations to becoming good in the long term.

As I read the signs of the shops, bars and restaurants I forgot I was jogging altogether, ultimately running 8km without stopping.

Only later did I realize that it was the furthest distance I’d ever run in my life.

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