May 19, 2008


You may be aware that I spent a year and half at the Yamasa Institute in Okazaki; and since including my e-mail address in the little box over to the left there I have received literally several messages from prospective Yamasa students asking me questions about the school and the experience in general. So I thought it was time to look back and collect my thoughts on my time there.

I started at Yamasa in April 2006, with the vague intention of studying there for 6 months. It was a big life change for me - I had barely even traveled outside of the UK, let alone lived in a foreign country - so naturally I was a little apprehensive. I had saved my pennies for over a year and had decided to blow them on six months in a foreign country studying funny squiggly characters and talking to people badly in their native language, which seemed very silly. If you ask me why I came here (many people do) it's hard to give a clear-cut answer even 2 years down the line, so I often don't. But in reality it sprang from desires to get out of a rut, gain life experience, overcome shyness, meet new people, and learn a valuable skill to boot.

As a life experience, it strikes me that life in a foreign country is something that is so different, you will never know how you personally will react to it until you actually go ahead and do it. That was certainly the case with me. And that sucks. Some people wind up hating it, some people can't adjust, some people are overcome with do you know if you are one of these people? Well, you're asking the wrong person. However I will venture the opinion that, if you don't have a solely superficial interest* but you are genuinely interested in the culture and the language and in the chance of living abroad and learning a new language and progressing personally, that you are (IMHO) more likely to have a rewarding time here (please note: this statement is in no way legally binding).

*(I was originally tempted to insert a parenthetical rant about anime nerds, geeky white guys who like Asian women a little too much, internet forum-dwelling Hello Kitty masturbators with anime avatars who shop at J-list and whose online posts contain "OMG kawaii desudesu ^_____^ arigato gozaimasu", and other lamentable pieces of fallout of the explosion in popularity of Japanese culture in the west; but I am painfully aware that, as a westerner with an interest in Japanese culture, anything I write will be at least tinged with hypocrisy, and this is neither the time nor place. So I think I've dodged a bullet with that one, eh?)

Anyway, editorializing aside, you've decided to take the plunge and study Japanese at Yamasa. Go you. The school, in general, is fantastic. It's small(ish), the teachers and staff are generally wonderful and cuddly and know what they're doing. I think it's an excellent, enjoyable place to learn beginner- and intermediate-level Japanese (I personally think the advanced levels could use some work, but then I think that advanced level stuff can't really be taught from books but should rather be acquired). There's a real community feel to the place (in fact, once you move outside of the school and into "real" Japanese society you come to realize that Yamasa is almost a kind of porously-sealed gaijin-oriented commune, protecting its charges from the scarier aspects of real life in Japan). Of course, there's the possibility that you'll be incompatible with a certain teacher or staff member, but that's life. Most people, with a lot of personal effort, will be able to attain a good level of Japanese there in a relatively short time (relative to, say, studying by yourself or studying outside of Japan). And Okazaki is a nice place to live, though some may find it slightly dull (in which case go and "study" in Osaka or Tokyo or somewhere, you big party animal you).

Finance is a problem for many and will require lots of careful consideration (unless you're being bank-rolled by your uber-rich parents or something, natch). It is very possible for native English-speakers to land teaching positions (even with no experience), but many people who work enough to be able to subsist without external assistance often seem to do so at the detriment of their study time, free time, and sanity.

And yes, it's not an easy language to learn by any means (espeically for westerners, and the written language in particular)...I've been here for 2 years and I still feel like I know nothing...but if you don't do things because they're hard you'll never get anywhere. Frustration definitely set in for me (feel free to look back over some of my previous posts), and it seems to affect most people, albeit at different times and in different ways. For me it started after about 10-12 months and seemed to manifest itself as a reduced ability to learn new things and think clearly. Personally I wouldn't recommend spending more than a year at Yamasa unless you're the sort of person who can withstand that kind of prolonged intense study. And don't get down because you can't read Japanese fluently even after one or two years. The writing system is completely retarded and (if you are a westerner) your brain is not naturally programmed to accept it. God alone knows how long it would take, 5 years perhaps? Less with solid practice? And the writing...don't expect to be able to write Japanese fluently any time in the next decade unless you're some kind of shodo freak who practices every hour god sends. If you didn't learn to write kanji as a child, you probably ain't gonna, with any degree of comfort (that's OK though, because in this age of the personal computer, you probably won't ever need to able to write spectacularly well, even if you live in Japan...I only ever handwrite my address and occasional memos at work). But of course, everyone learns language at a different rate, so feel free to ignore me.

Also, if you don't have any hard reasons, try to ask yourself...why do you want to learn Japanese? Why do you want to devote precious time and hard-earned money to the study of this language? Are you mad? This language is insane. Sure, Japanese culture is popular now, and everyone wants to watch anime without subtitles or play Final Fantasy before it's released in the west or wants to understand J-Pop lyrics etc (oh god I'm ranting again) but these are superficial reasons that don't (IMHO) warrant you investing the sort of time, money and effort necessary to learning Japanese well. Maybe you'll be jaded and cynical toward Japanese culture by the time you achieve any kind of fluency. And if you're thinking from a business standpoint, surely Chinese is a better option? I don't want to sound negative, or make it sound like I made a mistake in choosing to spend so much time and money learning Japanese, because the personal progression I've made, the life experiences I've gained and the multitudinous people I've met over the last 2 years tell me quite definitely otherwise. I'm just saying it's something that should be carefully thought about.

Anyway, hopefully this long, pointless screed will be of benefit to someone. Feel free to get in touch with comments or questions (as long as they aren't the kind of questions that can be answered by reading the Yamasa website). Thanks!


Jonathan May 19, 2008 11:38 PM  

Well said, Andy. I pretty much entirely agree with your thoughts on the experience. I, too, have thought that the first year of instruction is enough--a year and a half, if you can make. After that, getting a job and actually living in Japan is the way to go.

Anonymous,  September 23, 2008 2:53 PM  


I stumbled on your blog and am planning on attending Yamasa for 6 months in 2009.

I've heard almost all good things about this school, some bad things. I heard from one student that socializing with other students doesn't happen much, and some housing areas are dirty and moldy.

What are your views on these? I would like another experienced person's input. Thanks!!

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