Me Talk Pretty (Japanese) Someday
July 15, 2011 10:23 PM   Subscribe

Can you give me strategy and tactics for maximizing my spoken Japanese interactions, towards the goal of language ability, while in Japan? Those of you who have reached exceptional/native-level fluency speaking, can you give me some tips, and share your experiences of the things that helped the most along the way, in terms of speaking ability?

Hi folks, remember me? Yeah, well, I'm in Tokyo now, got here less than a week ago. And my Japanese still sucks, predictably, although it's way better than when I wrote that post. I may be here for a while (long story), but I may only have the three months, so I want to maximize my time. And whether I'm here for three months or three years, my goal is to move as far towards fluency speaking as possible (I've got reading and writing under control; I can work hard on that wherever I am in the world), as quickly as possible.

Anyways, my question is about how to—specifically, in terms of what sort of places to seek out, interactions to engage in, etc.—maximize my opportunities for having conversations in Japanese. Things I'm already doing include:

-asking extra stupid questions of employees whenever it seems like they are not swamped/I have the courage/the employee seems reasonably friendly.
-asking for directions whenever remotely necessary.
-looking up events which are hosted by Japanese, for Japanese, in Japanese, and trying to attend (these are as of yet in the future, but I have a number on the schedule...hey, I haven't even been here a week).
-avoiding speaking English (not hanging out with other Westerners or English-speaking Japanese, insisting on speaking English with Japanese, etc.).
-indirectly related: I've been leaving the TV on constantly (this has been amazingly helpful, even after only five days...although I'm getting REALLY sick of Japanese ads, and some TV shows too...).

Some relevant details regarding my current ability: when I'm able to spend "quality time" (more than five minutes) speaking Japanese—like I did last month for a week or so, hanging out with a friend who didn't speak much English—I can have pretty good conversations on a range of subjects, albeit using relatively simple vocabulary. One Japanese friend characterized my ability as exactly that: I don't have a huge vocabulary, but my grasp of the basics, to the extent that I can talk about a lot, is solid. I am also now at the point where many words' meanings are starting to become apparent to me through context (and familiarity with onyomi, especially), which is notable since it wasn't that way only months ago. Ironically, or not, my reading and writing are significantly better than my speaking, although my spoken comprehension isn't bad for someone who has just gotten here (I've watched a LOT of Japanese TV already).

Along with this, generally speaking, I have the advantages of 1) obsessive tenacity and diligence, and 2) tolerance of relatively high levels of embarrassment.

I've checked out threads like this: However, my problem is not in the overall strategy but the specifics: what are the best ways to engage with Japanese? That is, what social situations (other than the ones listed above wherein Japanese are unfailingly polite regardless) are going to make Japanese folks most comfortable interacting with me, a strange sorta scary-looking (I guess, from some of the looks I've been getting from salaryman and obasan...I could swear that this one old woman dipped her umbrella down to hide herself from me when I walked past her yesterday...but I digress) gaijin with a shaved head and tattoos? How can I start to make friends, without speaking English?

Bonus question: I figure going to an izakaya or pub tomorrow—one without any/many English speakers—to watch the women's world cup game tomorrow will be a good way to break the ice (especially since I'm American), and perhaps have a conversation or two. Any suggestions on where to go, preferably somewhere in the vicinity of 池袋?

posted by dubitable to Society & Culture (12 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Alcohol is always good. There's a lot of reason Japanese people drink A LOT of it; it loosens them up and they require a lot of loosening.

Alcohol *in moderation* is also good for language learners. It reduces inhibitions and gets you speaking more smoothly.

Also, this isn't probably what you're looking for, but the thing that was very helpful to me was studying kanji obsessively. Once you're reached a certain threshold in kanji, you can piece together on the fly compounds you hear but haven't learned yet. It's a great feeling to be able to have a very good idea what something means just from figuring out what the individual kanji in the compounds are. That way, even if you can't tell just what the kanji are just from hearing, you can ask the person you're speaking to what the kanji are, then have a very good educated guess.
posted by zachawry at 10:49 PM on July 15, 2011

When I went to Tokyo, every time I came out of the subway station and pulled out a map to get oriented, a Japanese person would come up to me and ask me in English if I needed help. By answering in Japanese I got into a number of nice conversations.

Also, do you know how to bow properly? In terms of mechanics (hands against your sides, feet together, back and neck straight but still looking down) and when to bow? I think one of the reasons why the random Japanese folks I spoke to were so nice to me was that I'd just spent 3 years in a strict Taekwondo school learning how to bow to everything that moved, and so I bowed to people pretty automatically and comfortably while I was in Japan.
posted by colfax at 10:55 PM on July 15, 2011

Going to bars (izakayas) is a good way to meet people. Sit at the counter. Order a beer. Order some food. Bring a manga to read. Make friends with the master or barman. Eventually he will introduce you to others.

I've read your question, but I can't tell what you are doing in Japan. Relaxed social situations where people feel as though they can speak with you can be difficult to come by.

Working at a job is optimum. So is volunteering. I learned my Japanese at work, and also through my wife and our friends. The first three months were not easy, although I usually was able to meet people every day just by walking around (this was on the Noto Peninsula, and non-Japanese people were a rarity there back then).

If you are in Tokyo, people are probably not looking at you. Of course, being a non-Japanese person in Japan is always an interesting experience, but not everyone is trying to avoid you.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:24 PM on July 15, 2011

Response by poster: Also, do you know how to bow properly?

Yeah, I need to get better at this. It's more about remembering to do it than the specific technique, for me, since I was given lessons by a friend of mine a few times...I just forget to do it. As you say, you got trained to do it until it was automatic—I don't have that habit beaten into my head. I guess I'll have to practice!

I've read your question, but I can't tell what you are doing in Japan.

All I am doing currently, more or less, is trying to improve in speaking the language. I suspect your point in bringing this up is that, if I were to be working in a Japanese company, for example, I would have many more opportunities for injecting myself into social situations. I am (per my previous question which I linked to...your advice there was invaluable by the way KokoRyu, thanks again!) interested in working here, and have an opportunity which I'll find out more about very soon, but that would be in an English-speaking environment, so: not helpful. However, in case that falls through I'm looking aggressively for work, ideally in a Japanese-language environment...although I'd doubt I'd qualify for most jobs which require Japanese language ability, since I think my language ability is not up to snuff, and I have no JLPT scores to show. Sort of a catch-22 I guess.

The point of all this is to say, assume for the purposes of this question that I am just a tourist with a fair amount of free time, here for just three months, which I is all true until something changes. And regardless, I guess in this question I want to know how to get into social situations with Japanese folks outside of a work environment, outside of any previously established social connection.

KokoRyu, you mention volunteering—could you expand upon that at all, in terms of specific organizations or web sites to look up, the sorts of volunteering Japanese would let me do, etc.? Er, other than English lessons...although a language exchange may be a good way to make connections now that I think of it...hmm...

Thanks for the answers so far folks, this is helpful!
posted by dubitable at 12:04 AM on July 16, 2011

My feeling is that you'll have trouble engaging with people on the kind of level you seem to be looking for in casual, meet-on-the-street conversations. However, if you're willing to go a bit more structured, my friend had great luck in finding conversation partners online, Japanese citizens who wanted to improve their English and who would meet up together for a chat in both languages.

I'll see if the resources she used are still active forums/sites; in the meantime, if you have a Japanese phone you can get on Mixi, there's bound to be people on there who would love to hang and chat with a bald, tattooed gaijin.
posted by lhall at 12:19 AM on July 16, 2011

Go to the neighborhood sento (public bath) and talk to the old ladies there.
posted by vincele at 5:32 AM on July 16, 2011

This may sound kind of silly, but have you ever considered speed dating or some other kind of meet-potential-romantic-partners event? My impression was that they were much more popular in Japan than in North America. People will also probably be somewhat more open to unusual appearances (at least, the one time I went there were a couple "strange sort of scary-looking gaijin" and I wasn't even in as populated an area as Tokyo).

I'm not sure the best way to find such an event - when I went it was advertised in a local magazine (those ones in the stands talking about all the things you can do in the area). If your friends are single or still have friends who are single, maybe they can point you in the right direction or even invite you to a goukon?

Even if you don't actually meet someone you'd want to date (which I'm told is one of the best possible ways to get tons of exposure to another language), you'll get to talk to several people for a few minutes at a time about all sorts of random, widely accessible topics - when I went, you got a little card to fill out for each person with things such as age, favourite hobbies, employment, etc. and variable questions like "what do you look for in a girl/boy?" "what is your favourite colour?" "where have you traveled to?" - and could even make some friends if they turn out to have similar interests. You'll also get time after the Q&A to just chat for several minutes with people you found interesting.

I only went once while I was in Japan, but I found it a great way to practice with a limited vocabulary but a decent sense of the basics since you know roughly the kinds of questions that are going on but you have the freedom to go wherever you're able to from there. And speaking from experience, it is very gratifying to have people interested in talking to you further despite spending the majority of your 3 minute conversation fumbling words and constantly apologizing for being so bad at Japanese!
posted by daelin at 8:11 AM on July 16, 2011

very harsh way to do it but:
At first you will need to know a lot of people, foreigners, English speaking Japanese people, people who just want to talk to/at you because you are a foreigner, and normal people. Then once you are connected and set up in Japan you alienate all the people you know expect the ones who can only speak Japanese and who could give a shit that you are a foreigner. I didn't choose this route but it is what ended up happening to me. In a year or two my Japanese improved tremendously.

Now it is really hard to hang out with friends who don't speak Japanese and friends who do at the same time. I have to lead two lives which ends up alienating everyone involved. :(
posted by Infernarl at 8:20 AM on July 16, 2011

re volunteering, it's often pretty easy to get hooked up with park beautifying at your local city hall, but they might be a bit leery of people who aren't even legal residents of Japan, let alone the city/ward. There's a group called Second Harvest Japan who regularly do food distribution, and if you're willing to go up north there are still lots of volunteer groups cleaning up and rebuilding in Tohoku. Not sure how much Japanese you'd get to speak, but I know (white) people who were up there working with all-Japanese groups, no English at all.

Do you play a musical instrument? If you play jazz or blues in particular, chances are good that your local jazz bar has a session you can sit in on running a few nights a week, try dropping in.

How's your heat tolerance? Right now is primo beach season down where I live (Shonan area) and the area is packed with young people feeling friendly and uninhibited. Much easier to just say hi and start conversations. (Best if you're already with a friend or friends, though, so that you don't look like you're, y'know, hunting for victims.) Don't necessarily expect a fun day at the beach to translate into a friendship afterwards, though.
posted by No-sword at 12:02 AM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would suggest you get yourself out of Tokyo. People in Tokyo are so much more likely to talk to you in English than they are if you get out into the middle of nowhere. My friend living in Tokyo bemoaned her lack of ability to practice her Japanese and I (in Kyushu) had essentially no chance to use English. I think Tokyo is the worst place in Japan to be for someone who wants to learn Japanese. Perhaps if you're set on Tokyo (even though there's so much other great Japan out there!), you should take some side trips to some smaller towns.

Once there, you find the tiny restaurants and izakayas that seat 10-12 people, mostly regulars, and you go into them and sit at the counter. Wait for one of the people there to talk to you. It should take less than 10 minutes, especially if you order in Japanese.
posted by that girl at 11:43 PM on July 20, 2011

Response by poster: Hi folks, sorry I've been slow to get back to you all.

First of all, thanks so much for all the great suggestions!

lhall: I think you're right, and after I posted my last comment I went onto the Metropolis site and posted an advertisement for language partners. I have two or three potential meetings already through that. Woohoo!

By the way, I already have a Mixi account but really have no idea how to use it. It seems like most Japanese folks don't use their real names, so I'm not sure how to find my current Japanese friends other than to email each of them and ask them to find me on Mixi, or send me their usernames, but this is all a bit laborious (and I tend to be lazy about these things). And it's bizarre but the one friend I have on there has passed away already, so they cannot exactly be a conduit for more connections. Anyways, I'm sure I'll use Mixi more as I get to know more people, but for now it's kind of a dead-end (er, did not mean that as an awful joke regarding my previously mentioned deceased friend). I already have many more Japanese connections on Facebook than Mixi, actually.

vincele: wouldn't my tattoos be a problem? I guess it's obvious I'm not a yakuza, but I've always been wary of the baths. However, fun suggestion, maybe I'll try that!

daelin: that is in fact quite an interesting suggestion, but I have no interest in starting anything romantic right now, alas, and would not want to lead anyone on. And to be honest—no offense, Japanese women on MeFi—I'm a bit terrified of Japanese women romantically speaking.

Infernarl: to be completely honest I'm not sure what you're suggesting. But, I'd rather not alienate anyone if possible.

No-sword: the musical instrument idea may work for me, actually, I play a number of instruments with passing or better ability (in a past life I was a musician). However, I may not jump into this until I know I can stay here for longer. I'll look into volunteering too. The beach may not happen this year though...

that girl: yeah, I definitely have to get out, although I do want to stay in Tokyo if possible. But I'm going to head out to Kansai soon to see what that's like, so we'll see.

Thanks again folks, I really appreciate your great answers!
posted by dubitable at 6:55 PM on July 21, 2011

If you are a tourist, you may be unable to volunteer (it's against the terms of your visa).

Anyway, what about checking out an "international center"?

I also worked under the table at a pizzeria (answering the phone, taking orders, making pizza, delivering pizza) back in the 90s. It helped my Japanese.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:03 AM on August 5, 2011

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