My Move-To-Japan Plan Has Ground to a Halt: Help.
June 4, 2021 11:19 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to live in Japan for a while. I don't want to be an English teacher. I should be able to do this if I enroll at a language school and get a 1 or 2 year student visa, but my initial desire to take this route has become conflicted with an increasing concern that I won't be able to hack it, and so my planning has ground to a halt. I need some help: has anyone done anything like this and can offer advice?

1. I do not speak any Japanese, but I've lived there for a month or two, here and there, on a few occasions.
2. I think attaining any level of language proficiency will be useful.
3. I do not have a plan beyond this endeavor: I'd just like to live in Japan for a few years, that's it.
4. I do not wish to include the cost of this endeavor in this question.
5. I spent several months doing self-study last year: I found it a little rewarding as my proficiency improved, but I also found it pretty frustrating (grammar!). I understand that this is par for the course for language learners, I guess I'm just concerned how this will play out, doing it for hours a day, every week for a year or two.
6. If I pull this off, by the time I arrive I'll be 50. The language schools are (not surprisingly) oriented towards much younger folks. I'm not fatally uncomfortable about this, but it's also not helping my general state of concern.
posted by my log does not judge to Education (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds very rewarding and it looks increasingly as if the world is going to end soon, so why not undertake brave wild ventures? What better time?

You should take two classes: one, the most popular MOOC in the world whose name I forget but somebody reading will remember it. It's taught by a lovely person named Barb and a neurologist whose name I've entirely forgotten and it's all about how to learn--Oh, I remember. It's called Learning How To Learn. It's all about how neuroplasticity lasts longer than everybody says and it will convince you that you can learn a language and anything else you need to learn.

Then you should take immersion-style Japanese.
posted by Don Pepino at 11:29 AM on June 4

Living in a country where your language proficiency is limited is exhausting. I imagine even more so when the language and the script aren't Western, so you have no ability to make deductions.

That said, millions of people, if not more, move to a country where they don't speak the language every year. My question is: do you actually want to learn the language for some reason? A good language course is a lot of work, but rewarding...if you're interested in the language. If you're simply trying to get permission to live in the country for a year or two, well, if you're not interested, it's just...a lot of work. You can probably get through it, but it'll be dreary as hell. And, yep, there will probably be a lot of younger people who want to get drunk after class, which probably won't be your cup of tea at 50. (Counterargument: it's better to spend as little time as possible with your fellow expatriates, who will help you with learning neither Japanese language nor culture.)
posted by praemunire at 11:30 AM on June 4

My thoughts as someone finally completing a bilingual degree in a second language she's only infrequently used since she left the the early 90s... are:

5. You'll probably find the language studies more interesting once you're there and immersed in the culture as well as the language. But you might want to find the program with the least commitment that will still provide a visa.

6. It's actually fun to be the weird old lady, if you embrace it. I'm one of two "mature" [insert immature joke here] students in my current (Art Et Peinture) class and it's fun as long as I'm not trying to be an age I'm not, impress The Youngs, or anything else. I just delight in their delight and show up and do my work.
posted by warriorqueen at 11:56 AM on June 4 [6 favorites]

I spent several months doing self-study last year: I found it a little rewarding as my proficiency improved, but I also found it pretty frustrating (grammar!). I understand that this is par for the course for language learners, I guess I'm just concerned how this will play out, doing it for hours a day, every week for a year or two.

I think it's worth noting that immersion is very different from self-study. You will have a lot more incentive to study and the rewards will be better and more frequent.

I can give you a bit of anecdata from when I spent a year in rural Japan in high school (and had very little Japanese knowledge beforehand). The first couple months were exciting+novel, the next few were terrible culture shock, and then the rest ended up being one of the best experiences of my life.

At some point I realized that without knowing more of the language, my social interactions would be extremely limited. That was a huge motivator! I ended up spending ~4 hours a day studying for a very long time, and it didn't feel like a chore. Whenever I learned a new word or concept I was able to use it in conversation soon after (even if it was a little forced).
posted by ripley_ at 12:53 PM on June 4

I have lived in Japan for several years, the first time as an exchange student after two years of university study in my home country. It is true that you learn faster when you're immersed in the environment, although perhaps you could find a language exchange partner or teacher online for now to see how you like it. (One thing to be aware of is that some people go to Japan, only ever hang out with other foreigners, and don't improve their Japanese at all.)

As you might know, Japan's covid response has been lacking and they have yet to vaccinate the majority of the population. Many Japanese people believe that foreigners bring covid into Japan, when in fact most foreigners are not allowed to enter the country at all right now, even those with valid visas. Getting a new visa issues right now might be pretty much impossible, and I wonder how long this state will continue.

If you have the funds to do this in... late 2022, maybe, why not though? I do think that language schools will have mostly younger students, but surely there's a class for older people who followed their kids there, or something else you can figure out.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 2:02 PM on June 4 [1 favorite]

This sounds like a fun plan! I wouldn't worry about not being able to hack it. Worst case scenario is you do badly in your classes and still get to spend a couple of years in Japan. You can absolutely get by knowing only English so the fact that you already know some Japanese means you'll be fine.

but surely there's a class for older people who followed their kids there, or something else you can figure out.

I wouldn't be surprised if in any given class at a language school there aren't a couple of mature students who are doing the same thing you are.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 3:24 PM on June 4

What a great idea! I spent about two years in Japan, first as an exchange student and second teaching English. To be honest, I am not great at learning languages and of course Japanese is harder than most. Still, there is a lot to be said for the immersion aspect as long as you have patience and a good sense of humor about your own mistakes...and you push yourself to get outside of that pesky English language bubble that will almost certainly be formed around a language program. The things I learned outside of the classroom were the ones that really stuck since they had meaning in a way the textbook lacked.

As LoonyLovegood mentioned, getting a visa right now is on hold so you might need to be a bit flexible about when you can start. In the meantime, if grammar is being a headache, may I suggest Wani Kani for learning some kanji? You would need to have your hiragana and katakana down, but it'd be helpful for picking up some vocab that would give you space to focus on the grammar in the context when it will be more useful.
posted by past unusual at 3:33 PM on June 4

I think this is a fantastic idea. Am trying to do something similar in a different country soon but sadly only about six months.

As far as age goes, you may be the oldest person in the class, but outside the classroom you'll be a kid. Not quite, but it is noticeable. Japan is old. Even at 50 it won't be unusual to be the youngest person in the room, on the bus, at the restaurant.

Also, if this hasn't entered the equation yet, think about where you want to be. I love living in Tokyo but wound up here by default. Some other cities like Fukuoka, Hiroshima, and beyond are wonderful.
posted by Gotanda at 4:19 PM on June 4 [1 favorite]

I have a bit of advice on being an older student.

What Japanese language programs are you looking at? Assuming you are going to a university-affiliated one, you should try to identify the ones strongly linked with continuing graduate studies, and less reliant on its summer program. I took a year+ of intensive Korean language study at Seoul National University (I went from Level 2 to Level 5). I am very grateful I didn't go to Yonsei University's program, which was then majority Korean disapora learners (mostly English speakers and their summer program is notorious for being party central for college kids).

My program was a mix of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Filipino and other Asian students with a sprinkling of Korean diaspora learners (mostly Russian speakers). I'm Korean American, with a bunch of hang ups about having had toddler level Korean for most of my life at that point. Being amidst students at the same Korean level as mine, with the vast majority possessing minimal English, was a huge kick in the pants to actually start speaking Korean. Coffee breaks and chit chat were conducted in Korean. Seoul National's program was geared to produce students who would pass the university's language requirements for international students.

You can definitely hack it. Living 24-7 within a Korean speaking world accelerated my learning and daily life reinforced what I learned in class. I've back slid so much since my return to the U.S.

Don't psych yourself out of this trip. This random internet stranger thinks your idea is fabulous, and if I have the financial padding to do so, would love to do something similar in my 50s or 60s.
posted by spamandkimchi at 5:43 PM on June 4

I studied Japanese full-time for 18 months in Tokyo, and while it's a fair amount of work, the courses are designed so that the typical student can get through them, pass the tests and learn Japanese, as long as they do the homework and put in the hours of study. My course was 20 hours a week of classroom learning and maybe 15-20 hours of homework and study. So it's the same commitment as a full-time job (and you can treat it as a job), but you still have plenty of time to enjoy your life.

If you haven't done serious school work in many years, you might try enrolling in some kind of intensive summer course somewhere, if you can find one, where you have to study every day in order to keep up, and see if you have any problems. (Studying on your own at your own pace is an entirely different experience, and it won't tell you much.)

If your primary reason for doing this is to enjoy living in Japan rather than becoming proficient in Japanese for business, then I'd suggest choosing your location as a priority, and picking someplace with a more international community, like Tokyo, where you won't feel so isolated. It's hard enough forming a social network in a new city as an adult, there's no reason to make it harder on yourself than it needs to be. Two years is a long time.

A few tips on choosing a school - try to find a program with a diverse student body. Learning kanji is an important part of any course, and if 90% of your classmates have grown up with a writing system similar to kanji, then you might find yourself at a disadvantage in keeping up with the course work. Also don't hunt for bargains when it comes to tuition fees - the more expensive schools are generally better for learning, with higher ratios of teachers to students so that more personalized attention is possible. (They're also more likely to have other adult students.)
posted by Umami Dearest at 11:53 PM on June 4 [1 favorite]

I think doing a language program is the best thing to do if you want the ability to interact better both with people and with the environment in general, but one other avenue to look into is doing an English-language graduate (or undergraduate) program in some other subject.
posted by trig at 1:30 AM on June 5

Immersion learning can be pretty great, and I think you could have a fantastic experience, but it's incredibly important that you look into the school you'd be attending.

It is incredibly difficult for most people to get a working visa for Japan (though this has changed a bit with the introduction of new policies to increase the number of manual laborers), but people with student visas are legally allowed to work 28 hours a week. What started out as a way to help students support themselves has turned Japanese language schools into visa mills for short term labor. While some extreme examples of this have been cracked down on, it's kind of a big thing, and largely responsible for the recent growth in language schools around the country.

I've worked with people using these programs, and their main reason for being in Japan was the work, both over and under the table. I have absolutely no issue with them using the language schools to get around working visa rules, the issue is with the school owners and the employers trying to skirt labor laws.

I think you have a pretty solid plan, and it sounds like a fantastic idea. Just be careful about the language school you choose, as there are a lot that are essentially schools on paper only.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:41 PM on June 6

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