Surviving the Inaka: Learning Japanese
By Alex Sturmey
Moving to the inaka with a low Japanese ability might seem a scary prospect at first, especially if, like me, your vocabulary consists of nothing more than “where”, “toilet” and “water”. However, as I came to realize, living in the inaka is actually a blessing in disguise in terms of learning the lingo.
Learning Japanese in the inaka is a difficult but not impossible challenge. Much like cities, the inaka offers many opportunities to learn. However, you have to be more proactive in your searches. You’ll do language learning in its rawest state: through immersion.
In the inaka you’ll quickly find your word bank increasing from day one and be able to expand upon your conversational ability to also include “please”, “how much” and “I think I lost my keys, do you know where I can find my house? Wait, no, please don’t go.”
But there are a few things you can do to make the most of your unique position.
Learn from your mistakes
Compared to a city where you may find yourself surrounded by English speakers, in the inaka everyday activities become a challenge. Getting my haircut was a spin on a roulette wheel, where the two options were: 1. similar to before or 2. confused lopsided mop. Once, I showed a picture to my barber and explained in my broken Japanese that I wanted to look like this photo. After, I realized perhaps showing him a picture with two people in it was an error.
On this day I learnt the words ‘stop’ （やめて）and ‘maybe a little less (cutting)’ （そこまでカットしなくてもいいかもしれない）in Japanese.
Don’t be afraid to gesture
Using gestures is the golden ticket to breaking through a language barrier – never be afraid to exhibit your miming skills. You’ll find yourself inventing gestures you would never have thought of before (although I’d advise sidelining your new found acting ability for certain words like “toilet”). It surprised me how often these got me through various situations, and I managed to invent gestures never seen before on screen – or in reality.
Gestures and pictures soon became my go-to support when struggling with Japanese.
Push beyond your limitations
If you read my previous article, you’ll know that on a daily basis you’ll likely be bombarded with questions from random locals. Even though I could answer a few, with the help of Google Translator, there were limits. One time, upon visiting a local ramen shop, two friends and I tried to thank the owner by accidentally calling her an “old woman” instead of a kind one. Every time I was unable to finish a sentence, it forced me back to my books, often preparing myself for the next inevitable interaction.
The key to surviving and learning the language is throwing yourself into the proverbial deep end. You will be forced to speak the language no matter what.
Get friendly with the locals
If your village is anything like mine, there will seem to be festivals every week. I soon just assumed that my village had its own calendar and invented holidays. As you place yourself in these situations, you’ll rapidly learn to pick up the language.
Festivals for me presented a plethora of opportunities. I managed to learn the counters for ordering drinks and food from my multiple visits to stalls; admittedly, this was after I ordered ten of something and was too embarrassed to return. Going to local events provides a new context for your language to flourish outside the pages of a textbook and allows you to have real-life examples of what you’re studying.
Never stop talking
When other people can’t speak English, you’ll naturally revert to the language that you both have in common – Japanese. When visiting a local bookstore, for example, I purchased a manga to help with my learning. Once the store-owner came to realise who I was she quickly produced a book on flowers where she would read the Japanese and listened to me saying them in English.
Start a language exchange
Another great aspect of the inaka is that you’ll be one of the only people able to do a language exchange. With few other English speakers around, it’s easy to go out into the community to find people who want to learn in exchange for teaching you Japanese.
Take free lessons at your local city hall
Something I wish I had known sooner is the language lessons that are often provided by your city hall. Although the infrastructure of big cities is awash with language institutions and teachers, it’s often rare to find them in the inaka. Luckily, most, if not all, city halls provide very cheap lessons offered by local community members: mine were ¥2,000 for six months worth of lessons.
The inaka can also offer some very unique additions to your language learning, for example, being able to pick up a dialect (ほうげん). Although not imperative to your survival, this kind of thing will help to improve your language learning in a unique way.
Next time on Surviving the Inaka: Making Your Own Fun – Ways to get involved with the local community and make friends.
Are you an inaka-jin? Got any tips for learning Japanese out there in the sticks? To read more of Alex’s “Surviving the Inaka” six-part series:
- Part 1: Dealing with foreigner celebrity status
- Part 2: Learning Japanese
- Part 3: Making your own fun
- Part 4: Teaching in a countryside classroom
- Part 5: The best and worst things about living in rural Japan
- Part 6: Leaving the countryside for the city
Got a question for Alex or want him to cover something he hasn’t yet? Let us know in the comments!