Why wouldn’t you want to learn the language of a culture that invented electronic calculators, DVDs, instant ramen, and karaoke? Or whose trains are pretty much never late? If you’re on the fence about what foreign language to take up next, then check out these reasons why you should learn Japanese!
Before I go on, I’d just like to point out that I grew up in Taiwan, speaking Japanese with my grandparents and father, and Madarin Chinese with my mother. I’ve been teaching both languages in Madrid, Spain (where I’ve been living for the past eight years) and I’ve come to realize that while both languages are important, I get a lot more interest from students to learn Chinese. That’s why I’d like to share a few lesser-known reasons to consider learning Japanese instead. So here goes.
1. 3rd largest economy in the world
Japan’s economy is the third largest in the world, only after the US and China. The country recovered at an amazing pace not only after WWII but also practically after every natural disaster (remember 20% of the world’s earthquakes take place in Japan). This demonstrates the impressive resilience, willpower and disciplined work ethics of the Japanese as a nation who can pick themselves up and get through all sorts of hardships. What’s more, Japan is a major source of global capital and credit with well-known brands as Toyota, Canon, Sony, Nissan, Panasonic, Shiseido… you name it! Doing business in (even if only basic) Japanese will impress your potential business partners and foster a long-lasting relationship.
2. 4th biggest language community on the Internet
Are you an active Internet user? If you cannot live your life anymore without e-mail, mobile apps, Google, Wikipedia, then you must learn Japanese. After English, Russian and German, Japanese is the fourth biggest language community on the Internet. You will be bound to engage and connect with a considerable number of Internet gurus and trend-setters in your newly acquired tongue. It is also an interesting way to read and examine news stories and blog posts to get different perspectives from the English-based mainstream media, leaving out any biases you might receive from its associated culture.
3. Culture – from the world’s first novel (11th c.) to anime and Nintendo
Did you know that the world’s first novel was written in Japan? It’s called The Tale of Genji and is impressive on many levels: it was written by a Japanese woman in the beginning of the 11th century, in the vernacular Early Middle Japanese (most works from East Asia prior to the 20th century were in Classical Chinese, their written lingua franca), and it’s also considered to be the first psychological novel. Did you also know that some of the world’s first sci-fis were Japanese? Time travel was addressed in the 8th-century folktale of Urashima Tarō; likewise, a 10th-century Japanese narrative manuscript of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter illustrates a round flying object similar to a flying saucer (UFO) that carries the Lunarian inhabitants.
If you’re a cinephile, then the dynamic yet lyrical Japanese cinema—the Kurosawa, Miyazaki, and Ozu films, to name a few—awaits to be rediscovered by you in their original splendour. If you’re an avid reader, then the sensual Murakami novels and the complex yet elegant literary work of the Nobel prize winner Kenzaburo Oe will certainly appeal to you. Haiku, senryū, and tanka, too, can be read and composed in the language from which they sprang.
All this being said, Japan is of course known for its high-tech scene; for instance, Japanese trains are amongst the world’s most punctual: their average delay over the last 20 years is merely 18 seconds. The new maglev Shinkansen train not only reaches the world speed record of 500km/h (311mph), but also floats off their tracks with magnetic levitation.
Lest we forget, Japan is famous for its rich subculture, ranging from J-pop to surreally hilarious variety shows to anime and manga (Japan uses more paper for comics than for toilet paper) to Nintendo video games (some of which are not released in English); imagine if you could enjoy these entertainments in their original language with their subtle cultural nuances that just cannot be delivered by translations.
If you’re a karateka, a judoka or a kendoka, you’ll be pleased to finally understand what all the kiai (short yell vocalised when performing an attacking move) phrases mean.
4. Technology & Innovation – over 420,000 apps patented annually
Japan has always been a country of innovation; for example, instant noodle was invented by a Taiwanese-Japanese man Momofuku Andō in 1958, and it’s even used as space food. However, Japan has more than 50,000 people who are over 100 years old, and the country’s birth rate is so low that adult diapers are sold more than baby ones, and there are more pets per household than children. Despite this stagnant population growth, the number of highly skilled foreign-born professionals in Japan remains low.
Meanwhile, thanks to the country’s innovative spirit, Japan is experiencing a boom in the high-tech sector: a whopping 420,000 apps are patented per year, and Japan is the world’s largest market for mobile games as well. To cope with labour shortages, Japan started a points-based immigration scheme in 2012 to attract skilled foreign workers, especially in the IT sector, following the example of the UK, Canada, Australia, and other Western countries.
If you plan to move to Japan with this programme, you’ll want to learn some basic Japanese; whilst for these professions English is probably spoken at the workplace, but it is not so widely spoken in the country as a whole.
5. Exercise your brain – better than sūdoku!
For English speakers, Japanese is not terribly difficult to pronounce: it only has 110 sound combinations (in the standard variety) compared to the 158,000 possible combinations in Standard English. However, the grammar and writing systems can be daunting: just try putting the verb at the end of the sentence all the time and mastering 3 different scripts in order to be literate!
That said, through a good teaching method, you’ll surely get hold of the seemingly intricate grammar in no time. It is actually not as difficult as, say, an average Romance language like Spanish or Italian; there are fewer tenses and the verbs needn’t agree with the person or number.
Furthermore, studies have shown that learning Kanji (the Chinese characters used in Japanese) will aid the left visual field, such as the development of motor skills, remembering new shapes more easily, easing visual identification of graphics, and will keep your mind sharp, since writing the characters regularly can help cognitive development. While learning to read in Hiragana and Katakana (the phonetic alphabets) will aid the right visual field, thereby utilising both cerebral hemispheres, which increases brain capacity.
Are you convinced?
Feel free to get in touch with me directly if you’d like to start learning Japanese today via Skype or in Madrid (small group classes), or for advice on learning the language or just to say hi! My email is: Edison@rodmellhouse.com.