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Why I started learning Japanese and how it’s going

If you’ve ever been to any sake business presentation outside Japan, you had probably heard one of the most popular complaints about sake bottles: the labels are incomprehensible for foreigners. Not only sake terms, classification and everything else are different from what other alcoholic drinks use. All this info is also written in alien characters, which are often unrecognisable even for Japanese speakers due to the calligraphic way they are written.

And if you’ve ever attended a sake tasting event featuring breweries from Japan presenting their prized and beautiful sake you definitely got frustrated when you tested the limits of English of kuramoto, toji or kurabito standing behind the stalls. You could sense how their vast knowledge and genuine desire to help were crushing into the language barrier.

Why I decided to start learning Japanese

So after getting my share of frustration, I decided to learn Japanese. And here are my reasons. First of all, I would like to improve communication with sake producers. I want to be able to ask them questions, which are important for me and let them speak more comfortably on these topics. I’ve got plans to visit sake breweries in Japan and speaking Japanese will allow me to have better conversations with the people there.

Also, it’s much more exciting to visit Japan if you can speak at least a bit of Japanese. I realised it last time we visited Japan. My daughter’s rather limited Japanese language skills that time still made our life much easier. People hearing her speaking the language were really warming up to us. We avoided a lot of misunderstanding and could do things quicker. So it was bliss.

There are also plenty of resources about sake in Japanese and I want to tap into them to put interesting and unique information about sake in this blog. While I might still have to use Google Translate for that, I at least will be able to find what to translate and understand some gibberish Google Translate sometimes produces.

There are also other reasons. I like languages and always felt that it’s quite cool to know more than one. I have quite a lot of Japanese friends and it always nice to speak to your friends in their native language. While I don’t set the bar that high yet, but Japanese literature always fascinated me. Both poetry and prose, which sometimes intertwine so you can’t tell when the prose ends and the poetry begins. So it would be great to read or at least to attempt to read for example Tanazaki in the original.

How to find a Japanese class that suits you in London

Anyway, these were my reasons last year to start looking for a Japanese class in London. Japan Foundation is an amazing resource for that. They’ve got a Language Centre page, where you can find resources for learning and teaching Japanese. I used them before to find a private Japanese tutor for my daughter in our area. You can download an Excel file which lists all tutors or educational establishments registered with Japan Foundation.

If I look for something I usually use a very systematic approach. I put everything in an Excel spreadsheet and compare by various criteria. It’s my guilty pleasure to do things that way. So the Excel file from the Japan Foundation was a perfect tool for me to research various classes and made my decision.

School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)
School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)

After comparing all the options and consulting with my daughter, who studies Japanese, and with some of my Japanese friends, I decided to enrol to SOAS. First of all, it’s primarily a language university. So you can rely on the quality of teaching and reputation there. Secondly, I wanted to have a proper academic course with a strong focus on the language’s grammar to build a good foundation for subsequent studies. Thirdly, it is conveniently located on the way from work to where we live.

Other people might have different reasons for learning Japanese or different learning styles. There are classes which focus on speaking Japanese and use an immersion method when you start speaking the language without really understanding the grammar. Like people did in the old times when found themselves in a foreign country. Others might prefer intensive courses, where you learn every weekday for several months to master the language. There even options when you don’t have to pay but turn up to meet Japanese speakers to learn the language this way.

Japanese is one of the most difficult languages to learn

I started the course in April last year and has done so far three Beginner modules. So what have we managed to cover so far? Well, to be honest not an awful lot for a year, but given it’s Japanese, I’m quite pleased with the results and the course’s pace. Indeed, Japanese is one of the top 3 hardest languages to learn for Europeans.

It’s quite interesting that the language itself is not that difficult. I, for example, studied German, and its grammar, in my opinion, is way harder than Japanese. However, it still has a familiar language structure, an easy to read characters and a lot of familiar words. Yes, you can still struggle with conjugation of German articles, nouns and adjectives, a slightly awkward sentence structure and pronunciation. But the language, in general, feels kind of familiar.

kanji, hiragana and katakana
The three Japanese scripts: kanji, hiragana and katakana

With Japanese, everything seems alien. To start with, there are THREE writing scripts, which are sort of mixed and matched in the text. Each of the scripts is used for certain purposes and they look very different from each other. So you have to learn them separately.

The two scripts, hiragana and katakana, are relatively easy to learn. They are phonetic scripts, where which letter represent a particular sound (two sounds in most cases). You usually start with hiragana and then learn katakana, which for some weird reason is harder to learn.

The third script is called kanji or so-called logographic Chinese characters, adopted by Japanese around 1.5 millennia ago. Each kanji usually represents a word, a phrase or even a concept. As Japanese and Chinese languages are completely different, hiragana script is used to glue kanji together grammatically, while katakana is mostly used for writing foreign words.

Dengyo-daishi Sekitoku
Letter penned by the Saichō monk, Heian period, November 25, 813

What complicates things immensely is that each kanji might have multiple readings depending on the word or phrase. So you have not only to learn what each kanji means but also how to read it in various situations. It’s tough! In any case, in class, we started with hiragana then studied katakana. It’s still some time before we’ll start learning kanji.

So what’s the progress so far?

Minna No Nihongo

So what have we learnt so far? Obviously, personal introduction, a structure of Japanese sentences, simple sentences such as What is this? What is that?, numbers, adjectives and their forms, some verb forms and some grammatical forms. The important bit in Japanese grammar is particles. They are short bits that follow Japanese words indicating various meanings and functions. There are probably almost 200 particles but many of them are written and read similarly. So far we have learnt only a few of them.

Overall, I enjoy learning Japanese. I like the language and am looking forward to using it. We have a great class and a wonderful sensei (teacher). The benefit of learning something as an adult is that your classmates are usually as passionate about the subject as you are. And it’s very motivating!

We broke for the holiday last week and the next module starts in 4-5 weeks. From then we are going to write short diary entries every week to start using the language in a more practical manner. I have added my diary to this blog just for fun. It’s going to be a separate feed, so I exclude diary entries from new post notifications. Instead, there is an entry in the main menu for accessing it.

So if you are curious about my Japanese please check it out where it appears. I will update this article with the link. If you would like to receive notifications about my articles, please consider subscribing to the feed. When my first diary entry appears, you can read it sipping some nice sake to add authenticity to the experience.



Alex is a London-based sake blogger, podcaster, IWC Sake judge and sake advocate. He is a publisher of the Sugidama Blog website and a host of the Sugidama Podcast. Alex has an International Kikisake-shi (Sake Specialist) qualification from SSI (Sake Service Institute). He sees his mission as expanding the awareness of Japanese sake among as many people as possible and helping the growing community of sake lovers to bring together beautiful Japanese sake and non-Japanese food as a way to build a better understanding between our cultures.

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