1. My Problems with the Devil's Language

2. Chinese Imports – Kanji, Homophones, etc.

3. The Power of the Sub-conscious

4. Deep Listening

5. Reading Japanese

6. Mastering the Language

That one year in Japan – 1967-68 - was to be even more difficult than the two years in Moscow.

And not just because I had to organize myself into one of the world’s more complex societies, without the help of an embassy, contacts, friends or even much in the way of funds.

I had also to break through into a language much more difficult than Russian, and with just one year to do it.

And as with Russian I had to do it myself, without teachers or the standard 12 months of intensive instruction most would-be Japanese speakers need to get started.

Someone once described the difficulty of learning Japanese as like having to climb Mount Fuji, in winter, without crampons or a stick.

I was lucky since knowing Chinese I could start climbing from the bus station about a third the way up the mountain.

Even so I still had a long way to go. And I lacked the walking stick of good learning materials (now much more available than in the past).

I admire those who start from the bottom, and persevere all the way to the top.

1. The Devil's Language.

As others have noted, beginning with Francis Xavier in the 16th century, Japanese is not an easy language (“a language invented by the Devil” was his conclusion).

In many ways it is even more difficult than Chinese.

In Chinese, the grammar - word order, sentence structure etc - is not very distant from most Western languages.

With Japanese everything seems to be thrown into reverse. And the language itself lacks consistency. It is a strange mixture of the original indigenous Japanese, Japanized imported Chinese words and partly Japanized English words.

On most scales of difficulty Japanese registers at or near to the top.

Listening Problems

Problem number one is not being able to distinguish individual words in the torrent of speaker sound.

Words, especially those of Chinese origin can be agglutinated, especially when the speaker begins to blurt out streams of disorganized thought, which can happen often.

You are facing a wall of sound with few pegs to help you start climbing.

Another problem is the style of communication. The Chinese communicate with directness and force which helps drive the words into your memory.

With Japanese, you may well understand everything, but the more indirect style of speech means words do not impact the memory with anything like the force of Chinese.

Quite a few foreigners not brought up in China get to speak good Chinese. Few foreigners in the same situation manage the same fluency in Japanese.

Polite Language

The need to master polite language in Japanese does not make things easier. Many note how personal pronouns and verbs change depending on rank, with the passive form often used to superiors.

The use of the passive is a feudalistic hangover, very similar to its use in English: “Will the master be having his tea early today?”

When the TV announcers report on Japan's pampered royalty their mouths get clogged up with passives.

Male and female speech can also differ, though not as much as in the past.

But for me a much greater obstacle was and remains the homophone problem.

Chinese Imports

Japanese, like Korean, and Vietnamese and some other Southeast Asian languages, is a mixture of Chinese origin words added to the indigenous language.

But unlike the others, which have integrated the Chinese words into their written language, in Japanese they remain as ideographs known as kanji.

Many complain, and some even like former Japanese scholar Edwin Reischauer who should have known better, tell the Japanese they should put the kanji into some phonetic script – roman letters, or the native kana script.

But kanji allow fast reading on the same principle as speed reading in English – recognising meaning by the shape of words rather than the letters.

In any case, the homophone problem rules out any phonetic script replacement for kanji - though the Korean technique of putting their phonetic script into boxy shapes like kanji allows a form of speed reading.

In all the Chinese-influenced Asian languages, Japanese especially, the mixture of the Chinese origin words with the native language resembles closely the way English mixes imported Romance origin words with the original Anglo-saxon.

In English we use Romance origin words mainly for educated speech. The Japanese, Koreans and Vietnamese do much the same with Chinese origin words.


And as with English there is no great problem in having the language operating at two levels – a simple native vocabulary and another more sophisticated vocabulary for the same things and feelings, with subtle nuances operating in between. You can enrich the language greatly – one reason why English and Japanese literature have such a following.

But when the Japanese imported those Chinese origin words for some reason they seem to have wanted to turn the original Chinese pronunciations into the barest of monosyllables, many with very similar pronunciations.

Thrown together in rapid conversation they can be almost impossible for the unpracticed ear to unravel.

The Japanese sound '
ko' for example is the monosyllable used for a dozen or so Chinese-origin words in common Japanese use (there are another dozen or so more ‘ko’s’ given to pronouncing Chinese origin words with more arcane meanings).

In Chinese those words can be pronounced
gong, gang, kang, kung, hong, huang, guang kuang, gao, kao, hou, hao, jiao, qiao, and jiang.

But in Japanese they all become ‘

True, Chinese also has its homophones — words with the same pronunciation but different meaning. But when spoken most can usually be distinguished from each other by one or other of the four tones used in Mandarin Chinese.

gong with a high tone means “work”, while gong with a falling tone can have a very different meaning. With a low tone it can be a province in Szechuan and with a rising tone it has yet another meaning.

But in Japanese they all end up as ‘
ko’, with nothing like the Chinese tones to differentiate them (though the Japanese insist that at times there are subtle differences of emphasis).

Usually you have only the context to guide you.

To make things worse, if the ‘
o’ sound in ‘ko’ is short we find one set of meanings. If it is lengthened, we have another quite different set of meanings.

And since the ‘
ko’ with the long ‘o’ () and the one with short 'o' sound much the same ( both are pronounced 'kor' but the 'or' ending is either clipped or extended) you have to try to distinguish which ‘ko’ they are using.

Most of the other homophones from China ending in a '
o' or a 'u' also have both long and short endings. So a 'sho' or a 'shu' with short endings have one set of meanings. With long endings, sometimes romanised as 'shoo' and 'shuu,' the meanings are quite different.

Even when they are not homophones, many of the various Chinese-origin words sound alike when brought into Japanese.

So you are fighting not just a bunch of homophones but a whole army of their relatives also.

Compound Words to the Rescue?

Fortunately the Japanese, like the Chinese, rely heavily on compound words — two homophones brought together to create one word.

But even then there are difficulties, since many of those compounds themselves end up as homophones.

Take the Chinese origin word for ‘success’ which is pronounced ‘
sei-kõ’ in Japanese. A Japanese dictionary will give you a dozen or so other meanings for sei-kõ, including 'sexual contact'.

In Chinese, the
sei-kõ meaning success is cheng-gong. The sei-kõ for sexual contact would be sheng-jiao, and so on.

But in Japanese they all end up as

High tone ‘
gong’ may have several meanings in Chinese. But if it is combined with ‘ye’ (enterprise) to create the compound word gong-ye we know fairly unambiguously that we have a word which means ‘industry.’

In Japanese gong-ye becomes
kõ-gyo which also means industry. But kõ-gyo can also have several other different meanings - ‘entertainment event’ for example.

Speakers are sometimes reduced to writing out the kanji in the air.

Throw in the problems of distinguishing between long and short ‘
o’ and ‘u’ endings and it gets even worse,

So the ‘
sei-sho’ above can mean the Bible, but ‘sei-shoo’ (the 'o' is long) means 'sing in unison'.

Mistake a short ‘
u’ for a long ‘u’ and instead of talking about problems with your husband (shu jin) you are talking about the prison convict with whom you are co-habitating (shuu jin).

Another problem, for me at least, is remembering reversed compounds. For example there is ‘
sei-sho.’ But there is also ‘sho-sei.’ There is ‘sei-sha' and ‘sha-sei.’ Or ‘shuu-sei’ and ‘sei-shuu.'

When the pronunciations are similar it is even worse. '
Shoo shuu' means a 'summons'. 'Shoo juu' means a rifle. 'Juu shoo' means a severe injury. And so on.

Shuu shuu' gets to mean to 'collect information'. But it also means 'to control'.

Shoo shoo' means 'a little'. 'Sho joo' means 'symptom' (it also means a 'certificate of merit'). 'Joo shoo' means to 'to rise.' 'Joo joo' means 'excellent,' a 'stock-market listing' and 'circumstances'.

Sensen' means to declare war. But it also has a literary meaning – to be washed away by clean water. Mistaking that pair could cause problems.

If Francis Xavier had the same problems, he was not exaggerating.


Another problem for beginners at least is that the standard Hepburn romanisation system does not distinguish between long and short vowels.

So the ‘
sei-sho’ (short 'o') above meaning 'Bible' is romanised as 'seisho', and the ‘sei-shõ (long 'o') meaning 'sing in unison' is also romanised as 'seisho'.

So under Hepburn when you see '
seisho' or any other 'sho' in romanisation you have to try consciously to remember whether the 'sho' should be elongated or not. There is nothing to help you.


My theory as to why Mr Hepburn left us with this can of pronunciation worms says that in those days they decided Japanese was hard enough as it was without us having to remember long and short (o)s, (u)s etc. Or maybe they themselves just did not notice that there was a difference.

In fact, the difference is very important. Many foreigners fail to realise this and mess up their spoken Japanese badly as a result.

For example, the first '
o' in the word 'Tokyo' is a long 'o' and should be given a romanisation to make that clear - for example 'tor'.

A short '
o' could be romanised as 'oh'.

But under Hepburn all are romanised simply as '
o,' and most newcomers to the language assume it should be pronounced like the English 'oe' as in 'toe.'

They go through life thinking that every '
o' they see in Hepburn romanisation should be pronounced as 'oe' when in fact neither the short 'o' or the long 'o' have the 'oe' pronunciation.

Many of the older generation of Western Japanologists brought up on Hepburn remain imprinted not just with the wrong pronunciation for the Japanese '
o,' but without even knowing the need to distinguish between the long and short 'o.'

It is a mess. Maybe the Japanese can survive this homophonic mine-field since they remember words in ideograph form. But for those like myself who rely on romanisations to remember it is a nightmare, from which you can only escape by a conscious effort to imprint the correct pronunciations the moment you begin to study Japanese.

Wrong pronunciations imprinted in the sub-conscious can stay for life. No matter how many times later you hear the correct pronuciation you probably will not change.

Fortunately when I came to learn Japanese I was aware from the beginning of this imprinting problem, thanks to my experience with other languages. I went out of my way to try to get correct pronunciations imprinted into the sub-conscious from the start.

3. The Power of the Sub-conscious

It is said that some 80 percent of our brain capacity operates sub-consciously.

When we speak our native language, for example, we do not have to think whether verbs follow nouns. We do not worry about conjugations etc.

That is because the language has entered our sub-conscious (or what some call the long-term memory), which tells us automatically how to say what we want to say. Automaticity is the technical word for it.

Perhaps the best analogy is the way we learn to type.

We begin by consciously looking at the keys we want to hit.

But with practice and repetition one day we find we can type freely without even having to look at the keyboard. The fingers seem to know automatically where to move.

Here too our ability to type will have entered the sub-conscious. (In English we call it ‘touch typing’; the Japanese call it ‘blind typing’.)

Language learning is more complicated than learning to type. But the principle is the same – finding a technique that allows words and patterns enter that sub-conscious or longterm memory so that you do not have to rely on the conscious memory.

When that happens words and expressions emerge just as naturally as those touch-typing fingers move across the keyboard.

But in both cases getting things right from the start is very important. If you start off with two finger typing you will probably stay that way.

With language it is the same. Mistakes that enter the sub-conscious will stay there, often permanently.

True, with repeated practice the two-finger typist can get to type quite quickly.

But it is rather ugly way of typing, rather like the English spoken by Japanese people who learn from textbooks.

Creating the Language Computer

With typing or music, repetition is usually enough to guarantee the ability will enter the sub-conscious memory.

With language also. But the volume of what you have to remember far exceeds what is needed to remember typing or music. And you have to make sure what you remember is the correct language.

But it can be done - provided you rely on the sub-conscious. Only that way will it remain in the memory

If you rely solely on your conscious memory to learn a language then almost as fast as you remember a word or expression you forget another.

Conscious memory learning is rather similar to throwing very soft mud against a wall. It hits, but very little will stick.

You end up like those many Japanese who shake their heads with a wry smile and admit that despite their past efforts they remember almost nothing of the English they tried for so many years to learn.

Free Conversation?

Many see free conversation as the answer to this problem. But contrary to much Japanese belief, just listening to language does not mean the language will automatically 'stick' in the sub-conscious.

The listening can be very passive. Some extra and much stronger pressure is needed to make words stick.

True, repeated efforts to converse will help the language to remain in the memory.

But that is time, and often money, consuming. And there is very little guarantee that what you are remembering is correct.

This is a particular problem in Japan where speaking is seen as a matter of consciously selecting the words learned from textbooks, and then stringing them together, like Leggo blocks.

The result is the very stilted form of spoken English found in Japan.

So the more the students talk the more that stilted English becomes embedded, like that two-finger typing.

It is crucial that from the beginning you have to find some way to imprint the correct language into the sub-conscious memory. That imprinting can only come through concentrated listening, followed by the chance to say what you have listened to.


Imprinting Analogy

An analogy can help.

Imagine someone shows you a photo of some streets in a foreign city and tells you to remember all the details. No matter how hard you try consciously to remember those details they will quickly fade from the memory.

But now imagine you are lost in a foreign city and are desperate to find your destination.

You consult your maps, ask passers-by etc. and eventually through much effort you find your way.

I am sure that if you are like me the concentration need to find your way guarantees that you will remember for years the roads, paths and buildings you passed en route.

I find the same thing with mountain climbing. If at some place there was some kind of difficulty in deciding or finding the correct route, I can tell you the details of that place today as if it was yesterday.

Why? Because I was faced with a challenge, and it forced me to concentrate. The concentration involved guaranteed that the details of those routes were pulled into my long-term memory, like steel particles sucked into a magnet.

Similarly with language - how to get it sucked into the memory. Concentration is the first condition. But there is another - correctness, making sure that what you suck in is correct language.

And correctness involves not just correct pronunciation. Stress and rhythm are also important.

Some say reading out aloud or rote learning helps the memory. Tests and quizzes also help. Both can provide the stimulus for needed concentration. But there is no correctness guarantee.

Living the language - being in a situation where you have to use and rely on the language for every day life – also helps, though it is not hard to find migrants living in this situation who cannot speak well even after decades.

Their listening is not sufficiently focussed. They hear what they want to hear and then repeat it
till it becomes embedded in the sub-conscious and cannot be corrected later.

Some technique is needed to allow you to concentrate while listening to the correct language so that what you are listening to penetrates the all-important sub-conscious memory directly, before you have the chance to hear what you want to hear.

I call it deep listening, followed by the meaningful conversation needed to embed it in the sub-conscious.

Deep Listening

First select some recorded material, the meaning of which you want to understand or that you are required to understand.

You listen carefully, with concentration, checking with a dictionary words you do not understand.

You are in effect trying to decode the sounds coming out of the machine.

That concentrated effort in turn begins to push what you are hearing into the sub-conscious, very much in the way a child listens and remembers.

You can of course rely on text to help you in your de-coding effort. Indeed, for someone like myself who relies heavily on visual memory, seeing words in a text or dictionary AFTER I have made that listening effort is a big help in memorising.

But it should be secondary - somewhat like using a map when you find yourself lost.

The memorization effect will be much more positive if first you feel you have done all you can through listening to understand.

I call it 'deep listening.' In Japanese 'ango kaidoku' – the de-coding or de-cyphering effect.

Using in conversation the words you have just de-cyphered also helps greatly. Writing out what you have decoded also helps.

Yet another hint: use tapes or CD's for the listening. Audio-visual is distracting, as is the presence of the other speaker in conversation lessons

Close your eyes and just concentrate on the sound trying to enter your mind. That way the impact is much stronger.

CD's and tapes also allow you to work at your own pace - to study when you want to and when you feel your mind is receptive.

This process of feeling that you are in control - that from the beginning you have wanted strongly to listen to and understand some recorded material - is important.

You do not get that in the classroom.

The role of the teacher should be secondary, if at all.

Once, when studying Chinese in Hongkong, I had to record and 'de-cypher' immediately an important Beijing broadcast at the height of an early sixties Taiwan Straits crisis.

The new words I learned when under the pressure to complete the 'de-cyphering' process remained with me for years.

Language as a Song

Ever wonder why we can remember songs - nursery songs especially – so easily and for so long? Poems also.

Because rhythm opens the gates almost directly to the sub-conscious.

Unfortunately we cannot turn that mess of nouns, verbs, conjunctives etc called a language into something as luring and attractive as a song or poem. But we can to do something to make it somewhat more attractive.

For example, I find it very useful to listen to recordings by someone with an attractive voice.

I was once involved with the Japanese language materials company that produced the very successful language learning set of taped recordings called 'Chase.'

They took my advice to tape in sections a mystery story of interest to Japanese. So they hired Sydney Sheldon to write the story. That helped their sales. But helping the sales even more was their idea of hiring Orson Welles to record the story.

When the voice is attractive you can almost feel the sub-conscious reaching out to take in what it is hearing. That is why we remember songs so well.

When you speak a language fluently you also have the sensation of repeating the words of a long familiar song.


People sometimes ask me whether you get confused with languages - whether knowing Chinese interferes with Japanese, for example.

The short answer is, no, (although there can be a brief mental confusion when you switch from a well-embedded language to one less so, for example in my case from Chinese to Japanese).

It is like asking whether I have a problem singing 'My Fair Lady' if I know 'Doing it my Way.'

Remembering a variety of languages should be no harder than remembering a variety of songs... provided we can push them into that sub-conscious memory.

Watch some mid-Eastern traders switching easily from one language to another to do their business and you will understand.

The brain is a house with many rooms. When you move from one language to another it is like moving from one room to another, taking care to close the door behind you.

True, I sometimes have a problem closing the door when I switch from Chinese to Japanese.

The fact of learning Chinese when I was younger (22) – and maybe because grammatically it is closer to English - has embedded it more deeply in my sub-conscious than Japanese, even though I have been speaking Japanese for 30 years.

So when I return to Japanese the mind can go into semi-seizure for a few seconds as I try to sort out what language I am speaking

But that is all.

The other surprise when speaking Chinese is the ease with which words and expressions learned as long as 40 years ago, together with correct pronunciations, jump out of my sub-conscious naturally as if I had been using them just yesterday – yet another proof of the power of that sub-conscious memory.

But then again, if you learned Jack and Jill in your childhood and I asked you to sing it now I can assume most would be able to do so almost without thinking.

A language is like a set of those nursery room songs, long and complicated, but not impossible to remember if you go about it the right way.

5. Reading Japanese – 'Listen' to what you read.

As already mentioned, when I set out to do my post-graduate research on Japan both I and my mentors assumed my knowledge of Chinese would make it fairly easy for me to read research materials in Japanese.

We were both wrong. Like the spoken language, the written language has the Devil’s fingerprints all over it.

It is a major obstacle preventing progress with the language.

Jumbled Print

Problem number one is the way the print is jumbled, with the Chinese-origin ideographs (kanji) mixed with two phonetic scripts - katakana and hiragana.

Katakana is used mainly for imported words, mainly from English. Hiragana is more for indigenous Japanese words or parts of speech.

Katakana is sometimes compared to the way we use capitals in English; hiragana is lower case.

So when you read Japanese, it is as if you were reading English and constantly jumping from one word in capitals to another in lower case with the kanji ideographs thrown into the mix.

Kana are fairly easy to learn and remember. Not so the kanji.

You will have to learn to recognize about 1500 or more if you want to read serious material.

That takes quite a bit more than a year.

Reading Kanji

The good news is that you do not need to learn how to write kanji, though many try to. It is enough to be able recognise them.

Nor are kanji quite as hard to recognise as they seem on first impression.

They are made up usually of two or three of about fifty standard components and if you know them you should in theory be able to at least search meanings in a dictionary.

Besides, you do not have to analyse each component to recognize each kanji. Once you know the components then when they are pulled together to comprise an ideograph you get to recognise the ideographs as you recognise pictures.

It is rather as if I see a Picasso on a wall I will know immediately it is a Picasso. I am not likely to confuse it with a Da Vinci.

All this helps to make for fast reading, though it would probably be even faster if there were no phonetic kana cluttering the page.

Agglutinated Script

But while the kanji can make for fast reading, for some reason (probably inherited from the way Chinese is written) there are no breaks to indicate different words. Everything – kanji, hirgana, katakana - are all run together in each sentence (fortunately there are sentence breaks).

The result is rather like this:

ItisalmostasifIwastowriteasentencewithout breaksandthenaskyoutoreadit.

Only a fluent English speaker could intuit where the breaks between individual words should occur, namely:

It is almost as if I was to write a sentence like this and then ask you to read it.

So even more than with most other languages you need to have good listening/speaking ability to read Japanese.

Without that ability students will end up like me many years ago – pouring over scripts for hours trying to untangle the scribble before you.

But if you have speaking ability then all you have to do is turn the scribble into sound and the meaning emerges naturally, as if you were listening to someone reading that text to you.

That language is sound rather than scribbles on a piece of paper is something many have yet to understand.

Reading Difficulties

By now the reader should understand my difficulties when I set out blithely, back in 1965, to rely on texts for my doctorate research into Japanese overseas investments.

I could pick out the kanji in the texts, but could not relate them to the kana scattered before and after.

Fortunately particles can often tell you where a 'word' begins and ends in the jumble of script before you.

Then with the help of a Japanese dictionary, you can then try to discover the meaning of each of those separated-out words and particles.

(And it is not as if those Japanese dictionaries are easy to use.)

Even after you have worked out the meaning of all the words, you still have to battle the back-to-front grammar and try to string those words together into some kind of meaning.

And while you are doing that you have to keep remembering the meanings of the many unfamiliar words you have just checked in the dictionary.

They too can slide easily out of the memory, sometimes in the time it takes to close the dictionary.

You feel as if you are juggling a bunch of words and particles and hope by accident they will all come together.

For me, just reading two or three pages of text would take the best part of an hour.

Reading by Listening

But once I got to know the spoken language everything changed.

That ugly and messed up collection of words in front of me (both kanji and kana) could automatically be turned into sound.

The meaning of the sentence would emerge as quickly and as naturally as if if I was listening to someone saying the same thing to me.

That is why I realised that my first priority on arriving in Japan would be to master the spoken language.

Which I did eventually, but only after the best part to two years of concentrated study, mainly by listening.

Only then could I begin the still painful business of reading the Japanese documents I needed for my study and research.

Explaining all these problems to my mentors back in Canberra was not easy.

In fact, I think they still do not understand, judging from the way they still send people without Japanese to Japan for serious research, and then assume that the mere fact these people have spent a year or so in Japan means they are able easily to handle readings in academic Japanese.

6. Mastering the Language

As mentioned earlier I had begun trying to learn Japanese back in Canberra before going to Japan.

Arriving in Japan I soon discovered how inadequate that had been - that the Japanese language teachers foisted on me at the ANU had left me with almost zero ability with the spoken language.

Virtually the only Japanese I had was what picked up in my few conversation classes with that Japanese housewife in Canberra.

So right from the start that I had to set out almost anew to make the listening and speaking breakthrough needed if I was to begin to be able to read my research materials.

As I knew from my experience with Chinese this would not be easy. But my experience with Russian had taught me the value of listening to tapes.

And unlike with Chinese, but as with Russian, with Japanese I had the chance to supplement with TV.

Getting Started

At first, all I had was the one set of Japanese language conversation tapes then commonly available (Jorden).

I would supplement this by trying to listen to TV/radio broadcasts of interest.

Trying to meet and talk to as many people as possible people was also important, as I had discovered in Russia.

But you cannot talk to people unless you can talk - a dilemma many other language learners face.

Even so, we all try.

The process is cumulative.

Get started on a language, and soon everything you do in your daily life, from buying fish to sorting out visa problems, all adds to that learning experience.

Fail to do that and you spend the rest of your Japan career confined to a box of dark incomprehension, jealous of those who have broken through.

True, most realize this and begin learning Japanese with good intentions. But progress can be excruciatingly slow, and many give up.

Fortunately I knew from previous languages that if one perseveres eventually there will be breakthroughs.

The ‘Plateau’ Phenomenon

Often you will reach a certain stage when you feel all progress has stopped. You are stuck at the limited level of language ability you have achieved to date.

You feel you have ‘plateaued’.

But then suddenly one day you feel your fluency has improved a few degrees.

You have moved up to the next ‘plateau’, so to speak.

From there you can move on to the next stage and so on.

Eventually you achieve fluency.

Using Radio and TV

True, the route I had to choose - listening to radio and TV programs (often without sub-titles in those days) – was not the easiest.

Children’s programs helped.

Fortunately today there is much more use of sub-titles on television broadcasts, which in my case can be read quickly thanks to the prolific use of kanji.

If I had had that aid from the beginning I could have cut greatly the time needed to master Japanese.

But I still had the homophone problem to overcome.

One day someone would be talking about
sei shu. Then shu sei, or shu sai and then sai shu, sei sai, sai sei or even sei sei (to refine products).

The sounds alone were hard to differentiate, let alone remember the meanings that went with them.

Using the Tape Recorder

What to do?

In those days there was almost nothing like the flood of CDs, tapes and other helpful, graded listening materials available today.

For the concentrated 'deep' listening practice I need the best I could do at first was little more than taping the weather forecasts.

For terms I could not understand I would listen repeatedly and then check with a dictionary or the newspaper of the day.

Later I graduated to an early morning NHK radio program called Watashi-tachi no Kotoba. Announcers would read out letters from conscientious, mostly elderly, Japanese listeners giving their views on the social problems of the day.

The reading was slow and clear. The contents included many educated words and expressions, which I could use.

There was also the feeling of being drawn into world of the letter-writer and wanting to understand the message that he or she wanted to pass on to the world.

(NHK has since replaced the program with brief, superficial and highly forgettable comments by listeners.)

Thanks to that intimate feeling of listening in to someone's conversation, the words I picked up from de-ciphering those early morning broadcasts still stay with me as if they were yesterday.

(Years later, I was invited by a publisher to put my ideas into book form. It was called “The Code-Deciphering Technique” - Ango Kaidoku Hoshiki. Together with the concept of ‘deep listening’ it seemed to influence a surprisingly large number of readers.)

From those morning broadcasts I moved to news broadcasts, relying on the newspapers of the day to help me de-cipher what I could not understand.

Yasuko also helped me a lot in the 'de-ciphering' process. I will always be grateful.

Today, of course most of these difficulties have gone. There is now so much good listening material available that one’s main problem is choosing.

First priority should be material spoken slowly and clearly. Also spoken firmly, so you feel drawn into the ambit of the speaker.

That way the emotional factor crucial to drawing material into the sub-conscious memory begins to function.

For some strange reason the recording people seem to think they have to produce materials spoken at full conversational speed, or even faster, and filled with jargon and background noises.

(One NHK Spanish language broadcast I used to listen to had a steam train roaring through a tunnel - to provide the sense of reality.)

Students already have enough problems without having all that thrown at them.

Later, when you have mastered the language, you will get all the fast conversational practice you need.

If reality is needed then the mere fact you are trying to understand something sensible that someone is saying is more than enough reality.

You do not need gimmicks and puppet-shows to push words or expressions into the memory box.

Also, I discovered it helps a lot if you can use materials which run on a question and answer basis, ideally with changes of tense, person etc – e.g. ‘Do you like sushi; I like it now but I did not like it at first.'

But whatever technique you use, feeling involved in what you are hearing is the key.

Today I enjoy greatly watching an interesting TV program on the topic of the day, armed with my dictionary to help me de-cipher subtitled words new to me.

TV dramas are also good; Japan produces many of quality.

Conversation Practice

Listening was one thing. But obviously I needed speaking practice too.

The current fad is for something called 'communicative English.’

In theory that should be fine. The effort to communicate an idea or feeling to a native speaker can do much to consolidate the language in the sub-conscious memory.

Hopefully the teacher will help by correcting mistakes in pronunciation and grammar.

But for reasons already mentioned these conditions are often not present. Much of the conversation is stilted and forced.

You can come away with little retained in the memory

And it goes without saying that you will not remember much unless you have prepared the topic in advance, ideally through the kind of listening practice I have recommended.

Teachers have yet to realize that you access your memory through your eyes and ears, not through your mouth.


Trying to Speak

And so like most other dedicated learners, I eventually reached the stage where I could communicate in Japanese.

Years of presentations on the lecture and TV circuit obviously did no harm to further progress.

But going out and talking to as many people as possible is crucial.


That, at least, was my resolution when I arrived in Japan as a would-be research student, back in 1967-8.

But it was hard to get started.

In those postwar days the psychological and other gaps between Western and Japanese society were still wide; for the women at least, foreigners still carried some of the stigma of the Occupation days.

Today mixed foreigner-Japanese bars can be found on almost every Tokyo street corner. But for most of my early years in Japan these places hardly existed.

Fortunately, a British Embassy contact introduced me to a professor of English at some mid-level university.

He was said to be an expert on Shakespeare but could hardly speak the language – a typical victim of the text rather than the listening approach to language learning.

But he introduced me to his deshi and they tried to look after me. That gave me my first break-though into Japanese society.

I was not so fortunate with the Australian Embassy. They had me firmly black-listed as a dangerous anti-Vietnam War protestor.

Fortunately my one contact at the Embassy - a third secretary, Richard Broinowski, and his wife Alison – kindly invited me to the occasional party and gave me some useful introductions.

Breaking Through - The Nomiya Experience

My eventual speaking break-through came by accident - at a small nomiya (eating and drinking place) at the bottom of the Toritsu-dai hill where I was renting my room.

As I passed it on my way home from a day's work at the Ajiken library I could smell the sweet smell of grilled yakitori chicken seeping out from the sliding doors and hear the buzz of conversation inside.

One day I decided to take a look inside. As I opened the sliding doors someone called out for the gaijin-san to come inside. Someone else moved up for me to sit down at a counter lined by the half dozen or so regulars - a plumber, a school-teacher and so on - with a mama-san facing us on the other side.

My neighbour turned out to be a nomiya regular - a very ordinary salary-man and as I discovered later a good friend of the mama-san. He helped me order, and then went out of his way to talk to me, slowly so I could understand.

For the first time in my Tokyo career I was able to have a proper conversation, albeit very limited, with an ordinary Japanese.

I kept coming back. They kept on looking after me. Gradually I came to realise that this little group had begun to see me as one of their regular members.

Early in the spring they invited me to join them and the mama-san for a hanami (flower viewing) on the cherry tree lined banks of the nearby Tama River.

Soon after they were to organise a farewell party for me when I was due to leave Japan.

All this even though I was still struggling to speak their language properly.

It was a lesson in Japan's group relations, and not just in how to learn a language.

When you are outside the group in Japan you are on your own.

But if for some reason you can get inside, you can do so totally, even if you are a foreigner still struggling with the language.

The sense of group – the longing for belonging as someone once put it - can be over-powering.

Insider/outsider, or soto/uchi as it is also called. It is one of the clues to understanding Japan.

That experience, plus other happy memories of that year in Japan, would do much to bring me back a year or so later as a news correspondent.

And this time I really did have to get stuck into the language.

**The origins of the Japanese language are puzzling. It is labelled as a member of the North Asian Altaic language group, and an important clue has to be the grammar similarities with Korean, also labelled as Altaic.

And like Korean, it is a mix of Chinese-origin words and the indigenous language.

Many of the thousands of Chinese-origin words in Japanese have similar pronunciation and meaning as the many Chinese-origin words in Korean.

So it seems fairly safe to assume that much of the Chinese in Japanese came via Korea, though some also say that some words also came directly, from south China.

But before any Korean or Chinese influence could enter the language there had to be a native language - namely whatever language it was that the original Jomon era (BC 14,000- BC 300) peoples were using.

Some of these peoples are assumed to have arrived from North Asia to create the still-existing Ainu culture. The Japanese language contains some Ainu-origin words. But there are also words of clearly Austronesian origin imported from the Taiwan and other areas to the south.

The frequent use of repetitive words - dara-dara (slowly), tama-tama (occasionally or coincidentally) – is identical with what we see in Malay-Indonesian today.

But as with Chinese, we see little trace of that native language influencing the grammar of today's Japanese. The Korean grammar influence remains dominant.

So how to explain this linguistic cocktail? And why should Korean grammar serve as the basis of a language which has indigenous origins?

A clue could lie in way the native languages of Papua-New Guinea have been absorbed into English.

Despite protestations of Japanese nationalists to the contrary, it seems clear that from the turn of the millennium through to the first glimmerings of a distinctive Japanese culture around 700 AD Japan came under heavy East Asian cultural influence, first with the introduction of wet rice growing culture of the Yayoi period (300BC-250AD) and then the Korean-inspired Kofun (Tomb) period through to 550AD.

During this period it seems likely that Japan came to be ruled by a Korean origin elite under heavy Chinese cultural influence.

Almost every time they open one of those enormous Korean-style imperial tombs of the Kofun period they find more goods and paintings identical with those used by the China-Korean at the time - to the point where the authorities are reluctant to open too many since they confirm the Korean-Chinese origins of the Japanese imperial family.

To my untrained eye, some of the tomb frescos of court ladies are identical with Han dynasty decorations found as far away as the Gobi desert!

In short, while Japan almost certainly had a lower class still speaking its original native language of various origins (Ainu, Austronesian, East Asian Altaic) it was ruled by Chinese-culture people speaking Korean.

And as in Papua New Guinea the lower class had no choice but to embrace the language of that upper class, including grammar, while retaining some of the words and expressions of the native language.

In PNG the result is Pidgin English, a crude form of English now recognised as a language in its own right.

In Japan, the result was the Japanese language we know to today - an amended form of Korean with heavy Chinese inputs.

But do not say that too loudly. The nationalists will get upset.