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Fluency Is a Stupid Goal

Fluency Is a Stupid Goal 

By John Dinkel

Why Being ‘Fluent’ is a Stupid Goal 


When deciding what language course or book you are going to pick off the shelf or add to your cart on Amazon, the first thing people often look for is how quickly the course or textbook will help them become ‘fluent.’ Language learners are always trying to find the *best* way to learn a new language, and for whatever reason, people aim for this dream of becoming fluent in Japanese.


This goal in of itself sounds lovely. Imagine some nice-looking human being talking about you and how attractive you are, wishing that you speak said language (Japanese) only for you to turn around and speak to them in polite and fluid Nihongo. Or traveling the Japanese country-side intermingling with the locals, sharing in stories and wonderful food. Maybe even having people confuse you for a native speaker when chatting jovially over the phone, etc… etc… These are all wonderful goals and exciting/enviable experiences that you can do when you learn enough of the target language. But ‘fluency’ in the language, whatever that actually means, is an aimless and often fruitless pursuit. This is because there really isn’t a way to decide if someone is fluent or not.  


How do You Become ‘Fluent’

If I told you that after 1 year of living in Japan you could be fluent would you believe me? How about 10 years? What about 30 years—would you be fluent then? Maybe. The reason being is that time and fluency are not directly correlated. Just because someone has lived in one place for a long time does not mean that they are wonderful speakers of that language. In fact, I interviewed a gentleman on my podcast who runs a blog and translates science fiction. He has never visited Japan until this summer, yet he has wonderful spoken Japanese and he is a thought leader in Japanese translation. If time was the deciding factor then he wouldn’t be fluent. How then do you know if you are fluent? If you cannot get fluency through simply living in a country or spending time there, then there has to be some other way to decide if someone is fluent or not. I mean, if I am studying Japanese every day, when does the magic fluency card get bestowed upon me? Do you wake up one day magically fluent? Do you run a language race, memorize so many flashcards, or pass N1 of the JLPT ? Do Japanese angels descend from Mt. Fuji and crown you with the mantle of “Fluent Japanese Speaker-Sama?” As expected, tests, papers, and diplomas don’t equal proficiency. 


You can read 100 grammar books and follow 1,000,000 accounts on Instagram (follow me) and be no better than the day you started, if you never speak. Language learners of all levels aspire in one way or another to become good at Japanese. We see people who are ahead of us in a specific linguistic area and often see ourselves considerably further behind them. That does nothing for your linguistic ability. Fluency is like saying you are going to be a pro at basketball without points, another team, a league, a court, and a million exceptions to every rule. 

Setting Goals

Without a clear and easy to understand goal in mind, saying that you are fluent in Japanese is a phrase without meaning. I believe in most situations my Japanese ability would be sufficient to allow me to do most everything that I would want to do in Japan. However, if I needed to visit a mechanic I would have to idea how to express what was wrong with my car, even if I knew it in English—despite my language ability. What I’m getting at, is that in order for language learning and language teaching to move past its current constraints, we need to abandon meaningless jargon. The foremost among those hindering words and concepts is the bitter label of fluent—an arbitrary, and honestly, relative term. 


So how do we move forward? The first step would be to stop contrasting fluency with Japanese grammatical accuracy. For anyone who has ever actually learned a language, you will find there is a  difference between a good language learner and those who are the most grammatically accurate. In fact, they can fall on opposite sides of the ability spectrum. 


Every Interpreter and Translator that I have worked with or met (aside from bilingual people) has relayed to me in some fashion or another that the ability to speak like the target group is true fluency. Hence why interpreters and translators are taught, correctly I might add, to translate the meaning and not the objective vocabulary. 


The Problem In Universities and High Schools, we Pidgeon-Hole students into matching words and choosing the ‘correct’ verb tense. Yet we often neglect the true spoken forms and function. An example of this would be Japanese adjectives. Any traditional Japanese teacher worth his/her salt would tell you that using an exclamative adjective like ‘yabai’ should not be pronounced ‘yabee’ or ‘yabaa,’ yet ask as any proficient non-linguist in Japan and you will undoubtedly find these forms very frequently. This is not incorrect grammar, it is prescriptive linguistic elitism masquerading as objective grammatical accuracy. Because of the pervasive testing culture and the need to rank students, universities often run themselves away from actually helping people learn a language. 

Encouraging Mistakes


Where to go from here. After 10,000 mistakes you become fluent. That was the best language learning advice I ever received. It is the motto of the Manga Sensei, and what I believe to be the only way to encourage people to actually progress in the language. At Google software engineers are encouraged during their first 6 months to make as many mistakes as fast as possible to catch up with the programming that the rest of the team is working on. The American Air-Force is taught that in dog-fights they should not to worry as much about ammo preservation or initial shot accuracy, but should become experts at adjusting and getting on target before the enemy. In other words, make mistakes fast and self-correct. Google and the American Airforce both encourage mistakes, even push their members to make mistakes as quickly as possible. Why then do why hold up student’s bad work in front of the class to berate them due to their obvious incompetence in a completely new language? 


On the same token, LDS missionaries are spoken to exclusively in their target language at the Missionary Training Center, with locations all over the world. This intense training starts alongside religious study from day one. Then for the next 9-12 weeks, all while being religiously required to work, speak, and talk about religion in their new tongue immediately. These young 18 to 26-year-old young adults are vigorously encouraged to “open their mouth” before even stepping foot on the area of which they have been called to serve. They are even required to knock on people’s doors with little ability in the language. They are expected to make these mistakes in order to progress faster so they can do their job. 


Maybe the Mormons have something here. Instead of shaming and condemning failure, they expected and encouraged language students to make mistakes? What if fluency, whatever that means, was no longer the goal—but progress was? If you love a language and culture, I doubt that once the sacred fluency staff is granted to its honorary wielder that you spontaneously stopped studying and diving deep into your chosen culture. Instead, people passionate about a language, tend to be those who more profoundly drink from the cup of meaningful conversation and immersive experience. People who love a language don’t ever stop learning it. The final step that I can see is a reinvestment in goal setting and purpose-driven language study. As I have mentioned in a previous article on bad habits, if you want to achieve your purpose in Japanese or any other language your goals must properly align with it. 


What if we evaluated ourselves not on translations of vocabulary words, or how accurately you can quote arbitrary poetry, but on how well you—the language learner—could accomplish a task? In summary, if you have a plan or goal to become fluent you might want to step away from the amorphic and meta, and onto the solid ground of actual language learning. Set goals, try to speak like a native, expect progress not fluency, and strive to make mistakes.

Want to learn more Japanese? Check out our daily Japanese Learning Podcast! 

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Kabuki: A Resilient Traditional Art

Kabuki: A Resilient Traditional Art

By Jessica Hutchison

Kabuki (歌舞伎) 


Have you ever looked at anime and opera and wished someone would combine them into one form of entertainment? Well, I have good news for you. They already did. About 400 years ago. A lot of people have heard of kabuki. It’s become synonymous with Japan, which makes sense because it is a Japanese tradition, but it is also more popular in media than other iconic forms of Japanese drama (we’ll talk about noh and bunraku later). Kabuki (歌舞伎) is a type of Japanese stage performance that started in the early 17th Century. A lot about kabuki has changed over the years, but a lot hasn’t. This is pretty surprising considering the root of this traditional art and all the cultural changes Japan experienced in the past few centuries. So let’s take a look at one of Japan’s most iconic forms of entertainment.


A Very Brief History 

Knowing the history of a topic like kabuki can really help you understand why it is the way it is. A lot of tradition in kabuki comes from the very beginning. Kabuki was started by women. Well, one woman in particular. Izumi no Okuni started pulling together groups of women to dance in the riverbed in Kyoto in 1603. They would perform dances and act out dramas, and they quickly gained popularity. Their popularity could have stemmed from the fact that many of them were prostitutes. If you know anything about the government at the time, the Tokugawa Shogunate, you know they were incredibly strict. They were all about censorship and shutting down any sort of illicit behavior, so they forbade women from performing in these early kabuki plays.  


After that, the performers changed from women to young boys. People still enjoyed watching boys dance and perform, as they had the same femininity and grace as the ladies. They also enjoyed paying for their services afterwards, just as they did for the women. Once the government found out the boys were prostitutes as well, they banned their performances as well.  The art was eventually picked up by adult men. Even though the men would also engage in questionable behavior with audience members who were willing to pay a pretty penny, the government apparently cared less because they were men. This is how kabuki was changed from being all female casts to all male.  

Knowing the Audience

Kabuki was always meant for the commoners. It never had to compete with Noh plays (the ones with the creepy masks), because those were generally thought of as a higher art to be enjoyed by the aristocrats. It’s only real competition was bunraku (puppet theatre), and honestly, it always lost. People absolutely adored bunraku plays, and many plays started with puppets before they were transferred to the kabuki stage. Isn’t it interesting that kabuki almost completely overshadows bunraku now, despite the fact bunraku was more popular? Funny how these things work.  


Because the stories were written for commoners, many of the plots focus on commoners or places they would be familiar with, such as the red light district. Occasionally, you’ll get the classic stories like those from The Tale of the Heike, or great stories of bravery and loyalty like Chūshingura. Stories that would entertain the everyday cityfolk.  These commoner roots also show in the costume design of kabuki plays. The people putting on these plays were, obviously, actors. At this time, actors were basically outcasts in society. Japanese society had a rigid class system, and your class would determine most things about your lifestyle: where you could live, where you could go, and what you could buy, to name a few. Certain products, including certain types of fabric, were only available to certain classes. So if a play had a samurai lord in it, there would be no way a kabuki actor could purchase the proper material to make a samurai lord costume. They had to show rank in a different way. So they made the higher ranking characters have more gaudy, extravagant clothes. 


The Rapid Westernization of the 20th Century

As you learn more about Japanese history, you’ll learn about the major cultural shift that happened at the turn of the century. This actually ended up being a good thing for kabuki. Japan was trying to modernize (read here “westernize”), and a lot of foreign influence was coming into the country. Considering they had spent the last 150 years cut off from the Western world, it was a lot to take in. A lot of people turned back to their Japanese roots in an attempt to keep their traditions and not have them washed away in this flood of new ideas. During this time, kabuki started becoming more of an upper class sort of entertainment. This is despite the fact that most performances took place in the red light district thirty years prior. People turned to it as a traditional Japanese art, and it gained popularity.  


After World War II, kabuki began to really struggle. During the American occupation, a lot of Japanese tradition was pushed aside in favor of adopting Western ideals. That worked great for the economy, but less so for kabuki. It’s only been in the last few decades that kabuki has regained popularity, and part of that comes from foreign interest in an exotic art. What Makes Kabuki So Cool? Basically everything. I love watching kabuki, and here are a few reasons why.   


The Costumes I already talked a little about how gaudy the costumes can be, but honestly, they are really fun. There’s a bit of a misconception (thanks to a certain popular film with a lovable white balloon robot) that kabuki actors use masks. That’s actually a tradition of noh plays. But the marks on a “kabuki” mask are what define them as “kabuki.” Each character type has a specific way of doing their makeup, and the makeup is all done by the actors themselves. As they learn and train to become actors, they also learn the different makeup patterns so they can transform themselves into a warrior, a villain, or even a princess. The most iconic is the red streaks worn by many warrior protagonists.   


The clothes are also very fun to see. In one play, a character’s traditional nature was shown by putting him Heian Period court clothes. They were incredibly impractical considering he was guarding a mountain pass, but they certainly got his rank across. It’s also fun to see traditional courtesan outfits, just because they are so flashy and extravagant. You’ll also see great wigs, such as the one worn by the lion spirit in Kagamijishi. Every show has fantastic costume design.

You Must Watch It 


My favorite parts of kabuki are the quick changes. Some actors are famous for being able to change costumes in literally seconds. In one show, the main actor portrays ten different characters and changes costumes 47 times, with many of those being onstage quick changes. The StoriesA lot of kabuki stories come from classic literature. If you go see a play, it’s important to know the story beforehand, or you may be very confused. It’s important to note here that kabuki is performed in the same Japanese as it was in the Tokugawa Period. You may think this is like Shakespearean English, and you’ll be okay if you know Japanese well enough. Really, it’s more like Chaucer English. Speaking as a learner of Japanese for over six years, I can usually only catch a few bits and pieces of the dialogue. Even native speakers will follow along with the story in the program provided.   


It’s good to know the stories not just to follow along, but because they are really good stories. You can experience so many emotions while watching a kabuki play. You can feel the tension and excitement as the forty-seven rōnin finally corner the man who killed their lord. You can feel the heartbreak and pain as Oiwa realizes she has been poisoned. You can feel the relief as Benkei and Yoshitsune finally manage to make it past the mountain guards. These are not light stories, and sometimes you just need a nice drama. Kabuki is definitely a good choice for that.   


The Fight Scenes Along with the actual stories, the fight scenes are amazing. They have fun sound effects, such as hitting wood blocks to make the sounds of swords hitting. The fights are definitely stylized, so if you’re into realistic stage combat, you will be disappointed. But this is where the acrobatics come in. Warriors will perform all sorts of backflips and rolls. Sometimes they even fly. I even saw a play where one actor threw a sword about thirty feet over the audience and another actor on stage caught it. It’s not realistic, but it sure is fun.   


The Actors

If you’re a movie buff, or you have a friend who is one, you know the names of most of the actors in Hollywood off the top of your head. American actors can get pretty high up on the totem pole of fame, but I doubt any of them have been declared Living National Treasures. In Japan, a Living National Treasure is someone who has done much to preserve the traditional culture of Japan. There are quite a few kabuki actors on that list (eight, currently). Since kabuki has regained its popularity recently, and is exclusively Japanese, these actors, and all kabuki actors, work hard to maintain the traditions of the art.   


There are a few main families that carry on the kabuki tradition. Becoming an actor is a bit of a process. Sons born into a kabuki family begin their training at a young age. If there are no sons who want to go into kabuki, the families will sometimes adopt someone in to carry on the tradition. Once the actor is trained and ready to debut, he will pick a name for himself. The name they pick usually goes along with the type of actor they want to be (such as onnagata). This leads to actors having names like Bandō Tamasaburō V. There wasn’t necessarily a string of Bandō Tamasaburōs (in fact the fifth was adopted into the family), he was just the fifth actor to take the name.   


Onnagata (女形) 

Since I mentioned onnagata, and you might have been wondering about perhaps the most iconic part of kabuki, let’s talk about them. Onnagata (女形) are men who portray women in kabuki. They are famous for being elegant and graceful. Women liked onnagata because they seemed to really understand how women felt, and men liked them because they were pretty. Everybody wins.   


The idea of men portraying women in performances is not inherently Japanese—China has their equivalent of onnagata. But one idea that seems to permeate many East Asian cultures is the appeal of feminine beauty in men. This can be seen in Japanese media (I mean, have you seen how pretty some of those anime boys are?), and in the style choices of quite a few young men in Japan. This is one part of kabuki that truly is unique, and scholars have said it is one of the aspects of kabuki that defines it and sets it apart. In ConclusionIf you’re in Japan, and you have a chance to see a kabuki play, take it. Learn the story before you go, but please go. Kabuki is fun and energetic and interesting. You’ll never experience anything like it. If you aren’t in Japan, you can still check out some shows. 


In the 80s, there was a whole film series made of famous plays with English commentary to help you follow along. If you’re lucky, your library might have a couple of them. Kabuki is a great way to experience traditional Japanese culture. It’s one of the few arts that actually became more dedicated to tradition through the major cultural changes in recent Japanese history. You’re not going to find anything like it anywhere else in the world. Also, they just made one based on One Piece. If that doesn’t sell it to you, I don’t know what else will.  

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Back To School

Take a Bow

By Jessica Hutchison

life as a Japanese student

Ever wonder what life as a Japanese student & Japanse school is like? Me too. I’ve never been one, but I’ve heard about it from a lot of friends. Today I’ll tell you about it, at least, from secondhand experience. Obviously, not every student in Japan has the same experience in school. But it’s also not quite how it seems in that shoujo manga you read in high school. School in Japan is pretty different from what you might be used to if you live in the U.S. (or anywhere that isn’t Japan, really). A cool thing to keep in mind is that Japan’s school system is consistently ranked as one of the top in the world. I just checked and the first list I saw had it as number two under South Korea. So what is this incredibly effective education system like for its students? 


The Basics

The Japanese school year goes from April to March. There is summer break in August and winter break around New Year’s with a few other holidays, but Japanese kids attend a lot of school. They can attend school up to 250 days a year (Americans do about 180). The grades are divided into three major blocks, similar to the U.S. Elementary school is six years, middle school is three, and high school is three. College is just about the same as anywhere else in the world, with four year bachelor’s degrees and higher degrees offered. 


Another easily recognized part of the Japanese school system is the uniform. Most middle and high schools require students to wear uniforms. When in uniform, students are expected to act a certain way, as they are seen as representing the school. Some schools can be pretty strict on what students are not allowed to do while in uniform. This doesn’t stop a lot of kids though. I still remember seeing some of the bolder girls hitching up their skirts super high (they are usually knee length), and some boys eating as they walk down the street (this is really rude in Japan). Elementary kids are easy to spot even without uniforms. The first year kids usually can be seen in big groups with adorable yellow hats. A lot of elementary students are also required to carry the same type of backpack, which are normally color-coded for boys and girls. School can be close enough to walk to, but for many older students, it requires a commute.


I once talked to a girl who had an hour and a half commute each way when going to school. There’s not really school buses, unless you count the ridiculously cute ones shaped like pandas and puppies, but those are only for the young children. Many students take public transportation. I’ve even heard of some who would have to commute so far to school, their parents rent them an apartment closer instead. When students arrive at school, they exchange their shoes for slippers that they only wear in the school building. This follows with the Japanese custom of removing your shoes before you step inside. 

Entrance Exams

You might wonder why a student would have to commute so far to school. For private schools and most high schools, entrance exams are required. A better score will get you into a better school, and that improves your chances of finding a good career. The high school you attend is almost as important as the college you attend, and it can make a big difference in whether or not a college or job will be interested in you. Sometimes students will make it into fairly prestigious high schools that are very far away from where they live. They would rather make the commute than give up the opportunity to go to a better school, so they ride the train and the bus to go. Everyone I talked to hated these entrance exams. It’s a lot of pressure to put on really young kids (we’re talking middle schoolers, here). The college entrance exams are just as bad. Kids spend hours and hours every week to prepare for them, because the highly ranked universities can be very competitive. But from what I heard, if you got into a top university in Japan, you were set for life. I guess it’s a lot of pressure at a young age, but it can help them figure out their lives and find success very early on. 


The Daily Lives of High Schoolers

Most of my friends were either in high school or fresh out when I asked them about school. And from what I can tell, high school is pretty intense in Japan. As is true with most secondary educations, the curriculum is fairly rigorous. Students have several classes during the day, including the usual subjects like math and history. They also take English, which has given many foreigners the impression that all Japanese people speak English. This isn’t quite true. While there are many who are more than proficient with English, most Japanese people remember English just about as well as Americans remember their high school Spanish classes. They can say “Hello” and “This is a pen,” and that’s usually about it. 


After classes, most high schoolers participate in extracurricular activities. Sports are fairly popular (especially baseball—boy do they love baseball), as are music groups and other clubs. While club activities might be the end of the day for many, some students will continue on to cram school in the evening. Cram school is to help students study and prepare for entrance exams. It’s almost like tutoring, but a little less personal. Most students return home after dark and continue to study for a couple more hours before going to sleep and starting the cycle over again. 


Free time

This is very limited in high school, and some schools will go as far as forbidding their students from dating or getting jobs while they are in school so they can focus on their studies. From what I can tell, that’s pretty extreme, but it isn’t unheard of. High school sounds pretty scary from an American perspective, but there’s a reason Japan has one of the highest ranked education systems in the world. Japanese people are very intelligent, and the level of discipline they reach with their school system is something incredible. Obviously, no education system is perfect, and Japan still has its flaws. This system probably works great for some students and not so great for others, but isn’t that always how school is? 


The education system is an important part of any culture, and understanding Japan’s schools can help us understand more about the Japanese people. If you want to learn more about Japanese culture (and work on improving your Japanese as our American school year starts up here) be sure to check out our daily podcast! 


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Learn Japanese Through Anime or Manga

Learn Japanese Through Anime

By John Dinkel

Why do Japanese people bow so much? 


While I would love if people learned Japanese through our comic, this article will hopefully give you a couple more help and direction in learning the best language in the world. Manga, or Japanese comic books used to be part of a deep nerd culture. Only the “Otaku” would watch series such as Naruto, Inuyasha and Fruits Basket. 


With the emergence and growth of Japanese culture and maybe partially due to the power of manga and anime, learning Japanese is now more on the minds of language learners more than ever. I mean who in their right mind would not want to speak the same language as their heroes and heroines? I know I always wanted to watch the original Power Rangers and read Bakuman in its original language. Maybe even make sense of that odd naming scene in the beginning of the first book. 


How to Start

If you want to learn Japanese and use Manga or Anime, there are a number of things you should think about. The first of which is what manga or anime do you want to learn through? Why does this matter? Unless you actually want to speak like Zaraki Kenpachi or Naruto I would shy away from things that will only confuse you, and the people that will hear you speaking. Make sure to pick something that is close enough to reality, and close enough to normal conversation so that you don’t sound too odd. I mean image who you would sound if you learned Japanese by learning to speak from John Wayne or Cardi B? Here are a few manga that I recommend that are really close to real life.  

  • Silver Spoon
  • Yotsuba
  • Bakuman (my personal favorite)
  • Oishinbo
  • Darker Than Black And basically anything in the Nichijou category is really safe. 


While you can try something a little more edgy, like Boku no Hero Academia or Shaman King, a lot of the vocabulary words aren’t going to help you in the long run. Just make sure to used a small amount of common sense when choosing a title. 


Another thing to take into consideration is picking something that is you level. Shooting too far out of you language level will only limit what you will be learning. Try to read thing that you understand 75% or more of the vocabulary.Thing to pick up on Vocabulary The first and easiest thing to do when listening or reading Manga/Anime is to pick out vocabulary words. When you hear or read you don’t know make a note and then decide if the word is actually something that you use. An easy way to think if you will use it or not, think if you have used it in your past week, if not, put it away for a later date.Another key to learning vocabulary is making sure to use it within 24 hours. Kemushi-chan the youtuber is famous for this wonderful rule. Make sure you can use the new word, potentially around native speakers, within a 24 hour window. 


Subtitles. We all need them, and at the same time quietly hate them. While the euphoria of being able to watch Parasite and interpret for my wife was a fun experience, making the most of subtitles can be tricky. This is often because translators often translate the meaning of the sentence rather than the direct translation. Take a word like くそ which can be translated at $h!t or crap. I have even heard it being used as S0B or the f-bomb. However, that translation is relative to the translator. They often take many liberties which can be troubling, so first make sure you look up the word or grammar point.


A couple sources to do that are sites like & Sites like these can tell you the many ways something can be used and said. When you think “How did they say that” it is a good rule of thumb and try using it right away. Contractions/SlangSomething awesome about Manga and Anime, is you sometimes get how Japanese people actually sound as opposed to how textbooks make them sound. For example, when learning how to use ‘ing’ in Japanese it is often taught as Baseて+いる, however, it is often spoken as Baseて+る; cutting out the い entirely. This is something that you would only get from reading manga or talking to a native and being really good at listening. This is important to know and can make you sound a lot better when you learn how Japanese people actually say them. 



Shadowing: This may be the common method of learning Japanese though Anime. Take a character whom you like from a anime or even J-Drama (Jin is amazing) and practice imitating them. A great way to do this is try repeating what the person is saying immediately after they say it in the exact same way. I used to heavily imitate a roommate of mine until I could fool people over the phone. Even now I listen to people whom I like the sound of until I can voice their way of speaking. This is great for intonation and learning where to place emphasis. 


Read and Repeat: Go through a book and highlight everything word you don’t know, but only look up the words that you may have many gaps in what you are reading, and if a word pops up more that 3-5 times go ahead and look up the word. Ignore all other words. Then after reading that section re-read the section or book and see how much you can understand. Then, read the section again after filling in all words you didn’t know. You will find your brain is able to take in something new each time you read it. This is great with dense wordy manga like DeathNote or even Full Metal Alchemist. I commonly do it with books. A great place to start with that is My Individualism by Souseki if you are really into that kind of thing. 


The Act: Read the book out-loud and then make voices for each person. Really. This method is used by actors and many language learners. Then after you feel you have a scene down read it with a native speaker. Focus on what/how they say it and if possible record you reading aloud. This will force you to improve and help you learn with something called “full body response” which helps you learn words faster. While you may feel kinda silly it is a legit method that I have personally used. 


Dual Reading: Pick a common manga or Anime and become the interpreter or translator. When I worked as an interpreter we would often listen to Ted Talks (Takafumi Horie is awesome) and practice simultaneous interpretation. One interpreter would listen, while the other interpreted. After 20 minutes we would switch and give the other one notes which consisted of 2 good points, a Vocab list, and 1 major improvement.




In the same fashion, many language learner find it very helpful to translate the content they are reading. To do this, take a common manga or anime like One Piece and write on a piece of paper the translation of everything on the page. For any words you don’t know mark an X in their place and translate the chapter or page. Then open the English or native language text and see how a professional did this. I recommend a widely accepted translation of a particular text. The more popular the better. That way you get a really nice clear translation. The more obscure, the worse less likely you are to get a good translation. Once you see how you measured up against a professional, take note of what you wanted to learn, add it to your daily use list, and then switch. Take the native language text and translate it into Japanese. See if you can articulate yourself into speaking like that particular character. You will find this method very stressful and labor intensive, but it is also a great way to mold your mind to start thinking in Japanese. While these are the main methods, there are many other methodologies for learning through manga and anime, the biggest thing is to actually learn and enjoy it. 


Language learning isn’t and should never be limited to the classroom. Japanese is much bigger than any stupid textbook but is something that happens through life and learning. Make sure you use what you love and learn. Japanese is a wonderful and lovely language that has connected me to fantastic people and dear friends. It has literally changed my life. If you want to really learn a language you need to try and not be afraid of failure. You are going to make mistakes, but those pitfalls and slips are the stepping stones to true language acquisition.  


Want to learn more Japanese? Check out our Weekly Comic

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Ukiyo: The Floating World


By Jessica Hutchison

The Floating World? 

 As you look more into Japanese history, especially the Tokugawa Period (1600-1868), you will quickly come across a lot of woodblock prints. These are generally referred to as ukiyo-e (浮世絵), or pictures of the “floating world.” So what is the “floating world?” That’s what I’m here to explain today. 


What The Word Means 

I’ve already said that ukiyo (浮世) is generally translated as “floating world,” but there’s a bit more to it than that. There’s actually a Buddhist term that is a homonym (it is written differently, but is pronounced the same), that is used in a very Buddhist sense. It is used in the phrase ukiyo hanare (浮き世離れ), which can be translated as “free from worldliness.” This is a huge idea in Buddhism, as the goal in this religion is to become unattached. Attachment leads to suffering, so it’s better the separate yourself from all attachment to reach enlightenment. 


The word ukiyo is actually kind of making fun of this idea. Ukiyo generally referred to the entertainment and pleasure districts in cities. This is where one would go to find something to drink and spend some time with the prostitutes. Considering the Buddhist term talking about separating oneself from worldliness, this place was pretty worldly. But the term still makes these districts seem very distinct, and we’ll get back to that in a bit. 


Some History

First, we should go over a bit of history to understand these red light districts a bit more. The Tokugawa Shogunate (or the bakufu(幕府), as everyone calls that government) was well-known for being incredibly strict. Society at the time had a very rigid structure. Samurai were at the top, of course. Then people were ranked in this order: peasant, artisan, merchant. (We always remembered it with the word SPAM) If this order is confusing, notice how the people at the top are people who make things. 


  • Samurai are government officials and make laws. 
  • Peasants make food. 
  • Artisans make things, but they have to use what someone else has already made. 
  • Merchants only sell. 


They contribute nothing to society, so they are at the bottom. Now imagine where an entertainer would fall in this hierarchy. I’ll tell you. They don’t. People like actors and prostitutes weren’t even on the social structure. The government did not like them. The bakufu ended up being incredibly strict with people of this status, and you can see it with the censorship of many bunraku and kabuki plays. The government also didn’t want prostitutes wandering around wherever they wanted, so they were confined to specific pleasure quarters. This kind of bottled all of them up into one place, which adds to the idea of these areas being a separate world. The most famous of these quarters was Yoshiwara (close to present day Asakusa in Tokyo), with large districts in other major cities like Osaka and Kyoto. 

Different Forms of Art

The “floating world” is probably most famous for being depicted in woodblock prints. There were also paintings, but it was mostly prints, ukiyo-e. Prints were very popular at the time, as they could be sold to the masses. Even if the print you wanted was by one of the incredibly famous painters, you could still get it for a reasonable price because it was not the original copy. These woodblock prints would depict famous kabuki actors, geisha, or even just scenes of city life (usually with beautiful girls involved), and they were very popular. If you’ve seen a woodblock print that is more of a city scene, you’ve seen what is called ukiyo-e (浮世絵), or a picture of the “floating world.” Some of these paintings can become more explicit, but a great number of them aren’t. I’ve heard a lot of people who learn about ukiyo-e recently think they are all like this, but they aren’t. The genre is much wider than that. The “floating world” was also depicted in writing. 


One of the most famous authors was Saikaku, who is known for his satire. He wrote about different people associated with these pleasure quarters. He liked to make absurd social commentaries through his writing, and using satire was a way he avoiding being censored by the bakufu. There were also depictions of the “floating world” in bunraku (文楽) and kabuki (歌舞伎)plays. Many of these stories were centered around men who visited brothels or fell in love with courtesans. Bunraku and kabuki plays were written for the common people, who were the ones visiting this district. It’s not surprising to see stories centered around that part of the city.   


The whole idea of the “floating world” is that of illusion. When one goes to these different quarters, they enter into another world. It’s a way to escape their real life and spend time not being judged by the people around them. Of course, there’s the illusion that the beautiful woman they are paying to spend time with actually loves them. But the “floating world” can kind of be compared to escapism. The people who frequented these areas the most were the chōnin (町人) or the artisans and merchants. City life had to be somewhat mundane, and many marriages at the time were arranged for financial or social gain. 


The “floating world” was a place they could go to ignore life for a little bit. And, from what I can tell, it was actually kind of expected for most men. Even samurai who were not allowed to go to places like that would still don a disguise and frequent it. So when you find a woodblock print of a city scene to look at, remember that it probably isn’t a good depiction of reality. But it is a good depiction of where people wanted to go to escape their normal lives.If you’d like to learn more about Japanese history (including the Tokugawa Period), check out my article Japanese History in About Six Minutes. Also be sure to check out our daily podcast to help improve your Japanese. 


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