Japanese has never come easily to me. Honestly, it’s a brutal language to learn.
But despite the countless challenges I’ve faced, I’ve devoted more than half of my life
to learning it. Sure, I’ve experienced the occasional outburst; I’ve sobbed because I
couldn’t understand a Japanese sentence, no matter how hard I tried to dissect it. I’ve
also cursed. A lot. The journey to fluency is tough. But I can’t imagine a life without
Japanese—and I don’t think I’d ever want to.
I took my first Japanese class when I was twelve. Initially, my interest in the
language was superficial; I loved anime and manga and thought Spanish was boring.
Over time, however, I developed a far deeper connection to Japanese culture. But
despite my growing passion for Japan, my career goals remained convoluted. I knew I
wanted to write and translate, but what exactly? On top of that, I was still a somewhat
taciturn conversationalist. And as for kanji, well, let’s just say kanji and I have a rocky
After studying Japanese for five years in junior high and high school, I entered
college and declared a double major in English and East Asian languages and cultures. I
received As in my Japanese classes, but I couldn’t shake the feeling I was an impostor.
After all, I wasn’t really good at Japanese; I was just good at doing homework. It was a
feeling I’d harbored for years.
And then things changed.
My junior year I studied abroad in Osaka for a semester, where I spoke
exclusively in Japanese with a wonderfully supportive host family. I also discovered my
passion for Japanese literature. Suddenly, life was making sense.
A year later, I received my bachelor’s degree and left for Japan again, this time
as an English teacher on the JET Program. Sitting alone in an old tatami room, in a
town where virtually nobody spoke English, I started to visualize a future for me: I was
going to improve my Japanese and steadily forge a path toward professional
translation. In the two years I lived in Kyushu, I devoted myself to the language and
culture around me. Occasionally, I attempted a Japanese novel but became frustrated
by the deluge of unfamiliar kanji. Still, I kept going. I took the JLPT N2 twice—failing
first by two points and then by one point—before finally passing it six months later. A
week ago I braved N1.
Here’s the thing: I am not a prodigy, nor am I particularly gifted at Japanese. As
much as I love the language, there will always be a kanji I’ll struggle to recall, a word I
can’t pronounce (hint: it starts with ? and ends with ?). What I am, however, is
passionate, creative, and ambitious. I’m a lover of stories and languages. Japanese is
the path I want to take, the career I strive for, the language I speak—and the life, no
matter how challenging, I intend to live.
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