I made it through graduate finals at Oxford University at the start of summer 2019. My reward? A scholarship to study at Japan’s foremost Japanese language center.
The course is modeled on the United States college system yet conducted entirely in Japanese — eigo (English), of course, being kinshi (forbidden). The experience of “otherness” twice removed has, for one of the only Brits on the course, been intriguing, to say the least.
Yet I have loved every minute of it. Everything runs so smoothly, every aspect of the learning program is executed with a combination of stereotypical Japanese efficiency and American panache. Most importantly, I finally — finally! — feel as though I’m really getting somewhere with my Japanese.
Ahh, the Japanese. 1,351 kanji — plus compounds! — and counting in just over five months. We study undergraduate-level courses conducted entirely in Japanese, covering topics as diverse in range as modern Japanese literature, contemporary history, constitutional law, and the Japanese business world. Our teachers each have their own specific fields of interest, alongside their role as language practitioners, and they pull no punches in their approach to imparting knowledge at the advanced language level. Their objective: to help us attain a level of fluency conducive to conducting research entirely in Japanese.
For me, this objective translates into the ability to enter the National Diet Library in Tokyo’s Chiyoda-ku with the competency to request my desired documents in the smoothest of smooth Japanese. I want to be able to print my copies, sit down, and comfortably read — preferably at a speed at least approaching what I might consider optimal in my native English.
I know that, for a number of my fellow students, this take on the overall objective is very much shared. The majority of our cohort is drawn from various big-name U.S. universities. A sizable chunk of my fellow Japanese strugglers — soon to be masters! — are already published academics back home.
The ability to consume, understand, and then assess large quantities of data and assorted other bits of information at break-neck speed, could make the difference between a successful PhD defense and a flop, an article published in a major Japan-related journal and one not. The skills we are currently developing are thus of the utmost importance for the smooth running of our future careers. And the school has produced a number of top academics in top of the top academic positions.
Mastering the Nuances
For other members of the cohort, interpretation of the school’s objective is one more immediately practicable — to parlay the advanced language skills they develop across the year into a career in translation, or interpreting, or both. The opportunities afforded by the advent of the Olympics right after graduation are an obvious and inviting boon for anyone with such ambitions.
I suspect, however, that, at heart, what drives all of us at the school is the desire to get over that initial fear of advanced conversational Japanese. Familiar, I am sure — and I’m willing to challenge anyone who claims otherwise! — to anyone who has struggled along with Japanese over a period of years without ever quite mastering its nuances.
This is the terror of knowing, in certain high-pressure situations, that the conversation is about to head your way and that an explanation of your research or professional interests is necessary for the impending scrutiny of your assembled audience. For all the brilliance of the Japanese language provision I received while at Oxford, there is inarguably nothing like putting all that practice into play, in real time, directly on the ground.
We are getting there, my fellow students and I. Day by day, I feel my own confidence improving and I can see the confidence of others improving in parallel to my own. It is certainly a liberating experience, and one that I am savoring.
Author: Will Fee