Learning Japanese at 50: Small Steps to Fruition

My decision to learn Japanese was a gradual one and based on that whole series of problems I had learning Tibetan and Chinese.  I felt like I had a toe hold into the language, a means of finding common ground.  I grabbed some apps to learn the Hiragana, Kanji, and Katakana.  As I mentioned before, the apps helped drill the sound and meaning of the characters and words.  I started with hiragana and very quickly mastered the entire set of hjiragana, about 46, in about 2 days!  Accomplishment!  Success!  Victory!  Let’s move on to Katakana….Katakana is another writing system used for foreign loan words from all over.  Similar to the hiragana, the Katakana has sharp edges and visually shows the reader that these loans words are clearly NOT as elegant at the native language.  Two days later 100% success!  Woot!  What’s next!?

Writing!  I’m going to write down the hiragana and katakana! I downloaded forms for writing Japanese script, followed some of the rules for writing, and then began writing everything I remembered.  In just a few months I would be conversant!

That’s when, as some folks say, the rubber meets the road.  I sat down at a desk in my classroom between classes and started to write what I remembered….a few, a VERY few number of characters came to mind….but I could NOT remember them all, nor could I remember most…in fact, I could not associate sounds with characters in the vast majority of cases.

I immediately went back to the apps and ACED the study again.  What was up?  Why couldn’t I write the characters I knew from sight?  What was happening here?  I played around with this problem for a while.  When I was in school, I had a photographic memory; I could take a mental picture of a reading or a math problem and remember exactly what it looked like or remember the words precisely. The problem was I could not remember how to SOLVE the problem…I only remembered the formula…not the function.  Visually, I could recall the sounds and characters in the app but could not write the characters on paper.  What was this all about?

I’m not a neuroscientist, obviously, but even I could see that I had to come up with another way of learning the character systems.

On Twitter I saw an article that talked about ways to learn a language when you are older.  In a nutshell, learning a language when you are older requires many different modalities: ways of learning.  A learner cannot take one or two approaches; the learner has to use every available option to be successful at understanding concepts in a another tongue.  Kill and drill, learning through repetition, was one way; another was exposing yourself to many other sources for the language.

So, I grabbed some Japanese music, downloaded lyrics in hiragana and romanji, and began to just listen.  Have you ever changed your iTunes account settings to listen to music from another country?  It’s really wonderful.  I switched my iTunes account to Japan; used another email address to associate the account, and then listened to clips of songs in every genre of Japanese music.  Much of it, on iTunes, is J-Pop, a kind of manicured, stylized sound consistent across groups, musicians, and singers.  Backing strings, many ballad-like compositions. I wondered if one person wrote songs for these groups?

Then I stumbled on one band: Kobukuro.  These two men sang together on the streets of Tokyo, were discovered, and became a sensation.  I bought an iTunes gift card from a Japanese vendor and downloaded an album….the songs were catchy, and, when the layers of strings were stripped away, the voices and music was fantastic.  I listened over and over again to tsubomi.  At first, the song sounded like a jumble of words, especially when the singer moved faster during the chorus.  In certain moments, I felt like I would never understand the individual words…there was one point in which I felt like I would never “get” the language.

Here is the first stanza in kanji and hiragana:

涙 こぼしても



だから あなたの涙を僕は知らない

In romanji:

Namida koboshitemo

ase ni mamireta egao no naka ja

daremo kizuite wa kurenai

dakara anata no namida wo boku wa shiranai


When your tears fall, they merely blend into your smile covered in sweat,
that nobody will be able to notice.
For this reason, I do not ever know about your tears.

Yep. I listened over and over again…I mimicked the words, I sang the song, in Japanese, out loud…I copied the sounds.  And it to me; layers.  In my mind, I reasoned, I’m laying down the layers of sound as a way to integrate the language into my mind so that I wouldn’t be thrown off by some peculiar vocalization.  I could hear the words even though I did not know what they meant or were.  I’m not sure when the song started to lock into my long term memory, but ehen it did, I could sing without the song playing.  I really felt a sense of accomplishment.  I heard each word sung in the song…something that is hard when listening to English language songs…all of those songs that people (like me) mishear the lyrics: forever when my daughters listened to Miley Cyrus “Wrecking Ball”  I thought the lyric was, “I came in like a Rainbow….”  Imagine my surprise when I figured out the “wrecking ball”…not quite the same tone.

The other thing I started to notice about my learning was my mind maxing out; basically reaching the point of saturation.  I realized that in some moments I could not learn anything more.  I noticed the moment when my mind went blank and could not absorb more information.  I started to recognize the signs: my eyes starting to blur, my mind distracted, my attention span short.  Depending on the day, my attention was sometimes long (an hour and a  ½) or short (20 minutes)…sometimes I could not even start the practice.

I kept poking around for some obvious way to increase retention.  The kill and drill sometimes worked, but most often I remembered ideas based on context; reading a word over and over in a lesson.  Like hajimemashite; a kind of greeting….”Hi, my name is” kind of greeting.

In that process of searching for a method to my madness, I decided to take the plunge and purchase an online account for Rosetta Stone.  The language program has taken its fair share of hits over methodology and I can see the various difficulties in using just this one approach.

The thing that Rosetta Stone did, however, is help me jump right into learning the language.  It felt good to remember words and ideas using their system of the language and pictures without supporting English prompts…the system IS emersive.  The problem I encountered was in some places, I could not figure out what they wanted me to learn….seriously, sometimes the sentences and pictures did not match up.  Where to go? How to find the path?

Learning Japanese at 50: Looking at the Past

Politically and socially, Japanese leaders adopted Chinese political structure by placing the emperor, already considered a god, into the center of politics and governance.  To represent that ideal, a great capital was established in the model of Chang’an…a formal design of the city of Nara that placed at the north, central part of the city the emperor’s palace.

A View of the city from Chang’an Map

More importantly, the emperor and the court around the emperor adopted Chinese language.  One of the more brilliant language adoptions in the world happened in Nara Japan.  Japanese scholars took Chinese characters, kanji, and learned the spoken word associated with the character.  Then, the Japanese associated spoken Japanese words that they associated with the Chinese characters.

Then, these scholars taught court officials and other folks associated with the court how to read and write these characters.  The transformation was something to behold; writing exploded in the city.  Historians, poets, court officials, all wrote extensively about Japanese history, culture, the value of products, and life in the court.  Two important documents of history and culture included the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki.  These first national histories told the story of Japan’s origins from the religious, legendary past through the Nara period.   Also, the Man’yoshu was an anthology of poems collected and published in a single, handwritten source.

Nara City Map

Chinese written language was both a practical development in Japan, having a consistent writing system useful to governments and officials, and a means of communicating important ideas from History to Poetry to architecture.  As you can imagine however, the language was an awkward fit for spoken Japanese.  Listen to a Chinese sentence and then listen to a Japanese one.  The differences in spoken language are striking as are the significant differences in grammar and sentence structure.  Making Chinese hanyu fit into the Japanese was an act of sheer will to make the fit work.  The fit was clearly awkward.

After years of working with the Chinese, a group of women in the Imperial court developed a writing system that extracted the basic structure of Chinese characters and simplified them into a very elegant written language.  These characters were closely aligned with the sounds of Japanese language….much in the way that Roman letters are associated with a sound, these new characters represented a sound, or actually a set of sounds, that formed the spoken language in written form.  These characters, called hiragana, were a way for women, who were not allowed to study language, to communicate through an alternative system that more closely represented the spoken Japanese.  Hiragana, literally meaning “simple”.

Folks who want to learn Japanese often began, like I did, to study the hiragana.  At times, during my study, I often just stopped and wondered about the people who developed the writing system.  These women, who realized that the Chinese written system was an awkward fit, came up with a way to represent Japanese language that allowed someone to voice the language by learning the written syllable or spoken word.  Incredible.  Have you ever created a writing system? One that represented sound?  Why not try it?

When I started learning Japanese, I mean really learning Japanese, I started with hiragana.  My iPhone became my best language friend.  I downloaded a series of apps and tried each one…first the free ones (usually not very good at helping with the kind of drill and memorization necessary to remember the sounds and characters) until I settled on Japanese!.  This app includes a clever method for remembering the sounds as characters by randomly quizzing you on the sounds once you begin to learn them.

Learning Japanese is a lesson in patience.  Not patience with the language but with yourself.  You must abandon traditional measures of success; in fact, you have to abandon the success model of learning entirely.  The whole idea of accomplishment is the idea that once achieved, you have accomplished, known, possessed some knowledge.  Like a product that you developed on your own and can now show everyone how great that thing is.

Studying Japanese cannot be a success-focused type of study.  Learning Japanese is a layering process.  In some ways like creating a structure, a scaffolding to support your next stage of understanding and development.  In 2006, visiting Shanghai in March I saw these massive high rise buildings surrounded by bamboo scaffolding, wrapped around the growing structure.  I sometimes think of those bamboo structures: they are flexible, organic, and move together, linked by rope, and wood to surround a edifice.  Learning Japanese is very much like that; a flexible support for your study of the language, a organic artiface as a means of holding up your tenuous language building.

One first step to learning Japanese is to practice those hiragana and to grasp the sounds.  Interestingly, the sounds are familiar to English-speakers.  The sounds are similar enough that learning the hiragana characters becomes a kind of memory game associating the characters to the sound….a sound you may have heard before.

In fact, I think that is why I settled on Japanese over Mandarin and Tibetan.  In Japanese, I found a familiar set of sounds that were not in Mandarin.  Mandarin, a tonal language, puts the sound of the syllable at the center of language….a very slight deviation from the correct rising, falling, rising and falling, or neutral sound and the word is completely different.  The famous example of this is the sound ma.  Spoken one way ma means horse, in another ant, in another number, all just based on inflection!

While there IS inflection in Japanese (more on that later), the system is much more restrained and, from my perspective, the rules easier to manage.

Again, why did I choose Japanese as my language to learn?  A complicated question.  Anyone who has read recent Japanese history knows about the ugly recent past; the invasion of Korea and China and southeast Asia.  The abuse of Korean people, comfort women, the Mukden incident, the Marco Polo Bridge fabrication, the horror of the rape of Nanjing, and the Bataan march.

If we are honest, however, my own country of origin has the same kinds of horrible acts of violence and destruction.  Salem witch trials, Native American genocide, the Ludlow Massacre, the Haymarket Riots, African slavery, and on and on.

These historical incidents raise a serious set of questions about our role in human society; What role do we play as folks living years after some horrible historical event? How do we rectify past deeds or help to understand the crimes committed by earlier groups of people? Many societies have approached these situations head on like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa or the Nuremberg Trials after World War II. The list goes on: the Geneva Conventions, or Germany’s decision to allow one million migrants into Germany in 2015.  Those cultural decisions are a meaningful starting place.

OK, but what about me?  My grandfather was in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II fighting the Japanese.  Throughout his life, he never spoke badly of Japanese people and said, in fact, that war was war and what happened during war is something that we cannot forget and we can forgive.

What would Fred Gentry say about me learning Japanese?  He’d probably say something like, “Great job you old rooster!”  He pretty much said kind things to everyone.

The question, though, comes back to why Japanese?  A few years ago a young man had climbed Everest and was traveling around the country talking to school groups about the climb and preparing for it.  He made a comment that captured my attention and imagination: “Find your Everest and Climb It.”

My Everest was learning Japanese. At 50. In New Mexico.  Here was an Everest that meant something to me….a decision to learn about the language and culture of Japan.  To dig in deep and accomplish something that I can be proud of for myself.  Not for anyone else.  (In fact, more than one person has said WTF…but I digress.)   Learning Japanese at 50 is my Everest.

Learning Japanese at 50: Flailing Badly

Of course, none of that happened.  I flailed.

Rewind to my studies of French and Latin in middle, high school, and college.  I studied French for years, making my way through conjugations and esoteric sentence structure.  I started Latin in 9th grade and loved the clean lines and very organized patterns of the language.  I continued Latin study in college to the point that I could, by graduate school, translate medieval documents in Latin (and get paid for it!).  While I was by no means fluent in either language, I had an affinity and grasp of what those languages were like and how to frame basic ideas and sentences.

In Mandarin and Japanese, the written forms of the language were daunting.  In Chinese, hanyu (the language of the Han people), the characters represent ideas or images or complex thought.  The characters themselves do not relate or refer to the spoken words that are associated with those characters.  Chinese characters can be read by people in China that speak very different dialects; for example, Mandarin and Cantonese and Shanghainese.

In Japanese, the written and spoken languages take on very different characteristics.  In the 5th century, Japanese and Chinese traders interacted and exposed aa striking difference between the groups; the Japanese did not have a written language.  Not having the ability to read in trade relations is a source of a series of historical conflicts; what is that person writing on a tablet or paper?  What is the information that is being recorded?  What does it mean?  We can experience a little of this sensation when listening to people speak in a language that we do not understand in front of us…or purchasing a product and seeing, written on the wrapper or box, words or symbols we do not understand.  What is REALLY in a HI-Chew and why is the product even referred to as Hi-Chew?  What is THAT?


But I digress.  The Japanese brought information about Chinese language back home and, at some point, someone said, “We have to learn this writing so that we don’t get ripped off!” or something to that effect.  Ministers from the Emperor, years later, were sent to study in China.  They traveled to the capital city, Chang’an, and met with folks in this great city.

Speaking of which, if you do NOT know about Chang’an, you should.  This remarkable center of culture, politics, scholarship, and religion was by all accounts an incredible place to visit, see, study, and work.  Set up in a grid pattern, the city was divided into districts that included markets, temples, palaces, humble homes and shops.  In the center was (and still is) a great Bell Tower that kept track of the time of the day.  Imagine, walking the streets of the city, swept clean by workers, wandering through shops that carried a wide variety of goods from as far away as the Mediterranean or Africa?  Caged lions and tigers, animals from all over the known world or people gathered from a variety of ethnic origins who traveled to the city to trade.  (I’m not advocating for caging animals; it’s representative of the influence of the city as animals are brought from thousands of miles away to be sold or traded in this center of Chinese culture).

As the Japanese emissaries arrived, they encountered not only a remarkable city but also a flowering culture and society led by some of the most remarkable leaders in Chinese history.  The Chinese (not really a monolithic group, by the way) emerged from a series of internal wars and conflicts and were slowly brought back together under the Sui dynasty and the Tang.  Chinese dynastic history is as interesting and remarkable study in the development of social and political institutions, AND the Tang dynasty is known as a kind of “golden age” of China.  Personally, I’d say every society and culture in the world has a series of “golden ages” and the whole idea of a “golden age” implies that things today kind of suck.  This whole “everything was better in the past” is, on its face, not true, but folks still ascribe great things to the past and crappy things to the present.

ANYWAY…the Tang dynasty was, depending on the year and the ruler, a remarkable time to be in Chang’an…in fact, the Tang made the city into the center of culture.  These Japanese emissaries were in Chang’an during one of the more important periods in the city’s history.  Sent to China by the Japanese emperor in Nara, the Japanese scholars and officials studied Chinese culture, politics, society, art, and language.  These folks brought back to Japan all of what they had learned and the ideas transformed Japanese society.

Learning Japanese at 50: The Ultimate Test in Patience

Over the years I have read a variety of texts about how to stay on the Buddhist, Vajrayana path.  I studies Vajrayana and established a daily practice. Made my way through Ngondro and memorized mantras and chants that deepened stillness in my mind.

I chose to study a language because of what learning that language means to my mind: a single focus on a practice.  I brought all of what I learned from Vajrayana and applied it to learning Japanese.  I grabbed that first textbook and, much like my first steps into Vajrayana, failed.  How could I EVER hope to grasp a language that had three writing systems, that included a whole series of pronunciations?  So, I did what any person faced with such an overwhelming task faces.  I put the book in a box and ignored it….for three years.

Being tangled up in the daily life of a teacher, father, student, and generally silly human being constantly tugs away at our own need to thrive, mentally and emotionally.  We often put the needs of the many before the needs of the few.  (one of my favorite Star Trek lines) Of course that approach to life is exactly what we need to do for our families, society, and ourselves.  I love Kongfuzi’s Analects and his saying in Book One, #6 as a description of this ideal:

“The Master said: A young man should be filial within his home and respectful of elders when abroad, he should be careful and trustworthy, broadly caring of people at large, and should cleave to those who are ren.  If he has energy left over, he may study the refinements of culture (wen).” http://www.indiana.edu/~p374/Analects_of_Confucius_(Eno-2015).pdf

That last phrase has always resonated: “If he has energy left over….” Right? If he has energy, like me who often comes home from a day in the classroom completely spent and then making dinner, cleaning house, or washing clothes, helping with homework, clearly focused on everything other than “the refinements of culture.”

Energy.  That is the key, isn’t it?  Folks generally assume that having less energy is the nature of being over 50.  That somehow you are less energetic and more lethargic than when you were younger.  I heard this EXACT idea stated by a younger colleague whose husband wanted kids before he turned 40 because he was facing that “lack of energy” thing that folks get when they pass the BIG 4-0!  The slow, inevitable decline of our lives; bodies breaking down, mind numbed by years of toil, broken, tragic figures waiting until the final march toward death.

Good Grief! Seriously? That somehow, we, as humans, lack energy to accomplish even the most mundane of tasks because we are older than we were years before?  Here’s the thing: this whole idea of having less “energy” is a myth perpetrated on us by a media driven mad by youth culture.  I blame the ideas coming out of the 1960s: “don’t trust anyone over 30”. Jack Weinberg, the author of that quotation, has claimed that the quotation misrepresents his intention.  Of course, the quotation stuck and was associated with the idea that youth culture was basically good and the aged were not to be trusted or, better yet, ignored.

I have a message to the world and especially to folks who would perpetrate the idea that energy is a thing in the sole possession of those who are youthful: the energy to accomplish anything is in the hands of anyone willing to step onto the path.  Think of the path as a way into whatever it is you want to accomplish or do.   Whether you are 15 or 50 that thing we call “energy” is, in fact, motivation.  I’ve seen 15 and 50 year olds have no motivation to accomplish anything.  The reality is that motivation and intention are key to making something happen…whatever that thing is.

The Path at Fushimi-Inari taisha

Wow.  Now I sound like a bad motivational speaker…let’s be clear, folks used to describe motivation as “setting your mind to it” or “stick to-it’edness”. Whatever name this idea goes by, the reality is that the motivation to accomplish anything is based entirely on the focus of your own heart and mind.

So, motivation.  Why did I put away that Japanese textbook years ago?  Why wasn’t I capable of sticking to that book and the methodology?

Looking back on my mind about 3 or 4 years ago I remember feeling that I could not possibly tackle learning Japanese.  The language was beyond my ken…a challenge that, at my age, I was not capable of learning.  Too, the work – family balance was out of whack.  I was working to the point of exhaustion each day.  By 9:00PM, after most homework was done, I was ready to collapse.  As an aside, folks that are not teachers in elementary, middle, or high school do not comprehend the challenges we face in the classroom and in school.  We welcome these challenges and most of us face the daily classroom as a place for us to engage students and create positive learning environments.  That approach in the classroom takes enormous effort both in terms of work (preparing lessons, reading material, creating engaging activities) and in terms of emotional energy and enthusiasm.

As teachers we summon motivation each day, and the difficulty for most of us is that creating that motivation takes a huge amount of energy….really the practice of bringing together our enthusiasm for the subject, students, and parents.  In addition, we face an almost constant challenge from those same folks: parents, students, and even some colleagues, that we are not doing enough OR that we have failed, in some way, our mission.  A recent email from a parent went like this, “I am not sorry for your difficulties with my son.  How hard is it to engage one child in a classroom for 45 minutes? I have no sympathy for you or your work.”

For teachers, messages of support and care are few and far between.  We receive few accolades and rarely are given more than a grudging acceptance.  Students, occasionally, come back from college or work and say that we made something happen for them.  That they NOW appreciated what we were trying to do.  In my 20-year career in teaching so far, those messages amount to a handful of students.  And those four messages and comments are precious to me and to every teacher that receives them.  Since we rarely hear of our influence directly, hearing it JUST once is motivation to continue.

So motivation. When I decided to study an Asian language, my motivation was strong. I planned to take off pieces of the language each day, imagining that within a year I might have working knowledge and then by year two, to converse in this new language, gaining confidence in my new-found ability, offering staggering levels of insight and perspective in this brave new world of language!

The Practice: The Multiple Ways into the Nature of Mind

I look back across my life and wonder at the time and space that extends from now into the past.  As many of us deep in middle age can attest, our life experience makes a storyline from the time when my father took me fishing and I caught a fish at eight years old or my uncle taking me out on the road as I learned to drive a car, or failing a math test, or  changing a diaper or trying to remember where I left the keys.  Each event, each experience becomes a story in our heads as we gobble up experience after experience, loading our minds with these moments.

But what if instead of waiting for an experience we dove headlong into one?  What if you decided to climb Everest at 50? or take on a very challenging project? Those thoughts, about going into an adventure or path or course of study with purpose is what brought me to studying Japanese from an old textbook in Albuquerque New Mexico in 2015.

For years, I wanted to study an Asian language.  I started with Tibetan because of my practice in Vajrayana Buddhism.  The problem was, I found the access to information and sources very limited.   Online sources can only take you so far and access to books and review materials is scant (especially if money is a limiting factor).

Before leading a group of students to China in 2006, I dove head first into Mandarin after being given a huge set of textbooks and cassette tapes to study.  I memorized the characters and could recognize a few of the 2500 or so in daily use in China.  The problem was my pronunciation was weak (at best) and the time it took to practice the spoken language outstripped the time I had available.

A couple of years later, I thought about learning Japanese.  As I got to understand some of the language, I realized that the work I had done in Mandarin helped support my understanding of Japanese as many of the characters I studied were roughly related to Japanese kanji.  A friend gave me an old Japanese language textbook and I started to dig in.  Opening the textbook for the first time was overwhelming.  While Mandarin characters had a specific pronunciation associated with the ideograph, Japanese Kanji had multiple pronunciations, adapted from the Mandarin and identified with native phonetic pronunciation.  Almost every character in Kanji had two (or more pronunciations: the Chinese ON and the Japanese KUN pronunciations.)  That first hour of reading threw me into a kind of tailspin….HOW was this process easier or better or more time efficient than learning Tibetan or Mandarin?  And, as I am sure you are wondering, what the hell was I doing trying to study an Asian language in the first place?

I did some deep soul searching about what I wanted to accomplish.  What purpose did studying an Asian language serve?  I mean really, what was the whole point of delving into a language I was likely never to hear spoken in Albuquerque New Mexico?

Truthfully, my drive to understand another non-western language was a desire to know.  Since I was a small child, I have wanted to know and understand all kinds of things from the place where a piece of Edwardian furniture was made to listening to the stories of elderly folks in Georgia.  I wanted (and want) to know.

Some might call this desire an attempt at cultural appropriation.  A way for me, one of the whitest people on the planet, to learn something to take, seize, steal, and appropriate for my own use.  For example, taking someone else’s story about their life and use it in my own life.  A means of appropriating ideas, emotions, thoughts and incorporating those lessons into my own psyche.  Or maybe wanting to know is a kind of way to rise above; to create distance and space between the knower and those who know less.  To create a kind of cultural and social hierarchy of knowledge that can be used to dominate and control.

Learning Japanese really wasn’t and isn’t about cultural appropriation at all.  It was and is a chance to understand in a way I have never understood.  Rather than appropriating the culture, I wanted to understand and, in a very real sense, engage with rather than dominate.  I found my practice.