(CW: Language learning, panic attacks, mental health, suicide)

I hesitated to write this post because I still feel shame about my level of Japanese after living here so long. By now, surely, I “should be native level, right?” is a question I’ve often been asked by friends back in the UK. But I’m not. I’m still intermediate level. What does that mean? Well it means I can order in restaurants, follow generally the topic being discussed in meetings–I wrote about the number of meetings in a previous post–follow generally most topics on the evening news on TV, and so generally survive being in Japan. But native level I am not. I am not even close.

I have always considered myself to be not a natural linguist. I think trying to learn languages at school knocked any confidence out of me. I dropped French in middle school and took German instead (my mother speaks German and my godfather is German). In French class my best friend had a French mother and other friends were basically all straight-A students so I had an inferiority complex as I struggled to understand the teacher while surrounded by people for whom it seemed easy. My basic problem I think is that I’m just not good at rote learning. I have to understand the ‘why’ behind something before it sinks into my head. And if the ‘why’ itself is just ‘something you have to remember’ then I’m stuck.

So when I had a Japanese partner at university in the UK and decided I should learn some Japanese I was already at a disadvantage because I was convinced I wouldn’t be able to do it. Actually, amazingly, I did manage to learn hiragana and katakana and simple words like ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ before moving to Japan, but I was woefully underprepared for working here. I wrote in another previous post that I’d been given the impression that my post-doc working place would be an English-language environment, but that actually we had many many long meetings all in Japanese. I would sit through these feeling increasingly uncomfortable not knowing what was going on. I didn’t even know the abbreviated Japanese name of the institution, which seemed to pop up repeatedly during meetings and which, of course, wasn’t in my electronic dictionary.

So my introduction to working life in Japan was pretty traumatic and certainly didn’t boost my confidence. A few weeks in I decided I had to find a Japanese teacher quickly, and an internet search brought me to the amazing Akiko Suzuki (now @akokitamura on twitter though of course back then there was no twitter). As most people now know, she’s an incredible teacher who is able to judge your level and teach using only Japanese of an appropriate difficulty, gradually increasing your knowledge. Any Japanese ability I have I put down to taking lessons with her and absorbing through the Japanese working environment I was in.

As I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t come to Japan because of a love of the country, but I moved here to work as a sociologist. I have never been employed because of a specialization in Japanese or even Japanese culture, but because of my knowledge of sociology, social studies of science and technology, and particularly my specialization in understanding some contemporary forms of community. When teaching as an adjunct teacher I was employed to teach in English. I have taught sociology courses at Sophia University and a long-running course on innovation at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS). So I have been fortunate that my Japanese ability has not held me back from finding good work positions. When I was interviewed for tenure, the interview was done mostly in Japanese and I muddled through. When I have given papers at ‘international’ conferences held in Japan, I have received questions in Japanese but often answered in English.

I have, in other words, coped. But I know that my enjoyment of work and general life in Japan would be greatly improved by having better Japanese ability. So why am I not studying it (much) now? Well, it is related to an interesting mechanism of anxiety.

When my Panic Disorder was developing, as I have described before, I had concluded that my problem was digestive trouble. Anxiety, although often considered a problem of mind is actually a problem of mind and body. In 2016 my university restructured significantly, creating some new faculties and merging others. As a member of a new department I started my own laboratory (Japanese universities tend to be built on the structure of laboratories run by professors/associate professors). The new department had to create a brand new curriculum at both undergraduate and graduate level, all in a short time. In other words, the amount of work jumped significantly and most of this work had to be conducted in Japanese.

I would receive near to a hundred emails a day, all in Japanese.

I would sit on several committees, both for the new department and for the other student programs that I was a coordinator for (international exchange, international study trips, onboarding for international exchange students). All in Japanese.

I was still on the Public Relations committee and the newly restructured univeristy required an entirely newly created website, with Japanese and English pages. The discussion on this in meetings was of course, in Japanese.

I would contemplate suicide on the journey home.

Now you may be wondering why any of this is a shock. After all, I am living and employed in Japan, so of course Japanese would be the working language. But recall that I have never been employed because of a Japanese ability, but because of my specialization. Other employees at my institution are the same: mathematicians, engineers, physicists, chemists, biologists etc.

I discovered through chatting with others that some people are fine to sit through meetings and not take part in them. Their lack of understanding being no problem because they just weren’t interested anyway. But I am not that sort of person. If something is being discussed about changing the place I work, I want to be involved. I want to give advice on how to improve the environment for minority students and staff. I can’t sit in a meeting and read a journal article just to fill up time, and in fact even if I did try to do this, often I would be asked to give my opinion anyway, so I felt a need to follow what was going on.

The same applies with emails. I don’t want to miss anything important so I would spend much of my day deciphering messages and responding. Eventually after working in a place for so long your vocabulary increases a lot (there is a lot of jargon used in university administration) so it’s possible to follow discussion even with intermediate Japanese, but it is a struggle. And it takes up a lot of time.

I found that my ‘digestive troubles’ were made worse by this situation. I found myself feeling physically sick in the middle of meetings as my anxiety rose (as I mentioned previously, I didn’t make the link to anxiety until later). I found that I would open my email software and start to feel nauseated as I read through messages.

Anxiety works like that. There is a trigger, it prompts some rise in adrenaline (or other chemicals) and you get physical sensations and symptoms. Nausea was one of my main ones. And feelings of nausea eventually turned into feelings of panic.

I found, after a while, that simply beginning to do my Japanese homework would make me feel sick. Eventually I’d get about halfway through the homework and would have a panic attack. And then I’d berate myself for being so ‘pathetic’. And then, I’d become depressed, angry with myself that I couldn’t even do my homework, procrastinating until the night before my Japanese lesson whereupon I’d be so stressed and so time-pressured that I would get tunnel vision and the words would just jump about the page.

Japanese, whether studying it or simply using it at work had become linked to anxious feelings, and a cycle of panic attacks and depression had started. My experience of being-in-the-world was one of looking through invisible glasses where Japanese was a big scary monster out to get me.

I had to quit my Japanese lessons temporarily as I simply couldn’t cope with that and work. And then of course I had to take sick leave from work too. So this is my current situation. I try not to be hard on myself about not studying Japanese at the moment, because my body simply won’t allow it. It is definitely something I will have to do in the future, especially as it looks increasingly likely that I will live in Japan for the rest of my life. But the shame is real. I came here in late 2003 and I am not yet ‘fluent’. For that, Japan, I apologise. But I will get there eventually. I hope.



  1. Learning languages is such a varied experience for everyone. Some pick it up more naturally for others due to a thousand different circumstances. It can definitely be frustrating, but I hope you can take on Japanese without panic and misery soon!

  2. Everyone’s situation is different so don’t beat yourself up too much about your perceived lack of fluency in Japanese. I take it that you and your partner communicate in English? My ex-partner’s English was woeful so that actually worked to my advantage. I didn’t think I would end up living permanently in Japan and didn’t know any Japanese when I came here. It evolved through osmosis. I have made countless bloopers but people are pretty much forgiving.

    1. We communicate half in Japanese and half in English, I think I’d be so stressed if I had to use Japanese all the time at home, but yeah I’ve also learned some through osmosis.

      Will try not to beat myself up too much!

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