Japanese Media as a Study Tool

When you get to a certain point in your Japanese studies, you’ll begin to look towards authentic material to aide your progress. Not only is it a fun alternative to the standardized textbooks, you get a glimpse into the culture and thought process of native speakers.

At the same time, you don’t want to jump into to your local Hikone newspaper and undoubtedly be discouraged by the sheer amount of Kanji.

That being said, what sorts of material should you use to help your studies? This quick list may give you some suggestions on what you could be using.

Children’s Books & Manga

Children’s books are a great resource for any level learner and can aide you in numerous ways. Since these books are designed for children, the vocabulary and grammar used is not too hard, but not easy enough to simply breeze through. It’s a healthy medium in which you can learn about some of the cultural themes expressed through the literature as well as some tango (vocabulary) you may not have known.

If you’re feeling drained reading books meant for 5 year olds all day, as a substitute try reading your favorite manga (Japanese comic book). The pictures included help guide the story in case you don’t understand everything. Assuming your manga of choice is one you’re familiar with, following the plot shouldn’t be an issue either.

Video Games

I recently started playing through the newly released Pokémon Sword on my Nintendo Switch. It has options for kanji text or simply hiragana. Although it’s a slow, note filled process, playing through on one my all time favorite series in another language is a fulfilling activity.

Other games I’d recommend you try out are the Persona games, Earthbound, and any other text-heavy RPG.

Anime/Reality TV

Anime (Japanese cartoons) and reality TV shows give you unfiltered, native speed Japanese to help your listening skills.

The drawback to anime in particular is that the Japanese used may not always be conversational or grammatically ‘correct’. For example, a character in One Piece or Naruto may have a catch phrase that might garner some stares if said in normal conversation. As such, this method isn’t recommended for you if you’re a beginner as you may pick up bad habits.

My suggestion is to watch with Japanese subtitles, allowing you to read and process what you hear. Netflix’s Terrace House and other original Japanese-Netflix series have the option for both Japanese audio and captions.

I hope you’ve been able to expand your approach to language learning and realize that the experience is what you make it. Take it slow and have fun! がんばってくだい (ganbatte kudasai)! Do your best!

The Story of Yasuke – The African Samurai

One day in my Japanese class while studying abroad, we got into a discussion regarding Japanese history. The conversation eventually turned in my direction, where I asked sensei and the class if they’d ever heard of a man named Yasuke.

They had not.

That prompted me to inform the class about his existence and legacy. This is the story of the one and only African Samurai, Yasuke.

A painting of a man (Yasuke) on a horse.

Yasuke was the only African and first non-Japanese samurai. His story began around 1579 in Edo Japan. Not much is known about his life before arriving in Japan. Some say he was from the country of Mozambique and came to Japan on a ship with an Italian missionary named Alessandro Valignano on an inspection tour. Other accounts say he was an escaped slave.

Yasuke arrived in Kyoto where he found himself at the feet of the Feudal Lord Oda Nobunaga, who praised his height and build. It had been the first time he had seen an African.

Grayscale drawing of samurai wielding swords against each other

Nobunaga quickly enlisted him into his ranks. They soon became close, treating him almost like family. Nobunaga described Yasuke as a man who had the might of 10 men, and was among the few people permitted to dine with the lord — a high honor. He fought in a number of important battles and is said to even be present the night Nobunaga took his own life.

The fall of Nobunaga’s empire in 1582 also marks the end of Yasuke’s known history, when he was exiled.

The tale of Yasuke has perplexed and fascinated me from the moment I’d heard it. It is a story I and many other people would like to preserve in history.

There’s also some media regarding the topic if you’d like to learn more about him. There are many books such as “African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan” and Yoshio Kurusu’s 1969 award winning children’s book “くろ助 Kurosuke”. Hollywood studio Lionsgate also announced a movie focusing on his life is in production.

Cover of a book with a person in samurai gear. Title reads "Yasuke: The True Story of the Legendary African Samurai".

What’s the deal with ように?

If you’re learning Japanese, you’ll undoubtedly haunted by the phrase ように (yō ni) at some point in your studies. ように is one of the most common, yet difficult phrases to master.

But why? The reason lies in its versatility.

Broadly, ように can mean “in order to” or “so that”. However, the context of the sentence it’s in can change its meaning entirely. For example, ようになる (yō ni naru) translates to “is now possible”, ようにする (yō ni suru) is “to do so that”, and のように (no yō ni) is “in the same way”.

Here are some examples of the different uses of ように. Notice how it changes in meaning depending on what words are by it:

1.) 明日早く起きるようにする
Ashita hayaku okiru yō ni suru.
I’ll try to wake up early tomorrow.

2.) それから、家に帰って子供のように寝ちゃった。
Sore kara, uchi ni kaette kodomo no yō ni nechatta.
Then I went home and slept like a child.

3.) 日本語が話せるようになりたいな。
Nihongo ga hanaseru yō ni naritai na.
I want to become able to speak Japanese.

4.) これはチョコレートのように見えるけど、消しゴムだから、食べないでください。
Kore wa chocorēto no yō ni mierukedo, keshigomu dakara, tabenaide kudasai.
This looks like chocolate, but it’s an eraser, so do not eat it.

It is often compared to ために (tame ni), which can also mean “to do” in many cases. However, ために expresses aims, benefits, and causation, whereas ように expresses ideal situations:

〇 お金を集めるためにコンサートをした。
okane wo atsumeru tame ni consāto wo shita.

× お金を集めるようにコンサートをした。
Okane o atsumeru yō ni consāto o shita.

JCMU's official mascot, Hiraku the Swan with a question mark above his head.

Confusing, right? A good way to think about it is to consider the meaning of ように as “towards a certain state”. Looking back at ようになる, you can see that it is changing something from impossible to possible.

To make a long story short, ように can be a very useful phrase if used correctly. However, it can quickly become frustrating due to its nature. But as challenging as it may seem, don’t be overwhelmed with the learning process! You can do it!

Sore de wa, obenkyō, gabatte kudasai~
And with that, good luck with your studies~

An animated raccoon character exclaiming, "Do not give up!" in Japanese

Sounds of Japan

One of the most liberating elements of Japan and its culture resides in music. Outside of the popular idol culture, the music industry in Japan showcases too many niches to count. You may stumble upon a Jazz cafe right next to a Hip-Hop bar, for example. Or you may walk down the street and catch a taiko (Japanese drums) group preparing for their next performance.

To put it starkly, Japan has a music culture that is rapidly growing, giving a chance to any and all styles.

I experienced this firsthand. During my stay in Japan I had the opportunity to personally see and even participate in the music.

The first of which is the Hikone Community Taiko Club. Though taiko itself just means “drums” in Japanese, it typically refers to what is called kumi-daiko: a traditional style of drumming that has been integrated into the Japanese culture for centuries.

A man playing an Ohira-daiko drum in front of women playing Nagado and Shime-daiko drums
The Hikone Community Taiko Club rehearsing a performance piece

The Hikone Community Taiko Club offers classes for all ages, from younger generations looking to get a start on their music career to older generations aiming to preserve the spirit of kumi-daiko and stay fit. The culmination of musicians from different backgrounds come together to form an elegant cacophony of sound.

A man and a woman playing Shime Daiko drums
Practicing taiko with the club

Another unique opportunity I was able to participate in regarding music in Japan lies within styles far removed from Taiko. Those of which are Rock and Hip-Hop music.

I got the chance to meet members of a fast growing rock band, WOMCADOLE. Their lead singer, Higuchi, and myself performed a concert in Otsu City, Japan. There, I was able to not only join him in a few hard rock pieces, but I also got to perform a few of my own Hip-Hop/Rap songs. This experience was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and I cannot thank him enough for giving me the opportunity.

Higuchi and the rest of WOMCADOLE boast an explosive yet melodic rock type of music, similar to that you might hear in an anime. His band was also recently featured by Universal Music Japan.

Two men close together posing with guitars
Me and my good friend/lead singer of WOMCADOLE, Higuchi

The last set of music I’d like to tell you about is one many people can relate to and enjoy from around the world: street music/performance. No matter where you go, a big city is not complete without the sounds of singing, unique instruments, and the like. Osaka, Japan is no exception.

During the Halloween season, Osaka is filled to the brim with people. The atmosphere is completed by crowds of people surrounding street performers, some with large speakers and bucket drums with a kit made from pots and pans. The uniqueness each performer brings tells their own story of life in Japan.

A drummer using buckets, pots and pans to make music
A street drummer in Osaka on Halloween

The culture of music is just as inviting as the other aspects of the country and will continue to grow as time goes on. Even though the produced sounds can be polar opposites, having performed and seen up close music in both America and Japan I can say with certainty that it brings people together all the same.

Being a POC in Japan

皆さん、こんにちは! Hello, everyone! 

My name is Tariq Muhamed, and I am an alum of the 2018-2019 academic year program at the Japan Center for Michigan Universities (JCMU). I was asked to provide some insight into my life in Hikone from the perspective of a person of color, so here is my story:

I should first explain what led me to this point. With my home institution being Michigan State University (home to JCMU’s administrative office in Michigan), I had many professors and instructors advising me that if I wanted to improve my Japanese skills and have the experience of a lifetime, studying in Hikone was the way to go. So I packed my bags and did just that.

Two young students wearing jackets in front of a pine tree
My older brother and I outside of JCMU

I was greeted in Hikone and JCMU by a very common occurrence in Japan: a typhoon. Weirdly enough, that was when it finally set in – I’d finally achieved my lifelong dream, I’d finally made it to Japan.

I quickly became adjusted to life, going to karaoke with friends, the bi-daily trips to the convenience store, hanging out at the local restaurant Diner Pop, the works. My academic life also had been progressing well. Although I don’t want to get into the preachy stuff just yet, I want to give my first piece of advice to prospective JCMU students, whenever that may be – it is regarded as an intensive program for a reason! You will most definitely be pushed to the limits in your Japanese classes, so don’t be discouraged by the amount of work you will have to put in to your studies, you will definitely see results.

Now for the meat and potatoes, my experience in Hikone and Japan in general being a POC. Coming from a country in which I am already a steep minority, I couldn’t help but not expect many more stereotypes than the preexisting ones surrounding mine and many other’s lives in America. Excuse me if this is a generalization, however through my time in Japan, I’ve learned firsthand that many people know only kindness. I had been shown nothing but respect and love from almost every encounter I had.

That is not to say I didn’t have my share of questionable actions. More so than my friends and peers around me, I got stares and many more questions. Shrugging it off as the classic ‘gaijin’ (foreigner) enigma, I didn’t think much of it. Though I have been asked many questions such as “How do you feel about Trump?” or the classic “Can I touch your hair?” Nonetheless, I believed then and still do that they come from a place of genuine curiosity. Especially for a town such as Hikone, foreigners (specifically those of African-American descent) are quite scarce. All-in-all, I faced no discrimination at all during my time abroad.

Five Japanese and U.S. students together, with two in the front holding acoustic guitars
A fellow JCMU classmate, myself and some Japanese friends

So to prospective POC students of JCMU: you get back what you put in. I believe the saying “respect goes both ways” reigns true in this regard. Much in the same way you’re both surprised and amazed about the brand new culture in front of you, the Japanese person to your left or right feels the same way about you. Just think, through every conversation you have an opportunity to teach someone from an entirely different background and history, about YOUR heritage, own it.

I sincerely hope that you take the opportunity to expand your cultural horizons by taking a chance and putting yourself out there. If you are on the fence about studying, not just in Japan, but anywhere due to the color of your skin, I am here to tell you to not worry, and take that leap of faith.