There Was A Time When…

For all of my early life, Japan seemed as far away and exotic to me as it must now to you.

There was a time when I balked as a TV narrator commented that “the Japanese alphabet has over 2000 letters” (on a show called “Japan Video Topics” in the late 1980s/early 1990s).

There was a time when I thought Japanese was impossible for a foreigner to learn (2000).

There was a time when I didn’t even know what kanji were (1990s).

There was a time when I didn’t know how to use chopsticks (2001).

There was a time when Japanese and Chinese all sounded the same to me (1990s).
There was a time when I had no idea that Chinese and Japanese shared a writing system (2000).

There was a time when I honestly thought that all East Asians knew kung-fu and were never more than two karate chops away from hospitalizing me (mid-1990s).

There was time when I thought “konnichawa” was Korean (early 1990s Coca-Cola commercial).

There was a time when I only reliably knew a few dozen kanji (2004).

There was a time when I couldn’t string together a grammatical sentence in Japanese (2004).

There was a time when my Japanese was heavily influenced by anime, I called people “temee” and ended every sentence in “ze” (2005).

There was a time when I got シ(shi) / ツ (tsu) and ン(n) / ソ(so) confused (2005).

There was a time when I didn’t know what an SRS was (2004).

There was a time when I couldn’t read through a newspaper or book without reference to a dictionary (2006).

There was a time when I couldn’t reliably infer what a new word meant just from context (2006).

There was a time when I didn’t know if it would be possible, but I knew that if just put my head down and kept trying, something had to come of it, because if those Polish kids at AntiMoon could do it, then so could I! (2005).

There was a time when I couldn’t watch a TV drama and follow the plot intricacies (late 2005-early 2006).

There was a time when I couldn’t understand Japanese news (2005).

There was a time when Japanese subs were too fast for me to read (early 2006).

There was a time when I thought those were white people in anime (2002).
There was even a time when they still totally looked white to me (2006).

Everybody starts somewhere, and that “where” is usually at the very bottom of the heap — a big, fat zero. I have said it before and I will say it again: when you begin something, you are a newborn baby. So, cut yourself the same slack, recognize and enjoy every step forward; give, seek and accept praise for the smallest achievement. Keep trying because sucking is not forever. With daily nourishment, you will grow up. Soon enough, almost everyone (including you) will forget that you used to babble and crawl.

  22 comments for “There Was A Time When…

  1. July 17, 2007 at 01:11

    I must admit that though it can feel immensely frustrating being neither able to read nor write at a pace and level of fluency I desire, but when I look back at what I’ve come to — now that I’m able to read and write hiragana/katakana and some kanji at a nice and normal pace, which I never could have done 2 months back — it feels good, and, like you’ve said in some other post, it would also become the fuel that can be burned to generate further energy and movement down the road to Japanese fluency.

    I think this post of yours was great — goes to show that everyone begins somewhere, and often, that ‘somewhere’ can also refer to ‘very humble beginnings’. It also illustrates the point that if anyone works really hard the only way they can go is ‘up’, no?

    So yeah, Khatzumoto, thanks for the motivating post!

  2. July 17, 2007 at 11:55

    Hi Khatzumoto,

    I’m not studying Japanese, but your blog continues to be a source of inspiration for my endeavors in the Romance languages. As Wan Zafran said, everyone begins somewhere – the difference lies in where we are determined to end. You took Japanese to fluency, and I carry that knowledge – as well as the wisdom and energy throughout AJATT – with me when engaged in my own struggles with language learning.

    Keep up the good work!

  3. James
    July 17, 2007 at 13:58

    How are your Chinese studies going? Are you as 走火入魔 as you were with Japanese?

  4. khatzumoto
    July 17, 2007 at 15:15

    Haha. I need to 入 a little more 魔…I’m just ramping up slowly, getting more materials. Actually, you just caught me in the middle of a shopping trip at…I’m getting a (dubbed) discovery channel documentary about cats, and I need to get a region-free DVD player. Is this TMI, by the way?

  5. July 18, 2007 at 12:04

    Really interesting post and cool to see the evolution of a Japanese learner. I can use chopsticks, know what an SRS is, and know how to say hello in Japanese and Korean, but I can’t read Japanese subtitles fast enough, can’t read a book/newspaper without a dictionary, and can’t understand Japanese news.

    It’s just a matter of time and learning. I’m hoping to be able to leave early the programme I’m on now, so I can get to Tokyo and live with Japanese people as soon as possible.

    Great post!

  6. Mark
    July 28, 2007 at 00:05

    I really like this website – mostly because it confirms my own beliefs :-)

    For many years, I have believed that language classes are next to being utterly useless – and just as you say, the vast majority of textbooks are just the same. However, whenever I have uttered these beliefs to language learning friends, I have always just recieved howls of derision!

    It is also nice to see you also highlight the importance of mental tools – the people who succeed at the really tough things in life are always those with the right mental attitude, and obviously need not be the ones with the greatest ‘natural ability’.

    Anyway, please keep up the good work, and keep us posted on how the Chinese in going.

  7. David
    September 18, 2008 at 10:17

    I think they are white too. (2008)

  8. Jonny
    February 15, 2009 at 07:50

    I don’t care what anybody says, I’ve never seen an Asian looking person in an anime. (2009)

  9. April 12, 2009 at 14:13

    我的天啊~ Your Japanese is like totally 走火入魔, but for a chinese person learning Japanese I guess I didnt have so many misconceptions. Your program is very good but if my parents catch me listening to Japanese all the time 我会被 KILL!

    ANyway I enjoyed reading your articles! Arigatou

  10. Bel
    July 23, 2009 at 04:15

    Japanese and Chinese don’t even sound SIMILAR. They’re not even RELATED xD I don’t know how anyone could think that they’re the same. I’d love to play something in Japanese and play the same exact thing in Chinese and people would never think they’re similar. Again.

  11. Elvagejo
    August 1, 2009 at 05:27

    Those people in amine aren’t white?

  12. V-man
    January 1, 2011 at 09:41

    If anyone still thinks that anime characters look white, they should read this –

    • Augusto Modanese
      January 1, 2011 at 18:14

      Interesting text, but they still look white to me…

    • Ty
      January 1, 2011 at 21:55

      I still think anime characters look white.

      But… I noticed that ONLY Japanese people can pull off cosplay of anime characters. It’s like… their face was perfectly designed for it. So I do recognize that anime characters are designed after Japanese people.

  13. January 3, 2011 at 08:30


  14. Ian Long
    August 31, 2011 at 17:12

    You know, I never, ever thought manga characters were white.  I assumed that, because they were drawn by Japanese for Japanese and the stories were set in Japan, they must be Japanese. 

    To be honest, I think it’s very odd to think they are white.  Why would they be?  That kind of thinking says more about white people than Japanese people if you ask me…..

  15. lisbet
    December 6, 2011 at 02:43

    You mean there will come a time when I stop confusing シ(shi) / ツ (tsu) and ン(n) / ソ(so) ?
    I’m in my third year of Japanese study (although a SS baby) and I still confuse them :)

    • December 6, 2011 at 09:57

      When it comes to シ and ツ, just remember that *she (or shi) likes it low.* Now you won’t mixed those up ;)

  16. December 16, 2011 at 13:13

    There was a time when I thought japanese was only learnable (idk if thats a word) by Japanese people!

  17. Insiya
    January 2, 2013 at 07:23

    To me, they’re only white if the episode is dubbed in English. Otherwise, it’s all Japanese.

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