Image: A worker begins to turn off lanterns at a teahouse at Kyto by Zoe Cameron.

Image: A worker begins to turn off lanterns at a teahouse at Kyto by Zoe Cameron.

Travel Journal - Japan

16th March 2017

Learning the language was embarrassing at times but ANU College of Asia and the Pacific student, Zoe Cameron, persevered and got a whole lot out of her exchange.

The thought of living in another country is pretty bewitching, so from the moment I decided to study at ANU, I was thinking about going on exchange.

The decision about where to head to narrowed down throughout my bachelor’s degree. I’m intrigued by northeast Asian history and culture, and due to my brief study of the language, Japan immediately appealed.

I was glued to my email account throughout January and the mid-semester break waiting for all the confirmations and documents to come through.

The minute it was confirmed that I’d be studying at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, I called my family and messaged all my friends!

I definitely had a one-track mind for the greater part of the year, and spent heaps of time planning what I’d be doing in Japan – writing packing lists, picking subjects.

Of course, there was the odd moment of imagining the worst: worrying I would put my foot in my mouth stumbling over Japanese and wondering if I’d make any friends.

It’s been over four months since I arrived in Japan, and I’ve had time to reflect on the concerns I had before arriving.

I didn’t have to worry about the friends part as it turned out – my new Kyoto-based friends are one of the reasons I’m going to miss living here so much. But as for the foot-in-mouth disease? It came on strong.

One of my most embarrassing moments was in a taxi after a long bus trip from Hiroshima. I’d been doing really well, negotiating our complicated address, giving directions and sounding almost like I had a clue.

Then, instead of asking the taxi driver to pull up in front of the big tatemono (building) that was our dorm, I fumbled my words, instead saying tatemae (a difficult-to-translate concept relating to the polite and reserved way one should act with acquaintances and colleagues).

The taxi driver, to his credit, kept a polite poker face through the whole exchange but as soon as we walked inside, I got absolutely roasted (all in good fun).

Making language mistakes, while it’s cringeworthy at the time, has turned out to be both necessary and helpful.

That’s just one of many, many examples of me mixing things up or getting things wrong while trying to speak Japanese here.

However, making language mistakes, while it’s cringeworthy at the time, has turned out to be both necessary and helpful.

While learning Japanese in class, I would often refrain from asking or answering questions for fear of embarrassing myself, and the thought of going to language exchange was paralysing.

I just couldn’t bring myself to try in earnest, due to my stress over whether I’d fail, and I always made excuses for why I wasn’t trying harder.

I really held myself back, despite having excellent teachers and as a result, my Japanese was madamada (far from perfect). But when speaking Japanese is the only way to deal with a complex ticketing situation in order to get yourself out of a subway station and catch the last bus, suddenly, being perfect is the last thing on your mind.

Being put into situations where I need to use ‘survival Japanese’ has given me more confidence to use Japanese where I can, every day.

For the first time ever, I signed up for language exchange, and hung out once a week with three really lovely students from Osaka.

Even in situations where the person I’m talking to speaks English, I push myself to communicate in Japanese. I’m even getting to the stage where I can make terrible puns about trees located next to vending machines or joke to bathhouse owners about having a second bath in the pouring rain outside.

Probably the greatest benefit of my newfound confidence, however, was that it pushed me to sign up for two traditional arts courses, taught in Japanese by two Kyoto-based masters – calligraphy and shamisen.

Calligraphy is almost meditative and helps me think more about kanji and sentence structure as an art rather than an exact science.

Learning shamisen, a three-stringed Japanese musical instrument, is a particularly awesome course, as our sensei is a fourth-generation master who retired.

He is the head of a national traditional music organisation and is disposed towards giving his 10 students free tickets to his concerts.

This story originally appeared on the College of Asia and the Pacific website

Tags: Travel Japan

Updated:  7 July 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, Culture, History & Language/Page Contact:  CHL webmaster