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On studying Japanese, a Finnish point of view

<Introduction of Activities at Sendai-Finland Wellbeing Center R&D unit>

    Max Korpinen-san, a son of Juha Korpinen-san, the head of R&D Unit, Sendai Finland Wellbeing Center, kindly accepted to write a column.   It has been more than three months since his arriving in Sendai.   He has been studying Japanese hard every day.   The theme is "On studying Japanese, a Finnish point of view".

    For western people, studying Japanese is a never ending project.   The cases where one can take a total break from everyday responsibilities and devote one's life to learning Japanese are rare.   And frankly, that's pretty much what's needed if one wishes to gain fluency in Japanese.   If it takes over 10 years for native children to learn all the necessary kanji, grammar and vocabulary needed for academic success, how can a western university student on his twenties gain the language skill needed to make a living in Japan?   Will there ever be a time when you can say "I'm fluent in Japanese." and if so, what will it actually mean?
Mr. Max Korpinen

    Ten years ago I thought I could learn Japanese simply by being able to read hiragana and watching Japanese movies.   That's the method I used to learn English anyway, and now I can read American scientific journals with ease.   But as it turns out, when it comes to Japanese I couldn't have been more wrong. I have learned that the scale that's used to measure the progress of learning Japanese is quite amazing.   Even though I feel that the minds of the Finns and the Japanese are connected in many mysterious ways, the Japanese humour, manners, gestures and nonverbal communication among other things, are so different.   And what makes it even more difficult is that Japanese is constantly changing.   The words and sentence structures that I learned from a textbook five years ago have no room in a conversation with a Japanese teenager today.

    The way to show politeness is one of the most difficult cultural differences between Japan and Finland.   In Japan you really have to think when choosing words depending on who you're talking to and what kind of image you want to give out. In Finland however, politeness is quite simple.   We show it with small gestures.   The words are the same and the sentence structures are the same.   A salesman talks to a customer as he does to a friend.   The only difference is a handshake.   On the other hand, a great similarity in Finnish and Japanese is the pronounciation.   The Japanese word for a crab for example, カニ, is perfect Finnish.   The meaning is different for it means a rabbit, ウサギ, but because of the similar pronounciation Finns can easily look words they hear up from the dictionary.   And this gives Finnish people an advantage compared to many English-speaking countries for example.

    To enter a Japanese university a foreigner must fulfill certain conditions.   Fulfilling the Japanese language skill requirements however, doesn't make one fluent.   I have a few friends studying in a Japanese university and I hear that during classes there are numerous words and kanji they have never heard of.   That is a little depressing for someone who has dedicated every single day and night for Japanese studies, for a period of two years which is the standard amount of time foreigners study Japanese in Japan before entering a university.   So even if you can manage with a knowledge of 2000 kanji and a good conversational skill, there will be many moments when it is not enough.

    Someone who was born in a western country can't really become "Japanese" the same way they can merge in another western society.   Still, a truly respectable level of language skill and understanding of the culture is certainly achievable.   It comes with an huge amount of time spent studying the kanji, speaking and listening Japanese and actually experiencing Japan, but the reward is something you can't describe with words.

    For me, with every new kanji, gesture and word I learn, the Japanese harmony and way of thinking opens up a little by little.   In one month I have made amazing Japanese friends and learned more than I could have by doing anything else.   To be able to look at the world from a Japanese viewpoint, even if it’s just a peek, is a thing I will pursue for the rest of my life.

    It truly is a never ending project to learn Japanese.   But I hope it stays that way!   Every student learning Japanese needs something to study on rainy days.