Japanese is comprised of a combination of three different character sets, hiragana (the most basic form of Japanese and the first set traditionally taught to students), katakana (the second set traditionally taught to students and is exclusively used for words borrowed from another language), and kanji (this third set is based on Chinese characters and is very complex). Hiragana and katakana can both be mastered in a matter of months, but becoming “fluent” in the kanji system can take a lifetime. In many aspects of day to day life as an expat living in Japan, understanding the thousands of kanji characters in existence is not a requirement (although one needs to know approximately 2,000 characters to read a Japanese newspaper). In fact, particularly in Tokyo, more written and spoken English is being used, especially in business where there are an increasing number of bilingual Japanese.
But while fluency in written and spoken Japanese is not required for most aspects of life here, having some understanding of the language (even at a basic level) will most certainly increase your quality of life in the city. Japanese is indeed one of the hardest languages to grasp (particularly because in Japanese the verb comes before the subject – as opposed to the reverse in English – creating plenty of confusion), but a basic understanding of the language can be built with 3 to 6 months of earnest study. For those wishing to move forward with a regimented program, there are a large variety of Japanese schools offered across the city:
- ARC Academy (http://www.arc-eg.com) has schools across the city including in Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Ikebukuro, and provides a variety of courses including part-time evening lessons, intensive course study, and preparation for the standardized Japanese language tests. As prices vary by program, check the Web site for specific cost details.
- Association for Japanese Language Training (http://www.ajalt.org) has a school in Kamiyacho (very near Roppongi) and were quite literally the ones who wrote the book on teaching Japanese. AJALT publishes the Japanese for Busy People series of textbooks which are used by a significant portion of Japanese-language teachers. The organization offers language training to all ages with hour-long group lessons starting at 2,100 yen (approx US$20) per hour and one-hour private lessons at 6,500 yen (approx US$65) per hour.
- Berlitz (http://berlitz.co.jp/english/) has dozens of schools across the city and is a branch of the internationally renowned Berlitz language schools. While Berlitz’s programs are rather costly, many of their students swear by the Berlitz teaching methodology and feel it is the best way to learn the language.
- JACS Institute (http://www.jacsjacs.jp) has its school in Hiroo, and offers a host of intensive beginner and intermediate courses. Their current “daily course” program runs for a two week period of time with private 90-minute classes taught each day for 50,000 yen (approx. US$500) for the two week period. JACS also provides some group lesson options as well.
Additional Japanese-language schools can be found here: http://www.jref.com/language/japanese_schools.shtml.