On Learning Japanese
Did you speak any Japanese before going to Japan?
I knew no Japanese at all (ぜんぜん – nothing). I had only heard of konnichiwa (hello), and ohayou gozaimasu (good morning). Indeed, the first few days in Japan were a real headache because Japanese is everything. Thanks to the “survival Japanese” lessons in my university, my communication ability is getting better each day.
To confess some truth, even if I had time, I know it will be very difficult to achieve fluency in Japanese; reading, writing, and speaking! This is because the Japanese language uses three (3) writing systems, and it may add up to 4 if you add Romanized Japanese! They have 1) hiragana 2) katana and 3) kanji writing systems; each system has its own function of pronunciation, writing foreign word, and explaining the meaning, respectively. Although hiragana and katana are relatively easy to understand and use, kanji is a no-gone zone for me, except for a few like river (川), mountain (山), human being (人), and tree (木). Just those! However, I am in the race to learn more.
Here are a few tips on how to learn Japanese really quick and in a way, you cannot forget. First, enroll in a Japanese language class or join volunteer groups that offer Japanese lessons. Secondly, do not stress yourself with mastering the writing systems, unless you are at professional fluency. If your aim is to achieve basic communication, focus on gaining verbal skills by enriching your vocabulary and mastering basic sentence structures/formats.
On new vocabulary, I gave myself a challenge of learning at least one new vocabulary or phrase every day; it bore fruits! The question comes on how do you learn new vocabulary? It is simple. You learn from either the text book/phone/internet or people. I prefer the latter because people can explain to you what such words mean at the spot. Emphasizing on the same, regular communication with Japanese people will help you learn even faster; note a new vocabulary/phrase in the conversation and ask what it means. If you think you cannot remember it write it down, and use it in your subsequent encounters, if possible. Specifically, aim to connect with bilingual Japanese. For instance, a Japanese who knows English can explain the meaning to you better. That is a guarantee. How can you meet such people? Again, very simple. For one, do not hesitate to go for parties when invited (do not invite yourself; それはだめ – not good).
Additionally, feel free to attend their cultural events and volunteer activities. It is in such places that you listen to so much Japanese communication, learn new words/phrases, and most importantly make more friends. With that, we are good to go. 日本語がんばってね (please learn more Japanese).
Do you use Japanese in your day to day life, e.g. in your studies?
To set the record straight, my scholarship program is offered in ENGLISH! Talk of the course materials, lectures, reports, and experiments or field excursions; though sometimes you need a translator! On a light note, there is no cause for alarm for future enthusiasts who want to pursue their studies in Japan.
As I emphasized earlier, Japanese is the main language of communication in all fields of Japanese life, meaning one is compelled to use Japanese in daily life. Fortunately, Japan has no ethnic groups, compared to the numerous that we have Kenya. This means that Japanese is the first language; no need to struggle in learning a new language. It is therefore, paramount for a foreigner like me to learn Japanese. I am in the race!
Are you aiming for fluency? If so, how long do you think it’ll take to achieve?
I would have to loved to achieve fluency in this language, but due to time limitations, I am only aiming at basic verbal capability. I need to be able to ask for directions when lost, actively engage in discussions, do inquiries, and make more Japanese friends! This is a motivation. Conclusively, I would love to learn Japanese as long as I am in Japan. Every day is a learning day.
On Academic life in Japan
What’s your academic background?
My background relates to environmental management and conservation; i.e. the understanding of ecosystem functioning and ecology. I graduated from the University of Nairobi in 2013 with a degree that has one of the longest names: Bachelor Science in Environmental Conservation and Natural Management.
Which university/ institution are you enrolled in?
I am pursuing my studies in Forestry Sciences at the Graduate School of Integrated Arts and Sciences, Kochi University, Kochi Prefecture. The university is located in Shikoku Island, the fourth largest of Japan’s main islands.
What’s your topic of research? How did you choose that topic?
My research topic focuses on assessing and analyzing best forestry practices in Japan, for possible incorporation into the Kenya forestry system. I know this my raise eyebrows considering that Japan is about two (if not three) generations ahead of Kenya, but some issues just cut across all cultures irrespective of the development level. Those issues include basic discipline in managing and utilizing forests for sustainability purposes, integrating policy, laws and institutional frameworks, and off course a possibility of creating links for exchange programs between the two countries. Japan’s forest cover is about 67%, compared to Kenya’s 7% (according to 2014 statistics); a whole 60% difference! Although this high forest cover maybe associated with dependency on imported wood products, and use of alternative sources of energy, we got much to learn from Japan. That is why I am here.
How did you choose your university and your supervisor?
As I said earlier on, JICA can sometimes choose both the university and supervisor for you in case you are not able to. That is what happened to me; I was confused then… haha! However, I highly recommend one to do this individually, so that they can blame only themselves if anything goes wrong! I hope it won’t though; all is going to be well!
Why did you undertake a masters?
I had this intrinsic motivation of proceeding with my studies. Something inside me kept on pushing for masters, and applying for scholarships was one of the ways I was aiming to use a stepping-stone to achieving this goal. I thank God that the scholarship knocked the door at the right time!
I know completion of my masters will open more windows of opportunity, but how I wish intrinsic motivation in me will attract more hunger for education. I say this, without forgetting that life needs to be balanced from all angles; academically, financially, socially, among other priorities.
How will it help you achieve your future goals?
Passion for nature conservation and environmental management is what I hold dearly at heart. Going around Japan during field excursions for research, and sightseeing leaves me thinking a lot about the Kenyan environmental situation. Therefore, such firsthand experiences, research findings, and internship will catalyze my motivation for environmental advocacy and activism back in Kenya. I believe we can do better in this sector!
What’s the academic system like in Japan?
I am not fully aware the education system, but I know they follow a 6-3-3-4 system for elementary, junior high school, high school, and university, respectively. The major instruction language is Japanese, and English is taught as a subject but not taken seriously; after all Japanese is all they need (no offense).
How does it differ from Kenya’s?
As you can calculate, Kenya’s 8-4-4 system and Japan’s 6-3-3-4 system, each add up to 16 years of a continuous learning experience. I may not say much about lower education systems. Let me focus on higher education.
Notably, there are compulsory entrance exams for both graduate and undergraduate students, failure to which one is not guaranteed a position in the particular university. The most amazing thing is classification system of various departments; each of them has fully equipped laboratories, and professors (sensei in Japanese) are assigned to each in relation to their specialty. Notably, each laboratory is assigned with the exact number of students for management and easy learning processes. The students must make contact with the professor (s) at least on a daily basis, for inquiries, advice, and/or updates of their experiments. This is what I meant by supervisor.
I have come to realize that the Japanese higher is more oriented to research work, rather too much course. Of course, there is quite an amount of course work in undergraduate but the situation changes in the graduate school. For instance, immediately I enrolled into my masters program, my thesis work just started; I can count the number of times I have attended lectures! As much as I love this kind of system, I feel like something needs to be done to make sure that graduate students have more content, so that reports writing, analysis, and academic engagements can be more fruitful. This notwithstanding, I have to admit that such dedication to research and innovation is what has kept Japan developing and holding its grip in the top three global economies. It is time for Kenya to invest in and fund researches, innovations, increase the number of incubation centers, and nurture talent. With this in place, we shall indeed, be there!
Any tips for anyone pursuing a masters, particularly in Japan?
I think I have already highlighted the basic tips from above, but let me emphasize of a few issues. On the social aspect, learn the culture and their language, in addition to participating in their events. If you are a fun of parties and drinking (especially beer) go for it- that is the Japanese weakness/strength. Do not forget making friends with whom you can rhyme. Academically, you should treasure the relationship with your supervisor. That is very important because he is answerable to all that you do, or whatever happens to you. He/she is basically your “parent” while in Japan. Specifically, create a good working relationship with your lab mates, friends, school staff, and all people around you. Know how to handle issues. On the finance aspect, please spend wisely, remembering that there is a tomorrow. Do I have to remind you that your family, friends, and motherland are a priority? Please keep them in the highest point of your spirit and be a good ambassador.
Finally, I would love to say, nihon e youkoso (welcome to Japan); the land of the rising sun!
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Mbithe’s ideal life would consist of an infinite loop of travelling to beautiful, idyllic locations with breathtaking views, amazing food, and nothing on her to-do list but relaxation and rejuvenation. Mbithe’s actual life involves a lot of proposals, research papers, and code, with just enough travel to make up for the rest of it.