Where to begin?
My interest in Japan began several years back when I first started watching anime, starting with Bubblegum Crisis. Initially, I watched shows with the English dub, but it wasn’t until Serial Experiments Lain that I got into the original Japanese. The more shows I watched, the more I found myself recognizing a few words and phrases, but it wasn’t until borrowing Those Who Hunt Elves that I caught myself anticipating what characters might say based on the subtitles. Also at that time, I had gotten into the Guilty Gear fighting game series, so much so that I even imported some of the drama CDs — I told myself that even if I didn’t understand the dialogue, I could still enjoy the music and voices. My comprehension was greatly reduced without subtitles or pictures, but I found that with the visual elements missing, I had to pay much more attention to the voices — and therefore, the language. I started picking out words and phrases in the themes for the shows I watched, as well as the dialogue, eventually to the point that I could occasionally read a subtitle and think, “That’s not what he said.” I could occasionally pick out a word or phrase in music, too; I still remember a proud moment when I realized that the line 「君は僕の光」 in The Pillows’ song “One Life” meant “you are my light.”
Also during this time, I owned a few video games with international servers, and would occasionally seek out Japanese lobbies. From Phantom Dust (where I could barely communicate and had to rely on a polyglot player to translate) to Lost Planet Colonies (where I learned what to say before and after a match), I did what I could to interact with real Japanese.
Somewhere along the line, I started looking for tools that would help me learn the language. Just “picking it up” wasn’t good enough any more, and I wanted to be able to express myself with more than canned phrases. With a little research and a bit of luck, I learned of a book series called Japanese in Mangaland. A three-book set originally written by a Spanish speaker of Japanese, they were an invaluable resource for taking the scattered words and phrases I’d managed to absorb and actually form complete sentences (and I still reference them today). My second resource was a Nintendo DS cartridge called My Japanese Coach, which helped my vocabulary and (to a lesser extent) writing. The third resource — and the first I bought, if I remember correctly — was a DS game I imported called Dokidoki Majo Shinpan. Famous (or infamous; look it up) for its premise, the dialogue-heavy story forced me to learn kana (and a few kanji) to even remotely understand the story. I even printed out a list of each syllabery to take to work and study on my break so I wouldn’t stumble so much.
While playing Lost Planet Colonies, I had managed to get an unusually-chatty Japanese guy on my online friends list, and eventually one of his friends. We didn’t always play the same games, but there was an afternoon where we’d all downloaded an application to our consoles called Photo Party, which allowed party chat and sharing of photos stored on the system or an external source. I made a few more friends that day, and they would become the people I would spend the better part of a year playing Left 4 Dead with. I look back on that now and cringe at just how badly I spoke, but even struggling practice is still practice. Two of them could also speak passable English, which helped a lot in learning how to be a good teammate — words like above, below, behind, stairs, door, wall, corner are important when playing co-op, and I didn’t want to be the weak link. (The guy I met on LPC is still a friend of mine online, and is responsible for me having met all of my current online Japanese friends, either directly or indirectly. I still call him “Nihonjin Zero.” Two others are my friends Meg and Takashi, whom I’ve had the fortune to meet in person more than once.)
Until I went back to school in 2010, I practiced my meager skills through video games, drama CDs, language books, and my online friends. This is mainly why my language skills are uneven in terms of speaking/listening/reading/writing; I know more than I should in some areas and far less in others. The rest is all on this blog, starting from the beginning.