I periodically get asked — mostly by my students — why I came to Japan. The answer is simple: I like Japan. I can explain further and say that I like the culture and history and whatnot, but it’s just a longer version of my original answer.
Occasionally, however, the questioner follows up: “But why Japan?” That answer isn’t so simple. It started roughly thirteen years ago, by my count. What follows is a list of things that inspired me, motivated me, or helped me along the way.
Bubblegum Crisis: This was the first anime series I ever watched as an anime series. (As a kid, I used to see old English-dubbed Speed Racer episodes, but had no idea it was from Japan.) It was entirely unlike anything I’d ever watched. Even in 2002, the eleven-year-old animation was outdated, but the style and visuals kept me watching for all eight episodes — though at that time, I watched them dubbed. I wanted more.
Excel Saga and Noir: Once I had an interest in anime, I started looking for other shows to watch. The leading domestic licenser at the time was ADV Films. While away on vacation visiting family, I bought the first Excel Saga DVD, and was blown away by the breakneck comedy and bizarre Japanese in-jokes. It was hilarious, and I bought every volume as they released. The next year saw the US release of Noir, a much different show. Its slow, deliberate pacing had a polarizing effect on people I knew; my friend Katy liked the unhurried pace, but my then-girlfriend wanted them to get on with the plot. These were my first long series; at 26 episodes each, I was able to get really invested in them (both emotionally and financially). I was still watching anime in English, though I believe I might have switched to Japanese partway through when the dub cast grossly mangled (of all things) a main character’s French name.
Taher’s swear words: Somewhere in there, my friend Taher managed to land an archaeological internship in Japan, and he found a list of impolite expressions (read: swear words) online and printed them out. Interested, I memorized a few (and still remember them now).
Neo Ranga: I credit this series with giving me more of an interest in Japanese culture, history, and politics. Each episode was only about fifteen minutes, less after opening and ending credits. While it looked like a kaiju series on the surface, it had much more depth, and the translator’s notes about the little bits of Japan scattered throughout caught my interest in many different ways. (The second season was far less enjoyable, in case you decide to check it out.)
Serial Experiments Lain: Recommended to me years before, I consider this the first series I watched completely in Japanese. The main character is a junior-high school girl, who speaks quietly and rarely. The English dub actress — much like many of them I’ve heard — sounded like a woman in her thirties trying to sound like a teenager. So I switched to Japanese. The difference was striking; the language hit my ear much better, and the voice actress was convincing in her role. It wasn’t long after that I switched over entirely.
Phantom Dust: This was a Microsoft Japan game for the Xbox that was originally scheduled to come to the US, but was inexplicably cancelled. I was nearly ready to shell out the money to buy a Japanese Xbox and copy of the game, but another company bought the rights to release it the following year. Rather than play online against people from the US, I knew the real challenge (and best source of tips and tricks) would come from playing against the Japanese, who’d had the game a year longer. I was right, too, but when it came to cooperative play, I was unable to make myself understood. The best I was able to do once when I’d been taken down was to say 「助けて?」to my partner. I eventually happened to play with a guy who spoke English and Japanese (and Tagalog), and he acted as interpreter now and then. Note that I had not yet taken an interest in learning Japanese, but I think this helped push me in that direction.
Guilty Gear drama CDs: Drama CDs are extensions of a license, like anime or video games, and are vaguely like high-quality radio plays. Guilty Gear was (and is) one of my favorite fighting-game series around. Once I realized I could buy these CDs with my favorite fighting game’s characters, I had to have them. I understood almost none of what they said, but I was hooked. Eventually, I expanded to other series’ CDs, all of which helped my comprehension, my accent, and my intonation.
The Pillows/the indigo: Most of my early exposure to Japanese pop and rock was through anime. Rather than having themes written for TV shows, studios often licensed existing music instead. Two groups I discovered I liked were The Pillows (best known for their songs used in the series フリクリ) and the indigo (whom I first heard for the soundtrack to 魔法使いに大切なこと). I remember listening to The Pillows’ song “One Life” and hearing the lyric “君は僕の光,” which — after who knows how many times I’d listened to that song — one day clicked in my head: “you are my light.” Some time later, I realized how simple the lyrics were in songs by the indigo, and even now I enjoy their music just a little more because I can easily understand the gist of it.
ドキドキ魔女神判: The DokiMajo series of games was one of the first games to innovate on the Nintendo DS, and spawned a whole new gametype. Despite not being able to read Japanese, I imported the first game and started playing. It wasn’t enough. I finally printed out a list of hiragana and katakana and set to work memorizing them, often on my lunch break at work. I didn’t know any kanji — well, except for the handful I managed to puzzle out through repetition — but I actually got pretty good at reading kana, and my reading speed improved through the second and third games in the series.
My Japanese Coach: Part of the My ____ Coach DS series, this one had been on my radar since I’d seen it announced. After delays, it finally arrived in stores — and since I worked at a game store, I was able to buy it immediately. With it, I improved my kana, learned some basic kanji, and added to my vocabulary and grammar. It wasn’t perfect, though; I found the occasional mistake.
Japanese in Mangaland: I count this book series as the most important tool in my Japanese learning arsenal. Before I bought the first book, I knew scattered words and phrases. After practicing the lessons, I was able to start making simple sentences. The second and third books had more advanced material, much of which I still use today. Without these books, I wouldn’t speak nearly as well as I do today.
Lost Planet Colonies and Dohaku: This was the rerelease of a game I’d played mostly offline. The extra material and budget price were enough to get me to pick it up again, and I decided to try my hand at playing online with people from Japan — mostly because the game had been much more popular there than in the States. It wasn’t long before I ran across a player who went by “Dohaku.” He tended to host matches, and wasn’t like most of the other Japanese players — he was chatty and kept up a running commentary. He was popular, and his room filled up fast, so I finally made friends with the guy. Over the weeks and months, I met several of his online friends, and through them even more; Dohaku was directly or indirectly responsible for me being able to meet Megumi, Takashi, and the other people I knew in Japan before I ever set foot here.
Left 4 Dead (and Photo Party): If LPC was the game that introduced me to my online Japanese friends, Left 4 Dead was the game that solidified our bonds. I had spent a few afternoons on my days off talking to a small handful of people in Japan via an Xbox photo-sharing chat application called Photo Party, but it was the game Left 4 Dead where we spent hours together: playing, talking, and speaking Japanese. My Japanese, of course, was feeble, but I tried my best to use what little I knew. I’d say I got a solid year of practice out of playing games on Xbox Live, and I still count some of my old teammates as real friends here.
Ashley: I had just taken my first semester of Japanese at college, and because it wasn’t a good curriculum, I had no practical experience writing kana. Since the class had been so easy, I was able to skip ahead to a later semester — but I’d be expected to be able to write in kana and simple kanji. My friend Ashley was in the class I transferred into, and had been writing in Japanese for a few years, so I asked her to help me the night before our first big homework assignment. She taught me to write almost as well as she did, though it took all night. To this day, I credit her with teaching me good Japanese penmanship.
WVU Culture Trip: This list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning my first trip to Japan. That trip allowed me to come here for the first time, gave me my first taste of real immersion, and showed me that living here might not be impossible after all. It also allowed me to meet some of the people I’d spent years playing online with — people who have since made my life in Japan easier and more fun.
(Note that this post shares much of the same information as another post of mine. Consider this a companion piece.)