Methods for Studying Japanese


The most effective way I’ve found to improve my conversational skills is by finding native language partners. I think conversation practice is often the hardest for people beginning to learn a language. When you are just starting out, you realize how bad your language skills are; and thus it’s embarrassing to try to use them in actual conversation. There are also many moments of misunderstanding and frustration when you’re unable to understand your partner and express your own insights. Nevertheless, I have found that many Japanese university students have been eager to help me in my language study. If real-time conversation is too daunting, I have also found text conversation to be helpful in learning conversational phrases. In the case that study abroad is impossible, I know many people who have found language partners online and through apps. The resources are there as long as you are willing to look.


In my opinion, vocabulary needs separate practice from conversation. There are many words that, while important and useful, just aren’t used that often in everyday conversation. I usually do practical vocabulary study by reading a book (with furigana provided for kanji) with my phone dictionary on the ready and a memo pad to record words that I consider important. I am rather selective in what words I choose to record. For example, I usually only record words that I think would be useful for me in conversation and essays. If a word seems to be too rare or irrelevant, then I will just look up the meaning without recording it.


Kanji practice is the most difficult for me. I have yet to find a fun or interesting means of studying the characters. Thus far, I have only found a few ways to expedite the process. Many kanji characters contain other, simpler kanji within them. Thus, if you can get a grasp over the basic building blocks, then it becomes much easier to learn new kanji. In the past, I used to try to remember kanji based on individual strokes. This process is very difficult and error-prone. Nowadays, I pay special attention to the building blocks since they sometimes even are helpful for figuring out the meaning of new words.

Differences between America and Japan

Vending Machines

One of the most interesting differences between Japan and America was in the difference in food and drink selection, epitomized in the vending machines. In American vending machines, the selection is usually around 90% soda with the rest being energy drinks, water, lemonade, etc. On the other hand, most Japanese vending machines didn’t include any soda at all, opting instead for green tea, coffee, electrolyte drinks, and water. It was such a stark difference. I believe that this selection is one of the reasons why Japanese are so much healthier than Americans.


Driving in Japan is nowhere near as prevalent as it is in America. For example, most Japanese roads had no parking on the sides; and parking lots could usually only fit a handful of cars. Most Japanese cars were about half the size of American cars and looked cubic. Also, many Japanese roads were narrow with no sidewalks. Finally, drive-through fast food restaurants were non-existent.


A big part of Japanese culture is maintaining proper manners and customs. Japanese society is founded on a lot of unwritten rules. If you break some of these rules, it is hard to tell outside of some disapproving looks. For example, you are not supposed to eat or drink on buses and trains; and there is generally an expectation of quietness on these vehicles. Another unwritten rule is that you give a brief bow if passing in front of someone too closely as a way of excusing your blocking their path.

In America, it’s perfectly acceptable to talk to shopkeepers and other strangers with small talk (“how are you?” is a common example of this). In Japan, this type of conversation is very rare since most Japanese value their privacy and social distinctions. On that note, there is a more strict social hierarchy in Japan as there are special words, phrases, and manners of speech that you must follow when speaking to superiors and vice versa. In America, there are some similar rules, but to a much lesser extent.


Public Transportation in Japan

Public transportation in Japan is leagues ahead of America in all areas. The main methods of transport are buses, subways, JR trains, bullet trains, and ferries. For all of these services, Japan offers prepaid IC (integrated circuit) cards that can be used to pay the fares by simply “tapping on” when entering and “tapping off” when exiting. These IC cards can be “topped off” (refilled) at machines located outside the ticket gates. While each area of Japan has a different corresponding IC card, nowadays you can use any IC card in any area.

If you are a tourist in Japan, you can purchase a special rail pass that provides you with unlimited rides on JR train lines, bullet trains, and a few other special modes of transfer within a certain period of time. The price of the rail pass may seem a little high at first, but when you take into account the price of the bullet trains normally (~$50-$100 one way), it is well worth the cost.


The buses in Japan, while useful, often suffered from the same problems in America. On one hand, the buses were more timely than in America. On the other, the routes were confusing, the times infrequent, and the prices high. I often had to use Google Maps to find the closest and soonest bus, since the schedule/map was too difficult to use on the spot. For daily, routine routes, they are more helpful.


The most useful form of city transport in my opinion. The subways were frequent, fast, and timely, with useful routes to all the main sights of the city. The price for the subway was a bit high, but the convenience was well worth it.

JR Trains

These are similar to Amtrak trains in the US as they connect the big cities of Japan with smaller towns and other big cities. They were useful for getting to places that were out of range of the subway system. The times are pretty frequent for local trains, with rapid express trains being somewhat infrequent. During rush hour, if you don’t have a reserved seat, it can become a little uncomfortable since the unreserved cars have subway-style seating.

Bullet Trains

The most amazing form of transport I have ever used in my life. I (and most Japanese people) loved the shinkansens (bullet trains). They are insanely timely, veeeeery fast, very comfortable to ride on, and very frequent. These trains make sightseeing around Japan so easy since they connect nearly all major cities in Japan. Unlike airplanes, there is a lot of legroom, no need to worry about luggage sizes or security, and great sites from the window. You can reserve seats in advance or simply hop onto a non-reserved car (if you have the rail pass).


Daily Life at Nanzan University

While thinking about the topic for this blog post, I realized that a lot of people don’t have a good grasp of the daily routines and activities during study abroad programs. I know that I personally came to Nanzan with no clue how my day’s would go.

For my program, you can choose to do either homestay or dorm life. Both have their pros and cons, and I actually got to experience both during my time here. For homestay, you’ll typically live quite a ways from school. Thus, as is typical in Japan, a long commute is required. For me, I had to take two subway lines and a bus, plus a 10 minute walk to get to and from school. All in all, it usually took around an hour and 15-30 minutes, depending on whether I could switch trains fast enough. During this time, I recommend you study for the daily quizzes or review useful vocab. It’s a bit hard to do actual homework during the trip during the trip since it’s not usually the smoothest ride.

Some of the best parts of homestay are the authentic Japanese dinners and the interesting conversations with your host family. If you want to improve fast and get a real experience of Japanese home life, homestay’s the best way to go. Last year, thanks to my host family, I gained a real grasp of colloquial Japanese phrases and the Japanese life style. They can also help with any issues you run into during your study abroad.

On the other hand, I recommend dorm life for people with experience in their target country. Despite the benefits of homestay, there is a certain element of restriction on the types of activities you can experience during your time abroad. Just like with any family, there are curfews and rules that you need to maintain as a member. If you’re interested in hanging out with local university students a lot or want to be more in control of your time, dorm life is more suitable for that kind of experience. It’s also easier to make friends and spend time with them in the dorms.

Apart from the living accomodations, your typical day consists of classes in the morning with free time in the afternoon. Every other week, we have field trips after our Wednesday class. For summer study abroad, we usually have more homework than at Notre Dame, although it usually wasn’t any more difficult. I recommend doing the homework together with a Japanese friend, so that they can help you discover which phrases are natural and which aren’t used very often. In exchange, you can help them with English homework.

At Nanzan, I spend a lot of time at World Plaza and Japan Plaza. World Plaza is a place where any language BUT Japanese can be spoken. Since Nanzan has a lot of students studying foreign languages, it is a great place to become friends with local university students. On the other hand, Japan Plaza is a location where you can only speak Japanese and thus is really helpful for conversation practice.

Outside of those set activities, I usually get in touch with my Nanzan friends and other foreign exchange students to go out to eat or have fun together. Some of these activities include the following: day trips to nearby towns, late night runs to the arcade, club trips on Fridays, and shopping. It really just depends on your interests what you decide to do during this time.

That should cover the general schedule I follow for my study abroad. Until next time,

Logan Yokum

Japanese Food

Conbini (Japanese Convenience Store)

If there’s one thing you learn to love upon arriving in Japan, it’s the Japanese convenience stores. They are located everywhere and are probably somewhat comparable to Walmart in the US. Everyone on study abroad is amazed by them. They have everything you could want – good, fresh food; ATMs; school supplies; letters and stamps; and all sorts of random, everyday items. They even sell some clothes. While they are slightly more expensive than a grocery store, they really embody the word convenience.

Takoyaki (Octopus Snack)

Recently, with the help of some Japanese friends, we made Takoyaki at the dorms. It was really fun and simple to make them. First, you poured the batter into a pan with half-sphere shapes in the pan. Then, you cut up an octopus tentacle into little pieces and put one into each spot. After waiting for the pieces to solidify, you then use a toothpick and very carefully flip the half-spheres over. After solidifying on both sides, they’re ready to eat. You can often buy them from street vendors at festivals.

Miso Katsu (Pork in Miso Sauce)

A Nagoya specialty, miso katsu is one of my favorites. Although it’s rather simple, the miso sauce adds such a unique taste to the fried pork strips. There are some restaurants that specialize in this dish here, such as Yabaton.

こんにちは! from Nagoya, Japan

Greetings everyone from Japan!!

I’m Logan Yokum and a sophomore studying Computer Science and Japanese at Notre Dame. Currently, I am participating in my second summer study abroad experience in Japan at Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan. Last summer, I participated in a language and cultural study program in Hakodate, Hokkaido, Japan, through the Hokkaido International Foundation. While I very much enjoyed my time in Hakodate last summer, I have found my experience at Nanzan this year to be even better than I could have ever expected.

From my time in Japan last summer, I have discovered that the most enjoyable aspect of language study for me has been the friendships that I have made with native speakers. Last summer, during a trip to Sapporo, Japan, I had an opportunity to talk with local university students at Hokusei University about my experiences during my study abroad program. Although my Japanese was rather poor during that time, the students nevertheless listened intently to what I had to say and worked around the deficiencies in my study. Even after returning to America, I have kept in touch with many of the students I met; and we practice both Japanese and English together every now and then over Skype. Thanks to their great kindness, I was able to improve my conversational Japanese to the point where I can talk with natives about pop culture and my interests (although I still struggle with topics such as politics and science due to my limited vocabulary).

Thanks to the SLA grant, I have been able to be converse with local university students everyday after class in the Japan Plaza and Stella multicultural lounge in Nanzan University. By discussing ideas and opinions with these students, I have been able to forge countless friendships and connections across cultures. Since I plan to work in Japan as a programmer after graduation, I think that these relationships will be invaluable in order to acclimate to the cultural differences between Japan and America. Additionally, through the help of my many friends, I have been able to study colloquial Japanese that is not often used within the classroom environment.

Going forward, I’m looking forward to sharing my experiences with all of you through this blog about my time here!


Logan Yokum