A couple of months ago I finally graduated! No, not from high school or college, but from Japanese Langauge school! I spent the last year and a half as a language student in Japan, and wow, it was quite an experience. I am sure that there are many of you who are considering studying Japanese, moving abroad to Japan, and/or wondering about the ins and outs of language school.
In this post, I am going to share my experience through the whole journey – from when I got the first inkling to move abroad, all the way to when I got my diploma, first job, and passed the JLPT N2.
It takes a lot of planning, time, courage, and money to move abroad, so I hope this article is helpful to you!
Here is my video guide on this topic if you’d rather watch it instead!
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“How do you study abroad in Japan?”
“What are the best language schools to learn Japanese?”
“What is it like to live abroad in Japan?”
Do any of these questions sound familiar to you? For anyone thinking about moving abroad to study Japanese, I’m sure questions like these have floated in your head before – they sure did for me!
There are many hoops to jump through to find the best path for each person, but the bottom line is: if you are set on wanting to try out life in Japan, do it! Living abroad is a wonderful experience where you not only learn the language, but also about yourself, different cultures, and different people.
Here are the items this post will cover:
- My Japanese Background
- Why I Chose to Go to Language School (in Japan)
- How to Choose a Language School
- Getting a Student Visa
- Life at Japanese Language School
- How Much Japanese Did I learn? (Was it actually useful to go to school?)
- Life After Japanese Language School
My Japanese Background
Before coming to Japan, I had previous experience studying Japanese while in college. I only took classes for one year though, and after that, went almost 4-5 years without speaking anything. Needless to say, I forgot most of what I had learned.
The good news is that once I did brush off the dust and get the Japanese gears turning again, I felt like it was easier to pick up since I had familiarity with the language. It was amazing to feel like things made more sense the second time around, especially verb conjugations and kanji. Maybe focusing solely on Japanese rather than having to balance a hundred other subjects and activities as I did in college also made a bit of a difference… ?
Word of advice: Even if you have tried to learn the language before and stopped before reaching your goal, it’s never too late to pick it back up again. You just need to take the first step and keep walking. For first-time Japanese learners, get excited! Even though the language is difficult, it is really cool and an essential tool to understand and appreciate more about Japan as a whole.
Why I Chose to Go to Language School (in Japan)
After college, I worked for two years in a “normal job”. I had a relatively good time, learned a lot, got to feel what life in the workforce is like, etc. After some time though, I started to get an itch to do something more. Something that would be exciting, challenging, and… an adventure. I decided I wanted to live in another country.
And that country happened to be Japan.
I really liked Japan from my previous times visiting and was always wowed by how different life there was compared to being in the US. Since my goal was to immerse myself in a place that has different values, culture, thinking, and lifestyles than what I was used to, Japan was the place for me. Additionally, Japan has a unique design sector which would give me options to pursue my career if I decided to work in Japan in the future.
Once I decided on Japan, I began to research the different ways that would get me there. This means, finding out what kind of visa I could get that would match my goals and qualifications.
The three main visas I looked at are as follows:
This visa is only available for periods of 3 months or less. On this visa, you cannot work or (in my mind) truly immerse yourself in the country. It’s a great option for well…. tourists, but wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. Also, because of COVID-19, this visa was not available.
When you are on a work visa, you must work in Japan in a field related to your degree of study. You need the support of a company to help you apply for this visa and the process involves a lot of paperwork, documents, and time. People with jobs in tech, or who want to teach English will have the easiest time getting this visa.
It is important to know that in Japan, the language barrier is still quite strong. Many companies require foreigners to have a high level of Japanese proficiency (~JLPT N2 or higher).
I looked at several companies in Japan, but without a high level of Japanese, connections, or the ability to meet in person for interviews and scouting, getting a work visa right off the bat was not feasible for me. (Additionally, I knew that I wanted to spend a good chunk of time traveling and discovering Japan, so I was looking for an option that would give me more freedom than a work visa).
Introducing the Student Visa! On a student visa, you are committing to attend a language school and learn Japanese. There are set attendance policies you must abide by, and depending on the school, certain proficiency tests you need to take during the program. Overall this visa is pretty attainable minus the fact that language school can be costly.
Student visas can be for 6 months -> 2+ years and allow you to work up to 28 hours per week if you receive permission. There are many school holidays (I’m talking multiple weeks off during the year), and it’s a great way to be able to settle in, make friends, and craft your own life in a new country.
Given the nature of the student visa and my goals, this option made the most sense to me. It was time to go back to school!
The Bottom Line:
Before getting too far into the process, step back and assess your situation. Ask yourself why you want to move abroad, and what goals you have during that time. Then look into the options available and choose the route that best fits these goals.
How To Choose a Language School
So you decided to go the language school route, now how do you choose a school?
Because you will spend a lot of time at school and it is not a cheap decision to study abroad, you will want to spend some time figuring out which place is the best match for you. For this research, I turned to Google.
I searched rankings reviews, blog posts, forums, and videos that detailed the different programs available and other students’ experiences while there. I sent emails of interest to different schools and evaluated how timely and helpful their information was.
Several key factors that went into my decision in choosing a school were: class size, demographic of students, teaching focus, staff support, and location.
When it comes to learning a language, the smaller the class size the better. During my time at Genki Jacs, I was often in a class of about 5-6 students. I found this number to be the sweet spot. Too many more and you start to have a hard time getting enough chances to speak regularly and the speed of the class can also start to slow down. My school capped classes at 8 students which I think is a good maximum.
Demographic of Students:
Knowing what kind of students are typically enrolled in the school is also important. There are schools that are more catered to those who come from Asian-speaking countries and already have a background in kanji. Going to a school like this can be a great way to challenge yourself to hit the ground running with kanji, but it can also be very difficult for those with no foundation.
Genki Jacs was a school that catered to more Western and European students. Because of this, the school started teaching kanji from the very basics, and also focused a lot on building conversation skills.
Regardless of if you go to a school that teaches you kanji from the beginning or not, I highly recommend getting a head start in learning kanji yourself. The most powerful tool I have used has been WaniKani (a spaced repetition flashcard system that teaches kanji and vocab). My only regret is not having known about and started this platform sooner.
Somewhat related to the above section, schools are catered to reaching different goals. There are some that specifically focus on JLPT preparation, while others teach you what you need to know to get a job, enter a trade school, or Japanese university.
Still, others have a broader focus and teach Japanese culture in addition to the language. Knowing your goals and why you want to learn Japanese will make choosing which type of school easier.
Attending a school that has good staff support will only make your life that much easier. There are so many little things that need to be done when living in Japan like going to the ward office when you move in and out, opening a bank account, paying national health insurance, applying for jobs, extending your visa, etc. All of these procedures are done in Japanese, so to have the help of school staff that can speak English (or your native language) is a big, big plus.
When I first started researching schools, I looked at big, well-known cities like Tokyo and Osaka. These areas have many language schools and I thought it would be a good place to spend my time as I was comfortable with the area.
However, as I did more looking, I realized that it might be better to study outside of these common tourist destinations and live somewhere a bit less known and off the map. Fukuoka came onto my radar when I found Genki Jac’s student program. The more I read about Fukuoka and the island of Kyushu with its food, proximity to other South East Asian countries, nature, and more, I knew where I wanted to go.
It turned out that being in Fukuoka was a great decision. With fewer foreigners and people around who speak English, I was forced to use my Japanese skills more. Additionally, the area of Fukuoka is incredibly nice and easy to live in, unlike the heart of Tokyo.
Getting a Student Visa
Once I had found my school, it was time to start the actual process of applying for a student visa. I had to work closely with the school to make sure the correct documents were submitted, and it took many months from the start of the application to finally receiving the visa.
The timeline for starting the visa application process varies depending on the school but generally happens 4-5 months before the start date of classes. Here is the general flow of the application procedure:
- Me: filled out an interest form on the school’s website
- School: sent an invoice/offer
- Me: accepted the offer and became registered with the school
- Me: filled out a visa application form. This form asks for basic info like name, nationality, date of birth, passport info, marital status, home address, and photo. It also asks about your background with Japan, including previous travel to the country, why you want to go to Japan, and any prior Japanese studies.
- School: submits documents to the Japanese Embassy on behalf of me to apply for a COE (Certificate of Enrollment / Certificate of Eligibility)
- School: receives COE
- Me: pays school tuition to receive my COE
- Me: books a one-way ticket to Japan!
- School: sends COE by mail
- Me: goes to the local Japanese consulate to submit the COE, my passport, and Visa application form
- Wait 1-2 weeks
- Me: return to the Japanese consulate to pick up my new visa!
Finally, after months of back and forth and waiting, I received my ticket to Japan! The process is long and tedious, but if you just follow the steps and submit the correct documents, there shouldn’t be many difficulties.
Getting that visa in hand is one of the most exciting feelings!
Tip: make sure your passport is up to date / renew it if it is set to expire soon. It’s hard to do this when abroad, so taking care of this before you leave will only make your life easier.
Life at Japanese Language School
So you finally got your visa, and you’ve made it to Japan! So what is it like studying at a language school?
Some of the information is specific to my school and personal experience, but much of the following applies to other language schools in general.
You must meet a certain level of attendance, and reach a standard of Japanese proficiency by the end of the program. For my school, you had to attend 80% of classes and take the J.test or JLPT N4.
We had 4 x 50 minutes of classes a day with 5-10 minutes of break in between. My school had a system where the class times could vary day to day which made it a real pain to develop a regular schedule and rhythm. (Other schools have a more set schedule so this wouldn’t be a problem).
In class, we focused on the four skills: reading, writing, listening and speaking. We used a dedicated textbook for two of the lessons and worked on the remaining skills in the other classes. We had different teachers every day which had both its merits and drawbacks.
As I attended a conversation-based school, we did lots of role-playing and conversation practice. There was very light homework, usually just a page a day reviewing the material we had learned. (If you attend a school where the homework is light, I highly recommend putting a bit more time into self-study to help build your foundation quicker. For self-study resources outside of the classroom, check out this blog post!).
During the week we had mini vocab tests and once finishing a section of the textbook, we would have a larger test. As long as you participated in class, did the homework, and understood what was being taught, the tests were not a problem. There was also a speaking portion on each test and after reaching the intermediate level, we had to write essays as well.
My school did not traditionally teach specifically for passing the JLPT, but because there was quite a demand by students during my time with the school, they catered a few weeks of classes to prepare for the test. In class, we used the So Matome, New Kanzen Master, and Try! series. We also took a mock test to really get a feel for the test environment. To read more about the JLPT and how I studied for it, check out here!
Outside of class, the school organized cultural events on holidays and throughout the week, there were small programs you could participate in as the school had affiliations with local Japanese schools and groups.
As for vacations, there was A LOT of time off. In addition to national holidays, we had a 6-week break in the summer, 2 weeks off in spring and winter, and another week off in fall. I loved having these chunks of time off and used them to travel around Japan.
On the student visa, you are allowed to work part-time for up to 28 hours per week. You need to get special permission to do so though, and your work cannot affect your studies or attendance.
While you have a set part of your day that must be in school, outside of this time you really have the freedom to craft your life and enjoy Japan. Being on a student visa gives you a lot of time to explore and meet new people.
There are also some perks that you can enjoy with your student status such as discounts at certain bars, theaters, museums, travel, etc.
How Much Japanese Did I Learn?
Was 1.5 years of Japanese language school worth it? How much Japanese did I learn?
As I mentioned earlier, I started as a beginner, but I wasn’t an absolute beginner which made it a bit quicker to pick up learning again.
By the time I finished Genki Jacs I had studied over 10 textbooks (some of them JLPT specific, others not).
- Genki 1 (Beginner)
- Genki 2 (Beginner)
- 中級へ行こう – Pink (Intermediate)
- 中級へ行こう – Green (Intermediate)
- New Kanzen Master N3 Series (新完全マスター) (JLPT)
- So Matome N3 Series (総まとめ) (JLPT)
- Try N3 (JLPT)
- Try N2 (JLPT)
- New Kanzen Master N2 Series (JLPT)
- Quartet II (Intermediate)
In addition to studying in school, I did a decent amount of supplemental study such as learning kanji with WaniKani, finding language partners, reading graded readers, and watching Japanese news.
At this point, I am pretty comfortable talking with native Japanese speakers in casual conversation. My listening is still better than my speaking, but I’m working to continue to improve both.
I had a few interviews in Japanese when I was job hunting, but these didn’t turn out so well. I’m still not quite at the level where I can do business or explain more complex ideas and situations in Japanese.
Overall I feel like my studies gave me a good foundation and finally pushed me to the intermediate level. I was able to develop a learning style that worked for me and discovered many tools to continue my studies on my own.
When I first started at Genki Jacs, I was reading basic graded readers (very slowly), and now I’m enjoying reading Harry Potter, (still slowly ?). It has become a lot easier to understand written materials because my kanji has slowly improved.
I am also now able to understand more when I listen to the news in Japanese. At first, it was hard to see the progress that I made day to day, but looking back, I can definitely see that my Japanese ability has grown and that’s very encouraging!
I took the JLPT N3 in December, just shy of 1 year in language school. Before the test, I had gone through most of the So Matome series and was drilling kanji on WaniKani every day. I was excited when I found out I had passed!
About half a year later I took the N2. There is a big jump in material and difficulty from N3 to N2, but since I had nothing to lose, I decided to take it. The day I took the test, it felt terrible and I was pretty sure I had not scored high enough on the first section to pass. After months of waiting, the results finally came out.
I had passed! It was a bit of a shock for me as I had really been expecting otherwise, but definitely a happy moment. My scores showed again that my listening was the strongest section with my vocabulary and grammar falling a bit behind.
All that’s left is the N1, but I’m not sure if this is something I will undertake. Coming right off of the N2, I feel like I need a bit of a break before assessing if I’m ready to try for the next level. We’ll see what happens…
Life After Japanese Language School
After graduating from language school, you can either return to your home country or continue living in Japan. For those who plan to stay in Japan, figuring out your next visa will be your next challenge. Again there are a couple of different options available and the right one for each person will be different. Just remember that getting a new visa takes a lot of time and sometimes the cooperation of an employer or other school, so think about what lies in the future as early as possible so you can get the ball rolling before your student visa expires.
Is going to language school a good decision? If you are intent on learning the language in a rich and dedicated environment, then yes, there is no better place to immerse yourself and learn Japanese than right in Japan.
If you see yourself wanting to work in Japan but need to build a Japanese foundation, this is also a good reason to go the student route. When you are abroad, you will be able to use your time outside of class to build connections and test out what life is like living in the country. Going from beginner to business-level Japanese is difficult though and will take many years for most.
If you want to experience living in Japan for a longer period of time than a tourist visa permits and can commit to the requirements of being a student, then yes, I highly recommend going to language school!
Hopefully, there has been some information in this post that can help you make your decisions about moving abroad and studying Japanese.
If you have any questions, please leave them in a comment below and I’ll answer!
For more topics on living abroad and learning Japanese, check out these blog posts!