Diplomates: Katy Cox
I did the Diploma in Modern Japanese from 2002 - 2003, and can honestly say it changed my life in terms of career options, travelling experiences, making great friends and just generally broadening my personal horizons. Three years later, I’m still a dedicated student of SOAS!
When I started the course, I had already spent a year in Tokyo teaching English, so my motivation for studying Japanese was the fact that I’d fallen in love with the culture, and begun to learn the language, although only to a very poor extent. I spent the first 3 weeks of the course feeling very smug that I could already say my name, age, order a beer and ask for directions to the nearest post office (!), but I soon realised that this course was not going to allow for any complacency whatsoever, and after my limited knowledge ran out in the first month, I was as confused and utterly overwhelmed as the next person.
If you decide to do the Diploma, you must be very prepared for the eventuality that unless you are entirely committed to the course, prepared to work hard, and your brain is willing to move at a fast pace, you may not last past the first term. However, if you have the tenacity and enthusiasm to keep yourself driven, you will shock yourself with how much knowledge it is possible to gain within one year, and how many doors can be opened through enrolling on this course.
Several different teachers instruct this course, all of whom made the lessons incredibly interesting and involving and fun. They will always go out of their way to spare time to help you with any personal worries that you have about your studies, or try to iron out individual mistakes/linguistic tendencies that they have noticed. They also set A LOT of homework, which is actually a key element of the course to remember. If you don’t do extra work every day, you will struggle, which is what happened to me. Towards the end, I felt as if the pace was impossibly hard, and that we were being bombarded with information, grammar, vocabulary, and kanji. It’s a familiar pattern for most people to be brimming with enthusiasm at the beginning, but for this to then slowly wane, and be replaced by listlessness and frustration, especially in the third term. But I promise you - IT’S ALL WORTH IT!!!!
The kanji was a particular challenge for me. There were quite a number of Chinese students on my course who could recognise the characters easily, so I often felt left behind. Also, my studying techniques were, I came to realise, really quite ineffective! You will be given 30 characters to learn per week, and if you do as I did and try to learn all of them in a 3-hour study session in the night before the test, you will find that you will retain them the following day, but after that, they will have been erased from memory completely. The best way by far is to try and memorise 5 a day, and then put them into a sentence so that you have a context to associate them with.
The Language Centre at SOAS is a really great place to do extra study, and things like listening to the tapes, and watching Japanese TV are nice ways to vary your activities, rather than fall asleep over your books. And of course working together with the other students provides you with a lot of solidarity, as well as a sounding board for your doubts, grammar niggles, and questions you would feel too stupid to ask the teachers! It can be a big relief to discover that nobody else understood what the Causative Passive was either! I made some great friends from the course, not surprisingly, as of course you all have a shared passion and most probably, shared future dreams and aims.
There was a huge variety in my class of ages, personalities and experiences. Most people had in fact not been to Japan before the starting the Diploma, but many had it in their sights to go afterwards. I went back again almost immediately after the course to teach English again. Both occasions I lived in Japan were incredible and I wouldn’t swap the times I spent there for anything. Outstanding memories include bathing naked with a bunch of strangers in volcanic hot springs; going to a festival where hundreds of men sit on tree trunks and slide down a steep slope at the risk of killing themselves; eating shrimp that was so fresh it was still moving; seeing life-size ice sculptures of St Paul’s Cathedral in the Ice Festival in Hokkaido; spotting Maiko-san (Geisha) in Kyoto; Dragon-boat races, loud, drunken karaoke; complete strangers walking 2 miles out of their way to give you directions to where you need to be; taking part in a tea ceremony, and snowboarding in the beautiful Japanese Alps.
The first time in Tokyo (pre-diploma), was frenetic with fun and friends and frolics, and sewed the seeds of my fascination in Japanese life and culture. However, in retrospect, a lot was lost in translation and I missed out on many aspects of Japan that I was blind to through lack of communication.
After having completed the diploma, and venturing to a small village in Nagano, I was astounded to discover that I could actually understand what people were saying to me, and that the children I was teaching weren’t being rude to me behind my back, but making cute comments about colours and shapes and games and each other, and the fact that I knew what they were talking about gave me an enormous sense of satisfaction. To be able to converse with Japanese people in their own language changes the dynamics of your relationships from superficial to meaningful, and this in turn transforms your experience of living in Japan from a bubble-encased surreal madness into something tangible and much closer to assimilation.
The diploma won’t turn you into a fluent Japanese speaker, but it will provide you with a really solid base, and when you think that 10 months ago you found “this is my book” a tongue-twister, and now you can discuss Japanese literature and environmental issues, you will feel thrilled by what you’ve achieved and motivated about what it is possible to achieve from then onwards. Above all, doing the diploma is a fantastic way to spend a year learning an unusual skill in a challenging but incredibly fun and surprisingly recreational environment.
Tips on getting jobs in Japan
It's really hard to get a job working in Japan as anything other than an English Language Instructor unless you are fluent or get work through your employer in the UK. My suggestion on teaching, even though I worked for private language institutes, would be to try JET. They are prestigious and well-recognised, and as their employee you will be offered an attractive package of pay, holidays and support. However, JET tends to place people in rural areas, so if you want to live in a city like Tokyo or Osaka, your best bet is to go with one of the big private organisations:
This kind of job does have its advantages too, in that you will be teaching adults, and therefore find it easier to make friends with Japanese people. They do look after you, and the pay is decent. The hours are longer with GEOS but you have more autonomy in devising your own lesson plans. The days are more hectic with Nova, but there is no extra paperwork, so you can escape at the earliest possible opportunity! Other than that, they are much of a muchness.
Tips on getting work using Japanese in the UK
Possible channels to pursue are Japanese job agencies such as:
- People First
- Centre People
- JAC Recruitment
Or there are always current postings on the JET AA website.
I found my current job as a P.A at the Japanese Embassy on the Embassy’s website, but it was also posted on JET AA.