That month in Japan flew by quickly as all my previous working vacations had lasted at least three times as long. I spent one week on campus giving talks, observing lectures, and advising students–trust me, I was not overtaxed! Following these required duties I was given a Japan Rail Pass, a thick wad of yen, and told to spend as much times as I wanted, or at least as much as the money and rail pass would allow, traveling the country learning about Japanese society. No fixed itinerary, no packaged tours. Since many American visitors would find this freedom a bit daunting and, given that English is neither an official nor semi-official language, the school offered to provide a student translator/guide/assistant. However, traveling with an 18- or 19-year old did not appeal to me, and paying their food and hotel costs would significantly reduce the amount of my travel time. It was then that the wisdom of an earlier decision became evident.
I was selected for the program in July although departure was not until the following January. (My school was on a 4-1-4 calendar, with January a self-contained four-week semester. This visit met my teaching duties for that one month term.) Since I had sufficient advance notice I signed up to take Japanese 101 in the Fall. While many tourists learn a few simple phrases such as “Good morning,” and “Where is the bathroom?” I wanted to learn enough to become an independent traveler, even to remote towns where English speakers are few and far between. I spent four months studying elementary Japanese and reached the point where I was able to tell people a little about myself, ask for directions (and even understand the answer), get a hotel room, and order meals at cafes well off the beaten tourist paths.
When I departed Miyagi my hosts were nervous about sending me off without a chaperone, but it worked out far better than I could have imagined. Of course I went to the “biggies” of Japanese tourism–Kyoto, Nara, Hiroshima–but instead of staying at a Sheraton, Hilton, or Holiday Inn, I was able to walk into a local ryokan, a traditional inn, book a room, have meals, and enjoy the hot baths, even if the proprietor did not speak a word of English. Having learned a minimal amount of Japanese allowed me to visit villages such as Takayama, Kanazawa, and Ise without worrying about whether I would be able to find someone who spoke English. The smiles on the faces of people I met when I said skoshi Nihongo de hanashimas, “I speak a little bit of Japanese,” was priceless. When I told them Watashi wa kyoju desu soshte Miyagi Kiyuiku Daigaku ni oshiemashta “I am a college professor and taught at Miyagi University” it produced some (albeit very simple) discussions about where I was from and how long I would be in the country. I know that I routinely butchered the grammar, just as I probably made errors in this post, but it did not seem to matter. I had made an effort to learn the language, and they were grateful and appreciative of that effort. Errors be damned!
When you set off on a working vacation I cannot emphasize enough the importance of learning a bit of the local language–the more the better. I was lucky enough to be able to register for a university course at no cost. If that is not an option then look to a local community college or adult education center. As a last resort consider Rosetta Stone or a good textbook. Anything is better than nothing. (I would love to receive comments from anyone who has studied a language in order to interact with the local community while living and working overseas. Please share your experiences with our readers.)
I know English is the lingua franca of world travel, and you can usually get by with just this one language in your repertoire. Learning the local language is not done as a survival skill but as a way to create opportunities to get away from overcrowded tourist haunts and see places and sights not often visited. Speaking a bit of the local tongue also makes an important statement. It says that you care enough about the history and culture of your host country to spend some time learning their language, at least enough to interact with locals at an elementary level. The appreciative smiles on their faces will make it worth the effort, errors and all.