My 10 Year lv60 Journey and Reflections

My 10 Year lv60 Journey


I finally made it! It took me longer than most. I’d like to write about my journey. If you don’t want to read here are some key takeaways:

“Go slow, enjoy, don’t worry, just do”

“Nothing you do is a waste. Every bit of study matters. It just takes time to show.”

“Hustle hard when you feel the drive. Stop if you lose the flame. One day it will reignite.”

Humble Beginnings

“To get to where you need to go, you have to know where you are.”

Funnily enough my foreign language learning begins with French. I’m half Japanese, half French, but my European side is 1st generation while the Asian side is 3rd. I went to a French elementary school and took it as my language elective throughout high school. At the present, I think Japanese must have replaced this language as I can barely speak a word of it anymore, though it comes back a little at family events. This is my first insight into classroom learning being insufficient, but I’ll get to this point later.

Being from Hawaii, I was surrounded by a mix of cultures. I watched lions dance in Chinatown, I took traditional Tae Kwon Do, I worked part time at the Filipino Culture Center, and ate Kalua Pig cooked in an Imu.

I ate bean rice on New Years, wore a kimono when I was three years old for 七五三 and even rented Ghibli films in raw Japanese from the local libraries and not understanding a word growing up. This is all to say I spoke absolutely no Japanese until senior year of high school. When I finished up my language requirements, I decided to take intro Japanese as an elective. I’m not sure why it took this long, but I was always jealous of my friends in Japanese class, but never even bothered to speak up about it. My first textbook was “Adventures in Japanese”. I finished the whole thing in a year and have it to this day, covered in stickers I earned in class. Turns out my teacher was the author of this book.

The Realization of Freedom (WK lv0)

“Nothing you do is a waste. Something is better than nothing. Every bit of study matters. It just takes time to show.”

I really enjoyed my first class. It really helped build a foundation of simple things like て-verbs and even reading ひらがな and カタカナ. The first step can be tough without direction and the intro class fills that need. In my first year of college, I moved to California to study Computer Engineering and had a clear realization I remember to this day. I’m not going to say I was the best student. I got by. But the realization was that I had never had so much free time on my hands and I thought this was going to be the most free time I will ever have in my life. Aside from a few hours of class and homework, I had hours upon hours of freedom that I never experienced before. No chores, cooking, commute, family obligation, or after-school activities. My schedule was my own. A college school day only took up 3-4 hours a day at most. That’s 20 hours minus sleep for anything I wanted to do. At first most of this was consumed by binging video games and TV shows, but eventually I made the mental commitment to learning Japanese completely on my own.

This is kind of nostalgic thinking about, but other than the intro class in high school, everything else was pretty much on my own. I remember doing several things that I can’t recommend to a newbie, but worked out for me. I’m sure there are better ways nowadays. Here is what I did:

Tae Kim’s Grammar

I just read this online resource. Just down the row whenever I felt like it.

Hi Native

This website was very useful to me. I learned that native speakers are actually terrible teachers. Just think about it, you don’t know anything about English grammar, you just speak it. I also learned that native speakers are really really good at telling you if something sounds weird. I would ask questions on this site and natives could respond if it sounded natural and also provide alternatives.

This is nice when you are simply unable to communicate your thoughts in another language, but just want to know what can be said or how to say something without being embarrassed by google translate.

Texting a real Japanese Person

I tried to make a pen-pal friend on japan-guide.com (no longer in service) Discord didn’t even exist yet. I added them on Line and talked to them daily and got roasted regularly. At first it took me twenty minutes sometimes to send a sentence or two, but it got easier. Imagine trying to text someone with only Genki I level knowledge. It was really difficult to convey basic things, but it was honestly a reality check. I would bounce between texting and reading the Grammar guide as necessary. Fun fact I actually met up with them once in Japan when I was on vacation! It was awkward AF (I was young) but she was a wonderful host and my Japanese sucked at the time.

Used Google Translate

Hey guys, it’s a lot better now, but back then it was trash. I just didn’t know what else to use. If anything it taught me not to use it. I would very regularly dump my line messages here. I would even look up kanji. If you are new, don’t do this. Use JMDict through Jisho.org and get the YomiChan extension. Kids these days don’t know what they’re missing. I will say that Google Translate did help me separate grammar from words. Sometimes I just had no idea how to break down a sentence in the early days.

Audited a Japanese Class

In hindsight it didn’t help much. I quickly realized there was no point in having conversations with people who spoke less Japanese than I did. Having a Japanese online friend proved to be way more useful. It did however let me sit in on a Japanese class whenever I felt like it without the stress of homework or exams. I got access to the teacher’s office hours and just didn’t get credit or a letter grade for it.

Learned Kanji from a Kanji Dictionary (then stopped for WaniKani)

I actually started learning Kanji by just going down the list in the book “Essential Kanji” ordered by frequency. I didn’t know what on’yomi and kun’yomi were at the time. I made flash cards and studied them, but realized that this method ain’t it. This is what ultimately had me start Wanikani in 2014! I purchased the lifetime subscription on a sale for $50 on May 16th, 2014. I also discovered TextFugu as a wonderful resource. WK has changed so much since then.

Worked at a Ramen shop across the street

I love ramen and I lived across the street from a restaurant, so I did it. I got a 25% off employee discount plus meals when I worked. This was a very good deal for me. It turns out that the manager and several workers are also from Japan and I got free conversation lessons from them and also read “An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese” on slow days and could ask questions to my manager.

Vocaloid

One of my big motivators in learning Japanese was Vocaloid songs. I had a lot of fun translating songs or memorizing a song without knowing what it meant. One day you will sing the song from memory, then realize you actually understood what you said. It’s a rewarding feeling, and also gives great mnemonic material to attach vocab with songs. I love many artists today including Pinocchio P, Lamaze P, Deco 27, Giga, and many more.


This continued for about three years.

I put in a lot of hours. But let me say this clearly, my Japanese was not good. Because my learning was very unstructured, my knowledge base was very fractured. My skills were unbalanced and I kind of just stumbled through everything and learned as needed. Had I known of a systematic way to approach Japanese back then I would have done it. I just couldn’t find it. I did what I could.

The Dream Came too Early (WK ~lv20)

Landing a Engineering Job in Japan

After I graduated college, I lined up a job in Japan! It was an animation company that worked on Pachinko machines, baseball (like the little video that plays on the big screen when you hit a home run), and a little bit of VR. Remember when I said “Nothing is a waste”? It pays to have connections. I did a little mingling with the owner of the Ramen shop when he was in town and it turns out he also had this animation company. I told him I was graduating soon and they hired me! It was really informal hiring. No interview or anything. They arranged everything for me and paid for my ticket over, sponsored my apartment, and took care of all the visa stuff. Honestly I probably took for granted how smooth this was.

Bittersweet Experience

I’ll keep this brief. My experience was quite bittersweet. I toughed it out for a year but I should have quit earlier. The work itself was fine. I actually got to do the development for a few VR games and play with a HTC Vive when it was a new technology. The problem was my Japanese was not nearly as good as it needed to be. There was not a single English speaker at my company. In fact it was part of my job to do a lot of the communications with English-speaking companies that we worked with.

Understanding versus Internalizing

It is mentally taxing to have to run the brain’s translator all day without rest. On top of my Japanese not being strong and struggling to decompose a sentence and filling in the gaps as best I could, translating itself is draining. There’s a difference between translating and internalizing. At some point, you don’t need to do the translating if the meaning is immediately understood. This is a crucial skill that is required to have a good mental state over a long period of time in Japan.

Missing English

I was depressed. I felt very isolated because I couldn’t convey what I was emotionally thinking. I would often just rant about my life out loud in English on my bike/walk back from work just to speak English. It’s important to be able to express yourself. It’s even more frustrating when you try to convey it in Japanese, but it isn’t received the way you expect either. It was tough.I got by through some light online streaming of speed runs of Wind Waker HD and attending some Smash Bros. Melee tournaments who had a few English speaking attendees.

Boxing myself In

I’m generally not that kind of person to go out socializing. I like my quiet home with my computer and games. I was in Japan for god sake, I should go exploring and stuff right? Turns out I didn’t for a couple reasons.

First, I was quite concerned about money (more than I should be). Japanese wages are not good. As an engineer I was getting the equivalent of $25k US a year. Yes it was normal, yes I did it for the experience anyway. I had plenty to spend and live off of but I’m a hoarder. Rent was about $500 a month for a shoebox with a bathroom and I could get a hearty meal for about $5.

Second, I needed a break from Japanese. It was so stressful just to walk around a city and not being able to read any signs. I had anxiety walking into a restaurant I’ve never been to just because I didn’t know what to order or even what kind of food was served there. I wouldn’t go around trying a bunch of places because I wasn’t confident enough. Talking to customer service staff is very taxing as well.

Leaving Japan and Beyond

It felt good to come home. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I think I was done with Japanese for a while. I needed a break. I ended up doing some training in Virgina followed by working for General Electric (GE) as a software engineer in Ohio. Honestly it felt good to make some real money for a few years. I didn’t study any Japanese for quite some time.

The Power Year (WK lv 10 - 40)

I visited Hawaii for the holidays one year and hung out with some of my high school friends. There was someone in our usual group I didn’t know and was added to the circle while I was gone. She was from Japan but moved to America when she was young. She spoke Japanese occasionally because it was easier for her and a lot of my friends could understand her casually. It wasn’t a lot of Japanese, but just her being there added simple one liners like お帰り, 行こう, and 美味しい. I know it sounds cringe, but if you are actually Japanese it’s not.

It was being in this group that reignited my passion for Japanese and brought me over the line to begin studying again. I reset my level back to 10 to get a clean slate and powered through almost every day for the next year.

My formula was 20 lessons a day, all reviews in the morning, all reviews at night. Simple and effective.

Read a lot and get a Kindle

By level 30 I was picking up some light novels and slogging through them like molasses. It was hard, but it gets easier. Reading is really important and there’s no shortcut to getting better than just doing it. Having a kindle or app is useful because you can buy light novels on Amazon.jp, and also have a built in dictionary by highlighting the words with your finger. Looking up kanji sucks and takes your brain out of the story. Anything to alleviate the downtime is valuable.

The Magic Switch

There is a clear moment when you feel like you can start to understand more things than not. This moment means you can actually follow the story while only occasionally looking things up. That moment feels good. It’s hard to get to, but it feels good to get there. Keep slogging my friends.

V Tubers (2019)

It was around this time that I got sucked into Hololive. I was in desperate search of raw Japanese content. Anime and JDrama are too theatrical and I just wanted casual 雑談 conversation to play in the back. Watching JP Hololive is exactly what I needed. Endless content of rambling, perfect. I was actually in Japan when Kizuna Ai and Tokino Sora were just starting out. I’m glad to see how far the tech and community have come. I still follow closely today and love all the talents that have come out of it. My 推し is Suisei.

The Cycle of Passion

I moved back home to Hawaii due to COVID. I was working from home anyway, so I decided to save a bit on rent and live in my parent’s house. I did have to wake up at 3am for meetings but it was generally fine. It was around this time that I was struggling to find the motivation to complete my lessons. I reached a milestone of 40 which I was proud of. I knew I was going to stop. Before I did however, I did something really smart. I didn’t take any lessons for 3 months but continued to do my reviews as much as possible. I was setting myself up for success if I ever came back to not bog my reviews. I had been in that position before so I knew how to prevent it in the future. I highly recommend this if you go on a break.

Walking to the finish line

I took about a year break from WK. I don’t even know what got me on board again. One day I just felt like doing some reviews, and I did. I did only reviews and no lessons for about a month just to catch up and get back on board. It takes a while to get the machine moving again. I decided I wanted to chill. I didn’t want to put any pressure on myself to grind.

I stuck with the formula of 10 reviews a day, all reviews in the morning once a day. This gives you about 100 reviews a day and is a relaxing pace. I even cut it back to 6 lessons per day on the home stretch. What’s important is finding a number that will make you do it every day, even on your worst day.

Celebration and the Future

It’s been so long, but I don’t intend to stop for now. I have plans to take the JLPT N2 this December. I also was able to get two of my friends to start their own journey and are chugging away at ~lv 20. It is nice to be able to share our experiences as a group and prevent pitfalls. I will likely be doing a victory lap. I don’t plan on resetting, but I do plan on going through every kanji and pulling out the ones that are burned, but not really burned.I also had a Japan trip rain checked due to COVID in 2020 and plan to cash that in soon.

It’s been an amazing journey, and it will continue to be. I can say I’m quite fluent, but far from native. Thanks for reading!

Other Learnings

While everyone learns differently, there’s a certain level of diligence and hard work required that is inescapable. Do not downplay this effort as “not working for you”. Continue to push through. It’s important to know when it is actually not “working for you” though. This is a mistake I would constantly find myself in. Sometimes there are no shortcuts.

I found more value in speaking than I did learning kanji. While kanji helps you read, it also teaches greater vocabulary and also re-contextualizes words that you know how to say but not spell. I think everyone knows だいじょうぶ as “okay” but seeing it as 大丈夫 puts it in a really different light.

My Japan experience taught me that knowing a language, and internalizing a language is very different. When you are fluent, you don’t think about thinking, you just think. An unfiltered buffer to every action gives you freedom and intelligence that one would often take for granted. I don’t think about the next word I’m going to say any more than I think about breathing or standing up. Thinking in pure Japanese is a real treat sometimes, but if you’re not at the correct level you can’t sustain that mode. You’ll know when you are here when you dream in Japanese and this auto-translate feature in your brain starts to have zero latency.

People in Japan don’t correct you and will often infer what you say even if you make mistakes. I’m sure it’s no different the other way around, but you don’t always get corrected and could be making the same mistakes for a long time. If you look foreign then you are given a pass for deficiency. Sometimes the best teachers are native English speakers because they know how to learn as opposed to just knowing the rules of a language. If you’ve never been to a Japanese McDonalds before, just ordering a meal can be stressful. They give you the whole 敬語 greeting. You can understand “何食べたい”, but "いらっしゃいませご注文はいかがでしょうか’’ will go over your head.

Half understanding all the time and not being sure that you’re speaking with correct grammar can be demotivating. I used to get stressed when people responded “何?” when they couldn’t hear me. I just assumed it was that I said something completely incoherent.

At a convenience store, they will ask so much in Japanese. They greet, ask for your order, will tell you they are humbly taking your money and holding onto it, will tell you they are converting it to change, will tell you they are giving it back, and then thank you. This is all in 敬語 (keigo) and is so stressful if you don’t understand it. Get comfortable with this ritual.

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That was an interesting read. I am taking solace from your post that though I still haven’t finished, perhaps I too can get to 60 by my 10-year anniversary here.

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Congratulations on getting across the finishing line! Your perseverance has payed off! :tada:

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I forgot to include the level up chart so here it is:

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Congratulations! :crabigator: :cake:

I think I’m on track for 35 years

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Race ya there.

Congrats @reahz, you’re an inspiration to all us slow-cookers.

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Congratulations!
Thank you for your write-up, interesting read. The fact that you did finish after 10 years is inspiring.

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Congrats! Thank you for the story. It is a lot like mine and I relate to it a lot. :tada: :clinking_glasses:

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You’ve had an incredible journey, wow! Thank you for sharing so much about it! Good luck with the N2 and beyond!

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Agree 100% with the stress of being in Japan and not being on the level yet to operate independently. I was scared shitless of conbinis, McDonalds, any situation that would deviate from a script I had gotten into in my head. It fades with time and experience and confidence but it’s very flattening and very, very tiring. (My parents still tease me about not being able to order a cab for them in Japanese to get them from the station to my flat… I still would absolutely not want to conduct a phone call in Japanese, really, but I hate phone calls in any language).

I’m also considering N2, but I think I want to get comfortable reading and just existing in Japanese again first tbh. Go for it mate.

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Congratulations on 60. I am on the 10 year plan it feels like.

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Congrats on Level 60! What really stood out for me is your persistence - on your own schedule, your own terms. Like you, I’ve paused and come back to Japanese a few times over a long duration, so I can really relate.

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Congratulations! Even though it took longer, this was a way better way to do it. I did the speedrun through WK, and all I got from it was a horrible year-and-a-half burnout at level 60 from all Japanese learning, with no real grasp of the language beyond kanji. I restarted a couple months ago, now going way slower and making sure I’m not cheating myself. I also started reading from the beginning with graded readers. It can be a slog, so thank you for the encouragement and sharing your experience that it gets better if you stick with it.

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Congrats! I’m glad you kept it up and took the time to lay out your journey in such detail.

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Like everyone here I really loved your write-up. I was enjoying my WK studies but got stressed that I had so much trouble remembering, so the reviews just piled up. I modulated my lessons accordingly which helped but…

I was talking with a friend who used to live in Japan; she kept insisting that remaining focused on kanji wouldn’t help me when I go there. Finally, I listened, and started working with a teacher on iTalki. I see how correct my friend was.

My level of fluency remains very low but it keeps improving slowly but surely. Next week I’m going to Hokkaido for a couple of weeks and feel reasonably secure that I can muddle through. After all, I also have Google Translate!

I completely agree about the gains that can be made by reading. Although I’ve purchased some children’s books, even those are so challenging. Obviously, the parents will be doing the reading and the child already knows the simple vocabulary so they focus on the pictures.

I am also a lifetime WK member and very glad that I am as I am pretty sure I’ll return at some point. These days I have two one-hour lessons per week with my iTalki sensei. Our lessons focus on Minna no Nihongo which I absolutely love. Not only are the books incredibly well written I like it that in the text there is zero English and they have a separate study guide.

Anyway, sincere congratulations to you and thank you so much for your story!

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This was a very interesting read. Nicely structured too!
Thank you for that and congratulations! What a journey!

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This is the kind of journey I most enjoy reading about. Congrats to you on the accomplishment and the journey itself, including all the (good and bad) experiences you will take with you for life. Cheers.

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I enjoyed reading your post but also found it somewhat discouraging at the same time. I was born and raised in Hawaii, and except for about 8 years, lived here all my life (much longer than you).

I’m only on Level 11 and already my projected Level 60 date is over 5 years and getting longer with each new level I complete! I might even beat those two who, probably jokingly, said 35 years :).

So why discouraging? Because unlike you, my parents were not Japanese, I never took Japanese in high school, college, anywhere, any time, period. I visited Japan on tours, but never got immersed into the language and culture. So, if you encountered those difficulties, I can only imagine what mine will be like :(.

But I enjoyed your post and I will persevere…35 years?..unless Mother Nature ends it for me!

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Try not to be too discouraged! As someone who has deeply dived into the meta of the WaniKani levels, there is a very wide range of competency and “fluency” you can gain well before you reach level 60. I’m pulling from both my own experiences, forum posts, and reddit posts.

There was a WK forum post that I found where someone sorted every kanji character that shows up in the Genki textbooks (Vol. 1 and 2) and their relation to the WK levels. By level 17, you will have learned 93% of all the kanji that show up in Genki I/II. So if you weren’t already studying grammar, the grammar explanations and example sentences are going to be soooo much easier to internalize and comprehend since you’ll be able to read the kanji/vocab. I can personally attest to this, I’m already halfway through Genki II, and it’s been such a radically different experience than when I started Genki I and just started WaniKani.

From WKstats, by level ~31, you will have learned more than 1000 kanji characters, that’s how many characters you need for N2 (small caveat that it may not be on the same frequency of usage since WK has their own kanji order). But still, ~1000 characters, plus around ~3000 vocab terms is nothing to scoff at. There’s a popular forum post here on WaniKani where people suggest leaving WaniKani around level 42 (or just really slowing down) since it can be just enough to do deep immersion with native content. I don’t necessarily agree with it, BUT worth mentioning that level 60 is not the end-all for fluency. Your path to it can come much sooner!

And there’s always just diving into Japanese youtube content if you feel like you’re missing on immersing into the culture. I’ve been able to reshape my youtube algorithm to just show me regular Japanese youtube and it’s been so much fun. Whether it’s vlogs, Vtubers, cooking shows, comedy, I don’t feel like I’m cut off from everyday culture despite being in the US.

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Thanks for your encouragement! Although I found it a little worrisome that each level took me longer and longer to complete, I’m basically the type of person who just digs in and keep plugging away whenever I face a challenge. A large contributing factor for taking longer and longer is the fact that I refuse to let my reviews build up to more than in the 50s per day. Then when I finish a Level, I get my reviews down into the 20s and 30s before I’ll start doing lessons from the next Level.

Thanks for the breakdown of what to expect at various Levels through my journey. I do plan to do Genki I and II at some point in the future. I’ve taken a look at it and don’t feel ready to start just yet. So maybe Level 20 will be a good point to start. I’ll also look into beginning Japanese stories and youtube videos further down the line, maybe after or in conjunction with Genki books.

How did you get my personal email address? Isn’t that against Wanikani’s privacy policy? Or did WK send me your reply so I would know you had replied? I don’t know how all of this works…

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