Interview: Michael Gakuran

Interview: Michael Gakuran

Michael Gakuran is well known for his Gakuranman blog full of fun, yet thought-provoking comments on Japan, haikyo excursions and amazing bioluminescent creatures of the undersea. Having studied Japanese for over 8 years, passed the JLPT 1 exam, and won an all-England Japanese Speech Contest, Gakuranman is an example of how motivation leads to great results!

Interview with Michael Gakuran

What made you go to Japan? Did you learn Japanese before or after you got there?

I first started studying Japanese in 2002 as part of a GCSE course at my school in the U.K. My friend had introduced me to anime and manga a couple of years earlier and suggested we start learning the language as well. With his passion, we collected the signatures of classmates who were also interested, submitted them to the headmaster and succeeded in having a Japanese teacher hired to teach Japanese twice a week after school. My friends and I finished the course with good grades and our teacher took us on our first trip to Japan to celebrate. It was unforgettable.

What was you first impression of the country? Was it how you imagined it will be?

Hot! Definitely hot. Oh, and really humid. It was the height of summer. I guess it was reasonably close to everything we had learnt before going. Most of us liked anime (especially the Ghibli film Spirited Away) and we all knew little bits and pieces of Japanese culture, but I suppose we really only experienced the surface on our first trip.

We enjoyed watching crazy Japanese television with a foreign guy playing a guitar and singing about digging up clams and explained to a local Japanese guy K-san (K for King!! he said) about the differences in pronunciation between American and British English while eating Okonomiyaki. We visited temples in Kyoto and snapped pictures of schoolgirls, climbed Tokyo Tower, went to the Ghibli Museum and even had a home stay, attending a Japanese school for a couple of days. It was such a packed, touristy kind of experience but it sort of completed things for many of us. But for some of us like myself, it changed our life paths completely.

Was it during that trip that you decided to move there in the future?

I was still just 18 after finishing the Japanese course and graduating from secondary school, so I didn't have any long term plans yet. I did however have a burning desire to get back to Japan for a longer stay, so I enrolled with GAP—an agency that sends young people overseas—and found myself working as a volunteer with mentally disabled adults at a countryside home in Hyogo-ken.

I ended up spending a year there—6 months longer than planned—and going through a lot of the difficulties that foreign nationals experience when taking the plunge to live in Japan.

Did you have any problems adapting to the Japanese way of life? Or are you talking about purely administrative challenges?

Well, there were challenges I encountered due to the nature of the work I was doing, but there were also many cultural differences.

I vividly remember the struggle I had trying to make friends with the older staff.

My Japanese language was still at a very low level despite having taken a course and I was still just a child under Japanese law. I often found myself trying to pay my own way at restaurants with the staff and being refused or simply left out of trips they planned together as friends. That isn't to say I wasn't well treated—I had all the luxuries of being invited to do Kendo and Tea Ceremony as well as numerous parties and such—it was just that there were no people my own age out in the countryside and the language barriers made it difficult to make good friendships. That's all without mentioning the fact I was painfully shy and enamoured with one of the younger female members of staff!

You've reached quite a high level of proficiency in Japanese. What did it take, and what do you like most about this beautiful language?

Well, after the gap year, I returned to the U.K and began studying Japanese on a 4-year course with Philosophy which included my second year studying at a Japanese University. I was sent to the countryside again, this time to Akita in the North of Japan.

That year would prove to be the changing point in my language skills—the part where things began to really click. I ended up in a class well above my actual level in the placement tests and really struggled. Everything was conducted in Japanese and for the first few weeks, I remember having a thumping headache as I tried to adjust to everything. We had around 3 hours of Japanese lessons a day with lots of homework. I contemplated dropping down classes several times but somehow kept going.

After a few months, things became easier. I joined a couple of circles (clubs), made a point of only hanging around the Japanese students, got myself onto the student government and generally just immersed myself as much as possible. I still encountered many problems during the year and made many silly mistakes (one involving barging into the University President's office and demanding an explanation for the sacking of some teachers!), but overall the experiences took my Japanese to a level where I was comfortable with daily conversation.

As for what I like most about the language, I think it would be that I just enjoy using it. I love to talk to people and learn new and interesting phrases. Being able to bridge the gap to a culture so different to the one I was raised in just feels awesome.

What would you suggest to beginners interested in mastering Japanese?

Be prepared for the long haul. I've been studying for 8 years now and have gained JLPT level 1 but am still not fluent to a native level. Of course, had I studied more intensively I would undoubtedly be better, but I think a big part of learning any language is enjoying the trip. If you're only looking towards the end result, you will be missing so much along the way.

There are certain precious experiences that can only be had by making mistakes and laughing about them afterwards.

Also, a lot of the fun to be had in learning a language lies in improving your own ability and meeting similar people along the way. It would be downright boring if you were able to become fluent in a just a few weeks or months.

That said, if you really want to speed up the process, surrounding yourself with as much Japanese as possible really helps. I appreciate not everyone will be able to get out to Japan to study (which is the best way, in my opinion), but watching Japanese dramas, making Japanese friends in your local community and studying little and often will help put you on the right track. Try to relax and have fun doing it. You'll look back one day and realise some of the best experiences you had were when you were up to your neck and struggling to put a sentence together.

On a different note, it's no secret that you are interested in bioluminescence and underwater creatures. How did you discover this subject and what are you current activities related to it?

Haha. Bioluminescence has always been a pet interest of mine. I love shiny things like fireflies and deep-sea jellyfish and I suppose it is just an extension of my interest in nature. I mainly just try to keep abreast of the latest discoveries and occasionally write an article about some cool critter. Nothing too serious, although I would love to go down in a submersible to see the light shows in action.

Did your new hobby, haikyo, arise from this love for the unknown?

Pretty much. I like the outdoors and the thrill of exploring unusual or forbidden places. Once I discovered haikyo I began to research local ruins and started visiting them. I also enjoy photography, so the two activities complement each other well.

It seems like after parkour and geocaching, haikyo is slowly coming back into fashion with renewed interest in media and among general public. What is your word of advice to those willing to try it out?

Be safe and go with somebody more experienced at first. Also be aware of the law and ask yourself if you are willing to bear the consequences if you break it.

There are many hidden dangers in haikyo and although a lot of things come down to common sense, you cannot always predict what will happen.

Loose concrete falling from above, rusty nails sticking out the floor or even stumbling across a beehive home to the infamous suzumebachi can prove deadly.

You've long been studying philosophy. Do you believe that Western and Asian currents are closely tied to local historical events and culture and shouldn't be compared, or do you see an opportunity in learning from one another?

History isn't my strong point, but I do think that Western and Eastern cultures have developed in different ways. That said, they also have many similarities that we share as human beings and can definitely be compared to one another. I'd say that we can learn a lot from one another and also think it's important to do so. Good use of a country's language requires a strong knowledge of the customs and culture.

Talking about learning from one another, what is your opinion of the constantly evolving social media on the internet? Does it benefit our lives, work, and education or is it just a fad and a waste of time?

I think the way social media has evolved enabling people to communicate and share ideas more openly is excellent. It certainly does benefit our lives and can be particularly useful when learning languages because of the ease of reaching people from other cultures. However I can see how it sucks time away from other activities where that time may be better spent. I'd say it's important to keep one's own goals in mind and use social media tools wisely in ways that complement your own learning.

I hope that everybody enjoyed this interview. If there's anything else you would like to ask Michael, feel free to Tweet at us!