The Mr. Miyagi Method to Mastering Japanese

You probably know Mr. Miyagi, the old man from Okinawa who teaches Daniel LaRusso how to protect himself against bullies in The Karate Kid.

You may also know how he taught him karate indirectly, by first having Daniel wax his cars and paint his fences.

But what if the movie was different—what if, instead of having to learn karate, Daniel had just moved to Japan with his mom and had to learn Japanese so well that he could both win the heart of a beautiful girl at his new school and defend himself from the verbal assaults of her ex-boyfriend?


It would be tough for Daniel, I’m sure. For one, his mom wouldn’t have the money to send him to a top-notch language school. His only option would be Mr. Miyagi. For another, Mr. Miyagi’s method of teaching Japanese would no doubt be initially frustrating.

I imagine Mr. Miyagi would seemingly do nothing to help in those early days. I bet he’d simply put on the TV and tell Daniel to listen to it while organizing his books and cleaning his house.

After four weeks of listening to incomprehensible news, comedy shows, and variety programs, Daniel would be beyond frustration. “I don’t understand any of this!” he’d tell Mr. Miyagi. “I’m just doing all of your housework.”

It would be a fair point. And Mr. Miyagi would no doubt grasp that it was. “Repeat,” he’d say.


Mr. Miyagi would nod at that, and expand a bit. “Repeat what you hear—as much of it as you can.”

“Is that it? I don’t even understand it yet! Can’t you tell me to do something else?”

Again, Mr. Miyagi would see the wisdom in Daniel’s request. “Repeat what you hear,” he’d say, “and also take out the trash.”

The Mr. Miyagi Method to Mastering Japanese 2

Daniel would no doubt be even more frustrated at that. But he’d try his best to repeat what he was hearing. For weeks on end he would try—even though he had a feeling he should really have learned more by now.

One day, for example, he passed by a language school where he heard another foreigner say わたしのなまえはジョニーです. “Mr. Miyagi hasn’t taught me anything like that yet,” he’d think. “In all the time I’ve spent listening to people on TV talk I haven’t even heard anybody say that!

He would show up at Mr. Miyagi’s house seriously frustrated that day—and ready to demand some lessons. But all that was there was a dictionary, a book for learning the kana, and a note telling him how to answer the phone and tell anyone who called that he went fishing.

Daniel would read that with exasperation, but tell himself that at least he didn’t have to do any chores. Moreover, he could watch a television drama he was slowly getting into.

Day after day, and then surprisingly week after week went by like that. Daniel would show up only to get a note.

“Tell anyone who calls I’ve gone shopping,” it would say one day. “Tell anyone who calls I went to the beach,” it would say another day. And on and on.

Daniel got used to it after a while. He was actually enjoying watching TV now, even though he still didn’t understand as much as he’d like to and even though he was worried that he’d never be able to have a good conversation with the beautiful girl he met when he first arrived.

Hearing the phone ring wasn’t so scary any more at least. Daniel had answered it so much that explaining where Mr. Miyagi was that day was almost easy. But still . . . shouldn’t he know more by now? Summer was almost over and the school year was just about to start.

One morning after Daniel had just stumbled through an awkward conversation and been made fun of for it by that girl’s ex-boyfriend, he showed up at Mr. Miyagi’s house and Mr. Miyagi was actually there.

The Mr. Miyagi Method to Mastering Japanese 4

“Where have you been?” asked Daniel, still angry from being humiliated.

“Fishing. Shopping. To the beach,” said Mr. Miyagi. “Didn’t you get my notes? Could you figure out the Japanese?”

“I got them,” said Daniel. “I answered the phone all day long,” he screamed. “I told them you went fishing. I told them you went to the beach. But I want to learn Japanese—”

Daniel stopped.

Mr. Miyagi smiled.

Why was he smiling, thought Daniel. And then he got it. He had been screaming in Japanese.

Mr. Miyagi noted that Daniel had improved a lot. His spoken Japanese was still awkward but the words flowed, they sounded right, and now with some instruction he was sure that Daniel would improve quickly.

This, after all, was his method of teaching Japanese. He had seen it work before. And when he learned that Daniel had already learned how to enjoy watching shows and listening to the radio, he was sure that this boy was going to do well.

That was the day Mr. Miyagi started explaining everything to Daniel in Japanese and picking books out for him that were a little bit above his level.

Looking back on it a couple years later, Daniel was impressed and thankful—for he learned as much from Mr. Miyagi’s presence as he had in his absence. He was able to hold his own in any conversation now. And to top it all, when he watched a television drama these days, he watched it with that beautiful girl he met on his first day in Japan.

It was a good method, he thought, even considering the rocky start. After all, it worked.

Related posts:

The following two tabs change content below.


I love reading books in Japanese and plan to start translating them into English in 2015.


The Mr. Miyagi Method to Mastering Japanese — 8 Comments

  1. Man, that was a really good idea!
    I love that movie, and I think that method of learning (anything) is really interesting and it is also powerful.
    Your ideas, using the movie base, were really good.
    Let’s get motivated by the inspiration of Mr. Miyagi, and keep studying, hehe.

    • Thanks for the compliment! The idea to listen to a lot of the language and shadow it aren’t mine of course, or at least aren’t originally mine. But I fully agree with that last point and have Japanese in the background right now.

  2. I thought this was a cool story… then I realized… your name is also Daniel… so it’s most likely much more than just a story isn’t it? :D

  3. Do you think this would really work? As in having no anki, no looking up anything in the dictionary ever, no classes, just starting from 0% understanding and making your way to fluency? I know it works with babies, and I’ve been able to learn words from context, but it doesn’t seem all that practical. There are so many challenging words and grammar points it doesn’t seem like it’s a practical way of learning a language. What do you think?

    • I think this would work. Specifically, shadowing will help anyone become a fluent, natural-sounding speaker (and also a better listener). Listening to many shows will in turn help them become a better listener (and also a better speaker).

      With Japanese especially, I think the above needs to be coupled with a lot of reading, where (with the help of a dictionary and a tutor) all the vocabulary and grammar of a dictionary can be picked up and learned. That’s why I included that line about Mr. Miyagi leaving Daniel-san a dictionary and then helping him find books just a little above his level.

      That said, you mentioned Anki and I am a big fan of it. It makes learning new words and grammar much more efficient (particularly with some good pre-made decks like the ones here at JALUP).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *