Not much annoys me more than this phrase. My recent jobs involve me using highly technical Japanese constantly every day. Yet every time I apply for a new short term Japanese project, regardless of my work history which should speak for itself, the first and only question regarding my Japanese ability is “how long did you live in Japan for?” Didn’t you know, living in Japan makes you fluent? If you have never lived in Japan, you are a liar calling yourself anything above novice level.
Unfortunately this is a strange line of thinking that exists. I’m sure you’ve heard this often familiar answer when someone asks what is the best way to learn Japanese. “Go live in Japan.” And then sometimes you might even get the further fun push of “get a Japanese boyfriend/girlfriend.”
Now I don’t want to bring up the exceptional examples of the foreigners living in Japan for 20 + years, married and with Japanese children who speak minimal Japanese. These anecdotal stories (though more common than you think) don’t do well with statistics. But how many foreigners living in Japan for 3+ (which is ample enough time to get to level 50+) years speak great Japanese?
Now I could go into a full discussion of why living in Japan won’t make you fluent in Japanese. I’ve briefly touched on it in my Teaching English in Japan posts. But I’d rather summarize everything into one phrase, so that people who harbor this misconception won’t get confused with a massive analysis. It comes down to one major concept:
Just because you live in Japan doesn’t mean you have to learn Japanese.
No, not everyone speaks good English. Most people speak very bad and broken English. But that doesn’t matter. You can live just fine (whatever standard “fine” is) without learning Japanese. This leads to the common phrase “foreigner bubble,” where you hang around with other foreigners who can’t speak Japanese, creating even less of a need. And since you are mostly trying to enjoy the country, while battling with your daily stress, learning Japanese is usually second (or third) on your priority list.
So this leads to one important conclusion:
Regardless of whether you live in Japan, learning Japanese still takes the same ridiculous amount of motivation, time, and effort.
Those who seriously study Japanese know this. This creates a bit of a painful side effect for those who have/are living in Japan. You hear the following comment:
“Oh! You are good at Japanese because you lived there! I wish I could do that”
Years of hard work undermined in one second!
What to take away from all of this?
There is no point on dwelling on this unfortunate occurrence. Always stay positive, and keep this situation in mind if you are looking for a job using Japanese. If an employer is interviewing you and inquiring how you learned your Japanese, or whether you lived in Japan, make sure to “expand upon” and umm . . . “exaggerate” your time spent in Japan. The ends justify the means here for a job. If your Japanese is great, that is really all that matters.