Learn Japanese in Taiwan – first thoughts

(one of four shelves of Japanese children’s books and textbooks at Kaohsiung Main library; in addition to eight shelves of regular Japanese books on the fourth floor)

Learning a language is an interesting thing. Many feel that you don’t “learn” a language but rather “get used to” it. And I would agree in sentiment with that. (But for simplicity, let’s say learning Japanese).

Learning often has more to do with the student – the student’s discipline, curiosity, tenacity, and other aspects of personality – than with the environment. (I have met ex-pats in Tokyo who have lived there for 20+ years and can barely get past konnichiwa; whereas there are disciplined language learners who have reached a level of fluid speech before ever setting foot in Japan.)

So location isn’t as big a factor as one might think.

With that in mind I want to tell you about an interesting option for learning Japanese, outside of Japan.

Three years ago, in 2018, my wife and I moved to Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

Even prior to the move, I had known that many Taiwanese study abroad in Japan; and that Taiwan had been a Japanese colony for some 50 years.

But I must say I was surprised by the amount of Japanese goods in stores, the amount of Japanese cuisine, Japanese bookstores (media stores) like Kinokuniya and Tsutaya, Japanese language schools, and a very large collection of Japanese books (a collection the size of a small library) at the Kaohsiung Main Library.

For the above reasons, coupled with the close proximity and cheap flights to Okinawa, I personally believe that Taiwan (and in particular Kaohsiung) is possibly the best place to learn Japanese… anywhere.

Now, before you pack your bags and cross the water, let me say this post is me thinking out loud and not advice. Living abroad is by no means easy, and the “travel the world!” hype very often does not present the hardship side of it. I’m not trying to contribute to that. But I do think Taiwan has advantages to those for whom it is the right fit.

The history of Taiwan and how it became such a good place for learning Japanese is beyond what I can touch on in this post. But as far as why it is a place worth considering, here are some thoughts.

Japan is expensive. I mean, really expensive. Across the board cost of living is cheaper in Taiwan (food, accommodation, transportation, you name it). Particularly rent in Kaohsiung, Taiwan is cheap (a fraction of rent in urban Japan).

To backtrack a little though, let me just make it clear that Taiwan will not offer you an automatic Japanese immersion environment. Although I run into Japanese people regularly (even now when tourism is down due to Covid-19), by no means in Taiwan will people be speaking to you in Japanese in the course of normal everyday life. The vast majority of Taiwanese do not speak Japanese (and why would they?).

That said, there are Japanese societies/social clubs/etc. here where you could interact with Japanese people.

In shops, buses, subways, and on the street you will be hearing Mandarin Chinese. Not much help for your Japanese. But you will be seeing traditional Chinese characters (basically Japanese kanji) everywhere.

For the person who wants to learn both Mandarin Chinese and Japanese, there could hardly be a better place than Kaohsiung. And there are many good reasons to learn both.

But even for those just interested in Japanese (and especially those interested in experiencing Japan long term), having a foot in Kaohsiung can be a near perfect balance of factors.

Since cost of living is cheaper you can stay in Asia longer.

Name any Japanese thing you like, you can probably get it cheaper in Kaohsiung than in Japan. Like authentic ramen shops? Kaohsiung has them.

And if you really feel its not the same, Okinawa (pre Covid-19) is a $200-300 plane ticket away.

There are so many reasons to consider it that I am working on a guide to “Studying Japanese in Taiwan.” I am writing it as a series of posts first and then compiling them. As they come out, you can see them at the link below.

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