When I first started teaching Japanese, my lessons were intensely focused on the language, with little space left for exploring the cultural side of things.
The more time I've spent teaching, the more I've come to realise that this is not a great approach for a few reasons:
- Learning about language while ignoring culture is like learning to cook without ever eating! Language and culture are intrinsically connected, and there are lot of things about the Japanese language - such as different levels of politeness - which just don't make much sense unless you understand the culture they're attached to.
- Learning a language is not a matter of converting words like for like. In order to build true communication skills, there are plenty of other things you need to learn, from gestures and body language to etiquette and how to show someone you're really listening.
- Language in isolation is just not as fun! When I first started learning Japanese at university, I was surprised by how often our teachers introduced activities that seemed (to my former uber-studious self) like "not proper studying". Pretty quickly, however, I realised that my progress in Japanese was happening precisely because of how much I was enjoying our classes. As it turns out, having fun is pretty essential to learning!
In addition to the above, there is one more reason that I would encourage anyone learning Japanese to dig into the cultural side of things too, and that is I believe that we, as learners (and educators!), have a responsibility to educate ourselves on the Japanese culture and society that we so love to engage with via anime, music, food and more. This is partly a matter of respect, in that the more you know about a culture, the more likely you'll be able to understand different norms, manners and perspectives that you may come across when visiting Japan or speaking to someone Japanese. But it is also a matter of unpacking some of the stereotypes that abound particularly in Western media.
While I could write a whole series of posts on this topic, I will end here simply by saying that the sites I'm recommending below are all ones which are crafted by teams including Japanese people and/or writers with deep knowledge and experience of Japanese culture and society. However, they are all English-language sites, meaning they're accessible even if you're just at the very beginning of your learning journey.
If you'd like to skip ahead to a particular section of today's post, feel free to click on any of the following links:
Note: none of the links in this post are affiliated, meaning I don't make money from you clicking on them.
1. Best Japanese
Today we're kicking off with something close to home - if you're in the UK, that is!
Best Japanese is a fantastic website set up by a team of friends who, upon returning to the UK after living in Japan for some years, were disappointed at the lack of good English-language information about Japanese food, recipes, culture and more.
What I like about Best Japanese is that while they certainly do a good job of covering the classics, such as where to find good ramen or sushi, they also introduce plenty of foods and other cultural aspects of Japan that otherwise don't make it onto most people's radars. After all, there is so much more that Japan has to offer!
If you're not sure where to start when you first venture onto Best Japanese's website, here are a few articles I recommend checking out:
What's more, if you're based in - or planning to visit! - London, here are some reviews I think you'll enjoy:
Finally, I also highly recommend following Best Japanese's Events updates, as they do a great job of highlighting a whole range of different things going on both online and in person. (Full disclosure: you might spot one or two from yours truly!)
As you may have gathered, Best Japanese are not short of tips on where to find great Japanese food, so if you think your stomach will forgive you the cravings, consider giving them a follow on social media:
2. Spoon and Tamago
Second on today's list is an old favourite of mine.
If you enjoy beautiful art and design, I wholeheartedly recommend treating yourself to a bit of Spoon and Tamago.
The content of Spoon and Tamago's blog posts, which are put together by a small team based in New York and Tokyo, is at once beautifully cohesive and challenging to sum up. This somewhat eclectic approach is in fact precisely what I love about the site.
To give you an idea of the kinds of articles you might find, here are a few recent articles that caught my attention:
If you're craving something a bit more on the language side of things, you'll be pleased to hear that Spoon and Tamago do also sometimes post about Japanese language, such as in this article: Remembering Japanese Words Deleted From the Dictionary.
To find out more about Spoon and Tamago, click on any of the links above or follow them on social media:
If you're a student learning Japanese with me - or an avid follower of this blog (hello!) - I can't blame if you just rolled your eyes at *yet another* Tofugu recommendation.
As you may or may not have heard me say before, the reason I keep on recommending Tofugu is simply that they are truly excellent at what they do!
Ever since I started learning Japanese, Tofugu has been a vital resource for me in learning more about Japanese culture and language. I absolutely love the obvious level of care and attention that goes into their articles, and have always felt they've added to my enjoyment of learning Japanese.
But wait: aren't we supposed to be talking about cultural resources today?
Yes! Before we look at what culture-specific materials Tofugu has to offer, I think it's worth mentioning that one of the great things about Tofugu's language materials is how often they integrate language and culture in a really practical way, giving advice about what kinds of situations may call for certain phrasings or expressions. See for example:
- What Should I Call "You"?
- けど: Why Are Japanese Speakers Always Ending Their Sentences with "But"?
- もったいない — The Japanese Virtue of Guilt-Tripping over Wastefulness
But anyway: even if you've used Tofugu's site before, what you may not be aware of is that they have plenty of articles which focus specifically on Japanese culture and society. Here are but a few of my favourite articles from the "Japan" section of their website:
It's also worth mentioning that Tofugu have some decent resources for anyone planning a visit to - or perhaps longer stay in - Japan. For example:
- What to Do with One Day in Kyoto
- The 10 Best Onsen Resort Towns in Japan
- How to Live (And Sometimes Work) in Japan on Working Holiday: The Ultimate Guide
4. Unseen Japan
Today's final recommendation also happens to be my most recent discovery in this list.
Having come across Unseen Japan via Twitter, I've been continuously impressed at the quality of their articles, which come backed up by an abundance of Japanese-language references.
If you are interested in Japanese current events, history, and culture, I highly recommend exploring Unseen Japan. Here are a few articles to get you started:
If you're after something a bit more hard-hitting, Unseen Japan also covers more political topics as well as issues such as harrassment, racism, sexism and transphobia. For example:
- Majority in Japan Oppose Expensive State Funeral for Abe
- Japanese Basketball Stars Speak Out on “Daily” Racism
- Tokyo Court Denies Transgender Parent Legal Rights To Own Child
As someone no longer living in Japan, I really appreciate having a site like Unseen Japan that helps me keep abreast of issues that can often be neglected by mainstream media.
Oh - and because I can't resist one final recommendation, if you're at all interested in film and media depictions of Japan, don't skip this review of the 2022 film Bullet Train.
You've reached the end of this post! I hope you enjoyed it.
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