Let’s Learn Japanese: Two Classic Video Series to Get You Started in the Language

Say the name “Yan-san” to any­one who’s stud­ied Japan­ese in the last thir­ty years, and you’ll prob­a­bly get a reac­tion of delight­ed recog­ni­tion. It means that, inside or out­side the class­room, they stud­ied with Let’s Learn Japan­ese, a series of edu­ca­tion­al videos pro­duced by the Japan Foun­da­tion. The first “sea­son,” if you like, came out in 1984, the time of an enor­mous Asian eco­nom­ic bub­ble that made the world’s future look Japan­ese, send­ing the lan­guage straight to the top of every inter­na­tion­al busi­ness-mind­ed stu­den­t’s to-do-list. (Sound famil­iar, cur­rent strug­glers with Man­darin?) Its hero, a young man of delib­er­ate­ly ambigu­ous nation­al­i­ty named Yan — the Japan­ese all address him with the every­day hon­orif­ic -san — turns up in Japan for a few years of life in Tokyo and works at an archi­tec­ture firm, helped along by his host fam­i­ly the Katos, his eager­ly team-play­ing co-work­ers (one of whom intro­duces him­self, in Eng­lish, with the phase, “We are friends — okay?”), and a vari­ety of help­ful cit­i­zens and pro­fes­sion­als all across the Land of the Ris­ing Sun.

This may sound like dull stuff — the stuff of run-of-the-mill lan­guage-learn­ing videos — but Let’s Learn Japan­ese raised the bar for this sort of thing, in terms of not just pro­duc­tion val­ue and teach­ing effec­tive­ness but sheer rewatch­a­bil­i­ty. In addi­tion to Yan-san’s life among the Japan­ese peo­ple, Let’s Learn Japan­ese also offers instruc­tion­al seg­ments led by Mary Althaus, still a pro­fes­sor at Toky­o’s Tsu­da Col­lege, and imag­i­na­tive illus­tra­tive skits per­formed by the inde­fati­ga­ble trio of Mine, Kai­hō, and Sug­i­hara. In the more advanced Sea­son 2, released over a decade lat­er in 1995, they’ve become the eeri­ly sim­i­lar Kodama, Andō, and Koy­ana­gi, and Yan-san has become a grad­u­ate stu­dent with girl­friend trou­bles. Hav­ing watched all 52 episodes sev­er­al times through, I can vouch for both its enter­tain­ment val­ue and its effec­tive­ness. (It also spurred me to start vol­un­teer­ing at the Japan Foun­da­tion, Los Ange­les.) So can the for­eign­ers who give a hero’s wel­come to star Nick Muhrin (who, last I heard, still lives in Japan) when they run into him. I know I’ve learned enough to buy Yan-san a drink.

You can find more use­ful Japan­ese-learn­ing mate­ri­als to sup­ple­ment all this in our archive of free lan­guage lessons. It includes resources rang­ing from the For­eign Ser­vice Insti­tute’s dig­i­tized text­books and tapes to pod­casts like the life abroad-ori­ent­ed Japanesepod101 [iTunes Free — Feed] and the ani­me-geared Japan­cast [iTunes Free — Feed]. 皆さんがんばって!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Learn 48 Lan­guages Online for Free: Span­ish, Chi­nese, Eng­lish & More

Learn Japan­ese Free

“Tsun­doku,” the Japan­ese Word for the New Books That Pile Up on Our Shelves, Should Enter the Eng­lish Lan­guage

Woody Allen Lives the “Deli­cious Life” in Ear­ly-80s Japan­ese Com­mer­cials

Wim Wen­ders Vis­its, Mar­vels at a Japan­ese Fake Food Work­shop

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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  • Laura B. says:

    I use part two with my third year high school class­es in the late nineties and ear­ly two thou­sands. It was a great series. I had to copy the book and change the ro-maji to JPN char­ac­ters, though. The stu­dents com­plained that it was tough to learn with the ro-maji. the vignettes were won­der­ful teach­ing tools, and I’m on the hunt for the videos to down­load or pur­chase again,

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