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Is Willpower Now the Most Important Trait for Achieving Japanese Literacy?

When I moved to Tokyo in 2009, learning Japanese was an entirely different experience than what we know today. Electronic dictionaries were more common than smartphone apps. Digital flashcards had yet to go mainstream, so tangible ones, homemade or prepackaged, were the primary way to learn kanji characters. Before the prevalence of handwriting recognition and optical character recognition (OCR), looking up one of these characters was an arduous undertaking. Japanese learners had to rely on SKIP codes (pattern identification) and radicals (kanji components) to navigate paperback kanji dictionaries.

Technology evolved over the next few years. The meteoric rise of smartphones ushered in several prominent apps that replaced print and electronic dictionaries. Digital flashcard apps with spaced-repetition algorithms became the default way to drill kanji, vocabulary, and even grammar into our brains. Studying was streamlined and convenient. The digital pipeline that fed us Japanese knowledge was exponentially wider than ever before.

In recent years, cloud computing introduced us to OCR, voice recognition, and AI translations—shiny new tools that we could rely on to understand the world around us. Granted, at this stage, AI translations were often laughable, OCR was frequently unreliable, and voice recognition required pitch-perfect pronunciation. These tools were in the language-learning ballpark, but they certainly weren’t hitting home runs.

Fast forward to the present, and Moore’s Law is in full effect. Machine translation has improved dramatically, best exemplified in the frighteningly accurate translations that DeepL can produce. Through recent iOS updates, Apple has finally joined Google by enabling us to instantly translate almost everything that appears on our smartphone screens, including, websites, text messages, and more. Additionally, the desktop computing environment is no stranger to this convenience. Translation features are built into most web browsers and, with the aid of extensions, eager Japanese learners can easily add furigana to kanji characters on almost any website.

The Crux of Convenience

What does all of this mean for Japanese learners? We now live in a world where reading and understanding Japanese has become too convenient. A decade ago, if I wanted to read even the most mundane pieces of prose, I had to scrutinize each kanji character, vocabulary word, or grammar structure that I encountered. Although I had books, tools, and teachers to guide me, the impetus was on me to decipher what I was reading. Regularly wrestling with Japanese, be it for leisure or work, actually accelerated my learning. Engaging in the work that manual translation demands burned Japanese into my neural pathways, ensuring that my efforts would bear fruit in future social, academic, or business endeavors.

These days, whenever I encounter unknown kanji or vocabulary in a restaurant menu, a keigo-laden letter from city hall, or a business email, all I have to do is fire up the appropriate digital solution and leave the “pesky” task of translation up to modern technical wizardry. This has done wonders for making my life in Japan more convenient—more congruent with my former existence in America. However, over the past couple of years, I’ve realized that this way of living has stunted my efforts to master Japanese. As Oliver Burkeman writes in Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, “Convenience, in other words, makes things easy, but without regard to whether easiness is truly what’s most valuable in any given context.”

Is Willpower the Answer?

So, what can we do about this predicament? I’ve been trying to maximize the time technology saves by shifting my learning and translation efforts toward reading Japanese books that I’m passionate about: Iwata-san and The Gifted Gene and My Lovable Memes, for example. In this context, I only rely on translation technology after I’ve made my own effort to understand what I’m reading. This context puts technology back in its proper place: a tool instead of an addictive digital drug.

Does this mean that willpower is the ultimate solution to our dependence on translation technology? Perhaps we need to acknowledge the value of the intellectual effort required to read even the most banal documents. This means resisting the reflexive urge to rely on AI, OCR, and voice recognition whenever we encounter even the slightest friction in our reading.

On the other hand, perhaps willpower is overrated. We may need to take control of our environment by uninstalling the extensions and apps that tempt us in the first place, forcing us to approach unknown Japanese just as we did over a decade ago. As Sönke Ahrens writes in How to Take Smart Notes, “Studies on highly successful people have proven again and again that success is not the result of strong willpower and the ability to overcome resistance, but rather the result of smart working environments that avoid resistance in the first place.”

I’ll likely proceed with a hybrid approach by continuing to explore Japanese content I enjoy reading and deciphering, with technology taking a backseat to discovery. I’ll rely on willpower and craft environments conducive to learning, when practicable. However, I also need to be realistic and acknowledge that there will be plenty of times when technology will take the lead. Sometimes business or social needs will take precedence over learning. In other words, sometimes we just have to live life. And, that’s just fine. As long as I continue to be mindful about how I process the Japanese around me, I’ll be able to adjust my approach based on the priorities at any given moment in my life.

Originally from California, I've been living and working in Japan, now my second home, since 2009. My work as a communications consultant lends a unique perspective to my writing, and I often explore the business behind Japan’s beauty. When I’m not working, you can find me hunched over a screen reviewing kanji flashcards in my never-ending quest to master the Japanese language.