Humor of Japanese Language School

Humor of Japanese Language School in Tokyo is adapted from a humorous book by David Sedaris: ‘When You Are Engulfed in Flames’, with this part about struggling to learn Japanese.

Here is an excerpt from the chapter The Smoking Section, in the book, pages 279-285:


Our session ran from 9:00 to 12:45, and during that time we had two different teachers, both women and both remarkably kind. With Ishikawa-sensei we began at the beginning: Hello. Nice to meet you. I am Lee Chung Ha, Keith, Matthieu, and so on.

Out of ten students, four are Korean, three are French, two are American, and one is Indonesian. I was luckily not the oldest person in the room.

It’s sad, really. Put me in a classroom, and within five minutes it all comes back: the brownnosing, the jealousy, the desire to be the best student, and the reality that I’ve never been smart enough.

I like Sang Lee, the seventeen year old Korean girl who sits in the second row. Actually, “like” is probably not the right word. More than that, I need her, need someone who’s worse than I am, someone I can look down on.

Because this is a class for beginners, I didn’t think that anyone would know the hiranga alphabet. A character or two, maybe, but certainly not the entire thing. When it turned out that everyone knew it, everyone but me and this little idiot Sang Lee, I was devastated.

“Where did you learn this?” I asked one of the French students.

And he said, very matter-of-factly, “Oh, I just picked it up.”

“A flu is something you ‘just pick up,’” I told him. “But a forty-six character alphabet isn’t learned unless you sit down and stuff it inside your head.”

“Picked it up,” indeed. I know two characters. That’s it. Only two. This puts me two ahead of that lovable nitwit, Sang Lee, but still, it’s not much of a lead.


Now I see that, like it or not, I am reverting to my twenty-year-old self, at least scholastically.

Yesterday morning we took a hiranga (alphabet) test. Out of a possible 100 points, I received 39. It was the worst grade in the class, but the teacher still decorated my paper with a fanciful sticker and the message,

“Cheers up!!!”


As school continues, so does the parade of new teachers. We had two different ones yesterday. Both were patient and enthusiastic, but neither could match the exuberance of Miki-sensei.

At one point she asked me how to say the number ‘six’. I hesitated a little too long, and out of the corner of her mouth, she whispered,


“Come again?”

She whispered it a second time

and when I successfully repeated after her,

she applauded with what looked like genuine sincerity

and told me I had done really, really well.


We were given a dictation quiz yesterday, and I found myself wanting to cry. It’s not just that I’m the worst student in the class, it’s that I’m CLEARLY the worst student in the class, miles behind that former dope, Sang Lee.

What makes it that much harder to bear is the teacher’s kindness, which has come to feel like pity.

“You can keep your book open,” Miki-sensei told me, but even that didn’t help. Instead of ‘kyoshi’ I wrote ‘quichi’.

“It’s all right,” Miki-sensei said. “You’ll get it eventually.”

After dictation we opened our books and read out loud. Mae Li breezed right along, as did Indri and Claude.

Then came my turn.


“This,” Sang Lee whispered.


I went through this with French school but never knew how easy I had it. Certain letters might not be pronounced (in French), but at least it’s the same alphabet (as English).



Humor of Speaking Japanese Slowly is another by David Sedaris.

Humor of Japanese Vocabulary Cards is another by David Sedaris.

Humor of Japanese Placement Exam is another by David Sedaris.

Humor of Speaking Japanese with Skill is more from David Sedaris.

Humor of Japanese Indirectness is more from David Sedaris.

Humor of the Last Day of Japanese School is more from David Sedaris.

Compare these kind teachers of Japanese with the unkind teacher of French that Sedaris had in Paris.

Return to Humor of Language Learners.


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