The seminar consisted of 144 JETs. However, as people who work as CIRs (JETs who work in city government offices and need Japanese speaking credentials to be accepted) are allowed to take the course, doing well enough on the entrance test is a bit of a challenge. I hadn't really met anyone else enrolled in the class so I was eager to see the Japanese level of the others. After observing the others, in some ways my ego was boosted but in other ways it was damaged.
The point on which I feel good about myself is that almost every single other person in the class had serious, formal Japanese education in college or earlier. Most people majored in Japanese, East Asian Studies, or some other kind of similar field and through that were able to take real Japanese classes all through college. More importantly, all of these people came to Japan to do intensive university for a full school year...some of them had even studied abroad in high school or had initially picked up the language from a Japanese speaking parent. Compare this with me who didn't start seriously learning the language until I was already in Japan at the age of 23. Granted I was not a complete beginner, as I took classes in college too, but our classes were so slow-paced and easy it's like comparing apples to oranges to the kinds of training the it seems others have had. True, I had been to Japan before, but it was a homestay designed to expose us to Japanese culture and way of life as opposed to forcing us to really focus on the language. At that time I was determined to learn Japanese but my non-existant skills in the language made it next to impossible to communicate with my host family and since they were more than eager to practice their English with me. Also, this experience only lasted 4 weeks, which is not at all enough time to see real improvement. The truth is I've learned Japanese almost entirely on my own as a JET, and I take pride in that especially seeing as I (probably) passed the highest level of the JLPT.
However, as much as I want to pat myself on the back for learning it all on my own, nothing can undo the truth that almost everyone in the class was better at speaking than I am...perhaps precisely because they started earlier and had formal training. In their presence, especially a group of them, as a speaker I feel like a poser - a cheap imitation, and it's really a rather embarassing feeling. Hearing people's backgrounds about how they first started learning Japanese and how long they've been studying, I now truly appreciate the value of studying here for a full year in college and how much more useful this would've been for my language ability than a one-month homestay. Not that I would give up my homestay experience, it was amazing and I'll remember it fondly. Also, it was pretty much the only option at Kent for going to Japan. But I now see that since I took so long to discover that Japanese is what I wanted to do that I missed out on perhaps big opportunities earlier in life that would've helped make me a better speaker.
I am truly confident that my reading ability and kanji ability is above and beyond most people, even those at the class as I learned, however not being able to speak as well as them is a big problem. No matter how well I can translate, if I can't talk properly people won't trust my other abilities. This is my nightmare, being a translator who reads perfectly but can't speak and so is not trusted. My work experience has taught me that I cannot feel good in a job where people don't trust my expertise on the subject they're paying me to be an expert on, and so I must work to avoid this at all costs. Thus, I am considering going to intensive speaking or interpreting (which would help speaking) school at some point before returning to the US and certainly before finding a job.
I've gotten comfortable with Japanese enough that I'm at a level where, based on external factors, I don't need to improve. However, for my mental well-being I do need to improve, and I'm going to have to spend a lot of time and money to do so.
In other news, I'm currently writing out my yearly Japanese New Year's cards and preparing for our New Year's trip, which will not be nearly as grand as last year but will take us to the snowy mountains for two days and then Tokyo for five nice (potentially) relaxing days in the big city. Probably won't write again until I'm back.
See you on the other side of the decade. The 2000's have been the source of many of my absolute favorite memories and best times. I'm going to miss them.