For those who are serious about learning a foreign language, reading online sites and blogs only gets you so far. To really understand how the language is used by native speakers, you have to have two-way conversations with them.
Of course its great to travel to Japan, and some of us are fortunate enough to live in a city with a large Japanese population. You might even try speaking Japanese with a waitress in a Japanese restaurant – though in my experience more often than not they turn out to be some other nationality.
One way to communicate in Japanese available to anyone who can read this blog is to have a Japanese “pen pal”. In Japanese, you can say ペンパル or メル友 (メルトモ）。
The expression “pen pal” has the connotation of someone whom you exchange physical letters with, and though there are still some people who prefer that, most of the time it means something like an email friend. There are many sites available online for finding Japanese pen pals, as well as from nearly any other country on the planet. I listed a few links below to get you started. Sometimes you’ll even find people who speak Japanese but live in other countries (maybe your own) and are searching for pen pals. That’s another interesting option.
Unlike someone random you find on the street, the people on these sites are really interested in learning about your culture and language, and therefore will be more receptive to questions you ask about theirs. Many of them will also list their hobbies, and finding someone with shared interests will make it more likely to have an enjoyable exchange that lasts.
There is two things you should be careful about in relations with pen pals:
1) Make it clear from the start if you are not interested in finding a romantic partner. Some sites will have a specific part of the user profile specifying this. If not, many users simply add a line to their profile to express their preference, such as whether they are married, dating, etc. If their profile doesn’t say anything about romantic interest, it’s best to state yours feelings on the matter in one of your initial emails. You’ll want to avoid any misunderstandings that can involve one or both sides getting hurt, and without the feedback of facial expressions and gestures that’s even more likely than in-person relationships.
2) If your focus is more on language than culture learning, you’ll probably want to use as much Japanese as possible. However, your pen pal might feel the same way and you could end up doing a compromise of half English half Japanese. There is nothing wrong with this, but if you try and find someone whose is particularly weak in, or isn’t interested much in learning English, you can make better use of your time with your pen pal.
I’ve had so many pen pals I’ve long lost count. Typically what happens is many relationships will die off in just a few exchanges, but a handful will blossom until long-term friendships. Be prepared for this and don’t feel bad if you stop getting responses from a pen pal. Also don’t be afraid to stop responding to someone if you really aren’t getting much out of the correspondence. If you want to be polite, you can just tell them you are busy and gradually increase the time it takes you to respond.
As your relationship with your pen pal progresses, you can even try doing text or audio chat which will take your Japanese to the next level. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll find someone that will want to meet you in person when you travel to Japan.