Think everyone who comes to Japan arrives with at least a rudimentary knowledge of the language? Think again. From Todd, who came to Japan on the JET Programme, an account of what it is like arriving here knowing zero Japanese:
When I arrived in Japan I didn't speak a word. In fact, when I got picked up from the airport my friend said "konnichiwa" to someone and I had to ask her what it meant. I didn't have a job at the time, so I usually studied for 3-5 hours a day, but my friend wasn't around for the first two weeks and I was pretty scared to go out too much, so I might have spent 8-10 hours studying for those first weeks. The first thing I did was to learn katakana and hiragana. With intense reading, writing, and flash cards, I was able to learn katakana in a day and hiragana in about a day and a half.
I still remember my first shopping trip after learning them: I bought nairon boxers instead of reion, got a pack of furawa, and a bunch of hourensou. What power!
I studied hard for months but was not very communicative until the end of month three, when suddenly something in my mind shifted (I learned to think backwards?) and I was able to do some basic communication with all the vocab I had been learning.
Another interesting moment was when I broke through a plateau in my textbook this year. I had been working on a particular chapter on and off for quite a while but couldn't master it and so didn't go past it. Finally I just skipped it, and it only took me a day to finish the last quarter of the entire book. I had already studied or osmosed the rest of the content but had thought I was still at the level of that chapter!
I'm now a bit past my 2-year mark in the country and am gearing up for the 2-kyu level test.
Here are some random bits of advice based on my experience:
-Learn hiragana and katakana immediately.
-Get a textbook. I used Japanese for Everyone (in the Japanese for Busy People series). Any well known book with a pleasing layout should be fine.
-Find a tutor who won't tiptoe around your mistakes.
-Ask coworkers lots of questions to get them used to helping you.
-Get other study books too. It's good to give your brain a break from the layout of your main text. Also, if you hit a plateau in your main text it doesn't mean you're not learning! Maybe you should take a break from your main text and use something else.
-Write (don't type) your answers to the text questions in Japanese.
-Take breaks. My biggest jumps in ability have been immediately after
absenses of varying length from Japan.
-Buy an English-Japanese picture dictionary.
-Have Japanese friends of both genders and all ages.