"Let's Learn Japanese": the 1984 language-teaching video series still holds up

Foreign residents of Tokyo: have you ever run into Yan-san? If so, did you buy him a drink? I've heard that described as standard practice for anyone who began their lifelong Japanese language-learning odyssey with Let's Learn Japanese, a 1984 production of The Japan Foundation.

Like every other such educational video series I've seen, Let's Learn Japanese teaches its language through a series of skits. But the "skits" in this series raised the game considerably with production values comparable to one of the better television dramas of the day. Their protagonist, the nationally and ethnically ambiguous Yan (played by Nick Muhrin, the reportedly still Japan-based musician all those former students are buying drinks), arrives in Tokyo to work at an architecture firm and tries his best to integrate with Japanese life.

I've blown through quite a few language-learning materials in my time, and only Let's Learn Japanese has compelled me to return again and again, not necessarily for review of the material — you can get it all down the first time through — for the sheer entertainment of revisiting not just Yan but sensei Mary Althaus, who explains the linguistic concepts at work, and especially the always-cheerful troupe of Mine, Sugihara, and Kaihō, who act out each one in context.

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As a bit of promotion for the Japan Foundation, too, this series definitely worked on me. I volunteer at my local branch, the Japan Foundation Los Angeles, to this day, and even take language classes there. And they didn't stop with these videos; when you get done with this season, you can also watch the next, produced a decade later, which follows Yan's further adventures as a graduate student and puts in the teacher's seat a lady named Tae Umino. Next I get to Japan, I'll also keep an eye out for her, too — and her amazing knitwear.