Tokyo language school shows students a kind of Japanese you won’t find in textbooks, but that you’ll definitely want in your skill set.

One of the big hurdles in learning Japanese is that textbook Japanese doesn’t always match up with how the language is actually spoken. Sure, sometimes it does, but the style of Japanese you’ll learn in most classrooms is a proper, formal way of speaking. It’s useful if you’re talking to a hotel clerk, restaurant server, or business colleague, but when talking with friends or other casual conversation partners, spoken Japanese grammar and vocabulary bend to become a lot snappier and more expressive.

So while it’s critical to start with a solid understanding of proper speech patterns, it’s nice to find a school that’s willing to teach less formal forms of communication too, like Tokyo’s Hotsuma International School does. Over the last few years, our Japanese-language reporter Seiji Nakazawa has had multiple opportunities to spend time with Hotsuma’s foreign students who have come to Japan to study the language, but last week was his first time to sit in on a class, and the lesson was unlike any he’d ever seen before.

▼ Seiji’s Pakistani friend Raza, a Hotsuma student, was happy to see our reporter, if a little disappointed that this visit wasn’t connected to a beach run or free fried chicken.

As Seiji took a seat at the back of the classroom, he noticed that the instructors seemed especially enthusiastic, and that’s because they’re actually a pair of professional comedians! Japanese husband Manu and Swiss wife Shira together form the duo Franponais, who specialize in the two-person Japanese comedy acts called manzai.

Franponais teaches a special class at Hotsuma called Learning Japanese with Manzai. They start by explaining some of the basics of the art form, like how most gags require one person to take a silly airheaded role, while the other reacts with shocked seriousness to their partner’s shenanigans. Because manzai are structured as a conversation between two people, the tone is casual and conversational, exactly the sort of thing that’s lacking from most classroom Japanese-language instruction.

▼ Manu, who can speak five different languages, explained everything in clear, easy-to-follow Japanese.

Franponais then performed a quick example before giving the students their assignment: to form pairs and create, then perform, their own manzai acts.

Seiji likes a good laugh as much as the next guy, but he couldn’t help but wonder if Hotsuma’s students could pull this off. Comedy can’t be stiff and formal. It needs to be loose and energetic, with timing, inflection, and emotion all key elements. Even as a native Japanese speaker, he’d have a tough time if someone told him to create his own manzai act, and he couldn’t imagine doing it in a foreign language.

But the Hotsuma students threw themselves into the project, with their instructors hovering about to offer assistance and provide feedback.

Eventually, it was time for the students to perform their manzai skits…

…and sure enough…

…they were funny!

▼ Learning Japanese with Manzai

For Seiji, who only speaks Japanese, it was heartwarming and inspiring to see the students working hard not only to communicate, but to make people smile with their advancing Japanese skills, and having come all the way to Japan to do it. “After finishing their courses at Hostuma, some of them will look for jobs, while others will apply for other educational programs in Japan,” says Seiji. “Chasing after their dreams won’t be easy, but I think this time in their life, when they studied and laughed so hard, is a memory they’ll treasure, and I hope they’ll al be smiling in the future too.”

Related: Hotsuma International School
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