Clubs at Mercari, Vol. 3: How #z-nihongo (Japanese Language Club) Supports Its Members to Grow

At Mercari, we’ve created a company club system as a part of our efforts to foster communication between our members. Under this system, members of Mercari Group who share the same interests congregate on Slack to chat about their hobbies, hold online and offline events, and interact on a level that erases the lines between teams and job descriptions. Introduced in 2015, our company club system continues to go strong with multiple new clubs being created each month for a total of more than 400 separate clubs (as of September 2023).

Here at Mercan, we are running a series to showcase the color and variety of Mercari’s club activities. In the third article of this series, we’ll be looking at #z-nihongo (Mercari’s Japanese Language Club). We asked a few members about how they became interested in the Japanese language and why they chose z-nihongo as a place to study.

Featured in this article

  • Stephan Donin(@stouf)

    Originally from France, Stephan moved to Japan in 2013 and joined Mercari in 2019. While he started as a backend (server-side) engineer, since 2021 Stephan has been an engineering manager, leading a Product Development Team. Stephan is also in charge of #z-nihongo, Mercari’s Japanese language study group, because he loves the Japanese language and strongly believes that knowledge is meant to be shared. Outside of work, Stephan can be found playing music (guitar), practicing his Japanese, playing video games, or working on developing his skills.

  • Iris Cortés Ruiz(​​@Iris)

    Curious about getting to know other cultures, Iris studied Languages and Sociocultural Studies at Andes University in her hometown Bogotá, Colombia. After graduating, she moved to Tokyo, where she worked as an English Language trainer. Wanting to learn more, she continued her sociolinguistics studies at Sophia University, where she received her Master’s degree. She joined Mercari in 2022 and is currently in the Business Support Team. During her free time, she enjoys traveling, photography, and concerts.

  • Kaoru Kumabe(@Roo)

    Kaoru is a Program Manager in the PMO team and is grateful for the opportunity to work in a bilingual environment. He was born in Japan, but spent most of his life in Canada, where he received his Computer Engineering degree from the University of Waterloo. After having worked in Canada, Germany, and the UK, he returned to Japan in 2019. He enjoys playing ultimate frisbee, listening to podcasts while running, and soaking in an onsen after hiking.

Anime as a gateway into the Japanese language

First, let’s start with why you all decided to start studying the Japanese language in the first place.

@stouf: Well, I am originally from France, but I have been living in Japan for close to 11 years now. My first encounter with the Japanese language was actually through anime—Japanese anime was popular in France and we have it available on French TV, so I used to watch it a lot. However, dubbed versions are mainstream, and I rarely had a chance to hear the actual Japanese. But then one day I went to my friend’s house, and I finally got to see the subtitled version with the Japanese audio for the first time—I was instantly captivated by how beautiful Japanese sounded. I also found the pronunciation interesting, like the way that Japanese people say a sort of shortened “eh!” sound when they’re surprised. I was very intrigued by this method of expressing a certain emotion by shortening a sound, as this is different from my native language of French.

This is what eventually sparked my interest in Japan, and I decided to visit as a tourist. On my first trip to Japan, I toured around the city of Sapporo in Hokkaido and experienced the history and cuisine of each part of the city. It was a truly unforgettable experience, and I knew that I wanted to visit Japan again, so I applied for a short-term internship in Japan. My original plan was to stay for just 6 months, but here I am 11 years later! (laughs)

@Iris: For me, it was basically the same as @stouf. (laughs) I also became interested in Japan through anime—especially the theme songs. I am from Colombia, and Spanish is my native language, so of course I had no idea what the lyrics meant, but I loved the melodies. I wanted to be able to sing those songs, so I began studying Japanese, starting by trying to write the lyrics in romaji (a system of alphabetized spelling used to transliterate Japanese). Later, I began properly studying the language and Japanese culture at language schools and at my university in Colombia. The more I learned about Japan, the more I wanted to go there, so I decided to study abroad. At first, I intended to only stay for a year, but just like @stouf, I fell in love with Japan and before I knew it, 10 years had passed. (laughs)

A picture from one of @Iris’s visits to Japan

@Roo: My answer is actually a bit different. I lived in Japan with my Japanese parents until I was 3 years old. Then, due to my parents’ work, we moved to Canada, where I lived for about 40 years. I did attend a Japanese language school when I was a child, but I wanted so badly to fit in with my Canadian friends that I started to hate the fact that I was Japanese, and so I turned my full attention to studying English. All I wanted back then was to be Canadian. However, as I grew up and got older, the Japanese in me began to gradually come out. I started to realize that I actually like Japanese culture. Also, though my wife is Canadian, she absolutely loves Japanese food and often enjoys cooking with Japanese ingredients. These are some of the reasons why I chose to move to Japan with my wife and two children.

It seems like you each have your own unique story! Could you tell us more about why you decided to join #z-nihongo?

@stouf: I joined Mercari in 2019. The #z-nihongo club already existed before I joined, but by the time I joined it was no longer very active. My feeling was that, even though Mercari has many members of Japanese nationality and plenty of opportunities to learn Japanese, it would be a waste to let #z-nihongo fade away since it seemed like such a great learning environment. So, whenever I came across Japanese that I could use in my daily life, I immediately started posting it on the #z-nihongo Slack channel. Gradually, the channel began to pick up momentum, and more and more members started asking questions about difficult words and kanji, and sharing their own interesting Japanese discoveries.

I also sometimes look at the #z-nihongo Slack channel, and I always learn something new about some difficult kanji or proverbs—things that even native Japanese speakers don’t know! I think I heard that the club also holds study sessions, is that true?

@stouf: Yes! We have a weekly Japanese study group that we hold in a hybrid online-offline format. I’m the organizer, but @Roo joins us all the time.

@Roo: Yeah, I love going to every session. Before I joined Mercari, my plan was to start proactively learning and using Japanese here, but when I actually joined, I found that many of my team members spoke English, so I ended up with fewer opportunities to practice my own Japanese than I had expected. I realized that my Japanese skills would not improve as fast as I wanted if I didn’t try something else, so I decided to join the club.

#z-nihongo is super relaxed—you can chat in Japanese, learn about difficult kanji, and enjoy studying while having fun in a casual and enjoyable atmosphere. It’s just the right balance.

@Iris: On my previous team, many of the members could speak English, so I had few opportunities to use Japanese. However, on the team that I transferred to, many of the members can’t speak English, so I took this as a sign to start taking my Japanese studies more seriously. Around that time, I happened to look at the #z-nihongo Slack channel and saw that the members were asking direct questions about words and kanji they didn’t understand—that’s when I became interested. I thought that this could be a place for me to learn free of stress.

@stouf: I didn’t realize you all felt that way! That makes me so happy to hear. I really want to share what I know with as many people as possible, whether it be languages, technology, or anything else. I’m happy that my knowledge has been useful for others, and I would be even more happy to share with even more people—expanding our horizons together.

Once per week, the members meet up for a relaxed chat over some drink

It’s easier to push yourself when there are people who can relate to the problems you’re facing

The weekly study group sounds like a lot of fun! By the way, what is your favorite word or phrase in Japanese?

@Iris: I like honorific language like “~shitekureru,” which is a phrase that can be used when expressing thanks. These honorific expressions are not found in English, nor in my own native language of Spanish. I like that Japanese has lots of polite and warm words like this.

@Roo: Similar to Iris, I like the honorific expression “~saseteitadakimasu,” which is used to humbly inform another person that you will take some action. I also like “ganbaru” (to do one’s best) and “gamansuru” (to persevere). All of these are unique expressions that don’t exist in English—only Japanese.

@stouf: Yes, I agree. I think that the honorific expressions you both brought up are wonderful because they are infused with consideration and care for others. It can be very difficult to master these expressions because they are not found in English, but I love how strongly honorific language reflects Japanese culture.

As a person who was born and raised in Japan, it makes me so incredibly happy to hear you all say that. What is something that each of you has learned as a member of #z-nihongo?

@Roo: For me, it’s less about a specific piece of knowledge, and more that studying with the other #z-nihongo members made me more confident in my Japanese overall. When I first joined Mercari, I could barely speak Japanese at all, and I was always falling back on English when I ran into trouble. However, when I started talking and studying with the #z-nihongo members, I realized that it doesn’t matter if you can’t speak perfectly, you can still use the language. This realization took a lot of pressure off of me.

@Iris: I am the same as @Roo. Learning Japanese is difficult—for those of us from overseas, kanji (Chinese characters adopted into Japanese writing) in particular is uncharted territory. When I was studying alone, I often felt like giving up, but now I know that I’m not alone—I have many friends at #z-nihongo who have the same problems as I do. By listening to their experiences, I have realized that I am not the only one who is struggling. Also, seeing them working hard gives me the strength to work hard on my own studies.

@stouf: As a teacher myself, I think the most efficient way to learn a language is to teach it to others. At #z-nihongo, members ask me many questions every day—I always reference books or online material before answering them, which helps me learn as well. Studying Japanese on my own, sometimes it can feel quite discouraging, but then I remember that there are many people in Mercari who are willing to help me. I hope that everyone in the club will make the most of this amazing learning environment.

Lastly, what are your goals for the future?

@Iris: So, I’m a member of a team where Japanese is required, but there are still many situations where I find it difficult to express my opinions in Japanese. That is why I want to participate in lots of other club activities in addition to #z-nihongo, to have more opportunities to practice my Japanese. My goal is to master the language, and in doing so, unleash my potential.

@Roo: I just want to always remember the importance of simply practicing my listening and speaking skills. Currently, the #z-nihongo study groups are mainly for just casual chatting, but in the future I want to have more time for doing things like reading Japanese articles and asking each other questions about what we don’t understand, or focusing our discussions on a single topic. That said, I think that if we make the sessions too intense, participation might drop off, so I want to make sure we keep a healthy balance of study and fun.

@stouf: As the person in charge of #z-nihongo, my goal is to continue to support the club members. Since everyone experiences different difficulties in language learning, my ongoing mission is to first understand each person’s individual situation and then provide support tailored to their individual needs. Please considering joining #z-nihongo if you are interested in learning Japanese!

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