(Image by MasashiWakui, Pixabay: https://pixabay.com/photos/japan-osaka-night-asia-landmark-2014619/)
This is the first in a series of articles on Understanding Japanese, but much of this advice is relevant in the pursuit of understanding any language. While much can be said and has been said on the subject of languages, their students, and their speakers, I will only write on the information that I feel you need to know to improve. This article is the most important one—nothing matters more than your mindset.
Focus on Understanding, Not on Being Understood
Learners and teachers alike often inappropriately focus on being understood in a language you do not understand. Attempting to communicate is not a particularly effective means of improving your understanding of a language as a beginner. You shouldn't rely on native speakers being bold or enthusiastic enough to elucidate your glaring errors if you are still able to get across what you mean.
Speaking and writing are production skills and using them cements what you already know. As a beginner, you know little. Instead, you should put far more emphasis on understanding what native speakers say and write. It is only after you spend much time attempting to understand Japanese that you will know what is natural. The amount of language you can actively use in conversation or in prose draws directly from the amount you understand, which will always be greater.
However, if your goal is to understand just enough of the language to make your visit to Japan more worthwhile, I encourage you to focus on memorising important phrases first. Once you can reproduce them, you should focus on understanding just as any other learner, if you still have the time and enthusiasm to put toward understanding the language before your visit. There is a point where you will understand enough of the language to start engaging in conversations with others, rudimentary as they might be. This might be sooner than you think.
The crux of this tenet is that a beginner's time and effort is worth more in working to understand the language than in trying to express themselves in a language they do not understand the fundamentals of. Speaking early is not harmful that I am aware of, though I'm inclined to think it can be wasteful.
Be Okay With Not Understanding
While your ultimate goal is to understand the language, you will regularly fail to achieve this goal. Particularly as a beginner, you will often not understand the full breadth and depth of meaning behind a native speaker's speech and prose. This is entirely expected and entirely unavoidable. Studying a living language from a series of textbooks won't help you bypass this, nor can you defend against it with knowledge of grammar patterns.
Instead, you must be content with not understanding and regularly misunderstanding. The more you know, the less this will affect you. You will often realise later, perhaps a few pages further into that novel, or a few minutes later into a speech, what the author really meant. It may even take months or years for you to correct your initial misconceptions. This is because you are not yet ready to comprehend this sentence. Deeper and broader understanding comes from extensive confrontation with comprehensible input, a concept I'll explain in the subsequent article in this series.
Motivation is notoriously unreliable—don't allow yourself to be manipulated by it. Instead, you should be disciplined in consistently spending time understanding the language. In the simplest terms, this means that you dedicate time to this pursuit every day. It is not the amount of time you spend in a day, but instead the number of days you convince yourself to spend the time that makes the difference.
Understanding is not just the process of acquiring new knowledge, but retaining it. The more time that elapses between initial acquisition and the next time you encounter it, the more likely it is that you'll forget.
Discipline is necessary for both regularly acquiring new knowledge and retention of that acquired knowledge.