JLPT again

I posted last December about preparing for and taking the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). I should have added an update that I passed, and went on to take the next level (N3, or the third level of five) in July. I received my results online last week and by mail today: I passed! (Although my score wasn’t super-great.)

The experience was similar to the last time, although at least the test site was slightly closer and I got to catch up with some folks I met in a previous Japanese class. Still, I was away from home for about 6 hours for 2 hours and 20 minutes of actual test. The most annoying bit is how the exam administrators count all of the test question books and answer sheets after each section of the test. Every test taker has a unique number, we’re seated in numerical order, all of the papers are labelled with these numbers, and they’re picked up one-by-one. However, the exam administrator still counts every sheet of paper (for 150ish participants), and in my classroom, the administrator kept losing count or miscounting. I guess this reveals my lack of patience, but still, it’s an excruciating 10-15 minutes post-test to sit and watch someone count, unable to touch one’s bag, phone, or water. Overall, it’s a very Japanese experience—precisely organised, but not particularly efficient!

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A new alert

I wrote previously about the weather and disaster alerts that I receive on my phone. Well, today I woke up to a new one.

The graphic’s meaning wasn’t immediately obviously and I can’t read very well, but the words “missile” and “North Korea” jumped out straight away. The alert is advising people in northern Japan to take cover as missiles have been fired from North Korea. As far as I know, the missiles passed over Japan and landed in the sea. Who knows what will happen next. There’s not much else to say, except that North Korea-related jokes are in poor taste, and it’s all quite scary.

And if anyone is curious, the alert shown for Saturday in my screenshot was for summer smog. Not nearly so worrying!

Nice cream

This has nothing to do with Japan in particular, except in relation to the super-humid weather. But anyway, I finally tried making “nice cream”, that is, an ice cream-like substance made from just bananas.

I followed the basic instructions from Oh My Veggies. Essentially, you blend frozen bananas until they get creamy. I used a regular blender, which took awhile; I reckon a food processor might be easier, at least to get it started. I added just a bit of unsweetened cocoa powder and cinnamon. It came out very lovely, although maybe a bit too sweet. Next time, I plan to try adding a bit of 飲むおから (nomu okara) or smooth okara for cooking / drinking. Okara is a powdery by-product of tofu-making, and it’s delicious. I’m hoping it will make the nice cream a bit creamier and less sweet. We’ll see!

 

Homelessness in Japan

One striking thing about living in Japan, compared to everywhere else I’ve lived, is that it’s very rare to see homeless people. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, of course, and I’m interested in knowing more about the social attitudes about homelessness, and the economic, gendered, and ethnic factors that contribute to the problem.

This article from a couple of years ago discusses the history of a slum district (doya-gai) not far from where I live. It seems that homelessness has decreased significantly since 2002 with new legislation that supports people in finding housing and jobs, as well as welfare benefits. Perhaps there are lessons there for other countries. Since Japan is an aging society, though, the future of the welfare state is somewhat uncertain.

Anyway, the article is worth a read.

Gill, Tom. (2014). Skid Row, Yokohama: Homelessness and Welfare in Japan. From http://www.nippon.com/en/column/g00232/

Nikkapokka

For a long time now, I’ve wanted to take a picture of the exceedingly cool clothes worn by construction workers and other tradespeople. (Or rather, tradesmen in Japan—almost never women.)

I don’t like taking photos of random people on the street, but fortunately I came across a short article and photo gallery featuring nikkapokka (usually called nikka), described thusly:

Billowing outward below the knee, they taper sharply at the ankles. The pants are an adaptation of the knickerbockers worn by early Dutch settlers in New York, which later became fashionable as sportswear.

The photos also show jikatabi, which are split-toe shoes with rubber soles. Have a look!

Sun and rain protection

Japanese women are very much into sun avoidance, and as the weather heats up, the latest in protective and cooling accessories dominates the shops. The merchandise below, spotted in Loft (the department store Sogo’s best shop), shows the array of possibilities.

Out of necessity, I’m also a fan of sun protection, and whenever I’m out in the sun for a long time, I wear long sleeves, including UV protection shirts, a straw hat, big sunglasses, and often a parasol. (The latter are pretty typical here, so I can use one without looking ridiculous.) But I haven’t yet tried a veil…maybe I should so that I don’t stick out as a foreigner for once!

(Click to enlarge)

June is the rainy season, so the rain gear is also making an appearance.

No guitars in the toilet

As a rule, I don’t take toilet photos, but this sign is too amazing to pass up. (Found in a public washroom in a sort of health/beauty services wing of the Yokohama station Sky Building.)

The top says, “obey the rules and pass the baton to the next person”.

Some notes on manners

Gratuitous armor photo

On the Japan Info blog/website, I came across a list of “7 Daily Habits Considered Rude Elsewhere, But are Perfectly OK in Japan.” Yes, I’m susceptible to clickbait, but it’s still an interesting list.

The seven things are:

Not tipping

Nope, not done here; this is good

Being indirect

“hiding” the meaning of what you really mean to say by minimizing complaints or overstating compliments.

Interrupting when someone else is speaking

In other words, Japanese conversations have more feedback—saying things like “I see,” “really,” “uh huh” more frequently than in English, for example.

Not holding doors open for other people

Not sure, see comments below.

Making noise when eating

Must slurp the noodles!

Pushing people when getting in or off the train

Necessity.

Shouting for service in a restaurant

I’m not sure about all restaurants, but definitely in pub-style restaurants, just yell “sumimasen” to get the server’s attention.

As previously discussed, I would also add “smoking permitted indoors especially restaurants”, which is among the very worst and rudest things about Japan in my opinion.

But anyway, on the topic of #4, I haven’t really noticed whether people tend to hold open doors generally or not, but definitely people do hold open elevator doors. This is a very minor thing, but it’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine. The gym I go to is on the 6th floor of a building, and you have to use the elevator to get there. Without fail, the person in the elevator closest to the door holds down the “open” button and allows others to exit first. This is great when, for example, the elevator is really crowded or there’s a baby stroller or elderly person with a shopping trolley. But if there are only, say, 3 people in the elevator, it’s really annoying! People tend to make a big show saying どうぞ (douzo) “go ahead”, “no, after you” “please, you first” etc. etc. … and then no one ends up getting out of the elevator before more people start getting in. I’m usually the one who appears very rude by being the first out of the elevator, but I’m willing to make that sacrifice so that we don’t have to be trapped in the elevator forever. (And, I now make a point to hold the door open whenever I’m closest to the button, just so I’m not rude all the time.)

 

Let’s talk about kanji

Back in January, I started studying Japanese more seriously, going to a language school for 3 and a half hours every weekday. My first goal is to improve my speaking skills, but the classes focus more on grammar, vocabulary, and reading—which makes sense given that most students aim to go on to further studies (trade school or university) in Japan and therefore they need to take lots of exams. I actually really like studying grammar and have been inspired to think about becoming a translator (someday…).

One very daunting challenge for any Japanese language learner is reading and writing, which explains why I’m studying during any free moment rather than writing on this blog!

Japanese has two phonetic alphabets, hiragana and katakana, which are not too difficult to learn, although I’m still pretty slow at reading katakana (which is mainly used to write words of foreign origin). And, there is kanji (Chinese characters).

To compare:

“Japanese language” (Nihongo)
Hiragana: にほんご
Katakana: ニホンゴ (this would never be written in katakana, but just for the sake of comparison)
Kanji: 日本語

So my goal in this post is to explain why I agonize so much about learning kanji.

To “learn” a character, you have to memorize:

  • How to write it: the strokes go in a particular order. You also have to know how many strokes there are if you want to look it up in a print dictionary!
  • The readings. Most kanji can be pronounced in at least two different ways, although often there are three or four or more.
  • The meaning. Sometimes a single character has a meaning, although sometimes they only represent a pronunciation in a particular context.
  • Combinations. Beyond the basic kanji, you can’t really learn the characters on their own. You have to learn them in combination with other kanji to make words.

So here is an example.

水 = water みず (mizu)

水着 = bathing suit みずぎ (mizugi), with the second kanji meaning “wear”

So far so good. Then:

水曜日 = Wednesday すいようび (suiyoubi)

水準 = level, standard すいじゅん (suijyun)

水泳 = swimming すいえい (suiei). Yes, the ei part 泳 looks very similar to 水!

Then 泳

泳ぐ = to swim およぐ (oyogu)

Then another similar (but different!) kanji 永, also ei but a different meaning:

永続 = permanence, continuation えいぞく (eizoku)

Another famous example is:

3月1日は日曜日で祝日、晴れの日でした

“Sangatsu tsuitachi wa nichiyoubi de shukujitsu, hare no hi deshita,” which translates into “March 1 was Sunday, a holiday, and a sunny day.”

The character 日 (day) is pronounced: tachi, nichi, bi, jitsu, and hi in that sentence. There’s no way of knowing which reading to use other than by memorization.

There are 2,136 “regular use” kanji that a person with basic literacy should know, and I’ve studied about 500 so far, although I don’t know all of the readings of those. But again, “knowing” involves knowing words in context as well as the various readings. That is, even if you memorize all possible readings, you still can’t automatically “read” the kanji when it’s combined with others. According to Wikipedia, a “total of 13,108 characters can be encoded in various Japanese Industrial Standards for kanji.”

It’s really fascinating to learn kanji and start to unlock the mysterious symbols around you (literacy = empowerment!), but it takes so much work, essentially memorization, that can go on for a lifetime.

Some homework