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JLPT Boot Camp – The Ultimate Study Guide to passing the Japanese Language Proficiency Test

The Ultimate Study Guide to Passing the JLPT in Less Time and With Less Pain.

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JLPT BC 135 | Adding Grammar and Vocabulary Back In

I’ve got a good start on the first book of Game of Thrones (氷と炎の歌1). It has been a lot of fun because I really like that particular story. I think there are a lot of people that will probably find it way too difficult to struggle through. For me though, it is interesting to see how it got translated because it seems like the author has done a decent job in converting the book to Japanese. It is definitely not a book to learn with, at least for the faint of heart. It is pretty much purposely written to be difficult to read. The author uses a lot of rare kanji and uncommon words for obvious reasons. He wanted to convey the feeling of a fantasy novel and some of the descriptions are quite difficult to fully understand even in my native language. Something that I have never seen before this book was the author’s way of translating certain key terms that are important to the series. He created a new word out of kanji that symbolizes what he wants to convey but then has katakana furigana of the original term. For example, for the Night’s Watch, which is a name of a group of guardians in the book, the author writes 冥夜の守人 (lit. guard people of the dark night), but to the side it has the furigana ナイツ・ウォッチ. This makes for an interesting blend that keeps the fantasy tone but clarifies what is actually being talked about. Another thing I noticed was the use of brackets to emphasize certain key words. For example, the Night’s Watch lives near a place simply called ‘the wall’ in English. In Japanese the author uses 壁 (kabe), which means wall, but then he puts <> brackets around it for emphasis so that you know it’s not just some wall but the wall. I haven’t had a lot of experience with this kind of formatting. Has anybody else read something like that before? Dual Reading So I have the English kindle version of Game of Thrones that I read awhile ago. Since it is in kindle format I can easily pack it with me. So I have been making use of it lately to help me better understand the Japanese translation of the book. Also, I have an uncommon interest in seeing how things are expressed in different languages so I like to see what is kept, what gets removed, what gets added so to speak. No language can perfectly relay a scene to someone, and that is actually one advantage of writing, because you have to use your imagination to fill in the gaps, making reading a more personal experience than say movie watching. But, having the same text in two different languages also has the benefit of being great for language learning of course. And basically what I have been doing is reading 3 or 4 pages in English than reading 3 or 4 pages in Japanese. The two books match up fairly well so far so I can get the meaning of what is going on without having to look up a lot of words. This helps me out a lot because I have a hard time guessing about the overall scene of a piece of writing and so getting an overview of it before I read really helps everything slip into place. And it makes reading go a lot faster with just the right amount of struggle to come up with certain words. I do still take the time here and there to save words that I want to practice later. These are mostly uncommon but interesting words to know like decapitation, which is probably not going to appear on the test but just interesting to know. I’m thinking about taking a similar approach to Harry Potter, because I have the English kindle book, I just need the Japanese one. I’d like to combine it with the audiobook as well for some extra practice. Squeezing in grammar and vocabulary I’m starting to spot check more and more grammar recently. I want to avoid going into it very deep and boring myself with it, but I want to do some regular review so that I have it over-learned by the time I reach the July test. As I’ve said a few times before though, The N1 grammar section is not as cut and dry as that of other levels of the test. You really need to know small nuances, and really pay attention to detail. I’ve been trying my best to notice and take note of interesting usage that I see, but other than that I don’t see how you can really be 100% prepared for that section other than just using Japanese and being corrected a lot. I’ve also tried my best to bulk up on difficult vocabulary before the coming test. Last test, there were some words that I recognized but couldn’t use very well. I’d like to take some extra time with vocab and try to binge on as much as I can before the test, so that I can again over-learn what I need to pass. I will need to improve my reading comprehension and actually concentration. I have a lot of trouble keeping focused through the more boring pieces of the test. What seemed to work for N2 for me was reading a lot of old pre-N tests. Although the questions and style are a little different, they are still great practice. I’ll be cracking open a few of those over the next couple of weeks to see where I stand. Another issue is taking a practice test. Although I’ve found the N1 practice tests to be all over the map in terms of being the correct level. For instance, I’ll ace one then turn around and fail another. How about you? We are heading into the final 2 months before the July test. Are you ready? How are you preparing? Let me know in the comments.


24 Apr 2014

Rank #1

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JLPT BC 131 | The Smell of Coffee in Japan

When I first came to Japan, I was, like so many others, fascinated by the vending machines. I mean there are vending machines absolutely everywhere in Japan. And they will vend absolutely everything from soda to fried noodles. One of them that I saw sold bouquets of flowers, which could come in handy for that late night craving of flower giving. But, one of the most ubiquitous kinds of vending machines of course are soda machines. And most of them carry some kind of canned coffee. Some machines actually only carry coffee. And during one of my early days here, when I would try absolutely anything and everything within an arm’s length, I purchased a black can from a machine. It was when I first came here and I couldn’t read anything, so it could have been motor oil for all I knew. As it turned out it was straight black coffee. And it was ice cold. No creamer, no sugar, no milk, straight. I almost spat it out and threw the can away. Cold black coffee? Are you mad? Who drinks that? Now, 10 or so years later, I sometimes drink cold black coffee with my meal at Mos Burger or grab a can from the convenience store without even thinking about it. I acquired the taste pretty early on actually, and I’ve come to realize that there is a lot of coffee in Japan. From little cafes to the big mainstream places, it is a part of Japan. And it was a part of Japan even before the chief mate on the Pequod showed up. There is even a style of making coffee named after Kyoto. A slow 8-16 hour brewing process that this kindly bearded man will explain for you: Mainstream At the beginning of the 80s, the Japanese coffee shop Doutor opened its doors for business. They were seen as a quick cafe that salarymen could duck into on their way to work to pick up a sandwich and a cuppa before heading into work. They are still the most common coffee shop in Japan, with somewhere around 1400 locations including its offshoots. They offer a good combination of a light sandwich and a good blended coffee. They also have a few seasonal drinks, but it is primarily a simple, to-the-point kind of cafe without all the thrills of other coffee shops. If you were wondering where the word Doutor came from, it’s the Portuguese word for ‘doctor’. Apparently, the name comes from the street name that the founder stayed on while working on a Brazilian coffee plantation. Speaking of strange names for coffee shops, the coffee shop named after the chief mate of the Pequod, the ship that went after Moby Dick, made its inevitable way to Japan in 1996. Amazingly, Starbucks mostly kept its style and menu when it came over. I would say the big difference is a smaller selection of coffees and a bigger and better-stocked sweets selection. As with a lot of trendy places from overseas, it was an immediate success. Doutor felt the pinch of competition and responded with a look-alike, called Excelsior Cafe. It apparently looked so much like Starbucks, including the color scheme and the old logo, that Starbucks promptly sued them. Excelsior Cafés are still around today though and yes they still kind of look like Starbucks Cafés. Other than mainstream coffee shops, there is an immense variety of canned coffee flavors available. A perennially favorite seems to be cafe au lait, a French mixture of coffee and milk. What’s amazing is that in winter, these drinks are served hot from the vending machine. That’s actually why they are canned, so they don’t burst open. A new trend of late has been coffee at convenience stores. It seems like somebody would have thought about it why before now, but over the last 2 years or so, Lawson, a popular convenience store chain, has started carrying all sorts of coffee drinks for reasonable prices. And it is pretty well-brewed. It really pales in comparison to the kind of coffee you get in the States at convenience stores. There it seems to be more of a raw commodity, like gasoline or milk. It’s generally pretty tasteless and over-heated. The convenience store coffee here is quite nice. Alternatives There are plenty alternatives to the mainstream options of course. For example, there is a recent trend of cat cafes, where you go and have coffee with a few feline friends. There is even an owl cafe in Namba here in Osaka, where there are several owls in cages hanging out in the cafe. That one seems a little cruel to be honest, but interesting none the less. Out in the countryside, there are plenty of cozy little cafes that serve their own variety of sweets and coffee in unique handmade mugs. I went into one place that had an all-wood interior and a nice view of a Japanese garden. So, it might be something you want to add to your to-do list if you are visiting. I feel in some of these local cafes it is almost like coffee drinking has replaced tea ceremony. The interiors are homy and the coffee is served with real sugar cubes that don’t look they came off an assembly line somewhere. The whole experience is a lot more peaceful than the ram and jam of trying to squeeze into an urban Starbucks. Adapting New Trends I feel like coffee in Japan is just another example of Japan’s take-it-and-twist-it way of adopting something. Not a lot of trends seem to come out of Japan. There aren’t a lot of new inventions that change the world or spark a new trend. Instead, Japan seems to take a lot of things and give them a little twist. The obvious example here is the car industry where Japan has excelled and has actually created a whole new kind of engine, the hybrid. But, you can see other examples in things like housing which I mentioned last month. New houses are inspired by Western tastes, but modern houses have their own style all of their own. Thinking outside of the box never really gets the applause that it does in other cultures. Instead, there is more of focus on perfection and adhering to standards. The hunger for innovation has been dulled from the days when Sony came out with their groundbreaking Walkman. I hope the hunger grows again. It would be interesting to see a chain of green tea cafés worldwide. Are you a coffee aficionado? Have you tried some interesting cafés in Japan? Do you have a crush on Tommy Lee Jones? Tell me about it in the comments below. Photo by Miki Yoshihito


26 Feb 2014

Rank #2

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JLPT BC 129 | The Evolution of Japanese Housing

When you visit a foreign country, the first thing on your list to check out is usually not the houses. After all, they aren’t quite as glamorous as 400 year old temples and shrines. But, they can tell you about a place all the same. Houses are very personal for obvious reasons. Where you choose to live can say a lot about you and your lifestyle. That is something I saw a lot of when we were house hunting last year. There is a big variety of what is available to you when it comes to buying houses. I think if you are looking for a condo in Japan, they all seem rather similar to me – concrete, one-level, and close to the station. But houses can vary widely from McMansion style houses to extremely customized houses with trendy features like roof top terraces. The interesting thing is there were relatively small differences (around 1000万 or $100,000) in price between them. It seems like since land prices are so high, the houses on them are deemed a bit temporary, losing all their value (of the physical building) after 20 years. There is kind of reason for this actually. Japan has gone through a rather dramatic change in their preferences for their houses, so that houses built 30 years ago are no longer a desirable place to live for a variety of reasons. Notice all the Japanese-style rooms (和室) and oshiire (押入). Built 1964 Houses pre-90s Houses built before the 1990s tend to still favor traditional styles of housing. There were no large main rooms. There was a dining room and a living room, each about 8~10 畳 (jou) or 120 to 140 sq. ft. If you have ever been in one of these houses, they seem a bit cramped. They are not designed for any more than about 8 people at a time and that is a tight fit. House parties were apparently not very popular back then, and still are not as popular as they are in the States, but they are starting to get more popular. At that time, people usually entertained guests in there Japanese-style room or tatami room, so it tended to be fairly big 8~10 畳 and still have the alcove for the personal shrine used to honor the dead of the family. These houses tend to be of lesser quality, although there are some made of steel or reinforced concrete that have stood the test of time. But, in general house building was not as developed as it is now. The main reason for the smaller rooms was for earthquake safety. Another drawback to these houses – to cut down on the amount of plumbing needed for the house, the bathrooms were usually attached to the kitchen and main dining room. This means that if you want to take a shower you often times have to walk by the dining table to and from the shower. This doesn’t seem like that big of deal, but it can make you feel a little uncomfortable at times. And of course there are no bathrooms on the second floor, which means if you have to go in the middle of the night you have to clamor down the stairs and back up again. You can start to see why these houses are slightly undesirable. The 和室 are gone except one. Bigger LDK and still an alcove for the shrine. Built 1991. In the 90s Houses started to look a lot more European/American. There was a lot of wooden cabinetry and bay windows (windows that project out from the house and form a little ‘bay’ to sit in or put flowers in) were pretty popular. Housing quality seemed to have gotten a lot better, too. Although the shutters I saw for a few houses were a bit shabby. Built in ovens were a little popular and kitchens were still ‘detached’, basically they weren’t a part of the main room but formed a kind of kitchen hallway that was attached to the dining room. I’ve been told that this was popular because women often wanted to hide away the ‘dirtiness’ of the kitchen from guests. Japanese style rooms were going through a bit of a transition at this point. It seems like some of them kept the alcove, while others didn’t. I saw both. Big main rooms ~14+ 畳 started getting popular as well. Whereas before there were typically 3 rooms, a bath room, and a toilet room on the main floor there were just 2 bigger rooms, a bath room, and a toilet room. It seems as though Japan wanted to modernize their houses and so they looked to Europe for inspiration. There were more than a few houses from this era that you could easily have mistaken for a townhouse in the states. Some of them even had white picket fences! The LDK is now double the size. The 和室 is considerably smaller. The new fad of a ‘walk-in-closet’ can be seen here as well. Built 2014 These days Houses have really started to have their own Japanese style. Although they still seem European, they have a trimmed modern look that is very Japanese. Gone is the wooden cabinetry and in its place is snazzy white cabinets with swing down trays and self-closing drawers. Bay windows aren’t so popular, and narrower, more opaque windows are now the norm. In the newest layouts, the Japanese-style room has practically been deleted from the design. In our house, which is about 8 years old, the Japanese-style room is only 4 畳 (60 sq. ft.), essentially the size of a nice walk-in-closet. It is also the only room in the house with an 押入れ (oshiire, a large Japanese-style closet used to store futons). All the other rooms now have shallow, western-style closets. About 13 years ago or so, they passed a housing law in Japan that requires 24-hour ventilation in all homes. This is to prevent “Sick House Syndrome”, which is essentially an allergic reaction to house dust, and house building materials. This makes it so each room in the house has either an in-vent or an out-fan that creates a very slow but steady flow of air through the house. This seems like a better deal than the typical approach to airing out the house – opening all the windows once a day. I always dreaded that in our old apartment. Even in winter, we opened up all the windows for 5 to 10 minutes to air it all out. I’m not sure how helpful it was, but it did wake me up in the morning. I should also mention that plumbing has changed a bit as well. Now, the bathroom is usually far away from the kitchen and a lot of houses have a bathroom on the second floor. We don’t have one, it was something we could live without, but it is typical of other houses. The Physical Transition of Culture It was interesting for me to see Japan’s departure from old customs in the physical world. You could literally see how the style of living has changed over the years. Premium houses of today have wide open spaces with vaulted ceilings that I never saw in any of the older buildings for sale. Another thing to point out is there are hardly any buildings older than 30 years. Most of the old buildings have been torn down, so even if you wanted something traditional, it simply doesn’t exist anymore. Outside of a few key areas (like Kyoto’s Gion district) older houses are not worth anything, and actually some of them make the land worth less because people have to pay to tear down the house if they want to build a new house. Although at first glance, I think it is a little sad that these houses are disappearing. But, if you take an honest look at them, they are pretty shoddy and some of them are infested with all sorts of things. One of my students told me a story of how a raccoon would sneak through a hole in their kitchen floor and steal cookies off the kitchen table. And this was in the city. Would you live in a traditional house? Would you like to live in a traditional Japanese house with the oshire and all tatami floors? Is modern housing so much cooler? Let me know in the comments.


22 Jan 2014

Rank #3

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JLPT BC 133 | Beware of the Yellow Sand

You were probably advised when you were very young to not eat the yellow snow. What about yellow sand? It’s that season again in Japan, and we are again being blessed with the wonderful dirty, gritty sand from our neighbors here in Japan, coating everything in a nice uneven blanket of yellow that seems to get into everything. And if you live in Japan, you might have also heard of the evil curse of PM2.5 that newspapers and electronics stores love to throw around as a buzzword. This mysterious cloud of gunk likes to come and go as well these days. Although I wasn’t able to pull up some numbers, it seems to be getting worse and worse each year. Yellow sand and PM2.5 come to Japan by way of wind currents that shift around during the Spring season. March is especially worse for this. During almost the entire month, you can find yellow sand on your bikes and cars. Regular washing doesn’t seem to help that much as well because it just comes back the next day. So, what gives with this yellow stuff? And this mysterious PM2.5 cloud? And is there anyway to combat it? Yellow Sand or Asian Dust Asian Dust or as it is called by the Japanese Meteorological Agency, Aeolian Dust, comes to Japan from the Gobi desert in China. It so happens that the Gobi desert is a good 2000km or more away from Japan, which means that this sand somehow manages to get sucked up into the upper atmosphere and then dumped thousands of kilometers away in Japan. And usually it it is fairly light. You can hardly see it on most days. But, I have seen it come down like rain. So thick, it is like a yellow smog. On those days, you need to stay inside or wear a good mask. Otherwise your throat will be coated with it and you’ll be coughing it up for a week. I know from personal experience when I got caught outside and I had to ride my bike through it for about a kilometer and a half. Big mistake. I’ve heard from one of my students that is an entomologist (bug scientist) that even small insects get sucked up this way as well and reek havoc on crops in Japan. And the mixture can also include pollution as well as fungi and viruses that somehow amazingly survive the journey. It’s a nasty mess. The problem has apparently been around for thousands of years. But it has recently been getting worse due to increased desertification in China providing more sand to kick up. And, of course more pollution. PM2.5 But there is also another little treat that greets us here in March and in other seasons like last fall, and that’s PM2.5. It stands for particulate matter, specifically pieces that are smaller than 2.5 micrometers, which roughly 1/100th the width of a human hair. Particulate matter of this size are usually made up of toxic organic compounds and heavy metals. Although this may sound like a typical weekend for you, it can have some rather nasty side effects that you might want to look out for. Normally your respiratory system does a decent job of keeping gunk out of your body. You’ve got nose hairs and mucus and all sorts of tools to trap crap from flowing down into your lungs. However, PM2.5 is too small and manages to bypass all that and get absorbed into your body. Short term effects include things like aggravated asthma and respiratory problems to even premature death if you have heart problems. Long term effects, of course, cause things like chronic respiratory problems and heart disease. You can begin to see why a few people are freaking out about it a little. And since the media and electronics stores have been hyping it up, it is something that has been on everyone’s minds of late. Staying Protected First of all, it’s important to know when a giant cloud of nastiness will be invading your neighborhood. Luckily, the Internet has a few handy tools to help you with that. Surviving in Japan has a great post going over the main websites where you can check latest air quality in your area. The one thing I would add to that site is a handy little iPhone app that I picked up that has been really valuable if all you need is a quick check. Be sure to set your region in the settings. The app itself might be a little hard at first to get around in if you are not that good at Japanese. The keywords are 汚染 (Osen, pollution) and 黄砂 (kousa, yellow sand). I’ve found this app to be fairly accurate. It was able to warn me about the big cloud that hit Osaka about a month ago. The color coding is a little weird. Blue is the lowest level, then green, then orange, then red? (not sure, it hasn’t been that bad yet) On bad days, you have the option of dawning a mask for your morning commute to work or just staying inside. If you wear a regular mask, the kind you can pick up for about ¥100 for 40, you can reduce intake of particles by about half. Using heavier-duty 3M masks cut it way down, but will cost you around ¥100 each. Air purifiers and air-purifying air conditioners are a real hot item now in Japan. We are guilty of buying into the trend. Mostly because every brochure we see of said devices has a young mother and child playing near the devices, implying that you should buy them to protect your family. And yeah, I’m a sucker for that. We had to get new air conditioners for our house and I ended up upgrading to the Sharp Plasma cluster-enhanced ones, so that I can be ‘rest assured’ my family won’t be attacked by deadly PM2.5 while they sleep. And now I’m broke, but I feel slightly assured I guess. So, you might be thinking that’s all good, but what a more permanent solution? How about a future without nastiness in the skies. Well, as with a lot of issues in Asia, there is a lot non-communication going on about it. The problem obviously needs to be solved in China, but there are a lot of issues with that. First, their economy is tooling down the road of modernization at 1000mph and changing the engine on that is going to prove difficult. Second, it is a really expensive, in terms of money and time, problem to fix. It’s not like China is going to slough off the problem for much longer. They can’t. If you think the air quality is bad in Japan, it’s a lot worse in China. And people dying of lung cancer is not good for any economy. So my guess is they will at least make some attempts to mitigate the effects. In 2007, South Korea sent China some trees, but they unfortunately used them to line highways instead blocking the sand. In 2009, South Korea spent 50 million won ($42,000) to plant some 72,000 trees in China, which seems like a small price to pay to attempt to fix things. Of course, Japan has spent significantly more in foreign aid for China to help prevent pollution, but it is a huge problem that needs a concerted effort. My hope is that relations normalize a bit and everyone can stop disagreeing over some inhabitable rocks, so bigger issues like gunk in the air can be discussed and focused on, but that’s just a little dream I have. Do you have Yellow Sand in your Area? Are you a sucker for air purifiers? Would you or do you wear mask to work? Let me know in the comments below.


26 Mar 2014

Rank #4

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JLPT BC 128 | Getting Ready for Winter Break

So the test is finally over for 2013. I was barely able to get to the test much less put in serious study time the whole month before because I was in the process of moving, which is now thankfully over. Although, there is still a lot more to get setup, I’m finally physically in the house. To be honest, it’s great to be moved in and headed down the final stretch of this year. I’m getting started on a few books that I haven’t read because they were too easy for me. I would like to get into writing as well, but it might take me some time to get up to that. I need to find a solid chunk of time to do it, but all I ever seem to get is 10 to 15 minutes there and 10 to 15 minutes here. So, doing some reading and writing will be my two big projects to do over this winter break. I am really looking forward to simply having fun and reading instead of trying to hammer through the grunt work of more vocabulary and abstract reading. My main concern is keeping the habit up so I’m not out of shape mentally when I go back to it in January. I think after the holidays calm down, I’ll go out and pick up a good difficult philosophy book to work through. Or maybe pick up the next book in the Harry Potter series, which actually proved to have some good vocabulary. Easy Books While I was cleaning during the big move, I found some old Disney books that I hadn’t read yet – Toy Story and Surf’s Up. I’ve talked about these Disney books before, but it’s worth repeating that they are perfect for those that around N3 to N2 that just want to get into reading more. They are easy to get through, and they all have movies you can watch to give you the background 1st. I’m going to use them to increase my overall comfort with reading fast. I’ll probably try to time myself a few times to see if I can get a good reading speed. Now, the vocabulary in these books isn’t particularly difficult for N1, but I just want to get my sentence and expression recognition down pat. Of course, those are all just excuses to take it easy over the holidays and have fun. They are also very portable and don’t require batteries, which will come in handy because I’ll be doing a lot of traveling, during the winter holidays as well. It’s studying that I am actually looking forward to. Make Grammar Perfect I’ve been studying Kanzen Master pretty intensively over the last few months with the goal of being able to quickly recognize and use the grammar. I’m pretty sure I improved on that this time although I was admittedly pretty exhausted by the time I made it to the test. I hope I kept my score. I felt better about it anyway. I’d ideally like to take it one step further though and get used to using the expressions for N1 and N2. To do this I’ve been boiling down the grammar, which has been quite helpful actually. I managed to fill up about 20 to 30 pages so far in my notebook that I can flip through to remind me about how to use each point. I used to journal in Japanese and do regular writing, but that hasn’t been happening of late. I’d like to hear from people how you get into writing and keep the habit up. I have a few things I’d like to try, but it’s always good to try something a little different. I’ve tried translating English to Japanese, which can be quite challenging and actually quite helpful in some cases. Do you have plans for the Break? Do you have a winter break? Have you made any plans on how to keep up your studies? Let me know in the comments. Photo by Andrew Subiela


18 Dec 2013

Rank #5

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JLPT BC 162 | 5 Things to Know to Become an Ukiyo-e master

Ukiyo-e, if you are not familiar,  is a Japanese art form that was popular from 17th century  to 19th century Japan.  It basically consists of woodblocks used for mass production of pictures.  Ukiyo means floating world, and e means picture, so they were literally “pictures of the floating world.”  They generally depicted daily life, landscapes, and beautiful people. Ukiyoe prints are some of the most famous pieces of artwork from Japan.  Almost everyone has, at one time, seen Hokusai’s “Big Wave” print featured above.  And portraits of the kabuki actors tend to crop up whenever a Japanese themed picture is needed.  The sharp contrasts of the images have a distinct style and have probably done a lot to influence manga artists of today. 5.  How to pronounce it Okay, so it may seem like a simple word to pronounce, but it really isn’t. You have to give it a few tries before it really rolls off your tongue. So try it a few times, quickly. If anything it is a great work out for your tongue. Here is a native saying it courtesy of our good friends at Forvo.com: 4. Some Ukiyo-e had Bewbs Erotica wasn’t as big of a taboo in Japanese art as it was in Western art. Although not often displayed in museums around the world, erotica was a part of ukiyoe art. And these drawings were not just for dirty minded pervs looking to get their kicks. They were actually quite common. The style of ukiyoe depicting erotica was called shunga. And there are records of everyone from samurai to housewives purchasing and carrying shunga with them. Although not completely openly accepted (despite Western commenters attempting to portray otherwise), it wasn’t completely against any religious morals like in the West. Almost all of the major ukiyoe artists at one time created some kind of erotica. Even Hakusai, arguably one of the most famous woodblock artists created a series of prints that depicted a story of a woman making love to an octopus, which of course would never see the light of day in the 19th century West, and to be honest is a bit shocking to see in this modern era, even as art. 3. The major periods Early Ukiyo-e (1670~1740) Before around the 1670s, art was mostly limited to the nobility who had the kind of money to commission works of art, much like in the West.  Patrons usually liked to see pictures of things that reminded them of their wealthy, like wealthy people doing wealthy things. But, once Japan was united and the Edo period began.  The merchant class found themselves making some serious yen, and there started being an interest in art, especially art that depicted every day things.  This merchant class had money, but it seems like they weren’t exactly swimming it, so being able to mass-produce artwork with woodblocks, made prints cheaper and more affordable. These first pieces of work were mostly in the style of what had come before.  They characterized by their use of only one color, typically black, and showed limited use of prospective, usually just sticking to 2D.  A lot of them focused on the human figure and ideals of beauty. Beginning of Color Prints (1740~1780s) Starting in the 1740s, ukiyo-e prints started to be printed with multiple woodblocks each using a different colored ink.  This somewhat complicated process led to more flexibility in creating different images.  Landscapes and more complicated scenes became more popular. During this time, due to influence from the West, paintings started to take on more geometrical prospective.  The paintings, in particular Masanobu’s works appeared a lot more 3 dimensional, something that we take for granted today, but was actually a major breakthrough back in the day. The Peak and Popularization of the Genre (1780~1804) This era brought on some of the greats like Utamaro and Sharaku who placed more emphasis on beauty and harmony.  Portraits also began to focus more on the head and torso of someone as opposed to the whole body.  Some of the popular woodblocks were of famous kabuki actors and every day beautiful women.  A lot of the faces look very similar due to the emphasis on harmony and perfection. Move toward Landscapes (1804~1868) Due to the Tenpo Reforms of 1841 to 1843, printmaking of kabuki actors, geisha and courtesans was banned.  Artists turned away from people as the subject matter of their prints and focused more on landscapes.  This is the area when a lot of the major prints that are famous today were created.  Prints like the Big Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai as well as Hiroshige’s more subdued prints. There were still scenes of villagers, but there was less emphasis on beauty and perfection of the human form.  Artists and the Japanese government didn’t want to focus on decadence.  Instead, artists seemed to look for beauty in the every day life and nature that surrounded them. 2. The major artists Moronobu was one of the first woodblock artists.  He did a lot to popularize the art form and get it started.  Although he wasn’t the first, he formalized and refined the art style. Sukenobu was famous for his shunga, or erotic prints.  He published at least 30 volumes of erotica.  Being based in Kyoto, which was rather rare for ukiyo-e artists of the time, he tended to focus on beautiful women going about their hobbies and daily activities in beautiful kimonos. Masanobu came to prominence during the second era of ukiyo-e artists when color printing became popular.  He is best known for employing geometrical perspective in his prints to give them a depth that hadn’t been seen before.  He used multiple colors to give his prints a tremendous amount of detail. Harunobu was a pupil of Sukenobu and was believed to be the first artist to use multi-colored printing or nishiki-e, sometimes called brocade printing for his works.  In 1765, he and a group of poets published a deluxe edition of calendar to be distributed amongst friends.  This calendar eventually brought him fame and he went on to create around 600 prints in 6 years before his untimely death at age 45.  He was famous for his expressive and creative designs. Shunsho is famous for creating portraits of kabuki actors that were more true to life.  The portraits allowed viewers to not only recognize the character, but also the individual actor playing the part.  Although famous for his woodblock prints of kabuki actors, he was also a versatile painter that painted several images of beautiful women, bijin-ga, as well. Kunisada was a giant in the woodblock industry, producing well over 20,000 prints in his lifetime.  He created prints that often did not follow the norms of the day.  Just looking at a few of his prints you can see his bold use of color and composition that was completely different from the previous norms. Kiyonaga painted idealized female forms in the latest fashions. Despite being of humble origins he managed to capture an air of aristocracy. His female forms were said to be fuller and more mature than his predecessors. His prints portrayed scenes very plainly not idolizing them in any way. Utamaro is said to replace Kiyonaga as the go to guy for bijin okubi-e (large headed pictures of beautiful women). His women tended to be even more fuller and mature. Although they were far from being realistic. Most of the women in his prints were tall and slender, their faces long with small eyes, which were apparently coveted at the time. Sharaku was a mysterious ukiyo-e artist that appeared in 1795, made prints for about 10 months and disappeared shortly there after. His artwork was met with disapproval at the time, but they are now some of the more iconic images from that time. They showed a lot of expression due to the contorted expressions on the kabuki actors faces. Hokusai is arguably the most famous ukiyo-e artist. He was famous for prints with sharp contrasts and hard edges. His print the Great Wave off Kanagawa is probably the first image that comes to mind when you think of ukiyo-e prints other than the countless portraits of kabuki actors and beautiful women. He had a personal obsession with Mt. Fuji and painted several views of the mountain in his lifetime along with a lot of other studies of nature. Hiroshige is famous for his The fifty-three stations of the Tokaido which portrayed the sights he saw on his trip to Kyoto from Edo.  During the Edo period, tourism was booming, making his prints very popular.  Although he made good use of color his prints tended to be more realistic and with more subtle colors than Hokusai.  He was also known to paint flowers and birds, which up until then hadn’t been a popular subject of ukiyo-e prints. 1. Further Resources I’ve just given you a small glimpse of the massive world of ukiyo-e artwork.  If you are interested in checking out some more prints for yourself, I encourage you to visit ukiyo-e.org, which has a massive library of prints from around the world cataloged and named for you to sort through.  I consulted it several times for some good prints for this article. If you’d like to be able to identify some of the great’s artworks, I put together my own short ukiyo-e course on Memrise.  There you can learn to identify some prints created by some of the great ukiyo-e artists.  There is also a course that walks through Hiroshige’s 53 Stations of Tokaido. Also if you are interested in doing some further reading, be sure to check out Japan Journeys (JPN), which a nice book that arranges some select ukiyo-e prints to show what some of Japan’s greatest cities used to look like.  Andreas Marks also has another beautiful book, Japanese Woodblock Prints: Artists, Publishers and Masterworks: 1680 – 1900 (JPN), if you are looking for something large format to enjoy these prints. Another small primer of ukiyo-e history is Ukiyo-e: An Introduction to Japanese Woodblock Prints (JPN).  It is a short and sweet 96 page intro to the art form. What do you think of Ukiyo-e? Who is your favorite?  Let me know in the comments.


10 Jun 2015

Rank #6

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JLPT BC 161 | Doing it the Hard Way

In school, I always had a hard time paying attention in class.  The teacher would lecture away and we were suppose to be taking notes, but to be honest I could never proper filter out what was important and what wasn’t.  Half the time I left the class knowing that I had listened to something interesting, but not having any clue as to what the main points were. And there are a lot of classes out there that are just teacher lectures, students take notes, read the required material, and there are periodic tests or papers to check everyone has a pulse.  It is the same rhythm.  A lot of English classes are set up like this.  There are certain steps that I go through every class. They tend to be boring for me and boring for my students.  And it seems like a students aren’t retaining the material as well as they should be.  So, why do we do it?  Because it is easy to organize, it is measurable (with tests), and we can clearly ‘see’ students ‘learning’.  But, are they really learning? Mmm, maybe.  The good and focused students are.  But, that isn’t your average student.  In our effort to make everything streamlined and measurable, we seemed to have forgotten how to learn. Doing it the Hard Way Last month, I talked about moving away from digital and being slightly more analog in my study approaches.  I’ve been trying to do a lot more unplugged as well as make things just a little more interesting for myself. Part of that has been working on an improved vocabulary notebook system.  I’ve been so willy nilly about keeping a vocabulary notebook in the past.  I’ll start off taking good notes and with good intentions only to abandon it a few weeks later, so I want to build something that is easy to stick to, but hard to do.  Let me explain. Memrise and Anki, they are my best friends. They have seen me through some tough spots and have accelerated my vocabulary learning immensely.  I don’t think I could have gotten through all the vocabulary words you need for N2 and N1 without their assistance. But, there comes a point where this regular pattern of learning just causes your brain to shut off. Much like my classes back in high school and college that followed the same formula day in and day out.  Show up, take notes, go home, go over notes, take quiz/test, rinse wash and repeat.  Without variation or any surprises, my brain just kept going to sleep. On the other hand, if you give me a piece of software to learn or a computer to fix, I can get it done in a day or two.  Part of that is because learning software or fixing things is a lot more interactive, giving you feedback on whether you are doing the right thing or not.  And that definitely plays a huge role in learning a language.  You really need to have interaction with someone so that you can get that instant feedback. But, another part of it is that every time I went to fix a computer it was just a little different.  There was always something a little different about what was wrong.  The same with learning a new piece of software, it was something new for me, so my brain could soak it up.  So the more new something or how different it is to what you are used to, the easier it will be to remember it.  Your brain tends to take note of things out of the ordinary.  If you do the same hum-drum every day, it isn’t going to pick up on anything. I also failed a lot and made (sometimes expensive) mistakes.  When the stakes are higher, you also tend to pay more attention as well.  That’s why it is kind of a good thing that the JLPT costs ~$50, because you are going to study a little harder knowing that if you fail, you have just lost $50 (kind of, I mean you do get feedback on how your studies are progressing). All of this reasoning is driving my design behind trying to put together a good, maintainable vocabulary notebook.  It is a bit hard work to keep notes and look up extra words and definitions, but I’m already starting feel a difference.  It’s still not really ready yet though, so stay tuned. Fluent U A couple of month’s ago, one of my readers suggested that I start studying with FluentU, a new website for learning languages.  At the time, I kind of just thought of it as yet another ‘learn languages with our patented, proven, super-duper system’ kind of site.  The internet seems to be packed with these. But, FluentU is a bit different.  They take YouTube videos and help you along with the script as well as the translation.  They then slice up the vocabulary for you to practice with.  They also build out handy flashcards (complete with pictures).  What I like about their system is that they give you scrambled sentences to help you practice word order.  This is great practice for the JLPT. Right now, I’m testing out their iPhone app, which is due out at the end of May.  It’s pretty handy to have and gives me a good counterweight to the Memrise app.  The FluentU system isn’t focused on a particular list of vocabulary, which is handy if you are going for a good background of vocabulary.  Instead, they dissect one video, which typically has around 100 words or so, and give you context for each word. This scatter-shot approach is great to be honest.  I think if you stick to the lists, which aren’t technically accurate anymore, you are selling yourself short, and probably boring yourself to death in the process. They are still in their infancy, but they have around 300+ videos for Japanese so far, and it takes a surprisingly long time to get through one video.  I’ve yet to feel the need for more material, even at the more upper intermediate/advanced level.  Definitely worth the few minutes to check it out. How are your Studies going? Have you tried studying the ‘hard way’?  What do you do?  Have you tried FluentU yet? Let me know in the comments below. Photo by Tambako the Jaguar


27 May 2015

Rank #7

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JLPT BC 127 | Sex and Lies (about Sex) in Japan

There was somewhat recent Guardian article  that got a lot of Facebook love about a month ago. It was essentially the rehashed news report of an annual survey about Japan’s sex habits, to put it bluntly. The Guardian did a little more leg work with it and did some ‘on the ground’ reporting to fluff out the article and get more perspective. It was seemingly quite in depth actually, even going so far as to interview a few lucky people. The people they chose for these interviews were a dominatrix turned sex therapist, a couple of Sex-and-the-City idolizers, and a young asexual man. They hand-picked a few stats from a recent survey to base most of the arguments off of and left out some other stats. Hmm, I wonder if it is biased in any way? And normally, I can kind of blow off this kind of bad reporting, but it has become an annual event with the press. The Guardian seems to have a special thing for it actually. Here is Guardian’s somewhat more neutral article in 2011.  They seem to love to call out Japan as being the sexless wonder. The first problem with this situation is that surveys about sex generally don’t yield good results. Nobody is going to put down that they are nymphomaniacs or anything like that, so the results have to be taken with a grain of salt. And good investigative reporters would go the extra mile and get some balanced opinions to write a good article. However, that apparently doesn’t sell as well as interviewing a dominatrix sex therapist. So let me bust some myths for you. Granted some of this is my personal opinion/experience so you should take that into consideration as well, but the realty of Japan is at least slightly different than the picture painted by the Guardian. Nobody is Having Sex in Japan This seems to be a myth that is getting floated around of late. And the statistics do back it up a little bit. At least according to one survey, 25% of men age 35-39 are virgins. And that is at least a little shocking. But, as this Slate article points out, this is also a noticeable trend in other developed countries like the US. It is just a little more pronounced in Japan. This is an unfortunate trend, but it doesn’t mean that everyone has given up. There are other things to consider. For example, in my opinion, people in Japan don’t usually date for fun. As matter of fact, a lot of people I’ve met don’t have a boyfriend/girlfriend, which is great if you are single. And I’ve never really encountered the whole ‘I don’t have the time for a relationship.’ business that sometimes happens in the States. Again, maybe this is because I’m stud, lucky, language barrier, foreign envy, etc… But, it feels like to me that dating is a slightly more serious affair than in the States (my only frame of reference). It seems to me that dating is seen as a precursor to marriage, no matter what age, and isn’t something that is done a lot for fun. Now of course, there are plenty of hook ups and various other types of relationships, but the ideal thing is dating to get married. And the general attitude toward sex is pretty cavalier. It really isn’t a ‘thing’ if you know what I mean. People just do it. There aren’t these religious taboos holding people back or cultural stimulus for it. For example, in America, women’s magazines are packed with 100s of ways to ‘please your man in bed’ where women’s magazines here are more about cooking, fashion, and some gossipy things. It also doesn’t help that it really isn’t branded very well either. Sex education in Japan is full of ambiguous references, including using sea urchins to act out certain parts (in Japanese). So no wonder some Japanese might have the impression that sex is disgusting, wouldn’t you? This is coupled with the fact that everyone has to study non-stop to pass entrance exams, which cuts down the amount of time they spend simply interacting with each other socially during those earlier years when it is important to build up these kinds of skills. But, when I ask high school girls what they talk about with their friends, they usually always answer one thing – boys. It just seems like there isn’t enough time for them to go through those awkward conversations with the opposite sex that everybody should go through in their junior high school days. So, you essentially have 3 factors combining to make sex, not so sexy. First, members of the opposite sex aren’t so comfortable interacting with each other, due to having their noses in their books too much. Second, dating is seen as a somewhat serious affair. Third, sex is not a big part of the popular culture. Ahh, But There is Hope! It’s a tricky situation, but what’s interesting about all this is that 90% of Japanese according to that same survey the Guardian quoted want to get married. And if you look beneath the surface you can see this. A lot of people I talk to in and out of class are actually a bit stressed out about finding that special someone. It’s a very clear goal for both men and women. And a lot of them are actively seeking someone, going to 合コン- gokon or dating parties, and speed dating parties (25 men/25 women). They are typically 30somethings with a stable job, a good head on their shoulders, have stacked up the necessary qualifications they need to keep going in their jobs. They are women who have gone out of there way to get extra qualifications in things like English teaching, accounting, etc.. so that they can get back into the workforce after getting married or having a kid. A lot of them come back from these parties complaining about how boring the people are. They have trouble keeping a conversation going sometimes. In other words, men especially, have bad communication skills or simply work too much to be interesting. 20somethings on the other hand, tend to be more focused on building a career (both men and women), and getting certifications. They also get jostled around a lot at their jobs, getting transferred from Tokyo to Kobe to Hakata and back again before finally coming to rest somewhere in the innards of the company. This is due to how well or how poorly they do in a particular department. This 20something corporate battle is waged for two reasons – Men need a pretty good salary to get married, so they need to fight to get to at least somewhere in the middle. Women need to gather qualifications and experience to survive the marriage/child birth speed bump, they get hit with when they get married. Women also have to have the right boss. Some (unbelievably old-fashioned) bosses will summarily fire a woman just for being married. Yes, that actually still happens. Women also get pressured by their family to stop working after marriage, too. It’s not just the office. So having qualifications and experience can help women jump ship for another more woman-friendly company. As well as return to the workplace after having kids. I know a few women who changed jobs in order to be able to get married and have a kid and keep their careers. So, yeah, okay, there is slightly less sex to be had in Japan, but this seems to be a trend that is popping up in other countries as well and people do still want to get married and have kids (both men and women).  And I’m going to go out on a limb here and presume that once they are married they have sex.  That is not always true of course, but let’s just suppose.  So, both sides still would like to get married, but they want to still live a decent life as well.  They takes a lot of money and qualifications in Japan, and it is a bit tough to get over that hill.  It quite honestly takes a lot of grit and determination. The Solution? Sometimes I feel like this is a problem that will disappear in time. As the old guard starts to retire there will be more changes hopefully, especially as Japan’s workforce shrinks. Some people call this the ‘hurry up and die’ strategy. However, I feel somewhat optimistic that things will change for the better. I have my fingers crossed that Shinzo Abe will grow a pair and start making some of the changes he promised on the campaign trail to change how women are treated in the workplace. It might be a bit a long shot though. What do you think?  What has your experience been?  Let me know in the comments below. Photo by Scion_cho


27 Nov 2013

Rank #8

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JLPT BC 132 | Making Good Progress

I have finally finished off the two elementary school level books that I had lying around the house. They were novelizations of “Toy Story” and “Surf’s Up” that I had picked up awhile ago. These novelizations tend to be pretty easy reads for N2/N1 level. I could get through about 10 to 12 pages in 20 minutes or so on the train. I took a very casual approach to reading these books. Basically, I didn’t look up any words unless I absolutely had to or my curiosity got the best of me and I wanted to check a meaning here and there. I was surprised to find some grammar items that had come up in my N1 grammar books, but most of the grammar is around the N4, possibly N3 level. There is a lot of vocabulary you have to work through, but they are worth I try if you are that level. I have a lot of fun with Chrono Trigger, an old Super Nintendo game that I am playing in Japanese. I think RPGs are the most helpful kind of video game to play for language learning because they have a story and lots of reading. However, most RPGs have a fantasy setting which means they usually use a slightly different way of speaking. Still, it’s good practice and you can usually decipher what is trying to be said. The old Super Nintendo games are especially useful because, due to space limitations, they don’t use as much kanji as newer games. I would say the worst system for reading kanji tends to be the Playstation 1 and 2. Sometimes the characters are so smashed together you can hardly read them. I’m sure she doesn’t hurt the ratings. I’ve started experimenting with a couple of different ways of studying. Mostly because I still don’t feel like sticking my nose in a drill book quite yet. I’m also nearing the end of the jDrama I’ve been watching “Hanzawa Naoki” which is quite good. It’s a little difficult at times, but I can understand the main plot points which is about all you need.  It has Masato Sakai and Aya Ueto, which I could watch in absolutely anything (for her talented acting of course). I’m wondering what I should try to tackle next for TV shows. A lot of people have recommended variety shows. I have a hard time getting into them to be honest. I might end up watching more news stories on YouTube. I’ll keep you posted. Revising My vocabulary decks I made a course at Memrise of all the words that I had trouble with when I was studying my drill books to get ready for the N1 test. There are about 400 words total, which isn’t that much. But, to my surprise there were actually a few words on the test that were also on that list, so I’d like to finish it up. Once I’m finished with that list I want to move on to the list of words I made for Harry Potter. I’ve found that a lot of words I tripped over in my reading lately have been words that I read in Harry Potter, but never really mastered. It turns out it is a pretty good list of words to study if you want to do some reading. I’d also like to finish the course off. At the moment, I only have the first 4 chapters posted online. Sorry to anyone that has been patiently waiting for the rest of the chapters. I’m going to try to get a little better at posting them and keeping my Memrise lists updated. I also have plenty of problems with vocabulary glut. I studied way too many N2 words and I have started to fall behind in them. So, I’ve been continuing to ignore some of the easier words and converting the more confusing words to an all Japanese deck. I still spend a good half hour every morning working through the huge list of words and I think a half hour is a little too much. I’d rather be doing something more natural with that time. Although studying vocabulary all in Japanese is a little daunting at first, it has proven to be quite useful. Mostly because I have to think more about the vocabulary. Yes, this slows me down a little but really helps the vocab stick. I highly recommend it if you have a little patience. Listening Reading method This last month, I stumbled upon a method that a friend of mine recommended and swore by. It’s called the listening reading method or just l-r sometimes. It’s kind of drilling technique that seems to work for a lot of people, so I thought I would give it a try. Basically, what you do is take some material in Japanese in both written and spoken form, and an English translation of the material. First, you listening to the audio of the Japanese to get used to the sounds of the conversation. Then, you listen to the Japanese while reading the English. This is for you to understand the meaning of the Japanese. This part sounds a bit difficult and it can be, but does help with the meaning. After that, you listen to the Japanese audio while reading the Japanese text. This is to help link the written words to the audio and it can be really helpful for visual learners that need to see something in front of them I think. It also helps internalize the pronunciation of the kanji used in the text. Finally, you read along with the text while listening to the Japanese audio. Try to match your rhythm and intonation to the recording as much as possible. If you wanted to do a little extra practice I suppose you could do some shadowing as well. Shadowing is where you only listen to the CD (without looking at the text) and repeat what the speaker is saying while the CD keeps playing. The hard part is finding some good, already made material for this. There are a few options available to you though. One pretty easy way is with a service like JapanesePod101 which has tons of bilingual materials along with Japanese audio. Or, you could find a Japanese friend to record some audio for you as well. I experimented with some material from some online resources and having my wife record it for me. I’ll report back with how it worked out. So far, I’m a little mixed about it, but that might change after I get a little more used to it. Does anyone have any experience with this method? It seems like it could be pretty effective and easy to stick with once you get a pattern down and have a good source of material. How is your progress going? How are your studies going? Have started doing some reading? If you are preparing for the December test you might want to check my first month’s JLPT study guide for the JLPT for some tips on how to get started.


12 Mar 2014

Rank #9

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JLPT BC 130 | Adding in a Little Fun

Okay so I officially failed the exam again. I had a bit of a hunch that I wouldn’t pass but it is good to get the official results, so I can start planning out how to study this year. I want to make a few changes to how I’m doing things for a variety of reasons. First, I want to stay motivated. I’ve done some intensive grammar practice in the past and although it was helpful it’s pretty darn grueling. I will eventually make my way back to my trusty copy of Kanzen Master N1 Grammar for some more review, but not after I take a bit of a detour. I’m continuing to write new sentences using the grammar that I have learned as much as I can. I’m finding this to be really helpful to be honest. I also want to drill some listening a bit more but I will probably hold off on that until shortly before the next test. Right now I want to focus on something different and more interesting. I’ve started watching Hanzawa Naoki, a really popular drama here that came out last year. Most of the vocabulary is pretty difficult, it is a drama based in the banking industry and they don’t hold back on the jargon. But, the basic plot is simple enough. As in any jDrama the bad guys are always clearly identified with threatening bass-filled music and it is filled with the usual characters. Other than that, I’ve ventured into buying my first Japanese eBook, which was a bit of a mess. I have also been testing out my Nexus 7 that I got for Christmas. I still haven’t found many good Japanese apps outside of the regular suspects though (Anki and Memrise). Does anyone know of any good Android apps? My First Japanese Ebook So, I have two Amazon accounts. One is for the US store and the other is for the Japanese store. This usually doesn’t cause too many problems. I just use the particular store I need to accomplish what I need without issues. However, the Amazon kindle app is just one app for all countries, which causes problems galore because if you use the same email address for both accounts it won’t know what account you want to use and also you can only register a device to one account (as far as I know). So, this is where I thought I might be out of luck and not be able to purchase Japanese books. But, alas, there is a solution to this mess. What you have to do is go to your Amazon account in your home country then go to kindle settings. There you should be able to find an option to switch countries. It will prompt you for an address in Japan that you just punch in and presto, you can not only buy kindle books at co.jp, you can also consolidate libraries if you have books at both sites. This will allow you to buy books from the Japan store as long as you can provide a Japanese address. Keep in mind you don’t have to actually ship anything to that address. You just need an address. You can switch back to your home country at any time as well. Now, there are some issues with this. If you consolidate your kindle account from some countries you might lose your movies, music, or magazine subscriptions due to that pesky regionalization crap big companies pull. However, books seem to be okay. Anyway, Amazon should warn you before anything drastic happens. In other words, use at your own risk. Double check everything before you consolidate, but generally it’s a pain free process. Generally anyway, for me, it was a different story. For me, it didn’t automatically consolidate my accounts. Instead, it gave me a warning and told me to contact customer service. But, while I was awaiting for a response I got impatient and ended up buying the book I wanted through Rakuten. Rakuten uses a reader called Kobo which behaves very much like the Kindle app. It has a different layout of course and different features, but it is basically the service that Rakuten uses. I’m okay with it except that I downloaded it from the Google US store which means it only has an English dictionary. So, I can’t easily look up Japanese words. Overall, it is all right though. The book I bought, 七王国の玉座 (Game of Thrones) looks beautiful and is fairly easy to read. I should note that there is a free manga set also available as well for both Kobo and Kindle. It’s called ブラックジャックよろしく. I haven’t been able to read that much of it, but it looks like it is about a young doctor in a hospital. Vocabulary seems a little difficult but might be worth a try if you’d like to practice reading. Classic Japanese Gaming When I was a lot younger than I am today, I used to spend many hours playing video games on my SNES, especially RPGs. I was a bit of a geek, but it was usually a social experience because my brother and I would take turns until we finally beat the game. One SNES game that I have played off and on for the last 15 years or so is Chrono Trigger, which a lot of people say is one of the best RPGs ever. I’m not sure about that but it is definitely fun. My new goal is to try to beat it in Japanese. Thanks to a really awesome SNES emulator on Android called Super Gnes, I can try to make that dream a reality once again. I’ve only ever managed to make it about halfway, so should be a little bit of fun I can squeeze in here and there. I really like the fact that with emulators, you can save the game at any time. This makes it a great little thing to whip out and play for a few moments while waiting for something or just to veg out a little before going to sleep. I still don’t know how much free time I will have, but it is worth a shot. I should mentioned that SNES emulators are available for just about any platform out there even other game consoles like the Playstation 2. It’s just a question of how to get the emulator up and running and finding the roms you need, which I’m sure Google can help you with. Having enough fun? What are doing to put fun in your studying? Are you tired of the drilling? Let me know in the comments.


12 Feb 2014

Rank #10

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JLPT BC 134 | How to Marry a Japanese Woman

I’ve been married now for 5 years. This is after dating my wife for about 3 years before we got married, so we have been together for a grand total of about 8 years. It has been a sometimes interesting, often times fun, occasionally difficult mix of situations. And because of this, I inevitably get a lot of questions about everything from raising kids to what I recommend people should do before getting married. International marriages are extremely complex and unique. There are times when every day seems like a learning experience. And there are other times when it just seems like a perfectly normal thing. I have also heard a lot of horror stories about international marriages going terrible awry. None of my good friends have gone through such an experience but I’ve known a few acquaintances that have dealt with the aftermath of a messy divorce. And a quick search on Google will bring up a whole host of disgruntled ex-husbands. So, I thought I would take a moment to give a somewhat positive view of being in an international marriage and my own personal experience and advice. My Day to day I think between the two of us, we have a lot of cross-cultural interest. Even though I’ve been living and working in Japan for 10 years, there are still moments when I have to ask about something that I’m curious about. And my wife will often ask questions about how things are in the States, although it has become increasingly difficult for me to answer questions like those because I’ve almost completely forgotten about everything! We also celebrate pretty much every holiday of both countries including all the major holidays and even the minor ones from the States. We celebrate Christmas Western-style with gifts and treats but no fried chicken (a common dish for Japanese Christmas), although a cake seems to still squeeze in there sometimes. Instead, we opted for a big roast ham one year or just a special meal of some kind. We generally respect each others customs and try our best to observe what we deem worth observing. This year we are going to try to do Easter although I’m not sure if we will have the time. We are also really trying to push our little one to use as much English as possible. We even have little mini lessons where we go over key vocabulary and try to stress the use of it as much as we can. This can be a little odd sometimes, especially in public where, if I’m not around, it can kind of look like my wife is showing off. And there can be some occasional misunderstandings from family members when we try to correct her pronunciation (like when she started saying basu when she had been previously saying bath). But my in-laws are incredibly amazing to be honest. Although they had a few doubts about me early on, and with decent reasons. Pretty much all the international couples they knew in their neighborhood had gotten divorced. But after a bit of wrangling and tense meetings we got to know each other a little better and now we meet up fairly regularly. It does help that they live so close and my wife visits them every week. They have turned out to be great free babysitters. Although, our daughter is picking up a slight Kyoto-ben accent. This is in contrast to some other parents I’ve heard about that will vehemently oppose a marriage. In one case, a friend of mine was engaged, planned the wedding, had the wedding, but never signed the papers because their two families couldn’t work out the issues with each other. The couple eventually split up. And they were both Japanese, so I can only imagine what it might be like for foreigners. I mean we, foreigners, aren’t exactly the perfect catch, at least on paper. A lot of foreigners here, make slightly below average salaries compared to Japanese men our age (foreign women probably make more than Japanese women their age here). And, if we go back to our home country, where we have a better chance of earning a higher income, we are taking daughters and sons away from their family (in the eyes of in-laws). Vaccinated against Yellow Fever Yellow Fever, the slightly racist term for those who are infatuated with Asian women, is generally a costly and sometimes life ruining disease. There are a lot of people, like some of my fellow young colleagues, that will openly admit they only love Asian women, and actually only seek that kind of person. This is dangerous for a couple of different reasons. First of all, I’ve traveled to several places in this world, and I can tell you, there are amazing women everywhere. I haven’t done any in depth research or anything, but in my personal experience, you are kind of limiting yourself when you go around saying things like “I only date guys/gals that are…” Second, what you might think Asian or Japanese women are like for better or worse is wrong. It’s most likely based on hearsay, rumors, or some quirky look-at-this-strange-thing-in-Japan article you read somewhere. Unless you have done a thorough survey of the entire Japanese population, you probably can’t, for certain, say what the typical Japanese person is like (or American, Mexican, etc…) Third, if you do have some kind of prejudice (good or bad) going into a relationship it tends to blind you from other critical issues that shouldn’t be overlooked when it comes time to pop the question (or say yes to the question). Fourth, it’s just a wee bit racist, don’t you think? So, my advice is if you do have yellow fever, cure it before you come to Japan or at least before you start dating in Japan. Generally speaking, people that have had good healthy relationships and felt good about those relationships with people back home before they came to Japan, can be considered cured and our generally a lot happier in Japan. In other words, always leave your prejudices at the door. In my particular case, I’ve dated both Japanese and internationals while I was here. And it has always been about the individual person for me, nationality usually doesn’t factor in. Although, having said that, I would probably have to factor it in if it were more long term. For example, my American friend is now living in Australia with his girlfriend thanks to the domestic partner visa, and I think that would be a little bit of a stretch for me because of the physical distance – flying to the States could be a little tough, but then again maybe it’s not so bad? My wife on the other hand is far from the Japanese equivalent of “Yellow Fever” – a gaijin hunter. She used to actually be prejudice against Americans. Apparently she had a previous older American co-worker that had been a bit obnoxious about asking her out, and she had shied away ever since. She never saw herself marrying a foreigner and thought her parents would never let her to boot. To be honest neither of us really thought we were ever going to get married. I thought I would travel the world my whole life. And she thought she would do the same (as a flight attendant, her previous job). So, there was/is no feeling of desperation that we have to make this work because it is our dream to marry a foreigner. We did both put aside a life of adventure to settle down, but I have no regrets, and to the best of my knowledge neither does she. And contrary to most of the reports from lifers here in Japan, you can have a really happy marriage. It is presently pretty busy, and we are fairly broke, but it’s still going strong. I’m not going to start bragging quite yet, it has only been 5 years, but we are both working to keep it going, so I’m optimistic. Do your Marriage homework I mentioned before that it is a lot of my young colleagues that have been infected with “Yellow Fever.” The older people here have either gotten married and divorced and know better now or just know better from previous experience. Marriage, like anything in this world worth doing, takes some hard work and homework. Cultural factors do play a part to complicate things even further because basic expectations that can be reasonably assumed when you are both from the same country need to be laid out clearly. It reminds me of a job interview that I had a long long time ago, where they asked me “What is the most important thing about working together?” I think I answered “doing your job well” or “working hard” or something like that. The interviewer politely listened and then said “the answer we were looking for was communication.” Which is so true, even more so these days. There are a lot of things that go unspoken because we assume our loved one ‘just knows’ because, ya know, they understand us. But, you need to make things clear, really clear. This means doing your homework before getting married – sitting down and talking about how many kids you are going to have, what kind of job, household responsibilities in general terms, who is in charge of the money, etc… We went over all this pretty thoroughly. Actually quite a few times before we got married. And at times, there were some tough decisions and the whole thing almost got called off a few times as well. But, I’m glad I talked it out because everything is kind of clear which is the best you can hope for really. We bunk a lot of the stereotypes of the typical Japanese marriage. For example, I manage most of the overall finances while she micromanages the finer points like deciding what food to buy and whether or not we can afford to buy a giant box of diapers at CostCo. We have little skirmishes about money from time to time, but nothing major. Most of the major purchases in our life have been very unanimous and thoroughly discussed and agreed upon. And if your potential in-laws are thoroughly against the relationship, it’s best to put away your allusions of grandeur and back away. I’ve seen a lot of friends waiting it out to see if the in-laws will finally agree to the marriage or if their bride/groom-to-be will run off with them to their home country. Well, unfortunately that usually ends badly. In my experience, blood is thicker than water in Japan. Got Questions? This was a bit of bare all article for me that I hope sheds some light on how marriage really is in Japan. If you have any further questions, let’s hear them in the comments.


9 Apr 2014

Rank #11

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JLPT BC 160 | BSing in Japan, Honne vs. Tatemae

A few years back, I was working at a school and we were trying to arrange a farewell party for one of our fellow teachers.  One teacher found a great Indian restaurant that wasn’t too far away from the school.  It seemed like a great place.  It had a big room to accommodate everyone and it was something different for us, since we usually go to Japanese restaurants for these kinds of things. The problem was that the restaurant only had the typical ‘all-you-can-eat/all-you-can-drink’ deal for large groups like ours on weekends which is when we wanted to go.  The grand total of which was Y4000.  Not too bad if you like to drink yourself blind, and, to be fair, the usual price for this kind of party.  Some people grumbled a bit about the price, because, well, we’re teachers and are perpetually broke. Another more generic, slightly farther away Indian restaurant offered ‘all-you-can-eat’ plus order/pay for your own drinks for just Y2000.  And this was offered up as a better option.  I was a big fan of this option, because I hardly drink nowadays.  However, another foreign teacher objected because the other restaurant wasn’t so nice and farther away.  The Japanese staff listened politely and then it was decided that we would ‘think about it’. Well, we thought about it long and hard. But, nothing ever came of it.  In the end, we went back to our old friend, the izakaya, a Japanese-style pub.  The other foreign teacher threw up his hands in frustration wondering why we couldn’t have come to an agreement on the Indian restaurant and the Japanese staff found excuses to look away and change the subject.  So what happened? Well it turns out that the problem is that about half the staff really had no desire to drink and didn’t want to pay the premium for ‘all-you-can-drink’. Did anyone really expressly say that or explain it to my foreign colleague? No. I hadn’t made the conclusion myself to be honest. I just didn’t want to spend more money. I think us Westerners expect there to be a thorough discussion about these kinds of things. And that everyone’s opinions should be heard, weighted, and sorted. And after all that, a proper decision should be made. But, in Japan a lot of these arguments need to be implied from the situation. In the above situation, the Japanese staff didn’t want to cause conflict by outright disagreeing. And they probably felt uncomfortable structuring their arguments in English, so they just kind of gave silent resistance to the argument. This is a common situation that has led to many an expat getting frustrated and throwing a fit. But, in Japan it is an every day thing, and even openly accepted and appreciated. It is seen as being polite in some ways. Tatemae The Japanese staff in the situation above were showing their ‘tatemae’ or outside face not their true feelings ‘honne’. This a key part of Japanese society that most people believe helps everyone get along in such a crowded country. Basically, it is a way of being extremely indirect in conveying a sometimes uncomfortable message. It is considered polite to do so, even though you are essentially lying to someone’s face. It can also mean doing something that you really don’t want to do, but are obligated to do. For example, for Valentine’s day, women are expected to give male co-workers and their boss chocolates (called girichoco – obligation chocolate) even though they really don’t want to. They also give chocolates to romantic interests that they would like to see more of. Girichoco tends to be of the rather cheap kind that you can buy at the supermarket. Not exactly a plain old candy bar, but one small step up from that. On the other hand, for those they hold most dear, they will go to the department store and get special chocolates. And this is not necessarily seen as a negative thing even though it is pretty obvious that people are just doing it out of obligation. This is in contrast to the Western idea of being true to yourself and being honest with others. That’s not to say that people in the West don’t, from time to time, do things they are obligated to do. It seems like the higher you go in society in the West the more obligations you have to uphold. We’ve all heard of the suburban mom who keeps track of how much everyone spends on presents so that they can give an appropriately priced gift in response at a later date. Or the sudden need to wash one’s hair when someone makes an unwelcomed advance. I think we in the West tend to also use a tremendous amount of sarcasm to soften our blows and achieve the same purpose of tatemae. But, sarcasm is noticeably absent from Japanese culture. It’s actually quite amusing to hear someone try to use sarcasm in Japan. It usually ends up being way to blunt or way too soft. It is a tough skill to master, not unlike tatemae. But, people will sometimes appreciate hearing your true feelings in the West. As a matter of fact, it is seen as a brave and respectable thing in some situations. And people in Japan, may often be shocked and not be able to really deal with true feelings. I have seen many a foreigner explode with frustration, and the shocked expression on someone’s face, puzzled as to how to deal with it. I’ve been the foreigner sometimes when I’ve had enough with some sales rep monopolizing my time and I’ve tried to politely brush them off with some ‘arigatou gozimasu’s and ‘sumimasen’s. Softbank has recently taken this to new extremes with their incredibly long walk through of all the add on services that you could possibly need. I just need an iPhone with a data plan please. I sometimes feign ignorance of Japanese at this point and keep repeating what I need until they give in and let me sign the contract. Or my favorite “chotto jikanganainode…” which seems to hurry along most people and force them to make their point. Honne Honne, of course, is the opposite. Instead of hiding your feelings or adhering to social norms, you are staying true to your feelings. This is usually limited to close friends or family. But, like anything else there is a spectrum of people that are on the edge of tatemae, and others that are completely honne. A lot of those that have a hard time fitting in in Japan, tend to look abroad and to English to be their way of expressing themselves. What this means is that the people that you meet from Japan that are fluent speakers of English tend to be quite Western and quite honne. Some people can be quite brutally honest. I have been around more than a few people that have blown their top in an epic explosion of anger or frustration. It is pretty rare, but it does happen. Another thing that kind of happens is that some people don’t carry their tatemae filter with them into English. One time an acquittance, that I hardly knew, poked me in the belly and said “metabo” (short for metabolic syndrome, basically calling me fat). I wasn’t really offended but just surprised that he would do that. Another time, I was out with an all male cadre of sales reps that I had been teaching for about a year. And even before the drinks started really poring they were asking about how my wife was in bed. Their boss lucky cut them off and redirected the conversation, but it just seemed kind of a funny thing to ask. I mean when is that ever acceptable? But, I think speaking another language (they had asked the question in English) tends to shake off those inhibitions you have when using your native language. In America, we also tend to hold back on true feelings. For instance, breaking down and crying in the office is not going to get you a promotion any time soon. Neither will violent outbursts. So, its not unheard of that some people in the West keep their true feelings hidden. Affects the Language This desire to keep everyone happy by not saying too much extends into language use of course. There are more than a few phrases that are meant to never be completed. For instance, you can complain about something politely by just saying ‘chotto…’ and leaving it hang. For example, if you wanted to complain about someone’s shoes, you could simply say ‘sonokutsuwa chotto…’. Some N1 essays and listening questions prey on this and leave a lot unsaid because it is implied.  It is one of the toughest skills to master when learning Japanese.  Reading between the lines can be difficult even in your native language, but adding in the difficulty of reading Japanese at a rapid pace, this can be a huge hurtle to passing the N1. That’s why, as frustrating as it can be sometimes, I always ask questions to try to get a little more information and fish out what people are actually trying to say.  This can be true even if they are speaking in English.  And there are more than a few people that have gotten frustrated with me because I just didn’t get it.  But, hey, at least I’m trying. What is your experience? Have you gotten a little frustrated trying to see through the fog of tatemae?  Are you a master of the BS?  Let me know in the comments.


13 May 2015

Rank #12

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JLPT BC 159 | Analog vs. Digital

I’ve been taking it pretty easy with my studies recently due to some re-prioritizing of my time. I’m chugging away on Hirugao and Harry Potter but I’m giving myself a little more time to digest things. I felt a bit rushed of late trying to get through study sessions and I’m finding that is not the way to go. In addition to toning down my reading and watching, I’m trying to get my vocab binging under control. I just feel like I have a hard time with long term retention of vocabulary when I practice it purely through SRS. I’m trying to shift my studies a little bit in order to fix that problem. There is a lot of new research out there that is starting to analyze the advantages and disadvantages of using electronics in order to study and retain material. It turns out that it isn’t quite time to throw out all your dusty drill books quite yet. With all the things on my plate recently, a new assignment, along with being busy helping my family, I’m going to have to make a change to my priorities. Something is going to have to go. But, don’t worry the posts will keep coming. Current Studying So, as I wrote last month, I’ve been watching Hirugao, a scandalous jDrama about two housewives and their adventures into having affairs. It has some interesting and somewhat poetic lines of dialog at times. Overall, the language they use is pretty common (not limited to a certain industry or certain age group). I haven’t really spent much time or effort writing down and reviewing new words. I already have too many word lists to chew through, so I’m treating it as more of a fun side project. I think it helps to keep your ear ‘tuned’ to Japanese, so that it is that much easier to focus. I’ve also been taking it more slowly with Harry Potter and taking the time to go back and review the material until it is automatic for me to understand. The audiobook is absolutely priceless in the sense that I can practice while I’m walking or doing the dishes or something. It’s great to go back now to the first few chapters and be able to listen to the audiobook at double the speed and not have any real issues with understanding. Another reason why I’ve slowed down with Harry Potter is that my vocab bulking had been getting out of control. I finished off the first stage of Harry Potter that I had created. And now I just want to get my study time under control. I think it is a bad sign when you are consistently beating your friends on the leaderboards by a significant amount. It’s great to be competitive, but when you are studying twice as much as the average, it’s a bit overkill. So, I switched to simply reviewing vocabulary and building up mems as much as I can to keep everything from spiraling out of control with Memrise. If SRS makes up more than about 10 to 15% of your overall studying, it can lead to an unhealthy balance. You really need to get out there and use it (writing or speaking) or consume words in context (reading or listening). Pondering a Switch to Analog Electronics and the digital revolution is amazing. To be able to hold literally thousands of books on your tablet and be able to read them anywhere you go at anytime, that is incredible power and convenience. And programs like Memrise and Anki make memorizing things a cinch with their proven learning algorithms, cool graphs of stats, and points to make you feel like you are in a game. But new research is finding that digital is not always better, especially when it comes to retention. According to a recent study, writing notes out is better for long term retention.  The study basically concluded that when taking notes on laptop you are more likely to take notes verbatim instead of critically thinking about them. As if that wasn’t enough bad news for digital, there is another study that focused on overall retention using paper books and digital books using tablets. The study focused on plot reconstruction and not vocabulary retention, but it does give us a glimpse into some of the problems that can arise if you rely too much on digital. I’ve tried note taking before, but found it to be a bit cumbersome for me to keep and maintain. I also had a hard time scheduling reviewing and keeping things sorted. But, lately I’ve had some serious issues retaining abstract words that I’ve been studying off a particularly popular N1 Memrise list. My list of Harry Potter words is a lot easier because I had context and I review the material on a regular basis, and the words aren’t quite as abstract and more colorful. So, I’m going to try to develop a new note taking system that provides a better experience and something that I can keep up with instead of letting it just drift away. I’m not a particularly well-organized person so I need to make something fairly fail-safe and doable. Anyway, I’ll keep you posted on what I come up with. My Future Studies Currently, I have 4 forces pulling me in different directions for my time – my family, my new position, JLPT Boot Camp, and my goal of passing N1. All of these are things I’d like to achieve and would be useful for me to achieve. However, 4 is just too many things to keep managing. My family is in need of my time more than ever. My new position is taking up more of my time as I learn the ropes and try to get everything organized. Not to mention that I need to put in a few more hours to keep up on all my new responsibilities. JLPT Boot Camp has been growing by leaps and bounds and so has Memrise, which is great. I’ve gotten so much great feedback, as well as great questions and suggestions on what to do and improve. And the thing is, I love building courses and doing research about Japanese and making it easier for people to learn the language. And I’m a bit disappointed in myself for not being able to keep up and help everyone out. So many people are asking for updates and help and I love trying my best to deliver that (and learn a lot in the process). What about N1? Well, I really don’t need it as much these days. I got the position I wanted to get without it. And yes it is good to have for job security but what is more important is making sure I do my current job well, which will help my job security. And that, at the moment, doesn’t depend on me taking the test. So I’ll be taking a break from it for a little while. This means more support for Boot Camp and less stress for me, which should be good news for everyone. I’ll be gaining enough real world practice with Japanese in the future, that when I do turn my focus back to the test it should be a lot easier and I’ll be a lot more comfortable with it. Anyway, I look forward to writing and creating more for you all. And organizing what I have done already so it is easier to access. I hope to get some upgrades out to you as soon as I can. How about you? Do you prefer digital to analog? Do you still use a notebook? If you are studying for the test, be sure to check out Month 4 of the JLPT Study Guide to help you with what you need to do to prepare. Photo by Terry Madeley


29 Apr 2015

Rank #13

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JLPT BC 158 | Divorce in Japan

I should start off by saying that I’m not getting divorced.  I’m still happily married and probably will be for the foreseeable future.  Some of my fellow expatriates and Japanese friends haven’t been so lucky though. Which, to my naive self, seems a little surprising.  Don’t get me wrong, I come from a divorced family and pretty much everyone in my family has gotten divorced at one time in their lives.  I know it exists and is out there.  I just didn’t think it was all that common in Japan. The divorce rate (the red line in the linked article) is in line with a lot of other developed countries and it actually peaked around 2001, and has been slowly drifting down, but it didn’t use to be like that.   Some people believe that this slow drift down is due to the lower marriage rate in Japan.  As you can see from the linked article, Japan’s marriage rate is also on the decrease (it’s the blue line in the graphs).  People are also getting married older, which has been shown to lead to happier more successful marriages. However, Japan, pre-2000s, was known for its low divorce rate.  You may even heard that it still has a low divorce rate.  There is a general perception that people get married for life and that’s that, much like the lifetime employment system that Japan supposedly has.  But, like that lifetime employment system, the old ways of doing things are finally giving in to modern problems.  So, what happened?  Why was it relatively low in the first place? The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Getting divorced in Japan is a simple matter of filling out the paperwork to do so. There really isn’t that much fuss to be honest. More often than not lawyers aren’t called in. Instead, counselors at the city office help sort things out. This is probably in part due to the fact that assets are generally not held jointly by the couple. For instance, people usually don’t have joint bank accounts in Japan. I’m not even sure if you can have joint accounts. Divorces don’t generally tend to be the all out blood bath that can result from some divorces in the States. And the whole process won’t cost you, financially speaking, that much. Just a few processing fees. There are even divorce ceremonies where the former betrothed get together to smash their wedding ring and symbolically let it go. The trend supposedly started here and has spread to other countries. I’m not sure if I could possibly go through anything like that to be honest, but many report a feeling of closure. The divorce rate is currently 0.18%, which sounds really small, but what that means is that 0.18% of the population, every year, is getting divorced.  Considering only about 0.52% of the population is getting married every year, that is a pretty high rate of divorce.  And there is still a pretty strong stigma against it.  A lot of woman have found it difficult to get a job.  Although, Junichiro Koizumi, Prime Minister of Japan from 2001-2006, was a divorcee that never remarried. Another sad fact about divorce is that there is no joint custody system in Japan.  This means that one parent, usually the mother, retains sole custody of the children.  Any visitation is arranged informally and can not be enforced by the courts.  In some cases, children never see their father again.  Prime Minister Koizumi, has two children from his marriage that he has custody of, but a third child, born after the divorce has never met his father. It doesn’t always end that way of course.  I have a friend that did not have custody of her kids, but is able to see them on a regular basis.  She even went on a few vacations with her ex-husband and his new wife to be with her kids.  But, of course, that has to be a fringe case. Preparing for divorce I recently read an article in Aera, a weekly newspaper, that detailed a roadmap to getting divorced.  It even had a trendy looking infographic about how to prepare for the big event, detailing tips like keeping a diary on all the negative interactions that you can use in your favor to argue for divorce.  The article went on to talk about a handful of horror stories about woman that weren’t able to escape from a marriage and how to avoid the same fate. A Japanese friend of mine recently confided in me that he had found his wife’s journal that detailed every argument they ever had.  The date and time and what was discussed.  And, at least from my prospective, he just seems to be a regular hard-working guy with 2 kids that he worries about a lot. I find it hard to imagine living in the same house as someone that is planning and making arrangements to get divorced. But, actually, another, much older (60s) Japanese friend of mine, told me about how him and his wife had made plans to get divorced in a few years so that he can start work overseas, and she could get his full government pension.  It seems a little odd to me, but in a country where men are still the major, and sometimes only money maker in the family, it is a reality that sometimes plays out. About a year ago, I was leaving the house to go to work and a distraught woman buzzed my doorbell.  When I stepped out I saw a huge moving truck parked in front of my house.  Apparently, she was a friend of our neighbor’s and they were moving out that day.  It seemed a little odd to me because we had just talked to her and she didn’t mention anything about moving out despite the fact she was the hancho (neighborhood leader, and yes that is where the phrase ‘head honcho’ kind of comes from). And then *poof* she was gone.  The husband is still there.  The sad thing is they had 4 kids, which is positively nuts, but I haven’t seen them since either.  So, she hit the road, took the kids with her, and didn’t look back.  At first it seemed a bit odd, but through a long, roundabout neighborhood connection, we later found out it had been a case of DV – domestic violence.   So, I hope her and her kids are living a better life somewhere. My Two Cents So, from all these anecdotes, you might think that I’m pretty pessimistic about marriage, or at least terrified of getting divorced.  But, I always try to think positively, and although my wife and I are going through a bit of a rough streak (for non-relationship reasons, sorry long story), I feel like we are good for the long haul.  In my humble opinion, I think we have a few advantages to our marriage that keeps us together through thick and thin. First, I think a lot of people in Japan have a communication problem.  Men and women think and act fairly differently.  They tend to be motivated by very different things as well.  And in Japan, a place where men and women live pretty different lives, that gap is even more pronounced.  In the West, communication skills are learned through the tough and sometimes unforgiving social interactions that arise from junior high and high school through countless nervous first phone calls to awkward conversations sitting in cars to timid requests for a dance. That proving ground doesn’t really exist in Japan.  There are no dances, there is not a lot of pressure to ask a date to a dance.  There is no prom, where everyone that’s anyone must have a date.  There is no engine for forced interaction between the sexes.  This of course keeps everyone focused on their studies, but does little to develop their emotional intelligence. I know a lot of people, in their 30s, that have only had 2 or 3 boyfriends/girlfriends in their lives.  I’ve also met others on the other end of the spectrum, but I would say on average, people here just don’t have that many boyfriends/girlfriends.  How can you know who you want to marry after dating only a handful of people? And that communication problem used to be solved by a very simple machine of arranged marriage and lifetime employment.  That machine brought post-war Japan to the forefront of the world.  And people got married, the man worked his tail off in the office, the wife worked her tail off at home cleaning, cooking, networking with neighbors, and helping kids with homework.  Love grew out of simply being together a lot like brothers and sisters end up loving each other even after all the fighting with each other. Society kept the couple together because you had two whole families (not just two people) interested in keeping the union together.  This by the way is not ‘traditional’ Japanese culture.  Before new Meiji regulations came into effect in 1899, the divorce rate in Japan was sky high, higher than the current rate in the States.  It wasn’t until the government started making changes to the law to help make the country more stable that this new cultural norm was created. Now of course, Japan is facing all the modern craziness that other developed countries are experiencing.  There is a rapid urbanization of the population that separates kids from families.  Individuals are being transferred all over the country away from family that could enforce the social norms of keeping a marriage together.  The perpetually sagging economy that can never quite take off coupled with worker inefficiency keeps people working late hours and away from being able to just sit and have a decent conversation with their spouses.  These are all factors that make keeping a marriage together pretty tough. What is your experience? Do you have any anecdotes you can share?  What is your experience?  Let me know in the comments. Photo by Marc Hatot


15 Apr 2015

Rank #14

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JLPT BC 157 | Back to jDramas

I’ve been spending (or wasting depending on how you look at) with keeping my streaks up on Memrise. I think it is great to have that daily goal, but I have busy days and not so busy days and it can make it hard to keep up with keeping a good streak going. This has lead me to ‘learn’ a lot of words, only to score 50% on the tests afterwards. This can get a little frustrating. Other than bulking up on vocab, I picked up a new jDrama, Hirugao, which literally means afternoon face. It is a pretty risque drama about two women involved in affairs during the day, hence the whole afternoon face. So far it is pretty interesting and has some interesting phrases. Although I hope I won’t need so many of the vocabulary words. And finally, I’m back to doing some translation. Although translating is not communicating at all, and isn’t the best form of practice, it helps get me some reading practice while getting paid at the same time. Studying during work is really important, as any new father will tell you, and it’s been great to get back into doing it when I can. I hope I don’t get buried again. Memrise Streak Contests So recently Memrise has held a few contests on their platform. In January, they held a contest to see who could learn the most words in a month. And in February, they had a competition that asked participants to meet their daily goal for a particular course for at least 12 days straight. These competitions have come under a little fire on the site because a lot of people feel like this is just encouraging people to ‘over-game’ and use Memrise simply to get more points so that they can win prizes. And in general, they teach bad study habits because users don’t develop a slower, more thoughtful process of absorbing vocabulary. And I would have to agree that yes it does encourage some bad behavior. Especially if they kept the contests up for an extended period of time. But fortunately, they just limited these competitions to the first two months. And I think these little spurts of focused study can be good for you. It helps you create ways to cope with !unpredictable schedules and prioritize your studies. After you’ve established the study habit, you can modify it, scale it down or up to fit your lifestyle. I found the February streak contest a bit of a blessing and a curse. It forced me to make time for studying, and I scored a tremendous amount of points, but it also forced to push through study sessions a little faster than I would have liked so that I can score my points for the day and move on. I personally slow way down on the weekend because I spend a lot of time with my family and just doing the usual errands that you tend to only get done on the weekend. However, during the week, I can be incredibly focused, especially during my morning and evening commutes, and traveling between teaching locations. I love having nice trains that I can sit on and get work done on, instead of sitting in a car. Watching Risque jDramas I was interested in picking up a new jDrama to watch and I ended up doing a Google trend search just to see what was really popular these days since I hadn’t heard of too many mentioning one particular series. Google came back with Hirugao, which was apparently wildly more popular than other dramas. And it is easy to see why. The series is a scandalous story of one married woman who was having an affair recruiting a complete stranger to help her cover up her lies. And trouble ensues from there, complete with edgy scenes and implied nudity. The end credits are barely suitable for prime time TV. Hmm, I wonder why it is so popular? So far, it has some useful dialog with some good daily expressions. This can be a bit hard with jDramas because they are often set in some particular industry with its own yougo or jargon that makes the phrasing not so useful. Although it is fun to quote some things from Hanzawa Naoki from time to time, it didn’t have a lot of reusable material. I also find the series a little interesting culturally speaking. The series focuses on the plight of the two women and the husbands aren’t shown in the best light. The story plays a lot on the fact that the affairs are just ways to get the attention that they aren’t getting from their neglecting husbands. The characters are still somewhat 2D and stereotypical. The handsome smart teacher guy, and the brooding troubled artist are the two characters that play their love interests. Not exactly ground-breaking stuff. Translation Work I took a bit of a break from translation because I got busy with a lot of other work, but have now managed to pick up a few little gigs here and there to get the ball rolling again. I think translation helps expose you to the wide variety of material out there that is in Japanese. It seems I get everything from personal emails to legal documents thrown at me, which makes for interesting reading. I don’t think translation is for everyone, but for me, I really do like to piece things together and see how the puzzle fits together. Translation is like writing but you don’t have to come up with ideas and the topic. You can just focus on how it all comes together. I’m not sure if I could do it for 8 hours straight, but the occasionally gig here and there is a good little break from teaching. I should say that translation isn’t actual studying. In truth, when you do translation, all you are really getting good at is well translating. Although you do pick up a few words here and there, I don’t find it to be the most efficient way to study. However, I have learned how to decipher some pretty tricky messages through translation though, which comes in handy for comprehension. Translation is paid per Japanese character you translate, which means some cheapskates will attempt to write the shortest message possible and hope that you get their full meaning. Often times I’ve had to make my best guess, and later I double check my work with a native, and they didn’t even know either. How are you Faring? If you are studying for the JLPT this July or December, be sure to check the 2nd Month of the JLPT Study Guide for tips on what to do this month. Have you changed your study routine? What is working for you? Let us know in the comments.


1 Apr 2015

Rank #15

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JLPT BC 156 | The Realities of Living in a Foreign Country

There seems to be a small subsection of the expat population in Japan, that likes to shower the world with negativity and tell you about how horrible it is to live in Japan.  Some of them came over seeking the easy profits and seemingly easy lifestyle of teaching the language that they grew up natively speaking.  When they grow older, they start to realize that Japan, like pretty much everywhere else on the planet, requires some hard work for you to get ahead and move into a position of comfort. A perfect example of this type of character is Arudou Debito, who likes to rant on about the terrible reality of Japan, while he sits in Hawaii, who published a diatribe about the brutal reality of Japan awhile back.  Japan Times subsequently published the praising comments, while ignoring the objections like the ones expressed on Reddit.  Now, there is a need for a ranting political activist that brings up the key issues of racism and all the other problems that Japan faces today.  Everyone is entitled to their opinions, that is the whole point of freedom of speech.  I just thought I would add my two cents to counterbalance the lopsidedness that tends to crop up in the discussions on the realities of Japan. So, does the bubble really need to be burst?  Is that the true reality of Japan?  Should you forget about your dreams of living in Japan?  Well, first let’s provide a little background for you to get a clearer picture of what it is really like here. Everyone has a different experience Living abroad, beyond anything else in my opinion, really helps you identify who you are at your core.  There are so many values, concepts, ideas that you think are apart of you, but are actually a product of your ‘personal’ culture.  This culture being created by your upbringing, where you were raised, your parents, the friends you had when you were younger and impressionable.  All those factors impacted you to shape your identity into the unique individual you are today. When you spend time in another culture, you really start to see and pick out the little parts of you that you just picked up and internalized without ever really realizing it.  You can start to identify what little extra pieces of you are from somewhere else, and what is actually you.  It is a bit mind-blowing if you really get into it. The great part about all that exploration and discovering is that the experience is different for everyone.  There is nothing I can write or say to you that will make you have that experience.  You just have to experience it.  Some people might come out more awakened with a better sense of purpose.  Others take ideas back with them and share them. And being fluent in a language and living in that country and being able to understand most of the things around you, just gets you that much deeper where you can really see the depth of all the little intricacies that different cultures have. There are times when I sit around with friends and we can talk for hours about the little nuances and observations that we make about what it is like being here.  For somebody like me that is interested in the wonders and complexities of cultural diversity, its a great experience that everyone should do at least once. I remember one blog post a travel blogger wrote a few years back about the ‘Top 10 Reasons you Should Travel.’ In it, he simply narrowed it down to just one ‘You are going to die.’  Which is so true.  Traveling and living abroad are the two best ways to find yourself, and wouldn’t it be a shame if you went through such a hard life and never found yourself? To go through this process you really need to let go of a lot of the things you might feel are a part of your identity.  This can be a huge hurtle for some.  There are some ideals that you might think are just and perfect, but they just don’t hold the same value in a foreign country. Are the Cards Stacked Against Us? Racism is still alive and well in Japan.  Just when you think steps have been made in the right direction, some 80 year old lady expounds on how great it would be to have apartheid in Japan.  And the real shocker was that it was published in a major newspaper.  And that is just one of many signs that racism is still around. Here is another example of something that really shouldn’t be a thing anymore, anywhere. But, many Japanese have spoken out against it, and it is for the most part a feeling shared on the fringes.  I’ve never personally been discriminated against.  And 98% of the time in Kansai, nobody even cares I’m a foreigner.  I think the worst that has happened to me was occasionally nobody will sit next to me on the train.  This seems to be especially true about men, they don’t like to sit next me.  And I’m completely fine with this.  Women can sit next to me anytime. When I went to get an apartment for the first time, the rental agency I worked with never gave me problems.  When I choose my apartment, the only hiccup I had as a foreigner was the landlord said he was nervous because I was the first foreigner he rented to.  But I think that was more the fact that he knew no English than me being a white dude.  He was a great landlord and fixed anything and everything I ever complained about. Has it affected me in job prospects? I can’t really speak to that too much because I’ve stuck a lot to teaching English, but I’ve been able to move up in the system and have never felt like I got held back because I was a foreigner. And I know more than a few folks that have found their way in companies here and there.  They were more multicultural companies that already had staff from different countries though, not the massive pillar companies of Japan.  But, one could argue that this is because those conservative companies typically hire straight out of college, and for life, so it is hard to penetrate them after that time period even for Japanese. Living abroad Anywhere Living abroad in any country means you will have to interact with a variety of new social systems that are unfamiliar to you and the rules for which are not written down anywhere. You just have to either know or have a good mentor that can hold your hand through the process. To get a good job in your home country you probably had a pretty hard time at first, but you learned from your mistakes and eventually punched through the market and got the job you wanted. To get a more mainstream job (not English teaching) a foreigner needs to navigate through that system just like anybody else. And you will make mistakes at first as you pile through all the mishaps that will inevitably come up. This will be complicated by the fact that the basic logic of the system is, well, foreign to you. It makes zero sense to me, an American, that companies would hire someone straight out of college before they even graduate. That makes little business sense to me, but that is the system. And their are tons of little quirks like that you will have to learn.  You also have to do a lot of networking and maintaining contacts to get any job that is going to pay well and feed your family.  But, this really isn’t all that different from the States.  You are not going to find a great job in a classified listing, it just doesn’t happen that way anywhere. Chances are pretty good that you will fail at this process a few times, and it is going to be rough and scary.  But, failing is good, it means you are stretching yourself farther than what you are now capable of.  And you need to stretch to grow.  Falling flat on your face hurts, but it teaches you what not to do. Ask for it There are plenty of opportunities out there though.  All you have to do is ask for them.  A lot of my teaching gigs and contracts have come from me simply asking someone or a group of someones if they can give me a job.  And sometimes those people are other foreigners, and sometimes those other people are Japanese.  In both cases, they have waved me on without issues. Teaching jobs do exist if you do the time and you have a masters in linguistics.  You will probably have to network a good amount.  You will have to submit a few papers for publishing from time to time.  And you will probably have to look for a new job every 3 years, but you will be in the system.  I know plenty of people teaching English for good wages.  And I also know a lot of world-class English professors that have done amazing research in linguistics. You really just need to ask and try.  Don’t assume that it is impossible just because someone else tried and failed.  That is true for a lot of things here.  People are often too scared to ask, or they expect there to be some kind of track they can get on to get ahead, but you need to strike out on your own and network like your life depends on it.  And you might be the first foreigner to do that, and that is okay, as long as you are polite and not demanding, I’ve never run into too many obstacles. Overall Living abroad is not for everyone.  It is not an easy life, but that is why it is so fun and rewarding to give it a try.  If you are looking for an easy way to get through life, it isn’t here, it really isn’t anywhere.  If you like people, like unexpected things, and are slightly weird, living abroad is for you.  If you can’t deal with new things, and confusing new systems that you need to figure out, then you should probably stay home.  Sorry, living abroad might not be for you, but by all means come for a visit. I apologize for this post ending up as a bit of rant, but I just think it is important for people to know that living abroad is challenging but it can be truly rewarding in so many infinite ways that are just aren’t possible any other way.  Sometimes that challenge is painted in a wash of negativity, but it can be a pretty positive experience. What is your experience? Have you been living in Japan?  Do you think it is too tough to get ahead? Let me know in the comments.


18 Mar 2015

Rank #16

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JLPT BC 155 | Intensive Reading and Memrise Update

I’ve been trying to keep my studying pretty steady over the last couple of months and not really piling on and changing anything. This has a lot to do with me just having way too much going on for me to focus on going in a different direction. I’m also not entirely sure where to go from here. At the moment, I’m tooling up for a new assignment that is requiring me to use a lot more Japanese. Specifically, listening and speaking a lot in Japanese. Since the JLPT doesn’t exactly test speaking, it is not very useful for me to pour over literary phrases and grammar that I may hardly use at this new job. So, I’ll be shifting more towards speaking practice once I get few more things sorted out. That’s not to say that I am abandoning JLPT Boot Camp. I love interacting with everyone and I love pushing out the updates to the N5 Grammar guide and study guide. It is a huge motivator for me to hear from so many people and read about their success stories. I’ll be continuing to do my best to help everyone I can to pass the test. I have, though, been doing a lot of vocab bulking and taking a different approach to my studies where I try to get perfect scores every time I go through a vocab test. If I don’t, I’ll work on a new mnemonic or way of looking at the word in order to keep it locked down and not floating off. Ed Cooke recently wrote an excellent post on some quick tips about how to use Memrise to learn words fast that encourage anyone that uses Memrise to check out. Other than that I’ve been trudging through Harry Potter at a pretty slow pace. This is mostly so I have time to practice and review the vocabulary in each chapter. I’ve also been doing some editing to the Harry Potter course at Memrise due to some of the definitions being a little off. I’m trying to add all the audio as well, but I’m not going to promise anything. Adding audio to a Memrise course can get a little tedious at times, but well worth it I think. Closer Focus on Vocab One of the small changes I’ve made is tweaking how I learn vocabulary. I’ve been trying my best to slow down and build a stronger link with new words that I encounter. This may involve taking a good amount of time to build a nice mem, or simply trying to act out a situation using the new vocabulary word. I think it is important to engage all of your senses when learning something new. And also, just getting up and moving a little keeps you awake when you are drilling through hundreds of vocabulary words. I’ve also been making a point to just run with my curiosity instead of trying to digest as much vocabulary as I possibly can. So, if my mind goes on a tangent with some word and I really want to take some time to look up some phrases here and there to see what I can do with it, I don’t worry about taking a bunch of time to do a little more investigating. As long as I have some time to do so. One example of this is jyumoku, which is a word that popped up in a N1 deck that I am currently studying. In the deck, it had the English translation as ‘tree.’ Now, if you’ve been studying Japanese for any length of time, you’ll know that the word for ‘tree’ is usually ki. Or at least, that is what usually comes up first when you do a dictionary search. So, what is with this jyumoku? Well, just as we have a myriad of words to describe things like a place we live (lodge, cabin, house, hut, shelter, etc…) so does Japanese (go figure). And each of those words I mentioned before conjure up a different image in your head right? A lodge is different from cabin in your head. The same is true for jyumoku and ki. They kind of have the same meaning, but they are slightly different. It turns out jyumoku has more of a written or academic tone to it. It is more often used in writing or in some kind of prepared presentation, not in regular conversation. And it is used more to talk about trees in general and not a specific tree, like ki is more often used for. jyumoku has another translation as ‘arbor’ and can be used in such words as tree husbandry (樹木の栽培管理). Of course, these distinctions are little blurry and you still need to read through a few examples to get a feel for how it is used. I feel like this is why, the higher you get the more reading and using of the language you need to do to really learn all these little nuances that can come up. You can’t just drill everything and hope for the best in other words. Intensive Reading with Harry Potter When I first read through Harry Potter, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of it and that I picked up a lot of vocabulary. But, in reality I had looked up a bunch of words, temporarily put them in my head and then moved on. It has been a great experience to go back over things in detail and learn some of the quirky little words that come up. I’ve been drilling them using my deck and trying them out with friends and co-workers for laughs, especially some of the words that can be hard to work into a conversation. For example, I picked up the word usunoro, which means half-wit or knucklehead. I obviously can’t use that with too many of my friends or co-workers in a regular situation, but I’ve been joking around with them and trying out new phrases and vocabulary. I’m still reading through the elementary school newspaper and it has been pretty interesting so far. In general, it is pretty easy for me to understand, although a lot of the vocabulary is not automatic for me. I may understand the meaning of each word, but comprehending it all put together has sometimes slowed me down a little, so I think it is a great piece of material that is just at the right level where I understand most of it and can practice and get faster with a foundation of useful words and over-learn it all. Memrise Premium Updated It is always a good thing when you are able to set little mini goals for yourself as you work towards your big goal. It keeps big goals from seeming so unattainable. I go into a lot of detail about goal setting in the JLPT Study Guide Kit, because I think it is something that a lot of people overlook when going to set out to study. But, it is critical that you set goals for yourself. Memrise does a great job of gamifing the whole process of learning with points and charts to show your progress. And this has helped a lot in setting goals and being able to track how well you are doing as well as allowing you to compete with your friends for some motivation. But now they have taken the process one step further and allowed you to set points goals for each of your courses. This is a good way to keep you focused on trying to learn a particular number of words each day. And of course, since it is Memrise, everything is beautifully presented to you in a little chart for you to fill up. To make things simpler, Memrise has simplified the process a bit by limiting you to only 3 choices – 1500, 6000, or 9000 points a day. This can make things a bit trickier, because I think about 3000 per course is a good goal if you are split between two courses that you are actively studying (like me), but hey simpler is better. How about you? How have your plans changed? Are you new to the site? You might want to check Month 1 of the JLPT study guide to give you an idea of what to do this month in preparation for the July or December test.


4 Mar 2015

Rank #17

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JLPT BC 154 | Big Hero 6 vs. Baymax

A couple of weeks back I had some free time to take my family to Baymax (US title: Big Hero 6).  It is a cute little movie about a boy, named Hiro, who befriends his brother’s robot and ultimately goes on to fight the bad guy and save the day with his trusty team of friends.  In general, the plot is pretty standard with only a few minor surprises.  But that doesn’t stop it from being a great movie. There were plenty of moments where I laughed out loud and had a genuinely good time.  It was also the first time we took our 2 year old to the movie theater, and she performed beautifully.  No crying and breaking down in the middle of the movie, no fidgeting or yelling out.  It was great. One thing that I noticed though was the mismatch of the titles.  In Japan (and apparently Germany?), the movie is known as ‘Baymax.’  But, the US title is ‘Big Hero 6.’  Now, generally speaking Hollywood movies usually don’t have the same title in Japan as they do in the US, and sometimes it seems like they have put little to no thought into making them, like ‘Karate Kid’ becoming ‘Besuto Kiddo’ in Japan, which still baffles me. But, I thought it odd that they named the whole movie after the robot, when usually they would just make some more generic name like ‘Big Robot.’  Obviously, Disney had put a little more thought into it then simply slapping a generic moniker and hoping it flies, because, well, they’re Disney. I started to wonder why they would have different names, when both seem to be pretty generic. I mean, what is big hero 6? Unless you happen to read the Marvel comic of the same name (but set in Marvel’s world, and with a very different Baymax), you wouldn’t really have any idea what that is about. Heck, I didn’t even know there was a comic until I saw the post-credits scene, a hallmark of pretty much every Marvel movie. So, why would they have different names? Names don’t change anything about the movie’s content; they essentially just a change in packaging, which you might not think is so important but a change in packaging could persuade a few extra movie goers. More movie goers, more money. Essentially a movie title is used for marketing. After all, you would never go to a movie titled “Big Boring Bunch of Heros.” or maybe you would out of curiosity. Who knows? Big Hero 6’s Marketing Movies are marketed through trailers; those 2 minute action-packed clips they show before the movie you came to see. They tease you to come back at a later date to see another movie. They often times tease you with the most enticing bits of the movie to get you hooked. The Big Hero 6 trailer looked like this: It really puts a lot of emphasis on the hero, named Hiro, his robot and his helpful friends. It presents you with your typical hero story. There is a good guy and a bad guy, they fight and good guy wins. Presumably along the way Hiro has to overcome some obstacles and this is sprinkled with some comedic moments to keep the pace of the movie manageable, and keep the whole thing from getting too serious. Your typical Hollywood flick. You could almost say it is an animated version of a lot of Hollywood’s recent blockbusters that are essentially superheros fighting some world ending force, like “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” just to name a few.  In other words, Disney’s other movies.  They happen to make a lot of money, so I guess they have a pretty good formula going for them.  But this is very American, right?  Hero overcomes all odds to save the day, maybe falls in love on the way.  It makes millions, and will make millions for years to come. Baymax’s Marketing Baymax, as Big Hero 6 is called in Japan, has a slightly different trailer.  It still features some of the same clips, but there is a little difference in the focus of the main elements of the film.  Take a look at it: Did you see the difference?  There is bigger focus on the relationship between Hiro and his big brother Tadashi.  As a matter of fact, the Japanese trailer was the first to reveal that Tadashi is ‘gone.’ And we see more of the relationship between Baymax and Hiro.  And just for good measure, the Japanese trailer adds Ai’s ‘Story’, the classic tear-jerker of a song played at weddings (including my own) across Japan.  The scene where Hiro equips his team with new outfits and gear is reduced to a short blip.  Even the volume on the first superhero anthem seems to be a little softer. The Baymax trailer tries to play up the human relationships of the movie, and plays down the hero overcoming the bad guy side of the story.  It’s still there obviously, I mean that is the primary plot after all.  But, it isn’t what Disney choose to entice its movie goers with. Why People Go to the Theater: US vs. Japan I think a lot of people go to the theater to escape reality.  Yes, home theater equipment has advanced by leaps and bounds, but going to the theater still allows me to escape out of my humdrum house and jump into another world.  That’s why I think nothing will ever beat the movie going experience, no matter how good and cheap TVs and speakers get. In the States, where cynicism has seen a strong revival, a lot of people want to escape to a place where people have super powers and anything seems possible.  I think a lot of people in the States are either looking for a hero or want to be that hero in the spotlight.  They want to overcome the bad guy. In contrast in Japan, where relationships are more visible and sometimes strictly enforced, a lot of people find escape in experiencing other people’s relationships.  Not romantic relationships necessarily, but human relationships in general.  One of my Japanese friends commented that people in the States go to the movies to see a hero, but people in Japan go to the movie theater to cry. I think either out of sheer dumb luck or marketing genius, Disney managed to create a film that could be highly marketable in two big markets – Japan and America.  As I mentioned earlier, Big Hero 6 is actually based on a Marvel comic with some very noticeable differences.  Disney basically made a whole new group inspired by the Marvel comic, going so far as to removing them from Marvel’s world (Earth-616) and putting them in the imaginary city of San Fransokyo, which is absolutely beautiful by the way.  I heard that Disney was trying to base the story in Japan without letting the setting overpower the story.  And by doing this, they made the city both American and Japanese in a way. The characters have been removed from a lot of the traditional American superheros and placed in a very cool Pacific hybrid city.  I really hope that this is a start of a new world with some interesting new characters.  I would like to see the return of this setting and characters. What do you think? What do you think of the movie?  Do you think it is a good combination of two cultures?  A bomb?  Let me know in the comments.


18 Feb 2015

Rank #18

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JLPT BC 153 | The Inevitable Catch Up Phase

December in Japan is always unbelievably busy. There is the Christmas/Bonenkai party season. Then, you have New Year’s cards to design and write. And finally, the big cleaning where you throw out as much of the old as you can to make way for the new. Then after New Year’s, you have your first visit to the shrine, first visits and formalities to all your business contacts. And if you still have enough energy, New Year parties. Needless to say I got way behind with my studying. The graphic above is taken from my Memrise account. The red line is the number of words I forgot, and the green line the number of words I know. It took a beating over the holiday break, and I am just now starting to get it under control and add new words to the stack. Getting back on track is always a game of patience. If you try to go too fast, you just start mindlessly punching in words and not retaining that much. You go to slow and you risk getting buried under the inevitable review that comes. I think I am managing a lot better than last year at this time when I basically took two weeks off from studying and came back to about 600 words I needed to drill through. New Job So, I recently got a new job, or more specifically, a new contract that requires a lot more Japanese than what I usually need. I kind of took on the contract hoping I would be able to use my Japanese a lot more since I really haven’t been getting any kind of natural practice other than some eavesdropping on the train and a little small talk with some mothers when my daughter is taking some gym classes. The use of Japanese is going to be a little limited, but I’m still a little nervous about it. I used to be pretty confident about my ability to start up a conversation with someone and keep it going, but those days are gone. There are going to be a few staff meetings I’ll be sitting in on that require some good focus, which I’ve started to lose. Anyway, I’m excited to actually be using Japanese on a regular basis again and using some old muscles that haven’t seen that much exercise lately. I’m just hoping that it doesn’t eat up a lot of my time with reports and such. I’d like to maintain some semblance of a work-life balance. Passing N1 I’ve been getting a lot of questions from readers about how to pass N1 recently. Although I have yet to pass the N1, I have been in contact with a lot of folks that have. I’ve been trying to pick their brains as much as possible to try to tease out what separates someone from an N2 level and an N1 level. Some key points that I have seen come up time and time again is the need for immersion in the language. You don’t necessarily have to be living in Japan. A lot of people outside of Japan, have passed the exam through some hard work. But, you do have to strive for automaticity with the language. Automaticity is basically what it sounds like, everything should come to you automatically. If you have to still take some time to translate things to understand them, you haven’t quite reached that level yet. I admit, there are times when I have to take a step back and translate a passage piece by piece before I can get a good understanding of what it is about. I don’t have this problem with most common materials – letters in the mail, notices, advertisements and such, but if it is something more abstract and indirect, I really need to take a step back and try to understand as much as I can by doing a little translation in my head. Also, at this level, you need to really take a genuine interest in reading and listening to Japanese a lot. You’ll need a lot of bulk input in order to bring your vocabulary up to level that is needed for the test. Using SRS, like Anki and Memrise, can only get you so far. You will have to go out and really see and hear those words in context a few times in order to really get a good enough grasp on the language and make it automatic. I think drill books are still useful at this level, and give you a decent idea of what to expect on the test, but don’t expect them to fully prepare you for the real thing. Kanzen Master is a really useful series, but I found their reading book for this level was far too easy to prepare for the real exam. It’s a good start, but try not to get a false sense of security from it. The same goes for mock tests. They try their best to make these tests on par with the real test, but a lot of times they fall flat. How about you? How are your studies coming along? If you are studying for the N1, what are you doing to prepare?


4 Feb 2015

Rank #19

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JLPT BC 152 | 5 More Things I Wish Japan Had

Last month, I ranted on about 5 things that I think Japan could import from other countries. One thing that I missed on that list, and this list as well, is a work-life balance. Japan definitely doesn’t have anything resembling a work-life balance, and with the recent belt tightening, it has only gotten worse. I’ve heard stories of a few people taking on the job of two and burning a lot of midnight oil to keep their jobs. I could probably write an entire blog post about work-life balance (and probably will at some point), so I’m not going to discuss it in too much detail here. Instead, I’d like to give the next 5 things that I’d like to see in Japan: 5. Education reform Okay so this is a horse that has been beaten bloody way too many times, but as a father of a 3 year old that will soon join the education system, I think it is important to at least mention the state of education in Japan. The problem has multiple facets that need to be addressed in order to really build more efficient system. As a matter of fact this probably another topic I could write a full post on, so I’ll just go over the key points here. First, every public school across the nation follows pretty much the exact same curriculum and exact same books. This would be a good system if the people at the top were perfect and could write accurate and truthful textbook. But, of course no one is perfect, and so I encounter students on a regular basis who are stunned to find out that we pronounce the word ‘the’ pretty much the same even if it comes before a vowel sound. And why students regular respond to ‘How are you doing?’ with ‘Yes.’ The list goes on and on, because the same wrong textbook was used. Second, is the immense amount of time and energy that goes into shoveling raw facts into kids’ heads. This raw information without any critical thinking applied is next to useless in an age of Google and on-demand information. The way things are going, we are already searching for things using voice, and it is not unthinkable that we will have the ability to search for things with our thoughts. With that instant connection to information why is there such a focus on memorization? Now, knowing facts about the world is important, don’t get me wrong. You can’t, for example, have an effective discussion on the effects of the cold war on current policy if you are spending half the time looking up facts on Google. But, learning of facts is a lifelong process. And to make use of those facts you need critical thinking. 4. Unique Women Heros Legally speaking, women have a lot of rights in Japan. There, in theory, are no obstructions to receiving equal pay and equal opportunities in the workplace. However, women still occupy considerably small portion of the leadership workforce. Most of the women working in companies today are forced on to a cleric track that, at best, will allow them to be executive assistants to the president. But, this seems to be a huge misuse of resources to me. The problem is incredibly difficult to solve due to a lot of entrenched cultural norms. The Economist has an amazing article that captures almost every angle of the problem that I encourage you to give a read if you are more interested in this topic. But, just to summarize, the company culture in Japan is still set to men are the leaders, women are the clerics. I’ll just give you one example. In the States, I worked in sales for a large B2B company. At least half of the sales reps were women; women tend to be good sales people in my opinion. Anyway, I’ve taught a few corporate lessons to sales staff here in Japan and the entire team is men. In sales, this is a tough problem, because sales staff usually take buyers out to hostess clubs and such, which obviously female staff would have a hard time doing. There are other ways of doing business of course but this is the usual way. Another problem is that some women simply don’t want to work. And to be honest, I can’t really blame them. I have more than a few friends that are married to doctors, execs, etc… and they live a life of luxury. They are still busy and working hard to raise their kids, but they also typically go on a weekend trip once a month and a long (sometimes up to a month) trip once a year. Meanwhile, the husband puts in long hours, barely sleeps, and is maybe rewarded with a week long trip a year. If you have that going for you, who wants to work outside the home? Japan is slowly changing though. More woman are interested in working and staying employed their whole lives (instead of simply quitting after getting married or having a baby). This change is a bit too slow, though. So, I propose my own weird solution, unique women heros. Okay, so the right word to use here is role model, but I hate that word because it has too much of a school guidance counselor feel to it. Hero sounds so much cooler. And that is what is needed really. It needs to become popular and cool to break from the norms. 3. Audiobooks For whatever reason, I was always a poor reader in school. I read way too slow, and just didn’t really enjoy it. These days, I have a lot better time with audiobooks. It is a lot easier for me to listen while I’m walking, cooking, cleaning, or doing some other kind of physical activity. I have been able to ‘read’ a lot more material than I ever would if I simply read books. And audiobooks are a great resource to learn languages because you get listening practice in as well as reading if you put the audio together with the text. It is especially helpful in Japanese where you are sometimes unable to actually read the language because you don’t recognize the kanji. That’s why it is a little sad that there is an utter lack of good audiobooks in Japanese. Most of the audiobooks that do exist are short, self-help type books from what I’ve seen. Luckily, the first two books of Harry Potter were recorded as audiobooks, but that is where they stopped. Obviously audiobooks aren’t as popular in Japan as in other places. I’m not sure why this is. It seems like it would be pretty convenient as well as discrete to listen to an audiobook on the train to work instead of having to open up novel on the train. 2. Buyer’s Market for Jobs Why is it that companies hire employees almost a year before the even graduate college? Then keep them on for years, even when they obviously aren’t a fit for the company? I could understand if there were shortages of good employees, but their aren’t. There are always people looking for jobs, so why do you need to hire people that you barely know, and haven’t even completed the basic requirements of graduating from college yet? Nobody wants to lose their job obviously, and everyone likes job security. But, sometimes in life you make the wrong decision about your career and it would be helpful to be able to turn that around and work somewhere else, but you can’t so easily. And keeping on unmotivated, uninspired workers is draining to a companies efficiency. If those employees could jump ship to somewhere that motivates them more, everybody wins. The new company gets a happy new employee, the old company can hire a new hopefully more motivated employee. 1. Las Vegas of Japan There is some buzz going around about the possibility of building ‘integrated resorts’ on par with those in Las Vegas and Macau. The bill recently got shot down due to some political scandals in Abe’s cabinet, but I would like to see it be revived. I have personally never been to a casino, and probably won’t be frequenting one anytime soon, but I think it would be a good boost for the economy. Some were suggesting that the resorts could be built in Osaka bay, where a large section of land lays relatively vacant waiting for some Olympic games that will probably not come anytime soon. And although that could be a good use of space relatively close to a large international airport, I think it would be better to revitalize a rural section of the country that is dying out like Tohoku or Chuugoku (no not China, the section of Japan between Kansai and Kyushu). My reasoning for this is simple. A lot of anti-casino lawmakers are against the bill due to concerns of gambling addiction, which is a valid concern. So, how about putting it in a place that is a little hard to get to? Much like Las Vegas in the States, it can isolate the casinos and make it more difficult for individuals to make a regular habit of going there. And we get to have a lot of nice cheap hotels and shows like Las Vegas. Is that all? What else would you like to see in Japan? Let me know in the comments.


14 Jan 2015

Rank #20