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JLPT Level 1 (without studying!) Impressions


Or, why everyone needs to chill out about this test.

Last Sunday, December 6th, some 200,000 non-native Japanese speakers took the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) to show off their Japanese skillz, hoping to impress potential employers, schools, or just for their own personal amusement. This year, I took Level 1 (the hardest of the 4 levels offered). The Japan Foundation, who runs the JLPT in the US, claims Level 1 tests whether:

The examinee has mastered grammar to a high level, knows around 2,000 kanji and 10,000 words, and has an integrated command of the language sufficient for life in Japanese society.

Okay, so this is a hard test, we get it. It’s offered once a year, on the first Sunday in December. It’s a several hour drive away from me (not really something to count on in December), costs 50 bucks, and consists of 4 hours of intense SAT-style Japanese multiple choice questions. All of these things can add up to a fair amount of pressure to NOT MESS IT UP.

Which is why I decided to take the complete opposite approach: I aimed to fail. I did not study for the JLPT at ALL.

My strategy was basically this: Since I’ve heard the JLPT is pretty hard, I am probably going to fail anyway. But, I have no idea how close to passing I actually will be, so why not use this year as a baseline and study my weaknesses next year? This approach makes sense for a couple of reasons:

1) I’m a busy college student, not taking any Japanese classes. I don’t have extra time to devote to studying (unless I sacrifice eating, sleeping, or having friends), so I will likely do a half-assed job studying anyway. If I felt pressure to study properly, I probably would just give up and not take it, which leaves me with less experience.

2) Taking exams can be pretty stressful for me. I’m kind of a test-taking perfectionist, so spending extra brain cycles worrying about whether I was studying enough, whether I’d pass, what would be on the test, etc. is detrimental to my learning and overal mental health. Which brings us to:

3) I don’t actually need to pass the JLPT this year. I’m not using it for any immediate employment/studying options — thus, I have time to NOT pass the test. I’m considering doing IUC or something similar in the future, but even those programs don’t require you to already have passed JLPT 1. So for now, I’m sort of in the “taking this for my own personal amusement” category.

4) I’m curious how much of my Japanese usage in my daily life improves or at least maintains my abilities. I have taken a few semesters of Japanese here in college, but since May the only Japanese I encounter is in the form of watching lots of jdrama, translating manga, and talking to people on Twitter.

Past JLPT Experiences
I never took JLPT 4 (I planned to, junior year of high school, but got sick and couldn’t go that day). JLPT 3 I took senior year, and did a bit of studying for about a month beforehand. I had been to Japan once for a 2.5 week trip at this point, and studied Japanese throughout high school. It went fine. I passed. Hooray.

A year later, in December 2006, I took JLPT 2. At this point I had been living in Kobe, Japan for just over 3 months, and going to high school there. You’d think I’d get a lot of natural practice, living in Japan and all, but I felt extremely insecure about my ability to pass this test and ended up studying a LOT. In school, I had an amazing tutor, Nagai-sensei, who helped me especially with the grammar. I learned 10 new kanji every day and practiced writing them over and over. I bought like 6 books of the past exams and went over them multiple times. I didn’t use any fancy software, but I did a lot of daily self-studying and I learned a lot doing it. Unfortunately, I had all this free time mainly because I was not happy with my host family and having generally a very poor experience at the time. I didn’t have any friends at school yet, my house was a little out-of-the-way from places one would go exploring, and so I spent many lonely weekends in my room practicing kanji. (Maybe this is why I have a negative association with studying for the JLPT XD) When I took the exam, I felt horrible about it, and thought there was no way I passed. Here were my thoughts about it at the time. However, the hard work apparently paid off and in February I found out I had passed level 2!!

This year: JLPT 1
The week leading up to the JLPT involved a grueling amount of not-studying. Instead, I was busy participating in a Japanese Fashion Show at school (wearing my adorable pink yukata, of course). Saturday night I hit up about four parties, including the fashion show afterparty, in rapid succession and still got to bed by about 1 am. In the morning, I started making my way towards the test, helpfully transported by Dave. We arrived early and I had time to spot the Aldo store a couple of blocks from the test and scope out a somewhat gratuitous pair of black leather ankle boots that sent me on a great post-shopping endorphin rush.

I don’t think I’ve ever been less stressed out before a test.

When I arrived at the testing room, it felt vaguely familiar (since I’d been there 4 years ago). There were very few people in the room and the proctors were worried not enough would show up to start the exam (if 30% of people are missing, apparently they are supposed to delay the test). However, we reached some critical mass, listened to instructions, and had about 8 minutes of awkward waiting-for-the-test-to-start time. Our proctor was this really genki, amusing Japanese guy who tried to make small-talk with the room at-large instead of letting us wait in painful silence. He asked who had worked in Japan before, who was still a student, who was taking level 1 for the first time, etc. Then he moved onto asking when we started studying Japanese. The majority started in college. When he asked who had started studying in high school, only about 3 or 4 people (myself included) raised their hands. For some reason, Mr. Proctor looked right at me and said, “Hmm… you seem like you would have…” [been studying Japanese since high school]. Everyone laughed, including me. What is that supposed to mean?! However, I couldn’t get an answer out of him, as he had already began questioning the girl who has been studying Japanese since elementary school. わからないな。

Anyway, onto the actual test!

Writing-vocabulary: Basically, a lot of kanji. I expected to randomly guess on everything, but surprisingly, I legit knew about 30% of the kanji, some of which I’ve known and been using for years. Hmm, not so difficult. The sections where you had to find homophones and homonyms to a given word were more difficult. Which of the following kanji has the same reading as the given kanji? You have to know at least 2 kanji and be pretty secure on the readings. Kinda tough.

Listening: Surprisingly easy. This is definitely the part I struggled with the most on JLPT 2 and 3 (I tend to be more of a visual reading/writing oriented person than a verbal one), but I caught most of what they were saying on all the questions here. A few tricky ones here and there, but I’d say there is a good chance I passed this section. One possible explanation is that while I didn’t actually study, I have watched over 14 jdramas so far this year, which is close to 168 hours, the same as a week straight of jdramas all day every day (or a full month of watching jdramas as if it were my full-time job, 8 hrs a day… if only…) Anyway, I have clearly spent a reasonable amount of time listening to Japanese. Did it help? Probably. Oh, and one other thing about the listening section… the last question on the listening section was a LITTLE ridiculous. Mhm.

Reading/Grammar: Ugh. An hour and a half of OUCH. Honestly, it was not incredibly difficult, there were just a lot of passages to read, some of them far too long. It was mentally exhausting, and by the end of the 1.5 hour period allotted for this section, I was still completely racing for the finish. Note for next time: pump up reading speed.

Aaand the test was finally over. As usual for 4:40 PM in December, it was pitch black outside, so I headed out, feeling like the day was gone, before getting a chance to see a couple of friends I hadn’t seen in a while and returned home, feeling not as exhausted as standardized tests normally make me. I came to the realization that a not-so-small part of me actually ENJOYED taking the test. Yeah, I know enjoying the JLPT is kind of a sick thought. But, it’s Japanese after all, guys. It’s fun.

Did I pass? I don’t think so. But besides my twisted sense of enjoyment from the whole thing, there are some other up-sides:
• I now know what JLPT 1 is like, and am no longer scared of it. TOO MUCH HYPE, GUYS.
• When I get my scores back I’ll know which areas to focus studying on for next time (possibly next year)
• Those shoes I bought before taking the exam are freaking excellent, and there is no Aldo store in my town. So if it weren’t for the JLPT, I would’ve missed out on these, which is not really an option XD


Slow Dance


Get ready for one of the most awkward moments you’ve ever seen in your life:

Slow Dance is a 2005 drama, classic romance, with a great cast, amazing dialogue, and a few major flaws.

Flaw #1: The first episode.

It’s just boring. I smile at all the wildly famous, awesome actors that appear, but no one seems interesting enough to care about, and the soundtrack is kinda eh.

Flaw #2: Fukatsu Eri is the star.

She plays a 31 year old woman named Isaki, who just passed up a mediocre marriage proposal, and is realizing her loneliness and a lifetime of failures with the dudes. Her biological clock is ticking (not for babies though, she hates children). She falls for Riichi (Tsumabuki Satoshi), a younger guy (25) who is pining away for a stewardess, Ayumi, whom he broke up with 3 years ago.

But instead of pulling off a Long Vacation style romantically-agressive older woman with a younger guy type relationship effectively, Fukatsu Eri just continues to be as needy, childish, and obnoxious as she is in the very first episode when she meets Riichi pseudo-cutting in the cafe line, and tells him repeatedly to「順番を守ってくださる?」(which effectively means “get your ass in line” politely enough that it’s rude). She’s definitely no Minami-chan from Long Vacation.

Instead, she’s outshone by almost every other actor or actress in the show. I suppose this does elicit some pity, at least. Hirosue Ryoko plays her BFF, Mino-chan, who is typically the life of the party and the all-the-guys-like her kinda girl, despite the fact that she’s actually been pining away for a high school BF who went long distance to med school and promised to meet her and ask for her hand in marriage after a 6 year break (as if). Which brings us to:

Flaw #3: Too many characters pining away for too long.

Mino-chan and her 6-year med school “prince,” and Ayumi and Riichi who have BOTH been pining for each other for THREE YEARS since they’re both too scared to just, you know, ask each other what they think. I know this is love we’re talking about, but three years is a long time.

However, this brings us to the things that Slow Dance does completely right:
Strength #1: Jealousy.

First of all, in this rather incestuous love-hexagon, there is a LOT of jealousy. Riichi is perpetually jealous of his older brother, Eisuke (Fujiki Naohito) in both a sibling rivalry kind of way and a love-rival kind of way. He assumes all girls like his “more handsome”, more successful brother (if Tsumabuki Satoshi is worried he’s not cute enough… something is really off with his perception of reality).

Secondly, all the girl-on-girl jealousy is really well done. It’s perfect that Isaki, the sort of annoying lead, kinda gets in the way anywhere it’s convenient — when Ayumi is thinking of telling Riichi her feelings, oh, look, it’s Isaki. WHY IS SHE HERE? Or, when Mino-chan likes Eisuke, and she sees that Isaki is already chilling at his bar (it’s not a real drama unless one of the main characters owns a bar), and WAIT A MINUTE WHY IS SHE HERE?? Jealousy. Eisuke clearly doesn’t care about his former girlfriend, Yukie (played by Ebi-chan. He’s insane, who would GIVE UP Ebi-chan??)

I tried to pin down the jealousy relationships into a diagram. Arrows go from the jealous person to who they are jealous of, and somehow touch or go around who-the-jealous-person-is-jealous-over.

However, while the jealousy is going on in a major way, most of it is relatively realistic. Unlike in ridiculous shows like Strawberry on the Shortcake where jealousy is equally pervasive, the jealousy in Slow Dance does not leave the audience convinced that any particular character is COMPLETELY BATSHIT INSANE (unlike in SOS). Kudos.

Strength #2: Fujiki Naohito. This is the 6th drama I’ve watched with Fujiki Naohito, and although he has been gradually growing on me (starting with pure dislike), this is the show that tipped me over from ambivalence towards him into genuine fandom. Maybe just a timing issue, but Eisuke’s character was great, and the first time I’ve seen him be MORE than the stuck up asshole he always is (yes, every other role, he’s been the anal-retentive one about cleaning or the environment or he’s the douchebag the girl shouldn’t actually get with… etc). Here he was still a bit of an asshole, just because he was so popular (and if I were dating Ebi-chan I would let it go to my head too), but he was a good guy, offered interesting insight to all relationships and his own aspirations. Also, a good brother.

Strength #3: Great dialogue. Like in any romance, the characters are continually obsessed with their own love lives and analyze them to their friends and themselves constantly. But something about all the lines in this show just seemed much better, it was all carefully crafted and there were great lines in almost every conversation. A lot of it was Japanese dependent language that struck a chord. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I’m fluent enough at Japanese to say with certainty whether the writing was ACTUALLY very good (then again, that sort of thing is rather subjective anyway).

Here are a couple of favorite conversations:

「探るキス」(saguru kisu, or “investigative kiss”).
The idea is that when you kiss someone it might be either a) find out your own feelings for the person, or b) test the other person’s feelings for you. In either case, once the investigative kiss is over, assuming the kiss has passed inspection, there should be an immediate follow-up kiss. Right?

告白する vs. 告白される (kokuhaku suru vs. kokuhaku sareru)
If you aren’t familiar with the concept of kokuhaku, it is basically a love confession. In America I guess the closest thing is “telling the person you’re into them” but somehow it feels a bit more formal in Japan. Like it’s necessary to proceed. Anyway, during this part of the show, Mino-chan was feeling weird about pursuing Eisuke, since she had only ever kokuhaku sareta before (i.e. she had only had guys tell her they like her, but never the other way around) and Isaki responds that wow, she’s only kokuhaku shita (told guys she was into them, but never had a guy tell her he likes her). But now the time had come for Mino-chan to kokuhaku suru and she was completely out of her element, searching for the right words.

驚き・桃の木・山椒の木 (odoroki momonoki sanshou no ki)
Apparently this is a punny way of saying “SUPER FREAKING SURPRISED” in Japanese. odoroki=surprised, but it sounds like / rhymes with momonoki and sanshou no ki which would be “peach tree” and “pepper tree” respectively. Isaki says it to Riichi in an appropriate place in conversation. However, apparently this phrase was created by a Japanese comedian a long time ago, so saying it really shows Isaki-san’s age. Riichi warns her “don’t say that in front of young people… they won’t know what you’re talking about.” It’s kind of like the day my linguistics professor was discussing word structure and gave “Un-cola” as an anomaly/example from pop culture (har har) and then realized no one in the room had any idea what he was talking about. See all the wonderful Japanese you can learn from jdrama? With this phrase, Slow Dance almost justified my claims that “watching jdrama is like studying!” Well…sorta.


Use the Mac OSX built-in Japanese Dictionary!


This is perhaps one of the best-kept secrets of Mac OSX (10.5 or later) that any Japanese student should know about: the Dictionary app, inside your Applications folder, has a built-in Japanese Dictionary.

Koichi over at Tofugu just wrote an article about Why you should use a Mac to study Japanese, but I think the built-in dictionary is definitely one of the best resources on the Mac for Japanese. I had my MacBook for approximately two years before I even realized there was such a dictionary (would have been really helpful to know about during the year I lived in Japan and had my MacBook!) and it seems a lot of people I’ve talked to also don’t know about the Japanese dictionary.

The reason it’s a “secret” is that the Japanese dictionary doesn’t automatically show up as part of the Dictionary app. You’ll need to open the preferences, and then voila, you’ve discovered a gold mine:

So just select to enable the Japanese-English and Japanese dictionaries, and you’re ready to go! (There’s also a Japanese synonym dictionary which I haven’t used too much, honestly)

If you’re familiar with inputting Japanese text on OSX, the dictionary is very easy and nice to use. Here’s an example looking up the Japanese word びっくり (bikkuri). Type the word (Dictionary will auto-complete the word for you as you’re doing this):

Click for a definition, some synonyms, and example sentences:

The dictionary gives you a very standard-Japanese definition (not a lot of slang or new words) but it’s very solid and extremely helpful.

English-Japanese isn’t bad either:

And once your Japanese is coming along, you’ll want to start using the Japanese-Japanese dictionary as well. This dictionary is more extensive than the Japanese-English dictionary, so especially with proper nouns, old words that aren’t used much anymore, or more technical/specific/historical vocabulary, it may only be in the Japanese dictionary. Here’s what a Japanese dictionary entry looks like:

This dictionary isn’t perfect, but since it’s a desktop app that doesn’t rely on an internet connection, it’s been extremely useful. I generally use it as my primary dictionary, and then seek other resources if I need them (like for kanji-lookup, for example). I also used the Dictionary app during exams for my Japanese translation class this semester — we were allowed to have dictionaries, but no internet connection (I suppose so we wouldn’t chatting with other people taking the exam, or something like that).

As a Mac user/Japanese learner I’m excited about the cool new things Koichi mentioned, like the new Chinese input method that will come out with Snow Leopard, but I just wanted to make sure you don’t miss the built-in dictionary like I did!