Post-JLPT recovery

So, who else here just took the JLPT? 乙 to you!

How did it go? Do you feel confident about your results, or did you spend the entirety of the test berating yourself for not studying harder? Or are you somewhere in between? Whatever the case, you’ve just been through an extremely rigidly structured test, and it’s time to reward yourself for doing it. But how?

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What’s your JLPT strategy?

“I’m not going to pass, so I’m not going to stress about studying super hard this time around,” I said, shoveling textbooks into my shopping basket.

“It’s a futile effort, anyway, so I’ll just treat this as an experience, not a serious try,” I added, plugging vocabulary words into my SRS app.

“Who even PASSES the JLPT anyhow?” I concluded, struggling out of bed to complete my daily drills.

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Why I’m taking the N1 even though I won’t pass

Hey, guys! Two weeks sure passed by fast. It’s that time of year when work picks up, the weather cools down, and absolutely everyone wants to get together and Do Things. I’ve been going on adventures in my area and struggling with a big Will I or Won’t I question–will I take the JLPT this December?

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Tenkaradodon: A book review

After reading a novel geared more toward university students and up, my book club friend and I opted to try for a book more aimed for younger audiences. Having a craving for school-related shenanigans, we picked up this book: てんからどどん by 魚住直子。

Meet Karin, a middle school girl who has a bunch of friends, a family who loves bad jokes, and who loves to speak her mind. In some cases, too much; her friends are on her case about comparing people to things. Why, though? Pigs are cute, right? What’s the big deal?

Meet Riko, a middle school girl who barely speaks in class. It’s true the lack of socializing has done wonders for her grades, but being alone has done a number on her self-esteem. She eats snacks for comfort, and as the school trip approaches, she desperately posts a message on the internet: “Someone please come kill me. I don’t want to endure this trip alone.”

The story follows these two girls as they board an elevator at the same time, and something magical happens that will forever change how they see the world around them.

This is a fun tale; picture Freaky Friday in a middle school setting and that’s what you’ll get. There are some darker subjects touched upon in this book- depression, loneliness, one’s “place” in a family-but there are some lighter, fun parts too. Karin takes the unusual situation they’re in very well, and considers it a great opportunity to change; Riko, not having any other ideas, follows along and is grateful for it.

For the most part, it’s set in their school, where their classmates notice something strange is up with the two girls but don’t know what. The reader gets to see each girl’s life, including interactions with their families. Despite the darker themes, it ends on a happy, hopeful note, albeit an abrupt one. I’m starting to wonder if that’s just a writing style choice in Japanese, as I experienced that in my previous read too.

In short:
Geared toward: Junior high schoolers and up. Some kanji, but lots of furigana and casual language.
Level required to read this book: I think you can comfortably read this at N3. I didn’t have to look anything up to understand and enjoy the book, but at N3 or lower you probably will need to.
Good for study: Speaking-wise, sure, it’s got great casual speaking and wordplay. If you’re looking for vocabulary for the JLPT, maybe not.
Length of time to read it: I didn’t keep track, honestly, because I was busy wondering what was going to happen next.
Read it again: Maybe. It’s enjoyable, but I’d prefer to see if the writer has published any other works.

Recovering from your harrowing JLPT experience

Was it the first time you took it, or your tenth? Are you struggling through N5, or did you face down the terror that is N1? Whatever the case, I take off my hat to you and say, お疲れ様でした!Regardless of whether you’re taking it again this December, now is the perfect chance to reflect on your studies, go over questions you think you got wrong, consult with a teacher or a Japanese friend on grammar points…

…If you’re a studying wizard, maybe. While several of you out there indeed go that route, and I applaud you for it, I feel several of us out there are just as keen on going, “Oh thank goodness that’s over!” and avoiding anything to do with Japanese for at least a month, if not more.

Which, admittedly, is not very helpful if you’re looking to improve further.

Still, I get it. You’re sick of studying, and if you look at a practice test one more time you’re going to start wailing, “Not the reading section!” at random in front of startled strangers in public. So what can you do? Is there a happy medium between hitting the books even harder and not touching them at all?

Well, yes.

Here’s what I’ve tried to make a conscious effort to do:

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Natural reading practice for Japanese

I’ve been in Japan long enough to have taken the JLPT multiple times; in December 2015 I came away with (barely!) passing the N2. Upon discovering this, students of English end up asking me what my secret is. How do I study?

The honest answer? ….I don’t. I am terrible at studying. I get into ruts where I won’t touch a textbook for months.

What I do do, however, is play.

I’m a bookworm at heart; in America I’ve got multiple boxes of childhood books I hope I’ll never lose. Since my time in Japan I’ve gotten well over a hundred books on my Kindle and multiple bookshelves worth of books, despite my efforts not to buy too many physical paperbacks. I have memories of spending my days at summer day camp in fifth grade curled up in a corner reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

It’s only natural that, upon coming to Japan, I had a goal in mind language-wise: to become literate in the native language.

As I said, I don’t go to textbooks for practicing reading (unless I have a test or am really stumped about a grammar point). Here are some of the things I have done to practice my reading.

  1. NHK’s Easy News. For those of you wanting to read current events and practice reading short essays, this is a good bet. All of the kanji have furigana and are easy to look up, the stories are short and simple, and many of the stories have audio you can listen to while you read. They also have an app version of the site for Android gadgets.
  2. 児童書、 or children’s books. The kids here have to learn how to read all of those crazy kanji too, y’know! Walking into a bookstore or library, the staff should be able to help point you to the right corner. Go for elementary school books if you want to get a feel for your actual level. If you’re N3 or higher, you should be able to tackle a junior high school level book. Many foreign books have been translated into Japanese, from Matilda to Lord of the Rings, so you can start off with something familiar to you before you dive into something entirely new.
  3. Comic books. If you enjoy reading manga or western comics, this is a great place to start. You get the pictures, of course, to help you with the context of whatever’s going on, and just like with regular books there’s a crazy amount of options out there depending on your interests/reading levels. I was working on the new Sailor Moon when I was around N4 level, but I feel like as long as you have a grasp on hiragana and katakana you should be able to settle in and work your way through. Please do note that for more “adult” comics they won’t use furigana as much, though, so check your comic before you buy/borrow! Again, starting with a series you’re already familiar with can help a lot.

If you’re actively studying Japanese in school, ask your teacher(s) if they have more resources to check out. I recall struggling through the Hiragana Times when I was in university and it helping me, as well.

Best of luck in reading!

Kyoto Teramachi Sanjo no Holmes: A Review

(NOTE: I’ve noticed a lot of folks peeking at this recently–this is an old review for the Japanese version of the light novel. Just FYI!)

As someone who lives in a foreign country, one of my goals upon coming here was to eventually become literate. My definition of literate is that I’m able to walk into a bookstore, pick something off the shelf, and be able to read the blurb inside the cover to see if it’s something I might enjoy.

In December 2015, I passed the JLPT N2 by a meager two points, so I suppose that technically puts me at the level of “able to use business-level Japanese”. In my day-to-day life, however, I place myself comfortably at N3, which is more “able to use daily conversation and sometimes rant about the economy in short sentences level Japanese”. I am able to go to a movie without subtitles, read the messages my Japanese friends send me on Line, and other daily activities without too much trouble.

But there is always room for improvement, and as an avid reader I decided, along with a friend, to start up a Japanese Book Club. Very recently, we finished the first book for said club: 京都寺町三条のホームズ by 望月 麻衣。

The story follows a high school girl named Aoi, who has just moved to Kyoto from her home up in Tokyo after the ending of a rocky relationship. Upon wandering the covered arcade street Teramachi, she finds a little antique shop, in which a university student, Kiyotaka, works. Kiyotaka is an enigmatic young man who people often come to in order to solve little mysteries about their antiques, and for that–as well as other reasons explored in the book–he is granted the nickname “Holmes”. As such, Aoi slowly but surely becomes the “Watson” in the tale as she starts a part-time job at the antique shop and learns more about his family and Kyoto as a whole.

Originally, I expected it to be more of a mystery novel with an overarching plot. To my surprise, the book is actually broken up into several smaller “books”, each with its own story arc. While several little mysteries are explored in the text, the tale is really more about the developing relationship between Aoi and “Holmes”.

As someone who knows Kyoto fairly well by now, I enjoyed reading Aoi’s perspective on several places, from Teramachi street itself to Kamogawa River and the shrines throughout the city. Likewise, reading Holmes’ explanations of the local customs were also interesting for me as they often tied in with my own experiences. Someone who has been to Kyoto is likely to get more enjoyment out of the story, but the descriptions are pretty easy to follow and I found myself picturing certain places pretty clearly.

Another thing I enjoyed was the character of “Holmes” himself. Aoi plays as a great foil to his personality. Like Sherlock Holmes, his interest in a given case is gone the instant he’s solved it, even while others are still trying to understand how he figured everything out. He also has a tendency to set up his “Watson” to unwittingly help him on cases, which can leave her irritated at him.

One thing that I found odd was the author’s (or perhaps the publisher’s) choice in furigana. As someone who is still regularly struggling with kanji, I look for furigana to understand the reading of new vocabulary so I can easily look it up and, in the future, pronounce the word properly. While furigana was littered throughout the text, especially for Kyoto-centric things people wouldn’t be familiar with, I found it strange that a kanji would be introduced first without the help. Then, after it had appeared two or three times, you would finally stumble across it with the helpful furigana next to it. Why was it not introduced together the first couple of times instead?

Another thing that bothered me somewhat was the ending. It did not feel like a conclusion at all. Rather it felt like the ending of an episode to a TV series or cartoon, where nothing has been resolved because the writers are confident there will be a sequel. While there are in fact, several books following this one, I don’t like the idea that the book can’t stand entirely on its own.

That said, I will be reading the second book to see if it provides any better conclusions to the story. I’ve already invested enough time in these characters and settings, so why not?

In short:
Geared toward: Given the main characters’ ages and personalities, this is geared toward people in high school/university and up.
Level required to read this book: Definitely JLPT N3, preferably higher if you don’t want to spend hours looking up vocabulary
Good for study: I’d say yes. Lots of repeating vocabulary, and the main characters tend to use standard Japanese (with hints of Kyoto-ben here and there from side characters)
Length of time to read it: Took me about 3 minutes per page at my current level without looking anything up, and the book is 306 pages.
Read it again: Yes. I’ll want to look at it again in a year or so to see if I’ve improved any reading-wise.