Saturday, May 30, 2009

What does the JLPT mean really?

Given recent circumstances which I won't get into here, I've been getting back to the basics, studying the 'ol Nihongoes. I feel like I've hit one of those linguistic plateaus over the past year or so and am thinking it might be about time to finally polish a certain spur that's sticking out in terms of the JLPT.

As many reading this know, the JLPT currently has 4 levels with 1 being the highest, although they are scheduled to redo the format on next year's test to have 5 levels (the jump from level 3 to 2 was too big for most people) and allow the highest level to measure higher levels of ability better. Up until last year it was only offered once a year (it's now twice a year for the top 2 levels), and worldwide only about a third of those who take the top level pass.

I last took the highest level of it (1Q) 2 years ago, which you currently need a 70% to pass. I got a 278/400, which is roughly 69.5%. Ouch. Given practical knowledge I've gained since then, I should have no problem with it and was planning on taking it again eventually, but was originally thinking that if they're going to change the format I might as well wait for that in 2010... now I'm thinking it might be useful to take it or some other test this year.

So why take the test, and why have I been putting it off? First off a little background - JLPT 1Q is a minimum requirement for entrance into undergrad programs at many Japanese universities, who basically think you need this level in order to be able to understand what's going on in your classes and participate. It is also looked upon favorably by the JET Program, who sees 2Q as the minimum Japanese ability for a CIR from western countries and 1Q as the minimum requirement for a Chinese CIR. Outside of this sphere you may get some recognition out of having it, say in translation circles, but for the most part Japanese people have never heard of it much less people anywhere else in the world. I've heard 1Q thrown around among translators as a bare minimum to get into the field, but the truth is that if they think you can do the job and you pass their trials then 1Q doesn't mean anything. So basically, this means that actually holding a JLPT certification is useful if you want to go to a Japanese school for 4 years or be a CIR - I have a degree already, and I've been a CIR.

The reason to take a test for me is really more about setting a personal goal. Living in the country and doing certain things in the language do raise your levels to a certain extent, but once you can do all the things you need to do comfortably you're learning will start to plateau off which is where I am. The only way to get off this plateau is to set a goal and stick to it, and studying for a test is a great way to force your hand. Sure it's something to put on your resume I guess, but since most people don't know what it is and will probably judge you more on your production ability anyway, I rule that one out.

So what about the reasons NOT to take the JLPT? Well there are a few I can think of, not least of which is the lack of practicality mentioned above. Another is the contrivance of it all - the two main deficiencies I see with the test are 1) it only tests passive knowledge, so no writing or speaking and 2) it's geared towards literary language in the higher levels and thus involves a bunch of stuff not normally needed in daily life, unless you read a lot of higher level stuff daily. 1) means that you can theoretically pass 1Q and not be able to write any kanji or hold a good conversation, which to me defeats the purpose of learning the language. 2) means that you pretty much have to study specifically for the test, again making it less practical to daily life.

There are also other testing options out there depending on where you are in the world and what you want to focus on, such as the Kanji Kentei for kanji nerds (only offered in Japan), BJT for those in the business world (formerly offered by JETRO and includes an interview test if you get far enough), and the little known nihongo kentei(offered to Japanese as well as foreigners) and J-Test(apparently geared towards Chinese), both of which go beyond JLPT levels.

Now given all this, is the JLPT for you? Think long and hard.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Red Bull Box Cart Race, Oct. 11, in Odaiba

A former co-worker pointed out an interesting marketing scheme that he ran across the other day in Harajuku. There's an area around Shibuya-Harajuku known as Cat Street - the description I found searching around was this:

明治通りの東側 原宿~渋谷の川を埋め立てた曲がりくねった道  静かでおしゃれな店がちらほら
1.猫の出没が多い、2.猫の額のように狭い、3.「Black Cat」発祥地 など名前の由来に諸説有り

On the east side of Meiji-dori - the twisting path covering the river between Harajuku and Shibuya. It's quiet with a bunch of cool stores here and there. Guesses on how it got its name are: 1. there are lots of cats, 2. it's narrow like a cat's forehead (don't ask me to explain that one...), 3. gets it's name from famous stores like Black Cat, etc. in the area.
If you'd like to check it out for yourself, the easiest way to get there is to get off at Harajuku station and walk all the way to the bottom of Takeshita-dori. It's not the main street you hit, but sort of breaks off from there paralleling the main street on the far side away from the station. There's a bunch of weird fashion stores there and a few cafes/restaurants. Here's a list of stores there (link in Japanese).

Anyway, so lately on Cat Street, a bunch of the bikes that have been left there have started losing random parts, like you see on the right here. What's the deal you ask? Is there some random bum around making a bike part castle somewhere, or did the police forget to bring their truck when they came to confiscate bikes and just decide to take what they could?

Nope, none of the above - the parts have been "borrowed" with a promise to return them even. Here's the caption as it reads on that note you see attached:




I borrowed your tire (seat).

Dear bike owner,
I have borrowed your tire (seat) for the Red Bull Box Cart Race being held on October 11th, 2009 (Sun.). I will return it after the event without fail.

Soo... it's just a marketing scheme then? Here's a video - they're still taking entries for anyone interested, so sign up!

Details on the event:

the 1st Japan Red Bull Box Cart Race
Date: Oct. 11, 2009, starts at 1pm
Place: Odaiba, Dream Bridge (夢の大橋)

If anyone's actually interested I could have a look at the rules for entry... I think it might be worth at least showing up for to watch. More than that though, the ad scheme is certainly attention grabbing.

Original link my co-worker came across is here (Japanese only).

Edit: pictures and my write-up on the event itself can be found here.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

BIG trouble in little Tokyo!! *gasp*

Ok this is serious - everyone drop everything, because it's 2:34am and I am having a minor crisis here. I couldn't sleep and given my new vocational freedom don't have a set schedule per se, so decided to come out to the living room and pass the time on the 'ol pasocon (you'd never guess that came from English, would you?). I go into the kitchen to pour myself another Captain 'n Coke (yarr!!), and what laid before me?

A COCKROACH. And I'm not talking any cockroach, I'm talking a COCKROACH THE FRICKING SIZE OF TEXAS. I'm not referring to Texas-sized cockroaches, because we all know they like everything huge down there, no I'm talking the state of Texas, as in this thing could take on Godzilla and probably win, if he were not in fact a mythical creature. Yes I know it's paradoxical considering the state of Texas is geographically bigger than Japan, but this thing is seriously grotesquely huge... disposal is going to be a delicate situation that is going to be handled totally hush-hush on the DL as not to disturb the already-scared-to-death-of-bugs girlfriend.

For those of you taking notes at home, this is a reason that rent is cheaper on the first floor of buildings (at least in Japan) - bugs. Japan does not mess around when it comes to bugs, oh no. They thrive in the moist and humid environs and that goes double for us first floorers. I was lucky enough to know enough Japanese to get around before I got here the first time for my 1-year study abroad all those years ago, but the first new word that I learned coming off the plane and settling into my new digs at the dorm was "gokiburi" (cockroach).

And of course it doesn't stop there - I scooped up a Mothra-sized moth to shoo out the window the other night, and I've even been assaulted by bugs in my pants. I was also chased down the hall once by the worst of all the bugs I know in Japan: mukade. Those things just freak me out.

Ok, well I'm going to sip my drink and then go curl up in a corner and cry myself to sleep now (I kid).

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

My struggles with カビ

Ah yes spring, my favorite season is finally here! The sakura have bloomed, the birds are chirping, and the temperatures are just perfect for at least a month or two before the unbearable heat and humidity of the Japanese summer that will undoubtedly be accompanied by excessive amounts of AC blasting throughout the trains and stores across town.

It also means the return of an old nemesis: mold. Mold and Japan go hand in hand like... I dunno, two things that go together really well. Given my current choice of breakfast I'm gonna go with "like bananas and strawberry yogurt". Anyway, lots of mold in Japan.

My history with mold in Japan goes back to my first days here a few years back when I lived in an all tatami apartment. It was spacious and free so I wasn't complaining at all, but come spring I knew why people avoid tatami mats and go for western style rooms. I went away one weekend and left the windows open to air the place out, then came back and it half looked like I had a lawn in my apartment! You need to keep your place clean to avoid mold settling in, and this goes double for tatami mats. This was up in Tohoku as well, so I'm sure that having tatami rooms further south could only be worse.

So ok, lesson learned and I haven't lived in a tatami-based home since. Now this time around, I look in my closet the other day and what do I find? Mold, growing on some clothes! This place tends to gather condensation a bunch since it's on the 1st floor. And here I thought people avoided living on the 1st floor in Japan so people wouldn't look in their windows and/or steal their panties (girls only), but yes, the 1st floor is more likely to have bug and mold problems as well.

Now what do you do if you have mold? How do you avoid it? You need to be careful of any place where condensation might gather, such as closets, drawers, around the bathroom and washing machine, the kitchen and close to windows. In general, you need to keep the place clean, have good air flow and not allow hot air to settle if you can help it. Here are some tips that I found:
  1. After you take a shower/bath, before you leave turn on the fan, then rinse the walls off first with hot water, then with cold water. This cools the place down and gives all the hot air a chance to get out.
  2. Always turn the fan on in the kitchen when cooking or running hot water, and leave the fan on for a little afterwards too.
  3. Leave things like beds and couches set off from the wall about 5cm or so as mold tends to gather in small crevices.
  4. Buying a dehumidifier is the easiest for sure, but if you don't want to or can't afford it then there are these things you can buy at DIY shops to help handle humidity. I got a bunch to stick in drawers, some that you can hang in your closet, and bigger ones that you can just place on the floor anywhere that tends to get hot and/or moist. The closet ones were called ドライペット if you're interested, but that's just the brand.
  5. If you have tatami mats, wipe them down regularly! First you go through with a damp cloth, then a dry one. I did it once every 2-3 weeks depending on need.
  6. Clean things regularly (!!), and every now and then check areas you don't use or look every day such as drawers, spare futons, around windows, in the shoe storage areas, etc. Here's a diagram I found covering everything, although it's in Japanese.

Here's the original Japanese for a site I was looking off to make this list if you're interested. One thing I thought was interesting on the site was that it mentioned that because Japan has such a humid climate, the culture developed a bunch of fermented food products, such as miso, soy sauce and nihonshu (sake). If that's the case, I wonder why cheese never caught on here??? Sigh... I could make a whole other post about that one.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Japan and swine flu hyper reactions

Well here I am, back in Japan for a week now. Time back home sure seemed to fly!

So before we even landed in Narita, we got smacked with the most recent pandemic that has swept the nation of Japan: swine flu hysteria. Note that the pandemic is not swine flu itself, which has been widely shown to be only about as strong as the seasonal flu and only has a few hundred cases worldwide, but the hysteric hyper over reactions to it I've witnessed everywhere.

In the plane they gave everyone in the plane a health survey to fill out along with the standard customs and disembarkation papers, which is ok enough I guess, but then the real fun started when the plane touched down. We were made to wait in our seats 30 minutes for a quarantine inspector to make it to our plane, at which time the less-than-comfortable-or-attractive masks were summarily passed out to all passengers (note: none of the stewardesses were wearing masks at any time, even during the inspection, so I assume that they at least realize the folly in all of this). Then the inspector comes through with an industrial-sized mask and a heat-sensing camera to check us all out. He checked our surveys one by one then gives us this sheet saying they'll call to check on us later.

Another half hour later we're out of the plane, and after showing the paper to the new makeshift quarantine gate it's reentry as usual... except for another camera crew and yet another accompanied by news staff trying to interview people on their "scary" bouts with the flu abroad. I'm sure they were sitting there for a while trying to get someone that was actually scared about the flu so they could put it on tv and spread baseless fear across the country. Looking around, we weren't the only ones that had shed their masks before even leaving the airport, so I'm imagining that most all of the people coming from abroad are much more cool-headed about things since they have not been exposed to said Japanese media scare-mongering.

2 days later, my girlfriend and I both separately got calls from the quarantine center asking us if we had any signs of the flu or anything. After I told the lady no, she said to call her if anything arose and that she'd waste her time again in another 10 days to call me and the hundreds of others that flew in.

Since getting back I've seen various reactions of people, with a strong delineation between those that read news elsewhere and those that get all their information locally. One friend told me that someone in her office that went to Hong Kong over Golden Week was told not to come into work for 10 days, and that he would be forced to use his own vacation days to do so. He was understandably upset. While I do find this disturbing, as 病休 (sick leave) is basically only used in Japan (by Japanese, at least) if you wind up in a hospital overnight I was not entirely surprised. I've heard other direct accounts that even people that are sent abroad for business trips at certain companies are forced to take a voluntary leave of absense upon returning on their own time.

I also ran across this story over at Japan Probe about university rules for travel on Golden Week, etc. This in from Waseda:

Student travel is forbidden, and students are told to avoid going out - especially to crowded places. The e-mail states that if one single human infection is confirmed in Japan, the whole school will be shut down.

One case in the country, and the whole school shuts down. Forget international travel, they won't even allow national traveling, say to visit family? Geez, over-react much?

So you'd imagine from all this that there's been at least a few cases in Japan thus far, right? Well just the other day there was finally a bonafide case of swine flu in the news. 3 Japanese coming back from Canada contracted it, so the reaction was to quarantine them and about 50 others on the plane, putting them up in a hotel. The account of one of the guys stuck in the hotel were just incredulous to me:

A Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry official asked the man not to leave his the room, except for meals, to wear a sanitary mask and not to touch anything if he had to leave the room.

Hotel employees have been prohibited from entering the travelers’ rooms, so the man cannot get room service, he said.

He said he has to wash his clothes in the bathroom of his room. He puts used towels inside a plastic bag and leaves them outside the room to be picked up by a hotel employee, he added.

For lunch Saturday, he said he had curry rice in what appeared to be a conference room. In the room, about 15 round tables were set at intervals of about three meters apart, apparently to prevent quarantined people from coming into contact with each other and spreading the virus they may possibly be infected with, he said. He sits alone at a table to eat, he said.

For dinner that day, he said he had steak.

He was asked to take his temperature in the morning, afternoon and evening.

A doctor visited him Saturday evening and told him he showed no flu symptoms, he said.

The man said he was in an unfortunate situation, but quarantining him and the other travelers was the only way to prevent the virus from spreading.

A certain phrase comes to mind that I think sums up the whole situation rather nicely...

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."