Tuesday, May 31, 2011

J-Word Play #17 [Answer]

Another one that got away from me. A couple weeks ago I posted this riddle:


 I think Cocomino knew the answer to be...








This one asks "Paris is all around what vegetable?"

In Japanese, "Paris" is 「パリ」 (Pari). "Parsley" is 「パリ」(Paseri). As you can see, the "se" is surrounded by "Pa" and "ri."

Monday, May 30, 2011

In Defense of the JLPT

"The JLPT is for snotty people who like to brag about their Japanese ability and look down on others."

"The JLPT doesn't accurately test one's Japanese ability."

"The JLPT is a waste of money."

"People who take the JLPT are poopy heads."

If you're living in Japan or studying/have studied Japanese, you may have heard something like this. I daresay the offending comment may have even left your lips. If so, hear me out. 

The JLPT, for those who may not know, is the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test, and for years has been the leading (most recognized and taken) method of evaluation and certification of the Japanese ability for non-native speakers.

This may be another somewhat polarizing post topic, but it's something I've been wanting to talk about. In recent months, I've read a number of posts and comments in various places making negative statements about the JLPT and people who take it.  I'm not addressing any individuals with this post, but feel free to take offense if you think I'm talking to you. In for a penny, in for a pound!

I know many of you, my readers, don't speak any Japanese. For some of you, this is despite living in Japan. While I personally think it's kind of a waste and hassle to live in a country without attempting to learn the native language, that's your prerogative. Not everyone is interested in language study. But just as some people may not want to be judged for their decision not to study Japanese, I find it distasteful for them to negatively judge those who make a decision to better themselves in this way. I think many of you would agree.

There are also some who do study Japanese and deride the JLPT. I guess I can understand this - many people disagree on how to best study and evaluate language studies. But there's a difference between disagreeing and degrading. Japanese Level Up did a piece in April about why you shouldn't take the JLPT. Though I obviously disagree and believe some of his points are mistaken, at least he recognizes that the test can hold value for some people.

A response to Japanese Level Up:

"1.  It doesn’t test communication
From the JLPT website:  “The JLPT places importance . . . on . . . competence at using . . knowledge in practical communication.  The . . . test comprehensively measures Japanese communicative competence.”  Last time I checked communication involved speaking, which the test does not.
2.  It doesn’t accurately measure your proficiency level:  Do you think in the short period of test time and the limited number of questions, your real Japanese level is going to be measured?
3.  Your scores can be significantly raised without actually improving your Japanese:  Learning and mastering testing techniques are just as important as actually knowing the material on any test.  So really this test is also testing your proficiency at taking a Japanese proficiency test."

While I agree that the JLPT doesn't test all-around Japanese proficiency, it's really a trade off. In order to teach speaking ability, the test would need to administer some sort of interview. Logistically, I think it would be extremely difficult to do so given the amount of test-takers and the (lack of) available Japanese test administrators. The JLPT is administered in a number of countries, and not all proctors are speakers of Japanese. A writing section would also prolong not only the test but the amount of time required to grade and process the exam. I suppose in this case those responsible for the JLPT have to some extent chosen accessibility over comprehensiveness.

As for items 2 and 3, I would argue that most tests are designed in this way, for good or for bad. However most tests can also glean a certain amount of information from your performance. The difference between 50% and 60% may be difficult to gauge, but the difference between, say 50% and 80% can pretty accurately describe a discrepancy in ability level.

"4.  It can be discouraging:  Didn’t do as well as you thought you would?  Does this mean your Japanese is lackluster?"

I didn't do well on the MCAT - does that mean I'm too dumb be a doctor? I didn't do as well as I thought on the SAT. Does this mean I'm not smart? I asked my boss for a performance evaluation and didn't get that raise I was hoping for. Does that mean I'm not a hard worker?

Of course not. Your JLPT level/score is one metric pertaining to your Japanese ability. Failure and dashed expectations can be discouraging, in any context.

"5. For the native English speakers out there, go take the TOEIC exam.  What?  You only scored a 750/990?  Obviously you are not fluent in English."

The lingual challenges that native and non-native speakers face are usually very different. It's true that such tests don't always account for these differences. On the other hand, sometimes native speakers are deficient in their own language. 

"6.  It gives you false confidence:  Just passed the N1?  You’re done.  You’ve ended your Japanese journey.  Ha.  Watch as people quickly surpass you.  I would put N1 at around level 40~50."

I think this kind of argument is going to be anecdotal no matter which side you take. Personally I don't know anyone who thinks they're done and perfect at Japanese, regardless of JLPT level.

7.  You don’t need the JLPT on your resume to get a job using Japanese:  I have never seen a job offered in America that requested a JLPT level.  You will always see a required level of “business” or “fluent.”  When living in Japan, I also rarely saw a level requirement, and even if there was, it was easily overcome with speaking in Japanese with them.  Also since jobs require specialty Japanese in whatever field you are involved in, they will usually provide their own test based on what they need you to be able to do.

I admittedly don't have very much experience with this one, but my impression is that this will depend on who's hiring. Even if a specific level isn't requited, the JLPT is something that you can put on your resume. I think it's fairly safe to say that a neutral organization's assessment of your Japanese level is somewhat more objective and trustworthy at a glance than your own. If you write "Japanese fluent" on your resume, I expect your level could fall anywhere within quite a large range, depending on your judgement of "fluent." Writing "JLPT N1," however, is pretty unambiguous. 

I'm sure a company could evaluate your Japanese by speaking to you, yes, but the purpose of a resume is to get you that opportunity to speak to someone. And I'd argue that a JLPT achievement is a stronger resume item.

"8.  The higher levels of the JLPT are riddled with seldom used, outdated, and archaic Japanese."

This is true, and depending on your goals you may not ever need to know these things. However there are also many examples of this in English.  I had a friend who would speak in Olde English when he wanted to make sure no one here would understand him. Bust out a "thou" here, a "swine" there, a "she doth protest too much," and it will throw off many people. But I would argue that those who want to be really proficient in a language will want to acquaint themselves with some of its older elements.

"9.  There is only one right answer to a question.  The real Japanese world is not like that.  There are many correct answers to the same question."

Again, this is just one unfortunate shortcoming of tests in general. I don't think anyone actually believes the language is so rigid just because the test asks you for one answer (out of several possibilities).  Consider the following:

The boy _______ on the couch.

(A) reclined
(B) declined
(C) proclined
(D) laid off

If you were a non-native English speaker and weren't familiar with choice (A), you may be considering (B) and (D) because "decline" can mean to go down and "lay off" looks similar to "lay down lie down," which would make sense here. So really there's more than once answer (as you know the meaning of "lie down") and this question is flawed. Not quite. This question is testing your specific knowledge of a certain level of word difficulty. While it's true that knowing "lay down" means you would be able to communicate your meaning in this situation, it still implies a different level of proficiency if you don't know the word "recline."

"10.  It is often money and time that could be spent on better things."

Purely objective subjective. Money can be a great motivator. 

Judge Not...

I sometimes hear that people who are concerned with the JLPT just want to compare with other people and have a sort of pissing contest. Again this is anecdotal, but to people who think this I'd say: is this unique to the JLPT? There are people who do all kinds of things and then gloat. In my experience this is by no means a characterizing attribute of or exclusive to JLPT takers.

Some people do want something to be proud of, and why not? Sometimes measuring one's ability at something is a way to gain motivation, and though comparisons are possible and sometimes a certain degree of smugness may accompany favorable test results, I say so what? Let people take pride in the fruit of their labor. If you don't study Japanese, why do you even care?

I will confess that I, too, am put off by people who flaunt their Japanese ability level. Fortunately I have't met very many such people. Most of the JLPT takers that I know don't really talk about it unless they've been directly asked or are requesting some advice. I'd go so far in that regard as to say the test is positive in that in can encourage people to support and encourage one another, as fellow athletes or musicians are wont to do (despite the latter being competitors in a much more real sense than JLPT takers).

What puts me off even more, however, are those who don't study Japanese or are very quiet (almost ashamed) of their studies but then very vocally judge and belittle those who do, as if the effort automatically makes them self-righteous jerks. I wonder if there's a degree of jealousy involved in this or if maybe these individuals once suffered an insult from some asshole who was studying Japanese (and perhaps flaunting their JLPT level?).

That's how I feel about it, and I invite you to tell me how you feel about it - about the JLPT, about studying or not studying Japanese, or about assholes who either flaunt their ability or hate on those who do take their studies seriously.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Power Lunch Bars, Mmmmmm

No weekly highlights today, sorry folks. It''s been kind of a slow blogging week, but I gotta get the lead out.

I do have a little num-num for you (or for me), though.

No no, forget chocolate. Curry, man, curry!

Power Lunch bars, by House. I did a quick online search and they seem to be only available in Japan. Has anyone seen or tried these yet? I have to admit they don't look very appetizing, but I couldn't pass on something like this.

Here we go, pizza first...


Hmmm, ok, so you know those powdery drinks you used to have as a kid (or maybe you still do)? The flavor would be ok, but then you'd get to the bottom and there'd be like a little cache of powder that was way too sweet. That's what this reminded me of. The flavor was definitely pizza-ish, but the doughy-pasty filling was a bit too sweet and a bit too obviously used some kind of powered ingredient.

Do I dare try curry? Sure.


Ok, and one bite is enough of that! Too sweet. Seriously too sweet.

Good effort for creativity with these, but damn...I'd buy a desert bar over one of these lunch bars any day.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Wtf Friday: Duran Duran and Suntory

Well, I think it's fairly safe to say that one way or another we have alcohol to thank for this commercial.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

3 places to watch Japanese videos online

Studying doesn't always have to be a chore, especially when it comes to language. I do advocate a certain amount of rote learning, especially earlier on. But as your level increases, you'll benefit more and more from both passive and active* exposure to said language. Thus leisure can become beneficial. Here are three sites you can use to enjoy "studying" Japanese:

1. YouTube

I'm sure you're all familiar with this one. YouTube has been gaining popularity in Japan, so there are a growing number of videos that you can make use of. As you probably know, commercials are one medium easily found.

You can also search for songs or music videos by Japanese artists.

Because YouTube is subject to copyright law, you may have difficulty finding entire shows or movies, but there are still interesting cartoons and skits for your viewing pleasure.

2. animeMANGA

This website hosts a ton of anime and J-dramas. I admittedly haven't explored its murky depths very extensively, only poking my head in now and then to check out a little J-drama action. There is a limit to the number of videos you can watch per day as an unregistered guest, but you can sign up for free to watch an unlimited amount of videos. Unfortunately there aren't very many with Japanese subtitles, but I suppose you get what you pay for.

3. Niko Niko Douga

The most promising of the three, and the most intimidating to use unless you're comfortable navigating Japanese websites and doing searches in Japanese. Niko Video is a Japanese website, so no English available. Again, there's a lot to look at and I haven't fully explored all that's available. These days I mostly use this website to watch Japanese dubs of the Simpsons. The Japanese voices are surprisingly quite good. To use this one you must register a free account.

* Tofugu recently put up an article about using subtitles to study Japanese. He makes some good points about active vs. passive studying. Using the resources above is a good idea in any case, but of course you'll get more out of them if you're using them for active study. That said, enjoy learning!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Advice for my successor #5

It's almost June; I reckon I'll be finding out who you are within the next month or so. Kind of excited and a little bummed. After all, there can only be one!

  • Don't be afraid to admit your mistakes and make the necessary corrections. Who do you respect more - someone who thinks they're always right, or someone who is humble enough to admit when they're wrong?
  • If you do use the handicapped bathroom, try to avoid hitting that big green button. Let's just say that if you do, an alarm will sound and people will come running to see if you're ok. Can be quite embarrassing. Not that I'd know...
  • Study Japanese. Not only does being able to read and communicate make life easier, but it's also a confidence boost. And it will help you with your job
  • Start a blog! Chances are you'll do so anyway, but send me the link and I'll keep an eye on it.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Just Another Week in Japan: Party Time

So ends the third week of May, 2011. Today I'm hosting a house party, so let's cut to the chase!

Here are my highlights for this week:

Life in Japan

There was an article at the Japan Times Online this week about how comparing culinary preferences isn't the best way to draw cultural lines . But try explaining that next time you're asked if you like sushi or natto!

On a very similar note, Jay Dee in Japan wrote about answering some of the common (mis)conceptions that he still encounters after six years in Japan. It's true - in the West many people do know how to use chopsticks!

There was an article and some lively comments at Super Happy Awesome Fun Time about holograms. More specifically about how musical holograms are being used at concerts in recent years.

I wrote a piece this week about the special attachment that Japanese society seems to have to high school culture. Some great comments, too!

Japanese Study

Moji Maki featured a post about a nice resource for using Japanese music as a study tool.

For this month's Japan Blog Matsuri, Joe wrote a great post on his experience studying kanji using Heisig's Remembering the Kanji.

If you've ever had trouble remembering the proper Japanese spelling of "Konnichiwa," look no further than this post, and remember forever. FOR-EV-ER.


Another piece by Coppyblogger - some tips on how to write high-quality content fast.

No, this picture doesn't really have anything to do with anything.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Kanji? More like Yawn-ji: My journey in learning Japan's written language

I'm very excited to be able to contribute to the 2011 May Japan Blog Matsuri and I want to thank NipponTheBus for hosting this month. His choice of topic for this Matsuri caught my eye since Kanji is something near and dear to my heart. Though, it didn't start out that way.

I live in Japan. I moved here three years ago, giving up friends, family, a good job, and my country. I did this for a couple reasons but at the top of the list in bold font was TO LEARN JAPANESE. I didn't like being the typical example of 4 years of mandatory American high school foreign language class: knowing that the Spanish equivalent of my name is Jose, being able to say "donkey" (why did we all learn that?), and knowing a couple naughty words. I wanted to be bi-lingual and Japanese was the language that fascinated me. Immersion is the way to go, right? So leaving everything I knew, I went off to a strange new country with the main goal of mastering a foreign language. But of course I didn't want to put in a lot of effort.

After arriving I soon picked up my first textbook: Minna no Nihongo Romaji Edition. Romaji, as most of you know, is Japanese not annoyingly written in Japanese. In fact, it's these characters right here. Aren't they easy? It was excellent! I could dive right into learning Japanese without all the bother of actually becoming literate. Right off the bat I could say "Watashi wa Joe desu" and state to the world that "As for me, I am (politely) Joe." It was an exciting time when every word I learned increased my knowledge of Japanese by a good percentage. But all was not well. My aversion to Japan's written language while studying had quickly led me to be able to order in a restaurant, but it didn't actually give me the ability to read menus. This limited my choice of restaurants to ones with pictures. I've even taken a photo with my mobile phone of the plastic display model of the meal I wanted and shown it to the waiter. Of course you can only tell so much from a picture. I'm not proud of all the horse meat I've eaten. Also one time I used conditioner as bodywash and complained about it's lack of lather.

Another pitfall I ran into while studying Japanese sans-Kanji is that memorizing words became incredibly difficult. Without these words grounded in my mind to a visual image they just became this kind of floating vagueness. They were all sounds without meaning, unconnected to anything. Imagine English if you didn't realize that rewind, remove, and remix all have the same prefix with the same meaning. Or worse, what if you assumed rewind and ridicule were related because of the similarity between 're' and 'ri'? Here's a vocab quiz for you: What's the Japanese word for 'teacher'? 'Student'? 'Menstruation'? If you answered 'sensei', 'seito', and 'seiri', you are right! Without Kanji you might not know that all those 'sei's are the same: 生. Knowing this, those words are much easier to remember. They're connected in your head so you don't have to memorize them in a vacuum. You just know what pieces go where and you build up vocab words like Legos or some other building simile. With my Romaji version of Minna no Nihongo I'd grind lonely vocab words into my brain for hours straight. Afterwards I would actually feel physically exhausted.

I continued to study Japanese in this broken way until I signed up for one-on-one Japanese lessons at my local international center. My teacher suggested I buy Minna no Nihongo. "No need!" I said, proudly pulling the textbook from my bag. She looked at the book and said, "WHAT IS THISSSSSSSSSSSS?!!" and smacked it from my hands. Actually she politely let me know I wasted $25 and lent me the actual Japanese version of my Japanese textbook until I bought my own copy. Looking at all those foreign squiggles, I could only describe them as uninviting. For the first couple lessons my teacher worked with me using flash cards to get my Hiragana and Katakana (the most simple and phonetic characters) down. At home I studied using the game Slime Forest which is a fun little RPG that helps you learn to read basic characters. It felt like a long time especially since it seemed like my Japanese studies were on pause. And even after I learned the characters, reading was still slow. But suddenly, one day, I realized I could read menus. Especially menus at foreign restaurants which are all in Katakana, the characters used almost exclusively for foreign words. I could order piza (pizza), and pasuta (pasta), and furaido poteto (fried potato: aka french fries), with ease! It was very exciting. Also I could finally tell bodywash from conditioner at the store.

Even with this new found pleasure in being able to sort of read some things, Kanji still didn't hold a great interest to me. I tried some Kanji workbooks which focused on rote memorization but I'd always quickly forget them. I was able to passively learn to read some. I could recognize the Kanji for male and female (important for restrooms), to go, the Kanji for the days of the week, and some other random ones. Most I couldn't write and none could I write well. "But what's the need, really? Everyone just uses mobile phones and computers nowadays," I reasoned. "What's the point of learning to write?" I dealt with the embarrassment of not being able to write my own address on forms with my head held high.

I continued in this vein for two years. I still tried to expose myself to as much Kanji as possible without really studying it. In emails with my girlfriend we would communicate entirely in Kanji so at least I would often see it. In truth you can get pretty far with this passive style of learning. By far I mean live in Japan and give the impression of being a functional adult. I was able to write and read the simple things my girlfriend and I would want to say to each other in emails. I could recognize the food I liked to order in restaurants and the Kanji on the ATM I needed to press to get money. But this has it's limit and I hit it. I plateaued hard. I started to no longer learn new Kanji since I didn't need to. As my Kanji learning stalled I found it affected everything. I wasn't learning many new words and even my grammar ceased to progress. I don't know what triggered it in my mind but suddenly I came to the realization that I was at a crossroad. Either I could give up and accept my mediocre Japanese, or I could dive in and succeed in what I set out to do those two years ago when I packed up and moved to Japan.

It was at this time that I came upon the site All Japanese All The Time. The proprietor of this Japanese learning establishment is Khatzumoto. Many of you might already know of this (in)famous gentleman. His creed is simply "All Japanese All The Time." Completely give up English and live entirely in a Japanese world. He did this and went from zero to fluency in eighteen months. By fluency I mean he landed an entirely Japanese job at a Japanese company in Japan and did all his work in Japanese. The amazing part is he did this while studying in America. I made my decision and abandoned English and sought Japanese enlightenment and followed Khatz like he was a Japanese-language Buddha.

The number one technique in Khatz's teachings is of course "All Japanese All The Time" but so close to this that it's basically technique 1.1 is learn the Kanji. ALL the Kanji. Well, not All all, but all the ones Japanese students learn in their ten years of schooling, about 2,050 Kanji. To do this he, and now I, heartily recommend the Heisig method. It's not easy and there are no shortcuts. It takes anywhere from three to six months (it took me five) to learn them all while studying every day for about an hour or more. Heisig is a smart guy who figured out that the reason Chinese people learn Japanese so much faster than English speakers is that they already know all the Kanji and their meanings. All they have to learn are the readings. In the Heisig method you learn how to write each Kanji plus its meaning given as one English keyword. But no readings. So in the end, after studying for 6 months or so you'll be on par with a Chinese person, but you won't be able to read a word. Sounds great (I say sarcastically)! But in reality it works incredibly well. All the Kanji you would confuse because they look similar are now no longer confusing since you know what each means. You start to notice that a bunch of words (like teacher, student, and menstruation) all have the same Kanji in common, making them easy to remember. But the best part which is endlessly fascinating to Japanese people is that you, a foreigner, can actually write your address now.

Two notebooks filled with Heisig practice Kanji

One of the most important points of the Heisig system is the order in which the Kanji are taught. Each Kanji is made up of a bunch of smaller Kanji pieces called radicals. Heisig ordered them in such a way that it feels like you're constantly building on Kanji you've learned before so you never have to rely on pure rote memorization. Also a big part are the mnemonics that break each Kanji into a little story. You use the story for awhile when writing but eventually you get to the point where you just remember and you don't need it any more.

I finished Heisig two months ago but I still study my Kanji every day for maybe a half hour so I don't lose it. Since finishing I read a lot more and get a lot out of watching Japanese movies with Japanese subtitles. I can't believe how quickly my Japanese is improving now that I'm completely comfortable with Kanji.

This has been a long post and I congratulate you for making it to the end! As a reward I'm going to give you some of my unsolicited advice. If you're studying Japanese, whether you just started or are a couple years into it, learn from my mistakes and do Heisig ASAP. If Heisig was the first thing I did when I came to Japan I know I'd be completely fluent by now. I wasted two years half-arsing it. There are no shortcuts but there are ways that are better than others. And the key to Japanese is through Kanji.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Friendship Friday: Loco in Yokohama

This week I'm going to talk a little bit about Loco in Yokohama.


Loco in Yokohama is a personal blog written by a fellow New Yorker living in Yokohama, Japan. According to him, the blog was created with three things in mind: to "share some of the things I have experienced in Japan, to get back into writing regularly, and to showcase my writing." He's been writing since 2008, so there are a great many high-quality posts waiting to be read.

Why I like It

Despite being an American male in Japan, Loco writes about a lot of things that are outside my frame of reference. While every person who comes to this country will have a different range of experiences, his experiences as a black man are often pretty different from my own.

Though his time in Japan does account for a good amount of his content, he also sometimes writes about things that happened in the past and have affected his life in some way. Reading about his youth in New York and his time in the military have been particularly interesting for me, and I've been impressed not only with how many fascinating stories Loco has to tell, but with how good he is at telling them.

I have been following his site for a long while now and I particularly enjoy reading about his conversations and interactions with his students. Of all his work, though, what impressed and interested me the most was his "My name is Loco..." series, where he wrote about his experiences on both ends of racism and his struggles with his own inner demons. His writing is very honest and very human, and it really show through in those posts.

(For all you aspiring bloggers out there) I also really admire his industriousness. Loco is one of the rising stars in the J-blogosphere, and he has managed to grow a large readership through his devotion to his content, smart self-marketing, and personal charisma. In other words, he's a self-made man.

So if you haven't yet been to his site, I definitely recommend checking it out. He's also a really nice (though busy) guy if you want to approach him. I've emailed him in the past for some blogging advice and he went so far as to post on his blog to try and help me out.

Once more, Loco in Yokohama.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Konnichiwa or Konnichiwa?

So which one is it? 「こんにちは」 or「こんにちわ」? For Japanese language veterans this should be a no-brainer, but it's something I had to think about in the past, and it's a mistake waiting to happen for many. 

If you don't know the answer off the top of your head, don't feel bad. This has actually been addressed in Japanese language books and manga, so it's a mistake natives are prone to as well.

The answer is 「こんにちは」. If you want to know how to remember this for good, read on.

In Japanese, the character 「は」can be read, depending on the case, as either "ha" or "wa." 「わ」, on the other hand, is always "wa."

Early on in our Japanese "careers," we learn that 「は」 is a subject marker (though it really isn't). More accurately, it's a topic marker. It lets the listener/reader know what we're talking about. Now Japanese is a highly contextual language, but even in English we use fragments and drop out words all the time. That's because we often can tell what the speaker means.

"Hey, how're you?"
"Good. You?"

We're able to use "one-word" questions like this because the rest of the sentence is understood. 

"Good. (And how are) You?"

We can do the same thing in Japanese.


Essentially the same conversation, but we tack a 「は」onto the topic (Joe, in this case).

こんにちは is the same deal. 「こんにちは」 = 「今日は」。Literally "Today." Extending that forward a bit, it's a shortened version of something like 「今日はいい日ですね。」(Today's a good day, isn't it?).

In this way you can think of 「こんにちは」 as something like "g'day." 「今晩は」 (こんばんは) is the same thing. 

Similar story with 「左様なら」 (さようなら; Sayonara), actually. It's kind of short for "Well then (I guess that's it)."

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Japan and High School

Have you noticed that "high school" seems to be a fairly popular theme in Japan? What I mean is that here you see high school settings and characters everywhere - movies, cartoons, comics. Often seems like for most Japanese people "high school" equals "hey-day."

In the West, or in the U.S. at any rate, I think the "good old days" that many people have come to wax nostalgic for are more often the days of university or just young adulthood in general. In pop culture, at any rate. That's not to say we don't have our share of movies, TV shows, and literature featuring high schoolers, but I think they often appeal to the limited audiences. If I had to compare, I'd say American entertainment tends to be more dominated by college and post-college themes.

Are Western and Japanese media really so different in this aspect? I think so, and here are a few observations I've made as to why.

Exhibit A: Manga and Anime

I lump these two together because more often than not they go hand in hand (a large number of anime series are taken directly from manga). Of course not all manga are high school-themed. There's a wide enough variety of Japanese comics and cartoons out there to satiate a veritable army of nerds.

I'm hardly claiming that all or even the majority of manga and anime have to do with high school. However I think a relatively large percentage do.

While doing a little research, I came across a Japanese blog with an entry about the most popular manga in Japan during 2009. According to a survey conducted by Nikkei Entertainment Magazine, the popularity of many series is shared across demographics (more so considering age than gender, though).

Of the top 20 manga listed by the survey, 5 of them featured high school students or settings (君に届け; 桜欄高校ホスト部; 名探偵コナン; xxxHOLiC; おおきく振りかぶって).

That means that in 2009, 25% of the top manga were high-school related.

When you consider other big titles like Death NoteSlam Dunk, and Boys Over Flowers, there's a pretty strong case for the argument that "a lot of manga and anime have something to do with high school."

Exhibit B: Movies

When it comes to Japanese movies, many of the more well-known titles don't have anything to do with high school (though Godzilla may well step on a few schools). A lot of the more classically popular films fall under the 時代劇 (period drama) or fantasy/scifi headings.

Looking a little closer, there are a number of Studio Ghibli (makers of Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away among many others) movies with high school student protagonists: 猫の恩返し (The Cat Returns), 海が聞こえる (Ocean Waves), and the upcoming コクリコ坂から(From Kokuriko Hill).

How many Disney animations with high school characters can you think of?

Couple this with the fact that like anime, a lot of Japanese movies come from manga series. Thus you have Death Note (the movie), Boys Over Flowers (the movie), Gokusen (the movie), etc.

And let's not forget one of the most (in)famous movies to come out of Japan, Battle Royale, originally a novel about adults sending high school students to an island to fight to the death.

She's a winner!

Exhibit C: Video Games

These days there are almost as many different kinds of video games as comics. Plenty have nothing to do with high school, but the genre does creep into even this medium.

To start, once again we have many manga spin-offs. More Death Note, Slam Dunk, ad nauseam.

If you're a fan of Japanese games, you may be familiar with the Persona (Shin Megami Tensei) series. Not quite at the same level of name recognition as Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, but it's been picking up steam over the years, especially due to its recent releases for the Nintendo DS. Essentially its a series about high school students who can control demons or spirits.

Many high school-themed games don't make it abroad for one reason or another, and thus I don't have very much information or even an English name to offer you. One Google search for "high school protagonist games" turned up this title from 2004, Kuron Youma Gakuen Ki (Story of the Nine Dragons Academy?), which appears to be about a high school boy who decides to be come a treasure hunter (a legitimate pursuit in this game's world) and transfers to a special academy in Tokyo.

I was also recently playing a baseball/high school game called Atsumare Pawa Puro Kun Koshien, in which you can take the roll of either the coach or team captain of a group of high schoolers and must train and lead them to victory. In Japan, the best high school baseball teams qualify to enter a nationally televised tournament that's held annually at Koshien stadium (incidentally not too far from where I live). It's basically the equivalent of high school students getting the chance to play at Fenway Park. The goal of this game is to get your team to Koshien. If you fail, apparently your life and the students' baseball careers are over.

I also have a game called Inazuma Eleven, which is similarly about a soccer team of high schoolers with big ambitions. I believe that one has made it out of Japan.

There are also plenty of other games, often of the dating orientation, that are centered around high school life. I haven't played any of these, though, as I find them creepy.

Why don't many of these games make it out of Japan? For some reason they're not anticipated to sell well abroad. In many cases  I believe it's because Japanese people just have more of an affinity for high school than we do abroad.


So the high school theme appears more often in Japanese pop culture than in many others. What does it mean? I don't know - you tell me. It could be that despite the wads of homework and sometimes slavish dedication to a club or sport, high school provides (or provided) the last memories of freedom for many Japanese people, and that's something they cherish.

One of my friends theorized that the Japanese have more of an appreciation for that "time of innocence," and that high school marks the time before adulthood when some things are still pure. That could be. It might go partway to explaining one of the more prevalent fetishes associated with, uh...lower Japanese culture.

What do you think? If you've spent some time in Japan or have consumed a lot of Japanese media, do you think Japan is more fascinated with high school life than other countries? If so, why do you think that is?

I'm curious to see what you come up with.

Update: Some good stuff in the comments. From Ryan Cecil:

 "I wanted to say that I do agree with your friend about the "Age of Innocence." It was first brought up to me by a Japanese friend, explaining why high school students don't have part time jobs. "We Japanese like our children to be children." Having a job just doesn't seem right for a child, so that's a good reason to prohibit it.

It's also brought up a little bit in my debate classes, when students talk about school uniforms: "We feel like students when we wear school uniforms." So the high school atmosphere thing is important not just to nostalgic adults, but students too. Also, I think you can look to the way (it seems) certain events are ubiquitous at every school, such as sports day, cultural festivals, and certain school trips. I think creating "happy high school memories" is real important to Japanese people.

There's also the way, compared to Americans, Japanese high school students are more naive about... almost everything. I think they feel like they're "supposed to" be naive, especially the good kids. (Maybe it's subversive to be a precocious high school student here)."

Think that's well put. Perhaps because in many cases Japanese people have to make a very quick transition to adulthood, this last period of youth and innocence is especially valued. I'd love to have a native or two weigh in on this.

One thing that gives me pause, though, is my perception that a lot of high school students are (a) sexually active as are teens in other countries and (b) often work part-time jobs though they're not supposed to. According to my understanding of the concept, (lack of) sexual awareness and experience are cornerstones of "innocence," so I'm not too sure it's something Japanese youth really possess. Though that wouldn't necessarily preclude them from trying to hold on to it.

Eryk brings up another good point:

"I think high school is interesting because it is a period that blends care-free living, protection, and a very real community with a shared set of seemingly insurmountable problems. College is too care-free to inspire the drama needed for good storytelling; and the social cohesion isn’t the same. "

Adversity can really help build great relationships, and it could be that all the hard work and drama of high school make for not only good memories but also strong friendships. Some of your classmates become your buddies in the trenches, struggling a'la J-drama to overcome the odds and win that baseball championship or study your ass off and get into Tokyo University.

And some perspective from Kaori. I recommend reading the comments if you're interested, but here's part of her thought:

"I agree with you and a lot of the comments. High school really is pretty much our first taste of freedom, and the fact that it's within a certain boundary (because let's face it, your still kids) makes it all the more exciting. It's probably a mix of innocence and adolescence."

Monday, May 16, 2011

J-Word Play #17

This one is gonna be good, trust me.


As always, send your answers to blueshoe [at] jadij.com!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Just Another Week in Japan: Improvement

Apologies - I was away in Saga this weekend and couldn't get this post up by yesterday. A little light on links this week.

Looks like I'm having a house party this weekend. Last time I did, someone broke one of my doors (and I'll never let him forget it, Joe). That was about 2 years ago, so time for another go at it. I have a lot of cleaning to do, but I'll try not to let it interfere with my posting schedule too much.

Anyway, here're my highlights for the second week of May:

  • Rene at Shoujiki Shindoi briefly reviewed a movie called Ohoku (大奥), the premise of which is that a disease has drastically decreased the male population of feudal Japan, effectively placing women in power and reversing the gender roles. Looks worth a rent.

Japanese Study
  • Fluent in Three Months featured an article about how to think in a foreign language. Been a goal of mine for a while.

  • Hikosaemon posted an interesting bit of advice for aspiring YouTube partners, though I think his suggestions are more widely applicable.
  • And over at Copyblogger, a piece about how to create compelling content when you "don't have a clue."

Friday, May 13, 2011

Friendship Friday: This Japanese Life

Edit: This was scheduled for yesterday, but looks like Blogger had some trouble...

This week's feature is This Japanese Life, a blog about (you guessed it) life in Japan.


This Japanese Life, founded and maintained by fellow JET member and American Eryk, presents a variety of experiences and elements of life in Japan that may not be so widely known outside the expat community. The blog has been up and running for almost a year now, so there are a number of articles ready for your perusal.

Why I like it

The first TJL post that I happened upon a few months ago was about an unlikely Japanese Arcade game, Flip the Dinner Table. If there's any one trick for getting me hooked on your blog, take note of this - Japan? Weird video games?! All right, I'm there! Been following TLJ ever since.

Although new posts are not always frequent, articles are well thought out and written, and combine interesting tidbits and analyses with a good sense of humor.

Here are a few sample posts:

So once again, I recommend checking out This Japanese Life. Happy Friendship Friday!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Using your iWhatever to study Japanese

Edit: Don't know what happened to Blogger, but looks like this post got removed and lost some comments...grrr.

Do you have an iPhone? Or an iPod Touch (Good God - don't call it an iTouch or you'll be accosted by an Apple fan). Maybe you even have one of those iPads.

If you do have an Apple device and are studying Japanese, there are a lot of ways to make the most of this awesome tool!

I broke down and bought myself an iPod Touch last month, and though I haven't quite joined the Cult yet, I am quite satisfied with it. Although I haven't been using it exclusively to improve my Japanese, that was the justification in my mind for buying one. So I have been exploring the ways in which this iThing can best be used to supplement our Japanese studies.

Right off the bat, I'm going to recommend you change your settings. The iBeast is available all over the place now, so it comes set up with a spate of language options, no matter where you buy it. If you're feeling confident, just go ahead and mosey on down into your General Settings area and change that to Japanese. Not only does this change your system language to Japanese, but a surprising amount of games and applications come with a Japanese version.

You're also going to want to set up a Japanese keyboard. There's a button in the General Settings area, right near the language settings, that allows you to add additional keyboards.

The Japanese keyboard takes a little getting used to but can really make inputting kana a lot easier.

If you're particularly partial to kanji, you can also install the Chinese keyboard which will allow you to write them in. It's pretty sensitive to stroke order, however, so unless you're really good it can be hard to use (I'm not, so it is for me). I also imagine you won't be able to get some kanji, since there are slight variations between some Chinese and Japanese characters.

If you're using your iDevice for study, chances are you're already familiar with Kotoba! and Anki, but I'll err on the side of safety and mention them anyway.

Kotoba! is a free application that contains Japanese-English and Japanese-several other language dictionaries, as well as kanji look-up by both reading and radical pieces. One of the things I like best about Kotoba! is that the top menu bar contains a little star that you can click to add any given entry to your Favorites list, which you can then go back and view at any time. Perfect for saving words that you want to add to your SRS program later. 

Speaking of SRS (Space Repetition Learning Systems), if you use your computer to study, chances are you know of Anki. There's a free version you can use on your computer that has become quite popular. There's also a version for your iWhatsit, but it's a little steep for an app - $25. Still, if you use SRS as part of your normal routine, it's probably worth it. You can sync it with your computer and use those same decks on the go. My only complaint is that, as far as I can tell, there's no way to reset your deck or make a new one from scratch on your iProduct, although you can add cards to a pre-existing deck.

I also just purchased another app that you may not be aware of. It's called KanjiBox and is an improved iVersion of a Facebook application by the same name. Essentially it's a program that lets you set a level (for now either Sensei, or JLPT N1-N5) and quiz yourself on kanji and vocabulary. It has a number of features, not all of which I've tried yet, including a flashcard program that remembers and presents you with the words you got wrong in the quiz section.

Last, keep in mind that all work and no play makes Johnny bored. And we don't want to get too bored with our language studies. If you're going to slack off, at least try to increase the chance that you'll be slacking off in a way that exposes you to more Japanese.

As I mentioned, there are a number of games that are available in multiple languages. I already briefly talked about Game Dev Story, a nifty little sim game that can easily eat hours of your life. I also picked up SquareEnix's Final Fantasy-themed Crystal Defenders game, a very difficult tower defense game. May want to try the lite version before you pay for it. A friend of mine, curse his existence, also convinced me to buy Zombie Farm, a spin-off of the popular crackwhore Facebook game FarmVille. Except it has zombies, which you can "grow" and attack other farms with. 

Both of these games (surprise surprise) change to their Japanese versions when you switch from English to Japanese on your iJigger.

Hell, you can even use the increasingly popular Instagram in Japanese. Though I haven't exactly been able to verify that. Apparently you need to register online before you can use this app, and I don't have any wifi available. If anyone knows how to use if offline, please do tell.

This is what I've come up with so far. Do you have any other tips or useful application recommendations? If so, please share in the comments, as always.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The little turtle

As I may have mentioned, Yoshie visited for a couple days during Golden Week. We mostly just took it easy around here - went out to eat, took a walk, watched a movie...

On the way home from our walk, I just happened to spot this little shell on the road. The path is next to this big lake near my house, but it's somewhat elevated and behind a fence. So this little guy must have traveled quite a way.

Aw, looks like a baby. He seemed a bit lethargic, so we decided to put him in a nicer spot, down by a small creek. We put him next to some water and he perked up a little bit and went for a dip.

We felt a little reluctant to leave, but what were we gonna do - sit around and babysit this turtle? We walked back that way later that day and we was gone. Guess he swam away?

And that was my grand Golden Week adventure.

Then I found $40 and it was the best birthday ever. The end.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The trouble with J-celebrities

I'm afraid the scope of my experience is pretty much limited to Japan and America, so please bear with me on this.

Imagine that you're living in America and a new pop boy band emerges and seizes the eyes and ears of the nation. I'm a little out of the loop right now...who do the kids listen to these days? How about them Jonas brothers? They'll do fine.

Ok, so here come the Jonas brothers, full steam ahead. They're doing concerts. But that's only just the start. So you're watching TV (one of two-dozen or so channels that are available to you), and behold - the Jonas brothers are guest starring on a sketch comedy show! SNL? Sure, why not.

Now imagine that they're on SNL every week. Good, good. Oh, look - there're on Oprah, too. And the Price is Right, and Jeopardy. Hell, even Wheel of Fortune. Not only that, but you get to watch them watching Emeril and Rachel Ray cook up a storm. Then you get to actually see them eat that food. But imagine that Emeril only makes pasta, every week (albeit with different types of sauce), and Rachel makes nothing but soup. Great. Next, you watch them watching and reacting to the news.

Now imagine this kind of programming never ends, for weeks, months, or perhaps even years, until the public is finally burned out on the Jonas brothers.

Oh, but it's not so bad. There are a couple dozen other personalities floating around the same shows. Let's say Lady Gaga, Carrot Top, Snooki, Arnold, Bill Nye, anyone else who has some unique or ridiculous look or manner (yes, bow ties count as wacky). No one normal, please. Then throw them together and make a show out of it. Think Hollywood Squares, except this accounts for 90% of what's on TV.

So we have music, and TV...but don't forget that movie the Jonas brothers just made! You know, the romantic comedy. They're so talented, after all - why wouldn't you want to see them on the big screen, too?

Excellent. All that's left is to give them a show that runs for 8 hours straight on New Year's Day. God bless America Japan.

J-Word Play #16 [Answer]

Whoa, apologies! This one really got away from me.

A couple weeks ago I posed the riddle:


Kudos to Rene for answering correctly!

And that answer is (read no further if you want to hazard a guess first)...









The riddle asks us "What's inside the tanuki's treasure box?"

Tanuki (狸) are Japanese raccoon dogs. You may recognize the word if you've played Super Mario Bros. 3. They make many appearances in Japanese folklore as shapeshifters and tricksters.

In this particular riddle, you may read たぬき as 「た」ぬき, which means "without 'ta'." Specifically, what's inside a 宝箱 (たからばこ) minus the 「た」.

When you take away 「た」, the word changes to 空箱 (からばこ), which means "empty box." Thus there's nothing inside!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Just Another Week in Japan: Summer's Here

According to the traditional Japanese calendar, May 6th was 立夏 (rikka; first day of summer). Always seems a little odd to me, as in America we don't really consider it summer until June-ish. Was still pretty chilly a week or two ago!

This week was also Golden Week, a period of three back-to-back national holidays. Some years this creates a super-long holiday weekend, but 2011's GW happened to be Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Accordingly, I relaxed and didn't get a whole lot done (though Yoshie visited, so no regrets).

It's been a light week here at JADJ, but it's time to get back into things. I was contacted about contributing to the second edition of a book about expatriating from America; more details on that as it gets closer to materializing. I'll be working on that this week and getting my act together here. Though if I am a little slow, please be patient with me - the weather is gorgeous right now, and I expect only a little of this before the rainy season sets in.

Japanese Study


  • Like Melon? Like Kit Kats? SHAFT is having a free giveaway. All you have to do it drop a comment.

That about does it for this week. Those of you in Japan, enjoy the remainder of your holiday.

If you have any other notable links from this week, post'em in the comments!