木曜日, 11月 06, 2008


It appears that the venerable Japanese Language Proficiency Test is to be no more!

Well, actually it has another year of life left (2009 will be the last one) before it is rippped up, burnt and replaced with... the revised JLPT.

Big deal I hear you cry. Well, there is a significant change afoot - the revised JLPT, which will still only test receptive skills but will get a funky new prefix to distinguish it from the old one, will be available in 5, count 'em (five) levels; again numbered from hardest to easiest; N1 (the hardest) will come in slightly tougher than the current JLPT 1-kyuu. At the easier end of the spectrum, N5 will be a direct, like-for-like replacement of the current 4-kyuu.

Well, plus ca change - the difference comes in the middle. Right in the middle actually. The new N3 will be an intermediate level, bridging the gulf between the current 2-kyuu and 3-kyuu.

For many students this leap is quite a challenge - the step up requires a three-fold expansion of kanji knowledge and requires an awareness of four times as much vocabulary. After the fairly moderate increase from 4-kyuu to 3-kyuu (ha! get me, I haven't managed yet have I?) this can present quite a daunting challenge unless you are in country (I know a few people who have tried and failed 2-kyuu here in the UK) though that's not to lessen the achievement of those who do manage it in Japan - it's still the same exam, after all.

Which brings us to the other change that will occur at the same time: biannual testing. Yes, for those who do fluff either of the harder level (N1, N2) exams, the opportunity will be there for a retest in July, though only for those in Japan, or its neighbours Korea, China and Taiwan.

Thrilling stuff. Let's just hope that I'm in a position to apply for N3 by 2010, the inaugral year...

水曜日, 10月 15, 2008

Got Anki?

Ooh, joy of joys, another Anki update! As it creeps its way inexorably toward a v1 release, here is what Anki looks like of its development to go:I'm a big fan. After years of trying to learn vocab and failing, Anki REALLY, finally, seems to be making a bit of a difference. As I spend more time trying - hopelessly for the most part - to chat in Japanese at home, I snatch bits of language and stuff them in to Anki. Slowly I'm getting to the point where I remember those bits the next time I need to use them. Knee. 膝。ひざ。See? Working already.

Why is Anki so good? Because it is based on spaced repetition - probably one of the most significant points of research supported understanding in learning theory, and yet one of the most under used.

As my son gets older I'm going to be encouraging him to use one to support his learning (perhaps I should work out about the sounds now). Who knows, he may even get to work with version one!

木曜日, 10月 02, 2008

N700系 「のぞみ」

Well, for some time I've been meaning to do a series on the shinkansen, or 'bullet' trains, in my son's スーパーのりものシリーズ (super vehicles) book, しんかんせん. So today we start with the first and foremost, the mightly N700.

東京えき~博多駅(福岡)の間を走っています。最高速度は時速300km。お客さんを乗せて、日本で一番速いスピードで走れるのが自慢の新幹線です。カーブを曲がる時でも スピードを落とさず、少ない揺れで上手に曲がることができます。
Right then, what does this mean? Here's what I think...
The train runs between Tokyo and Hakata in Fukuoka Prefecture. Its top speed is 300km/h. [Gets a bit trickier now, but something like...]Customers can take pride in riding the fastest bullet train in Japan. The train leans in to corners so it doesn't have to slow down, [and I'm paraphrasing the next bit] it corners without wobbling.
Of course, I may well (ie am) some way off with this translation, so feel free to correct me or add anything you think may be useful.

Key words :

  • 走っている (はしっている)= running - literally "running", just like with a pair of Nikes. Odd that it is the same turn of phrase in Japanese as it is in English - speakers of many European would screw up their faces if you used that, after all, trains don't have legs.
  • 最高速度 (さいこうそくど)= top speed - that phrase again "さいこう"(in romaji, "saikou"), meaning top, best, excellent.
  • 落とさず (おとさず) = is, I think, something like "without reducing", but I can't be sure since I can't find it in my books. However, the root verb 落ちる is also useful in the sense of dropping (a ball for example) or failing (a language exam for example).
About the train
This bizarre looking duck faced train is the quickest in Japan, and for some time was the fasted in the world. It is a 'nozomi' which is the fastest, least stoppingest type of shinkansen around. Inside the seats are in groups of three, either side of the wide aisle, which makes this train very much wider than a UK train.

水曜日, 10月 01, 2008

Coming soon:スーパーのりものシリーズしんかんせん

I've found a great book about one of Japan's best features - its trains. I'm going to share it with you, but first, here's a taster of what to expect...

N700形 のぞみ

Thrilling stuff, I'm sure you'll agree.

日曜日, 8月 10, 2008

Funky housing - I want one

With the housing market in the UK in freefall, domestic energy prices surging through the roof and there being something of a shortage of affordable housing, what the country needs is something cheap, quick to build, cost effective to heat and frankly different to the myriad of dull city apartment blocks.

How about these?

Okay, these incredible polystyrene domes from the aptly named International Dome Houses company of Japan don't quite meet the ideal requirements for housing density that would be the most perfect "green" solution (ground level living is, I'm afraid, inherently un-environmentally friendly in a small, crowded place like Southern England), but they check the box on just about every other score.

They cost around £15-20,000 in Japan, then you'd have to pay import duty, but that's not bad. A variety of pieces mean you can come up with variations on the dome theme too. And how damn cool are they to look at?

Image nicked from the unknowing, but quite skilled Erika Snyder. Story spotted on OtakuInternational.

木曜日, 8月 07, 2008

Take an idea - make it smaller

For many years it the received wisdom about Japanese industrial "innovation" that really all Japan was any good at was taking Western products and making them smaller (and later rather better) than their Western rivals. It was true of their bikes, consumer electronics and even cars.

That was a long time ago now, and genuine innovation in many areas (hybrid vehicles, Wii and BrainTraining), and remarkable abilities to miss entire markets repeatedly (can ANY Japanese manufacturer manage an MP3 player that isn't a dull "me-too" clone?) have buried that notion.

So its a breathtaking return to form that sees Toyota, in cahoots with Sony, produce these fantastic mini-Segways.

For me, the problem with Segways was always that the massive bulky shape of the chic uber-scooter was clearly the product of a mind that was oblivious to public transport.

Imagine trying to use a Segway to cruise three miles up hill and down dale across a city like Bristol. In late Autumn. In the rain. Not going to happen for so many reasons.

But if I could throw it in the luggage rack on the train, or as long as I could be sure no nutters would sit next to me, on the bus, then use it just at either end - exactly as the designers at Toyota would no doubt be thinking, then we have a winner. Brilliant.

Thanks to Mari for bringing this one to my attention.

火曜日, 8月 05, 2008

Green village on Shikoku

Just flitting through a bunch of tabs on my reader I found this interesting photo story about Kamikatsu, a small village in the hills of Shikoku that is attempting to go entirely sustainable - eliminating the need for landfill and recycling or reusing everything.

This is serious recycling - none of that "we don't take anything other than type 1 or 2 plastics and you deal with your own plastic bags" attitude here. There are 34 categories to sort your stuff in to!

This kind of initiative seems to the sort of thing that the village structure of Japan can facilitate. From what I read they seem to be much more self-governing, still running on models that Edo-era villagers would recognise. By contrast, my own experience of a village in Shropshire, in the rural hinterland of the English/Welsh border was of a place where you knew one or two families with kids your own age and no-one else had anything to do with each other. You'd never rustle up this kind of cooperation there.

土曜日, 8月 02, 2008

Time to buckle down (127 days to go)

The season for JLPT applications is nearly upon us. The notification on my phone to alert me on the first day that SOAS are ready to receive my carefully completed, practised and triplicated exercise in bureaucracy is just itching to send my ケイタイ in to frenzy of eager buzzing and ringing. (Seriously, check that first link - never has the JLPT looked so forbidding and sexy in one go!)

Having faffed and fiddled so much that I failed to get my MSc off the ground this year, I'm left with a yawning chasm in my learnability so I am prepared to send this this exercise properly this year.

So it was that I came back to Anki, the marvellous little app that earlier this year did so much for my vocab. And boy, was it keen to seen me. I've had a little session just now, but you can see from the graph how much I've had to make up, and I will still have to make up over the next couple of weeks, just to get things back to where they were...My lapsed time has left me with a mountain of cards to climb over. All the cards shown to the left of the spike are ones that have been missed - some by more than three weeks! Still, it is easy enough to put a couple of sessions a day to pick this up. Answering them once isn't the end of it of course, some will be postponed quite a distance, but I will fail a fair percentage of these and they will then reappear early in the cycle, making things quite heavy going for at least a couple of weeks.

My future profile at present makes for fun viewing...
The gradient shows a steep relearning curve. The line shows how many cards I would have on that day if I didn't study until then. Despite my efforts this morning, if I don't log on again until Thursday I would quickly be back at 150 cards. Better not slack this time.

火曜日, 7月 29, 2008

Japan Tourism - Battleship Island

I love Japan - it forever gives up new secrets. Look at this...

Hashima is an abandoned island to the west of Nagasaki that earned the forbidding moniker "Gunkanjiima" or Battleship Island, and you can clearly see how it got that.

Built by Mitsubishi, starting in the 1890s and continuing well into the 20th century, Hashima was reclaimed from the sea with the goal of extracting coal from the sea floor. I can only imagine what an horrific job that must have been, given that the whole enterprise began right in the earliest period of the undersea business.

The island was occupied as late as the early 1970s, earning the dubious distinction of being the most crowded place on earth - having seen just how tightly packed some of the older streets in Tokyo are one can only imagine what an even more densely fitted population must have been like.

If it looks hellish, that's not a thought that has escaped other observers. It has been the backdrop to movies and the inspiration behind video games.

Currently there is a ban on tourism to the island, though I gather there is a movement to try to open it up to visitors.

Thanks to this post at MutantFrog for leading me to this one at Odee.

Check out these images from Picasa.

土曜日, 5月 31, 2008

re イギリス, An apology to my students, friends and family

Dear all,
It is with my hat in my hand that I come to humbly beg your forgiveness for the way in which I have "set you straight" vis-a-vis the misleading, and for our friends in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, slightly offensive moniker that your language takes for my home country, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
As you will doubtless remember, where you may have mentioned the name of my country, or where I have regaled you with tales of growing up in the border marches and lost weekends among the mountains of Snowdonia, I will have probably set aside no few lungfuls to explain the misconception that seems to occur in the name イギリス (Igirisu) and its similarity to the word English, thereon pointing out that the English are native only to England, only one, though the largest and most populous, of the four home nations.
While I will stand by my discussion of the derivation of the word - as far as I know イギリス is a peculiarity in an otherwise accurate list of nations in approximations to their native tongue, フランス、ドイツ、イタリア and so on - I hereby retract the implication that it is somehow the fault of poor Japanese translation.
Whilst watching the excellent British TV show "QI", hosted by the brilliant Stephen Fry, it transpired that England and English were, up until about the 1930s and the development of Scots nationalism, used interchangeably with the name of the greater nation. Indeed, some prime ministers even went as far as to sign their names as "Prime Minister of England" when they meant the whole country.
So, for a friendly nation that so fastidiously takes efforts to use a nation's own pronunciation of its name, rather than simply changing it to fit one's own tongue ("Spain"), or making up a new name ("Burma"), or indeed just making a whole new country ("Iraq"), Japan should instead be applauded for its efforts.
I hope you can accept my apologies.

木曜日, 5月 08, 2008

Testing LiveWriter

I've spent a lot of time working away from the internet and often think of things then. So here is a great way to do things.

日曜日, 4月 13, 2008

Laying tracks to learning kanji

Studying kanji is not an easy activity outside Japan. The only appearance of the characters is within the confines of the study arena - there is no incidental reinforcement by the appearance around you that you get studying a language in it's own county, for example on TV or in on-train advertising.

When studying the kanji in isolation for it's basic meaning, as I do when consciously trying to learn new kanji, I find the meaning and the standalone 'kun-yomi' reading tend to stick more readily than the various compound 'on-yomi' readings. I would imagine this is because in many cases, because of my limited number of total kanji, many of the compound meanings are quite difficult for me as I may not know the other kanji in the compound. Without a mental 'hook' upon which to hang the new word, it falls away.

However, for me, one of the most noticeable improvements in my Japanese comprehension each time I return to Japan is that I can read more and more signs on the station maps; I can both find my way around the maps more quickly (now sometimes more quickly than my wife too!) and I get a feeling for the name's meaning. This has a knock on effect as I learn more on-yomi, or compound readings, for each character. Crucially, this also means that I have a 'hook' upon which to hang more new meanings. Since I know the whole word from navigating the rail lines, and I know some of the kanji, I remember the pronunciation of otherwise unknown kanji.

Take for example 上野 (うえの or Ueno). 上野 is the terminal station for the Joban Line in to Tokyo, and a major station on the Yamanote Line that rings Tokyo. The first character in the title, 上, is one that you learn very early on and means 'up/above'. The second character, 野, is one I don't know yet, but which JDic tells me means 'field'. So I now know 上野 roughly translates as 'upper fields' which is consistent as it atop a small hill I guess.

A second example would be with the even better known 東京, a little place you may have heard of, known in English as Tokyo. The first character here, 東, means 'East', but on its own is pronounced ひがし or 'higashi'. It frequently appears as this as often a town/area has more than one station and the location is often the way to distinguish them: see Nishi-Funabashi, Funabashi and Higashi-Funabashi stations on the Chuo/Sobu Line for example (West-Funabashi, Funabashi and East-Funabashi respectively). In the case of 東, getting familiar with the compound pronunciation, とう or 'tou' is useful, and opens the way to further understanding - for example getting to realise that the 'Touhoku' region the guidebooks refer to is simply 東北, or 'East North'.

Of course, you may make all these connections yourself during your study. But equally, like me, you may find that being presented with more contexts for the isolated characters presents ever more ways of creating the links and meanings to help secure understanding.

And it goes without saying that learning the names of train stations does have an additional and more direct benefit beyond learning kanji - you can just get around more easily.

With these learning and practical values in mind, I have started to create flashcards for stations around Tokyo at Flashcard Exchange, one of the better generic study tools I have found on the web. I like Flashcard Exchange because it allows you, after making a small one-off payment, to deploy the Leitner system, a methodical approach to flash card study that focuses effort where it is needed, using the idea of spaced repetition to help move new knowledge in to long term memory.

So far I've managed just the Yamanote Line, but I think I'll try to add some the other JR and Metro lines when I get the chance.

土曜日, 4月 12, 2008


Well, our two weeks are at an all to swift end. Yesterday's marathon journey home, started at 7.30am Japan time, saw us get back safe and sound just short of 24 hours later.

We had a blast, and it opened our eyes to a few things I think. We'll be working on some changes for a few months yet, but I'll speak more on that later. So, what did we get up to? Here's a quick run down of what we did and what I may get to write about over the next couple of weeks:
  1. 木曜日 Arrived and whisked straight away to Anderson Kouen(アンダーサン亜公園), near Funabashi(船橋) for a day out.
  2. 金曜日 Visited Kashiwa and a few of the old haunts.
  3. 土曜日 Travelled to Shizuoka with K's dad to visit his mother, T's great-grandmother. Got a round of karaoke in.
  4. 日曜日 Shizuoka fish market, an abortive attempt to visit a frisbee shop, return to Kashiwa and a lost night with a couple of engineers I met while watching Reysol get defeated. 
  5. 月曜日 Returned home in shame. Finally got back out the house to meet my friend Mikako, her lovely new baby daughter and Eiko (a lady who was once my student, but later an employee of the Eikaiwa (英会話)I used to work for). Made the visit to that frisbee shop. Cool.
  6. 火曜日 I headed in to town to meet my old friend Duncan for hanami in Ueno park, then we met Gwilym and Dave. I later met some old girls from Shane, Akiko and Takako.
  7. 水曜日 While the others visited Tokyo Disney I walked the north half of the Yamanote Line (山の手線)the circular overground railway that links many of the major stations in Tokyo) from Ueno (上野) to Shibuya(渋谷. Along and interesting day.
  8. 木曜日 A quick visit to Nagareyama-otakanomori, a new local station on the all new Tsukuba Express rail line, and a great new shopping centre.
  9. 金曜日 Visited Asakusa, the traditionally working-class part of east Tokyo where a major shrine for Tokyo-ites is located, this time using the brilliant Tsukuba express.
  10. 土曜日Travelled down to Yokohama(横浜) to meet Toru, a former student, and his new son. I raced back to go to yakiniku with the family.
  11. 日曜日 Travelled to Hakone (箱根), a beautiful National Park south-west of Tokyo, famous for it's onsen, or natural spring baths.
  12. 月曜日 Returned from Hakone.
  13. 火曜日 I took a trip to Minami-Kashiwa(南柏), my old home station. Things have changed a lot. I wandered past my old apaato and then walked to another station through the suburbs, just for the vibes. great.
  14. 水曜日 Popped in to Akasaka for a chat with some important people, then an old study buddy in Ichigaya (市ヶ谷) who edits a science journal in Tokyo, before a trip to an izakaya with a friend near an old school of mine.
  15. 木曜日 Quiet day around Sakasai(逆井) and Kashiwa as it was raining, getting gifts, but did visit a great izakaya in Sakasai.
  16. 金曜日 The epic journey home.
A great trip, documented with loads of pics and video that I will be putting up over the next couple of weeks.

木曜日, 3月 06, 2008

Better luck next time?

So the result is in. And the word is not good.

45.25% Hardly my finest hour.

However, it's not all bad. Check out that best result! Listening. WTF?! That was the one I was most concerned about. And 65 is a pass. It's just a shame the rest of the scores were so damn bad.

So, I'm back on the vocab trail trying to work on the words that caused me a problem trying to read the last time round. Sure, that was the plan last time round, but I'm well pleased to realise that the tricky bit wasn't so bad.

To help things go better, I'm going to make a point of picking up a few of the old exam paper books while in Japan. With the exchange rate they should be less than half the price they are in the UK. Huzzah!

木曜日, 2月 14, 2008

Cripes - practice now necessary!

At last, we're going back to Japan!

For me it's been four years, and K and T haven't been back for nearly two. We will be rocking Chiba from 26 March to 11 April and frankly I'm having doubts that just over two weeks will be anything like long enough.

Cool journey has been arranged - we're flying from Bristol! Ahem, obviously not directly, but we have a fairly short stop over in gay Paris, then on to Narita. This should make the whole trip reasonably bearable - waiting at Bristol is not as long and getting out really is easier. The connecting flight is on a turbo-prop too, which I think is a first for me.

Activities on the list so far include:
  • get in a trip to Hakone for the three of us, and visit onsen
  • wallow at the local bath house
  • visit O-Edo Onsen again coz it's dead cool
  • visit K's grandmother in Shizuoka (by shinkansen, yeah!)
  • drink in Annabelle's in Kashiwa
  • ride on the new railway near Kashiwa
  • watch a Reysol game (maybe in a bar will suffice)
  • go to Tokyo Disney (or maybe I'll duck out of this one)
And I have to meet up with:
  • Duncan and Yuri
  • Tony (over in Kanazawa - yikes!)
  • Toru
  • Done-san
  • Ollie and Naoko
  • Gwilym
  • the Kashiwa area Shane folk
  • and more besides
I seriously cannot wait to go. I wanna go now dammit!

木曜日, 1月 03, 2008

Owning up

I went quiet. Want to know why?
I think I messed up.
I didn't study hard enough, and it really didn't need too much...
On the plus side, I can reuse all the textbooks I have bought over the last few years.
Let's go again...