education Japanese Sapporo

Why The JLPT N1 Was Worth it Even if I Failed.

Yesterday I took the highest level test of the JLPT, level N1, in Sapporo at Hokkaido University. The test consists of three main sections: A language knowledge section and a reading comprehension section administered in one 110 minute session, and a 60 minute listening section.

I took and passed the old level 2 (barely) JLPT in December 2008, after having passed level 3 in December of 2007. I began studying Japanese for the first time in the fall of 2004. I felt that retaking level two, even if it is the new, modified level N2, was sort of chickening out. Why take a test I’ve already passed? On one hand, I don’t have much faith in what these tests say about my Japanese ability. They measure only receptive skills, and no productive skills, which are 50% (or more) of one’s language proficiency, and arguably the harder part. On the other hand, not taking the test seriously as a measure of ability gave me an excuse for my unwillingness to commit to the kind of serious self-study necessary to actually pass it. So, this fall, after a visit back to America that caused me to question where I am going next in life, I decided to go for level N1, to see where I have come in these 7 years studying Japanese, travelling to Japan, living in Japan, marrying a Japanese person, and seeing no end in sight for my connection to this country.

First, I should admit that even after I registered for the test in August, I did not do anything more than cursory browsing of study guides until the week before the test, when of course I panicked, realized that if I were still going to take the test, I would be going in with whatever knowledge I just happened to have, along with whatever I could practically cram into my head in four or five days.

I should also plug some JLPT study guides that I purchased and found extremely useful, not just as a prep course for the test, but as a reference for anyone studying Japanese. These are the 総合まとめ “Sogo-matome” series of textbooks that are written specifically for the new N- prefixed tests. I feel that these textbooks present the vast amount of testable material in a very logically structured, friendly way. I bought the Kanji, Grammar, and Vocabulary books. There were many times while studying that I realized there was a word that I knew, and the kanji for which I also knew, but never knew that kanji had that reading. Big “Doh” moment. There were also English glosses of all example sentences – many N1 textbooks profess to teach all definitions in an intuitive way, with all definitions and explanations in Japanese. I’m almost there, but not quite yet. Overall, the textbooks are something that I feel are useful to have on my bookshelf even if I am not actively studying for this particular test. In addition to the three that I bought, there are also volumes on Reading Comprehension, Listening Comprehension, and a book containing two full practice tests that I plan on buying as well.

Ok, so, I didn’t bother studying, I don’t feel the test is a good measure of my overall ability, and I don’t even plan to do anything specific with the certification. Why was it worth the effort? Well, I think because sometimes we have to put ourselves in situations where we have no choice but to do what the situation requires. Wow, that’s circular reasoning. Let me be more clear. If I did not take this test, I would have risked continuing to float through my life only learning those words which I stumble over or happen to notice, getting along just fine with the Japanese that I have. The test made me realize how much I don’t know, and that I actually want to remedy that. As one studies more specialized vocabulary and grammar, the applicable usefulness of that knowledge becomes inverse to the effort required to attain it. I think it’s easy to become complacent, satisfied with the significant effort required to reach an intermediate level, and lose sight or put out of mind of all of the things which you don’t understand. The JLPT tested a wide variety of words used in politics, industry, scholarship, most of which are outside of my comfort zone (I do happen to know lots of words relating to primary education). I want my Japanese to be more versatile, deeper, and more refined.

Basically, taking N1 reminded me why I began studying Japanese in the first place and why I really do want to continue studying. It humbled me to realize the hundreds of kanji and thousands of combinations that I still know nothing of, but encouraged me to know that my listening was remarkably good, and that my reading just needed to be much faster. It was enlightening, and it made me feel like I knew where I was in in my long, arduous slog through the Jungle of Nihongo.


Let’s studying.

30th Anniversary Alaska Hokkaido Japan Japanese Palmer Saroma trains travel

Palmerites Visit Saroma

I always encourage my friends to visit.  I like having visitors and I think it’s even more important to do so here in such a small town.  Nik, my predecessor, told me that he never got many visitors to Saroma.  This left me less than optimistic about friends visiting me, here in this far-flung remnant of empire, this village isolated from all but the rare fishing boat or mining expedition, where humans struggle against nature’s cruel chorus, their pitiful dwellings windswept and beaten from a hundred angry winters and their meager chattel at the mercy of gaunt, desperate vermin – a forsaken crag of hubris built upon the very precipice of earthly existence, unto which only the forlorn souls of broken men venture forth.

Wait, I think I’m talking about Russia, a little further north.

Saroma is actually quite accessible, with well-maintained roads, punctual trains and affordable air connections.  It’s still a little far away from happenin’ Tokyo and hip Sapporo, and that’s why I consider myself lucky to have received numerous drop-ins over the 19 months I have lived here: Hannah and Yoshi; Ilkka and Petri; Natsuko; Remmington; Jon; Roxy and Daisy, and two weeks ago, Mike and Alissa.

I’ve known Mike and Alissa for about as long as I’ve been able to sentiently know other beings.  Alissa and I were consistent and reliable line leaders in Mrs. Butler’s 2nd grade class at Swanson Elementary.  Mike and I created several award-winning high school video masterpieces.

30th Anniversary Hokkaido Japanese Palmer Saroma travel

Mount Nikoro

Saroma, while surrounded by mountains, isn’t dwarfed by them as is Palmer or other towns in Hokkaido.  Saroma sort of melts into the softly rolling, forested mountains, many of which are small and gently sloping enough to be farm fields.  There is one mountain at the very southern edge of Saroma that is a decent peak.  Mt. Nikoro, or Nikoro-yama, is 829 meters tall (2,719 feet) and acts as a border point between the Tochigi area of Saroma and the Ainonai area of Kitami City.  My predecessor Nik recommended the mountain as an accessible year-round hike with great views.  However, the trail to the top is on the Kitami side of the mountain and I never got around to bothering.  For almost two years, I didn’t hike the tallest mountain in Saroma!  Unforgivable.

Luckily, Graham, the ALT in Kunneppu Town, and some friends headed up a few weekends ago and I was able to tag along.  The trail follows a summer access road for communications towers at the peak, so is quite gentle with ample switchbacks.  It’s also well hiked (and probably snowmachined as well).  The snow was packed down hard enough for us all to walk without snowshoes all the way to the top.

Looking north into Saroma and the sea.  The bumpy mountain center-right is Mt. Horoiwa.

Now, aside from the quality of the hike, there was one unique thing about Mt. Nikoro that I had heard from Nik, and from other English teacher friends who had hiked it – The Old Man of Mt. Nikoro.  No, he’s not a ghost or someone who will try to scare you off, but an incredibly kind gentleman who hikes the mountain nearly every day of the year.  The man, Mr. Kisaku Sato, is rather famous – the website he keeps about the mountain is the first hit on Google for Nikoro-yama (仁頃山) in Japanese.

Looking toward Rubeshibe town.  The pointy mountain is Kitami-fuji.

We had a late start in the day, and began coming down the mountain as the sun was getting low in the sky, around 3pm.  I thought perhaps we had missed Sato-san, as elderly Japanese people tend to do most things much, much earlier than groups of foreign English teachers.  But, about 1/4 of the way down from the top, there he was!  He seemed quite pleased to see us, and remembered Graham and Aisling from a previous hike.  After pointing out that the two mountains visible to the southeast were in fact Mt. Meakan and Mt. Oakan (Steve thought Mt. Meakan was Mt. Shari – I was right!), he quickly interviewed us, asking our impressions of the mountain, along with our nationality and the towns that we each taught English in.  Then he asked to take our picture for his website and after one shot, he wondered aloud “Aren’t you going to do anything funny like make a face or wave?”  We obliged and he snapped the photo below.  Sato-san put both photos and our profiles up on his site in Japanese on this nice page about our encounter.  I chose Babelfish to translate the page for the benefit of the Japanese-illiterate because it translates Holland written in Japanese into “Hoe land.”  Google translate just messed the whole thing up without any added humor.

The Genki Gaijin Group


Japanese the Japanese Don’t Know

Last month my girlfriend gave me a comic book.  It was a surprising departure from the Japanese comic books I had come in contact with before.  This one didn’t have any robots, explosions, buxom beauties or astonishing obscenity.  It dealt with Japanese linguistics and foreigners to Japan, like me, who study Japanese.

It was titled 日本人の知らない日本語(Nihonjin no shiranai nihongo), or “Japanese the Japanese Don’t Know.”  It’s written by and told from the perspective of Nagiko Umino, a Japanese woman and teacher at a Japanese language school for adults in Japan.  The general premise of the book is her constantly encountering and attempting to correct bizarre and unique Japanese usages by her students, while doing her best to answer their specific and sometimes arcane questions about Japanese words and grammar.  The book uses this theme to humorous effect, as well as a device to highlight how much traditional and specific Japanese many Japanese people never encounter day-to-day, and therefore have little to no knowledge of.

Japanese the Japanese Don't Know.
"Japanese the Japanese Don't Know"

For example, in one comic strip, Ms. Umino is teaching Japanese counters.  Japanese attaches specific morphemes after numbers when counting nouns of certain classes.  Each class of nouns requires a specific “counter” morpheme to augment the number.  In English, the closest example to this process can be seen in phrases like “two pairs of pants” or “five loaves of bread,” but Japanese is far more complex, to the point of being frustrating for learners.  In this section, she is teaching each form of counter by listing example nouns that can be counted with that counter, yet being flummoxed by students proudly announcing what they believe to be proper uses of the counter.  While teaching the counter -hon, used to count long, cylindrical objects, a Chinese student shouts out “So snakes would be ippon, nihon, sanbon, right?!” Of course, snakes are small, animate creatures, so are therefore counted with -hiki, not -hon, despite being long and cylindrical.

In later chapters the book moves beyond the “Japanese is hard” pattern, and introduces some linguistic history and quizzes designed to stump even well-educated Japanese people.  It’s this section of the book that ceases to be very interesting for the non-Japanese reader – even once one understands the answers, they remain mostly arcane and hard to apply to general language knowledge.

However, some of these sections, if rather dense, provide good insights into why contemporary Japanese, both spoken and written, came to be the way it is today.  One section rather comprehensively looks at all of the hiragana that went by the wayside as a result of post-war writing reform, but can still been seen on the signs of shops and restaurants, and therefore are likely to answer those niggling “Why did I never learn that?” questions a reader might have.

The strength of this book is the mixture of lighthearted, quickly paced humor and clearly presented material.  Its humor strikes a good balance in appreciating the quirkiness of the language that foreign students struggle with, without marginalizing the efforts of foreigners who study Japanese or caricaturing them in predictable ways.  It manages to delve into some rather difficult topics through all of this.  I recommend this book as a fun read for anyone studying Japanese at JLPT level 3 or above who feels like improving reading comprehension, having a laugh, and learning some arcane facts to nonchalantly bring up at their next drinking party. link here

There is also a sequel out now, Part 2


Mike Beeson’s Fantasy Kanji Guide

My good friend Mike Beeson is visiting Japan.  He spent a few days here in Saroma, and did his best to read the Chinese “kanji” characters that are used in Japan.  Amazingly, while he had no idea what the characters meant, he was able to see them as pictures, and started creating his own meanings, based on what he thought the characters resembled.

I found this perspective refreshing and hilarious.  I asked Mike to write down what he thought a kanji should mean, based on what he felt it looked like as a visual representation of meaning.  Here is the short “Kanji Guide” that he created.  Let your mouse pointer rest over the image to reveal the actual meaning of the character.


Alaska Japan Japanese Palmer Saroma

Saroma’s Long Life University

A version of this article appears in the current Palmer-Saroma Sister City newsletter.

As in most of Japan, Saroma’s population includes a large number of senior citizens.  The town Social Education Department organizes a continuing education seminar for these seniors.  This meets twice a month and each session lasts an entire day.  It’s called Kotobuki Daigaku, meaning “Long Life University.”  One daylong session features a morning speaker who addresses the entire group of about 250 members.  After lunch the members break into small groups and focus on more specific topics such as dancing, calligraphy, park golf, personal computing and even karaoke.

For the first session of 2010, I was asked to be the morning speaker, which involved giving a 90 minute lecture entirely in Japanese.  Mr. Abe of the Social Ed. Dept. suggested I talk about Palmer and Saroma as sister cities.  I decided to focus on differences between the history and daily life of the two towns, as well as emphasize some of their similarities and the strong history of the sister city relationship. I also included some personal anecdotes about my impressions of life here in Saroma and how it differs from life back in Alaska.  I also tried to focus on what life is like for senior citizens in Palmer, showcasing some of the options for retirement homes in the Palmer area, and explaining the traditional arrangement between children and their parents regarding aging and caregiving.


Title Screen “Sister Cities: Palmer and Saroma”


Explaining my job (Assistant English Teacher) to the attendees.

I found it rather difficult to imagine what would pique the interests of 250 elderly Saromans.  When comparing Saroma and Palmer, things like population, geographic size and role of government are important but dull and difficult to explain.  Accordingly, I only touched briefly on these areas and instead focused on showing photos and telling a few stories.  I showed photos of Hatcher Pass, prize pumpkins and cabbages, and of my grandparents, Ray and Tiny DePriest.  My description of their 70 year history in Palmer running a dairy and hay farm really captured the audience’s attention.  No doubt many of those listening hold similar experiences of homesteading and rural farming here in Saroma over the past half century.

Thanks to a few anecdotes and personal observations about daily life in Japan and America, a few times the room was full of laughter.  The audience found it very interesting that in Alaska there is no requirement for senior citizens to place special magnets on their cars showing that they are a new or elderly driver.  That the legal driving limit for blood alcohol content is 0.08% also astonished; In Japan, the legal limit is 0.00%.  That we customarily tip at restaurants, have elections on Tuesdays and not Sundays, and build gasoline stations and convenience stores together as part of the same business were also surprising to them.  The fact that it is the students in American schools who move from classroom to classroom, not the teachers as it is in Japan, elicited “oohh” and “eehhh!” from the attendees.  I also had to show them a map and quote some distance figures to convince them that Saroma really is closer to Palmer than Palmer is to New York City or Washington D.C.


“Scenery of Palmer.” Photo taken on Lazy Mountain, Summer 2003.

After running through some photos and basic information about Palmer’s retirement homes and the services of the Palmer Senior Center, I concluded the presentation with a five question quiz, on which the audience scored full marks.  Questions included “Which is the rarest color of aurora?” (red), “Up to how many kilograms can a moose weigh?” (about 800), and “Which of the following are NOT in Palmer: airport, golf course, tennis courts, or hot spring?” (there is no hot spring, unfortunately; this seemed to disappoint the audience as hot springs surround Saroma and are one of the great cultural bounties of Japan).

Hopefully, my presentation made sense. By the good quiz score, I think it did.  The elderly community in Saroma should now be able to talk authoritatively about many aspects of Palmer history and daily life.  It was a good experience to be able to introduce my own town and culture from my peculiar perspective as a resident of Saroma and the Japanese culture.  And I was lucky to have an interested audience, who rarely have the chance to consider things like Alaskan history, American gas stations or the weight of a moose.


Who’s this guy?

Alaska America English Japan Japanese Saroma


Culture is such a weird thing.  It defines nearly everything we do.  The time we wake up in the morning.  The side of the road we drive on.  The size of cups at McDonalds.  Whether of not we have to capitalize mCdonalds.  The types of cellphones we own.  The size of our car tires.  The width of our roads.  The varieties of beer at the store.  The taxes we pay.  The way we cook meat.  The designs of our kitchens.  The prevalence of dryers.  Where we take our shoes off.  How we bathe.  What we eat with.  Partially, our language.

We all live our lives, yet we never really think about it.

Unless we leave it, and experience another.

What the hell is culture determined by?

Geography (latitude, longitude, continentality, elevation, precipitation, population, population density, access to the outside world, access to resources, electrification, wildlife), media access, art, politics, climate, history, (including dumb, random, sad, stupid, and unfortunate history), and of course (with the extent of which debatable) language.

Yet, culture itself can determine half of those things.  What boggles me about culture is that no one can really define it well.  Karl van Wolferen, in The Enigma of Japanese Power, quotes it as “the totality of man’s products.”

But what is that?  It’s essentially a copout explanation of the confusing crap I’ve already written above.

Your thoughts?

Japan Japanese Saroma

Commanding Clouds

In five years of studying Japanese, I have always written my name in katakana, the phonetic syllabary used to write foreign words.  Sean was ショーン (shoun) and Holland was ホーランド (hourando).  In college, I never thought much of this. Outside of Japanese class and a few visits to Japan, I never wrote my name in Japanese.  When I moved to Japan for the first time, my supervisor in Murakami had a personal seal made for me.  She was rather clueless in many matters, and made the seal for my first name rather than my last.  Whenever I used this stamp, I felt a little childish, especially when next to the stamps of the stylized Chinese characters, or kanji, of other co-workers.

A few times, I gave thought to choosing phonetically similar kanji for the sounds in my name.  Both a friend in Gifu and a Japanese professor chose matching characters, or ateji, for my name.  I thought it was neat, but found no particular interest in using it or making it my own.  The meanings never particularly struck me as myself.  Sean is my name.  Its biblical meaning, as a variant of “John”, is “god is gracious,” but it’s more the sound and spelling of the name that I’ve wrapped my personality in.  Phonetic character matches gave meanings such as “the sound of history,” or “one who has received a benefit from the sun.”  Whatever, I thought. Nice, but no thanks.

I never felt particularly deserving of a real kanji name.  Living in Japan, one feels so foreign, and, actively or passively, is treated almost constantly as an outsider.   I felt that assuming characters for my name, shedding its obvious katakana foreignness, would be a ruse without meaning as long as I felt like an outsider more often than I did not.

Last month I found out that I passed level 2 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). While I didn’t and still don’t put much faith in the test’s ability to measure my actual proficiency, I realized that I had reached a milestone in terms of what I am able to do with my language ability, and how I have managed to assert my own identity here in Saroma using Japanese as a primary medium of communication.  Suddenly the idea of a kanji name seemed appropriate.  Plus, the BOE and my eikaiwa (english conversation class) students and some other friends threw me a “goukaku iwai” or test passing celebration.  That was last night.

A few weeks ago, I opened up my copy of the Compact New Nelson Japanese-English Character Dictionary, and wrote down every character that fit the sounds of my name.  I narrowed it down to a few I liked and asked my friends.  All of the women in my eikaiwa liked either 緒温, 翔音 or 初音, “the “beginning of warmth,” “soaring sound,” or “first sound,” respectively.  However, all of the younger Japanese I talked to (especially the women, and young Japanese women tend to have my ear) liked 勝運 or 将雲 the best.  The first means “winning luck,” and the second, something along the lines of “commanding clouds” or “commander of clouds.”

I spent a lot of time thinking about these.  My first feeling was to go with the ones that were softer, warmer, more kind and general.  But the more I thought about 将雲, “commanding clouds,” the more I liked it.  As a friend told me, “it sounds like a tycoon’s name.”  It’s also a little over the top, and fun.  I may not have the leadership skills necessary to command clouds, but I usually have my head in them.  I decided this was the one.

After choosing the kanji for my first name, those for my last name came rather easily.  I had originally thought I would use 豊蘭土, “bountiful land of orchids,” partly because my last name is the same as the country, and in Japanese the name of Holland was traditionally written with the middle character for orchid, ran.  But after choosing “commander of clouds,” it didn’t seem to match “bountiful land of orchids.”  Apparently, there were a great many more kanji for ho and ran than I had originally found in my compact character dictionary.  They were somewhat obscure readings, but were much much cooler.  I decided on 峰嵐土, “land of stormy peaks.”

So, my new name, as it is written in Japanese with phonetically equivalent Chinese characters is:

Kanji name

Holland Sean

Land of Stormy Peaks, Commander of Clouds

Japan Japanese Saroma


It’s a new word.  But I didn’t create it.  The Japanese did.

I’ve been having problems with my taxes since I moved to Saroma.  For some reason the tax exemption that I receive as a resident foreigner didn’t transfer from the tax office I was using last year.  Apparently I had to request an entirely new $35 IRS form 6166: “Certification of US Tax Residency,” which costs $35 dollars and requires the submission of IRS form 8088 8802, Application for United States Residency Certification. Well, until that document arrives (still waiting) I am being taxed.

The tax man from down below, Mr. Kobayashi (he also changes my PC password for me) explained the situation to me in Japanese; that once the district tax office received the letter confirming my exemption, all of the previously taken taxes will be returned to me, and I will stop being taxed.  As he was concluding his explanation, he says “puramaizero ni naru wake de,” basically “it will all even out in the end.”  Well, I almost laughed at him, because of the first thing he said, “puramaizero.”  It’s basically the title: “plus minus zero” phoneticized into Japanese: “purasu mainasu zero” clipped and blended into the much shorter “pura mai zero.” I just love this because it encapsulates a fairly complex idea with just a few clipped English words.  Try using it on your friends.

America English Japanese Middle School Saroma

Early Election Results

Partly to further purpose of cultural education and internationalization, and partly as an outlet for my electoral frustrations, I had the 3rd graders at Saroma Junior High vote for the US President yesterday.  The 14-15 year old rural northern Japan demographic could turn this election.  First, I handed them an information sheet, which introduced the two candidates as well as new words.  Party, Age, Family, Hobbies, Slogan.  I left out policy matters.  Even if the English wasn’t too difficult, I doubted they would much care.  Then they did a fill-in-the-blank paragraph using the new words they had learned.  After, we spent 15 minutes watching some campaign commercials from both sides (stupid ones from both sides too), a few minutes of the third debate, a few minutes of the SNL parody of the third debate, and an “Obama Quest” Daily Show clip.


Then they voted.  Across both third grade classes, Obama won in a landslide: 49 votes to 11 for John McCain.  That’s a 64-point win!  I think we can all feel relieved from this new poll that Obama is in good position for victory.

In addition to their vote, I asked for a short explanation of their decision.  Essentially an exit poll.  McCain wins on experience, and Obama wins on youth and coolness, with McCain’s age a big deciding factor for this demographic.  Here are some of the more interesting ones: