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.

America childhood Japan Sapporo

A Multiple Wammy

Wammy is a Japanese toy recently on the market that consists of pliable pieces of plastic that can be connected to other pieces to make virtually anything.  Without having tried the toy myself, I bought a box of them for my five year old sister Paige, and sent them to her for Christmas.  They were a huge hit.  They were the present she played with on Christmas morning, and made her the envy of all her cousins.


This toy is not yet available in America, and I had thought it was only being sold in Japan, but apparently it has made its debut in the UK.  Follow this link to see a five minute video (almost entirely in Japanese, but you can get the idea) about the toy’s popularity abroad so far.


One strange thing about the toy’s creation is what inspired the idea for the shape of the pieces.  Nejiri konnyaku or “twisted konjac,” a common Japanese food made from an odd gelatinous food made from an odd type of yam.  Here’s a photo:


If anyone is curious what “Wammy” means, well, it’s a Japanese pun of sorts.  Combining the words for loop (wakko) and to braid (amu, or ami in the nominal form), we get wamii, which looks better when spelled Wammy (for decorative English purposes).

Since hearing about how much Paige enjoyed the toy, and watching the previous video, I decided to try some Wammies myself, and bought a small “ocean” themed set for 500 yen the last time I was at Bic Camera in Sapporo.  Along with Yoshie, we couldn’t stop playing with them.  They’re fun, addictive, and as my father said, much much more enjoyable than Legos because they allow one to be much more creative, building and destroying without worrying about how you’re going to take it all apart or where you’re going to put it or what you’re going to do with it when you’re done.  It’s a toy that maximizes exploration, one that’s hard to put down once you’ve started experimenting.

Alaska America family Japan Sapporo Saroma Tokyo

Papua Japan Alaska

I always try too hard to make clever post titles, so I didn’t bother this time.  I also have an increasing tendency to write very long, deep posts every month or two rather than writing more frequent posts every few days.  It’s frustrating to not write for so long, but it’s also frustrating to write something that seems extraneous or forced.  I wrote two very short articles for the Saroma-Palmer Sister City Newsletter yesterday, very quickly because they were already weeks past the date I had promised them by.  They read like 5th grade book reports.  I’m not ashamed of them, but not as proud of them as I am of the writing on other parts of this blog.  I guess in the end, I mainly write for myself, and if I ever choose to become a writer as a profession, I’ll have to learn how to do it for others.  For example, last years post about my Papua New Guinea experience was written over several days, with a lot of editing and careful thought, but also with a lot of inspiration.  I browsed back to it on my iPhone on the way to Papua New Guinea a few weeks ago and was impressed with what I had written.  It took me back to that first experience and made me newly excited for the next.  Hopefully I can keep doing that.

Alaska Sapporo

Sean Meets That Japanese Guy Who Was Robbed Once at Jim Creek and Then Again By The Very Same Guy, Who Hit Him With a Log and Stole All His Money


Japan Sapporo trains

Dovetails in Sapporo

I’ve been to Sapporo three or four or five times, depending on how you want to count visits.  It’s a hard place to avoid when coming to Hokkaido.  I know the station area well enough, and the layout of the city in general.  But I’ve always been a poor, solitary traveler, with no guide and no money to blow.  Well not this time!  Last week, the Hokkaido Midyear Conference for Assistant Language Teachers took place in Sapporo on December 1st and 2nd.  I took the train in early on Friday evening, and spent the weekend and into the week spending money frivolously and enjoying myself.