Category Archives: Language

JLPT N1: Failure


Well, I got my test results back from the JLPT N1 exam today:

  • Vocabulary 18 / 60
  • Reading: 0 / 60
  • Listening: 22 / 60

I passed only listening (barely), which is ironic because I thought that was my worst section. 

But how did I get 0 points in reading essays? I thought that was the easiest, and statistically I should’ve made a few correct choices. It was a multiple choice exam. My wife suspects my answers were off-by-one on the bubble-sheet which is plausible, not to mention very careless. Or, I am really that terrible. 

Certainly disapponting, though not surprising. I took a big risk in doing the exam without preparation, and relying only on reading and watching TV. 

So, part of me wants to try again, but this time I need to invest in preparation, practice and time, which is hard when you are raising two kids. Plus, I am less motivated these days since I have no aspirations to live in Japan anymore. 

Or, do I just cut my losses and be content with an N2?  That makes my life easier, but then I have to live life knowing I quit something without at least trying again. The pride in me would not sit well with that. 

Decisions, decisions…

Done with the JLPT N1

Hi all,

It’s been a long time since I last posted an update about the JLPT exam. I debated about whether I should take the N1 or not. Finally, I decided to try the N1 exam, but not to spend a lot of time studying for it. Instead, as an experiment, I wanted to try to pass the N1 without spending hours with workbooks and mock tests; I wanted to pass by doing what I should be doing anyway: reading Japanese books, listening to Japanese, etc.

So, since January, I did just that: I spent time reading Japanese comics, but also Japanese-language novels, etc. It was pretty hard at first, but over time I’ve gotten more comfortable reading long, complex texts.

Further, my son “Little Guy” is obsessed with Buzz Lightyear, and loves to watch the movie Toy Story 2.1 He calls the movie “Buzz!” and wants to watch it almost daily. We let him watch it in Japanese, so he gets exposure like his big sister did, and often watch it with him. Every time I watch Toy Story 2 in Japanese, I learn something new. But also we watch the “morning dramas” on NHK through cable TV. The current drama Asa Ga Kita is a lot of fun to watch, for example.

But did it work?

Today I took the JLPT N1 exam at last. It was very familiar in a way, since I had taken the N2 and N3 in the past. However, it was also different, since I had taken a big risk in preparing for this exam. I noticed during the exam that I was considerably older than most of the other test takers: mostly high-school or college-aged kids. I had the benefit of experience, but on the other hand, I less free time to study.

In any case, the test was quite a challenge. The written portion of the exam was quite long, and there was still some vocabulary I didn’t know. Further, the essays were numerous and long, and I started to run out of time toward the end, so I had to rush a bit. However, I was surprised how much of the essays I could understand. In the past, I often had to do some guessing, but this time, I felt pretty comfortable reading them, and even learned some interesting facts and topics.2

So, by the end of the written exam, I felt pretty good.

Then came the listening part. The listening part was much harder than I expected. The conversations were long, and had many twists and turns, so even if I think I understood the answer, the topic would change at the last minute. I realized that although I had watched Japanese shows and such, they were either too short or too focused on children. I didn’t watch enough adult media.

So, after the listening section, I felt pretty disheartened. I felt that I had come so close, but failed in the last section.

On the other hand, I looked at the scoring system for the JLPT, and even if I score relatively low in one section, I can still pass if the overall score is good. I can’t score too low, but I know I got at least some questions right in the listening section.

But was it enough to pass? I won’t be able to find out until the end of February when they send out the scores. :(

I’m not sure why the JLPT takes so long to reply back, but I guess it’s because they have to wait for all the completed tests across the world to arrive first, grade them at the same time, then send out the results. That’s just a theory though.

Anyhow, for not having studied at all, I actually did better than expected. At the same time, I am reminded that my biggest weakness is listening. I know my listening skills are weak when talking with my wife and her friends, but still the test reminded me how weak it really is.

The point though, is that you can pass the JLPT without spending lots of money on textbooks and classes. Just do what you should be doing anyway: getting as much exposure and experience with native Japanese as you can. :)

1 He has Buzz Lightyear t-shirts, Buzz Lightyear pajamas, toys and dolls. :)

2 I wish I could tell you what they were, but obviously I can’t. Anyhow, the JLPT had a diverse set of essay topics, and so there was probably something for everyone. That is, if you could read them. ;)

Final Fantasy XIII-2: the novel

Hi guys,

Final Fantasy novel cover

As fans might recall, I am a big fan of the game Final Fantasy XIII1, and lately I’ve been playing the sequels XIII-2 and Lightning Returns. I’ve enjoyed these games, and the story, so much that decided to purchase the novel. Actually there are a few novels available, but all of them are in Japanese-language only:

I bought all three, but only the last two are in stock,2 so I’ve begun reading Fragments Before.

Final Fantasy novel

The reading-level is a stretch, for me, but not nearly as difficult as trying to read Dune in Japanese. That was much harder. Already, I’ve enjoyed the book quite a bit and have finished one of the ministories. I don’t read fast, but I can read at a decent pace. Also, I sometimes have to go back a few pages and re-read because I understand the words, but have trouble grasping the overall meaning the first time. This happens with manga too sometimes, but novels are harder than manga. It doesn’t really bother me though, because I really want to know what goes on, and want to know the details of the characters and the world they live in, so I don’t re-read because I have to, but because want to.

It turns out that if you want to read in a foreign-language, you have to find something you’re genuinely interested in. I have English-language novels that I don’t finish because they’re not very interesting, and this is even more true in Japanese. I just can’t finish books that don’t interest me. Or if I finish them, I don’t remember much. So, now that I found something I really like and want to finish, suddenly I find it takes less effort to read. ;)

A good tip for language students out there: find something in your target language you really like and just focus on that. The rest will fall into place.

1 Actually I love the Final Fantasy series in general, but the XIII trilogy is one of my favorites.

2 Once Episode 0 is in stock, they’ll ship it out, of course. I can wait. I can’t read that fast. ;)

Romans, Cherry Blossoms and Irish Sushi

Hi all,

Lots of fun things to talk about this week. As readers know, I’ve been busy lately because of my transition to my new job. I’ve been spending a lot of time at night studying new technologies used at the new company, but also practicing Buddhist chanting. In particular, the Shoshinge hymn, Gyofu style. This has left me with less time for blogging.1

First, we went to see cherry blossoms (桜 sakura) at the University of Washington last weekend. Some of the trees had no fully bloomed yet, but the weather was very nice, and we had a great time. I’ll post pictures about separately, but for now, enjoy this photo. :)


Later that week, we went to see an exhibit about the famous Roman city of Pompeii at the Pacific Science Center. As readers probably know, the city of Pompeii (ポンペイ for Japanese readers) was destroyed by Mount Vesuvius, and was preserved for thousands of years. So, it’s a fascinating look at Roman life at that time.

Also, as readers might recall, I am interested in Roman culture and language. I was pretty excited to go.

The exhibit was great, but Little Guy didn’t like the heat and the crowds. Within 5-10 minutes, he was crying and very fussy. I picked him up, and took him outside. I only saw the exhibit very briefly, but it was very interesting. It’s hard to imagine a city frozen in time like Pompeii, with people who were just like us but now preserved in ash and stone. I probably plan to go back again, without Little Guy.2 ;)

Finally, we celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day at home. My wife has been interested in Irish Cooking ever since we lived there, and will cook things like brown-bread (Irish soda bread), corned-beef and other things. She made a really great dinner last night:

Irish Corned Beef

She used freshly-chopped parsely, and nice mustard. It was really great. We had leftovers, so she them to make a bento-lunch for my daughter the following morning:

Japanese Bento with Irish Corned Beef

Also, she made “Irish” sushi as well. It has the colors of the Irish flag: green, white and orange. ;)

So it was a fun week of Roman relics, cherry blossoms and “irish” sushi. I hope you had a great week too. :)

1 I’ve been debating about adding more technical blog posts here, as I am learning a lot of good things, but this might not interest all readers. Then again, it will help people searching for things. If I did this, it would not mean a decrease in Japan-Buddhist posts though. :)

2 My wife bought me a cool “Roman” coffee cup at the gift-shop though. I was happy about that. Ironically, it’s made in China. ;)

Stop Learning Kanji!

Lately, as I wrote before, I’ve been getting frustrated with the Heisig method for learning Kanji, and then switched to learning kanji using the classic grade-school method (1st grade, then 2nd grade, etc).

What I found was neither system worked perfectly. The Heisig method, that is to say the method for breaking down Kanji into simple units that you can re-use for other kanji, is quite useful. However, the book and the underlying assumption that you have to “learn all kanji” has a lot of problems and I finally gave up. I just have no motivation to finish the book.

On the other hand, the grade-school method works for children growing up in Japan, but without the Heisig method (or living in Japan), it is almost impossible to remember beyond the first 300-500 kanji unless you actively use them in Japan all the time. Even then, the learning-curve gets pretty steep one you get into 5th grade kanji and beyond.

For foreign-students of Japanese language, both methods are tremendously time-consuming, and sometimes even detract from actually learning Japanese.

I was inspired recently by an article by Tae Kim which explains that some aspects of kanji really aren’t that important to learn. You eventually learn them through exposure to Japanese language, so spending countless hours memorizing them is not worth the time.

Instead, he suggests investing that time in learning Japanese vocabulary (i.e. whole words) first.

This is pretty similar to my old post about the Convergence Method (which I made up).

Reading his article made me feel a lot better about quitting Heisig. It was nice to reaffirm from an experience Japanese-language student that studying kanji in isolation isn’t very useful. I’ve since stopped learning altogether, and spend my time focusing on vocabulary so I can take the JLPT N1 later this year. :)

The reaction to Tae Kim’s article shows that a lot of people are still hesitant to study Japanese without learning Kanji first, but I know from first-hand that it does work. When I was living in Ireland for a year, I was just learning to read Japanese, and so I was learning a lot of basic vocabulary. I had used flashcards before, but I quickly forgot them after a few weeks. Instead, reading very basic texts (with pronunciation guides) helped me more because I could see them in context.

As time went on, I started learning enough words that I could see them overlap. That’s when I really felt things paid off.

Even now when I read something much more difficult, like the novel Dune in Japanese, I see difficult adult words but can often intuit the meaning because I’ve seen those kanji before. I still have to use a dictionary to look up the words, but often I am correct. This is a good feeling.

So, really, the key is vocabulary, not kanji.

Good luck!

Buddhist Sutra Chanting in Japanese


Recently, I had an opportunity to go to a workshop on chanting Buddhist-liturgy in the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition. Although not required, it will help me a lot in my efforts to get ordained as a minister. The workshop was great, and I learned a lot. For example, I realized I am pretty tone-deaf, and I thought I was following the right intonation, but I was pretty far off. For example, the Shoshinge hymn should be chanted in “D” (re) by default, but after using a tuner, I was chanting in “A”.

In general Buddhist chanting of hymns or sutras is called shōmyō (声明) formally. In colloquial Japanese, though, I think it’s called okyō (お経) but I might be wrong.

Anyhow, I’ve learned a lot lately and wanted to share how to read Buddhist chanting books, and how to chant. Here is the Jodo Shinshu service book my wife lent me:

Shoshinge Buddhist hymn in Japanese

Here, you can see:

  • The chinese characters (kanji) for the hymn. Many Buddhist hymns/sutras are not actually Japanese. They’re Classical Chinese with pronunciation guides in Japanese hiragana syllabary.
  • To the right of the kanji are the hiragana syllables I mentioned earlier.
  • On the left are lines that show whether your intonation should go up or down.

These lines are called hakase (博士), which also happens to mean “Ph.D” or “doctorate”. I’m not sure why.

Sometimes the notation can get very complicated…

Anyhow, modern chanting uses the standard 8-note scale or hacchōchō (ハ長調) or just hacchō (ハ調) for short. It’s called this because “fa”, or “ha” in Japanese, is the starting note used in the scale. I read this on Japanese Wikipedia. :)

On this page, from my Jodo Shinshu chanting book, you can see on the right hand side it says 八調レ where レ (re) means “re” in the 8-note scale. This is the fourth “hymn” in the jōdo wasan (浄土和讃).

Buddhist chanting page with tonal marks.

This is telling the chanter that the base note here is “re”. Some Chinese characters have a line that goes up. This means the pitch is one note higher: mi (ミ) in this case. A line that points down means to go lower (do ド).

But as you can see, some have complex lines. For example, the character 如 starts as a flat line, then goes up. As you can see, it’s tell you to start at “re” then move up to “mi”. The next word, 虚, starts even higher and then dips down. Finally, the last character on that line is 空 which goes up and down. It’s hard to explain. You can hear the same page chanted on this Youtube video at 6:38.

If you hear it, you’ll understand what I mean.

Also, one small thing to call out. Some of the words and lines have the Chinese character 引 in there. This means to make it extra long (literally “to pull”). Instead of one-beat, it’s two. So, for 無 you chant for two beats, not one.

Anyhow, sometimes these hakase lines can seem really arbitrary, so often times you have to actively listen to a chant first, and follow along until you understand what they’re telling you to do. But overall, they’re not so difficult.

For Westerners, or anyone, interested in Japanese Buddhist chanting, then the best advice I can offer is learn the liturgy for whatever Buddhist sect you’re interested, find a good audio sample, and keep chanting with it. Do your best to imitate what you hear. Imitation leads to mastery. Don’t memorize it first, just keep imitating until it becomes second nature. :)

Good luck!

The 48-hour Superman Challenege

Hi Folks,

Lately, my wife and some of her friends (Korean and Japanese) have been avidly watching a Korean TV show called “Return of Superman”, which is available on Youtube by KBS World. In Korean, it is called syupeomaen i dulawadda (슈퍼맨이 돌아왔다) which means “Superman came back”. In Japanese it has a similar title: スーパーマンが帰ってきた (sūpāman ga kaettekita, “Superman came home”).

This adorable show is about celebrity dads who take care of their children for 48 hours. The show films their life and their efforts to raise their children without the mother, while doing some kind of challenge. All the episodes have English subtitles, so Westerners can still follow along:1

Japanese readers can also find the Japanese-subtitle version here (日本語の字幕).

Lately, I’ve been thinking about a “Superman Challenge” for myself: take care of my children for 2 days by myself. My wife works hard all day raising our kids, and she doesn’t get much sleep because Little Guy is still a baby. I want to help, and I’ve taken care of my two kids (Princess and Little Guy) alone for maybe 6 hours, so it’s possible. Not easy, but possible.

On the other hand, Little Guy is still really young (16 months as of writing), so I might have to wait a little bit. But someday, I do want to try it. If I do, I hope to write about it here.

What about fathers reading this blog: do you think you could do the Superman Challenge?

1 I highly recommend this show for Korean-langauge students because the kids speak basic Korean often, so it’s easier to pick up. I don’t watch the show regularly, but I have picked up more Korean than before. My wife doesn’t know Korean, but she can read English fluently, so she can follow the show.

Manchu-Korean Language Textbook

Hi Folks,

Today I thought I would share something cool I found on Twitter recently (click here to see photo more closely):

This Twitter account is owned by a researcher of Manchu language. The Manchu People (manshūjin 満州人 in Japanese) conquered China in 1644 and started a new dynasty: the Qing Dynasty (清朝). During this time, both Chinese and Manchu were the official languages of China.

But what is this book? This is a Korean-language textbook called the Nogeoldae (老乞大, 노걸대). The government of Korea would publish a foreign-language textbook from time to time, so Korean officials could study and learn foreign languages (usually Chinese, of course). This edition of the Nogeoldae is not for Chinese though, it’s for Manchu language.

You can see the Manchu writing (vertical) and the Korean letters next to it. This probably helped Korean students learn how to pronounce Manchu words. The Manchu language in this textbook is called 清語 (Language of the Qing Dynasty).

The Chinese characters used here are actually Korean hanja. I’ve posted about them before.

Anyhow, interesting stuff. :)

JLPT N1: To Take or Not To Take?

Although I’ve complained about the JLPT exam (日本語能力試験) in the past, I have been thinking about taking the final level: the N1 (一級). The N1 exam is the most difficult, and usually takes a few years to prepare. I completed the N2 exam in 2011, and have been studying Japanese on my own ever since. I realized that the N2 wasn’t helping me with Japanese conversation, and I wasn’t able to read simple books, especially for kids. So, I spent 3 years getting more familiar with regular every-day Japanese and had no interest in the N1 exam.1

However, lately, I feel that I should finish the series. I finished the N4, N3 and finally the N2. This leaves only the N1. So, it would be nice to try and pass the exam. Then I have the satisfaction of completing the entire series.

On the other hand, I don’t want to spend a lot of time studying it either. What I mean is that I don’t want to spend a lot of money on textbooks, mock-exams, etc. I’m already studying Japanese, so I don’t want to purchase more materials. Instead, I want to see if studying natural Japanese (not to pass an exam) is enough to pass. I believe it might work.

For example, I often read the Asahi Shinbun. I used to post English-language articles on this blog, but these days, I read in Japanese:


It’s more fun because you’re reading it in natural Japanese, plus I find enough interesting articles each day. They are somewhat short, so I can read in 10 minutes or so. It’s not easy though. There are many words I still don’t know. So, I often use Safari browser because I can look up the words as I read, as shown above.

What about listening? I don’t watch too much Japanese TV besides Eagle Talon and Massan, so to be honest, my listening skills still aren’t very good. I do have Japanese conversations with native speakers regularly (wife’s friends, people at work), but I don’t know if it’s enough.

Will all this work? We’ll find out in December. The point is that I want this to be low-effort. Either I will pass, or I won’t. If I fail, then I will have to use more dedicated methods. We’ll see. :)

1 I was also annoyed because the overseas JLPT service in the US was hacked years ago, and my credit-card information was stolen. SInce then, I’ve had my information stolen two more times, so I can’t really get mad at them anymore. :-p

Meiji Shrine Fortune-Poem


My wife and I like to visit Meiji Shrine in Tokyo often. Last year, my wife was having Yakudoshi right now (maeyaku, yakudoshi, atoyaku), so she went there to get purified and avoid potential calamity. I like going just because it’s a very nice Shinto shrine.

Normally, when you visit Shinto Shrines in Japan1 you can get your fortune for the year told. This is called omikuji and I’ve posted about it before.

However, Meiji Shrine is somewhat unusual because the fortunes you receive are not really fortunes. This is the “fortune” I received:


This is actually a poem written by Empress Shoken (shōken kōtaigō 昭憲皇太后) who was the wife of Emperor Meiji. In fact all the omikuji fortunes are written by either the Emperor or Empress.

The shrine’s website explains why: Before the war (WWII?), Meiji Shrine only sold ofuda, the sacred tablets used in Shinto. They did not have omikuji at all. However, after the war, the shrine wanted to provide more religious teachings, and decided to make a unique form of omikuji that would distinguish them from mundane temples and shrines. A professor of religious studies from the Shinto-based Kokugakuin University named Miyaji Naokazu came up with the idea to get rid of omikuji based on good or bad fortunes, and provide something with deeper meaning.

The Emperor and Empress wrote tens of thousands of poems each, but the shrine selected 15 poems each that were felt to have deeper meaning and these became the omikuji used today. Additionally, because there are more foreign visitors than before, there are now omikuji available in English too. These are from 20 poems selected, 10 from the Emperor and 10 from the Empress.

As for the poem I got, here it is:

人知れず Hito shirezu
思ふこころの Omou kokoro no
よしあしも Yoshi ashi mo
照し分くらむ Terashi wakaran
天地のかみ Tenchi no kami

I looked it up in Japanese (no translations in English, as far as I know), and it seems to be about how humans cannot know what is in each other’s hearts. We think these are private thoughts. However the heavenly gods know.

I might be wrong though. If anyone has information, please feel free to share.

Anyhow, I think it’s a cool idea to use poetry, not fortunes, for the omikuji at Meiji Shrine. If you go sometime, definitely spend the money on omikuji. Based on personal experience, some temples or shrines seem to “rig” their omikuji, so that people rarely have bad luck, or often have really good fortunes. The Meiji Shrine’s approach seems more genuine, which I think is cool. :)

1 I think Buddhist temples sometimes do this, depending on the sect. Shingon, esoteric Buddhism, is particularly eclectic, so you can see it there, for example.