Saturday, February 12, 2011

Half Way There...

I have reached an exciting yet slightly unsettling point in my journey. I am half way through my study abroad in Japan, and it’s hard to believe I have already made it this far. I have also completed my first semester at Keio University and am now in the midst of a very long, luxurious spring vacation. The strange thing is, though I always used “time constraint” as an excuse for why I didn’t update my blog more often, now that I have all the time I could need, it somehow became more difficult to just sit down and write. This mega update is to make up for all that procrastination. I needed to do some catching up and this is what I came up with to share. 

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately, mostly because I have an overabundance of time to myself. Many of my good friends have returned home to their respective countries after the semester finished, others are traveling the world while spring break lasts, but I have stayed behind. And this is what leads to the abundance of quality ME time, and plenty of relaxation. Yes I miss home, and yes I even get homesick sometimes too. I decided not to visit home during the entirety of my study abroad though, because I didn’t want to get distracted. I knew if I went home at all during this year, I would inevitably fall back into my old rythms, remember how much I love my life in Seattle, and then would have had to deal with the pain of leaving home a second time. I am not sure I could handle it, so instead I stay here and stay focused. I’ve decided to tough it out. It gets lonely or boring occasionally, but I’ve grown to like my own company more and more. It’s also nice to spend my time indulging in whatever I want. Anyways, because of all this time to think I have been reflecting back on the last 6 months and wondering how have I changed? What have I learned? What habits have I developed? Am I really any different now than I was before leaving home?

I think I have changed. I also think most of it has been very positive. My Japanese has improved greatly since coming to Japan and beginning my first semester. Part of if it confidence, part the immersion process which has left me able to carry conversations and communicate better than I could before. Not only have my communication skills improved, thanks to Keio’s rigorous curriculum I can actually write in Japanese. My reading level has advanced a lot as well. The University of Washington focused more on an oral/aural/communicative method, which is a sound plan, because if you can’t communicate in your second language what is it really good for? But it wasn’t until I started here at Keio that I realized how inept I was at forming proper sentences, organizing those sentences into structurally sound paragraphs, and communicating via written Japanese. Like most languages there is a big difference between the way Japanese is used for verbal communication and the way it is written. I quickly figured out that I couldn’t write the way I spoke if I wanted any Japanese professor to take me seriously. So now I can write basic compositions, and this in turn has helped me read higher level writing.  Kanji is no longer my sworn enemy and has become a kind of begrudging companion.

The difference between my Japanese ability when I first arrived and now is not easily measured in objective terms. Mostly I just notice that I am able to do tasks I couldn’t before, hold conversations I couldn’t before, understand topics better, read more kanji, etc, etc, etc. The bubble that encapsulates all my Japanese knowledge has expanded, and I have become that much closer to fluent and functional because of it. I can’t wait to see how far I’ll make it in another six months after my second semester.

I’ve spent a good deal of my spring break studying (exciting I know, right?). My goal is to get a better score on the Keio Placement test for next semester, and as a result get into advanced Japanese. So I’ve been studying a little bit every day, and a lot on certain days with the help of a friend/study partner. I believe that I can achieve my goal and get into at least level 8 next semester – I am dedicated enough. And this time around I have the advantage of actually knowing what the format of the placement test is and thus how to study for it. I am just trying to stay focused and not get too cocky. Over confidence is probably the only thing that could mess up my chances with the placement test this time around.

I’ve also changed physically, in simple and complex ways. While I have lost about 15pounds (~ 7kilos) since coming to Japan, thanks to a Japanese diet, smaller portions, and lots of walking, that hasn’t been the only positive change. I feel healthier than I did a year ago, less insecure, and more comfortable in my own body. My energy has improved, and I am growing to like physical activity and exercise more and more. I just hope I can continue my healthful habits even after I return home.  I feel inspired to do things I didn’t feel I was capable of before. I want to learn how to run properly so I can make long distance running a part of my lifestyle. I miss yoga so much I can’t wait till the opportunity to practice is available to me again. I want to pierce my belly-button after I return home to Seattle to celebrate getting my body into shape – a body that I am finally comfortable with once again.  I want to cook even more than I did before, stick to my gluten free diet, and include influences I have picked up from whole food/vegetarian diets. I don’t plan on giving up meat altogether, but I don’t see the need to eat it every day. Recently I have stopped buying meat, and instead cook and eat lots of eggs, tofu, and beans for my protein. I enjoy meat when I happen to eat out. It’s easy for me to say that I don’t really miss the Western diet. I do miss my gluten free foods though.

I have also become more stable emotionally and mentally. Whereas I use to really struggle with being on my own, now I am a much stronger, more confident, more independent person. Living alone and taking care of myself has built up my character and helped me to shed a lot of my unhealthy habits. I don’t get as many down depressed moods anymore, they are not worth my time and energy the way optimism and positive efforts are. I guess I just realized at some point along the way that I couldn’t afford to sulk, whine, or be dramatic and angsty anymore, especially when the majority of my family/friends/support system is 4,000 miles away. I am not going to pretend that I don’t have bad days ever, or that I don’t still occasionally have low moods and very dramatic episodes, but they are rarer. I’m just trying to make a conscious effort to channel all that energy into something positive instead. In the end I decided that I would rather work towards a solution then listen to myself whine.

I have become more social and less shy. Shyness has been a big problem for me for as long as I can remember. While I can be very outgoing and extroverted with people I know, getting past the acquaintance stage has always been my trouble. Putting myself out there is challenging and frightening. Having patience, confidence, and the motivation to open up to people can be disappointing and make one very vulnerable. But I’ve been working on it and have seen improvements. I try to accept every invitation, seize every opportunity, take chances on people and hope they take a chance on me too. It hasn’t worked out for everyone, but I have made a few amazing friends so far by taking these chances.

Being able to attend a second semester at Keio feels like I’m receiving a second chance to make the most of my study abroad. I am finally comfortable and adjusted to my life here in Tokyo. I finally get what’s going on. When I was applying for study abroad programs I had the choice between requesting a half-year or a full year program. At the time I was nervous and unsure which to go with, because half-year felt too short, but a whole year seemed like it might be unbearably long. ‘How can I make it through one year if things go poorly?’ I wondered back then. I was worried I would become intolerably depressed and homesick. But I faced those fears and decided to go ahead and do the full year exchange. I decided get the most I could out of it. When else will I be able to travel to Japan for a year? And I am glad I made that choice and so far do not regret it. This will be my chance to take all the things I learned and habits I developed during first semester and put them towards making second semester an even better experience. It also means a chance to learn from my mistakes and do things differently this time around.

And in the end I feel I like the person I have become. Not only has my life in Japan been an exciting adventure, which has helped polish me as a person, but I believe strongly that I will be happier when I return home. I will take these lessons with me and continue my growth and development as a person. I plan to get the shit kicked out of me by life and come back stronger and more satisfied because of it. 

Monday, January 3, 2011

Passing the JLPT

Anyone who has ever studied the Japanese Language seriously most likely has heard of the 日本語能力試験 (nihongo nouryoku shiken) or Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) as its known in English. This is a standardized test administered by the Japanese government's Ministry of Education in order to test, evaluate and certify the proficiency of non-native speakers. It is broken into 5 levels with 5 being the simplest which tests for basic skills in Japanese, while level 1 is the most challenging and requires advanced knowledge of Japanese grammar, vocabulary, and kanji to pass. The JLPT is internationally recognized by institutions, organizations, and businesses around the world and while not exactly comprehensive it is the most widely accepted standard certification of Japanese language proficiency.

If you're interested here is more info on the JLPT

And it is my lofty goal to do my very best to pass level 1 during 2011. The test is offered twice a year, once in July and once in December, so my hope is to begin preparations today in order to pass the test in July. And if I fail, I will try once again in December of 2011. Thought with all honestly I will continue to try to pass level 1 as many times as it take to pass it....or die trying I suppose (^-^).

This means I have about 6 months/25 weeks/181 days/4344 hours/260,640 hours/15,638,400 seconds starting today with which to prepare for the JLPT. To say I am intimidated and nervous would be an understatement. I am also just as excited. I feel its important to make lofty, almost improbable goals at times to test what I am made of, what I am capable of, to see how close I can make it.

There are many reasons why passing this test is important to me. First and foremost, and most practically, is that I want to have a career where I get to utilize my Japanese language skills. Now since I am still young, not quite graduated, and still have plenty of time to think about the rest of my adult life, I haven't yet made up my mind about what exactly that career will be. I have entertained the idea of everything from teaching English, teaching Japanese, going to graduate school for Japanese Linguistics/Social Linguistics/etc, doing translation, being an interpretor, and the list goes on. But because I want to actually use the Japanese I have spent so many years studying to acquire, in not just my personal life but professional life as well, I need some kind of certification. I need some sort of standardized proof of my capabilities in order for companies or organizations to believe in me and be able to depend on my Japanese ability. And it is true that many jobs out there want people who have successfully passed level 1 of the JLPT.

My second reason is more personal. I feel that I would like some validation of my own abilities all the hard work I have put into studying Japanese. Passing level 1 of the JLPT would be an accomplishment that I could feel proud of, and look to as significant marker on my path to fluency. Why do mean climb mountains? Because they're there. Why do I want to pass this test? To see if I can. So I guess passing would be a personal triumph for me.

I think it is important to mention though, what the JLPT is not. While it is an internationally recognized, highly revered, greatly feared test, it would be a mistake to think that is tests everything. I doesn't, and furthermore, just because one has passed the highest level of the JLPT does not mean one is fluent in Japanese. This is because the test focuses on three criteria: "Characters and Vocabulary", "Reading Comprehension", and "Listening Comprehension". Those of you who are multi-lingual or have studied a foreign language may notice some important things missing from those criteria - and you're right. I caution that the JLPT does not cover everything that is essential to true fluency, for example it does not test a persons speaking/verbal communication/conversation abilities whatsoever. It also does not require test takers to write any kanji by hand, only to recognize them. Thus there are people out there who have passed level 1 of the JLPT who have poor communication skills in Japanese (i.e. can't hold a natural conversation with a native Japanese speaker to save their life) and/or who can read close to 2,000 kanji but cannot write them. So I take the results of this test with a grain of salt, and understand that my score is not the end-all-be-all of my fluency.  The only unfortunate part for me is that I have always been better at speaking and communicating rather then reading and writing so this test won't come easy for me, but I still see it as greatly important to my progress.

Right now I am in the planning and research stages of my goal. I am currently working to create a schedule for myself, outline a plan for studying, and doing the research on helpful materials and effective methods for studying. So my hope if to find practice tests in Keio University's libraries, buy some study guides to help me understand the mistakes I make as well as why the correct answers are correct, and create lots of flash cards and other study materials for myself. I am also considering starting a small study group with other hard working, dedicated students.

The following is information and links for those interested in learning more about the JLPT or who are preparing for it themselves.

 I am considering purchasing some (or all *sigh*) of these books which come highly recommended :

  1. The U-Can book of practice problems/tests and explanations for N1 of the JLPT. It is essential to use practice test's of the JLPT to familiarize yourself with its format, learn to anticipate its content, and gauge your own progress. 
  2. The Nihongo So-matome series, which has a book for grammar, vocabulary, and kanji of N1. Having a book which will explain grammar or vocabulary to you in Japanese as well as your native language is essential to going beyond memorizing them but internalizing them. 
I have also been utilizing the free information and materials provided on the following webpages:

And most importantly have been using this great, free-source, software on my computer to create my own flashcards and study vocabulary/grammar/sentence structure/kanji/etc through the spaced repetition method. Although I am using this to help me study Japanese, I feel it is a useful program for anyone trying to study or memorize anything. 

So there you have it, that is the outline for one of my major resolutions for 2011. I will try to write more posts in the future about my progress (or any troubles I encounter), and I hope that by around this time next year I will be able to write about how I achieved my goal to pass N1. Thank you to all those who in my life who have been so loving and supportive!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Western Holidays in Japan

The last month has been a very busy one for me, and hasn't left a lot of time for reflection, writing, and updating. I am sorry for that because there have been so many wonderful things going on that I want to share with you all. I hope that during my winter vacation from school (December 23rd - January 5th) I will have free time to update some more. But as of right now I find myself on the day before Christmas Eve feeling that I should write a little about what the Holiday season is like in Japan, and what it’s like for Westerners going through this season so far from home. 


I know this one has already come and gone, but I thought I should talk about it. I feel like next to Christmas, Thanksgiving is the second most family oriented, heavily marketed, and widely celebrated holiday in America. So for these reasons, as well as some others I’ll explain, it is a holiday that makes American students in Japan really miss home and their families.

Unlike some American/European holidays that have become novel and cool to celebrate here in Japan, Thanksgiving doesn't exist at all, nor should it, there really isn't an appropriate place for it. Many Japanese people have not heard of it, and if they have it’s because they have spent time in America, or saw it in a movie or TV show. I understand that unlike Halloween which has costumes, candy, and spooky monsters, or Christmas with Santa Claus and gift giving, there isn't much appeal for celebrating Thanksgiving. And it's a holiday that is far too patriotic or at least wrapped up in American history for it to matter to other countries. In fact it’s not even that important of a holiday to me when I really think about it. The symbolism and message at the heart of the holiday I feel is good, because it truly is important to be thankful (hopefully for more than just one day a year). 

In the end the reason Thanksgiving is important to me is really more about my own personal experiences and family traditions. When Thanksgiving came around this year I couldn't help but think of my family, and wish I was with them to celebrate together and enact our usual rituals.  I missed spending that time with my loved ones, getting to cook an enormous, delicious feast, and share it all together. Because honestly the food and the family is what matters, right? Thanksgiving dinner is delicious and special (at least it should be). 

But good luck finding a turkey in japan! This year I didn't have an oven to bake with (the kitchens we share in my dormitory do not have ovens only stove tops), access to the proper ingredients, or the time or purpose to go through making all the classic Thanksgiving dishes. I settled for mashed potatoes, and was thankful all the same. 


Ginormous Omelette Rice
The "American" Diner 

I count myself as lucky though, because I did have other American students to feast with. We ended up going out to an American dinner in our neighborhood - or more accurately the Japanese idea of what an American dinner is supposed to be like. The food was an interesting hybrid of Japanese and American comfort food, and if nothing else the portions were American sized. It was a lot of fun, and when you have friends the homesickness is so much more bearable.


X-mad lights near the Tokyo Dome

Christmas, however, is a pretty big freaking deal here in Japan. Japanese people know it, love it, celebrate it, but they of course do it in their own special way. The two major differences between Christmas in America/Europe and Christmas in Japan is that 1) Christmas generally has no religious significance whatsoever, because the vast majority of Japanese people believe in a Shinto-Buddhist amalgamation and are not very religious to begin with (and there are so few Christians in Japan), 2) Christmas is thought of as a romantic holiday meant for couples to spend time together, and isn't a holiday about being with your family and close loved ones. This is alright for me though because I neither have my family nor my boyfriend here with me in Japan, so I plan to celebrate it with friends. 

The Ferris Wheel near Yokohama all lit up

3 story x-mas tree in Ikebukuro

Christmas, based on my observation, is also more pronouncedly commercial here. This might sound strange because everyone knows how Christmas has become an overwhelmingly commercial, materialistic, consumerist holiday in the USA, but I would argue it is even more so in Japan. This is because in Japan there isn’t that saccharine-sweet, loving, Jesus inspired message behind all the shopping and gift giving. It is like Japanese people adopted the holiday's rituals and symbols without taking the heart of the message as well. They've got the Christmas story without the moral. And I am not saying this is a bad thing, in many ways it takes out some of the hypocrisy of having a holiday that has become both about greed and good will toward men. It's simply interesting for me to observe, and it might be because the moral of Christmas is absent in the way Japanese people go about celebrating that makes it hard for me to get into my usual Christmas spirit this year. 

x-mas tree at the Ghibli Museum

There are Christmas decorations in most stores, light displays in popular public places, and Christmas music playing while you shop, but it still doesn't quite feel like Christmas to me. Least not the one I am so accustomed to celebrating. The signs of Christmas that I come across everyday don't overwhelm my senses and beat the season of Christmas into me like it was back home. Again I am grateful to have friends to celebrate with, and I hope I enjoy my first Christmas away from home and family. My plans are to go to Roppongi on Christmas Eve to look at all the decorations and light displays, and Christmas Day I am getting together with a small group of friends to each a big dinner that we all cook and have a Secret Santa gift exchange. 

New Years

It would be fair to say that New Years is to the Japanese what Christmas is for Americans. New Years is the holiday people spend with family and that actually retains a religious undertone. 

Traditionally people spend time with their family, eat special foods (such as osechi-ryōri 御節料理, or mochi and usually visit their local shrine. If you live in the greater Tokyo area its popular to visit one of the very old famous shrine (like the ones in Kamakura or Shinjuku) either New Year’s Eve or Day, and they will undoubtedly be crowded with people wanting to welcome in the New Year. This is the one occasion I have heard of when the trains run all night to accommodate everyone traveling. As of yet I have no specific plans for New Years, but I am sure I will find something meaningful and fun to do.

In the end the holiday season of November and December presents emotional and cultural challenges for exchanges students like myself. Some treasured holidays or rituals from one's home are non-existent in one's host country. Cultural differences abound. None of the same subtle, emotional cues that we unconsciously experience as there. But part of me is glad I didn't go back home for the holidays like many other students did - I feel this is a good experience for me and I will be even more grateful and enjoy the holidays even more next year. 

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Simple Pleasures

When one is so far from home and surrounded by a foreign culture, one will inevitably feel homesick at some point. Its natural. One of the best methods I have found for cheering myself up during times when I miss home is to practice some gratitude, and to think of all the simple pleasures living in Japan provides. One of the cool things about living in Tokyo is that every outing, chore, task, trip, etc is significant no matter how mundane it may appear. 

1.   Some of My Simple Pleasures
  1. Cheap delicious food from the ubiquitous "combini"(convenient stores like 7-11, Family Mart, etc)
  2. Eating ridiculous foods you never knew existed (melon soda, cheese ice cream, green tea kit-kats, pizza flavored potato chips, etc)
  3. Drinking hot cans of milk coffee I buy for 80yen from the vending machine on cold, frosty mornings
  4. Every trip to the grocery store is an adventure. I never find all the things I'd like to buy, but I also always find something unexpected and new. 
  5.  Every time I successfully hang up all my laundry to dry is a triumph
  6.  Learning how to be quick and nimble enough to secure myself a seat on the rush-hour train for my morning commute
  7. Public toilets that have more special features than my cellphone back home, and will do everything but wipe for you
  8. Cellphones that have more special features than my computer back home, and are much cuter too 
  9. Noticing that slowly but surely the number of signs written in kanji that I am able to read is increasing
  10. Getting utterly lost and finding my way again
  11. Enjoying all the rich, traditional culture Japan has to offer, as well as its abundant and beautiful nature
  12. Bonding with friends as we drink to forget our homesickness
  13. How much gratitude I have developed for all the things I miss from home and use to take for granted
  14. Eating a three course meal at a family restaurant for 800yen, and not having to pay tax or tip 
  15. Always standing out from the crowd
  16. Experiencing seasons completely different from the ones I am use to from home
  17. Learning what I'm really made of and just how strong I can actually be  
Me enjoying the simple pleasure of nature

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Keio & University of Washington Comparison

Now that I have settled into a routine with my life here in Tokyo, I’ve been able to reflect some. I feel that I have mostly adjusted to the way Keio University conducts its Japanese classes, so I’ve taken a moment to compare them to my previous instruction.

The main Japanese course I am taking at Keio is very strict, fast paced, and is constantly pushing me towards perfection in my Japanese. The professors set a very high standard for us, and developing our Japanese until it is perfect does seem to be their ultimate goal. Though never directly stated to us students, the University of Washington seemed to focus a lot more on communication, while Keio puts more emphasis on composition and writing skills. This is to my benefit though, because honestly if conversation and verbal communication are my strengths, kanji and writing composition are my utter weaknesses. However, my classes at Keio are always and only taught in Japanese; the professors only speak Japanese, and we as students are only supposed to communicate in Japanese as well.

UW tended to give us more time to prepare and broke things down into more bite sized increments, while Keio piles on our work load and sets a fast pace for our progress. I feel I have to work much harder here to keep on top of things. UW gave me a greater amount of homework on average, but I feel I spend more time each week studying, doing preparations, and reviewing materials for Keio’s class.  My grades here are not as good on average as they were at the UW but my progress has been much greater. I feel I have accomplished or progressed more in the last two months at Keio then I did during one quarter (10 weeks) at UW.

My homework is always carefully scrutinized with a red pen.  We are even required to rewrite homework problems (practice sentences, answers to chapter questions, etc) over again and resubmit them if they were not correct the first time. It’s frustrating for me to see my homework returned to me, covered in red ink marking simple mistakes that I somehow didn’t notice.

The way that class time and even tests are structured is very different as well. Of course that is always part of the adjustment process. Each teacher or institution conducts things differently and it’s my job as a student to figure out what it is they want from me.

For the most part Keio and UW test us on the same subjects  (grammar, kanji, etc), but there are certain tasks I am required to do here that are unique. For example, Keio regularly tests us on dictation, something I had never done before. At UW it was always listening comprehension questions, where we would listen to the audio recording then have to answer true-or-false/multiple choice questions, in order to test if we had understood what we heard. But Keio’s dictation tests are just that, pure dictation. We listen to the audio recording and have to write down verbatim what was said. Needless to say I have become much faster at writing in hiragana.

At first, since we are given three chances to listen to the audio, I would write down what I heard phonetically in roman letters (romanji) and then go back and rewrite the whole thing in hiragana, all the while checking for any mistakes. This became so tedious that I finally gave in and now write it all in hiragana the first time – something I hadn’t thought I was capable of doing. I have yet to make up my mind though as to which university’s style I think is more helpful for my listening comprehension skills.

Generally Keio has been covering a greater number of grammar points. We usually run-through one in class, have to write practice sentences for homework, but then never cover it again. UW tended to spend more time on each grammatical structure, and go over them in more detail. Yet I feel like the same grammatical structures keep repeating themselves from one chapter in the Keio textbook to the next, so it’s like a review every time that form appears again.

So far I've only covered the major differences between my UW Japanese class and the main Japanese class here at Keio. I haven’t even mentioned all of the “subjects with a specific focus” that I am taking at Keio, which UW doesn’t even have any equivalent for. For example, I am taking courses that solely focus on conversation, pronunciation/accent, honorifics, etc. I understand that the UW couldn’t possibly afford to offer such classes, and so it’s nice to be able to take such focused electives.  As a Japanese linguistics major I find it terribly fascinating to study pronunciation or conversation in such exhaustive detail. For me its Japanese study all day every day.  I could have taken some Asian Studies/International Studies courses, but improving my fluency is most pressing at the moment.

In conclusion, UW was overall more comfortable for me, but undoubtedly Keio is pushing me much harder towards reaching my full potential.