Studying for JLPT N3

So I’m taking JLPT N3 the day after tomorrow and I’m pretty nervous.

For the unenlightened, the Japanese Language Proficiency Test is a standardized Japanese test with five levels: N1 is the highest and tricky even for native speakers, N5 is the lowest. I will be taking N3 on Sunday, meaning if I pass I will officially have intermediate Japanese.

I know that according to Japanese language majors, N3 is pointless. ‘Employers only want N2 and above’ they say. Frankly I don’t particularly care as I’m doing the exam for myself. I’m trash so if I don’t have a benchmark and the incentive of a shiny gold star, I probably won’t study.  Also, even if the exam has no ‘worth’ employers, it’s proof that I have evolved since coming here and haven’t spent all of my free time in cake shops and bars (well I have, but I bring a textbook with me sometimes).

These are the resources I’ve been using to study. If you live in Tokyo you can get all of these books in Kinokuya book shop in Shinjuku, otherwise they should be available online.

Kanji/Vocab: Worked through the Kanji Master N3 book from Arc Academy. This is basically just a list of kanji with the readings, stroke order, compounds etc. I go through it and add vocab I think will be useful to my own deck of anki flash cards on my phone and try to go through the app every day. I also have been working through Kanzen Master Kanji  (different brand but everyone is still a master), which is basically a whole book of kanji related exercises, grouped by topic. I like it because it has pictures and I am a child.
Grammar: Grammar is definitely my weakest area. I hate it. It’s boring, I have to use my brain and it seems like I forget new grammar ten minutes after I’ve learned it. I’ve been using Kanzen Master Grammar.
To be honest I’ve mostly been ignoring this one. I’ve been told it’s the easiest section, especially if you live in Japan. I’m going to do some practice tests tomorrow and then wing it.

You can probably tell I’m not exactly the diligent student. Luckily, two of my friends are taking N3 at the same time and we have been meeting every week for study group. This has been really helpful, particularly for making grammar less painful. We go through the points together and make stupid example sentences. A lot of the N3 grammar points seem to be for gossip and passive aggression so my friend has made this character Sakura chan, an idol who gets into a different scandal each week, depending on what grammar we are doing.

My boyfriend passed N1 this year so he’s a lot better than us. He sits in the corner during our sessions and makes suggestions (some of them useful, some less so). I think the power has got to his head though because the other day he gave me detention for looking at facebook in class.

Japanese study n3 detention
I don’t know which is worse, my Japanese handwriting or my boyfriend’s English handwriting…

To be perfectly honest, as regular readers may have noticed, the last few months have been pretty busy for me. I know I haven’t studied a lot and I’m not at all sure I’m going to pass. But I’m still super proud of what my friends and I have achieved. We’ve really come together and worked hard and got to know each other better too. I feel that, pass or fail, this test has forced me to take my Japanese to the next level so even if the results don’t go so well, I won’t regret taking it.

Are you doing the JLPT on Sunday? Have you done it in the past and how was it? Let me know!

頑張ろう everyone!

Japanese – the hardest language in the world?

I like to think as I’ve got older I’ve become less inclined to express my own very important opinion at every available opportunity. In Japan, especially, where directness is often frowned upon, most of the time it’s better to just not.

But sometimes something tickles me and I can’t restrain myself. In my short lived ALT days, I was subbing for another teacher and chatting to the the Japanese assistant and I mentioned that I was studying Japanese. She responded with the usual, “That must be difficult” and then added, “Japanese is the most difficult language in the world.”

It’s widely acknowledged that many Japanese people take a strange joy in that their language is super difficult to learn. I guess it makes them feel special but to be honest, I don’t get it. But, ‘The most difficult language in the world?’ This statement is all kinds of dumb.

Disclaimer – I do find Japanese difficult and I am certainly not super at it. But, honestly, I studied German at school and I found that harder. When I mention this to Japanese friends the reaction is a disbelieving “eehhhhh?” But it’s true. I had seven years of German in a swanky bilingual method, studied history through German, did work experience in Germany and I still kind of suck. I just never got my head around the grammar and having genders where genders have no right to be. Though I know plenty of vocab and can make myself understood, my German remains really messy. In contrast the logical nature of Japanese grammar appeals to me. It’s hard work and slow progress but it sticks in my head far better than German ever did. Believe it or not I make less mistakes too.

My main point though (if there is one buried in the rant) is that there is no one language that is easier than another. That it’s all relative should be so obvious but it seems not. Japanese is hard for an English speaker because it’s different to English. It’s less difficult for a native Korean speaker as the grammar and syntax have some similarities. It’s less difficult for a Chinese person because they get a head start with the kanji. Your native tongue aside, how difficult you find a language will also depend on your learning style. Maybe if you’re tone deaf Chinese isn’t the language for you, but if you have a whacking visual memory but suck at grammar (I’m told Chinese grammar is quite simple) then it may be your chance to shine. Japanese fits my learning style and the way my brain works and it may well for you too.

So what did I say to the Japanese assistant? Well the answer that would annoy her most of course.
“Nah, that’s Chinese.”
Guess I haven’t gotten more restrained after all.



My New Years Resolutions

This blog has mostly been about my life in Japan I’m afraid this one is a personal post. Inspired by Gabrielle Leimon, lifestyle blogger at Welcome to the Birdcage, writer for the Huffington Post and one of my oldest friends, I am going to write a post about my new years resolutions. Come summer 2016 I’ll write another to see how I’m doing with them and get back on track if I’ve strayed, which I inevitably will. To be honest I’m pretty vain so I’m hoping that having my resolutions out in public will be a good motivator. I don’t usually do New Year Resolutions and if I do I fail dramatically but hey, New Years is a far bigger deal in Japan than in the UK and my life is different beyond recognition to how it was 6 months ago, so who knows what could happen? It’s probably groundless but I have a feeling that 2016 is going to be a big one for me.

1) To get healthy
Boyfriend watched me write that and promptly stuffed his face with some kind of delicious cream thing as he raised his eyebrows knowingly at me. He then offered me a chocolate finger. I did not refuse.

Moving swiftly on…
I will turn 23 in February 2016 (urgh) and this is a wakeup call that I do not have the body of a teenager anymore. Whilst I have never been terrible at taking care of myself – I’ve always exercised regularly, I eat a lot of fruit and veg, I don’t smoke and I try to get 8 hours of sleep a night – I could definitely be a lot better. I feel that so far that most of the things I do to take care of myself are restorative rather than preventative. I do enough yoga and pilates to control the pain from my scoliosis, muscle tension and time spent in the same position (whether playing the harp or sitting at a desk) enough that I’m not miserable. However, I never exercise towards a goal or attempt to build strength, flexibility or stamina beyond what’s necessary to not be in pain all of the time. I sleep through the weekends to attempt to repay the sleep debt I’ve gained during the week. I spend a day sipping water and eating salad to counteract the alcohol and junk food I’ve consumed the previous night (Japan is particularly bad for this – how am I supposed to resist temptation after a night out when every convenience store has fried chicken??). I spent the first half of 2015 finishing my degree – a lot of late nights, a lot of stress, a lot of caffeine. After a couple of months off I moved to Japan – a lot of stress, a change in diet and a job where I was often working 12 hour days. Although in some ways I have been getting more healthy since arriving, in others it feels like my body has been resisting Japan. Since moving to Tokyo I have had minor surgery and struggled with digestive problems and anxiety.

I will change job at the end of January 2016 (prepare for a tenshoku post some time in February…) and my new position will allow me more opportunities to work on my health. Prioritising exercise and sleep, I want 2016 to be a year my body thanks me for.

2) To get better at Japanese… but to not take JLPT N3 in July 2016

For those who don’t know, the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) is a standardized Japanese test taken by learners worldwide. There are 5 levels – N1 is the highest and indicates near fluency. N2 a level is where you can handle most situations living in Japan can throw at you – above average students will reach this level after a four year Japanese degree in the UK, although some of my friends on BA Japanese took this test and failed despite having a good level of language. I was intending to take the level below this, N3, which is basically a conversational level of Japanese. I was probably at about N4 (Elementary Japanese) when I arrived, strong on listening but weak on kanji as the University elective I took was grammar focused. You can take the JLPT twice a year, in July and December, and I on coming to Japan in August I set myself the reasonable goal of attempting N3 in July 2016. In the new year, I’ve resolved to try harder at Japanese but I’ve also decided to save JLPT N3 until at least December 2016. This may seem counter-intuitive but bear with me.

I like tests. So sue me, I do.  Everyone is different and tests suit my learning style far more than coursework, which made my undergraduate degree and my 12,000 word dissertation pretty challenging. I’m generally pretty good at tests too but occasionally this doesn’t work in my favour. Because I’m good at ‘exam technique’ (or ‘faking it,’ whichever you want to call it) sometimes I’ve been put into tests before I’m ready and I’m less good than I seem from my results, which actually hurts my learning in the long run. This is the main reason why I’m not entering N3 in July. It’s not because I think I can’t hack it: I know I could make a serious attempt. However, I think that if I enter I will get obsessed with learn Japanese for the exam and lose sight of the wider goal of communication. The main thing I want to focus on at the moment is speaking – I want to be able to communicate with my bandmates better. I want my Japanese friends to feel like they don’t have to speak in English all of the. I want to not get the look every time I speak to shop assistants. There is no speaking aspect of the JLPT and things I would have to work pretty hard on to pass N3 are unnecessary for me to better my speaking at my current level. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those foreigners who can’t be bothered with kanji – I actually love them. I learn kanji through compounds which is a great way to build up vocab. The problem is I can’t deny that I actually find it easier to learn kanji than to do ‘real language learning.’ When I have half an hour spare in the staffroom, it’s far easier for me to write pretty kanji than learn a complicated grammar point or slog my way through a reading exercise. I’ll need to know 650 kanji for N3 so I feel that if I enter I will spend a lot of quality time with my kanji app instead of learning Japanese which will help me interact with the people around me.

It will be a challenge to motivate myself without a test but part of what I want to achieve is getting out of the mindset that learning should get you sweeties and CV points. Greater understanding of this wonderful language and better ability to communicate with Japanese people should be its own reward.

3) To create more

Since graduating from University I have rediscovered my creative side. During my time studying and my year out working in music PR I guess I was creative in some ways – I wrote essays and press releases, organised parties and concerts and performed a fair amount – but my mind was always so busy with external pressures that I didn’t really make much I could call my own. Blogging has helped me remember how much I love creating stuff. In 2016 I want to write more blog posts and more songs. I want to get back into my YouTube channel. I want to put effort into my band, not putting too much pressure on anything but just having a great time.

4) To be more present

I’ll admit it, I don’t fully know what this means. All I know is that sometimes I’m pretty bad at it. As an ENTP I’m programmed to live in a world of ideas, possibilities and plans and, quite frankly, this has often been an advantage at University and at work. But it can also be anxiety inducing, especially when you live abroad.

Self-help articles throw around phrases like ‘cultivating mindfulness’ all the time, but I’ll be the first to admit I don’t fully understand what ‘mindfulness’ means. I can’t meditate. Sorry. It’s not helpful to me at all, I just sit there longing for it to end, getting more angry with myself and more anxious.

I’m a big fan of the book on life as a JET, This Japanese Life and the blog of the same name. Reading the post about ‘mindful running’ was the first time that I realised that mindfulness could be activities other than staring at my eyelids hating myself. Finding ways to practice mindfulness whilst running and doing yoga (see resolution 1) is actually possible for my over-excited type A mind and I’ve found it helpful to my mental well being.

I live in Japan and I want to be ‘more present’ in Japan. The age of the internet does not help with this. It’s wonderful that I could Skype my parents on Christmas day, but not so great when you realise that you may physically be in Japan but your mind has been elsewhere all day. You wake up and check facebook. You reply to an email from your parents and check your instagram on your lunch break. You go home and watch Netflix in English then procrastinate washing up by scrolling through your facebook feed again. There are your friends. They’re smiling at nights out in the clubs you used to go to, walking through the countryside, eating a terribly British Christmas dinner with their families. Two of them at a gig in London of one of your favourite bands saying they miss you.

Sometime in December I realised that I was using social media as a coping mechanism. Every time some stressful liguistic or cultural misunderstanding occurred I would check my phone. Breathe. Here are people who get you. If you post a status they will understand your humour. Checking your phone reminds you of social circles where you belonged, where you didn’t have to worry about offending people by accident. Where interacting with people was easier. I don’t think social media is intrinsically a bad thing, but this kind of behavior is unhealthy. It’s wonderful that I can use facebook to keep in touch with my friends on the other side of the world but this kind of checking is making me miss home and giving me FOMO abound. It’s a small thing, but to try and be more present in Japan, I’m going to try and do facebook free January. I’ll still be blogging, and still on twitter and instagram, but for an addict like me I thought it was best to start with a goal I could actually keep – and seeing as facebook probably causes the most problems, it will be the one to go. Yes, you can clap really slowly now.

I guess, when I say I want to be more mindful, what I mean is I want to be more aware of my own thoughts and how I experience things. Maybe if I cut down on the internet usage, keep at the yoga and the running and generally just try to experience things on their own terms, I’ll start to understand more what it means to ‘be in the present.’

Or maybe not.

I’ll let you know mid year if I find out anything interesting.

nye beach kamakura
Me on a beach in Kamakura on New Years Eve, just out from paddling in the freezing sea in sunglasses and a bobble hat



Britsh harpist in a Japanese metal band?!

Of all the times I’ve thrown myself into the deep end inadequately prepared this has to be… well, it’s probably not the most overly ambitious, but that probably says more about my life and my choices than anything else.

I have joined a metal band. In Tokyo. With Japanese people. Who can’t speak English.

Putting the harp in places where it shouldn’t be has long been my thing. Aside from my own songwriting, I’ve played on electro-jazz and pop punk tracks, at anime conventions and fashion shows. What I’ve always wanted to do but have never gotten the chance to is play in a band. See, people often want a bit of harp for that one quirky song but they don’t want to keep you around as an actual permanent member. I wanted to continue playing the harp in Tokyo, but the band bit was not something I intended.

So there’s this website oursounds, which is a kind of social networking for Japanese musicians. Starting a band in Tokyo was something my boyfriend always intended (seeing as his Japanese is far better than mine, this isn’t going in over his head so much), so he was using the site to find bandmates. I thought, “Why not, lets make a profile and see what happens?” I got a number of messages. I perhaps made a mistake in including a photo and some of the messages… didn’t seem like music was their primary concern. Some were for projects I wasn’t that interested in but one stood out. A singer (or rather death vocalist) for a symphonic metal band was looking for a female singer and instrumentalist. His band had been going for a while but several people had left to they were looking to rebuild it with a new lineup. He had seen my profile and he liked that I could play the harp and sing in English. He was really complementary and it seemed interesting so I thought I would give it a shot.

I was pretty nervous when I went to the first rehearsal, in a studio in Shinjuku. Studio hire is cheap and commonplace in Japan – probably because strict landlords restrict practice of even classical instruments or ban them altogether. This particular studio was super trendy, with tonnes of posters of Japanese and Western rock bands on the wall. After I clumsily introduced myself, we ‘warmed up’ by playing through some symphonic metal favorites.

My bandmates are great people, and excellent musicians. Seriously I have lucked out with the level of technical ability and musicality they all possess; to be honest I feel a little inferior. None of them, however, know any significant English. This means that rehearsals are difficult. Really difficult. Interestingly, I find my bandmates far harder to understand than my colleagues at my school, despite their best intentions. I think this is because they speak mostly in plain form, whereas the teachers at school use polite form. For those who don’t know, Japanese language varies a lot depending on the level of formality of the situation. Foreigners are almost always taught basic polite form first, then plain form, and then the super scary keigo (honorific speech) for advanced learners. I only really started getting to grips with plain form this year, whereas I’m much more comfortable with polite form. This means that I can cope in the staff room, a work situation. However, in a rehearsal with my bandmates (men in their 20s – men usually speak less politely than women) I’m pretty lost most of the time.

studio smiling
Enjoying the Union Jack while taking a break from rehearsing

It’s all very well to say that music is a universal language there’s also slight cultural differences in ‘the way music is done’ that are difficult to understand that I really should have been more aware of. For example, even in metal songs, Japanese tunes tend to follow a pretty set structure. When I played them a song of mine I was hoping we could add to our repertoire, what raised eyebrows was not the lyrics in English (singing in English is pretty standard for Japanese metal bands, which I think is a shame)  but the structure. What I considered a variation on simple verse/chorus with a couple of time sig changes was really pushing the boat out to them. Also, my bandmates seem to place a greater emphasis on ‘influences’ than I’m used to. In my limited experience of collaborative writing, we mostly jammed or did our own thing and fix it as we went along. Before my band tried my song, they wanted me to link me examples of songs I wanted to sound like to find its ‘image.’ This was really hard for me to do, one because of the language barrier, two because the concept of ‘do your own thing and we’ll see how it goes,’ seems foreign to them as well.
I realise this is all very vague but I don’t want to name the band or my band mates yet because it’s still early days but we will be gigging next year, possibly when my parents come to visit. I’m not sure who will be more scared, my whiter than white parents and my 6’1 blonde brother or my bandmates…

In the mean time, I’ll be dutifully learning my music related vocab sheet, schooling myself on Japanese metal, enjoying myself and terrified at the same time. Peace.

It’s real: I’m moving to Japan in August

Last week, I sent off my application for Visa pre-approval. As long as everything goes smoothly, I will move to Tokyo in August.

I have known this was the plan for a while, having received a job offer to teach English in January. However, I have been insanely busy with my dissertation, working and performing and so I haven’t had the time to either proactively chase the paperwork or think about what ‘moving to Japan’ really meant.

I’ve always been interested in Japan. As you could tell from my performance at London Anime Gaming Con, I’ve always been a bit of an anime fan. Sorry. I was lucky enough to go to one of the only comprehensives in the country which offers Japanese at GCSE so I got to study the language at school and go on a homestay with Keio Chutobu, a middle school in Tokyo. I loved learning the language and picked it up again whilst at University.

And now I arrive at the end of a four year degree and I’m not quite ready to enter the ‘real world’ just yet. For my year in industry (I did a four year sandwich course) I worked in classical music PR and I work part time in Marketing now so it’s not that I have no office experience, or that (if I’m honest) I doubt my ability to get some kind of graduate job. It’s just that, before I get serious about the rest of my career, I want to take some time to travel. I don’t want to ‘see the world’ if that means spending a year lying on beaches and getting trashed at ‘Moon Parties’ gap yah style. I couldn’t afford to do that regardless, and it seems a bit meaningless really; I went interrailing for a month almost two years ago and although I enjoyed it very much, by the end I was yearning to be productive, as lame as it sounds. To be sure, there are far worse ways to blow your money and I don’t hold those people who want to travel around forever in contempt, I just wouldn’t want to feel like ‘just’ a consumer, producing nothing. In this way, teaching English for a year is perfect. I can work in a job that is neither extremely boring nor as stressful and time consuming as the kind of graduate job I aspire to. I can stay long enough to make Japanese friends and learn something meaningful about the biggest city in the world. And while I’m there, I can see more of Japan and South East Asia. Hopefully, when I get back in I won’t be in a worse position to get a graduate job, maybe even better.

Saying hello to one of Nara's sacred deer when I visited my boyfriend during his year abroad, March 2013
Saying hello to one of Nara’s sacred deer when I visited my boyfriend during his year abroad, March 2013

I’ll admit, there is another push factor. My boyfriend of 3 years studied BA Japanese and wants to be a translator. To do this, he needs to spend some time living and working in Japan after he finishes his degree, to get his Japanese up to scratch and also get the cultural knowledge he needs to translate effectively. We did long distance when he was in Japan for his year abroad and though we survived it and I genuinely do think it made us stronger, it wasn’t easy. Fitting my own career plans around my boyfriend’s does offend my feminist sensibilities and is a significant blight on my record of being ambitious and self-interested. I am aware that moving across the world to be with your boyfriend is not ‘what sensible girls do’ and I probably wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t also have the aforementioned interest in Japan and desire to travel. From a practical point of view, it will be great to be able to rely on my boyfriend’s excellent Japanese and experience living in the country (though of course I tend to work hard on my Japanese so as not to be dependent on him). From an emotional point of view, I don’t want to be without him. N’aaawww.

The more I’m thinking about it, the more I think this is the right decision for me but I am unashamed to admit that I am scared. It might not be a big deal for some people to live abroad for a year, but it is for me. I am happy to say that I have gotten closer to my family over the last couple of years and it will be difficult to be so far away from them. I hugely value my friendships and it was hard enough to be without a close knit circle to begin with when I moved to London for a year; there are individuals who I will miss tremendously when I am in Japan. However, it is undeniable that my feet are itching. I have enjoyed my three years in Leeds and my year in London but it’s time to experience something different. Hopefully, this blog can be a way for me to share my Japan adventures.

I was lucky enough to see some Sakura on my visit two years ago
I was lucky enough to see some Sakura on my visit two years ago