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Archive for August 2012

Do's and Don'ts of Learning to Read Japanese

Posted by Shaun

Reading is probably the hardest part of learning Japanese, so I thought as my last post on this blog, I'd share some strategies that helped me improve my reading while I was in Japan. This is directed at people who are taking Japanese classes. I don't have any experience with self-study from scratch so I can't offer much advice there. If I had to describe my basic study strategy, it would be the "let it all flow naturally" method. I'm not big on flashcards, and I'm not actively preparing for the JLPT. I've found that I learn kanji best in context and at my own pace, so that's the sort of approach I'll be taking.

Don't wait for your reading ability to just happen. It's frustrating to take Japanese for a year or two or three and then finally get your hands on some Japanese reading material, only to find that you can't make out much at all. This was really frustrating for me because I took Spanish before I started Japanese classes, and after two years of Spanish I could read short stories. Unfortunately kanji adds that extra layer of complexity so Japanese isn't as easy to dive into. I was constantly looking at things I wanted to read, getting frustrated, saying "not now," and waiting until "later" when I would "get better." Of course, I wasn't studying kanji in any sort of disciplined way, so my ability to flip books open and just understand them didn't really improve while I was playing the waiting game. What I had to do was pick a book, grab a dictionary, and just dive into it.

Do be reasonable about the difficulty level of your reading material. If you don't know a lot of vocab or kanji, trying to read the newest best seller might be too much at first. You don't want to dive into something so difficult that you just get frustrated and give up. You're going to be looking up a lot of words in the dictionary, but you still want to be able to enjoy yourself. Good things to check for are the density of kanji on the page compared to hirgana and katakana (lots of kanji compound words indicate something formal and complicated, and some writers just like to use more kanji outside of the general use ones)  and the presence of furigana (the little hiragana that tell you the reading of the kanji).

Do understand that children's books have their limits. If you're like me, you learned most of the grammar structures necessary to make sense of Japanese in your first few years of classes, but what you lack is vocabulary, kanji, different ways of filling out those grammar structures. While I was in Japan, I really wanted to read books, partly because I was trying to break away from the anime-nerd stereotype, and partly because if I got into a manga series I would have to buy each volume separately. I remember being really excited when I found a collection of short stories targeted at late elementary or middle school students, because most of the words had furigana. It was really easy to look up words in the dictionary I had at the time, but I soon got bored with the content. I wasn't looking forward to finding out what happened next in the story. I could imagine 5th-grade me being fascinated by the plot progressions, but 20-year-old me wanted to do anything but read about what happens to a group of 6th graders who accidentally eat magical curry that sends them back in time to meet their parents. When I started reading a book I actually cared about a few months later, I was much more successful, even though the reading level was much more difficult.
I think manga might be a good alternative for this. Lots of manga (although not all by any means) have furigana for their kanji, and they tend to appeal to a wide age range. So manga is a great way to get familiar with kanji and vocab and casual spoken Japanese.

Do invest in an electronic dictionary if it is within your means. I love mine to pieces and it has made it easier not only to read kanji I don't know, but the example sentences help me properly use words I look up and understand nuances I wouldn't have been able to figure out on my own. That being said, there are plenty of other ways of looking up words.

Do learn the kanji radicals. This is on my to-do list. It will help you in so many ways. You can look up kanji by radical in a paper dictionary or a lower end model dictionary without a writing pad. You can describe kanji to your friends and teachers. You can break kanji down in your head. It just seems like a good idea.

Don't just memorize all the general use kanji out of context. Unless that sorta thing makes you happy and just works for you. Every time I've tried to go through a book or an iPod app or something that's just kanji, not only do I get bored out of my mind, I get lost because it really doesn't help me use or remember them that well, so I usually give up. What I try to do is memorize kanji within the context of words, and then little by little I get a feel for what the readings are and which is used when. It won't get me prepared quickly for any sort of kanji test, but it's a lot less painful than drilling and memorizing.

Don't be afraid to write in your books. When I'm reading a novel I write in my own furigana as I look up kanji. It helps cement the reading in my memory, saves me from having to luck up a word again when I know I saw it 3 pages ago, and it can also serve as a nice little progress chart when you flip through the book and see a decrease in the number of words with furigana.

Do remember that everything you can read counts. If improving reading is your goal, read everything and anything. Bring your dictionary and look up the words in the ads on the train. Read manga, books, your textbooks, video games, anything. Even TV is surprisingly good for learning kanji. Variety programs have a lot of text that shows up on the screen, so if you listen closely you can learn the readings of those characters.

Do find a set time to read, where you won't be doing anything else. For me, this was the train. I took local trains instead of expresses so I could sit down and read, and train time became my designated reading Japanese time. It was really good to have this time set aside so I kept making progress. When I start school again, I'll be setting aside a reading time again.

Do fight burn-out. Give yourself an English break if you need one. Don't push yourself to read too much at one time. Try not to let your set aside reading time turn into a chore you need to get out of the way. Take things at a pace you can handle so you keep coming back for more.

Do focus on rewards, not punishments. Japanese, like anything, is easiest to learn when it's fun. Think about what got you interested in Japanese in the first place. If it's something like anime, video games, a particular author, or a particular band, then pursue that. Those things count as studying too. Gather up a collection of reading (and listening) material that you're interested in and excited about. It's good to have a variety so you can keep Japanese in your life while you stave off burn-out. Read a book when you're feeling focused, watch a TV drama when you're tired but you still want to hear some Japanese. Find ways to make the learning process something to look forward to and acknowledge your progress every step of the way, instead of getting caught up on whether or not you meet some outside standard.

Good luck, and most importantly, have fun!

Thoughts from the airplane.

Posted by Shaun


My stomach is full of sushi and matcha. This is the feeling I wanted to leave Japan with. 満足。Manzoku. Satisfaction.

I was worried I would be full of guilt or worry about things I hadn't done or hadn't done well, but I feel okay. I cried when I said good-bye to Arisa and when I said good-bye to my friends, but I know this isn't the end. This is いってきます or まったね, not good-bye forever.

Nothing is over. Everything is beginning.

It sounds really cheesy, but that's how I feel right now. Everything is beginning. I accomplished a huge chapter in my life. I wanted to go to Japan. I wanted to learn how to speak Japanese. I wanted to learn how to read. And here I am.

I woke up at 10am and finished packing, and I guess I forgot to tell Arisa that I told her the wrong date and I'm leaving the 30th, not the 31st. So she asked me if I was going out today, and I said I'd be home until I had to leave at 2pm. Then my host mom came home from work and took me straight to lunch and the train station. I had known we had lunch plans but I wasn't sure on the time or who was coming. In the end, lunch was just my host mom and I, and Ryu and Erina were busy so I didn't get to say a proper farewell, but my host mom promised to pass the message on.

For lunch, we had kaiten sushi (conveyor belt sushi). It was really good but I was so emotional and nervous that I couldn't eat too much. Afterwards we still had time, so we went to a cafe in the train station and had frozen matcha drinks. It was really good, and filling my stomach with match and sushi right before heading to the airport was great.

It was really good to talk to my host mom too. I really appreciate everything she's done for me this year, and I'm glad I can finally talk properly with her. She kept telling me 日本語を忘れちゃだめ Nihongo o wasurecha dame ("You can't forget Japanese"). Yesterday I was so afraid that I would forget Japanese, but I'm not afraid today. As I told my host mom, ここまで来てから、あきらめるわけない。Koko made kite kara, akirameru wake nai ("After coming this far, there's no way I can give up"). I've studied Japanese for 5 years, through many times that I've wanted to give up. There's no way I can quit now. Now the fun is just beginning.

I can read with furigana or a kanji dictionary. I can speak my mind and I have friends to talk to and Facebook to write on. My journey with Japanese is just getting started. While that's frustrating in a way, I've achieved really temendous goals in the past year and I'm excited to see what doors that opens for me.

I definitely came to Japan with some idea of where I'd go in the future, but now I have no idea. While that's a little scary, it's not because I'm hopeless. It's because my future's wide open. I'm not going to follow some path someone else has set out for me. I'm going to follow my own path, and march forward. And I'll make something of my life. And I won't forget Japanese, or the people I've met here. I'll keep in touch. That's a promise.

Cafe Newtype

Posted by Shaun

I wrote two blog entries on the plane home, so now that I've been home for almost a month, I figure I'll write them up. I've been waiting for a moment when I'm not so tired from my summer part time job but that moment hasn't really come, so I'll just attempt to power through my exhaustion and type up what I have.

We'll start with my trip to Cafe Newtype, which I mentioned in my last post.

 My very last night in Japan, I met the Japanese friend I had planned to go to in Akihabara. I got bored of being in the house though, so I got there absurdly early. So I enjoyed walking directly down the middle of the street, which was closed to traffic since it was Sunday, and taking pictures of people playing video games in the middle of the road. It's really fun to walk down a four-lane street knowing you won't be run over, but it makes the sidewalk feel really narrow.

Neither my friend nor I could find the prices for food at Cafe Newtype, so we went to Tendon Tenya and had tendon (tempura in a bowl over rice) beforehand. Then we went searching for the cafe. It was pretty hard to find. We walked past the street we were supposed to go down at least twice, but we eventually found it. The cafe was pretty unimpressive on the inside. The tables reminded me of a cafeteria and it was smaller and dingier than I'd imagined. But the staff was really friendly.

At first we were really nervous and didn't know how to interact with people, but when we did, it was interesting.

My friend had never met anyone like an "otoko no ko" before so she kept talking about how beautiful everyone was and how they didn't look like men at all.
The place was having a beer festival, so if we ordered beer we got a random picture of one of the staff. I forgot the name of the person whose picture I have, but they weren't working the night we were there. But they had a wide selection of international beers for their festival, so I ordered a really delicious Newton green apple beer from Belgium. I hate regular beer, but fruit beer is acceptable.

I got to meet Pochi, the staff member I saw on TV when I found out about the cafe. I don't know what I was expecting from meeting him, but I didn't get to talk to him much.
My friend asked him why he chose the name Pochi (Pochi is a typical dog name in Japanese, like Fido). Pochi's answer was that he didn't want to give himself a particularly masculine or feminine name, but "Nan darou ne." ("Yeah, who knows why?"). 

Then I made an awkward error in trying to ask another staff member their preferred pronoun. The problem is, the words for he and she (kare and kanojo) also mean boyfriend and girlfriend in Japanese, so I think I actually asked their sexual preference instead and got the predictable answer of "My secret." It's totally possible to speak and write Japanese without pronouns but it's difficult in English, so, as you've probably already noticed, I'm using gender-neutral "they" (If you want to pick a fight about the validity of gender-neutral singular "they," do so on a different blog, please).

I've been using "he" for Pochi because of an interesting incident. The table behind us called for "Onee-san!" ("Excuse me, ma'am!"), and Pochi replied with "Onii-san da kedo, nani ga?" (It's sir but what is it?"). Since words like "onee-san" and "onii-san" are used way more often in Japanese than "kare" and "kanojo," I thought that might be a better window into the world of preferred pronouns.

The other staff member we talked to told us they wanted to become a model, not for just men's or just women's clothes, but for both or something in between. "Something only I can do," they said. Maybe sort of like Andrej Pejic, I guess. They said they already had some modeling work, and their photos in the photobook we got to look at were gorgeous. Of course, they were gorgeous in person too.

There was one staff member who was wearing a yukata and a sign that said "we have kaki-koori" (shaved ice), and was really trying to push people to order it. We we ordered water, they pointed out that adding one more line to the kanji for water would make it ice, and when another party ordered karaage (fried chicken), they said "Oh, you mean kaki-koori?" The determination was funny.

There was also a guy sitting by us who had come by himself and was showing the staff card tricks. It was kinda impressive.

Everyone who worked at Cafe Newtype was really nice to me too, the only foreigner in the entire place. I was asked how many years I'd been in Japan, and everyone was surprised when I said 11 months and disappointed when I said I was leaving tomorrow. They told me to come back if I was ever in Japan. I'm definitely going to miss my special foreigner status when I come back to America, if only a little bit.

After we left the cafe, we went to take purikura pictures at a nearby arcade, and we wanted to eat 100 yen donuts at Mister Donuts, but it was closed. We actually walked past it the first time because the storefront was totally dark and I was going on an empassioned speech about gay rights (I love that I can do that in Japanese now!). So we didn't get donuts, but we did have a good conversation.

It was a great night over all. I got to hang out with my friend, speak lots of Japanese, discover delicious beer, and meet a bunch of people performing gender in whatever way they saw fit. Smash the gender binary! :B

Yeah, um, ahem. My gender and women's studies minor is showing a little.