Site Intro

Hi there! My name is Matt Henry and I talk about e-learning, video, programming, game design,  and language learning. I currently live in Tokyo and am the head of video over at Innovative Language, the parent company of JapanesePod101.com and KoreanClass101.com among others.

For six months in 2009 I studied at a Japanese language school in Tokyo, which is where most of the posts on this site are from. For now there’s not much to see, but you can follow me on various social media here. Maybe I’ll say something interesting.

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JLPT N1

After my six-month intensive Japanese study period at the end of 2009, I had been been burnt out on studying the language for over a year. For six of those months, I was in America and was trying to enjoy the last vestige of college life. During this time, I rationalized that I would make up for this period of inactivity by plunging into another intensive study period as soon as I returned. But my return came and went, months went by, and despite a few feeble attempts to return to my past studying glories, I found that the fire which propelled me through in the past was nowhere to be found.

And here I found myself at a crossroads — because I honestly had enough language ability to “get by” in my day to day life over here. I didn’t “have to” learn any more. Where I spent those many days in the library studying for JLPT level 2 with an unassured future in my mind, and no guarantee that I would ever return to Japan again, I now found that with all the time in the world it was very difficult to get motivated.

But what motivated me in the first place? Walking around the streets of Tokyo, I’m aware of how arbitrary a decision it was to study Japanese versus any other language. If a few things happened differently, or if I had friends with different interests in my life, I might find myself blogging from an apartment in Berlin right now. What is it about this mass of humanity that attracted me in the first place? In light of this feeling of indifference, it is perhaps understandable why I couldn’t seem to relight that fire.

It’s a rediscovery that had no sudden epiphany, no “moment” when everything rushed back to me in a period of clarity. If there was a singular point that I had been missing out on, it was in remembering that the reason I came here never had much to do with the country itself.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a lot of things about this country. The history, the geography, the public transportation, the art styles, the filmmakers, the society (for the most part), and the people I have met since coming here. But I had none of these things in mind while I was staring blankly at Japanese flash cards during the dark ages of 10th grade. I need only look back to the first post I did on this blog in July 2009 to remember what that was.

Going into junior high, I decided that I wanted to learn something by the time I graduated college to justify all those years of existence.

The only reason that “something” turned out to be Japanese was pure happenstance. The love of video games typical for a junior high kid. An infatuation with Pokémon. My friend Alex’s collection of Gundam figurines. Looking at the ingredient list on package of ramen noodles in Japanese. No one of these factors was enough to push me through the times when things felt completely impossible, that fire had always come from the desire to prove to myself that I could actually do something great before college graduation.

So, depending on your definition of “great,” that goal was met when I received an email from Tanaka-san with a certificate saying I had passed JLPT level 2. At that point, my previous source of motivation was dead and I would have to come up with something new in order to progress any further. Only, I didn’t know that while telling myself I would come back to Japan and pick up right where I left off in the language.

And so the weeks turned into months, and nothing much happened. December rolled around and I started feeling guilty about how little I had accomplished with the language compared to where I was the previous December. And that feeling of guilt was still not enough to get me through longer than an hour with my nose in a book.

Despite all this, today I’m beginning one more push towards the goal I had always viewed as the pinnacle of achievement for Japanese proficiency. The ultimate “why-yes-I-am-fluent” indicator — the highest level of the JLPT: N1. This audacity is fueled by a completely different, but I think just-as-valid motivator, of which I have just started to become aware in a big way.

If you were to ask me how I define myself, I would stick “creative” pretty high atop the list. And I have a fair amount of friends who would describe me the same way, including a few friends who have faith in my abilities that far surpass my own faith. And despite this, ask me what I have created in my lifetime. A glance down the last eight years of my life is an endless wave of expectations, excitement, and disappointment as I develop ideas for projects, begin to work on them, and then stop working for various reasons. If you were to ask this film major to show you an example of something recent he has completed, he would still have to refer you to a movie he made in two days with his friends in 2004.

I have been aware of this for years, but I’ve felt as if the moment I would finally prove myself was coming soon. What about all those projects I had planned with my friends? And how could I get through my senior project class without finishing a project? (How DID I get through that…?) I thought I was close to finally getting something finished with the short film we shot before I left in August, but due to recent developments I’m now having doubts whether that will ever see the light of day.

Not even twenty halves make a whole.

My creativity isn’t being called into question, but my persistence is. Despite knowing that I’m capable of finishing what I start, a jury might disagree with such a claim based on evidence. In this light, I can’t look at JLPT level 2 as an accomplishment, but as another incomplete project. And N1 is the completion of that project.

So here’s what we’re looking at. 2000 kanji as opposed to level 2’s 1000. 10,000 vocabulary words instead of 6,000. A 70% pass mark instead of 60%. Only 33% of the applicants who took N1 in the first half of 2010 passed. This is while I’m working full time and attempting to have a social life on the side. I have just over 300 days before the test on December 4, 2011.

Who knows how well this will work? It seems pretty impossible from my perspective, but still within grasp in a strange way. I haven’t felt this way since… studying for level 2 in 2009. And it’s good to feel that way again.

Building

I could never handle video games for more than a few hours at a time. After a while, my eyes would get sick of staring at those bulky tube TVs, I would get bored fighting monsters or shooting people in the face, and I would move on to the next terrible thing that ten year olds find amusing.

The exception is something that could only be conceived of in the great country of Japan. Harvest Moon is a game that transports the player to a magical world unlike anything they’ve experienced before: the world of menial labor. It is a farming simulator. You plant seeds in the ground, water them daily, and wait for crops to grow. But wait! You also have the option of taming mythical beasts such as: cows.

All my attempts to explain why I was so enamored by this game through elementary and middle school were met with skepticism. I remember my dad watching me play one afternoon, trying to understand the appeal.

“Is there something chasing you?”

“No.”

“What happens when you sell your crops?”

“You can buy more crops.”

“Hm.”

Every one of the 120 days that comprise a game year is spent performing at least some routine chores. You have to tend to your crops every day. You have to gather all the chicken eggs. Maybe if you’re feeling adventurous you could go into the mountains and gather some roots! By themselves, these tasks were not fun at all as you might expect. But something about the daily grind of a routine made the fun things much more potent. Going to bed at night knowing that the next morning I would have a field full of corn to harvest could actually cause me to grin like an idiot to the empty room.

Aside from the farming component, it was also a life simulator. While you weren’t doing chores, you could go into town and build up relationships with your neighbors, and could eventually marry one of five girls. In addition to allowing you to buy more seeds, the money your crops brought in could be put to use building upgrades to your house, farm, and tools. In the beginning you live in a tiny shack with a farm covered in weeds and rocks, and after a few years you could have a two story house with added rooms, a neatly subdivided farm, and tools make the tedious farm work easier. Just by waking up and going past your farm, you are surrounded by accomplishments that you remember working hard for. It’s a kind of satisfaction that explosions and head shots just can’t replicate.

Something particularly vivid for me was running through that isometric world during the summer, and hearing the sounds of cicadas in the background. It was a simple atmospheric decision that certainly enforced the feeling of summertime for the Japanese audience the game was made for, but I had no idea what the sound was supposed to be. After investing a lot of time as a kid playing through the game, that sound constantly droning in the background, the chirp of the cicadas began to encompass my romantic idea of a summer in Japan. I was not so naive to expect that life would one day be as idyllic as Harvest Moon, but yet I felt a strange sort of anticipation for the open-ended nature of life after school, and in the back of my mind I thought about how nice it would be to live in a place with cicadas chirping in the background.

I made somewhat of a jump to translate my feelings playing a video game into my feelings regarding the working world, but I would argue that it’s not so strange of a jump. I’ve always wondered why the excitement people get when playing role-playing games doesn’t translate to actual life. An amusing microcosm for this is watching people play The Sims. This is a life simulator game that is remarkably thorough in its dailiness. You have to go to the bathroom, take out the trash, pay bills, go to work. Sounds awful, right? It’s actually mind numbingly addictive. But any good player of The Sims knows that you don’t let your characters spend all day playing video games or watching TV. Your “fun” meter may go up, but it’s at the expense of all other meters signifying well-being. And besides, if you don’t spend some time developing relationships or improving skills, the game doesn’t really advance.

And yet.

Luckily, it seems that some creative people are finally figuring out how to make this jump easier to navigate, such as the makers of an iPhone app in which you can check real-life tasks off of your to-do list with video game like rewards. Spend some time at the gym? You can earn strength experience points. The whole concept simply adds a tongue-in-cheek mask to a simple but unpopular concept: working on something will cause you to get better at it. The objective with the iPhone app is still just to improve a fake character’s abilities, but in so doing, the player will unwittingly improve themselves.

These improvements can be internal, such as typical RPGs where you improve your stats, giving you new abilities, or capitalistic, in the sense that by working hard in Harvest Moon, one can buy a roomier house with more convenient features. Either way, the idea that the degree to which you “play the game” can lead to these improvements in both ways was always an abstractly exciting idea to me, and I looked forward to being in a situation that felt like the beginning of the role-playing games of my childhood. An open-ended adventure sits in front of you, and the extent to which you succeed or fail is dependent on your ability to forgo immediate pleasures in favor of reaching personal milestones.

It’s a slippery slope to interpret what I’m talking about as a condonement of rampant consumerism or cutthroat ambition. The objective of life should not be to live in the biggest house or have the most prestigious job. Also, the worth of a person cannot be measured objectively by the ratio of time devoted to work versus the time devoted to entertainment or relaxation. The impulse I’m referring to is far more eloquently personified by the life of Benjamin Franklin, who believed in self-improvement for its ability to transcend social hierarchies; the original rags-to-riches paradigm before the industrial revolution hit America. Himself the son of a candlemaker, he used ingenuity and industry to improve his social reputation in a way that would have been impossible in England during the time. Once he reached a position that could influence the world around him, he helped lay the foundations for America to become a society of go-getters. He opened the first lending library, created volunteer firefighting guilds and militias, spread wisdom through print with his Poor Richard’s Almanacks, and formed a Junto for like-minded learners to discuss intellectual topics of the day. It’s in Franklin’s meritocratic ideal of social mobility that I’m speaking; a concept from before the day the word “ambition” became a dirty one.

So many words, Mr. Henry. Three entries in a row about this. In an attempt to do what?

In an attempt to make sense of the bewildering amount of options that stand before myself and peers. In an attempt to come to terms with a world that no longer accepts the currency we have been using up to this point. In an attempt to convince myself that the best years of life are not behind us, but in recognition that an adaptation to a new paradigm is necessary. This is the stuff of commencement addresses, but it’s what I feel is currently necessary.

My tiny shack is a guesthouse room that is just big enough for a bed and a desk. My farm is my camera and computer. And instead of gathering roots, I must act intentionally to go to experience that in life which truly has value. By working hard in my job, I am able to afford an apartment of reasonable quality. In this sense, there is some level of excitement to living within my means in an attempt to save money and resources for the future. And yes, there is still the need for menial labor and dull routine, but the open-ended adventure still waits in the future. Riding forty minutes on a subway every morning is as much a part of it as the exploration will be.

But at least I’ll be able to do it with the sound of cicadas in the background.

Arrival

To the crowd of Japanese youth making their way through the busiest train station in the world, the foreigner wearing two backpacks and peering over the top of a large cardboard box in his arms was just another obstacle. After steering clear of him and being herded past signs and advertisements and gates, the train they would catch would offer no respite from the crowds, it would simply confine them to an even smaller environment. There they would make the most of the little space around them to wave their fans with their wrists, and the brightly lit train cars would experience the rare sound of excited voices. Perhaps some are cursing their luck that their daily commute is forcing them to experience the full brunt of traffic to be expected for an event the magnitude of tonight’s, but most are here voluntarily. They represent the past and present of Japanese fashion — some costumed in traditional summer yukata, but most wear designer clothing, sweaty t-shirts: western clothes, though that distinction is gradually losing its meaning. They are on their way to the Sumida fireworks festival, named for that river in the traditional district of Tokyo where it takes place.

I remembered one year ago, when I walked downstream from this crowd instead of against them. At the time, I was a student at a Japanese language school meeting a fellow student at Asakusa station to view the fireworks. I was in the middle of my first semester at the school, with the remains of the year to enjoy my experience in Japan before I would return to my hometown for Christmas and to finish my last semester of college. There was the carefree feeling that being a student allows, where the most taxing worries involve tests and teachers and crushes. Thinking about life after college is easily postponed thanks to the knowledge that for the foreseeable future there is nothing but time. I had even more luxury because I had already planned out my future, and was resolute on my decision. And though I certainly had friends in my hometown whom I regretted not being able to include in these plans, I assured myself that moving to Japan after college is ultimately an easy decision if rationality were to be applied.

Walking down the streets of Shinjuku, cursing the delivery company at the airport for not being able to ship my computer directly to my guesthouse, and putting my now-sweaty, 45 pound box down for the fifth time since escaping the station, I predictably found myself missing my friends. I scanned the passing crowds, knowing that this traffic would ultimately not bring a single one of them were I to wait all month. The faces were unfriendly, dismissive, judging. Not unlike the faces I saw while beginning college. The task now, like it was then, was to start again. And although the emotional baggage make this clumsy cardboard box seem light as air, I have universal praise and excitement about my decision from friends and family propelling me onward. For now, I have to take their words for it.

Attempting to drag all this luggage through a number of subways would be a terrible experience, even if the subways weren’t uncommonly busy tonight. That was my justification for hailing a taxi after checking in with the Sakura House headquarters and setting off to find my actual room. Peering out the rear window, we passed a number of sights that I remembered seeing when I was a student. The bookstore I frequented while studying for the Japanese proficiency test. The movie theater where I finally caved and decided to see Harry Potter. The subway exit I would come out of every school day. In lieu of being home, at least this area was familiar. But as the taxi sped through the labyrinthine and dark streets of Tokyo, even that familiarity began to fade. I was dropped off on a street that looked like every other street, told the general direction that my guesthouse would be, and watched the taxi pull back into the flow of traffic. I consulted my hastily-folded and soggy map once more, strapped on my backpacks, picked up my box again, and walked into the darkness.

For now, I’ve got some work to do. I fulfilled my major goal that I made during junior high: find a job that I enjoy doing. I’m all too conscious of the harm that a job that one dreads going to every day can do to even the most idealistic person after college, this from my many 20-something friends I kept in contact with on the internet while I was a teenager. But rather than being content with achieving my goal, I recognize that now is the time to create new goals so that the months do not become years and I find myself unintentionally settled down and stagnant. This isn’t a tale of cutthroat ambition, but of creative expression. This blog being one part of a larger plan.

I intend to keep this blog updated with entries, pictures and video to record my experiences. The plan is that if my experiences become boring, than so will this blog. In a way, this is keeping me honest and preventing me from falling into a cycle. I won’t blame readers for losing interest, but will see it as a sign to re-evaluate what I’m doing and to seek out something unfamiliar. I also see this blog as a way of keeping my skills updated. As writing, photography and videography are all integral to what I intend to do in life, by using these skills as the primary medium of this blog I hope the experience will transfer to larger projects, which I also intend to pursue. The flip-side of this plan is that coming across as narcissistic is probably impossible to avoid. After all, anybody who creates a website of his own and constantly broadcasts the events of his own life would not do so unless they felt like their daily going-ons were worth other people’s time to read. Rather than apologize for this after every entry, I’ll just mention that I’m primarily doing this for myself, with the bonus that this blog can double as a convenient way to keep my family and friends updated on my life. So though my entries (which will probably fall into the trap of feeling pompous until I can learn to write more naturally) and video will no doubt be centered on my subjective experience, I hope that some value can still be found in them to those interested in life in Japan or any other themes I may touch on.

I arrived on a Saturday afternoon and work on a Monday morning.

To sum up

I’m only a few days away from going home. Most of my family has been reading my blog (they likely made up about 4,000 of my 6,300 total views), but once school starts back up in January, I’m likely to be bombarded with that wonderful question that well-intentioned acquaintances who only realized you were gone when they see you come back tend to ask. “How was it?”

Okay, I understand the mindset behind it. I’ve often been on the opposite end of that question when one of my friends gets back from a study abroad experience. Where do you start? Hey, you’ve been gone for six months, give me an adjective. But it’s so difficult to sum up everything into as concise a package as the asking person would like. Because people who simply ask the question “how was it?” aren’t actually interested in the coin operated showers, or the grading schemes in the classes, or the historical significance of Ginza. If they were, they would begin with, or at least follow up with something more probing. They just want a summary. One or two quick sentences that can give them an idea of how I responded to six months of stimulus.

So let me start by figuring out how the heck I managed to spend six months over here.

July
I arrived on the 4th, met my fellow American students and KCP’s English support staff at the airport. We were taken individually to our places of residence, mine being a dorm room in Shinjuku which had plenty of room for a bed and a desk, and if you squeezed, a person. I took the placement test, where I was very quickly humbled and placed in level 3.

Class began, and I struggled. Being self taught, I had a lot of holes in my education and pretty much all of them were exploited early on. I made friends with a Chinese guy named Encaron. On weekends and after school, I would go wander around by myself. We also had a few culture classes, which were just for the American students and taught in English. The quality of these varied, but were usually enough to make me excited to get up on a Saturday.

About halfway through the month, I visited the offices for the first time. I work at JapanesePod101.com and make videos with two other people. I would later begin working every weekday for four hours after school.

Near the end, I went to see fireworks at Sumida-river with an American (originally from Indonesia) named Trisna, who would later be the person I went with on trips outside of Tokyo. No, we were not dating.

Then finally, we had a speech contest. I was not a contestant, but Encaron was our classes representative and we got to do a cheer for him onstage.

August
The culture classes continued and the summer weather got even more hot. I learned that I had a family that signed up to have me stay at their house, but it fell through. They wanted to try again in the next semester.

Then I took my first trip out of Tokyo, going to Fujiyoshida with Trisna. Fujiyoshida is famous for being very close to Mt. Fuji, but the weather was terrible the entire trip. Mt. Fuji strike one.

KCP held a cooking class, which I attended. I also went to the Ghibli museum for the first time. In less fun news, I had Midterms for the first semester.

In the middle of the month, we had our big culture class outing to Enoshima and Kamakura (pt. 1 | pt. 2). I got to get to know the Americans a little better.

We also had a summer vacation coming up, with an entire week free. Trisna and I planned a three day trip. We first went to Nara, and then Himeji castle. Then we went to Hiroshima and the nearby island Miyajima. I took some of my favorite pictures during this trip.

September
After summer vacation, school got a little more quick paced. We also took a school trip to a nearby park.

In addition to taking many tests in a short period of time, I got a letter from my future host family that got me excited for the prospect of living with them. The Americans who were leaving after the first semester took a special final exam early, and left about the middle of the month. Mine wasn’t until the 25th, but there was a five day break immediately before it. I wound up mostly studying during that break.

I took my final exam, and finished level 3. I had a week of freedom, during which I didn’t attempt anything too strenuous, except for go to the Ghibli museum again, and then it was time to move in with my host family.

October
I moved into my homestay in Minami-senju, and spent the second week doing stuff with them. In the excitement of making a good first impression, I signed up for a 5K race.

I found out that I got an A in level 3, and they asked me to do a sample conversation with one other classmate in front of the next semester’s orientation. The next semester began, and I was feeling a lot more at-home at KCP, being the one-semester veteran.

On the first weekend, the host family and I went over to a friend-of-the-family’s house in Chiba. The husband happened to be a commercial director at TBS (tv studio), and I discovered that the secret behind speaking a language well is finding someone that you really, really want to talk to. I kept in touch after the weekend, and he seemed to like me.

I approached the next semester of school as if I were aiming to get 100 percent on every test. It’s amazing how the difficulty of KCP can beat such optimistic thoughts out of a person. Upset that I had long passed the halfway mark and had yet to see Mt. Fuji, I took another trip by myself to Kawaguchiko, which met a similar rainy fate. Mt. Fuji strike two.

November
Another semester, and another school excursion. This time to a park in Tachikawa for a BBQ.

My host family had long since tired of me, and essentially rented me out to some of their friends for a weekend. It was nice to be around people who were excited to talk to me again. I finally ran the 5K race, got 21st in a group of about 120 people, and felt moderately good about myself. Then came the second midterm.

November was when I started studying hardcore for the upcoming JLPT 2 exam. I would spend entire weekends in the library, and studied in whatever cracks existed in my schedule. As such, the month felt like a blur compared to the lazy summer days.

December
I took the JLPT and I’m fairly confident I passed. After the test, my energy wavered a bit, and I slugged through the last bit of classes. Work got hectic as I had to make sure everything was in place to make the transition from “has Matt” to “no Matt” go smoothly. I got offered a job by my boss for after I graduate, a decision which has yet to be made.

One weekend, I decided to give Mt. Fuji one last shot. I woke up at 5:30, took the 4 hour trip back to Kawaguchiko, and was greeted with a sight I have almost been trained not to expect — Mt. Fuji. I tried to get as many pictures as I could, and got a few that I could be proud of. I stayed there the entire day, until the sun set. Mt. Fuji, homerun. (well, perhaps a triple. It got cloudy again in the evening)

I also went to a party with some co-workers, where we mostly played video games. It sort of reminded me of parties back home.

And today, I went to the Ghibli museum one last time.

Tomorrow is Monday, and my last day of class, and then Tuesday is my final exam. Wednesday, at about 4:30, I’m flying out of here.

Suffice it to say, Japan has been a ton of work and a ton of fun. Not that it was either one or the other, but they both happened at the same time.

So how’s that?

JLPT

So, I randomly had 125 hits to this blog yesterday with no referrer (which means people are typing henrymatt.com into their address bar). I have no idea what caused this. The internet is weird.

Today was the culmination of a lot of hard work. True, a lot of times I say that I work hard and I don’t really work hard, but I spent four consecutive weekends in the library, including the afternoons of Tuesday and Thursdays and whatever time I could fit in the cracks going back about three months preparing for today, the JLPT.

Back in June, I figured that by this time I could take level 3 if I was feeling bored, but level 2 was way out of reach. But during midterm consultations with one of my teachers, she told me that I could probably take level 2 and have a good chance at passing it. Considering that I usually have much more delusional expectations of myself than others, this surprised me enough that I decided to give it a shot.

The course content of level 4 at KCP targets some JLPT 2 material specifically (under the creative title of “JLPT 2 Grammar”). The idea is that by level 5, all the material for the JLPT 2 has been covered in class. Me and many of my classmates who also took the test, being in level 4, had to do some significant work outside of class in order to have a chance.

Regardless of whether or not I actually passed the test (which I at no point considered a done deal — even now), it was nice to have some sort of guide post to look to. As I’ve thoroughly documented in this blog, I came to Japan with a very lopsided understanding of the language. I knew a ton of kanji but I didn’t know any of the words that people actually use in daily life. I could carry a conversation, but I would make about three errors a sentence and nobody ever corrected me. In my first semester at KCP, I would go from finding certain things incredibly easy to suddenly be completely lost in a five minute span. This is because I taught myself, and I’m a terrible teacher.

So one of the main things that attracted me to attempting the test is that it would allow me to get my skill level up to a certain, standardized point. Every category of the language needs to get to a certain, definite point. It forces you to work hard on the parts you’re weak at and balance everything out. So, while having a certificate that says I passed JLPT 2 would be nice, I was more looking forward to being able to concretely measure where I’m at. I now know that JLPT 2 books are going to contain material that I’ve already covered and JLPT 1 books are going to contain something new. All across the board. So I don’t need to think “oh, this book would be good for grammar but the kanji is way too easy” or “here’s a good book for kanji but holy crap these example sentences are ridiculous”.

Going forward, past the sheltered environment of KCP where I am protected from my own foolish mistakes, this is important for choosing my own self study curriculum. I also talked with a level 5 teacher and he said that I could basically just get some JLPT 1 test preparation books and it would be pretty similar to the curriculum I would have gotten in level 5 and 6.

But as for the test itself… I went to sleep really early the night before and woke up at 6:00 in order that I could act like a responsible student and take a shower, have breakfast, and be alert enough for test. It took about an hour to get to the test site, a university. The staff of the test were all very professionally dressed, with a yellow band around their arms indicating they were staff. I found my way into room 202, a large classroom with about 64 seats. The demographics were pretty predictable: mostly Korean or Chinese, with a lot of Malaysian students as well. Of the western kids, I found out that most of them were actually Italian. In my classroom, there were perhaps four Americans including me, although I can’t know for sure.

One thing I was happy about was that I was seated in the very middle, in the second row back. The listening comprehension exercises at school are typically from a cassette tape (seriously, Japan?) and the recording quality ranges from bad (the professionally made tapes) to awful (the ones that KCP teachers recorded themselves, from the sounds of it, in one of the bathrooms). It’s perhaps a cop-out to blame poor performance on this, but it’s kind of a big deal.

The JLPT is split into three sections, with a break between each one. The first section was Vocabulary/Sentences. This mainly focused on the usage of words, and matching kanji compounds with their readings. If it’s possible for me to say I have one section that I’m good at, it’s this. After the first section, I was feeling pretty cocky. There were also about three questions that I only knew the answer because I had studied them the day before. That’s probably more luck than anything, but so often in tests I get asked the one word that I didn’t study, so it was nice to have a reversal when it actually mattered.

The second section is the dreaded listening comprehension. But I found that it was surprisingly manageable when I actually hung on each word like grim death. In class, perhaps my eyes glaze over a bit during the long listening comprehension lessons. For the hour that this section took place though, I made sure to listen to every word. One of my teachers gave me advice when I brought up my difficulty with listening comprehension at the most recent midterm discussion; to visualize something while listening. I found that trying to listen to each word and hoping that no words I’ve never heard of pop up just results in my entire train of thought being shafted as soon as those words inevitably do pop up. Instead, my teacher told me to imagine the situation being described as a situation, cast friends in the roles, and just build the image in your head with the description from the audio. I don’t know why I didn’t think of this, because I’m a visual person to a fault, but it made a lot of sense when I put it into practice and the listening section went well in part because of it.

After the second section, I grabbed just enough lunch that it would keep me running but not so much that I would get tired like I always do. I also had a chance to talk to one of the Italian dudes, who was a designer. I like to glorify what I do as “motion graphic design”, so I was able to talk to him a little about that. I find that getting burnt out is a state unrepairable by anything but sleep, so it was nice to talk about something completely not Japanese for a few minutes. Similarly, when I study in the library, I often go and look at the English books when I start to feel the onset of burn out.

The third section is reading comprehension and grammar. It was worth the same amount of points as the last two sections combined, so I couldn’t coast on it. Whether or not I can do reading comprehension well or not is depending on my mental state, and I haven’t exactly pinned down the formula to get to said state. Sometimes I’ll just look at a sentence and think “that makes no dang sense” and sometimes I’ll breeze through a paragraph.

The reading comprehension confirmed my suspicion that the practice books I was using actually contained harder material than the test itself. Usually in a long passage, there will be about eight very difficult words with footnotes that explained the meaning, but there were perhaps twice that many words within the passage that were just as hard. In the test, I understood almost all the words and even some of those that were called out in footnotes. The questions were a little abstract for my liking. There were hardly any questions that had answers that jumped out as definitely right or definitely wrong. I also had to read very quickly. Although I didn’t bring a clock with me, my internal clock was telling me to book it even though the meaning of the sentences were a little uncertain. After all, it would be a shame to not get to the 40 grammar questions because I was hung up on the 20 reading questions.

Accepting that I was not going to get a hundred percent on the reading, I finished up and moved onto grammar. Here, I also had to thank the books I used to prepare for the test, as I recognized a lot of question patterns. As I got closer and closer to the end, I started to think that it would probably be very cathartic to finally be done with this. Just ten more, just five more, just two more… I literally filled in the last bubble as the proctor called time. And rather than feeling as if I completed something large, I felt like there was still a lot of work to do yet. All memory of the first two sections were gone, and I was too focused on all the half-guesses I had to make during this section. I still had a lot of work to do…. not in order to pass the test — I think worst case scenario I still pass — but in order to get to the point where I can leave here feeling like I’ve really accomplished something. How’s that for lame? Look, I’m trying to feel good about my accomplishments, but my brain won’t let me. Oh well.

As a reward for myself, I went to Kinokuniya and bought a book in English. Reading it on the train back to Minami Senju was a nice feeling. Like, “ha, I can understand every word!” And then the word “exsanguinate” popped up and even that cockiness was gone.

Oh, by the way, we have a test tomorrow and some homework due as well. It’s a good thing I don’t have a social life over here…

The KCP classroom

I’m noticing that I’m falling into some of the same traps that other KCP bloggers have. See, back when I was still scouting out the program, I scoured all the blogs I could find by students who had gone through the program just to find some descriptions of how the class goes in general. There was rarely anything posted that could really give me an idea of how things worked on a day to day basis inside the classroom. It was one of the things I vowed to do when I went through, but as things become routine, only the highlights tend to get commented on while the large things don’t even stand out as things worthy of blogging. So I’ll talk a little bit more generally about class now that I have some idea of what’s going on.

Remember that I’m in level 3, so things will certainly vary in the lower levels and the higher levels. I’ll try to talk to some people in those levels later on and get a better idea of what those differences are in the future.

First off, there are three different teachers per class. One teaches on Monday and Wednesday, one on Tuesday and Friday, and one on Thursdays. It probably sounds terrible, but I still don’t have all my teacher’s names straight. There never really was an introduction at the beginning of the semester because most of the students had already had those teachers at one point in the past. And there was so many new things thrown at me in the first few days that my retention rate was pretty low. I like the three teacher thing, because it’s good to hear things from different perspectives. It’s not even that some teachers teach different things poorly, but one teacher might approach a grammar point in a completely different way from another one, and being able to hear different voices say the same thing is good for learning. It reminds me of the things I read back when I was trying to learn how to study a language by myself. Instead of trying to find a definitive textbook to walk you through the entire process, it’s best to pick a few textbooks and work through them at the same time. They’ll introduce different things at different points, but you’ll be able to see the overlap on the really important things and be able to see the different approaches to teaching the same thing.

The teachers all have pretty different personalities. The Tuesday/Friday teacher reminds me of an elementary teacher. She just has that patient tone of voice and you can tell that she’s taking her job seriously. The Monday/Wednesday is like a junior high teacher. She has tighter control over the classroom itself and seeks out weaknesses in students in order that they get practice where they need it. The Thursday teacher is like no other teacher I’ve ever witnessed before. She’s the only one who’s name I remember: Fukumoto-sensei. I don’t want to say that she makes fun of the students, but she has a very “quick Tsukommi” as they say. If you bobble your words significantly, or are acting strangely, she’ll very quickly say “大丈夫、○○さん??” (are you alright??). It’s always in good humor, and her classes are always pretty fun. She’s the sort of teacher that American student’s parents would quickly get fired, but all the diligent students love her. While all my teachers happen to be women, there are a decent number of male teachers at KCP. I should add that all the teachers are good, and even those who teach the special classes that I go to once a week seem good enough that I find myself hoping they’ll teach one of my classes in level 4. What it equals out to is that I’d probably have good teachers no matter what level I’m in.

I mentioned the special classes, and let me clarify that a little bit. So, morning classes get out at 12:15 and afternoon classes start at 1:30. From 12:30 to 1:15 every day, there are 特別講座 or “special classes” that you can take. Americans are required to take at least one, but you could theoretically take one all five days. Depending on what level you’re at, it limits what classes you can attend, but there are plenty that are open to all levels. Let me run off the list of special classes for this semester:

Monday
Beginner’s Kanji (1-2)
Written Japanese (3-4)
Advanced Conversation (5-)

Tuesday
Beginner’s Conversation (1-2)
Intermediate Kanji (3-)
Katayama Seminar (advanced level expressions, etc) (6-)

Wednesday
Song (1-)
Intermediate Conversation (3-5)
Graduate school preparation (2-)

Thursday
Beginner’s Pronunciation (1-3)
Intermediate/Advanced Pronunciation (4-)
Calligraphy (1-)
Dance class (1-)

Friday
Gogyoku (poem) (3-)
Newspaper club (1-)
Koto (Japanese harp) (3-)
Tea Ceremony (2-)

I’m doing Intermediate Kanji and Calligraphy, as I’ve mentioned before. If those classes are any indication, then all of these special classes are pretty professionally run. The teachers all have some passion about their topic, so you’re bound to have a decent time no matter what you choose.

By the way, there are a couple of “special” special classes that are just a one time thing. One such example is the Cooking Class, which is coincidentally tomorrow and which I am coincidentally attending. If you are terribly impatient to hear how it is, there is a blog entry from someone else who did it last semester that will probably give a pretty good idea of what to expect.

Right, so the classes themselves. It’s two hour-and-a-half segments with a 15 minute break in between. In an average day, we usually do the following:
*some sort of kanji lesson (we study 6 characters a day)
*pronunciation practice (the class reads passages aloud while the teacher nitpicks over intonation)
*grammar discussion

We also do a written composition every Thursday, and there are about two tests a week on average. The grammar lasts the longest, typically at least an hour. The curriculum is pretty tightly integrated with the textbook Minna no Nihongo. I may be imagining it, but it seems like the sample sentences in the kanji books always just happen to feature a grammar point that we just went over. Since the kanji books were actually written by KCP (and they’re proper books — not something printed off a laser jet) that might very well be the case. When discussing grammar, the teacher typically smoothly segues between a casual conversation and the grammar point by asking how to say something in a certain way and then having everybody make guesses out loud until the one person who actually previewed the material ahead of time shouts out the grammar point that is going to be taught. This happens about every time we start a new chapter, and it seems like Jeff is the only one who caught onto the pattern. Then the grammar explanation proceeds in the way most grammar explanations around the world are taught — on a whiteboard with lots of examples and a lot of words describing parts of speech. One of the papers we got before class started had a list of how to say things like “polite form,” “transitive verb,” “adjective,” etc. These are words that will definitely be important to know. I’d expect that it doesn’t matter what level.

The differences in teaching styles really shows in the kanji segment. One teacher teaches all the example words in the book that use the kanji being taught, and then speaks for a long time about tons of more obscure words using that kanji. The other one pays more attention to the way we write the characters and hammers home just the example words. We don’t do kanji on Thursday, so I don’t know how Fukumoto-sensei would teach kanji.

One of the things that has been consistently hard for me, but is something you’ll have to learn how to do in order to be successful is to define Japanese words using other Japanese words. So, a teacher will say something like “what does がっかり mean?” (in Japanese, of course). And I know the answer — it means “disappointed.” But how do you express the concept of disappointment without saying “がっかり” and by not using English. It kind of forces you do push the words that you do know to their limits, which I’ve noticed to be a large point in becoming a versatile speaker.

The class seems to move pretty quickly. When I consider that the hour and a half that one segment of the class takes is the same hour and a half that I spent in Intro to Theology back at NNU, then it really seems to move fast. There’s no sleeping or staring off into space that goes unnoticed, but you really don’t have the opportunity to anyway. After all, you chug through the textbook so fast you barely have time to look at the pictures. So, things move quickly, but I would call it “brisk” rather than “hectic” and the atmosphere is typically nice enough that it’s fun.

Homework comes from a couple of places. You’ll typically have to do the problems from the textbook for each chapter (takes like 10 minutes if you understood the material). You also do what’s called the Benkyou Notebook, which has a chapter for each chapter in the textbook. This one you hand in and get graded, and it’s the best way to judge how ready you are for upcoming tests. There are also additional textbooks that homework might come out of.

It’s also implied that you study the grammar that you don’t understand, study the vocabulary somehow, study the kanji you went over during the day, and basically help yourself if you’re falling behind. If you’re conscious and were placed in the class level that you should be in, you probably won’t fall behind, but your diligence on making certain of this is always necessary.

This week is the week before the midterm test, so it was even quicker paced than previous weeks. We got behind about a day on where we were supposed to be with the grammar, so we caught that up. There was a grammar test and kanji test on Tuesday and Wednesday. And then there was a weird test that I wasn’t sure how to prepare for. It’s called the conversation test, and it actually happened today. Yesterday, we were put into groups of four and told to think about a topic to talk about under the vague subject of “summer.” Today, five “Japanese guests,” came in and one went to each group and we basically had to sustain a conversation with them for half an hour. It was intense in a way, but Fukumoto-sensei said I did good. Thanks, over-a-year-of-conversation-practice-with-Yang!

One other thing to happen this week was that I actually understood something that most of the class didn’t understand. Even though 80% of the time I’m thinking to myself “how does everybody in the class know this except for me?” a grammar point that was covered on Wednesday, which seemed to me to be just as difficult as all the other grammar points, seemed to confuse a ton of people in class. I understood it before it was even covered, so I was actually a little bored when the teacher had to keep explaining it over and over again. This doesn’t happen often, though. I’ve only been in Japan for a month while my classmates have been there at least 7 months already. There are so many things that you just pick up from living here that you would never get from studying by yourself in the states.

Well, I think I’ve covered this pretty thoroughly. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to send me a comment.