Taking the JLPT Exam

This last Sunday the 7th, I took the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test, or in Japanese, 日本語能力試験) at the beautiful Kobe Gakuin University. This is the Japanese government’s official language test, and passing the higher levels is a de-facto requirement for getting a job at a Japanese company. My experience calls to mind an age-old joke, of a man who walks into a bar. He sees a sign proclaiming, “Free beer for life if you beat the challenge!” The challenge is, as given by the seasoned barman, “Chug that half-gallon bottle of pepper whiskey in 6 minutes, and then two more tasks: there’s an incredibly mean old dog out back with a tooth that’s been infected for weeks. No vet can get close enough to extract it. And finally, there’s a girl upstairs who’s never been with a man, so we need someone to really show her a good time.” “That’s the stupidest challenge I’ve ever heard in my life!” says the man. Before the bartender can even reply, the man is already halfway through the whiskey. He finishes and slams it down, smashing it on the counter to smithereens and getting glass shards all over his hands. Doesn’t even look like this man can even stand, but he lets out a whoop and he’s ready. The bartender takes him out back to the dog and shuts the door. After a lot of growling, barking, scuffling, and screaming, the man emerges victorious, shirt ripped to shreds, scratches, bites, and bloodstains all over. “All right…” he pants, “now where’s the dog with the tooth?”

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So yeah, I really screwed the pooch on this test. Anyways, for anyone else taking the JLPT, the format is this: there are three sections, vocabulary, grammar/reading, and listening. By the way, for those unfamiliar, the JLPT is 5 levels, from N5 at the lowest (a gold participation sticker) to N1 (native fluency). I took N3, intermediate. The entire test was scheduled for four hours, with half hour breaks between each section. Sounds excessive, but most of this break time was actually taken up by extremely tedious test-collecting and counting, so in reality each break was only 10 minutes or so. I can’t remember exactly, but I remembered being pleasantly surprised that the test was not as hefty as I thought it’d be– all three sections had about 30-40 questions each.

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Kobe Gakuin University borders the ocean.

Vocabulary consisted of picking a kanji nearest in meaning to an underlined word in a sentence, picking the correct hiragana reading for a given kanji, and picking the right word/words to finish a sentence. Grammar/reading was more of picking the right phrase to finish a sentence, as well as reading comprehension questions. Finally, listening, where I screwed the pooch the hardest, was a mixture of “listen to this conversation and answer the written question,” “pick the most appropriate response to this question” (e.g. “What should we bring to the party? [A] It starts at 8. [B] Bring whatever you want!), and “in this picture, what is something that person A is most likely to say?”

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The “Battle of Santiago,” a 1962 World Cup match so dirty that it partly led to the invention of yellow and red cards.

Since the exam is given only twice a year, it’s pretty high-stakes, all-or-nothing. It was also comically overly strict. The proctors were even armed with yellow cards and red cards, exactly like soccer (in their front pockets, too), and the moment someone breached a rule, like opening their book too early or not putting their pencil down when time was up, the proctor would run over holding the card up in the air. Only thing missing was test-takers gathering around them and yelling in their face and maybe a VAR check. Same rules as well– two yellows get you sent off, and there are some offenses that are straight red, like taking out your cellphone or slide tackling from behind.

I was dreadfully underprepared. Although I speak more than non-zero Japanese, I didn’t start studying grammar in earnest until January 2019, six months after arriving, and even then I didn’t really do it regularly enough. I slacked off way too much, and it felt pretty bad having been here for a year and still having nothing to show for it. My original goal was to make N3 in a year and then N2 in two years. I wanted to have enough skill in Japanese to get a custom-made yukata (summer kimono) for summer festivals this year. Oh well, guess it’ll have to wait!

Going into the exam room solo also reminds me of college, and how much I hate strangers who are taking the same test as me– hearing things like “Oh man, I barely studied at all, I did 10 textbooks but then I stopped for like three days!” or “I literally didn’t study at all, but I took a practice listening test and got 100%.” Who are you trying to impress? Nobody thinks you’re cool because you didn’t study, and admitting that you studied makes you a normal person, not uncool. Also, as a side note, I also took a page from the Japanese’s book and was expecting all whites/other-non Asians to be taking the test, since it’s a test for foreigners. But instead, I was surprised to see that it was almost all Asian foreigners. Whoops!

Akashi Living & Reflections, Part 2

* This is the long awaited sequel to Cherry Blossoms & Reflections. Credit goes to Rika M. for the postcard cover photo.

With the last blog post, I had a startling realization, that had I not recontracted and this were my first and only year on JET, then all I would have to show for my experience is 20-some travel-guide-esque blog posts. The concept of just blogging about *me* and my feelings, etc. is so difficult to me that I only feel comfortable writing instructional-esque material, and even have personal posts in their own category. Although, I suppose, technically all my posts still fall under it.

Anyways, as my one-year anniversary of my arrival in Japan approaches, I thought I should dedicate a post to the city that so graciously houses me and to whose children I am “teaching” English, Akashi City. I know that in the past it’s been a little confusing as to where I actually live, but again, my school is in the town of Inami, despite it being called East Harima High School. I live, however, in Akashi. It is on the south coast of the Hyogo Prefecture, pretty much smack-dab in the middle between Himeji to the west and Kobe to the east.

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Also home to Akashi Castle (Ruins), demolished in 1874 and never rebuilt.

Nearly every city in Japan, be it Tokyo or a countryside town where trains run only once an hour, has some random claim claim to fame or some other kind of specialty. For example, Akashi’s neighboring Awaji Island is known for its onions, as well as the place where the gods pulled Japan out of the sea. I have a friend who lives in a modest rural town of 40,000, and their claim to fame is being located in the geographical center of Japan, as well as having connections with the Australian Olympic ping-pong team (no idea why). Tokyo, besides being the capital of Japan and all that, is also apparently known for its bananas, because the special souvenir snack you can only buy there is always “Tokyo banana,” despite the fact the amount of Tokyo banana plantations may be close to zero.

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Credit goes to Rika M. for this photo.

As for Akashi, we have three! First and foremost is Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world. Funnily enough, when I was visiting my girlfriend in 2017, she took me to this bridge as a day trip. It was a 2-hour drive from her place in Osaka, and at the time I thought it was, well, pretty neat. It passed out of my mind and I never imagined I’d be back one day.

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Secondly, and in fact the thing I pull out the most when people ask where I live, is that Akashi is where the national time of Japan is set, at the Akashi Planetarium.

Thirdly, Akashi has its own special dish called Akashiyaki, which is a fried ball of batter, heavy on the eggs, with a piece of octopus in it, dipped in dashi, a light fish broth and the base for nearly all Japanese soups, from miso soup to ramen. It is, in fact, the precursor of the now much more famous takoyaki that was invented in Osaka.

With that out of the way, I want to dedicate this post to some of the negatives of living in Japan. If you’ve read my other posts, you’ll have to take everything with a grain of salt because I think I am pretty positively biased towards Japan. Nevertheless:

 Asian in Japan

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More relevant than you think. This is, of course, from King of the Hill.

The experience of being a foreigner in Japan is probably talked about and blogged about more than the weather. Is being a foreigner in Japan indeed like being in the seventh circle of Hell, where instead of a lake of boiling fire it’s constant passive-aggression, or is it a land of infinite friendliness, hospitality, and adventures, of being invited to carry a sacred shrine at a festival, just for being a cool foreign dude who happened to walk by?

For me, it’s not really either. I’m stuck in between the two worlds– I’m not Japanese, but I’m not the *cool* or *interesting* kind of foreigner either. I can’t help but feel some kids were a little disappointed to hear they were getting an American JET, only to find out that it’s some Asian dude. In fact, when I sent a self-intro video to a fellow JET for his school’s intercultural project, his kids had apparently reacted with just “he’s American?” and not much else. The general image of Americans in the Japan is still the good ol’ all-American Joe Football, tall, blond-haired and blue-eyed. Either that, or to a lesser extent, African-Americans. Outside of major cities, my foreign friends who fit this bill still get a lot of attention, like getting free food at restaurants or excitedly asked for pictures of with drunk salarymen. I, on the other hand, am free to blend in and stand out as I please, which brings me to my next point.

Can Asians tell other Asians apart? Yes, they can, to a certain degree. However, most of the time, I blend in– restaurant staff always look to me as the group’s interpreter, despite the fact that I am often the one with the lowest Japanese ability among everyone. People don’t stare at me on the train. I see cashiers occasionally switch to English for my friends but speak in Japanese to me. After all, in a country that’s 98.1% ethnically Japanese, it’s pretty safe to assume that any light-skinned Asian person is most likely Japanese too. Other times, though, people can tell I’m not Japanese right off the bat, or they find out from the moment I open my mouth. The problem is, when people find out I’m not Japanese, they usually assume I’m Chinese.

Six months into the program, there were still teachers at the school who thought I was Chinese, despite having mentioned my Thai heritage in the many self-introductions I had to do when I first arrived. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with getting your ethnicity confused; it happens, but the problem is that if people in Japan are prejudiced, the most commonly disliked group is the Chinese. Perhaps it stems from the history between the two nations (fuel for the older generation) and the huge amount of tourists, who often are seen as having horrible manners (fuel for the current generation). The hate is so mainstream and fairly accepted that I once saw a TV show all about “look at what those Chinese are doing!” featuring things like people dumping trash in public or jaywalking and almost getting hit by cars. Pretty crazy that something like that could be allowed to air on TV at all. in the screencap below, an expose on Chinese manners, the captions say something like “They bought some dango, touched it, ate it before paying, and then said they didn’t want two anymore!”

In the top right, “Chinese tourists manner faux pas!”

Anyways, as a result of that, I am always hyper-aware and paranoid of breaking any social rules, be it as minor as standing on the wrong side of the train door or putting money into someone’s hands rather than on the table at stores. I never want someone to look at me and think to themselves, “Oh look, it’s one of those BAD kind of foreigners,” especially since I’ve already lost my chances on being the cool foreigner from the cosmic lottery. For this reason I try to hide the fact that I’m a foreigner as much as I can in most situations, for example never, ever defaulting to English first and responding “that’s okay, no problem” to questions when I have no idea what they said. Yeah, that’s my life, I am way too caught up in the opinions of strangers.

But to conclude, although I still will never feel like the “good” or exciting kind of foreigner, at the end of the day, I am happy to blend in. I’m also happy that even when I don’t, I can give Japanese people an opportunity to learn that Asian-Americans do exist, and yes, they can be pretty cool too!

Cherry Blossoms and Reflections

I have been in Japan for over half a year now, completely shattering my previous record of two months. I started this blog so that I could have something to look back on, a diary of sorts. The problem is, this hasn’t really been a diary at all. Funnily enough, I feel much more comfortable writing instruction manuals/guides rather than writing about myself, even privately! To look back 10 years from now to an explanation of Osaka’s Sun Tower by my 25-year-old self won’t feel particularly self-reflective or nostalgic. So buckle down, tab out, and unsubscribe, here comes an incredibly long, personal post.

Life in Hollywood: A Retrospective

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The cherry blossoms in Osaka Castle Park.

The same as my degree, the only tangible benefit about having worked in Hollywood is just being able to tell people I did. In reality, for the former, my grades were mediocre, and for the latter, I was pretty much the bottom of the totem pole. I have been interested in filmmaking ever since my family got an audio-less digital camera when I was in the 7th grade. To date, one of my first, and admittedly best, attempts at it was this short lightsaber duel I made in high school.

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Before that, though, I had been obsessed with a show called Get Smart, a sitcom that ran from 1965 to 1970. It was a parody of James Bond and the spy genre in general, created by none other than Mel Brooks himself. It was hugely influential, to watch a show that, despite being nearly half a century old, could still surprise me and make me actually laugh. It taught me that high quality doesn’t age.

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A second big influence was Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, in which a poor village hires seven samurai to fend off an upcoming bandit attack. It taught me that you don’t need to have an Inception-esque complicated plot in order to make a good story. I set about on a project that consumed nearly two years of my life– creating my own action-comedy spy series, called Special Agent Jones. I wrote several scripts, created an intro sequence with music, had rehearsals, auditions, even fight choreography.

Long story short, despite my ambitions, we produced the first part of the first episode and, being a typical high school production, it fell far, far short of my expectations. We didn’t have a boom microphone, we used a handheld camcorder, and though spies and their enemies are supposed to wear suits, the majority of the “cast” didn’t own any, so they looked even more like high-schoolers. It was pretty discouraging, and of course there wasn’t anyone to blame but myself– I could’ve tried harder, at the very least, like making my own equipment and basically applying just a little bit more ingenuity.

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Not even my apartment block is safe from the sakura aesthetic.

Fast forwarding through the pity party, throughout college, though I also had opportunities to make more short films, I preferred to stay in the background in minor roles as I was afraid to truly step up to do anything creative. I occasionally still tried to write, but by this point I didn’t really have any good ideas anymore. I never finished a single script, and any plot outlines I had always ended in some twist. Although this can be used to great effect, a twist ending does NOT excuse the rest of the story from having to be written well, or meaningful. Also being at UCLA, home to one of the best film schools in the nation, I was even more intimidated seeing how talented some people were. What it boiled down to, was that growing up I was a big fish in a small pond. Now, at UCLA, I was a fish in an ocean. I couldn’t bear to find out that I wasn’t actually a big fish after all, that everyone who told me I was so promising growing up, was mistaken. Diagnose-happy people may call it Impostor Syndrome, but I never was worried about being exposed as a fraud, or something. I simply didn’t think I was talented.

I applied the same mentality to my career track, where I thought the business side of the entertainment industry would suit me better. Creativity may not be my strong suit, I thought, but I still want to be involved in making movies in some capacity. I worked as an assistant at a talent agency, and then at a film production company. I learned a lot about how things run, but I also learned that maybe this life wasn’t really for me. Long hours, low pay, and bad people abound. Assistants would swap stories on how their bosses look down on them in secret Facebook groups, and then at the very same time make threads like “intern fuck-up stories” where they would laugh at how stupid and incompetent interns are. Everyone sticks together as equals, but once they advance, they immediately turn around to look down on anyone below them. It definitely left a sour taste in my mouth, and it made me want out. That ennui is what eventually led me to the JET Program.

The thrilling conclusion shall follow in part 2!

 

Travels Thus Far: Tokyo – Part 1, ComicCon

I was in Tokyo for a total of maybe 16 waking hours. In that time, I saw:

  • Tom Hiddleston
  • Sumo wrestlers at Tokyo Station
  • That Japanese cops still carry revolvers

The first one is kind of cheating, because I saw him at Tokyo ComicCon. But hey, it kinda counts, right?

Tokyo ComicCon

Despite its name, Tokyo ComicCon actually takes place in the neighboring Chiba prefecture. Tokyo Disneyland is also in Chiba prefecture, for that matter, but calling it Chiba Disneyland just doesn’t have the same ring. Anyways, right off the bat: I have been to only one other ComicCon in my life, ComicCon Revolution in Ontario, CA. And believe it or not, this latter unofficial offshoot of ComicCon had actually been bigger than this official ComicCon in Tokyo. There were very few amateur booths where people were selling their products/handmade stuff. There were, however, many official booths (unlike ComicCon Revolution) of some of the biggest players in the comic industry: Marvel, Star Wars, DC, and so on. At the Marvel setup, I got to meet the editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics C.B. Cebulski! He was a very nice guy and signed my bag.

 

Tom Hiddleston came as a guest, where he basically answered all Avengers-related questions with “I know the answer but I can’t tell you.” And of course, lots of awesome costumes. The girlfriend and I dressed up as Han and Qi’ra from Solo:

I guess you could skip the rest of this post if you’re not a Star Wars fan. We saw lots of Star Wars costumes, but for brevity I’ll include only cosplays I haven’t seen before:

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Featuring some Mudtroopers from Solo, and an Imperial officer who nails the scowl.
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A Red Guard, in the flesh!
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Rebel troopers from IV, a.k.a. the only ones to ever get beaten by Stormtroopers. Also featuring my friend Shusaku!
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Before and after death sticks.

This post is too long already, so let’s save the next for part 2!

Getting a Credit Card: A Marathon Test of Japanese Bureaucracy

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I can’t imagine how many years of study until I can read this all.

Here’s a challenge for you: you need a Japanese phone number to sign up for anything. You need a credit card to get a Japanese phone number. You cannot get a phone number without a credit card. You can’t get a credit, or even debit, card until you’ve been in Japan for six months. What do you do?

It has been a month since my last blog post, and to be honest with you, the only thing of note that has happened is that did I finally get that freaking credit card. The thing is, it actually DID take a month– I can’t tell you how many hoops I had to jump through and just how convoluted the entire process was. Wait, just kidding, I can and I WILL tell you because you’re sitting here right now, with seemingly nothing better to do than to read my blog. You should be out with your friends.

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“Hey, how do I tell them I can’t eat pork–“

Although it’s easy to navigate around Japan on a surface level with only the most basic knowledge of Japanese (train signs, asking for directions, ordering at restaurants), combine not-speaking Japanese with MOUNTAINS of paperwork and bureaucratic hoops for anything related to living, and you’ll find a plethora of articles on the Internet on things as simple as buying a used bicycle, which requires a registration and “deed of transfer” paperwork. As you can imagine, this also extends to getting a credit card.

For this reason, you conduct most of your business in cash, which is handy in its own way. I pay my water and gas bills at the konbini (convenience store); that is, I am mailed slips that can be scanned and paid for in cash. You can even make online orders on, say, Amazon, and get emailed a QR code that lets you pay in cash at the konbini.

But paying for non-Amazon things online, or transferring money back home, is a nightmare. I had to wrangle a teacher at my school to help take me to my bank (SMBC), withdraw cash, feed it back into the same machine, have the same incredibly nice teacher call the bank on the ATM phone, and then walk me through the right sequence of buttons. Though ATMs offer Japanese and English, advanced services like sending money are in Japanese only. If you can’t read it, then you either find a good Samaritan-san or go home defeated. Or, come back in a few years when you’ve mastered Japanese enough to navigate matters such as these.

I do have a card, featuring Midosuke the SMBC otter as seen above, but it is for ATM use only (i.e. no debit card function), and I can’t even use the online banking app until February either. The only way to check my balance would be to go to an ATM and get a physical receipt printed. On another trip, I had also tried to apply for the bank’s credit card, the paperwork for which is the picture at the top of this post. After about an hour of back and forth in broken English and my broken Japanese to painstakingly fill out the form, the result was that no, you can’t do it after all and to come back in February when you’ve been in Japan for six months. Sorry!

In the end, I filled out an online application for the foreigner-friendly Rakuten credit card, and to solve the phone number problem I bought one from Skype. One week, one approval, and one failed delivery attempt later, I can finally conduct online financial business without needing to bike a few miles and/or strong-arm a harried teacher into helping this foreigner dude press some Japanese buttons in the right order.

A Day in the Life

To remind everyone again, I am in Japan as part of the JET Program, which stands for the Japanese Exchange & Teaching Program. Its key objective is to promote cultural exchange between different nations and Japan, which in practice means: “yo, go teach some English.” So let’s walk you through an average day!

Morning (7:00 – 8:15 AM)

My day begins like any other: filled with a vague sense of dread and difficulty getting out of bed. Ahead of me is a brisk 5-mile bike ride, passing by rice paddies, farms, neighborhood vending machines, tiny Japanese cars, and also the Statue of Liberty. She welcomes the tired, the poor, and also the sweaty because it’s freaking 90 degrees every day and 70% humidity.

Arrival at School (8:15 AM)

I usually arrive 15 minutes early, as school starts at 8:30 AM. I change my shoes– you must wear a pair of indoors-only shoes to go inside the school. Same goes for the students, so despite the famed Japanese school uniform with loafers, they’re actually wearing indoor sandals when they’re in school.

Actual School (8:30 – 4:15 PM)

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Summer vacation is ending soon, so it will soon be a lot busier. I haven’t been given too much to do aside from a few menial tasks, so I spend most of my time doing nothing. Interestingly, you’re either supposed to look busy, or you can nap. What you cannot do is be obviously screwing around, like on your phone with your feet up. I’ve caught quite a few teachers sleeping at their desks, even in front of the vice-principal (who is in charge of the teachers and sits among us). Just the other day, I caught him napping too!

That isn’t to say I have done absolutely NOTHING. I’ve prepared my self-introduction lesson (a PowerPoint), made quizzes from some basic English books, corrected essays, and compiled a list of English-learning games to play in the class. But there is still a LOT of down-time, especially for a dude who’s an assistant teacher, rather than an actual teacher. Until school starts next week, I guess I’m just office eye candy.

A Marathon Return (4:15 ~ 5:15 PM)

The modern-day 26-mile marathon originates from a Greek messenger named Philippides, who ran 26 miles from the Battle of Marathon to Athens to deliver news of a Greek victory. He died from the physical exertion, but not before announcing with his last breath, “Joy to you, we’ve won!”

My bike ride home is exactly the same, if not worse, except I don’t usually die at the end. I once fell inside (bike and all) of a rice paddy, ruining two of my shirts for the rest of time. You’d think Philippides had it bad.

Doing Nothing: Home Edition (5:15 PM – ???)

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¥3980 is basically $39.80.

For lunch and breakfast, I mostly subsist on konbini (convenience store) food. For dinner, I try to cook most of the time, to mediocre results. Groceries can be almost comically expensive here. Oranges are $1 (100 yen) each. A bunch of grapes will set you back about $12. If you really want to live it up like the bourgeoisie, you could buy a $30 watermelon and have, I guess, a watermelon party while spitting on the poor. There’s even a game where you smash a watermelon like a pinata, which at one time went so far as to have officially-sanctioned rules. Cantaloupes are expensive too, to the point where you can buy one in a gift box. I know what I want for Christmas!

I go to sleep around 11 or 12, and a new weekday begins. And what about weekends? Stay tuned!

Looks Like I’m Really, Really Dumb

I’ve made a huge mistake… with my blog! Googling Japanese stuff, in English, is not as easy as Googling American stuff in English, as anyone (except me) could guess.

I’ve given you wrong information, I’ve misled you all– I will NOT be living in, or even teaching in, the town of Harima. The school itself is still called Harima-Higashi High School, but it is in the town of Inami, which is north of the town called Harima, where Harima-Minami High School is. I hope you can see where the confusion came from, and forgive me. My fact-checking staff will be promptly dismissed and replaced come next month. Meanwhile, my apartment will be in the city of Akashi.

I’ll not go through the same schpiel that I did with Harima, not only because it seems disingenuous, but also because there is actually very little information I could find about my new town of Inami. All I can tell you is that it also has a small population, of 30,000. Take a page from the Harimans’* book, update your Wikipedia article, you crazy Inaminese*!

* I made up both of those just right now. Don’t call them this.