So I can speak Japanese.
This was by no means an easy task. Much like many other deer-in-the-headlights of my generation, it started off with a foolishly simple thought. “Hey, I like Dragonball and Sailor Moon. I know that “sentou ryoku wa ku-sen ijou!” means “his power level is OVER NINE-THOUSAAAAAAND!” and “inochi o kakete mo kurisutaru oukoku o mamoranakereba naranai!” means “I must protect the Crystal Kingdom, even at the cost of my own life!” How hard can it be?”
Eight years later, and the tears still haven’t stopped.
I spent four years learning Japanese in university. Then I came to Japan and found that those four years were a nice starter. Like a solitary Ritz cracker before a viking buffet. It gets the party started but doesn’t really prepare you for the real thing that much. Especially coming to the Kansai region, where everybody speaks with a heavy dialect. I found it was especially hard to understand the kids.
Me: Ah, konnichi wa!
Student: Oh, omae nan ya. Doko ikun?
Me: Anno…nani desu ka?
Me: Etto…mou ichido itte kudasai?
Student: Mou kai yun? Nani yo?
Me: Umm…kyou wa atsui desu ne!
Student: Yappari gaijin wakarahen wa. Yameteoku.
Me: Anou…tokoro de, anata no sentou ryoku was ku-sen ijou desu ka?
Student: …Omae, aho chau?
And, of course, for the Japanese-impaired…
Me: Oh, good afternoon!
Student: Oh, it’s you. Where’re you goin’?
Student: You don’t understand?
Me: Um…could you say that again please?
Student: Say what again?
Me: Ehh…today’s pretty hot, isn’t it!
Student: Yep, Gaijin don’t understand Japanese. Eh, screw it.
Me: Um, by the way, would you happen to have a power lever OVER NINE THOUSAAAAAND?
Student: …What the fuck is wrong with you?
Living here for almost four years though has helped to round out my Japanese a lot better though, including the Kansai dialect. For those who want to measure their Japanese language abilities, or just have documented proof of their abilities, you can take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), which is held every December. There are four levels, with 4-kyuu being the basic, and 1-kyuu being the highest. I don’t know why, but there seems to be a HUGE disparity in between all the levels, especially the leap from 3-kyuu to 2-kyuu. A sample 4-kyuu question might go something like this…
Gaijin: Hey, what’s that in the sky?
Japanese: Ah, you mean this tori?
Japanese: Yes, this thing flying in the sky, with wings and feathers.
Gaijin: Oh, you mean this bird.
Japanese: Yes, this tori.
Question: What is bird in Japanese?
Whereas 3-kyuu is…
(All in Japanese)
Man: Hey, let’s do something today.
Woman: What will we do?
Man: How about baseball?
Woman: I don’t like sports.
Man: Okay. How about shopping?
Woman: Ordinarily I’d love to, but today I have no money.
Man: Well then, I guess we could just have empty, meaningless sex.
Woman: Sure, why not.
Question: What will the man and woman do?
Then 2-kyuu becomes…
(All in Japanese)
Woman 1: So I had to break up with Taro.
Woman 2: What? Why?
Woman 1: He was cheating on me. But it’s okay, I’m dating his best friend Shinichi now.
Woman 2: Oh? I dated him before. He was nice, but always seemed to forget important occasions.
Woman 1: I know what you mean! We had a date last Saturday, and he totally forgot! I called him up, and he was at home playing Nintendo DS!
Woman 2: That sounds just like Shinichi. Say, what would you like to do today?
Woman 1: How about we go re-calculate the GNP at a cafe somewhere, just for shits and giggles?
Woman 2: Sounds great, let’s go!
Question: Which one of these women is pregnant?
And then a sample 1-kyuu question is…
(All in Japanese)
Woman 1: How is your project coming along?
Woman 2: Just terrible. I can’t accelerate my tachyon particles any faster than 17 on the Cochran Scale.
Woman 3: Have you remembered to apply the quantum bias?
Woman 2: Ah, I totally forgot! That also explains why my neutrinos were all out of wack.
Woman 4: Good evening ladies.
Woman 1: Oh, hello Junko! How are you today?
Woman 4: Doing okay. I finally won the Nobel Price for my work in molecular bioengineering, but I’d only just gotten the grant when all of my bio-peptides fell apart! How embarrassing!
Woman 2: I know exactly how you feel. I can’t tell you how many times my bio-peptides have failed me during a crucial moment.
Question: Which one of these women is pregnant?
I took the 2-kyuu last year and passed! I figured I’d skip out on the 1-kyuu this year as I still had a long way to go before I could talk about tachyon particles in Japanese. But a friend on mine (who goaded me into taking the 2-kyuu last year) was taking it, and he asked me to take it with him for support. Not to mention that, in my unemployed state, having 1-kyuu credentials would look GREAT on a job application. So I bit the bullet and submitted my application.
Back when I was teaching, I used my free periods between classes to try and study for the test. A note to current ALTs–there’s NOTHING better you can do than study Japanese in the teacher’s room. It shows the teachers and the students that you’re making an effort to learn their language and better integrate yourself into their society. I found it was also a wonderful counter for any time any of my students tried to pull the old “English is too hard!” card.
Student: Man, English is difficult!
Me: No it’s not! C’mere, check this out. (writes an “e” on my chalkboard) You see this? It’s an “e”. Took me, what, half a second to write that? Look how simple and sexy that is. “e”. And it looks like what it sounds like too, you just look at it, and you think, “okay, that’s ‘e.'” Now, look at this (pulls out my 1-kyuu study book). Look at this -> 藍 What the fuck is this? You know what this is? “Indigo.” How the fuck is any of that squiggly line shit “indigo”? What’s going on here–you’ve got the number two, a dish, a retainer, and sagebrush all having sex with each other, and somehow this is supposed to represent “indigo”? And THEN I’m supposed to also remember that this can sound like “ai,” OR “ran”? What the hell? I wanna write out all the colors in a rainbow, look how easy this shit is in English. ROYGBIV. See, I’m done! I wanna write it out in Japanese, I can’t, cause it’ll take me 20 fucking minutes just to write out “indigo”! Don’t give me that “English is difficult!” shit.
Student: Um, I’m going over there now.
It also didn’t help when I showed my study book to students, and they’d casually flip through the pages while saying “I don’t know this…I don’t know this…I don’t know this…is this even Japanese?”
IF YOU DON’T KNOW, THEN HOW/WHY AM I SUPPOSED TO KNOW?!
Anyway, December crept up on me, and before I knew it, I found myself at Kyoto University to take the 1-kyuu. My very first thought upon arriving with my friend was, “Man, why are there so many Japanese people taking the test?” I soon realized though that as it makes no sense for Japanese people to be taking the test (they’d probably fail it anyway), that it had to be Chinese/Korean nationals. I had no idea there were so many, the entire campus was packed with non-Japanese Asians. I’m usually pretty good at telling the races apart, but most of these people just looked like regular, everyday Japanese. Gaijin in Disguise I guess.
After registering, I headed to the classroom where I’d been assigned to take the test. Though I’d be in the same building as my friend, we would both be in separate rooms. I entered my room, and found it already full of Chinabots and Koreaticons. They all looked up at me, and the sentiment seemed to be universal–“This is the 1-kyuu room son, are you lost? What the FUCK are you doing here?” It was a new kind of weird. I mean, I’ve been the only Gaijin in a sea of Japanese people countless times, but this was the first time I was in a room of Gaijin, except they all looked Japanese, and I still stood out. Eventually, another western guy came into the room, a white guy, and I was relieved. “Finally! A brother!” I thought to myself. You see how special Japan is? This was probably the first and only time in human history a black dude sees a white dude and thinks, “Finally, someone like me!”
Before the test begins, the proctors (who actually are Japanese) explain the rules and the various different ways you can be disqualified from the test. For a minor offense, you get yellow-carded, which is simply a warning. Getting a red card means disqualification from the test, and insta-fail. Things that can get you red-carded is obvious cheating, if your cell phone goes off during the test (vibrate or otherwise), or headbutting an Italian mid-fielder.
The cell phone thing is pretty big. Last year during the 2-kyuu, one dumbass came into the test room talking on his phone, and had about three separate conversations with three different people on his phone before the test began. I knew this idiot’s phone was going to go off at some point during the test–sure enough, it did, but luckily for him, it happened during the pre-test explanation and not the actual test, which only got him a yellow-card.
As you can be ringed up for the sound of your cell phone’s vibration I not only turned off my phone, but took out the battery as well. Can’t be too careful. Upon restoring my phone after the test, I found that my girlfriend had sent me a “good luck!” message during the test. Later, I explained the rules of the exam to her, and had I forgotten to turn off my phone, her well-wishes would have resulted in my disqualification. This year, I made sure to repeat the warning–if my phone goes off for whatever reason during the test, I fail. I’m going to turn the phone off, but still for whatever reason don’t call or email me. Sure enough, she sent another “good luck!” message this year as well. While I appreciate her support and all, I had to ask about this when I met up with her after the test…
Me: So. You sent an email.
Her: Yeah. Is that bad?
Me: Well, if I’d forgotten to turn off the phone, it would have made me fail the test.
Her: But you turned off your phone, right?
Me: Yes, I did.
Her: See, I knew you’d turn off the phone, and therefore it was okay to send you an email. You’d see it when you were finished.
Me: Yes. If I turned off the phone. But what if, in my nervousness and anxiety before the test, I forgot to do so?
Her: ….Um….well….you would have been screwed?
Me: Thank you.
The test is divided into three parts. The first part is kanji/vocabulary. Now, occasionally the test will give us English speakers a freebie. They’ll have something like, “What is the meaning of ? – ‘kurejitto kaado'” written in katakana–so of course, us English speakers get to laugh, knowing that it’s just English for “credit card.” Meanwhile, the Asiaformers scratch their heads over what the what the funny looking scratch marks mean. Really though, we only get that one bone, while all the Chinabots breeze though this portion of the test. They get to look at 藍 and be like, “Oh snap, that’s indigo!” while the rest of us are like, “Did a drunk hamster spill ink on his feet and then walk around on the test paper, or what?”
The second part is listening. Listening actually isn’t all that bad. Especially for those who are living in Japan, because every waking minute of every day is sort of like a listening test. Although, the test does try to throw us curveballs…
Clerk: Hello, how may I help you?
Woman: Well, I’d like to buy a necklace. What’s in fashion this season?
Clerk: Well, this leaf design is pretty popular. How about this one with a single leaf?
Woman: Oh, that’s nice. But I like lots of leaves. How about this one with four leaves?
Clerk: Oh, that’s a good choice. If you like leaves, how about this one with leaves in a circular pattern?
Woman: That’s attractive…but I still like the other one better.
Clerk: Okay. Oh! But how about this necklace, that’s completely different from the leaf bullshit we’ve been talking about so far?
Woman: Oh, I like that one! I’ll take it!
Me: You bitch.
The final part is grammar. I don’t even know English grammar, and I’m expected to be an ace at Japanese grammar? Not only that, but the 1-kyuu has us studying some archaic shit. Japanese people would look at my grammar books and be like, “Whoa, nobody says that anymore!” Great, so if I want to talk to 90 year-old grannies about how the downfall of the bubble economy is still being felt in present times, I can. Wonderful.
As we get a break before the grammar part for lunch, I met up with my friend. He pretty much summed up the grammar portion of the test perfectly–Hhere’s where they’re going to hurt us. It’s like, everything up until now has been foreplay. The vocab was some light caressing…the listening was a few gentle kisses…and now the grammar is like a big, black, barbed-wired Cock of Destruction, right up our asses. Without lube.”
And that’s pretty much how it was, too.
I finished the exam, not at all expecting to pass. I went into the exam not expecting to pass. Neither did my friend, but his reasons for taking the test were to give us something to study for and to see in what areas we were weak in. In February, the test results came in, and as I expected, I didn’t pass. I aced the listening, and I actually did pass the grammar part, but I bombed the kanji. Not too surprising. I called my friend to commiserate, only to found that he’d actually passed it! You complete piece of shit. No, no, what I mean to say is, I’m totally happy for him and he did a great job. That complete piece of shit.
I’m not too surprised though, I mean, I would have passed if not for the kanji, and seeing how he’s a total kanji freak (I think he studies kanji for fun, the masochist), it makes sense. He tells me that ever since getting 1-kyuu, the attitudes of Japanese people around him have completely changed. Now, they treat him like a human. Other teachers at his school, not just English, are now willing to engage him in real, actual conversations now. He says that his VP once introduced him to a guest, and the first thing out of her mouth was, “Oh, and this is our ALT. He has 1-kyuu. Incidentally, his name is…”
Since I failed, I guess I’ll be back at Kyoto Univ. come December, giving it another shot. Would be nice if I could pass this time around. It’d be kinda cool to be a human again.