JLPT 日本語能力試験

I hereby wish to announce my retirement from studying Japanese. Or perhaps ‘semi-retirement’ would be a better way of putting it: what I want to semi-retire from is the student-y part of studying, so from now on there will be no more weekday evenings at the Adult Learning Centre, no more Saturday mornings at the Centre For International Communication, and no more poring over endless photocopies of convoluted explanations of the incredibly subtle difference between equally obscure grammatical constructions.

My excu…er, I mean reason for quitting is that on 1st July I sat – for the second and possibly final time – Level 1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (aka nihongo noh-ryoku shiken / 日本語能力試験), and with any luck, this time I’ll get the 100 points out of 180 required for a pass (last December I managed a close-but-no-cigar 98). As you might expect, Level 1 is mind-bogglingly difficult, although passing it – particularly passing it by the skin of one’s teeth, which is what I’m aiming for – can in no way, shape or form be regarded as evidence that one is fluent in Japanese.

You can, for instance, get full marks in Level 1 of the JLPT without so much as being able to say ‘konichiwa’, as there is no spoken element to the exam. It helps a lot if you can understand what someone is talking about when they say ‘konichiwa’ to you, but if you live in Japan and have a reasonable grasp of the language, the listening section is comparatively easy (and by ‘comparatively easy’, I mean, ‘infinitesimally less fiendishly tough than the reading section’).

When I sat Level 1 in December 2011, I can honestly say that there wasn’t a single occasion as I was doing the latter when I thought to myself, ‘Aha! That’s definitely the right answer!’ For about a third of the time I thought, ‘Well, that’s probably the right answer, but I’m not 100% sure,’ for about another third of the time I thought, ‘Well, that’s not obviously the wrong answer, and I’m not even 50% sure,’ and for the rest of the time I simply crossed my fingers, picked a number between one and four and hoped for the best.

This time round, I was pleased to discover that my reading speed had improved, so that I was left with five minutes at the end of the test to hastily reassess some of the more utterly baffling questions. The trouble is that ‘reading’ and ‘understanding‘ are two entirely different things, and I’m not sure that I had improved at all in the latter.

The comprehension question that had me completely stumped last year was a page-and-a-half-long essay about (I think) the relationship between philosophy and science, and my strategy then was to look at my answer sheet, find the number I had plumped for the fewest number of times – two, if memory serves me correctly – and answer all four questions about the passage with a two. This time round there was an essay about a Japanese writer and his attitude to the concepts of fantasy and imagination, which would have been impenetrable enough if it wasn’t for the fact that these were expressed as ‘fantasy-fantasy’ and ‘imagination-imagination’, so that instead of, say, ‘So-and-so uses the concept of fantasy to deal with the indirect expression of ideas, whereas he uses the concept of imagination to deal with the direct expression of ideas,’ the essay went something like, ‘So-and-so uses the concept of fantasy-fantasy to deal with the indirect expression of ideas, whereas he uses the concept of imagination-imagination to deal with the direct expression of ideas.’ Pardon the net-ism, but WTF?!

While I wasn’t at quite so much of a loss for some of the other comprehension questions, time and again I was only able to narrow down the possible number of correct answers to two: even if you essentially ‘get’ what’s being discussed in the relevant passage of Japanese, you will often be confronted with a choice of answers along the lines of:

1) In this passage, the writer is saying that he agrees with the policy of protecting as many species of whale as possible
2) In this passage, the writer is saying that he disagrees with the policy of not protecting any species of whale at all.
3) In this passage, the writer is saying that he disagrees with the policy of protecting as many species of whale as possible.
4) In this passage, the writer is saying that he agrees with the policy of not protecting any species of whale at all.

Obviously that’s not a direct quote, but you get the idea.

The exam rooms themselves – in the romantically named Building 3B and Building 3C at Tsukuba University – were large-ish lecture theatres, and while it was possible to go in and sit down half an hour before the official start time, I have learned from experience that it is best to loiter outside until the last possible moment, as this enables you to go for as many last-minute pees as you want (I managed three) and to engage in panicked small-talk with your fellow examinees.

Even once you have entered the lecture theatre, there is still an interminable wait before you are finally allowed to pick up your retractable pencil and open the exam paper. The invigilators – who wore yellow arm bands, and as far as I could tell were students earning some extra cash – first read out the rules and regulations (no food or drink in the exam room, switch off your mobile phones, put your bag on the floor, items permitted to be placed on desk: pencils – HB or B – spare pencil leads, erasers, wristwatch), then went around the room making sure the photographs on our application forms matched our faces. They also explained the two-strikes-and-you’re-out, yellow card / red card warning system, although the JLPT is not the kind of exam that changes lives or launches careers, so I can’t imagine this is put into practice very often.

With so much to read and so little time in which to read it (two hours and five minutes, to be precise), the sheer levels of concentration required to sit Level 1 would be enough to turn the most laid-back of Japanophiles into something more reminiscent of that bloke from the David Cronenberg film Scanners whose head literally explodes in mid-press conference, and to be honest, there’s not much you can do to counteract this. My main relaxation strategy was to take off my shoes in the manner of a long-haul air passenger, and while no one in the surrounding seats complained about my smelly socks, none of them followed suit, either.

After the reading section there was a forty-minute break, during which everyone rushed outside and gulped down as much caffeine as their bodies would tolerate, and when we re-entered the lecture theatre, I was interested to note that several people – their brains no doubt completely frazzled by the onslaught of obscure vocabulary and literary grammar – had given up and gone home. Partly because thousands of others are sitting the same exam at various locations around the world – on the same day but in different time zones – you are not allowed to take the exam paper home with you, so I have spent the past few days trying to recall what the questions were and where exactly I went wrong; I will have to wait another two months before the result arrives in the post, and to find out if – like, er, David Beckham at the 2006 World Cup – my retirement has been premature.

Sunday drive

We have recently taken possession of a second-hand car, thanks to a very nice friend of onii-san’s who works at a Toyota dealership. After one careful gentleman owner, the Platz – or Pratz, as the Japanese pronunciation would have it – came with new tyres, a new battery, an MOT, less than 30,000km on the clock, and some kind of special coating for the windscreen that supposedly disperses rainwater to the extent that you don’t need to use the wipers. When he found out that I was an addict, onii-san’s pal even threw in a couple of packets of Choco Pie for good measure, and the car is such a smooth ride that like proper grown ups, Mrs M and I have been going for Sunday drives.

One of these was to Ooarai, where that post-quake footage of a small boat caught in a very large whirlpool was shot. Admittedly, by the time the tsunami reached Ooarai it had shrunk somewhat from its twenty-nine-metre maximum, but as we drove along the sea front, several shops were still closed, their windows either boarded up or with chest-high mud marks on them. The furniture from other businesses and households had been left outside to dry in the sun, and at least one fishing boat was still stranded on the quayside, while the ferry terminal I once passed through on my way to Hokkaido looks as if it will be closed for some time to come.


As with a lot of tourist attractions these past few weeks, the entrance fee for Ooarai Marine Tower had been temporarily waived, and we shared the glass-fronted lift to the top with a local family.
‘There must have been people up here when the earthquake happened,’ said one of them.
‘Scary, isn’t it?’
‘The elevator would have stopped as well.’
‘Do you think there were people stuck in here the whole time?’
‘I don’t know. I guess they might’ve been able to use the stairs.’
‘I wouldn’t have wanted to watch the tsunami coming in, that’s for sure.’

At the bottom of the tower the regular flea market – which Mrs M and I first went to on one of our first dates nearly six years ago (never let it be said that I don’t know how to show a girl a good time) – was also making a comeback, and some of the more publicly spirited stallholders were donating their proceeds for the day to the earthquake appeal. While a fair proportion of the stuff on show was new, it was a novelty to be able to browse through boxes of old LPs, rusty garden tools and faded piles of clothes, as the demand for second-hand goods in Japan is nowhere near as healthy as it is in the UK, where I have long been a devotee of car boot sales, charity shops and the like.

The shopping mall next door, where we had eaten lunch with friends of Mrs M’s just a couple of months ago, was now completely deserted, its car park strewn with uprooted shrubs and its entrance blocked by a huge pile of fixtures, fittings and water-damaged goods (mostly clothing – rumour has it some opportunistic Chinese thieves ransacked the place for anything sell-able in the days after it was inundated).

A couple of blocks north, the Mentai Park had survived largely intact, mainly because its foundations are raised about four feet above ground level (see below – the bits of yellow gaffer tape show how high the water came). Mentaiko – marinated pollack roe – are one of those obscure seafood dishes only the Japanese could be obsessed with, and this place has every conceivable variation on the theme, from mentaiko on its own (it is manufactured in little sausages with a membrane-like casing), to deep fried mentaiko, mentaiko stuffed in sardines and mentaiko dumplings.


There’s even a mentaiko exhibition, from one corridor of which you can watch the adjoining mentaiko production line in action, although my favourite thing about the Mentai Park – apart perhaps from the free coffee, tea and tasters – is its theme song.

All sorts of foodstuffs here have theme songs: walk around a supermarket and you will come across at least one or two tape recorders playing upbeat pop tunes with lyrics about seaweed or hamburgers, and they are often voiced by children to give them that added touch of cuteness. The Mentai Park song is maddeningly catchy in a way that would make even Kylie suffer a bout of covetousness, so you’ll be glad to know that you can listen to it on the Kanéfuku website (Kanéfuku is the company that runs the Mentai Park – scroll to the bottom of the page and click on the mp3 player-type thing). Alternatively, you could become an employee of Kanéfuku, and be obliged to listen to it over and over and over again, all day long, every day of the week, 365 days a year. Or perhaps not.

But anyway, given that the lyrics are displayed on the aforementioned website, I couldn’t resist a spot of translating, so here they are in all their approximated English language glory:

Everyone loves them! Kanéfuku pollack roe!

They tingle on your tongue, Kanéfuku pollack roe, lively and full of zest
Tiny Kanéfuku pollack roe
Delicious Kanéfuku pollack roe

[Verse 1]

I love pollack roe
I’m eating them today
I always love pollack roe
I eat loads of them
Pollack roe with squid, pollack roe with chicken wings, pollack roe with pasta – delicious, aren’t they?
Like little bubbles popping in your mouth, you can hear them say, ‘Hello!’ [harmony vocals: ‘Let’s eat!’]
They tingle on your tongue, Kanéfuku pollack roe, lively and full of zest
Tiny Kanéfuku pollack roe
It’s almost time for dinner – pollack roe!

[Verse 2]

Everyone loves pollack roe
We eat them every day
We love pollack roe any time
They make a happy meal
Pollack roe with mackerel, pollack roe with pilchards – lots of ways to eat them, delicious, aren’t they?
They tingle on your tongue, Kanéfuku pollack roe, lively and full of zest
Gulp them down, Kanéfuku pollack roe
Let’s eat some more pollack roe

They tingle on your tongue, Kanéfuku pollack roe, lively and full of zest
Tiny Kanéfuku pollack roe
Pollack roe make a delicious meal
Delicious Kanéfuku pollack roe

And in the original Japanese:


ピリッと かねふく明太子 元気モリモリ
ビビット かねふく明太子
おいしい かねふく明太子

1.     ボクの大好きな 明太子
今日も たべるよ
いつも大好きな めんたいこ
いっぱい たべちゃうよ
イカめんたい 手弱めんたい パスタめんたい おいしいね
ぷちぷちと はじけてる お口の中から「こんにちはー!」(掛け声で「いただきまーす!」)
ピリッと かねふく明太子 元気モリモリ
ビビット かねふく明太子
もうすぐごはんだ めんたいこ!

2.     みんな大好きな めんたいこ
毎日 たべるよ
いつも大好きな めんたいこ
うれしい ごはんだ
サバめんたい いわしめんたい いろんな食べかた おいしいね
ぷちぷちと はじけてる お口の中から 「こんにちはー!」(「掛け声で「こんにちはー!」)
ピリッと かねふく明太子 ごはんモリモリ
ペロッと かねふく明太子 
まだまだ食べちゃお(う) めんたいこ

ピリッと かねふく明太子 元気モリモリ
ビビット かねふく明太子
おいしい ごはんだ めんたいこ
おいしい かねふく明太子

After a prawn burger lunch further up the coast at the Joyful Honda food court, we popped over the road to Hitachi Seaside Park, another tourist attraction that was opening its gates for free. While the amusements were still closed for repairs, the gardens were in full bloom, with daffodils in an English country garden setting, replete with gazeboes, trellises and wrought iron patio furniture, and tulips in a Dutch canal-side setting, replete with a windmill and a drawbridge. A middle-aged man was taking photographs of his poodle, which appeared to have modelled for him before, as it sat obediently in front of the more colourful flowerbeds while its master found the right framing and pressed the shutter. Some people were napping in the shade and others were eating packed lunches on blue tarpaulins on the grass, while their children dutifully took off their shoes before playing on a sort of landscaped climbing hillock which had been concreted over and painted bright yellow.

Further into the park, at the end of an avenue of trees, people appeared to be walking into the sky, as they climbed a zig-zagging path up a hillside covered with powder blue nemophila (aka baby blue eyes – or so it says in Wikipedia). Only the tips of the nemophila’s petals are blue, as the colour fades to white towards their centres, so it was only when you stood back that the colour matched perfectly with the sky’s blue near the horizon, and the whole effect was quite magical: almost hyper-real, or like a stage set from The Wizard of Oz.


When we talked to okah-san later that evening, she said that she had tried to cultivate nemophila at the allotment, but without success. They need quite a lot of attention, apparently, which makes what the gardeners at the Seaside Park have achieved all the more impressive