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.