I was recently introduced to a very nice fellow called Ollie Clissold, who is currently locked down in Denmark, but over the years has lived in Australia, Vietnam, Africa, and Japan.

Ollie recently began presenting an excellent podcast called Old Dogs, in which, as the name suggests, he talks to people who have acquired “new tricks” later in life.

Ollie asked if I would like to appear in the podcast, so if you want to listen to me talk about learning Japanese in particular, Japan in general, and various other topics, you can do so here.

I highly recommend checking out previous episodes, too. For example, an interview with a friend of mine called Rosie, who took up the piano, and another with Tris Lovering, who is making a name for himself as a photographer on Instagram.

The above links are to Apple Podcasts, but you can also listen to the episode featuring yours truly and the show as a whole on Spotify.


I have two very important things to share with you.

First, some of my writing appears in the above anthology, which is available now on Amazon and published by the very nice people at Camphor Press.

Second — and of far greater importance — after years of writing/typing under the pen/keyboard name of Muzuhashi, I can reveal for the first time on these pages that my real name is Tom Gibb.

Just to set the record straight, I am not, as far as I know, related to the Bee Gees, nor am I the Tom Gibb who works for the BBC and wrote a book about Fidel Castro (lovely fellow though I am sure he is).

Camphor contacted me out of the blue last autumn and asked if I would be interested in contributing to the anthology. They are also guiding me through the process of turning Gaijin on a Push Bike into a full-length travel book.

As some of you will remember, I posted GOAPB on Muzuhashi a few years ago and so as not to spoil the fun, have now un-posted it. The very tentative date for inflicting it on the world in its printed and Kindlified form is the summer of 2021, although the way things are currently progressing — steadily and successfully, but slowly — that deadline may prove over-optimistic.

If you do decide to buy Inaka (you are going to buy it, aren’t you? I thought so!), a glowing review on Amazon or Good Reads — or if you prefer, in a national newspaper or popular magazine — will be much appreciated.

Finally, thank you all for visiting and reading this blog over the years — particularly since I took a break from it for so long — and if anyone out there is an aspiring writer, my experience with Camphor proves that starting a blog is worth the effort. While it may feel as if you exist on the distant, unfrequented fringes of the internet, with a lot of hard work and a little luck, doing so can lead to bigger things.

The Japlish-to-Engrish dictionary

It is a truth universally acknowledged that every J-blogger must one day post a series of photographs depicting hapless, hopeless, surreal and / or otherwise amusing uses of the English language by the Japanese. And after two years as Muzuhashi, so this day has come to pass.

Some of the photos here were taken several years ago, some are of subjects that must surely have been spotted by other J-bloggers, some depict bizarre uses of the Japanese language by the Japanese, and others are merely of oddball stuff that I’ve seen and snapped. So sit back, enjoy the ride and if you are offended by bad grammar, bad punctuation or bad language – or at least, good language that inadvertently sounds bad – look away now.

[ngg src=”galleries” ids=”2″ display=”basic_imagebrowser”]

(If you liked these, there are many more at the original and best Japlish-based website, engrish.com.)

My Encounters With Alaska by Michio Hoshino

Back in 2004 when I was working for a conversation school in Tokyo, a student of mine had an important business meeting coming up with some foreign clients, and signed up for extra lessons so that he might better understand what was going on without having to be completely reliant on an interpreter. The meeting went well, and by way of thanks, he presented myself and another teacher at the school with gifts. Mine was a book called My Encounters With Alaska (「僕の出会ったアラスカ」) by Michio Hoshino (星野道夫), although it took me another six years of studying Japanese to be able to read it.

Fortunately, it’s a book with plenty of pictures, as Hoshino was a photographer who lived in Alaska for many years, before his untimely demise in 1996 at the hands (or rather, at the paws) of a brown bear, while on an assignment for Japanese TV in Siberia .

Perhaps because in some small way it reminded me of my own experiences of living abroad, I found the first chapter of Hoshino’s book particularly moving, and decided to have a go at translating it into English. Having done so, I now realise how little of it I understood on first reading, so if you have any suggestions for improvements or spot any errors in the translation, feel free to let me know (although this is all on a strictly unofficial basis, as I don’t have any kind of permission to reproduce the text!).

(Hoshino’s homepage, incidentally, can be found here.)

A picture of Shishmaref Village

There was a phone call from Don Ross, the bush pilot.

‘A cameraman from the National Geographic magazine is on his way here. Apparently he’s going to photograph the Caribou migration in the Arctic Circle, so there are a few things he wants to ask you about. Do you think you could go to the hotel for me…? His name is George Mobley.’

The National Geographic deals with nature, geography, indigenous people and history, and it’s the most influential magazine in America. It’s probably the place where photographers want to get published more than any other.

So, a staff photographer from the National Geographic. I bet he’s been all over the world… As I was thinking about this on my way to the hotel downtown, suddenly the name George Mobley began to ring a bell in my mind. Surely not…but it was definitely the same name.

I did a u-turn, went back to my house and took a photography book off the shelf. It didn’t take long to find the page. Next to a photograph that brought back so many memories was written the name ‘George Mobley’. Fancy meeting him in a situation like this…

When I was a teenager, I was fascinated by the nature of Hokkaido, and at the time there were various different books that influenced me. I longed to head north, and before I knew it my thoughts had turned to to Alaska. But I had no clue of the reality – it was only a feeling that grew inside me. More than twenty years ago, there were hardly any books about Alaska in Japan.

One day in the second-hand book district of Kanda, Tokyo, at a shop that specialised in books from the West, I found a photography book about Alaska. On a shelf among many such books, why was my gaze drawn to that one in particular, I wonder? It was as if the book right in front of my eyes was the one that had been waiting for me, and from then on, whether I was on my way to school or going out, that photography book was always in my bag. I read it so much there were finger marks all over it, although in my case, all I did was look at the photographs.

In the book, I couldn’t stop thinking about one page in particular. It was a photograph taken from the air of an Eskimo village in the Arctic Circle. The grey Bering Sea, the leaden skies, the sun shining through a break in the clouds as if through a bamboo screen, the Eskimo settlement like an isolated dot… At first I suppose I was fascinated by the mysterious light in that photograph. Then I gradually started to become interested in the village itself.

Why did people have to live in a place like that, I wondered, at the end of the Earth? The scenery really was desolate. There were no people in the photograph, but you just about make out the shape of what looked like houses. What kind of people could they be, and what were they thinking as they lived there?

A long time ago, while I was absentmindedly gazing out of a train window at a town in the twilight, through the window of a house, I suddenly caught sight of a family sitting around the dinner table. I carried on looking until the light from the window had passed. Then an overpowering feeling welled up inside me. What could that feeling have been? Perhaps that group of strangers was conveying to me the mystery of a life I knew nothing about. Because we were living our lives in the same time and place, there was a sadness about the fact that I would never meet them.

It was a similar feeling to the one I had looking at the photograph of the Eskimo settlement. Somehow or other I wanted to meet those people.

In the caption beneath the photograph was the name of the village. Shishmaref… I decided to write a letter to the village. But who should I address it to? In the dictionary, I found the English word for ‘head of the village’. For an address, all I could do was write Shishmaref, Alaska, America.

‘I saw a photograph of your village in a book. I would like to come and visit. I wonder if there is someone there who will look after me…’

Of course, there was no reply. With no name and no address, how would anyone know who to deliver it to? And even if it had been delivered, there was no reason for someone I had never even met to offer to look after me. I forgot that I had even sent the letter. Then, when more than six months had passed, I got home from school one day to find a letter delivered from abroad. It was from a family in Shishmaref.

‘…We received your letter. I talked to my wife about you coming to our house…summer is the reindeer hunting season. We need a helping hand. …come any time…’

After six more months of preparation, I set off for Alaska. I flew in several small planes and saw animal colonies floating on the ice in the Baring Sea, before the photograph from the book that I had looked at for so long began to overlap with reality, and I pressed my face to the window.

Spending those three months in the village was an intense experience. It was the first time I had seen bears, seal hunting and reindeer hunting, and Arctic nights when the sun never set. Now I was standing in the village from the aerial photograph. I met many people in the course of the trip, and I was fascinated by the variety of ways in which we can live. That summer I was nineteen years old.

After that, I chose to become a photographer, and fulfilled many of my dreams. Then, for the first time in seven years, I went back to Alaska. This time wasn’t to be a short holiday. Three years…no, maybe it would be five years, I thought. The time began to fly by so quickly.

I walked the untrodden peaks and valleys of the Brooks mountain range that traverses Alaska. While kayaking in Glacier Bay, I heard the creaking sound a glacier makes as it moves. I rowed with the Eskimo in their umiak boats as they followed the Pacific whale in the Arctic Circle. I was fascinated by the migration of the caribou, and the trip continued. I recorded the lives of bears through the course of an entire year. I looked up to see the aurora borealis countless times. I encountered wolves. I learned about the lifestyles of many different people… Before I knew it, fourteen years had passed. I had built a house and put down roots in this place.

If that book hadn’t found its way into my hands in the second-hand bookshop in Kanda, I may never have come to Alaska. No, that’s a crazy thought. But if our lives progress through a series of moments, like looking at one’s own reflection in a bell that rings, then life is a limitless series of coincidences.

But of course, I really did look at that photograph, and I really did go to a village called Shishmaref. From then on, as if a new map had been drawn, this different life became a reality. And the person who took that photograph was George Mobley.

I arrived at the hotel, found the room and knocked on the door. Without knowing what I had been thinking about as I made my way there, George smiled through his grey whiskers as he met me.

After a while, when we had talked about the caribou migration, I took out the old photography book and began to tell him the story I have just recounted here. George looked intently at me and leaned in close to hear what I was saying, which made me feel at ease.

‘Well, well… So my photograph changed your life…’

‘Oh no, it wasn’t quite like that, but…it gave me a great opportunity.’

‘So, do you have any regrets?’

Deep in the eyes of this wise old man, I could see that he was smiling kindly.

Life is full of tricks and mechanisms. In our day-to-day lives, despite crossing the paths of countless different people, most of us never even exchange glances. That fundamental sadness, put another way, is the endless mystery of how people come to encounter each other.

And this is the chapter in the original Japanese:




ナ ショナル・ジオグラフィックマガジンは、自然、地理、民族、歴史を扱う、アメリカで最も権威のある雑誌である。カメラマンなら、誰もが憧れる雑誌かもし れない。そこのスタッフ・フォトグラファーか。きっと、世界を駆け回っているんだろうな……そんなことを考えながら、車でダウンタウンのホテルへ向かう途 中、ジョージ・モーブリイという名前が、突然、記憶の鐘を小さくたたき始めた。まさか……でも、たしかにそんな名前だった。


十 代の頃、北海道の自然に強く魅かれていた。その当時読んださまざまな本の影響があったのだろう。北方への憧れは、いつしか遠いアラスカへと移っていた。 だが、現実には何の手がかりもなく、気持ちがつのるだけであった。二十年以上も前、アラスカに関する本など日本では皆無だったのだ。

ある 日、東京、神田の古本屋街の洋書専門店で、一冊のアラスカの写真集を見つけた。たくさんの洋書が並ぶ棚で、どうしてその本に目が止められたのだろう。 まるでぼくがやってくるのを待っていたかのように、目の前にあったのである。それからは、学校へ行く時も、どこへ出かける時も、カバンの中にその写真集が 入っていた。手垢にまみえるほど本を読むとはああいうことをいうのだろう。もっともぼくの場合は、ひたすら写真を見ていただけなのだが。

そ の中に、どうしても気になるたび、どうしてもそのページを聞かないと気がすまないのだ。それは、北極圏のあるエスキモーの村を空から撮った写真だった。 灰色のベーリング海、どんよりと沈む空、雲間からすだれのように射し込む太陽、ポツンと点のようにたたずむエスキモーの集落……はじめは、その写真のもつ 光の不思議さにひきつけられたのだろう。そのうちに、ぼくはだんだんその村が気にかかり始めていった。


昔、 電車から夕暮れの町をぼんやり眺めているとき、聞けなたれた家の窓から、夕食の時間なのか、ふっと家族の団欒が目に入ることがあった。そんなとき、窓 の明かりが過ぎ去ってゆくまで見つめたものだった。そして胸が締めつけられるような思いがこみ上げてくるのである。あれはいったい何だったのだろう。見知 らぬ人々が、ぼくの知らない人生を送っている不思議さだったのかもしれない。同じ時代を生きながら、その人々と決して出会えない悲しさだったのかもしれな い。




返 事は来なかった。当然だった。名も住所も不確かなのだから。たとえ届いたとしても、会ったこともない人間を世話してくれる者 などいるはずがない。ぼくは、手紙を出したことも忘れていった。どころが、半年もたったある日、学校から帰ると、一通の外国郵便が届いていた。シシュマレ フ村のある家族からの手紙だった。



この村で過ごした三ヶ月は、強烈な体験としてぼくの中に沈殿していった。はじめてのクマ、アザラシ猟、トナカイ狩り、太陽が沈まぬ白夜、さまざまな村人と の出会い……そして、空撮の写真から見おろしていた村に、今自分が立っていること。この旅を通し、ぼくは、人の暮らしの多様性に魅かれていった。十九歳の 夏だった。


アラスカ山脈を横切るブルックス山脈の、未踏の山や谷を歩いた。グレイシャーベイをカヤックで旅しながら、氷河のきしむ音を聞 いた。エスキモーの人々とウ ミアックを漕ぎ、北極海にセミクジラを追った。カリブーの季節移動に魅かれ、その旅を追い続けた。クマの一年の生活を記録した。数えきれないほどのオーロ ラを見上げた。オオカミに出合った。さまざまな人の暮らしを知った……いつのまにか十四年が過ぎていた。それどころか、ぼくは家を建て、この土地に根おろ そうとしている。




しばらくカリブーの話をした後、ぼくは古い写真集をとりだし、これまでのいきさつ 彼に話し始めていた。ジョージはじっとぼくを見つめながら、耳を傾けちくれた。それがうれしかった。






Arigato ありがとう

Most schools in Japan have a small radio studio, the main purpose of which is to facilitate the lunchtime broadcast. For this, two or three students talk about the day’s menu – for example, at one point last week we were treated to an explanation of both the history and nutritional value of the cocoa bean – and pass on information about school activities. At my elementary school, the results of a daily competition are announced, based on the number of students from each class who have forgotten to bring their water flask, their handkerchief or their toothbrush, or whose toothbrush bristles are overly worn. Just like a proper radio station, the students are sometimes given the opportunity to make music requests, although at junior high school, we are treated to the same selection of rather mournful chamber pieces – chosen, I suspect, by the soon-to-retire music teacher – every day.

Normally everyone stops chatting and at least pretends to pay attention to the lunchtime broadcast, but as I was sitting down to eat with 2:1 class the other day, one of the students turned down the volume on the PA system and put on a CD instead. The song – Ikimonogakari’s Arigato (ありがとう / Thank You) is probably my favourite J-pop tune, and I was soon humming away to myself, much to the amusement of the students at my table.
‘Who chose this?’ I asked one of them.
‘Er, I don’t know,’ he said.
‘Was there a class vote?’
I can’t remember. Hey,’ he said to the girl sitting opposite, ‘why are we playing this CD?’
‘Dunno,’ she replied.
So much for the change of routine, but anyway, what better (and more flimsy) excuse to pull a few pop facts from Ikimonogakari’s Wikipedia page, and to share the video with you:


(When I say ‘the video’, what I really mean is ‘the video uploaded to Vimeo without permission and augmented with Spanish subtitles’, and there is a very real possibility that by the time you read this it will have been taken down for legal reasons, thus defeating the object of this blog post altogether. If so, you should be able to find a similarly illicit version with a quick Google search).

Ikimonogakari means ‘person in charge of living things’, and was coined because rather than presenting the lunchtime broadcast, the two original band members – Yoshiki Mizuno and Hotaka Yamashita – were responsible for feeding the goldfish at their elementary school. Along the way, Mizuno and Yamashita acquired a lead singer – Kiyoé Yoshioka – and began to hone their skills at small scale live venues and as buskers in the western suburbs of Tokyo. Their independently released debut CD had the charmingly self-effacing title of While It’s Sincerely Presumptuous Of Us To Say So, We Have Made Our First Album (Makoto Ni Sen-etsu Nagara Faasuto Arubamu Wo Koshiraemashita… /  誠に僭越ながらファーストアルバムを拵えました…), and they soon gained a reputation as specialists in the art of commercial, TV and movie tie-ins. Since the early noughties, their songs have been used by Coca Cola, Nintendo, Asahi, several mobile phone companies, and in a score of TV dramas, animé and feature films (their latest release – Itsudatte Bokura Wa / いつだって僕らは – is in this TV ad for correspondence courses).

While Ikimonogakari were respectably successful by 2010, Arigato was the song that turned them into one of the most popular bands in the country – so popular, in fact, that their songs Sakura and Yell are now used as jingles to announce approaching trains at Ebina and Hon-Atsugi Stations (outside which they often used to busk) on the Odawara Line. Arigato was the opening theme for a soap opera called Gé-Gé-Gé No Nyoboh / ゲゲゲの女房 (part of an ongoing NHK series I have mentioned here before – Renzoku Terebi Shosetsu / 連続テレビ小説 – whose location and story changes twice a year), but while the commercial exploits of the band have no doubt made all three of its members very wealthy indeed, don’t let that put you off their music, as they have a knack for coming up with emotionally stirring chord changes, and some of their best songs are structurally original too – for example, like The Beatles’ She Loves You, Arigato starts with the chorus instead of the verse.

In case you don’t understand Spanish, there follows my somewhat inexpert translation of the lyrics, which was hampered by the fact that in Japanese, it is the exception rather than the norm for a sentence to have a subject, and exactly who is doing or saying what with or to whom is very much open to interpretation.

I want to say thank you.
I may be gazing at you
But you held my hand more kindly than anyone else
Listen, listen to this voice

On a bright morning I give a wry smile as you open the window
And tell me that the future has just begun
Let’s go out on the town again, like we always do

As always, the ups and downs of life accumulate
The two of us, our days together are fleeting
Carefully gather the escaping light, it’s precious
And it’s shining now

When did your dream
Become the dream of both of us
But today, one day, a cherished memory
Will clear the skies, whether they are blue or whether they are crying

I want to say thank you.
I may be gazing at you
But the hand that you held prompted a clear thought
That I am clumsily telling you

Forever, only forever
Because I want to laugh with you
To make sure of this road that I believed in
Now let’s walk on, slowly

Days when we argued, days when we embraced
Let me search for every colour
A pure heart on which the future is written
Is still being added to

Who you live for
Whose love you receive
Like that
More than sharing happiness or sadness
Little by little, gather up the moments

If I find happiness with you
The thoughts we share
Even the little things
Let’s embrace the light
Listen, nestle close to that voice

I want to tell you that I love you
I want to tell you because
That irreplaceable hand
Being together with you from now on
I believe in these things

I’m saying the words ‘thank you’ now
Holding my hand, more kindly than anyone else
So listen, listen to this voice


まぶしい朝に苦笑いしてさ あなたが窓を開ける
舞い込んだ未来が 始まりを教えて

でこぼこのまま 積み上げてきた
こぼれて光を 大事に集めて
いま 輝いているんだ



いま ゆっくりと歩いて行こう

けんかした日も  抱き合った日も
真っ白なこころに 描いた未来を

だれかのために 生きること
誰かの愛を 受けれること
そうやって いまを
ちょっとずつ 重ねて



繋がれた右手は 誰よりもやさしく

Incidentally, when Ikimonogakari were on TV over the Christmas holidays, onii-san described the lead singer as looking kibishii / 厳しい. The literal translation of kibishii is ‘strict’, although he was basically implying that she would be lucky to find a boyfriend. Onii-san is notoriously fussy when it comes to women, and I’m not sure that he was being entirely fair, but what do you think? Kiyoé Yoshioka: hottie or nottie?

Do-Re-Mi ドレミの歌

The other day Do-Re-Mi from The Sound Of Music was playing in the background during a TV programme about Switzerland, and Mrs M started singing along.

‘Do is the do of doughnut,’ she sang. ‘Re is the re of…’
‘Hang on, hang on,’ I interrupted. ‘Did you just say “doughnut”?’
‘Yes. “Do is the do of doughnut”. Why?’
‘Do isn’t the do of doughnut! Do is a deer, a female deer!’
‘What, you mean the English lyrics are different?’

Over the years, several people have translated The Sound Of Music into Japanese, but the version that stuck is by a woman called Peggy Hayama. Having seen the original stage musical in the early sixties, Hayama realised that particularly in the case of Do-Re-Mi, a literal translation wouldn’t work, so not only are her mnemonics different, but because the Japanese alphabet has no ‘la’ or ‘ti’ sounds, so are her syllables for the musical notes:

‘Do’ is the ‘do’ of ‘doughnut’
‘Re’ is the ‘re’ of ‘remon’
(er, lemon)
‘Mi’ is the ‘mi’ of ‘min-na’
‘Fa’ is the ‘fa’ of ‘faito’ (fight)
‘So’ is the ‘so’ of ‘aoi sora’
(blue sky)
‘Ra’ is the ‘ra’ of ‘rappa’ (trumpet)
‘Shi’ is the ‘shi’ of ‘shiawasé’
Right, let’s sing!

Another sound you don’t get in Japanese is ‘lé, hence a lemon becoming a remon, and just in case you think Hayama is advocating the use of violence, in Japan, using the English word ‘fight’ is a way of exhorting someone to do their best.

Hayama also added a second verse, which mixes in a couple more mnemonics for good measure:

DOnna toki demo (whatever)
REtsu wo kundé
MInna tanoshiku
FAito wo motté
SOra wo aoidé
RAn rararararara
(er, la la la)
SHIawasé no uta
Sah, utaimashoh

Translated back into English, it goes like this:

Whenever you want
Link your arms
Everybody having fun
Prepare to do your best
Look up at the sky
A happy song
Right, let’s sing!

Doughnuts? Fighting? Olanges and Remons? Rodgers and Hammerstein must be turning in their graves. But anyway, just for the sake of completeness, here is Hayama’s Japanese version in full:



ドレミファソラシド ドシラソファミレ
ドミミミソソ レファファラシシ
ドミミミソソ レファファラシシ……
ソドラファミドレ ソドラシドレド


Karoh-shi 過労死

Many of us have had reason to complain about our job at some point or another, but the next time you feel like handing in your resignation and storming out of the office in a huff, spare a thought for the subject of this recent news story:

Death by overwork: only three days off in thirteen months – charges filed against presidents of confectionery company

The supervisory office for labour standards in Mito City and the Mito City public prosecutor’s office have filed charges against the 69-year-old male director and 54-year-old female president of Japanese confectionery manufacturing company Hagiwara, which is based in Kasama City, Ibaraki Prefecture.

The suspects are being prosecuted for contravening a labour and management agreement by granting one of their male employees – a resident of Kasama City – just three days off in the thirteen-month period between 1st August 2010 and 31st August 2011, and for making him work on his days off a total of fifty-three times during the same period. They also failed to notify the labour standards office of the contents of the employee’s contract.

According to the labour standards office, the member of staff, who was working as ‘general director of manufacturing’ and in control of shipping at the company, collapsed after arriving home on August 30th last year and died two days later. He was thirty years old and died as a result of ventricular fibrillation, although in February of this year, his death was officially recognised as being due to overwork.

It was recorded on the man’s time card that he did more than one hundred hours’ overtime per month for every month of the thirteen-month period, although the company could not confirm this, and said, ‘the employee in question was taking breaks’.

Citing the man’s status within the company, the suspects are refuting the allegations, saying that ‘sections of the rules regarding labour standards law are not applicable to such a supervisory position’. The labour standards office, however, ruled that ‘the employee was responsible for shipping, and as such, his role did not constitute a management position’.

(Various sources, including the Mainichi Newspaper, 1st October 2012. Oh, and in case you hadn’t already cottoned on, karoh-shi / 過労死 is the Japanese word for ‘death by overwork’.)

Hay fever 花粉症

It may seem a little strange given the fact that it was snowing the other day, but a lot of people are already suffering from hay fever, a condition that until a few decades ago was practically unheard of in Japan. Rather than summer grass pollen – which turns my nose into the physical equivalent of a bath tap with a broken washer when I’m in the UK – the problem here is spring tree pollen, specifically sugi (杉 / cedar) and hinoki (檜 / cypress), although until I read this centre-page spread from the Tokyo Newspaper, I hadn’t realised exactly why.
Thanks to an abundance of diagrams, graphs, pie charts and so on, and a writing style that is more Newsround than Newsnight, these encyclopaedia-like articles – which appear ever Sunday, and cover such esoteric topics as the history of coal mining and the Japanese space programme – have become essential reading, and okah-san makes a point of saving them for me. I haven’t bothered to translate the entire hay fever piece (published on 5th February), but hopefully those sufferers amongst you will find some of the information useful and / or interesting, and those non-sufferers amongst you will be able to sit back and relax, safe in the knowledge that the next few months of your life will be both sneeze- and snot-free:

The number of people concerned about hay fever is on the increase. The season for hay fever caused by cedar pollen – a condition that is often referred to as the “citizens’ illness” – is drawing near. Here we describe the hay fever mechanism and how to deal with it – measures which may be difficult to find out about at crowded ear, nose and throat clinics.

The reasons for hay fever manifesting itself are threefold: ‘genetic predisposition’, ‘environmental factors’ and ‘pollen’. Most hay fever sufferers are sensitive to cedar pollen and the number of those sufferers is on the increase. Cedar was planted all over the country as a national policy in the years after WWII, and once a cedar tree exceeds 30 years of age, it is likely to produce large amounts of pollen.

(The fact that there was an enormous increase in the number of cedar trees being planted after the war – the original intention was to use the timber to help rebuild Japan’s devastated urban areas – is common knowledge, but the ‘thirty-year rule’ explains why the hay fever epidemic occurred more recently.)

If genetic predisposition and environmental factors are both present, symptoms become apparent in the sufferer once a certain amount of pollen is released. Not only do environmental factors make it more likely for the allergy to occur, they also exacerbate it. For example:

Eating habits – high-protein and high-fat diet
Living environment – airtight living spaces
Movement towards urban living – asphalt roads and pavements (pollen tends not to settle on road surfaces and is re-dispersed)
Atmospheric pollution – exhaust fumes

In this sense, hay fever is also called an ‘illness of civillisation’. The first public warning about pollen levels – relating to ragweed – was issued in 1961, and changes in the environment brought about by modernisation cannot be overlooked as a reason for this.

Pie chart – proportion of natural to man-made forestation in Japan:

Total forested area – 25,100,000 hectares
Natural forestation – 53% (13,380,000 hectares)
Man-made forestation – 41% (10,350,000 hectares)
Of which: 18% cedar (4,500,000 hectares), 10% cypress (2,600,000 hectares) and 13% other tree varieties (3,250,000 hectares)
Others – 6% (1,370,000 hectares)

The area covered by artificial cedar and cypress forests takes up around 19% of the total Japanese land mass – approximately 7,100,000 hectares. Six prefectures in Kanto (Tokyo, Saitama, Kanagawa, Chiba, Gunma, Tochigi and Ibaraki) and four prefectures in central Japan (Aichi, Gifu, Shizuoka and Nagano) have particularly extensive cedar and cypress forestation.

(Japan’s population is highly concentrated in urban areas, and it’s estimated that between 80 and 90% of the total land mass is mountainous, with most of that being forested. That more than 40% of that area was replaced with man-made forestation in the space of a few decades is an extraordinary statistic.)

Graph – Age of trees in artificial forests

Between 700,000 and 800,000 hectares of man-made forests are occupied by cedar between 41 and 45 years old, while fewer than 100,000 hectares of cedar are between 76 and 80 years old, and fewer than 50,000 hectares of cedar are between 1 and 5 years old.
Between 3 and 400,000 hectares of cypress are between 36 and 40 years old, with similar proportions to cedar for 76-80 and 1-to-5-year-old cypress.

(In other words, there’s a big spike in the graph for trees that hit their pollen-releasing prime in the past couple of decades.)

Over the past fifteen years, there has been a large increase in cedar pollen in years when the previous summer was extremely hot. In metropolitan Tokyo, the longest sunshine hours during that period – 300-plus in 2004 – were followed by the highest pollen count – 10,000 parts per cm² in 2005. Because of this, indications show that global warming is also influencing pollen levels, and therefore hay fever.

(These are statistics that I can vouch for through personal experience – ie. summer 2004 in Tokyo was stiflingly hot, and my hay fever in the spring of 2005 was even worse than usual.)

According to the results of a survey carried out with patients at ear, nose and throat clinics, the estimated number of sufferers countrywide stood at 29.8% in 2008. Of those, 26.5% were allergic to cedar pollen – around one in four people.
The estimated number of hay fever sufferers among Tokyo residents is currently at 28.2%, or around one in every 3.5 people. This is about three times greater than it was 20 years ago, and 1.5 times greater than it was 10 years ago
Depending on the influence of wind direction and topography, in areas where pollen is easily dispersed there is a tendency for the number of suffers to increase.
The rate is highest in Kanto (Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama, Ibaraki, Tochigi and Gunma prefectures) and Tokai (Aichi, Gifu, Mie and Shizuoka prefectures)

Highest percentage of sufferers – Yamanashi 48.7%
Lowest percentage of sufferers – Kagoshima 12.7%
Percentage of sufferers in Ibaraki – 28.2%

Spreading from east to west, the hay fever season starts at the beginning of February in the west of Kyushu, in the middle of February in Tokyo, and at the end of March in Hokkaido.
It is currently popular to go on ‘pollen avoidance tours’ to places like Hokkaido and Okinawa.

(This isn’t as ludicrous an idea as it might sound – when my hay fever was at its worst in my mid-twenties, I spent a couple of summers in North America for the same reason.)

Regarding radioactive cesium in cedar pollen after the nuclear accident in Fukushima, in January this year, university researchers began a factual investigation at 11 locations in Kanto and Tohoku, and the Forestry Agency has said, ‘there is no effect on the human body’.

(In Ibaraki at least, fallen leaves have registered the highest levels of radioactivity, although as yet I haven’t seen any statistics for radiation levels in pollen – presumably because the season has only just started. Make of the Agency’s statement what you will!)

Cedar registers the largest amounts of pollen, from mid-February until mid-April, with the cedar pollen season in Hokkaido having the shortest duration.
Cypress has a shorter season with smaller amounts of pollen – mostly between mid-March and the end of April.
Pollen from alder, hazelnut and birch trees is negligible by comparison.
Grass pollen is prevalent from the beginning of April until the beginning of September, mainly in Kanto, although in comparatively small amounts.

(Not only is there less grass – and therefore less grass pollen – in Japan than there is in the UK, but according to the article, ‘the scope of grass pollen is much narrower’ – ie. it isn’t carried as far on the wind as tree pollen.)

Hay fever occurs when the immune system tries to eliminate germs or viruses from the body. Essentially, the body recognises harmless pollen for an allergen and tries to expel it.

1 – Pollen enters the body
2 – Pollen allergen dissolves and attaches itself to the membrane of the nose and eyes
3 – Allergen is recognised as a ‘foreign body’ and antibodies are produced
4 – Antibodies merge with mast cells (sensitisation)

(NB: for some reason the Japanese word for ‘mast cells’ is himan-saiboh – 肥満細胞 / obese cells – and there is a note in the article explaining that there ‘is no connection between mast cells and bodily obsesity’.)

5 – When pollen is inhaled again, chemicals are emitted to combat the allergen
6 – When sensory nerves stimulate sensory nerves and blood vessels, symptoms appear: itchy nose and eyes, runny nose, teary eyes, sneezing, blocked nose, bloodshot eyes

By sneezing and therefore cleaning out the nose, the body expels the allergen, and by blocking the nose, it makes it difficult for the allergen to enter the body.

The middle of the day and early evening are the peak times for dispersal of pollen. Wear a surgical mask when you go out. It is important to find a mask that feels comfortable and matches the size of our face.

(As the nice people at Quirky Japan pointed out in out this blog post, surgical masks have been popular here for the best part of a century, although frankly, I’m dubious as to their effectiveness in keeping out pollen. Blowing your nose is considered to be bad manners in Japan, and if you absolutely have to, it’s customary to use a paper hankie and dispose of it straight away. As I discovered from years of trial and error, however, paper hankies make your hay fever worse, as their abrasiveness irritates the skin and the fibres act like sneezing powder, thus making your nose even runnier. So while it may not do a lot for me in terms of cultural integration, I stick to cotton hankies and try to blow my nose as discreetly as possible.)

The most important thing is to prevent pollen from entering the body. Understand the dispersal pattern and the pollen count information, and as much as possible refrain from going outside.
On average, pollen levels peak at over 80 parts per cm²  at midday, with a second peak at over 60 parts per cm² at 6pm.
The symptoms begin directly after waking up, a phenomenon that is known as ‘morning attack’. When the temperature drops in the evening, pollen which has been suspended in the air descends.

The most appropriate treatment differs depending on one’s lifestyle and the severity of the condition. You should choose a treatment that fits you after discussing the matter with your doctor.
Medicine – Preventative treatment is effective. If you begin taking medicine before symptoms appear, they can be reduced.
Operation – An operation to scorch the nasal membrane can be completed as an out-patient. But its effectiveness is limited and symptoms may reappear. Recommended for pregnant women and students taking exams.
Immunotherapy – A treatment by which an antigen extract is injected into the body at fixed intervals. Injections take place over the course of about 3 years, and in 70 to 80% of cases are effective on sufferers. Medicine that can be taken orally is currently being clinically tested.

It is hoped that [allergen immunotherapy] could provide a complete cure. Symptoms can be abated by repeatedly injecting pollen extract in gradually increasing doses. The treatment requires patience but symptoms are fundamentally reduced, and to a great extent the use of medicine becomes unnecessary. However, as very rare side effects include breathing difficulties and low blood pressure leading to anaphylactic shock, caution is necessary.

At present, instead of being administered hypodermically, a new technique of administering immunotherapy as a medicine is under scrutiny. Since 2000, at the Japan University Of Medicine, with clinical research as a starting point, more than 400 cases have already been investigated, and serious side effects have not arisen. Apart from going to hospital about once a month, the medicine method can for the most part be carried out at home.

(An even newer treatment – called phototherapy – made an appearance on a recent TV show, and involves shining ultraviolet light into the nose. The machine that administers this is currently prohibitively expensive, but the boffin who introduced it said that a cheaper and more portable version should be available soon. Another TV programme introduced the fascinating possibility that asthma triggered by allergies – and presumably allergies of all kinds – can be cured by spending time 250m below ground in a salt mine: a quick Google search unearthed these two articles from The Telegraph – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/expat/expatnews/7527907/Asthma-treatment-in-Pakistani-salt-mine.html – and The Guardian – http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2005/dec/03/ukraine.tomparfitt. For the moment, though, it looks as if I’ll have to stick to anti-histamines, nasal spray and my trusty cotton hankies…)

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.

Japanese 日本語

Even though I have been learning it for eight years, my Japanese is still rubbish. This is quite a painful thing to have to admit to, but it’s true. Sure, I can sit down and translate a newspaper article with the help of one or two online and offline dictionaries. I can watch a film or a TV programme and know roughly what’s going on. I can ask for directions to the nearest post office and quite possibly find the post office as a result. I can read the instructions for my mobile phone and find out how to tweak the settings for the internal camera. I can talk to people in the pub or at a party and get a pretty good idea of who they are, what they do and where they come from. I can send an email or a text message arranging to meet someone or telling them what’s happening in my life. I can check Wikipedia to find out the difference between houji-cha (ほうじ茶 / hoji tea), mugi-cha (麦茶 / roasted barley tea) and oolong-cha (烏龍茶 / oolong tea). I can make a speech at the staff party saying how lucky I am to have found such a good job. But for the vast majority of the time, I am at a complete loss as to what the people around me are saying.

So perhaps I should rephrase that first sentence:

Even though I have been learning it for eight years, my Japanese listening ability is still rubbish. It’s a chicken-and-egg kind of situation, but possibly because listening is the weakest of my language skills, I have come to see it as the most important. The thing about the other three – speaking, reading and writing – is that for the most part, you can regulate their speed. When I’m speaking I can take my time (so long as I’m not trying to say something like ‘Get out of the way of that express train!’), when I’m reading I can go back and have another look, and when I’m writing I can dig out those dictionaries to make sure that I haven’t made any major spelling or grammatical gaffes. But when I’m listening, I am entirely at the mercy of the person who’s talking to me, and unless they’re very sympathetic indeed, that means having to negotiate an aural obstacle course of accents, dialect, background noise, foreground noise, people talking over each other, people directing what they say to someone other than me, and words, phrases, grammar and syntax that I simply haven’t learned yet. It’s infuriating because it leaves me feeling left out – either I keep quiet and stay out of the conversation altogether, or I run the risk of saying something inappropriate to wheedle my way into it, or I find my way in, only to realise that I don’t know what’s going on, and therefore don’t know how to react.

(As it happens there’s a metaphor in Japanese to describe exactly this feeling: the person left out of the conversation turns into a jizoh /  地蔵, namely the little stone statues of the Ksitigarbha bodhisattva that are dressed in little red hats and jackets and have an array of offerings at their feet. Mrs M said that she often turned into a jizoh at dinner parties in the UK.)

There are one or two key factors in my lack of ability, namely:

– I’m too old. Language acquisition starts to go downhill when you’re about seven years old, so starting afresh with a new language isn’t something that’s particularly advisable when you’re thirty-two (as I was when I went to my first evening class at South Thames College in Putney).

– Japanese has its roots in Chinese rather than Latin, so everything about it is different from English. If I’d chosen to learn French, Italian or German instead, I’d have been fluent years ago. Possibly. Well, OK, not fluent, but better than I am now at Japanese.

– I’m too male. It isn’t necessarily a sweeping generalisation to say that Women Are Better At Languages Than Men. This has something to do with right and left sides of the brain, and with being social creatures who take an interest in other people, as opposed to anti-social creatures who take an interest in sport, fishing, tinkering about in garden sheds etc.

But there is also, if I’m honest, a more important factor at work than any of these, and that is the fact that I have no natural aptitude for languages. Some people are good at football, some people are good at painting, some people are good at tinkering about in garden sheds, and some people are good at languages. K-san was an American woman who came to work as an ALT in Mrs M’s hometown a few years ago. She turned up in September, and from a standing start, passed level three of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test just three months later. A year later she passed level one, and since getting married to a Japanese man, has appeared on two different TV programmes without the aid of an interpreter or subtitles – one about newlyweds, and one about Japanese men who have married foreign women. And just so you don’t think that language aptitude is an exclusively female domain (although it is, as I have said, a largely female domain), the guy who started AJATT became fluent in Japanese in the space of just eighteen months, and this while he was living in America and didn’t even have a Japanese girlfriend (or even any Japanese friends, as far as I can tell). At the end of that year, he applied for and was offered a job with a Japanese company in Japan, after an all-Japanese application and interview process, and once he arrived there, started learning Chinese as well, which probably only took him another few weeks to master.

I try hard not to envy people like this, and I try hard not to compare myself to them, but the impulse is almost impossible to resist. After all these years of living in Japan, going to Japanese class, watching Japanese films, studying Japanese on the internet, and most importantly of all, going out with and then being married to a genuine, bona fide, 100% Japanese person, my conversations still falter, I have to strain to hear what people say, and a lot of the time, I am forced to admit defeat. When people talk about fluency, I assume they mean exactly that: ie. the ability to understand exactly what people are saying to you in all kinds of situations, and to reply accordingly. Back home, for example, I can absorb all kinds of spoken English and understand 99% of it: telephone conversations, conversations overheard on the bus, song lyrics, TV programmes, friends, relatives, work colleagues, non-native speakers, Cockneys, Geordies, Scousers, Scots, Irish, Aussies, women, men, children, politicians, bricklayers, you name it. All of those regional variations, all of that slang, all of that jargon, all of those idioms. Because I started when I was born, I’ve had plenty of practice, and this, I would contend, doesn’t constitute aptitude, it just constitutes naturalisation.

The thing is, though, no matter how hard it may be, learning Japanese is something that I find endlessly fascinating. Unlike a lot of other hobbies I’ve had, or challenges I’ve taken on, Japanese never gets boring, and even when I reach a point where I worry that I will never truly feel at ease interacting with native Japanese speakers, I never think to myself, ‘Oh well, that’s it then. I suppose I might as well give up and go home.’ Something always keeps me coming back for more. This could be because my mother was good with languages – she studied French and Italian at university and lived in Paris for a few months – and without necessarily inheriting her ability, I have at least inherited her fascination with them. And since my father was a bookseller and aspiring writer, that makes two strands of DNA whose double helices are inextricably intertwined with words of one kind or another.

My brother has always been a whizz at maths and science, so perhaps that particular slice of the genetic pie is what has given me such an analytical approach to learning a language. Where K-san or AJATT probably turn up for work in the morning and say to their Japanese colleagues, ‘Ooh, isn’t it hot today?’ or ‘How did your meeting go yesterday?’ or ‘Did you see the baseball last night?’ I turn up for work in the morning, sit down at my computer and start reading grammar explanations on Tae Kim, or looking up new words on Jim Breen, or testing my vocab knowledge on Kanji Box. My method for speaking Japanese is akin to building a bicycle from scratch: I like to know how everything fits together, and that it’s all going to work properly before I show it to anyone, and not grind to a halt or fall apart while I’m riding it. Somehow, people like K-san and AJATT have an instinctive feel for language: for them, it’s not a tool or a machine, it’s something that flows naturally between them and the person they’re talking to, something that enables them to communicate and connect with other people, to exchange emotions and information.

When it comes to speaking English, The Japanese are often criticised for being too shy, and for worrying so much about making a mistake that they don’t say anything at all, but this is something that applies to other nationalities as well, and certainly something that I can apply to myself. When I was fourteen I went to France for six weeks on an exchange visit, and I can honestly say that in the entire time I was there, I uttered no more than ten words of French. Particularly when you’re a teenager, speaking a foreign language is like getting up on stage and acting out a role in a play, and thus acutely embarrassing. Also, if your only experience of that kind of performance has been about twice a week for a couple of years, with other English people in an English-speaking environment, then suddenly finding yourself in a French-speaking environment with a load of French people is like going from a script read-through to a first night in front of a paying audience, with no rehearsal time at all between the two.

I am reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point at the moment, and one of the items of research it cites was carried out by some curious parents on their young child. The child in question was in the habit of talking to herself before she went to sleep and – more importantly – after her parents had finished reading her a bedtime story and left the room. By secretly recording these monologues over the course of a few months, what the parents discovered was that the language their daughter used when she was talking to herself was a lot more sophisticated than the language she used when she was talking to them. This gap between one’s knowledge and one’s ability to put that knowledge into practice must, I think, be universal to foreign language learners: there’s always a shortfall between what you have read and remembered from a textbook, for example, and what you can pick up on or use spontaneously when you’re in the midst of a real-life conversation with a native speaker.

My fellow ALT C-san says – only half-jokingly and with some justification – that his Japanese improves enormously when he’s drinking, and sometimes the confidence that alcohol gives you can be the very thing that bridges that gap between knowledge and application. The trouble is you can’t be drunk all the time, and even if you could, the law of diminishing returns would come into play: being drunk would begin to seem like normality, and being ‘confident’ wouldn’t help you any more. So the sad fact is, unless you happen to be one of those select few who take to languages like the proverbial duck to water, you’re just going to have to keep plugging away until what used to take conscious effort becomes instinctive.

Indeed, this progress that is too slow for the human eye (or in this case ear) to detect – like the sun moving across the sky or the tide coming in – is another factor that makes learning a language so frustrating. Particularly for yourself, but also for the people around you, it is very hard to tell whether or not you are making any progress. Just occasionally you might see a friend for the first time in years, and they might be kind enough to tell you that your Japanese has improved, but even then, you can never be entirely sure they aren’t just flattering you.

So how long does it take for a mere moral to achieve fluency? I read an interview with a Finnish man who has been living in Japan for forty-five years and is now a member of parliament, so perhaps it’s several decades. Then again, ten years seems to be a good, round number, and another ALT friend of mine, while he can’t read or write Japanese, speaks it like a native, and has been here for about a decade. The irony is that the other weekend, I took level two of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and contrary to my expectations, while the reading part – grammar, comprehension, vocabulary and so on – was devilishly hard, the listening part was a breeze. The results won’t be published until the end of September, but maybe then I will have the evidence I need to convince myself that while my Japanese is still rubbish, it isn’t quite as rubbish as it used to be.