What a funny weekend.
It was especially nice because I haven’t had a “weekend out” in so long…just holed up in the Taj, doin the üsh. I took the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) in Kobe…but more than anything the test proved to be just a springboard excuse to have a fun weekend Somewhere Else. I drove to Namikawa (並河） Kyoto after my Friday lesson, which was a first…took me 2.5 hrs to get there at around the dinner hours. Chris was waiting with a longboard under each arm and we skated like demons to get to a Yakiniku joint before closing. We made it, just barely. The niku was most excellent, n Chris and I ate like kings while this funny obachan made fun of/flirted with us baka gaijin. With a belly full of meat, we skated out again into a chilly late-fall night, pumping the boards along smooth, deserted streets boardering rice paddies n parking lots. It felt great. I haven’t skateboarded in a REALLY long time, but the hum of those wheels on the concrete and the needling wind in my face felt natural as it ever did at Cate.
Of course, the night was just getting started, and while we talked about possible beats for our rap collaboration, Hammond n I sipped fine sake and perused a giant book of Chuck Close’s work. Then it was out to find a bar with doors still open…which we did, and in fact helped keep them open far longer than they had planned. Both extremely drunk, it turned into one of those “deep talks” about life n shit slurred through whiskey and cigarettes…the kind you feel slightly embarrassed about the next day when you’re hungover. And hung over we were. My god. Hammond throws the curtain back and sunshine kicks me straight in the face. He throws off his nice big fluffy comforter and jumps up. I’m shivering my ass off on the floor under some Kotatsu blanket number trying desperately to ignore the reality of this morning when he goes over and throws Dr. Dre on the stereo (“Damn Bitches. Ya pussy’s been tampered with…”) and starts dancing there in his tightywhitey superhero underwear with this ridiculous fuckin smirk on his face. I crack one bloodshot eye at him and mumble something like “wht th fuk mn…” and he’s dancin, dancin, dancin (“Jammin!” Cause I like….JAMMIN…”) He looks down at me, still smiling this ridiculous wide eyed grin and says “I feel terrible!” … … (more dancing) … … “We gotta teach some kids in 9 minutes. Get up!” And yes…I got up, reeking of booze and stale cigarettes, old sweat and the like…and I walked into a stuffy classroom full of little 5 year olds and played games like a champ. Then we went back and napped.
Now, Hammond, it’s no secret, is a fashion whore, obsessive shopper; a man of fine taste and hetero-flexible bent, thus typically when we meet up we end up having some kind of “man-date” in which lots of high-end shopping and oogly-eyed fashion mongering turns into excessively long (and not just a little gay) fitting sessions and opinions. Chris and I rode the boards through the windy streets n crowds of Kyoto the next day, dropping in on the Bape store (meh…) Paul Smith, and then of course, another Paul Smith. I bought a fabulously expensive and wonderful scarf…the first time I’ve ever actually bought some high fashion during one of these little man dates. It’s a beautiful scarf, flashes of pink and blue striped with the brown n grey. Hammond and I drooled over $1000+ jackets and shoes, Hammond of course has the guy pull out his catalogue to look for some specific model he ran into in Tokyo. So our fashion-fatigued asses are looking for a place to kyukei and decide on a whim to drop in to some place called the “Independant’s Café” and dammmn place is cool. It’s in this ancient building in the basement, looking like a Zapatistas’ weekend hang out, all underground-artsy with some abstract film playing at one end, beer on tap and rickety old tables. It’s a place people in Portland would hang out…and so incredibly rare among places I’ve been in Japan. Normally you go into some glistening steel and glass palace of new modernity full of fashionable salary men sipping lattes. This was a poets basement if I ever saw one. I’ll have to remember it for next time I head to Kyoto.
It was around this time that I realized I had forgot not only the information booklet supposedly needed for the JLPT, but also the test voucher that gets me in…I’m amazed I even remembered to bring a pencil. There was no way of going back to get it at this point, so we headed in to Kobe for the evening, already wiped out. Chris fell half-asleep on the train while I yabbered away about mindless shit the way I do when I’m tired. In Kobe there was a hilarious episode in which I called Mellen about getting info on the test n what to do with my voucherless ass, and we’re talking and trying to figure out where she is so we can meet, and she says, “well, I should go I just ran into some people” and I’m getting this weird “double echo” thing going on, and I look up and there she is, on the phone walking straight up to our group (we’d met some other Tajimites wandering around) and she doesn’t see me, so I put the phone down but she keeps talking into it, standing three feet away but not realizing it “hello? I can’t hear you. Ed? Ed?” and I start laughing and finally she looks up and realizes whats happened. It was like something out of a movie. Ahhh sell phones.
So we check into the sauna n spa capsule down the way n an extremely blazed Jon K joins us for indian food, which was delicious. I head to Mellens hotel to get the rundown on the test, head back n get my spa on…and Daaaaaaamn what a place. So much nicer than the other one. I was enormously paranoid about the tatts but ended up ninja-ing my way through just fine. I rubbed myself with salt n sweated my hangover out at last in the salt sauna, dipped my ass in the freezing bath, hopped in the outdoor on-sen n slept like an f’n baby on the space-foam tempurpedic mattress in the capsule.
If waking up in capsules didn’t feel so great, I doubt there’d be any way I would have got up for the test, seeing as it was 7 am and my usual rising hour is more say, around noon…but I did it, and even had time for breakfast. I hauled myself in among a vast river of noisy Chinese and Koreans, anxious to prove to Japan that the rest of Asia aren’t as dumb and brutish as the Japanese think, and can in fact speak their ridiculously complicated language. Among them a few familiar westerners seen now n again at conferences, orientations and the like last year. I popped Amnesiac on the headphones n glided along with the morning city flying past in a blur. Hopping on the skate Chris loaned me, I flew along the route to the Gakkuen, following the mass river of test-takers directed by traffic cops. Turns out, my dumb ass was in luck. All I had to do was walk up to a table and get a hand-written replacement voucher instead of my actual one and I was good to go. Then…the test.
I hadn’t studied at all. I went to classes as usual. I did ONE night of test 問題 in my apartment before getting so tired of the bullshit particle practice that I just gave up and decided I’d get tested on what I’d actually knew rather than what I had crammed. Turns out…who needs to study? Pah. People had told me 3級 would be a breeze for me, but I always assumed they were just exaggerating my Japanese level. No, they were right. There were a few confusing questions, but overall, reading, vocabulary and grammar sections were just…cake. I mean, the grammar, the biggest and longest section, is 70 minutes. I finished in 25, double checked my answers, and then still had 15 minutes to sit there like a chump. What was amazing though was the listening portion. My god. I went into this thing with the idea that “hey, listening’s cake, that’s all I do all day.” and being really worried that reading was usually far more difficult. BUT, jesus, if only I could convey how ridiculous these listening questions were…it didn’t really have anything to do with what Japanese words you could understand by hearing…it was actually a test of cognitive problem solving…like one of those math problems (“a train leaves Kyoto at 6:30 am travelling at 65 kph, while another leaves Tokyo at 7:00 am traveling at 45 kph, which train did Mary ride to see her fiancée?”). A perfect example was one in which 4 people are holding a meeting to discuss the schedule for their next meeting….already a brain twister in itself. Four different voices and they go something like this:
“1: So, lets decide about the next meeting.
2: Well, Monday, Wednesday and Friday are all good for me.
3: I can do Tuesday and Thursday, but not Wednesday”
4: Monday’s no good for me, and I have another commitment Friday, but Sunday or Tuesday’s fine.
1: Great. So It’s decided. We’ll have our next meeting on……(fade out)”
Q. What day will they have the meeting?
Seriously…they were all like this. It was like…how many times can we “trick” you in one question. They had all these “red-herring” answers that they threw out left and right, and most of the time, it didn’t feel like there even WAS a correct answer. Afterwards it was comfortable knowing that other people felt as fucked by this section as I did. It moved REALLY fast too. At one point the voice says “Let’s take a short break” and then there’s 3 notes of a synth piano and it goes, “Ok, lets begin again.” Otherwise, it was just rapid fire listening. No time to change or review your answer, no time to think about it before it was already on to the next one…Each said only once. The other really striking thing about the test (but not at all surprising) was how amazingly anal the administrators and rules were. A lot of them were expected for a test like this, pretty much standard for standardized tests, but they were all emblazoned in bright red bold type on the booklet, posted on signs everywhere, and VERY strictly enforced. For example, before beginning, every single persons face was checked, by hand, at their assigned seat, against a stack of pictures of those who applied to take the test. We had to listen to a prerecorded speech EVERY section about the many many ways you can be disqualified from the test, which included: having a time keeping device that ticks “too loudly”, having an eraser that is not removed from its paper casing, having anything other than pencils and erasers on your desk, leaving the room, even just to pee, having your cell buzz, even in silent mode, not putting your pencil down PRECISELY with the chime, or opening your book before the beginning chime. ETC.
This, to me, these things are most indicative of the attitude prevalent over this whole thing. I don’t want this to sound like conspiracy theories or some shit, but it definitely struck me as ridiculous/paranoid/weird the way the test was carried out. Most of my friends with ANY moderate to advanced Japanese ability try 2級…and most of them fail…like me, most of us fall in that huge grey area between 3 and 2…but also people far far better at Japanese than myself as well. The stories of 2級 tests I hear are horrific. 2級 is the test minimum required to be employed by a Japanese company, and to enter Japanese Universities as a normal (not exchange) student. In other words, it’s a certificate of entry into Japanese society, in some sense, and as such it has tremendous political value. Now, we all know how the Japanese feel about outsiders entering Japanese society…its a kind of apocalyptic nightmare for them in which the barbarian hordes invade, destroy their culture, rape their women and enslave them in international crime rings…etc. The recent changes to the immigration policy (supposedly “anti-terrorist”) attest to this attitude, and the sense that, as they say, “foreigners are the primary cause of crime in Japan.”
The difference between 3級 and 2級 is huge…and whereas with the English proficiency test has a mid-level 2.5 level for intermediates, the J-test has no such thing. It breaks down like this: from about 300 Kanji (and honestly, as someone who just took level 3, you didn’t even need nearly that many) to over 2,000, and while 3rd level is all basic conversational skills and grammar you need to simply communicate, 2級 contains uncountable numbers of technical compounds and specialized language used nowhere outside of academic and buisness reports. Now, to be fair, if you certify someone to work in a Japanese company, they should be able to read your annual business report, and make one of their own…but given that I know people who I believe speak and read well enough to work in a Japanese company, should they want to, it seems ridiculous that such a person is unable to pass this test.
What really bugs me is that you can tell, fairly obviously, that the people who write these tests don’t actually “want” you to pass. As with the listening in my test (which, I hear, is largely the same or worse in 2級), the kanji sections of 2級 are full of tricky little nitpickings. For example, they’ll show four similar, or even identical looking characters and say “choose the correct one” for the given meaning. Oftentimes they’ve “made up” a kanji that looks just like the one you know, but either added or removed one tiny piece, or reversed the direction of a single stroke. The fact is, most Japanese people I know admit freely that they would probably fail this test. And thats just level 2, forget level 1. Not to mention that some (not all, but some) foreigners I know who passed 2 don’t actually speak well at all…sure they can read a lot of kanji (and they’re generally enourmously proud of this accomplishment), but when trying to explain Texas Hold-em’ Poker to a Japanese person, the 2級 passing dude at the table fumbled through a bunch of weird sounding sentences, and I ended up being the one to explain the game in perfectly easy, conversational Japanese.
Now, I didn’t take 2級, so this isn’t first hand, but compiled from the many people I know who took it this year, and my experience with the easier test. When explaining this idea to Hammond over taco balls, he made a good point about they have to make it difficult in order to give it real meaning, and that Japanese is just a difficult language period (ranked 3rd most difficult in the world, I believe). Plus, the Japanese test to measure English proficiency is a joke, and hardly comparable to the native test, but if you take TOIC or TOEFL, you’re in for something that might be equally hard for a non-native speaker as the J-test is for us. At any rate, it was just a feeling I got…more of that overwhelming sense of a giant finger pointing down at me saying in flashing neon: “YOU ARE OUTSIDER. YOU ARE NOT BELONG HERE.”
Whereas we English teachers put up with the mangled monstrosity that passes for “English” in this country on a daily basis…(“hey man, don’t J-Go my Ei-Go!”) we’re continually reminded we’ll never live up to the challenge of Japanese. Shikata ga nai, ne.