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Reader Response
December, 2001

The J.Test: Less of an ordeal and nobody fails

Dear Kanji Clinic,

Everyone knows about the just-completed Japanese Proficiency Test (Nihongo Noryoku Shiken), the once-a-year ordeal that stretches out over a full Sunday. Why would anyone want to take the lesser-known J.Test? For most people, it would probably be because of its convenience. The test is conducted nationwide five times a year and gets a similar test format over in half an afternoon, with the whole test concluded in one (intensive) sitting. It is much easier to apply for, too, with just a single page application due at least two weeks before the exam day. The testing conditions are also vastly different: I sat my J.Test in a room (the only room!) with 7-8 other examinees, but that was in Nagoya and I have not experienced the situation in any of the 17 other test centers.

While the Proficiency Test has four levels, the J.Test has only two tests: The E-F test (roughly corresponding to Proficiency Test levels 3 and 4), which involves 85 minutes of actual test time and costs \1500, and for more advanced students, the A-D test, which takes 125 minutes and costs \2100. The J.Test could be used as practice for the Proficiency Test, with a score of 600-699 and 700-799 (out of a possible 1000 points) being considered equivalent to a pass at Proficiency Test levels 2 and 1, respectively.

Perhaps the major differences between the Proficiency Test and the J.Test relate to listening and writing: The J. Test listening component comprises half of the total score - obviously advantageous to those with strong listening skills. And unlike the Proficiency Test, the J.Test tests written production of kanji. The writing component consists of two short sections: In the first section there are 5 questions, each with a given word you must use to compose a sentence. For example, in my test one of the five words given was 思い切って, for which you must hand-write an answer such as 迷っていないで、彼女に思い切って告白してみたら? The second writing section similarly has 5 questions, but this time you are given three compounds to use in a single sentence, for example, 利益・企業・優先. You can, however, change the order of the three compounds.

Kanji reading skills are tested mostly as they are in the Proficiency Test. A sentence is given with several words in hiragana, and for each word you are given four possible kanji to choose from in a standard multiple choice format. The next section reverses the procedure with four readings to choose from for the underlined kanji in sentences.

Four short reading passages also test your kanji recognition and global reading skills.

The nicest thing about the J.Test is that nobody ever fails. Everyone gets a certificate with their level of pass, plus their score breakdown on a separate sheet. A warning though: Your level 1 equivalency is printed on the certificate as a very humbling Pre-level B pass (中上級). You need at least 900 points to get to a level A pass (最上級), which is the suggested goal for those aiming to be Japanese interpreters.

For information and brochures, contact the J.Test 事務局 tel: 03-3368-8106; fax: 03-3368-8107 or email: jol@jtest.org. You are also welcome to email me for a more independent opinion.

Robert Gee


"Is anyone else out there taking the Kanji Kentei exam?"

I enjoy reading the Kanji Clinic column in the online version of the Japan Times, from my desk here in Colorado.

I just passed level 3 of the Kanji Kentei exam, having previously passed levels 7, 6, 5, and 4, and I find it a wonderfully motivating self-study program. I lived in Japan for 16 years and currently work as a freelance translator and interpreter in the U.S., so I need to work constantly on improving my language skills. I'm curious whether other non-Japanese readers have taken the exams, or are studying for them. Have you had any feedback on this?

Cate Swift
Estes Park, Colorado, USA

Note: Funny you should ask! Watch for the next column, set to appear on Friday, December 21, which will include an in-depth discussion of the Kanji Kentei. In the meantime, check out the Kanji Kentei Web site by going to "Links."

"De Roo's '2001 Kanji' has never let me down"

Thank you so much for your beautiful tribute to Father DeRoo. Thanks to you I learned of his death and felt very sad not to have known sooner.

I was one of many very fortunate missionaries to Japan who studied Kanji under his guidance at the Franciscan Language School in Roppongi. My term was 1972-74. Father DeRoo made Kanji come alive for us through his engaging stories, sometimes wicked, and his great love for Chinese and Japanese culture which he imparted to us with such diligence.

In the days before recycling became fashionable, he came to classes with his notes on the back of various advertisements that had come in the mail. These notes eventually found their way into his great book, "2001 Kanji," which is one of the best resources for finding a reading of any Chinese character. It has never let me down.

I have many warm and delightful memories of his classes even after all these years. May he rest in peace.

Sister Maureen Lamarche, cnd
Fukushima, Japan
Designing a classroom friendly component-based method

Dear Noguchi Sensei,

Hello! What you have done is invaluable. My name is Scott Alprin, and I am a graduated student of both volumes of the Heisig method. I'm also a JET grad (3 years in Kariya-shi, Aichi)) and a law school grad (currently a lawyer in Washington, D.C.)...oh, and a Ritsumeikan University grad (International Relations graduate school).

But, my true love is Kanji. I feel that Heisig's method was brilliant. It saved me from the Kanji abyss. My book became a sea of ink, as I wrote a story for each one, and, in a way, it became a record of my life at the time that I was making the stories. For example, ninben means "Naoko," whom I was dating at the time, but that's another story. I blush to think of some of my stories consisting of "Naoko."

Anyway, I actually lost my book in 1998, due to an unfortunate series of events. Still, I know all the kanji (or can recall them very easily if I forget). Many of the stories have, after serving their purpose, faded away.

It took me about 3 years to finish Heisig's book (with months of inactivity, at times), and then a few months to learn nearly every reading, using Volume 2.

I thought it was unfortunate that Foerster and Tamura ("Kanji ABC") didn't give him more credit, although I think what they did, too, was fantastic.

Personally, I am currently experimenting with ways to make a "component-based" (I say "element-based) method classroom friendly. Three problems with using Heisig's method for the classroom, I think, are: 1) it takes too long to make up the stories, 2) Freedom in order of learning ("access")is not provided for the 2000 kanji, because they are presented in rigid order (for example, "hito" is #951; and 3) the stories are all personalized.

Kanji ABC goes a long way towards solving the second problem. Its "graphemes" are presented at the beginning of the book, so "access" is provided to all the kanji before the student even gets to the first kanji. It may be unrealistic, however, for a Japanese instructor to spend so much time teaching students the graphemes, what with all the other obligations he or she has (i.e. grammar, vocab...etc.).

As for the first problem (the problem of how hard it is to make good stories), I wonder if there's a more efficient way. I wonder if a type of mnemonic word-association would work.

I have devised a new system, which I presented at the 11th Annual Virginia Japanese Pedagogy Workshop, held in Maryland. I am currently trying to adapt it to a classroom setting, and taught my first class at a Virginia high school on Friday.

I look forward to kanji-ing with you very much.

Scott Alprin
Washington, DC
"Father De Roo made me want to learn kanji"

It has been difficult to come to terms with the fact that Father Joseph De Roo is no longer physically with us. I felt the need to express my experience with him.

A little background about myself: I am second generation Japanese born in Brazil, and I grew up in the US. Prior to moving to Japan four years ago I had had no formal training in the Japanese language; although I am fluent verbally I cannot read nor write. I work for a company, and English is the primary language in my day to day activities. Learning Kanji was always my intent but I always felt embarrassed or non-motivated to actually take a course.

Then I decided to take "Taking the Pain Out of Kanji " at Temple University. I knew nothing about the course and Father De Roo at the time I enrolled, just that the course was taught in English.

On the first day of class, Father De Roo walked in and introduced himself, and his first question was " Are you in the right class?" I briefly gave him my background and that seemed to ease him a bit. He also asked about my last name, and I did not understand at the time what intrigued him about it- Kamiyama ? "God Mountain"-- but now I understand. There was one occasion after the class when I gave him a brief history of my past ancestors, (about 800 years of recorded history).

I did not know what to expect from the class, but my initial thought was " What have I gotten into! I have tons of work, I am wasting 2 hours of my day..."

But once De Roo started his lectures, he captivated me and I was hooked. His teaching style was so unique and interesting. His views shed new light and made me look at Kanji in a totally different perspective - analyze and associate. Father De Roo not only made me want to look at Kanji and learn it, but I felt I was learning history at the same time.

I will miss him greatly, and in my opinion it is a tremendous loss for the Japanese language and culture that he is no longer physically here with us to transfer his knowledge. Through his book, though, I know his legacy will live on.

Thank you for writing the memorial to him in your column.

Masao Kamiyama
Japanese teacher from Hungary gives her perspectives on kanji learning

Dear Kanji Clinic,

How is it that brilliant people (from non-kanji backgrounds), good speakers of Japanese, some of them true connoisseurs of the Japanese culture, often get embarrassed and "lose face" when it comes to kanji-writing? At the same time, Japanese or Chinese people of modest mental capacities experience no difficulties in producing proper characters. Is it only a question of the amount of time invested in practicing kanji? I doubt it.

I suspect that it is also a question of "timing." Similarly to language-acquisition, there must be an ideal time-span (between the ages of 3-12?) for learning kanji. Once you start learning kanji after this "ideal age" you will experience great difficulties. It is not that you cannot learn them, but probably the time required for learning them increases in an exponential way - the older you start, the longer the time required to learn them. Has anyone done any research on this? Not only will you have difficulty, but you will never learn them perfectly - because you have missed the "ideal" time when kanji could have been acquired without any "accent" (similar to pronunciation).

There seems to be a great difference in the visual perception and in the visual memory capacities between kanji and non-kanji learners. The visual perception capacity of Japanese (and for that matter of Chinese) seems to be much more developed and hence more effective than that of Westerners. If the disadvantage is visual capacity and memory itself, than in principle kanji learning skills could be developed not only by teaching kanji itself, but by other methods as well. I wonder if any research on this has been ever done?

Kanji are taught to children in Japan who already know the spoken language. Kanji often leads them to a deeper understanding of the vocabulary that they already know. They learn the writing of something already familiar, and they learn "through the hand" (te de oboeru). Foreigners, in contrast, often have to learn kanji without knowing the language. Also, in the Western tradition of education, first you understand (using your head) and then you learn (by using your hands). So the mental process preceeds the motorial one for us, but what do we do in cases when we have no explanation for why a kanji is shaped the way it is? Pictograms are fun to learn, but they are few in number. You have to make up stories to be able to remember the great majoriy of kanji, or find some other method.

For me a good teacher of kanji is capable of offering good stories that make remembering characters easy. Native Japanese teachers often misunderstand this need. Even if the explanation is evident, many miss or are reluctant to take the opportunity of offering even simple hints. Why?

I suspect that native Japanese teachers underestimate the difficulties foreigners from non-kanji backgrounds can be expected to have learning kanji. Many of them simply do not realize the difference in learning styles and perception processes. They treat the kanji issue as a problem of non-commitment, lack of practice, lack of will, laziness. How can foreigners be expected to learn kanji even faster than Japanese children, who are surrounded by kanji in popular culture, television, signs in the streets, station names, etc.? Just have a look at the Japanese Language Proficiency Manual: It states that 300 hours of study are required to pass Level 3. But during those 300 hours one is expected to learn 1000 words, considerable grammar, listening and comprehension skills. How can a foreign learner possibly acquire 300 kanji above that? For Level 2, a minimum of 600 hours of learning are recommended, and for Level 1 (near native proficiency), which tests knowledge of 2000 kanji, only 900 hours of learning. Illusions!

Just for comparison: in compulsory education of Japanese children, around 1450 hours are devoted to learn writing. If 1450 hours are needed to learn to write one's mother tongue, how can foreigners be expected to learn the spoken language plus the writing in less time?!

What to do? Since the difficulties are not/cannot be perceived by Japanese natives - it is the responsibility and task of foreigners to invent good methods for memorizing kanji. Difficulties with kanji are quoted as the main reason for Japanese language-study deserters (who amount to about 30-50% of all who start to learn Japanese!) To this end Kanji Clinic is a great idea - we can exchange ideas, "tricks", opinions, etc. I wish just once there would be a whole seminar organized which is devoted to nothing but discussions of KANJI.

Judit Hidasi
Japanese teacher in Hungary, currently lecturing at Kanda Gaogodaigaku on intercultural communication