David Chart's Japan Diary

December 28th 2003

Classmates Several members of my class, pointing at their home countries on the world map. From the left, me, Mike, Shuu, Chou, Hang, Haruki-sensei, and Robert.

School finished on Friday, so I now have a week or so's holiday. That also means that I have no internet access at all, so it will be a while before this diary entry is uploaded to the web. Christmas was strange. It isn't a public holiday in Japan, but shops still put out at least as many tacky Christmas decorations as in the UK. Thus, you get a lot of the build-up to Christmas, but then it doesn't happen -- we had a normal (well, fairly normal) school day.

Although Thursday wasn't a public holiday, Tuesday was, as it was the Emperor's Birthday. I spent much of the day writing thank-you tanka for my teachers. (Tanka are a traditional form of Japanese poetry, consisting of five lines in the pattern 5-7-5-7-7 syllables. In the Heian period it was common to send someone the 5-7-5, and for them to complete the poem with the 7-7. The haiku arose from lazy correspondents.) That took several hours, as I had four teachers, and convincing Japanese to come to exactly the right number of syllables isn't easy.

In the evening, I had dinner with Hang, one of the students in my class. She's from Vietnam, so we talk purely in bad Japanese (although apparently she can speak English as well -- I've just never heard her do so). Hang can't eat fish, so we went to a tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) restaurant, which was very nice and not too expensive. I might well go back there with the parts of the family that can eat something on the menu.

Classmates and pudding Chou, Hang, and Shuu with the Christmas pudding.

On Christmas Day, I opened my presents from Mum and Sheila in the morning (thank you), and then went to school. It wasn't quite a normal day, as lots of people had brought cameras to take photographs of the class. As you can see from the pictures on this page, I took my camera, too. Mike, the other English guy in my class, brought Christmas pudding for everyone. For the teachers and the Asian students, it was the first time that they had tried it, and most seemed to like it. They certainly made the right noises, but they also finished the pudding.

Afterwards, I had dinner with Mike and a couple of his friends. We tried to gather more people, but everyone already had plans, or, in one case, was working. We had Kentucky Fried Chicken, which apparently is some sort of Japanese custom. I was sceptical, but there was a long queue at the shop and quite a wait for the food, so maybe it is. Anyway, dinner was fun.

Classmates From the left, me, Chou, Hang, Kitabora-sensei, and Robert. Shuu is taking the picture. The board has 'C Class' written on it in Japanese, but it's hard to see in this picture.

From there, I went to the school bar, where I stayed until quite late, chatting to various friends, most notably Trine (Danish) and Amy (Canadian, has figured before). I also spent some time talking to Youko, a Japanese woman who's a friend of a friend's girlfriend, but we never really got a topic of conversation going. Part of the problem was my friend telling me to have a Japanese conversation with her: "Talk!" is a remarkably difficult command to obey, because your mind goes blank. Well, mine does, anyway.

Friday was the last day of term, so we watched a tear-jerking TV drama about foster parents in the morning. From eleven, there was a graduation ceremony for the students leaving Yamasa at that point. There were only a couple of dozen of them, as most people arrive and leave in April and October. The ceremony was quite simple, but all the departing students had to give a short speech in Japanese. These varied quite a lot, in part because some of the students had been at Yamasa for over a year, while others had only been there for three months.

Yesterday I slept until noon, did nothing all day, and then went to bed. Wonderful! Today I'm airing my bedding, because it's a beautiful day. Unlike in England, washing and airing bedding here makes a noticeable difference to how comfortable the bed is, so I find I'm doing it rather more often.

First Term

With my first term finished, it's a good time for a bit of a retrospective, and planning for next term. I've written a review of Yamasa which gives my impressions of the school for other potential students, so here I'm going to concentrate on myself. If you're reading this diary, I guess you're interested in that subject.

I've made a lot of progress. I got a B for the class, which is clearly a pass, and a result I'm fairly pleased with given how difficult the beginning of term was. I also got A's for all of my option classes. It is notable that two of those classes (composition and kanji) were aimed primarily at students in the next general class down (F class), that reading comprehension was my strongest point when I arrived, and that the Japanese culture class didn't have any tests or homework so I have no idea where the grade came from. Basically, my results tend to confirm my initial judgement that C class was a little too hard for me. Nevertheless, I survived, and I made progress.

My report card has a section of comments from Haruki-sensei, and she says that she thinks my listening comprehension has improved a great deal. I'm inclined to agree with her, so it's probably true, despite my complete lack of improvement on the listening comprehension test. (I didn't actually get worse; the class average was ten percentage points lower on the second test, so the fact that I scored ten points lower as well means I was just in the same place.) I was talking to Nozaki-sensei on Friday, and she said that she thought my speaking had improved a lot, and, again, I'm inclined to agree. My Japanese conversational ability has improved dramatically over the term, in large part due to class, because there's a lot of listening and speaking involved, but also because I've deliberately looked for opportunities to have Japanese conversations. Spending at least four or five hours per week talking to native speakers can't have hurt.

My grammar has also improved, but relatively perhaps not quite so much. I did just as badly on the big test as I predicted (40%), but I suspect that's at least partly because I have minimal interest in passing that sort of test. I want to be able to use Japanese, not pass tests. Anyway, I think I should emphasise grammar a bit more next term. Apart from anything else, I have a lot of the fluency and confidence I need for conversation; my problem now is lack of grammar and vocabulary. It's hard to understand what someone is saying when you don't recognise the grammar. Especially as Japanese has a number of forms that sound negative but are actually positive (like the English 'isn't it?' -- in one case, exactly like).

I'd also like to do a bit more reading. I've had a look at my Japanese manga and the RPG I bought when I went to Tokyo to see Dad, and someone's made them easier in the last few weeks, so I think I could make resonable progress. I'm also planning to watch more television, to boost listening comprehension a bit more, as it's still a weak point outside conversation.

Finally, I want to do more writing in Japanese. It's an excellent form of practice, because I can look up the grammar I want to use, and using it helps to fix it in my mind. Thus, if I remember vaguely how a form works, I can look up the details and then use it. In addition, of course, one of my goals for the year is to become able to write in Japanese. I have this vague goal of writing at least a thousand characters per week, but we'll see how that goes. Takahara-sensei has claimed that she likes reading what I write, so I'll see if she'd be willing to check it. I might even start an essays section in the Japanese part of my website.

The main problem with all these plans is finding time for them. I do need to eat, wash, and shop, as well as, ideally, visiting a few more places in Japan. I think I'll try to do a bit more Japanese, relatively speaking, next term, and I'm now not planning to take on any more freelancing beyond Ars Magica while I'm here (so you'll have to wait a bit for the final loan repayments, Dad. Sorry). We'll see how things go. I've made a lot of progress this term, so as long as I don't do less Japanese work, I'm not going to waste my time.

In general, I've come to the end of my first three months, and I don't feel like it's all vanished and that I've done nothing. I've made progress in Japanese, I've seen quite a lot of my existing Japanese friends and made a few new ones, and I've visited quite a few tourist places. If I keep this up for the rest of the year, it'll be a very productive and satisfying time.

I like Japan. There are a few things I really miss about England and America, mostly perishable food items. (Sterilised milk. I don't think I've seen it anywhere here, and I wouldn't know what it was called anyway. 'suterimiru', probably. Cheese, too, and bread. Japanese bread is weird. Oh, and steak is really expensive here, so I miss US restaurants.) I also miss having a proper kitchen, but that's not Japan's fault. On the other hand, I will miss similar things about Japan when I go home; sushi, most notably. Overall, I like Japan enough that I think I could stay here long-term. All my English family and friends who were struck with horror at the idea will be relieved to know that immigration rules make it all but impossible; I don't want to give up freelancing, and you can't get a work visa to do freelance work, at least not as I understand the rules. However, I very much doubt that this year will be my last visit to Japan. I'll have to write a special 'trip to Japan' book every year to pay for any future visits, though.