David Chart's Japan Diary

February 16th 2005

What a busy week (and a bit) this has been! That means lots to write about without too much risk of boring everyone to tears, which I supposed is a good thing.

Last Monday was a very eventful day. The first, and anticipated, event was that my letter was published in the Chuunichi Shinbun. I went to the convenience store across the road before leaving for school, and bought the three copies that they had out, as I suspect that family members might want copies. I certainly want one; my first Japanese publication is of some significance, after all. Watanabe-sensei, who teaches the conversation option class, had noticed it and cut it out, bringing it in to class. The paper sends everyone who gets published on that page 1000 yen in book tokens, and mine arrived yesterday. Book tokens... I wonder if I'll be able to find anything to do with them? The second event was that we got the results of our big class test. I got 92.5%, which was pretty good. Keeping up attendance in class clearly has its benefits.

The third event was not completely anticipated, but neither was it a total surprise. The results of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test arrived. I passed. Having passed level one (ikkyuu), I am now officially completely fluent in Japanese, and thus if I don't understand some Japanese it's clearly because the other person can't speak the language properly.

It is remarkable that somewhat over 50% of all adult Japanese appear to be unable to speak their own language properly.

Seriously, the blurb on the notification postcard says that a pass at level 1 indicates "an integrated command of the language sufficient for life in Japanese society". That sounds about right; I managed to do my taxes in Japanese without the need for an interpreter (see below), and I certainly have no problems with shopping and the like. The notification postcard also says that reaching level 1 takes about 900 hours of study, which is wildly delusional. Doubling that, at least, would be more reasonable for an English speaker. Chinese speakers may be able to do it more quickly, as knowing the meaning of all the kanji is a significant boost, as may Korean speakers, because of the grammatical similarities.

Anyway, my result was a little surprising. My kanji and vocab result was about as I would have expected, maybe a little higher than I was anticipating given how hard it felt at the time, but not much. The reading and grammar result was also pretty much as always, so doubtless, as usual, I did much better on the reading part than on the grammar part.

On listening, I got full marks.

This is utterly mystifying. On all the mock tests, including the full mock and shorter tests using level 1 problems, I consistently got just over 70%. (Since there were never 100 problems, I got just enough right to have a mark over 70%.) Some fluctuation is to be expected. 50% fluctuation is not. I suppose I should just be grateful that it fluctuated upwards.

Overall, I got 325 out of 400, or 81.25%. That is, apparently, a very good result.

Last week, I was a bit down. This became glaringly apparent when my mood didn't really pick up on Monday, despite all the good news. On Tuesday, another part of the reason became apparent, as I developed a bit of a cold. Fortunately, that was largely better by Thursday, because on Thursday I went to Tokyo.


Last Friday was a national holiday (National Foundation Day), so I was able to spend a long weekend in Tokyo with Yuriko. Unfortunately, she had a cold, which was still in full swing, so we weren't able to do as much as normal. Still, it wasn't too bad a cold, so we did manage to have quite a lot of fun.

On Thursday evening we just went to eat at a handy restaurant, and then headed back to Yuriko's. Friday got off to a slow start, as Yuriko wanted a lie-in to deal with the cold. We had tuna omelette for breakfast, and I cooked it, just to prove that I'm not completely incapable in the kitchen. Since neither of us showed any obvious symptoms of food poisoning, I guess I did OK. Despite the fact that it was a national holiday, Yuriko had to work for a couple of hours, so I went over to Roppongi with her and spent the time in a bookshop near Roppongi hills. We then went to a cafe and chatted for a couple of hours.

On our way to dinner, we dropped into a bookshop called 'Tokyo Random Walk'. The upper floor (which was still a basement level) was mainly art-related books, which is clearly why Yuriko knew about it. Downstairs, however, they had a whole shelf and a half dedicated to books about Japanese monsters, magic, and legends. I thought about just buying all of them as research materials, but the thought of carrying them back to Okazaki put me off. Plus, they were all Japanese books, so reading them would take a while. I imagine I will go back to that shop at some point, though, as those books really are perfect research material for writing RPG books about Japan.

The downstairs section also had a significant section of English-language books, including the Harry Potter books with stickers on the spines indicating the level on the TOEIC test required to understand them. The English apparently gets substantially harder after the first two.

We went to a Burmese restaurant for dinner, as it was in Yuriko's coupon book and I'd never had Burmese food before. It was very good, and Yuriko treated me, as a celebration of passing the exam. On the way home, we popped into Tsutaya, a CD and video rental place, and borrowed a CD by Miyuki Nakajima, which included a song we'd listened to in the Songs option class, and which I'd liked. I think the whole CD is probably worth buying, next time I'm somewhere with the opportunity.

Saturday also got off to a slow start, and I got some work done while Yuriko slept in. We had two plans for the day: one was to visit Yushima Tenmangu, the other to visit Ikebukuro. Yushima Tenmangu is a famous shrine that I've not managed to get to on previous visits to Tokyo, which actually turned out to be a good thing.

Tenjin, the god worshipped there, is the deified Sugawara no Michizane, a Heian period scholar who was active in the late ninth and early tenth century. He advanced to the highest ranks of the administration, but the machinations of the Fujiwara, a rival family who were about to take complete control of the Japanese state and hold it for pushing three hundred years, meant that he was demoted and exiled to Kyushu. He died in exile, and shortly afterwards there were a large number of natural disasters. It was decided that they were caused by an understandably annoyed Michizane, so people started worshipping him to calm him down. Dazaifu Tenmangu, which I visited a year ago, is the main shrine dedicated to him, as it's in the place to which he was exiled.

Because Michizane was an important scholar, probably the greatest of the Heian Period, he gradually became the god of scholarship and, particularly, the god of passing exams. Shinto is nothing if not practical. Yushima is the main Tenjin shrine in Tokyo, and it's physically very close to Tokyo University, the best university in Japan, which adds to the symbolism. As a result, a lot of people go there to pray for success. If you do succeed, you are supposed to return to the shrine to say thank you, and a lot of people do that, too.

In addition, Tenjin is associated with plum trees, due to a very famous poem that he wrote and a legend of a plum tree that flew to Kyushu to be with him, so there are a lot of plum trees planted at the shrine. Plum blossoms from mid-February to mid-March. This is also the period when exam results are announced. Yushima Tenmangu has an annual Plum Festival, which lasts for that month and had just started last Saturday (I think the first day was the Friday).

The Taiko Performance Some of the Taiko drummers, performing. There are some more out of this shot.

Thus, there was a lot more going on at the shrine that there would be normally. The first thing we saw was a taiko performance by an all-female troupe. They are called 'White Plum Taiko', and are associated with the shrine, although I'm not sure exactly how. At any rate, they were good, and I like taiko anyway, so that was good.

Yushima Tenjin at Festival Time The path leading up the main shrine at Yushima (in the background), lined by food and souvenir stalls.

The shrine was, of course, heaving with people, with lots of food and souvenir stalls set up around the place. There was quite a queue of people lined up to pay their respects to the kami-sama, and beside them a desk where you could register to take part in a special ceremony of thanks. Since I had, after all, just passed quite a major exam, Yuriko and I decided to do the ceremony. She never had, because you do have to pay (this is how the shrines support themselves), so she was quite interested to see what happened.

After paying my money, I received a bag with some things in and a blank ema (wooden votive tablet) for use afterwards. We then went up into the shrine. Kneeling in front of a table in the outer part of the main building (you could go further in, but that cost more money and I wasn't that desperate for the experience), we were ritually purified by the priest. This involves shaking a giant paper shaker over you. It really is lots of strips of white paper hung from a stick. He then said something which was doubtless deeply meaningful, but I didn't understand it, and I presented a small branch with green leaves on, adorned with white paper folded in the standard Shinto fashion, on the table. We then (I think, although this may have been immediately before presenting the stick) bowed twice, clapped twice, and bowed once more. On the way out, I was given a small amount of holy sake to drink. As he was giving it to me, the presiding priest was saying "If you can't drink sake, it is enough to just touch it to your mouth", so that's what I did.

Hanging up the ema Me, hanging up my ema at Yushima Tenjin.

Back outside, I wrote my thanks, and a request for help with the visa, on the ema, and tied it on to the display board. There were thousands there already. After I'd hung it up, I realised I'd forgotten something very important, and had to go back. The picture was a picture of Daruma, a Zen Buddhist monk (yes, at a Shinto shrine), with one eye coloured in. Traditionally, in Japan, when you set yourself an important goal, particularly one involving a significant element of luck, you buy a Daruma and colour one eye in. When the goal is achieved, you colour the other one in. I'd forgotten to colour the second eye in, so I nipped back to do it.

The bag contained a calendar, starting from April, the beginning of the Japanese academic year, with inspirational phrases on each page, and a small Japanese dictionary, which is about as appropriate to the exam I'd passed as it's possible to get.

Yuriko Yuriko at Yushima, in front of a blossoming plum tree.

I'm currently reading the introduction to Shinto that I bought last time I was in Tokyo. It's fascinating. The author is a university professor who writes on Japanese history, and he's writing to explain Shinto to Japanese people who've basically just grown up with it around them. He's clearly quite fond of Shinto, or faking it convincingly, but the book still says, quite explicitly, things like "So at this point the Imperial family made up Amaterasu Omikami so that they would seem superior to the regional families they were intending to rule", and explains the historical contingencies that led to the spheres of influence of various deities, including Tenjin, changing. According to him, the basis of Shinto is that all living things, including human beings, should have good lives, and live fully. I can agree with that. I'm also naturally sympathetic to a religion where the practitioners say "Oh yes, we just make it up as we go along. We don't have any divinely ordained rules, and we change the religion to suit the surrounding society". I also believe that ceremonies are an important part of life; things like the graduation ceremony from Cambridge, for example, or ceremonies to mark the various points of life.

Shinto, in fact, seems to be rather a lot like western neo-paganism, but with two advantages. First, Shinto indisputably does go back to prehistory, and has been continuously practised in Japan. Second, despite this, Shinto seems rather more willing to admit that it just makes it up as it goes along. Based on my present knowledge, my only substantial objection to Shinto is metaphysical: I don't actually believe that all these gods exist. (Well, Michizane certainly did exist, but I don't believe he's now hanging around as a deity.) Shinto essentially seems to provide ceremonial support for the crises, positive and negative, of life, without interfering too much in daily living. This may well be the secret of its resilience. Even if you reject the metaphysics, you can still go along to the shrines, pay your respects, and get the psychological support that familiar rituals provide.

Anyway, after hanging up my ema, we bought some takoyaki (fried octopus balls) for a bit of a snack and sat in the shrine grounds to eat them. We bought some sweets, of a kind unique to the shrine, for me to give to my teachers as a thank-you present for getting me through ikkyuu (thanking Tenjin is all very well, but thanking the people who definitely exist and were clearly involved is rather more important). Again, the associations of the shrine made them a particularly appropriate gift.

From Yushima, we went on to Ikebukuro. This is one of Tokyo's many centres, and one to which Yuriko had, apparently, hardly ever been. It's a bustling place full of neon and tall buildings, a lot like Shibuya, Shinjuku, or Akihabara. The first thing we did was go to buy chocolate. With Valentine's Day coming up, Seibu Ikebukuro had most of a floor devoted to chocolate. It was packed, mostly with women. As I mentioned last year, the Japanese custom is for women to give men chocolate on Valentine's Day, not vice versa. Yuriko did find some nice chocolates for me, but it was a real Japanese shopping experience. Absolutely packed...

From there, we went to Junkudo, a large bookshop Yuriko hadn't been to before. It had about eight floors, but we only got up to the third (second, in UK terms). That floor had the bunko series on; that's the series of small-format books covering a wide range of topics, both fiction and non-fiction. We looked around, and found even more interesting books that I don't have time to read. I could, however, afford to buy them. Books are cheap in Japan. You can find bunko books for 500 yen (about 2.50UKP) fairly easily. Bigger ones get up to about 1000 yen.

We had tempura on the way back to Ikebukuro station, which was a nice basic meal.

Sunday was, of course, the last day of the holiday. One of Yuriko's friends was taking part in a dance exhibition, so we went to see that. There are a lot of so-called 'culture schools' in Japan, generally housed in the upper floors of railways stations, where people study dance, flower arranging, and the like. These schools have periodic exhibitions, where the students show off their work. This one was for contemporary dance. It was a lot of fun. The dancers weren't generally professional standard (not being professionals), but they were still good. Unfortunately, we had to leave part way through so that I could get the shinkansen back to Okazaki. The return journey was happily uneventful.

Back Home

Since getting back, I've been unremittingly busy. One reason for that is my taxes. I have to pay taxes for last year in Japan, since I was resident and working, which meant filling in the forms and taking them along to the tax office. In the process of filling them out, I discovered that I should have registered my business a long time ago, but I've done that now, so things should be OK.

The officials in the tax office were very helpful. I filled the forms in Monday evening, and then went in on Tuesday to submit them. They checked my sums, told me that everything looked right, and accepted the forms yesterday even though the official first date for doing so is today. That was good; it saved me an extra trip to the tax office. The fact that I was able to do all of this without an interpreter suggests that I really do have the integrated command of Japanese necessary for life in Japanese society that the exam says I have.

Also yesterday, we had a meeting about helping to MC to the Yamasa speech contest next week. It looks like it won't be too difficult. We've already spoken to a couple of the contestants to sort out how we will introduce them, but most classes will decide their representatives tomorrow and Friday.

Tomorrow I'll probably have to do some more interviews, but on Friday I have to go to immigration. Declan finally got back from the various tours the school runs today, so I talked to him about my visa application. It turns out that he isn't entirely sure what should be in the letter of explanation either, as people don't apply to stay on self-employed very often, and it's a couple of years or so since it last happened. As a result, he's going with me to immigration on Friday, to help sort out all the details.

I was pleasantly surprised by this. After all, the visa has nothing to do with the school; I won't use it until I've left. Unlike the initial application, there's no immediate benefit to them in helping me with the application. However, while going along to immigration is a bit unusual, it is absolutely normal for them to offer a lot of help with visa applications for students who want to stay on. Yamasa really does do a good job of looking after its students.

I probably won't do another diary entry for another ten days or so; I still have vast amounts to do, including work, and there's not likely to be much to write about this weekend, so I'll take a brief break.