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JLPT N1 round 2: Start!

Since January 2019, I am studying to pass the JLPT N1. My goal is to pass the test in December, but I also took the test of July to gain some practice. It was helpful, but it also gave me a sense of achievement, and it is hard to get back to the JLPT preparation now!

After the test of July, I went on holiday, but it has been several days since I came back, and I still haven’t done anything for the JLPT or my blog. This post is long due!

I have tried to identify what makes it difficult for me to go back to studying for the JLPT when I usually don’t have to struggle to study Japanese.

  • First of all, waiting for the results (of the JLPT of July) is frustrating. It is hard to get back to the preparation of the JLPT without knowing where I should put my efforts. On the other hand, the results won’t come out before the end of August, so waiting would mean losing a precious month.
  • In January, when I started my preparation for the JLPT N1, everything was new, particularly the textbooks. I just had to start with the first lesson. Now things are a little more complicated. I have started several textbooks, and I don’t always remember where I had stopped before I went on holiday 😅 It is less motivating to go back to an old textbook than to start a new one. I also feel that 1- I don’t know where I should pick up, and that 2- it does not matter anyway because I have forgotten everything I had learned before.
  • Speaking of which, I have to go back to Anki and my grammar flashcards, and it feels like I haven’t touched them for years and have forgotten everything.

I find the second point very frustrating. I am obviously the same person now and before the test of July, but it feels like it was a complete stranger who prepared so feverishly for the JLPT back then.

Just one month ago, I knew exactly which lessons I had studied, which ones remained to be done, what I should learn next, how I should do it, and so on.

And now, after three weeks away from the JLPT, I feel like a newcomer who has been handed over a pile of files belonging to someone else and has been told to just continue whatever it was that this person was doing.

It is annoying, but… getting started is the most difficult step. After that, I am sure that everything will go smoothly again.

New study plan?

I don’t really have a study plan for the next four months.

Back in January, I had planned on studying with the Shin Kanzen series during the second half of the year, but I have bought several Korean textbooks since then, so I don’t think that I need the Shin Kanzen too. I am also wondering whether I need to study with a textbook for listening and reading, but I think that it is best to read and listen a lot to native material. I will wait until the results (of the July test) and decide then.

Focusing on native resources instead of textbooks is more interesting and motivating, but it is hard to measure one’s progress. If I spend one hour watching an anime on Netflix, have I studied for the JLPT? It will be hard to gain a sense of achievement and feel that I have actually studied.

I still don’t know how I will concretely study until December. I know that I need to increase my vocabulary, review the grammar, listen to more Japanese and read more non-fiction, but I lack a concrete study plan. I will try to put together a strategy, and in any case, I am back to studying Japanese now! Round 2 of this JLPT year has started! 🤜

Book review: 『下町やぶさか診療所』by Yo IKENAGA

About the book

Title: 『下町やぶさか診療所』
Author: Yo IKENAGA (池永陽)
Published by 集英社文庫

I bought this book in Japan, partly because I loved the cover, partly because I wanted to read something else than mystery novels.

Setting

Rintaro MANO, alias “大先生”, is working as a doctor in Asakusa, Tokyo. His prices are cheap, and it is no secret that people come to him to talk about their problems in life rather than to get a medical consultation.

We meet Rintaro’s patients and friends, and share their lives and fate through 7 short chapters of around 50 pages each.

Review

First of all, I loved this book. If you like slice-of-life novels, I would definitely recommend 『下町やぶさか診療所』. However, even though the doctor’s office is a central place in the novel, I don’t think you can call this novel a medical fiction. Rintaro does little more than applying his stethoscope to his patients’s chest. It is true that most of the stories show how people deal with diseases, but it is more about their daily life and moral choices than about the disease itself or medical treatments.

I think that the choice of a doctor as the main character is mainly a pretext to tell the stories of the patients who come to Rintaro’s clinic. This structure reminds me of another novel I have read in Japanese: 『向田理髪店』by Hideo OKUDA (review here). The clinic, as well as the barber’s shop, is a place where people of the neighborhood come to complain about their life and problems.

But while『向田理髪店』 was a heartwarming, light and funny novel, 『下町やぶさか診療所』is… the opposite. The novel deals with heavy topics, difficult choices and is at times very sad. But the author is a great story teller, I loved the characters right away and felt involved in their story.

As for the Japanese level, I found this novel surprisingly easy to read. I was bracing myself for complicated descriptions and an avalanche of medical terms, but there was none of these. The novel is mainly based on dialogues, which makes it really easy to read, there are not a lot of characters and almost no descriptions.

When I write about the books I have read in 2019 at the end of the year, I know for sure that 『下町やぶさか診療所』will figure among my favourite books.

Taking the JLPT N1 for the first time!

I have taken the JLPT N1 on July 7th (2019) for the first time, and I was not very surprised by my performance… I think that I might pass, but I also feel that I need the remaining months until December to increase my vocabulary and progress in listening.

Report on the July test

Vocabulary/Grammar

I found that the vocabulary part was not as hard as the drills I have been doing recently. I think that the Korean textbooks and drills that I use tend to be very demanding so that students are well prepared.

During the real test on Sunday, I was surprised to see that the vocabulary part was not that hard. I don’t mean that I answered everything right, of course, there were a lot of words that I didn’t know, and I picked several answers randomly. But I also felt that a little more work on vocabulary will be sufficient to ensure a good mark in that section.

The most surprising part of the whole test was the grammar section. I felt that all the grammar points that I had learned for N1 were more or less useless… I expected the test to challenge us on those grammar points (the ones that are labelled N1, and that you can find in the So-matome), but it was not really the case.

Before the test, I had been working with the 『日本語パワードリルN1文法』and these drills stay very close to the textbook So-matome. Each question clearly identifies one of the grammar patterns you have learned in So-matome. If you know your patterns well, it is very easy to answer the drills.

Duritng the test, however, I didn’t find many questions relative to N1 grammar points. The questions were more about your general knowledge of Japanese grammar. It is hard to explain, but instead of knowing 150 grammar points, it would have been best to have a very good and thorough understand of Japanese grammatical structure. More than identifying grammar points, you have to understand perfectly what each of the answers mean, and choose the right one to fit in the sentence.

As a consequence, you could say that the grammar part was easier than expected. I may be wrong, but my feeling during the test was that a student preparing for N2 could answer the questions. On the other hand, this is not what I prepared for, so I felt both confused and unprepared.

I think that going through textbooks of grammar is necessary but not enough. You need to be a lot in contact with Japanese to gain a sense of what is right and false. I felt that this N1 grammar section was not about how many grammar points you know, but more about how well you understand Japanese.

Reading

I found the texts of the reading section not too difficult, except for one or two. What I really found hard were the questions.

When I took N2, I would read the text only once, then read the questions (I always read the text before the questions). I remember that I could answer the questions without returning to the text. This means that one answer was obviously right and the others wrong.

I tried to do the same for N1, but it didn’t work. I read the text once slowly, but when I read the question and the answers, I found that several answers could be the right one. So I had to return to the text and re-read several passages before I could choose one answer. And even then, I was not sure if I had picked the good one because sometimes, two answers were obviously the right one??

Listening

Listening is my weak point, so there is no surprise here. I could not understand some of the dialogues (this means that I wasn’t sure of what they were talking about), and even when I understood the dialogues, I would often miss the crucial information to answer the question.

The most difficult part by far is the part where you hear the questions and answers after hearing the dialogues. I think that I picked everything randomly in this section! 

I also find the listening section more stressful because it seemed to me that all the other test takers in the room were choosing their answer right after the audio had stopped playing while I was still trying to remember what had been said in the dialogues!

Time

Time was not a problem as I had ten minutes left at the end of the vocab-grammar-reading section so I could go back to some previous questions and double check my answers.

How to improve and get a better score in December?

I will take a two-weeks break, and then I will be back to my JLPT preparation. My goal is to get a good score in December. (Actually, my real goal is to improve my Japanese, and I use the JLPT to achieve this goal.) So how should I study during the four remaining months?

Vocabulary

There is no shortcut here, the more words you know, the easier it will be to pass this section. I will continue to learn vocabulary as I have been doing, looking for example sentences in the dictionary and systematically learning the words in context, which means, adding sentences to Anki instead of words only.

Grammar

Instead of trying to learn even more N1 grammar points, I should focus on reviewing the N2 and even N3 grammar and be sure that I feel at ease with it. I will also try to be more attentive when I am reading in Japanese, and analyse why I don’t understand a sentence. I think that this kind of exercise will be useful to pass the grammar section of the JLPT.

Reading

I don’t know what I can do to improve my reading, because it was not the texts that I found difficult, but the questions. I am sure I would find them as difficult if they were in English! (And I wouldn’t be surprised if native speakers of Japanese said that the reading section of the JLPT N1 was difficult…) Maybe I should buy the Shin Kanzen textbook for reading and study with it?

Listening

Here again, no shortcut: I must listen to more Japanese! I feel very motivated to take on the challenge and try to improve my listening level before December. I don’t think that the dialogues use words that I don’t know, I think that the problem is that I just don’t recognise the words that I am supposed to know. Practice is key!

This is it for my JLPT report! I don’t know if I will pass, but I am confident that I will be able to pass in December if I study accordingly until then!

I will be away for two weeks, and I will be back to studying Japanese on Monday 22th! (And I will certainly post a book review in the meanwhile!)

Book Review: 『ガーディアン』by Gaku YAKUMARU

About the book

Title: 『ガーディアン』
Author: Gaku YAKUMARU 薬丸岳
Published by 講談社

Gaku YAKUMARU is a popular author of mystery novels and thrillers. Recently, one of his novel has been a huge best-seller in Korea (where I live). The novel is 『誓約』 , and I have read and liked it. When I was in Japan for a short trip earlier this year, I saw that Gaku YAKUMARU had released a new mystery novel, 『ガーディアン』whose topic and setting was very appealing to me.

Setting

The story takes place at a middle school, and while the topic of the novel is school bullying, there surprisingly seems to be very little bullying problems in this establishment. We follow several students and professors, in particular professor AKIBA, as the school year progresses and secrets get revealed.

Review

『ガーディアン』 is a great school mystery novel. I loved reading it, it was easy to feel involved in the story of each characters, and it was easy to read in Japanese.

I am interested in the topic of school bullying in Japan, and I think that novels are a good way to try to understand this social issue. 『ガーディアン』has an interesting way of tackling this topic and leaves some questions open as to what is right and wrong. I also liked the end very much.

Apart from the social issue it tackles, 『ガーディアン』is also a good mystery novel. I often took my book to read 20 pages (it was my daily goal) and ended up reading 50 or more (it does not sound much, but it is when you read in a foreign language!).

As for the language level, I found this novel easy to read: there are a lot of dialogues, and I found no difficult part or description. However, there are a lot of characters (both students and professors), so I highly recommend to make a list. While it is not essential to understand the story, it is best to know in which class and year a student is, as well as who their main professor and friends are, so here again you should take notes while reading.

This is the second novel I read by Gaku YAKUMARU, and I liked 『ガーディアン』much more than the other, 『誓約』(review). 『誓約』 had maybe more suspense to it, but I find the story of 『ガーディアン』more interesting and the plot more credible, so I would recommend this one over 『誓約』 . In any case, Gaku YAKUMARU is becoming one of my favourite authors of mystery novels! 

Book Review: 『わたし、定時で帰ります』by Kaeruko AKENO

Presentation

Title: 『わたし、定時で帰ります』(No working after hours!)
Author: Kaeruko AKENO 朱野帰子
Published by 新潮文庫

This novel has been adapted into a TV drama featuring Yuriko YOSHITAKA. It started airing in April this year (2019).

Setting

As the title suggests, this novel is a story about work and workplace. The protagonist is Yui HIGASHIYAMA, she is 32 years old and works for a web company. She is known for always leaving her work at six while most of her co-workers work after hours. Things get upset when a new boss comes in Yui’s team.

Review

I absolutely loved this novel, it is without a doubt one of my favourite reads of the year! 

If you like novels about working life or want to get insights into a Japanese working place and working style, this novel seems perfect. I have never worked in Japan or in a Japanese company, so it is hard to tell if what the novel depicts is close to reality. But I enjoyed reading it, I think that I did learn a lot of things thanks to it, and it is in any case very easy to relate to the story and the characters.

What I really loved in this novel is that, while I do embrace the protagonist’s combat (no working after hours!), I also learned to understand everyone’s perspective. The author creates several characters who all have their reasons for working after hours, and it was very instructive to get to “know” these people.

Another thing that I liked with 『わたし、定時で帰ります』 is that I felt really involved in the story. What some characters said made me mad, and I wanted to jump into the story to tell them what I think, haha. I sometimes felt full of energy, sometimes discouraged or sad, but the novel is never depressing. It keeps its light/good humored tone all along, and it was a very enjoyable read!

As for the Japanese level, I struggled when there were discussions about some work related aspects, but the novel is essentially about the relations between co-workers which was not very difficult to read. All in all, I found it a little more difficult than most of the mystery novels that I usually read, but still okay.

JLPT review: So-matome grammar N1

Now that I have finished the textbook So-matome Grammar for N1, I thought I would do a little review!

Reference: 日本語総まとめ Nihongo So-matome N1, grammar, ask publishing.

Warning: As I write this review, I still haven’t taken the JLPT N1. But I will update this post as soon as I have!

Presentation

If you are familiar with the So-matome series, you certainly know how they advertise that you can study the whole textbook in only 8 weeks or so. I personally completely ignore this recommendation. It might be possible to go through this whole textbook in only two months, but I doubt very much that you can actually digest and remember all the grammar points in such a short time.

The textbook is divided into 8 parts (or weeks), and each part contains 7 lessons (or days). With 4 (rarely 3 or 5) grammar points introduced in each lesson and with the 7th lesson being only composed of exercises, the textbook introduces around 224 grammar patterns.

The idea behind the So-matome series is to learn similar patterns together or, as the textbook says, patterns that are commonly confused. To give you an example, you will learn the patterns:

  • … 限りだ
  • … を限りに
  • … に限る
  • … に限ったことではない

… in the same lesson. These grammar look similar because they all use the word 限る, but they have very different meanings. I would personally prefer to learn patterns with similar meanings together rather than patterns which looks similar, but it is better than textbooks that don’t go beyond the alphabetical order.

What this book is and what it is not

Before you decide whether to go for So-matome or not for your N1 preparation, you have to know what you will exactly get with this textbook.

In my opinion, you need two things to prepare for N1 (as far as grammar is concerned):

  • First of all, you need to learn and master the so-called “N1 grammar”, that is a series of grammar points labelled N1.
  • You also need to master more basic grammar patterns and structure like passive/causative forms, particles, and so on. Honorifics should not be a problem either. To sum up, you need to review everything you have learned before.

It would be very convenient if there was a determined amount of N1 grammar to know and if the test would only test you on these points. But even if I haven’t taken N1 yet, I fear that it will not be the case.

The So-matome grammar textbook for N1 will only help you to learn new grammatical patterns. It presents around 224 grammar points. I don’t think that it covers all the possible N1 grammar patterns you could encounter during the test, but it is still a good starting point.

But that’s it. The So-matome textbook does not contain anything else apart from these grammar points. No review lesson on intermediate grammar or more fundamental grammatical structure, and no N2 grammar.

I don’t have the Shin Kanzen textbook for N1, but I know that the Shin Kanzen N2 had a whole section on various grammatical structures that an aspiring N2 student is supposed to know already, but which are so difficult to master that reviewing them can do no harm. I also have a Korean textbook with a similar section in the end.

To sum up, So-matome is a textbook that will allow you to learn a decent amount of N1 grammar points. However, if you need to review the N2 grammar, if you need to consolidate your knowledge of Japanese grammar in general, if you have forgotten half of the honorific expressions and if you still mixed up particles, the So-matome will not help you.

In other words, if you are looking for a comprehensive textbook that will guarantee you to pass the grammar section of N1, So-matome will not be this textbook. If your goal is to buy only one textbook and study it entirely without looking anywhere else, I don’t think that So-matome is a good choice.

If, however, you are ready to go beyond your textbook, So-matome will be a good companion.

How to study with the So-matome grammar

As I said before, you will have to study by yourself the things that you don’t feel confortable with. Personally, I need to review and learn more conjunctions, words that connect two phrases or sentences together, and I also need to review some N2 grammar.

As for studying the grammar points in the textbook, you will certainly need some complementary work too.

The reason why So-matome can introduce so many grammar points in a very thin textbook (less than 150 pages), is because each grammar point is introduced only very briefly.

For each grammar point, you will have two example sentences (rarely more), the translation of these sentences, and an equivalent of the grammar in easier Japanese. There is also, of course, explanations as to how to construct this grammar pattern.

There are some things that I don’t quite like in this layout:

  • First of all, I think that two example sentences per grammar is not enough. So-matome groups together grammar patterns that are “commonly confused”. I think that seeing them together is not necessarily a bad idea, but there should be more explanations and more example sentences to be sure to differentiate these similar grammar from each other. If you learn similar grammar at the same time but do not have enough example sentences for each, chances are that you will end up mixing them up.
  • There are no explanations (neither in English nor in Japanese) as to when to use the grammar. It does not explain what the grammar really means, why it is used, what nuance it conveys, what it says about the speaker’s feelings, and so on. I would be okay with the lack of explanations if there were more example sentences.
  • Moreover, the layout is too rigid: each grammar is roughly allocated the same space and the same number of example sentences, regardless of their difficulty. Honestly, some grammar points are easy, even if they are “N1” grammar, they are easy to understand and remember. But some are incredibly confusing and make you think that you’re not an intelligent person after all. However, except for some exceptions (grammar with more than 2 example sentences) those easy and confusing grammar will have the same amount of space.

What you should do is hunt for more example sentences on Internet or any other material available. I personally use a Korean textbook, my grammar dictionary 『日本語文型辞典』 and the Internet.

For each grammar point that I don’t understand or feel uncomfortable with, I take notes or explanations in my mother tongue. And of course, I add as many example sentences as necessary.

Then you have to let these grammar patterns grow on you. If you review them often, if you have added more example sentences and re-read them regularly, an obscure grammar will eventually begin to make sense and become evident. But this takes time. I started in January and I finished in May. It took me 5 months to go through this textbook, and I have reviewed regularly everything that I have learned. The grammar I learned in January or February seems evident to me now (in June). But some of the grammar I learned in May or even April still feel very strange.

To sum up, this is how I advice to study:

  • Look for additional example sentences on the web or a grammar dictionary every time you find it necessary (that is, when you don’t understand a grammar)
  • Take your own notes and explain the grammar in your own words.
  • There are only two example sentences per grammar in So-matome, but they are good examples. I recommend to study them over and over until you almost know these sentences by heart. (I personally used flashcards).
  • Take your time. Some grammar will look very strange at first, but if you review regularly, they will become more and more familiar. I think that having at least half of the year to study this textbook thoroughly and get used to the grammar points is not too much.

Conclusion: why I loved studying with So-matome

The So-matome textbook for grammar is not the perfect textbook and I could point out many weaknesses or things that I didn’t like. It does contain a lot of grammar points, but it is not a comprehensive or thorough textbook that will guarantee your passing N1. If your goal is to pass the test no matter what, maybe you should look at other textbooks like the Shin Kanzen.

As for me, I am studying Japanese as a hobby. I am using the JLPT to get a deadline and force me to learn new vocabulary and grammar. Of course, I would love to pass the test, but to me, the preparation process and all the things I learn through it are more important than the test itself. My real goal is to improve my Japanese (reading level), not to get the JLPT N1.

Moreover, I want Japanese and learning Japanese to stay fun and relaxing. After all, this is what hobbies are here for. What is great with So-matome, is that I never felt overwhelmed. The layout is pleasant, there are illustrations, and you don’t learn too many things at the same time. As I mentioned earlier, the textbook is very thin (150 pages). The downside is that I had to do a lot of complementary study, but I somehow enjoyed it, and I did it only when necessary. If my textbook was 400 pages thick, I would certainly have been discouraged half way.

With the So-matome only, I may not be enough prepared for the JLPT N1… The July test is in two weeks now, so we will see then how well I do. But even if I don’t pass, I have learned a lot of new grammatical patterns during the 5 months I spent studying with So-matome, and I often see these patterns in novels that I read: my goal is already achieved!

Update 1: After taking the test (July 2019). I will write an update here as soon as I take the test!

Update 2: My results in the language knowledge section (July 2019). I will write an update here when I get my results.

Quick Update

Hello everyone! I just wanted to apologize for not posting lately, but I have been sick last week, and I still feel tired now.

I still want to make a quick update of my reading progress, and of course, the JLPT.

I had to take a break in my JLPT preparation last week, but in any case, I don’t expect to be fully prepared for the test of July (my real goal is December). I wish I had time to learn more vocabulary, but oh well… I have written a review of the textbook So-matome Grammar N1, but I still need to work on it a little.

I have finished two novels:

I absolutely loved 『わたし、定時で帰ります』by Kaeruko AKENO (朱野帰子), it provides fascinating insights into the Japanese workplace, shows how hard it is to leave work before your colleagues but also introduces several characters who all have their reasons to work after hours.

『ガーディアン』by Gaku YAKUMARU (薬丸岳) is exactly the kind of genre fiction that I love reading. It is suspenseful, easy to read, and it also relates to school bullying, a topic that interests me. Whenever I read a book like 『ガーディアン』, I remember that reading such books is the reason why I am learning Japanese in the first place and why I am studying Anki every day.

I will write a review of both novels, but I cannot say when I post it…

And lastly, being sick made me want to read 『下町やぶさか診療所』by Yo IKENAGA, one of the books on my reading list for 2019. It is the story of a doctor in Tokyo, Asakusa, and his patients. I have just started it, but I am already fond of the characters.

That’s it! I hope I’ll be back to posting soon! 😉

Book review: 『模倣の殺意』by Sin NAKAMACHI

Presentation

Title: 『模倣の殺意』(The Plagiarized Fugue)
Author: Sin NAKAMACHI 中町信
Published by 創元推理文庫

Sin NAKAMACHI (1935-2009) was an author of crime fiction. 『模倣の殺意』was first published in 1973 under the title “新人賞殺人事件”. In 2004, 創元推理文庫 brought this mystery novel to the public again and gave it its present title.

Setting

An introductory chapter sets the facts: A man called Masao SAKAI dies on July, 7th at 7pm. He was an author of crime fiction. His death by poisoning looks like suicide but two persons are not convinced and will investigate. We follow these two characters, the chapters alternating between one and the other.

Review: Excellent mystery!

I didn’t know Sin NAKAMACHI before, and I bought this book because the obi said “これはすごい!”. I must learn not to let myself be too influenced by such promotional phrases, but in this case, it was true: this book was really good.

Japanese publishers are really good at promoting their books!

First of all, the book is an excellent mystery novel with all the elements you would expect to find in good crime fiction. However, as the obi suggests, Sin NAKAMACHI goes further than just telling a good story. If you want to fully enjoy this novel, you will have to be an active reader and try to solve the case by yourself.

I personally love novels of crime fiction where the reader is invited to participate. The author does not let you read passively and wait for the detective to name the culprit. There are things that are strange, that don’t fit, and no matter how lazy you are, you have to investigate the matter!

As for the language level, I would say that it was very similar to Keigo HIGASHINO. In the genre of crime/mystery fiction, Keigo HIGASHINO is to me the easiest author to read, and『模倣の殺意』had no difficult passages or dialogues, the story was easy to follow, but you have to pay attention to details.