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Friday, July 25, 2014

Getting to Japan: Pack Your Things

Posted by アナ 8:51 PM
Okay, so you've taken your first trip to Japan. Japan was everything you dreamed of, and your short time in Japan did nothing but leave you craving for more. You want to see Japan in a whole new light, and you're ready to experience the pros and cons of living in the land of the rising sun.

But what to pack? What must-have items should you take with you? Did you forget to pack something important?

Part II: Pack Your Things

It's time to start a whole new adventure!

In the first part of Getting to Japan, in regards to living in Japan, I made the following statement: "Japan... isn't for everyone." Let's face it. There's no other place on earth like Japan, and no matter what country you come from―getting used to Japan will take a little bit of time and patience. Japan is very much in its own little world, and your life in Japan will be different than in any other place. But, if you're the adventurous type who's open to changes, then now is the perfect time to pack your things and embark on your next grand adventure!

With less than a month before I leave for Japan, I decided to ask my fellow Gaiwa members for a little help with packing. Was I missing any often over-looked essentials? What are some things that expats regret not taking with them? What should I bring to Japan? I personally needed some advice, but I also wanted to provide more opportunities for members to contribute to our semi-weekly homepage articles. In this article, I compiled all of their advice and helpful suggestions into a handy list of must-have items for those also moving to Japan someday in the near future!

So, without further ado, here's a list of what our lovely "Gaiwajin" recommend bringing to Japan!

1. Rain boots. First things first; you gotta have some nice, sturdy rain boots. "It's best to get rain boots that go up to your knee before you go to Japan and take them with you for the rain and monsoon/typhoon seasons," Waffles advised me. "If you live outside of the city you can get pretty wet and dirty from rain."

If you don't have enough room in your suitcase to accommodate a pair of knee-high rain boots, pack some waterproof sandals or perhaps a colorful pair of classic "Crocs" instead. Clothes can get washed, but your nice shoes and sneakers can take some serious damage from the rain if you don't plan on bringing anything waterproof. Remember that you'll be doing a lot of walking in Japan, even on rainy days.

2. Stick deodorant. Haha, you knew this was coming. As I mentioned in my last article, deodorant and antiperspirant products are incredibly hard to find in Japan. If you do happen to come across some, more often than not, it'll be a weak, spray-on liquid that westerns just aren't used to. But if you're desperate, well, there's no better way to wake up than with a nice, ice-cold liquid spritz in the morning, amirite?

Try to find a value pack of antiperspirant deodorant at your local wholesale market, and buy at least five to take with you! They should last you quite a while, but you can always ask friends and family to send you more.

3. Outlet (and voltage) converters. As mentioned by Bokusenou and Jade, Japan's wall outlets are primarily intended for devices with two-prong cables. So, "be sure to get an adapter for any device you take with a three pronged plug."

They also recommend that you "check the voltage of your devices and compare it with the voltage available in Japan before you plug them in because otherwise you may end up killing your device." Eastern Japan, including Tokyo, has electricity that is 10 hertz slower than the United States' standard 60 hertz, while Western Japan (Osaka, etc) is the same as the US. Most devices should work, but things like clocks may go slower in Japan. So be sure to check all the charger cables of your devices, and get voltage converters if need be.

4. Medication. From common painkillers to prescription medication, it's smart to be a little worried about what medication you can and can't find in Japan. So, before traveling to Japan, Chocopie recommends that you "research which one is closest to the kind you usually take. This is a summary of brand painkillers in Japanese and here's one in English. Here's information on medication you can't take to Japan, and what to do if you need to take a large supply of prescription medication."

Japan is very strict about what medication can be brought into the country, so make sure that you do your research before packing a few painkillers into your check-in luggage.

5. Makeup (esp. foundation). I know that not all of you who read this use makeup, but for those of you who do―our very own Jembru brought up an important point: "If you have blindingly white skin like I do," she says, "you might also struggle to find foundation pale enough for your skin tone."

Asian cosmetics tend to have a grayish pink tone in the formula that can be really unflattering when applied to white skin, whereas foundation in the US and UK have yellow tones to combat redness. Of course, after a few trial and errors, you'll probably find a product that works for you in Japan. But until that happens, bring a handful of your favorite products to last you a few months. You can always have friends and family send you more.

6. Bring your own pillow. That's right, the number one regret that I often hear the most from expats in Japan is not bringing their own pillow with them. More often than not, you'll find that pillows in Japan are a little harder than what you may be used to, sometimes stuffed with buckwheat hulls or various dry beans. If you're moving into a dormitory or hostel, chances are that you'll end up with a pillow like this.

So, if you have some extra space in your suitcase to accommodate a pillow, do take one with you. If anything, it'll make you feel more at home in your new habitat.

James Franco never leaves home without his pillow.

7. English books, or perhaps an eReader tablet. For those of us who love to read, you'll find that English books can be a little hard to come by in Japan. In fact, you'd be lucky to find an English copy of Harry Potter at your local bookstore in Japan. I recommend getting an eReader (perhaps a Kindle or a Nook) so that you can download English books rather than waiting for them to arrive in the mail, or hoping that you'll find it a copy at your nearest bookstore.

However, eReaders can be a little pricey. These reading tablets can cost anywhere between 100-200 USD. If you want something cheaper, you can always download the Kindle App for your smart phone or tablet. The app is free, and you'll be able to purchase and download books no matter where you are. There's also iBooks and the Kobo Reading App. If you're a reader, definitely consider downloading these apps.

8. "Omiyage" (souvenirs). Japan is a country known for its "omiyage culture" (souvenir culture). If you go on vacation, or move from one place to another, you're almost expected to present friends and family with souvenirs from where you came from. That said, if you're staying with a host family, this is a must. Do not leave home without souvenirs. No, seriously. Besides, it's a nice gesture and a great first impression.

9. Sentimental items from home. Pretty self explanatory. A few sentimental knickknacks from home can really make a difference when it comes to making your new place really feel like a home.

Take a small stuffed toy with you, or perhaps a couple of your favorite figurines. Print out some pictures and then buy frames for them when you get to Japan. You could even bring a small art piece to hang up. Either way, try to bring something special to help turn your new place into a new home. Even if it is just a dorm room.

10. Survival Kit. Take a few essentials (disposable razors, shampoo, toothpaste, etc) to last you up until two weeks (ie. until you can locate your nearest drugstore and restock). If you're transferring to a university in Japan, like I am, the first couple weeks will be a little crazy. You might not have much free time to go shopping for all your essentials.

And there you have it folks! A few things one should consider packing when moving to Japan. I know I definitely won't be leaving home without these!

I also want to take the time to thank all of the lovely members who helped contribute to this article! Your advice and helpful suggestions not only benefited this article, but they were also a huge help to me (personally) as well. So, a huge "thank you!" goes out to Chocopie, Jembru, Waffles, Jade, and Bokusenou! And don't worry, there'll be more opportunities to contribute to homepage articles real soon.
Getting to Japan will be taking a little break until I get used to my new situation in Tokyo, but you can expect to see part three sometime in September! Until then, I'll be posting a few pre-written articles that were written before I left. See you then! ― Anna (LittleGaijin)

Friday, July 4, 2014

  The first article in this series went over some of the major J-E & E-J dictionaries currently available. In this one I'll cover the rest of them and finish off with a summary of the best J-E & E-J dictionaries for different tasks.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sailor Moon Crystal

Posted by Jade 7:51 PM

Tsuki ni kawatte oshioki yo!

Sailor Moon's 20th anniversary was in 2012, and it brought with it new merchandise, new music, new musicals, and the announcement of a new series. Just like that the majority of the old Sailor Moon fandom revived, and then found out they'd be waiting an additional two years for anything about it.

Even now, there's still a lot of mystery about the new series. Will we see glimpses of Sailor Venus as her Sailor V persona? Will Mamoru be a high school student or a university/college student? How closely is this going to be based off the manga?

With the release of the official trailer, some initial questions were answered, such as: 'is it a new series or a reboot?' it's a reboot, 'is MomoClo's OP Moonlight Densetsu?' it's not: the opening theme is MOON PRIDE, and they also sing the ending Moon Rainbow.

The air date for Sailor Moon Crystal is only days away, and there are currently three different ways to watch it online as it airs (or after, if you'd prefer depending on your timezone):

 NicoNico Douga - English profile - Japanese profile
To watch on NicoNico you will need either a free or premium account on the website. The advantage a premium account gets you is that you won't be kicked out if the stream is over capacity (and you'll get better quality streams), unlike a free account (which I've experienced many times and attempting to get back in is never fun). On Nico you have the ability to Time Shift the episodes and they become available to watch at any time for seven days from 30 minutes after the stream ends.
The only issue with the Japanese profile for Sailor Moon Crystal is that you will require a program like Hola Unblocker/Hola Better Internet if you're located outside of Japan. The English subtitled one, however, shouldn't need one at all.

 Hulu - Sailor Moon Crystal
If you already have a Hulu account: you're set. I hear you may have to put up with commercials, but if you don't mind those then go for it. A lot of people recommend that you do watch on Hulu because Viz Studios can only see the viewcount on Hulu and it may encourage them to make the series more available outside of Japan.

 CrunchyRoll - Sailor Moon Crystal
If you have a premium account on CrunchyRoll you'll get this streamed without commercials. Unlike Hulu, CrunchyRoll is available in more countries, and you won't need Hola Unblocker in most places.

The 30th of June marks Usagi's birthday and ViVi's collaboration event with Sailor Moon Crystal! They're streaming the event on NicoNico Douga from 7pm Japan time, and they're showing the first episode of the new series at the event. Unfortunately, the stream will more than likely have stopped by that point. This stream is Japan-only, and you will need a program like Hola if you are outside of Japan.

Sailor Moon Crystal airs the first and third Saturdays of every month.
 This month:
 5th July - 7:00pm Japan time
 19th July - 7:00pm Japan time

Is anyone as excited for the new anime as I am? Who's planning on watching as it airs? Do you have a favourite Sailor Soldier? What was your favourite arc/season? What do you hope to see in the new series?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Getting to Japan: The First Trip

Posted by アナ 4:03 PM
After finding out that I will be moving to Tokyo this August, I immediately thought about starting a series of articles to help document the process of moving to Japan. In this new series, I will list all the things you'll need, my recommendations, and perhaps a few things to be weary of.

Part I: The First Trip

I'm sure I'm not the only one who has been dreaming of moving to Japan. In fact, I know a handful of members on our forum can back me up on this. However, before you pack your bags and grab those one-way tickets, I really have to put my foot down and stress this suggestion: visit Japan first.

Of course, not all of us will be able to visit Japan before moving there, or doing study abroad, in the near future. Let's face it, Japan is expensive, and not all of us have the time or money for a trip like this one. So, for those of you who absolutely can't take a trip to Japan before saying "sayonara" to your home country, well, here's to hoping that Japan is everything that you hoped it would be! If not, then... well, that's awkward.

At this point, I'm sure a couple of you are shaking your heads right about now. You might be wondering "why does it matter so much?" Well, the answer is simple. Japan... isn't for everyone. 

The summers are hot and packed with bugs. Japanese food and etiquette can take some getting used to. For those who are used to commuting by car, getting used to Japan's train system on a daily basis can present quite a challenge. And let's face it, even the most advanced Japanese learners will have a tough time adapting to life in a country that doesn't speak your first language. In fact, for a while, you won't be able to stop yourself from thinking: "if only I could explain in English" or "it would be so much easier back home" from time to time.

For many people, too often does the concept of "living in Japan" become "surviving in Japan." That is, surviving in Japan long enough to finish school, or complete your contract, and then jump on the next flight home. A few weeks in Japan beforehand will not completely prevent this from happening, however, if you were undeniably uncomfortable and miserable throughout the entire trip―you'll know that Japan is not for you, long before making a commitment to live there. And therefore, a trip is a good idea. A really good idea.

So let's buy some tickets and start making reservations.

Let's start with flying. Around this time of the year, a round-trip ticket to Japan can cost anywhere between 1,200 to 2,000 USD. (This of course depends on your location and airline of choice.)

If you're looking for a reasonably cheap, trustworthy airline to purchase your tickets from, here are my recommendations: Jetstar, Japan Airlines, and Korean Air (this is if you don't mind layover in Incheon airport, South Korea). Otherwise, you can spend a little more for a cozier seat and better peanuts. For those currently in the US and UK, this is a 12-16 hour flight. Make sure your seat comes with a USB port!

Alright, hotel time.

I recommend making a hotel reservation long before you go to Japan. In cities such as Tokyo, hotels can fill up very quickly. Especially in areas near train stations, and you're going to want to find a hotel in those areas. Bookit.com and Expedia are great sites to find hotels with decent prices and convenient locations, so I recommend that you check out those sites for booking your hotel room. You can easily find rooms for anything between 60-100 USD a night.

One thing to keep in mind is that hotels in Japan charge a fixed price per person, and hotel rooms are very small. In fact, unlike here in the states, you won't find many travelers lounging in their hotel rooms, especially if the hotel is a cheap one. When I was last in Japan, I couldn't stand being in my tiny hotel room for anything other than sleeping, and this wasn't because I was anxious to get outside and explore Japan. I'm sure it would have been different if I had stayed at more expensive, luxurious hotels, but alas―I'm not made of money.

If hotels aren't your thang, then you should definitely consider searching online for hostels, Ryokan or even Capsule hotels. These options are often much cheaper in price than hotels, and will give you that "authentic" Japanese feel that the western hotels I suggested above sometimes lack.

What's a "Ryokan"? A Ryokan, or 旅館, is a traditional Japanese-style inn. Think Spirited Away, minus all the excessive hot-tubs and the creepy demon and ghost creatures. Trust me, I've checked.

Some features that you can expect to see in a Ryokan are rooms with tatami mats, futon beds (on the floor), communal baths, and guests and staff wearing traditional yukata robes. Typically, you'll find more traditional Japanese food than western food on the menu in a Ryokan, and meals are often served to you in your room.

Okay, that's pretty cool. What are Capsule hotels? Capsule hotels are a very cheap (usually 30-40 USD per night), and super tiny alternative to the traditional and western-style hotels mentioned above. And did I mention tiny? These "rooms" (capsules) are so tiny that guests literally have to get down and crawl inside. Hence the term "capsule".

Your capsule will come with a small TV (usually connected to the ceiling), an alarm clock that wakes you up with light rather than sound, and a comfy futon bed complete with your own blanket and pillow. There will only be enough room for one person to either sit up, or lie down in a capsule, and I cannot guarantee that you won't hear your neighboring guest snoring nearby. All of your belongings are stored in a locker, and as for the bathroom―that's usually on its own separate floor. That said, Capsule hotels are very minimalist, clean, and give off a very futuristic, spaceship feel to them. Especially if you stay at a 9hrs Capsule Hotel, located in Kyoto and in Narita Airport.

"This is Captain Kirk to all ship personnel, red alert."

So now that we've booked a flight, and reserved a hotel room, it's time to talk about what you'll need. Assuming that you've been on a trip before, I won't mention all the no-brainer things that you'll need like toiletries or clothes. (Well, that is unless you want to go to Japan completely naked. Hey! I won't judge.) So here's some things that I wish I had brought with me, and a few things that can sometimes surprise people.

Things you'll need.

1. Stick deodorant. Japan don't got 'em. In fact, you won't often find any kind of deodorant in Japan. If you're lucky enough to find some, it will be a kind of spray-on liquid that westerns aren't used to. These are also weaker than the stuff we're used to.

2. Proper walking shoes. On my first trip to Japan, I brought a whole heap of sandals with me and I quickly regretted that. You're going to be doing a lot of walking in Japan. A lot. Take this from the girl who's sandal got stuck in a crack, and sent her flying face-first onto the floor of a busy train.

3. Unscented Mosquito/Insect Repellent. Around this time of the year, the bugs and mosquitoes are everywhere in Japan. I actually didn't expect to see any mosquitoes over there, until I spotted a large purple bump on my leg the size of my knee. My third knee. The mosquitoes especially come out on rainy days.

4. Modest clothes. Especially if you're female. Japanese tend to dress more modestly than westerns (this is especially true for those in America), and it's important to avoid wearing clothing that reveal cleavage and sometimes even your shoulders. It's also a good idea to leave your short-shorts and miniskirts behind. Otherwise, you may get a few stink-eyed stares, some unpleasant experiences on the train, and some men may get the wrong idea.

5. Cash. This is the most important item on my list, and something that travelers often forget. Japan is a cash based society. That said, you'll quickly find that not many places in Japan will accept credit card. So, bring lots of cash on hand and make the currency exchange at the airport as soon as possible.

Things that may surprise you.

1. Don't tip in Japan. There is NO tipping (in any situation) in Japan. To tip someone is actually very insulting; people regard it as unearned income. The service you've paid for is covered by the total price, so why pay more? It simply isn't done, so don't do it.

2. Be quiet in public places. As said by LearnJapanese.com, "in general, English speakers talk much louder than Japanese speakers. In places like coffee shops, restaurants, buses or trains, even if you are speaking in a normal level of voice, it is usually considered very loud to most Japanese. However, it varies depending on the situation, so look around and check if it is somewhat quiet or not, then be careful about how loud you talk. Most of the time people will not say anything, but there is a chance [that] you might get yelled [at] by a Japanese person (especially old grouchy ones!) to be quiet."

3. Manners on the train. Generally, no one answers phone calls on the train, and should a pregnant or elderly woman (or man) appear, you are expected to give up your seat. People are very quiet in the train.

4. Ladies only train cars. Yep, these exist. Usually pink and girly in appearance, these cars are intended for ladies only, and you can find them in big cities like Tokyo. They were created to in order to combat Japan's infamous "chikan" (pervert) groping problem. If you're a young woman with a penchant for short skirts, it might be a good idea to jump on the ladies-only car during rush hours. Tokyo, in particular, is famous for perverts on the train who can't keep their hands to themselves.

5. Standing on the escalator. Depending on where you are, it is customary to stand on one side of the escalator and let those in a hurry shimmy up the other side. Even the Japanese get confused about this one, but typically you'll see people standing on the left within Kanto region, Tokyo, and most of the country. However, you'll find people standing on the right within Kansai region, and especially in Osaka. Of course, in places that attract tourists, there will always be a little chaos and confusion, and some places do not stick to the norm. My suggestion is to let those already on the escalator be your guide!

Extra. "Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders DO upset us."
Unlike in western countries (especially here in the states), Japanese are not used to hearing custom orders. If you were to go to a McDonald's stand in Tokyo and ask for a basic hamburger minus half the dressing, the cashier will look at you as if you're crazy. That's why you'll find a lot of menus with pictures and numbers rather than lengthy descriptions of exactly what you're ordering.

In fact, when I worked as a resident assistant for twelve Japanese students, my students would often ask me why the waiters at restaurants in the states ask them so many questions. "Would you like lemon in your tea?" "Would you like your meat cooked medium or well-done?" "Soup or salad?" My students were very confused as to why they did this, and they were very intimidated since this is simply not done in Japan.

Just go with the flow, and take advantage of this! This makes ordering much easier for you, the customer, and for the cashier/waiter who may already be intimidated by the fact that "a wild Gaijin suddenly appeared!"

And there you have it! Some important things to think about when planning your first trip to Japan, and a few things to help you get started. I would recommend spending some quality time in the big cities, and then venturing out to the less populated areas of Japan to get a real feel for living in Japan. Figure out if you prefer the hustle and bustle of Tokyo life, or perhaps a more rural, country-style living is ideal for you. But either way, the adventure begins with the first step. So just have some fun with it, and make sure to go out there and try as many new things as you can.

Throughout this series―"Getting to Japan"―feel free to ask me any questions either on the forum, in the comments section below, or on my social media sites (you can find them all listed here). Sometime in August, after arriving in Japan, I plan on creating short youtube videos and a podcast about living in Japan. Your questions can really benefit the podcast and help me decide what topics to talk about!

So, lovely readers, have you been to Japan before? Any funny, embarrassing stories to share? And if you have yet to visit Japan, what are you most excited for? What cities do you want to visit and why? Please let me know in the comments section below!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

You could be forgiven for thinking that conversing in Japanese with non-native speakers is counterproductive, beset with issues such as picking up unnatural grammar and pronunciation, but is it really the demon it is made out to be?  In the final article of the language exchange series, we will be taking a closer look at the ways in which our peers can assist us in our quest to master Japanese. 

Advantages of Practicing with Other Learners

If you have ever spoken with a native speaker, you will probably have experienced one of those moments where you feel in over your head. Even advanced learners will sometimes find themselves lost for words when the conversation turns towards unfamiliar territory, and for the rest of us it can feel like we spend more time asking for clarity than we do actually exchanging thoughts in Japanese.  It is especially frustrating that you can understand everything so well while you are studying.  Even when listening to a dialogue for the first time, if it has been carefully crafted to your current ability, you can usually follow the gist without too much difficulty. Yet there you are, faced with your Japanese friends and feeling completely out of the loop. 

Wouldn't it be nice then, if there was a way of having a Japanese conversation with someone who speaks at the same level as those recordings you so easily follow at home?  This is where our fellow learners can be a great asset to us.

Limited Vocabulary

This is possibly the greatest gift your fellow learners can offer you; the chance to practice conversation without too much unfamiliar vocabulary. Even if your native speaking friends try to use easier Japanese, it can be very difficult to know what counts as being 'easy' to a non-native speaker of your language. A fellow learner however, is limited in their choice of words, and even those who are a little ahead of you, will usually reach for easier words that they've known longer, which you have more chance of knowing. 

Maximise the benefits: It is a good idea to exchange with someone close to your level. It's okay if you have a little distance between you, such as pre-intermediate/intermediate, or upper-intermediate/advanced, but if one of you is just starting out while the other is able to confidently hold a conversation with native speakers, you will find it very difficult to study together and the beginner may even lose their confidence. 

Speaking Speed 

As you've surely noticed, Japanese, especially casual Japanese, is very quick when spoken at natural speed. However, even quite advanced learners will tend to speak a little more slowly and clearly than a native speaker, and certainly at the lower levels, we are limited in how quickly we can form Japanese sentences. Of course, our native friends will happily slow down their speech for us, but there will always be moments when they slip into natural speed, or blend words together. Your non-native friends however, will naturally speak more slowly and clearly without the need for you to constantly ask them to repeat what they said but slowly. This allows you to develop your ear for Japanese gradually, hearing the individual sounds over and over until they become familiar enough to pick them out even when they're thrown at you full speed by your Japanese friends.

Maximise the Benefits: While your partner will speak more clearly, the difficulty will be in mispronounced words leading to misunderstandings. A good way of handling this is to repeat back to your friend what you think you heard. They may then notice their mistake, and correct themselves, or you may discover a new word. It is important not to be shy to admit when you don't understand something, as failing to do so prevents you from ironing out errors or learning new vocabulary from your partner.

Sharing Mistakes

Of course, when speaking with non native speakers, it isn't the case that communication won't break down at all. A learner's lack of proficiency with the language means there will often be times when they're perplexed by something their partner has said, even if they DID recognise every word. This will either be because the speaker didn't know or use correct wording, in which case you can discuss or even investigate the correct way together, or because the speaker was using language the listener hasn't studied yet. In either case, there is an opportunity to discuss the usage of the language, which rarely presents itself when practicing with native speakers. Often you will find yourself, weeks or even months down the line, messaging your study partner with, 'remember when we couldn't decide how to describe doing several loads of laundry? You were right.. you DO use '回 (kai)’.. I just heard someone say it in the drama I'm watching'. Exploring the language in this way not only helps it to stick in your memory, but it also teaches you that other learners make mistakes too, and that it really isn't the end of the world if you don't know everything yet. Especially as you continue to iron out these unknowns together, you will become more relaxed and see each mistake or knowledge gap as an opportunity, rather than an obstacle.

Noticing mistakes is one of the vital components in improving language, and it works whether they are our own mistakes or not. Native speakers won't always point out your mistakes because they can guess from context what you were trying to say, and don't want to break the flow. By practicing with non-native speakers, you get a unique chance to share in their mistakes too. Even if you don't want to correct them every time, simply noticing the error will help to reinforce your knowledge of the language and help you to become more aware of your own wording.

Maximise the Benefits: It is important to establish ground rules for correction. For example, if your partner is new to conversation or timid, then correcting every single mistake is likely to harm their confidence and make it harder for them to open up and speak. Bolder speakers may wish for you to correct every little mistake they make, but this could break the flow of conversation.  A good way to deliver correction is to repeat back what you think the person said to you, only with a questioning tone. For clarity, I'll give an example using English;

'Do you fancy going for something to eat?'
'Yeah, I'm quite thirsty'.
(you think from their tone of voice, they meant 'hungry'). 'You're thirsty too?'

The person then realises their mistake and can now either tell you they meant hungry, or maybe as they are thirsty too, they can just reply with 'yeah, I'm hungry and thirsty'.  This is a little gentler than constantly stopping the speaker and saying, 'you meant 'hungry' right?' 

Clear Explanations of Grammar   

One of the most surprising discoveries I made when I began speaking with fellow learners, was that it was much easier to clear up confusions about the language. Just because someone is a native speaker of a language, that doesn't make them a grammar expert. There are plenty native English speakers who couldn't explain the difference between an adjective and a verb, never mind know what the present perfect tense is, and your Japanese friends are no more infallible. So asking them, 'what's the difference between '聞こえる' and '聞ける'?' for example, may well be met with silence. Sure, they instinctively know when to use one or the other, and after some thought, they'd probably work it out, but they may not be able to answer immediately, or know the necessary vocabulary,  to explain it in a way you'd understand.  However, your non-native friends, may well have pondered the same things as you, and if so, can probably explain it better using reference to your mother-tongue. 

Disadvantages of Studying with other Learners

Having looked at the advantages of practicing with other learners it is time to take a closer look at some of the concerns that put people off.  Some of the more obvious disadvantages were touched upon in the introduction, but we will explore them in more detail here. 

Picking up Bad Habits

This is possibly the most common reason why people avoid practicing with non-native speakers, and it is true that you will possibly pick up poor pronunciation or mistakes from your partner. Scholars of language learning processes speak of 'incomplete success' (the fact that few people learn a second language to the degree they learn their first language) and 'fossilisation' (mistakes that become so ingrained in the way you use and process your second language, that they become a permanent characteristic of your speech) as two characteristics rarely absent from second language speakers.  While every second language learner aims for native-like output, that is sounding like a native speaker and using grammar flawlessly, the reality is that the majority of learners will reach a point after which they can't iron out those last traces of foreignness from their accent, or no matter how much they practice, there will always be those little slips of grammar. Few learners will accept that this is their fate and will assume that they personally, will be in the 10-20% of second language learners who sound like a native speaker when they reach fluency (the so-called 'Optimism Bias' of human behaviour). Even those who can accept the likelihood that they won't be 100% perfect, would surely do everything they can to minimise this inevitable failure.  It seems perfectly reasonable then, that people would seek to avoid practicing with anyone who's accent is below perfect, or who could pass on their bad grammar habits.

Remedy: You can't make your partner speak perfect Japanese any more than you can make yourself, but it is really down to you to weight the pros and cons and decide if practicing with non-natives is for you. For most learners, they develop their accent early on and while it continues to improve gradually, they don't develop a more native-like accent until the later stages of study, at which point they will be more comfortable and able to speak with native speakers.  Anyone with a strong accent in their first language who has lived away from their home town, will have noticed how quickly their accent softens and standardises, losing much of the harshness of their local dialect. This does not take years to change, but a matter of months. The same will be true when your Japanese reaches fluency and you begin to surround yourself more and more with native speakers. Few people lose their foreign accent altogether, but the fact that you spent time studying with a non-native speaker, is unlikely to have much of an influence on that. So as long as you continue to listen to native Japanese as often as possible during the earlier stages of language development, there should be little lasting harm from studying with others, and the keen ears and willing critique of your fellow learner, may just be enough to help you to avoid many mistakes long before they get a chance to fossilise.

Jealousy and Competitiveness

If you are the kind of person who needs to measure their success against others, then you may need to think hard before deciding if this method of conversation practice is for you. Language only works when both the speaker and the listener know the 'code'. Even between native speakers, if one person starts to use jargon the other party isn't familiar with, communication breaks down and the speaker has failed to use their language effectively.  It is important to keep vigilant when selecting a study partner and weed out anyone who you feel deliberately tries to use vocabulary or idioms they expect you won't know, to effectively 'show off', as these people are not out to help you to improve and will not be of much benefit to you. 

Remedy: So long as your friend isn't deliberately trying to make you feel inferior, a little jealousy needn't be an issue if you are able to recognise it for what it is. Jealousy only becomes a negative force when it is allowed to fester and turn to resentment. Instead, it is important to turn your jealousy into admiration for the other person, and let it be a driving force that inspires you and encourages you to study harder, so that you can catch up to your friend. 

Conducting Sessions

How you practice with your friends will be much the same as it is for practicing with native speakers.  If you live locally, you can take a textbook to a cafe or quiet bar, or you could do an activity together.  The Internet too, offers great ways to exchange, from chat rooms to online games, there is so much to explore together. The first two articles in this series offer a good starting point if you are stuck for ideas. 


In an ideal world we would all learn Japanese by osmosis in Japan, surrounded by native speakers and emerge a year or two later with pitch perfect fluency. The reality though, is that few people really learn this way, with even those who live and work in their second language, being forever haunted by persistent mistakes.  Especially earlier in our development, communicating with native speakers can be quite overwhelming and the trauma of failed attempts can hold us back for years to come if we don't take action to repair our confidence. Practicing with other learners acts as a bridge, easing our way into Japanese conversation as it offers us the opportunity to practice Japanese conversation in a controlled way.  We are less inhibited by constant errors if we know our partner too is imperfect and knows all to well what a struggle it can be.  So long as you ensure that you get plenty exposure to natural Japanese, there is no reason why practicing with non native speakers can't become a valuable part of your Japanese practice.   

Saturday, June 7, 2014

There comes a time in the life of every Japanese learner when there is a need to go beyond the words one's textbook or learning material can give. That's the time to turn to a dictionary. But which one? In this article I'll go over the major digital dictionaries which are available either free online or commercially.

Friday, May 23, 2014

A Beginner's Guide to Sumo Wrestling

Posted by アナ 3:06 AM
One of the few things I remember about being a young girl in Guam is watching a sport called "Sumo" with my dad in the afternoons. I used to be so shocked by the appearance of these big wrestlers, and I often wondered why someone would willingly choose to put on so much weight in order to do nothing but, well, sumo! But gosh did I love watching sumo with my dad.

More than 10 years later, not much has changed. I still watch sumo with my dad whenever I can, and he's still the biggest sumo fan I know (not literally!). So I'm dedicating this article to my dad, and to all you aspiring sumo wrestling enthusiasts out there! Hopefully this article can become the perfect companion for you to have when watching a Sumo Basho!

Okay, let's start with some brief history. (If you'd prefer to watch a video, I recommend that you check out the National Geographic Channel's special "Inside Sumo" documentary, and then feel free to come back when you're done. It's very entertaining, you're in for a treat!)

The tradition of Sumo Wrestling is said to have started over 2,000 years ago. During the Heian period (794-1192), the imperial family often watched sumo as a form of entertainment. Sumo has since evolved over many centuries, with the first professional sumo wrestlers appearing during the Edo period (1603-1868). Because of this long history, sumo is often considered as Japan's one true national sport.

Although sumo is indeed a sport, sumo and Japan's Shinto religion go hand in hand, and according to SumoTalk.com, this "dates as far back as the Tumulus period (250-552)." But it wasn't until the 17th century that sumo began adopting the intense purification rituals that we see in tournaments today.

Most of the Shinto that we see in sumo occurs symbolically.
To begin with, the sand that covers the clay of the dohyo is itself a symbol of purity in the Shinto religion. And the canopy above the ring (yakata) is made in the style of the roof of a Shinto shrine. The four tassels on each corner of the canopy represent the four seasons, the white one as autumn, black as winter, green as spring and red as summer. The purple bunting around the roof symbolizes the drifting of the clouds and the rotation of the seasons. The referee (gyoji) resembles a Shinto priest in his traditional robe. And kelp, cuttlefish, and chestnuts are placed in the ring along with prayers for safety.

Each day of the tournament (basho), a ring entering ceremony is held, wherein each wrestler's body and spirit undergoes purification. Yokozuna are dressed in mawashi with five white zigzag folded strips of paper on the front, the same as those found at the entrance of Shinto shrines. On the front of all mawashi are sagari, which are fringes of twisted string tucked into the belt, and they represent the sacred ropes in front of shrines. Numbers of strings are odd, between seventeen and twenty-one, which are lucky numbers in the Shinto tradition. And of course, the salt that is tossed before each bout is an agent for purification and one of sumo's most visible rituals.

As a religion of customs and not laws, Shinto developed as a religion to please the gods in order to ensure a good harvest and divine protection, but soon made headway into the sport of sumo as a way to entertain those same gods, purify the sport itself and protect the rikishi [the wrestlers] from harm. — Sumo Talk.

The word Sumo, or 相撲, literally means "to mutually strike, or slap" an opponent. However, there is a deeper meaning within this word, and that is "to compete" or "to be a match for."

For those of you who have yet to see a sumo wrestling match, the goal of sumo is to defeat your opponents (one by one) by either knocking them over, or by pushing them out of the ring within the elevated square stage. The wrestler can slap, shove, and tug at his opponent's Mawashi (*ahem* the colorful silk diapers) in order to accomplish this.

Alright, so now you know some basic history. Let's move onto slightly more important things! After all, you can't fully understand a sumo tournament with the history alone. The key to impressing all your Japanese friends with your vast sumo knowledge is through sumo terminology. Only then will you become the sumo master!

Let's start with the basics.

A sumo tournament is called a Basho (試合). There are a total of 6 grand tournaments every year. These 15-day tournaments are held every other month.

A professional sumo wrestler is called a Rikishi (力士). The two kanji characters that make up this word are "strength" and "gentleman/samurai." A gentleman of strength. The grand champions are known as the Yokozuna (横綱) and there are normally no more than two at a tournament.

Referees are called Gyouji (行司) and have a ranking system all their own. This rank represents the rank of wrestler that they are qualified to referee for. But, unlike the wrestlers, promotion is largely determined by length of service.

Although more commonly known as a Heya (部屋), a Sumo-beya (相撲部屋) is the training facility (or "stable") that sumo wrestlers live and train in. As of November 2013, there are currently 43 of these facilities within Japan. A sumo wrestler is expected to stay with the heya he joins until the end of his career. There is no transfer system. A heya may only be set up by an oyakata or elder of Japan's Sumo Association. An Oyakata (親方) acts as the "master" and coach for those in his heya. A heya is always named after its founding oyakata.
Banzuke (番付) is the official list (ranking) of all the participating sumo wrestlers in a tournament.

Danpatsu-shiki (断髪式) is the retirement ceremony where a sumo wrestler's topknot is cut off.

Deshi (弟子) is an apprentice or understudy. Used to describe the lower-ranked wrestlers in a stable.

Dohyo (土俵) is the clay ring within the square in which a sumo match takes place.

Dohyo-iri (土俵入り) is the ring-entering ceremony.

Dohyo-matsuri (土俵祭り) is the ceremony to purify the dohyo on the first day of a tournament.
 Literal meaning: area festival.

Heya-gashira (部屋頭) is the highest-ranked wrestler in a sumo stable.

Kyujo (休場) means to sit out a tournament due to injury. (A sumo wrestler's absence from a tournament).

Mawashi (回し) is the thick belt that is wrapped around a sumo wrestler's waist. It is wound in such a manner that protects the genitals as well as offering a way for the combatants to grapple.

Sekitori (関取) is a wrestler who is ranked in one of the top two divisions; those who are being paid a salary.

Sekiwake (関脇) is the junior champion rank of Sumo. Usually two to four wrestlers hold this rank.

Shikiri (仕切り) is the preliminaries and warm-up routines before a bout.

Shikiri-sen (仕切り線) is the starting lines in a sumo ring.

Shiko (指呼) is the stamping of feet on the ground to strengthen the legs, and to taunt the opponent.

Taiketsu (対決) is a match between two sumo wrestlers.

Tate-gyoji (立て行司) is the chief gyoji. The head referee! 

Tegata (手形) is a sumo wrestler's hand print, and their equivalent of a signature.

Now that you've got the basics down, let's move onto even tougher vocabulary. These are the words that you'll likely hear from the commentators, especially during and after a match.

Harite (張り手) is an open-fisted slap to the side of your opponent's face.

Henka (変化) is side-stepping your opponent's initial charge. Literally meaning "to change" or "to alter."

Hikiwaza (引き技) is the technique of pulling down your opponent to the ground. (Usually after side-stepping his initial charge.)

Inashi (いなし) is a well-timed slap to the opponent's side causing him to fall to the ring floor.

Makikae (巻き替え) is changing from an overarm to an underarm grip on your opponent's belt.

Matta (待った) a false start at the beginning of a bout. Literally meaning having "to wait."

Nekodamashi (猫騙し) is a move first used by sumo wrestler Mainoumi; where one claps his hands in front of his opponent's face in order to throw him off guard. This move literally means "fooling the cat."

Okuridashi (送り出し) is a winning technique that involves pushing the opponent out of the ring from behind.

Shitatenage (下手投げ) is a winning technique that involves throwing the opponent down by using an inner grip on his mawashi. This is also the term for an "underarm throw" in baseball.

Tachiai (立ち合い) is the initial charge at the beginning of a bout.

Torikumi (取組) is a Sumo bout, or match.

Tori-naoshi (取り直し) is a rematch, called when a bout is too close to determine the winner.

Yorikiri (寄り切り) is a winning technique that involves holding the opponent's belt while pushing them out of the ring.

Yotsu-zumo (四つ相撲) is when both wrestlers grasp each other's belts with both hands. (Ie. four hands.)

Yusho (優勝) is a tournament victory. Overall victory, championship.

So there you have it! If you can remember all these terms, you are well on your way to becoming the ultimate Sumo Master. And if you can't... well, you can always open up this article during a basho, and you'll be well prepared to discuss the match with others. If anything, it's a great opportunity to practice your Japanese and learn new things, and that's what we're all about here at Gaiwa. 

Also, if you have access to Japanese TV, the 2014 Summer Basho is currently going on in Tokyo. If you don't already know how to set up Japanese TV on your computer, stop by the forums and I'm sure someone can help you set things up! And if you missed the Summer Basho, don't worry. The next basho will take place in Nagoya on July 13. 

So, lovely readers, do you watch Sumo? Have you ever been to a basho before? 
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