Monday, July 26, 2010

Expo '70: Tower Of The Sun

A Journey To The Tower Of The Sun

I had a vague idea to visit the sight of the 1970 Osaka World Expo while I was in Japan last month, but not much of plan before I went. On the express train it's almost a 2 hour journey from the in-laws place, so I took with me one of my favorite manga, 20th Century Boys by Naoki Urasawa. One the advantages of a month of holidays is the time to read and wander aimlessly. I was almost to the end of the series, so it was a good opportunity to finish the last two volumes.

There were posters advertising 40th Anniversary of the 1970 Osaka World Expo at the station when I arrived at Namba. After a quick bento I studied the station map and jumped on the subway to the North of the city and the monorail which connects Senri Chuo station with Expo Commemoration Park.

In Japanese Expo '70 is known as Ōsaka Banpaku (大阪万博). The theme was "Progress and Harmony for Mankind." This was the first World's Fair held in Japan and one of the most well attended world fairs in history with almost a third of Japan's population visiting it over a 6 month period.

There are only a few remants of the expo remaining, including Tarō Okamoto's remarkable Tower of The Sun, which dominates Senri hill. As you approach from the west the tower is visible from a great distance. Okamoto was member of the Paris avant garde in the 1930's and had a deep fascination with the occult. Perhaps you can see this in the totemic style of the three external faces of the tower.

太陽の塔: The Tower Of The Sun

The Dark Side of the SunOn the front you see the present flanked by red thunder. The golden disk at the top represents the future. On the back is the black sun of the past. The interior was once open to the public, who could rise to the full heigh of 70 metres on an elevator and moving staircases. In the centre of the tower was another artwork callled the tree of life, and in the basement another face, the sun of the underworld.

The park was planned by the Japanese architect Kenzo Tange, and the structures contained within represented the peak of human engineering acheivement at the time. Highlights included early mobile phone prototypes, local area networking and maglev train technology.

Take for example the United States pavilion - extraordinary for not only the technical and architecural innovation it embodied, but for the low cost of construction - made from only four materials for less than half a million dollars. The long span cable stiffened pneumatic dome, the first of it's kind, became the model for the majority of sports domes in existence today. All that is left of the United States' pavilion is a plaque commemorating the place where it stood and the hugely popular moon rook that it housed.

The expo is situated in time between the uncertain post war years and boom years of the later part of the century. Embued with an optimism for the future, Expo '70 undoubtably had a lot to do with inspiring Japan to become the advanced technological nation it is today.

A brisk walk around the park takes two hours and is well worth it, with a wide variety of gardens and sculptures along the way. In July it was 32 degrees celcius in the shade, so not too many people were around. Though I probably wasn't allowed, I took the opportunity to cool off in a stream in the middle of a secluded forest.

Through the forest runs an elevated observation pathway, which at it's furthest end stands a massive observation tower. The tower is onstructed entirely of wood and reminded me of the traditional architecture found within Japanese castles, only without an exterior facade.

AR大阪万博 by GORIMON, on Flickr

For many people I imagine a trip to the Expo '70 commemorative park is either to remember their first visit or some retro-futurism tourist jaunt. I wasn't there for an architectural tour or nature walk however, I was there to take a trip through the world imagined by Naoki Urasawa in his epic manga 20th Century Boys. It was a bit of of a manga geek trip, manga tabi if you will.

Expo 70 was a central to the story of 20th Century boys. First in 1970 as the ruse used by a young Fukube while he was writing the book of prophecy that would herald the bloody new years eve 2000 and he coming of a global government at the end of the world.

On that bloody new years eve, Kenji scaled the robot that was bringing death and destruction to Tokyo and came face to face with the tomodachi who stood on top of a gruesome replica of the Tower of The Sun.

The Tower of The Sun featured during the last stages as the place where the tomodachi plotted the assaination of the pope. The tomodachi then staged his own resurrection in front of the masses, becoming immortal in the process.

It was place that Kanna brought the people together for one final concert before the end of the world, and where Kenji roused the people of Tokyo to revolution.

Urawasa's epic work pulls together a whole host of post modern themes, bio-terrorism, mateship and betrayal, in a coming of age story that spans three generations. To wander around the park, which is dominated by the Tower of The Sun at the centre was to put myself in the picture. When you are culturally aware, the world seems an altogether different place.

Whatever your goals are for reaching fluency in Japanese, they must be accompanied by vision and imagination. You really need to be able to see yourself doing the the things you dream. And really, the book is much better than the movie.

You might also want to read other posts on this blog about manga:
If you really want to get into to manga, but don't know where to start read my free guide to manga. It'll show you how to get over the initial hurdles of reading in Japanese.

Thanks for reading, I mean that. You are what make this blog such fabulous place to learn about Japanese language and culture. Thank you for the support and the ongoing conversation on places like Facebook and Twitter.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Edo Period Japan Comes Alive At Okage Yokocho

Take A Step Back Into Japanese History At Okage Yokocho

Taking a trip to Okage Yokocho (おかげ横丁|おかげよこちょう) is sometimes like stepping back in time to an Edo Period village. Okage Yokocho, is a shady side street of Oharaimachi just before you reach Naiku, the inner shrine of the Grand Shrines of Ise. In recent times it has experienced a bit of a revival. The narrow streets and restaurants are usually very crowded at new years when many people make a visit.

みたらし団子: Mitarashi Dango

Mitarashi Dango

We went in the middle of a Summer downpour on a Saturday and it was still hard to find a car park. The streets look empty here, but under every eave and doorway there were crowds of people waiting for the next break in the rain so they could make it to the next stall or performance. The store here was our second stop for Mitarashi Dango, you can see the sign just above the Tanabata decorations.

Japanese Drums

和太鼓: Japanese Traditional DrummingThe Japanese Drum (和太鼓|わだいこ) performance happens once every hour, and it always draws a big crowd. Somewhere amongst the forest of umbrellas is furious example of traditional drumming. The musicians have arms as think as tree trunks and deep burning gaze. I should have been much closer. It was enough though to stand back and enjoy the energy and enthusiasm of the performance.

Paper Play

As the large crowd dispersed there was a small gathering forming closer to the back of the main stage. There was a paper play (紙芝居|かみしばい) just about to begin so we took our seats. The performer, in yukata and geta, told the story of Shiro-kou, a dog from the Gunma prefecture.

In Edo period Japan it was quite popular for people from all over the country to make a the pilgrimage to Ise, and in the space of as little as 50 days over 3 and a half million people would arrive. Most of them on foot. Those that couldn't make it due to illness or injury would send some one in their stead to retrieve charms, some times they would send their dogs. Shiro-kou was one such dog.

The style of story telling reminded me of Rikimaru Toho, the manga reading busker from Tokyo whom I've written about before. What I didn't realise was how Rikimaru was simplying bringing a modern touch to a traditional form of entertainment.

In this new media era of television, internet and games, the paper play seems a rather archaic and simple form of entertainment. Compared with books, the history of kami shibai is still rather shallow, but story telling goes much deeper. The oral tradition is so important to the maintenance of culture. It's not just simple entertainment, but more importantly it conveys Japanese culture in a way that I'd like to see continue. You can see some of the performance in this video.

Okage Yokocho In The Summer Rain  

When you speak a second language you become part of a new socio-cultural group. What I've noticed about people who can tell a good story is that they tend to accelerate in their ability to speak Japanese. Do you have any good stories that you could tell in Japanese? You don't have to tell me right now, but when you speak Japanese you should have a story ready to go ;) I'll be here in Japan until Monday, and I'm looking forward to getting back into a routine with my blogging. I'll plan on bringing you more of my trip in future posts, including that crazy little fish shop at the end of the video. Until then Jyaa mata ne! P.S. If you like a little bit of story telling you should pick up my newsletter, you'll also get a great free guide to manga. P.P.S. If you like to keep you story telling short follow me on Twitter @rainbowhill.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

SHIRO Cheers System

This really made me smile today so I thought I'd share it with you. It has so many elements that I love put together in a seriously lighthearted way. You'll notice the references to the Pythagoras Switch and other low tech devices that are all about sharing the love.

From the description on YouTube;
This is a promotion movie of a Shochu, "Shiro" by Takahashi shuzo.
When we say "Cheer!", the happiness is born between two people. And it spreads to others like a chain reaction and grows bigger and bigger. We hope the Japanese Shochu "SHIRO" can bring people bit closer and happy by making them "Cheers!".
If you feel like to say "Cheers!" with friends even a little after watching this movie, we are pleasure to hear so.
My time in Japan this year is about to come to an end, so let me propose a toast, to all the things you love about Japan. May your dreams be light and fluffy!

I'll be back very soon, with some more good stuff to share!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Great Flutterscape Experiment

From Nijigaoka With Love

Alright I'm going to be in Japan until mid July. I'm also going to have a lot more time on my hands. So while I'm not hooking into my manga and preparing for the JLPT, I'll be shopping for unusual and exciting products from Japan.

You can join in the fun also. Let me be your personal shopper for a month. If there is anything you thought you would like from Japan but never knew how to get then now is the time to ask. I've started up a Flutterscape account under the name nijigaoka (that's Japanese for @rainbowhill)

What is Flutterscape?


Flutterscape is a social shopping service that helps people outside of Japan get what they want from their own personal shopper. Plenty of you have wanted to know how to get authentic manga and other products from Japan, now is your chance to ask me to find it for you.

Here is how it works.

  1. Sign up for a Flutterscape account: You can use your Facebook login if you like. If you are anywhere other than Japan then you will be given a buyers account.
  2. Browse for goods: You can browse through the gallery of over 3000 items that people have posted for sale in nearly 20 categories. You can also find the newest, top favorited, most discussed or best seller items.
  3. Post a request: If you can't find what you are looking for make a request. You might have a request that know one else has thought of. There might be something special for an obscure hobby or interest you have.
  4. Make your purchase: At the bottom of each item on offer you'll find the big red "Oh, I want one!" button. The price is right next to the button in your currency, you can also view shipping fees before you add the items to your cart.


How does it get from Japan to your place?

When the transaction has been confirmed on Flutterscape, I pack the item for you and run down to the Post Office. The folks at Japan Post ship it to Flutterscape's logistics partner who then forward the package on to you.

Flutterscape aim to make shopping safe and fun, they take care of all the shipping and transaction processing so you don't need to worry about a thing.
"Unlike traditional marketplaces, FlutterScape brings sellers and buyers together in a fun, casual and collaborative way that allow sellers to share a real narrative of their product discoveries and buyers to expose to an adventure and obtain unique products from abroad."
I had a brief exchange with Takehiro Kakiyama (on Twitter @hirrro), Co-founder and CEO of Flutterscape just the other day and this is what he had to say;
"we want to focus on more social side which is to share your product discovery"
For me this works both ways, I get a chance to share the things I discover in Japan. You get the opportunity to shop for things that would normally be out of your reach.

P.S. If you are happy to buy stuff from friends on Facebook, I'll be posting this stuff there too. You'll also notice that the Flutterscape fan page is huge!

P.P.S. If all you need to know about a product can be summed up in 140 characters you can follow me on Twitter.

P.P.S. I've also set up a Tumblr From Nijigaoka With Love to give you a bit more background on each product, mixed up with other random stuff.

Thanks for following, I really mean that!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Top 10 Motivational Mistakes Every Japanese Learner Makes

To learn Japanese make sure your heart is in the right place first

Koichi wrote a great piece on finding your Flow in learning the other day. Flow is all about putting yourself in the place where the challenge meets and extends your abilities. Too much challenge and you can lose the motivation to continue. Not enough challenge and you easily risk losing interest. In this third post in the three part series "Top 10 Mistakes Every Japanese Learner Makes" we look more closely at motivation. You can catch the first and second posts here and here.

Harajuku graffiti
Harajuku graffiti

Choosing to learn a language is a challenge, but you wouldn't expect to master Japanese in a few days any more than you would expect to become a professional golfer overnight. Developing the stick-to-it-ive-ness required to learn Japanese involves being able to choose the right challenges and commit to making progress in small ways every day. Once you build up the momentum then everything else will flow.

Top 10 Motivational Mistakes Every Japanese Learner Makes

  1. Choosing the wrong goals: Why do you want to learn Japanese? To impress the girl in your Japanese class? To understand anime and gain credibility in geek forums on the internet? These goals won't provide you with any kind of enduring motivation in the long run. Winners motivation - performance - doing the next thing in front of you to the best of your ability.

  2. Being motivated by extrinsic factors: Closely related to the first mistake, this operates in the short term. If you are focused on competition and good grades, rather than self mastery then you risk discouraged when things don't go your way and the rewards are removed. Again focus on mastering the language and being in control of your own performance.

  3. Not balancing input with output: Too often we fall into patterns of over consumption, not only with food but also with information. When we never have the chance to become completely absorbed in something then we lose. Learning is about shifting our focus to creative output. Focus on production.

  4. Having too much garbage input: Not all information has the same quality. A lot of what determines the quality of information is how easily it is transformed by your understanding into knowledge. For this to happen you need to be active in your consumption of it.

  5. Not reflecting on what is being learned: It is said that Archimedes discoved the relationship between volume and density when he was filling his bath, and was so excited he ran through the streets naked. Newton aslo discovered gravity half asleep under an apple tree. To let your mind wander, you need to find a quite time and place with no distraction. The glass must be empty before it can be filled.

  6. Not putting it into practice: You may have heard of the 7 P's, in sport these are "Perfect Prior Practice Prevents Piss-Poor Performance". I wish I could attribute this quote to somebody because it is pure genius. Practice isn't just thinking about it, it's doing it, on a daily basis. Just going through the motions each day is not enough. You must be comitted to making your practice perfect so, that when the opportunity presents itself to perform, you are fully prepared.

  7. Not making time for learning: Make time now. The one thing that separates successful people from unsuccessful people is how they devote time to what is important. You decide wether language is important to you or not. Make sacrifices if you have to, but make the time. Can you harness the power of saying no today?

  8. Procrastinating: Do it now. There is not time like the present. You have heard these platitudes before, probably said you were going to do something about it too. What are you going to do about it now?

  9. Listening to the negative self-talk: Your mind is like a garden. You have flowers and tress that will bear succulent fruit. But only if you keep the pests and weeds out. Be the gardener of your your own mental orchard.

  10. Believing you will find a silver bullet: If what you are using hasn't worked thus far, may be you haven't given it enough time. Perhaps you are just inches from gold. There are no silver bullets, only hard work will pay off in the end.

It was a little tougher to follow on from the previous post, ironically because some of you found it inspirational. I'm glad you did. Now can you go out there and show someone else how it's done? Can you lead by example?

I'm off to Japan for four weeks rest and relaxation. I'll be able to give my family the attention they deserve 24/7. Beyond that posts to this blog may be a little more erratic, as I focus on immersion and one other project the subscribers to the newsletter would know about.

Follow me on Twitter for despatches from Summer in Japan. じゃあまたね!

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Top 10 Conceptual Mistakes Japanese Learners Make

Getting your head straight to learn Japanese

Once you get over the initial hurdles of learning Japanese you might find yourself in a situation where flawed thinking sets you off on a tangent from your goals. Making sure you have your head screwed on straight is often more about what you choose to ignore rather than what you pay attention too. In this 2nd post of a 3 part series we take a look at erroneous thought.


Top 10 Conceptual Mistakes Japanese Learners Make

These 10 common mistakes could easily apply to any language or be extended to any field of learning. One of the joys of learning a language for yourself is that you are in fact learning how to learn. When you grasp that meta, then there is really no limit to what you can do.

  1. It's difficult to learn Japanese: Yes it is, but no more difficult than any other language. Nothing worthwhile doing is ever easy. Enjoy the process of learning, it's better than nothing. Lesson: Get started now.

  2. You have to find the best method and stick with it: There is no one method that is best. Everyone is different and as you progress some things will work for you better than others. Lesson: Find what works for you and experiment.

  3. You can do it by yourself: I don't know how truthfully I can say I am self taught. Sure I have done the hard yards in selecting the learning material and putting it into practice, but everyone who has cared to speak to me in Japanese has been my teacher. Language is about community, and as you become part of the Japanese speaking community you will find many teachers. Lesson: Keep an open mind because you can't learn in isolation from others.

  4. You know everything there is to know about Japanese: You might as well give up now! Go on, nothing I could say is going to change what you think. Lesson: Keep the beginner's mind.

  5. It is possible to learn Japanese without being interested in the culture: That's like saying it's possible to learn how to surf without getting wet. It doesn't work, and anything you do learn while distracted by this illusion will be a charade. Lesson: Adopt parts of the culture as your own, no matter how seemingly insignificant.

  6. That you won't change in other ways: Not every one becomes a yukata wearing, tea sipping, brush artist and archer, but to think that you won't be changed slightly by the experience of embracing another culture is naive. Sure you may not notice it now, but a couple of years from know you'll be slipping the odd えっと into your sentences. ("etto", is kind of like an English "um"). Lesson: Be open to change and personal growth.

  7. Someone will teach you: Are you waiting for the right teacher? If you don't take responsibility for your learning, no one else will. There is an old Buddhist saying that when the student is ready the teacher will appear. Are you ready, primed for learning? Lesson: Be receptive to learning first.

  8. You won't improve: Some times improvement happens more slowly than moss forming, sometimes it comes like a torrent from the skies. The idea is to vary your learning enough to unlock hidden areas of potential. We are all capable of learning a second language, just as we are capable of learning the first. Lesson: Notice the small improvements first, and improve upon them.

  9. You can learn Japanese through reading/watching/listening alone: Every one learns different ways, some by sight, some by sound, and others by movement. It isn't until you hear yourself speak, see yourself talk and feel your mouth make the movements that create speech that you are capable of closing that feedback loop. Lesson: Move into production as soon as humanly possible.

  10. It's enough to learn the spoken language without learning how to read and write: This is only half true. You're not getting the whole story. If you only believe half of what is read and even less of what is said, how can you come to "know" anything? Lesson: You already knew this, because you're reading my blog. Learn to read and you won't have to take my word for it.

I hope you enjoyed that minor rant from me. It wasn't directed at anyone in particular, except maybe the person who thinks none of it really applies to them.

You really have to own your thought patterns, be disciplined in your thinking if you ever want to improve and create. I welcome alternative viewpoints in the comments. Is there somewhere you screwed up along the way? Was there some failed way of thinking that set you back as a beginner? I'm sure someone reading this could benefit from you sharing.

In the next post in this 3 part series we tackle motivation head on.

Monday, June 07, 2010

The Japan Foundation Under Attack Over New JLPT Format

Publishers drop reference to the JLPT from their products.

As you probably know from reading this blog, a big part of what I do is helping people prepare for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test through my lessons on eduFire and newsletter. You would also probably know that toward the end of last year The Japan Foundation released details of the new format JLPT to be held in 2010, minus the test content specification. At the time there was an uproar from bloggers and test hopefuls. Behind the scenes also publishers were scrambling to establish their relevancy in a rapidly changing test environment.

When Deer Attack, Miyajima, Japan
When Deer Attack, Miyajima, Japan 

As an affiliate of White Rabbit Press I was able to gain a small insight into this struggle from independent publisher Max Hodges, who was kind enough to share an email exchange he had with a representative of The Japan Foundation Center for Japanese-Language Testing. Here for your benefit I have redacted the conversation.

It starts with Max expressing his disappointment in October 2009 with the decision by the Japan Foundation not to publish the test content specification.
As a producer of Japanese language learning materials, we are very disappointed by the upcoming changes to the JLPT. In past years, a "test contents specification" was produced, which allowed educators and publishers to create content designed to prepare people for the JLPT. But since the Japan Foundation has now decided to keep the contents a secret, we can no longer say that our products "provide preparation for Level X of the JLPT" for example.
Books specifically targeting preparation for the JLPT are among the most popular books on White Rabbit Press and stores like the The Japan Shop. White Rabbit Press' Japanese Kanji Flashcards series is also the top-selling product of its kind in book stores across Japan and in markets like White Rabbit Press have now redesigned their Flashcard series removing any reference to the JLPT. Max explains;
The reason is because without a test-contents spec, we no longer have any confidence that our material provides appropriate preparation for any specific level of the JLPT.
Max also argues that without reference to the JLPT on his products and and similar materials from other publishers the Japan Foundation loses a valuable source of free advertising and good will.
I think it is a disservice to educators and publishers like me, who now lose the ability to confidently prepare people for the test, and it's a disservice to the students who will now have a harder time structuring and prioritizing their limited study time. Also, as I mentioned above, I think it will hurt the popularity of the JLPT itself.
In reply nearly 5 months later the Japan Foundation copied sections of the FAQ (QA8 and QA9) from New Japanese-Language Proficiency Test Guidebook: An Executive Summary.
The new JLPT is to measure communicative competence required to perform tasks. In the new test,“communicative competence” stands on both practical Japanese communicative competence AND knowledge of the Japanese language.
Though we don’t publish “Test Content Specifications”, we offer enough alternative information to prepare for the new JLPT. “New Japanese-Language Proficiency Test Sample Questions” has all the types of test items for all the levels. Even “Test Content Specifications”, past test items will still do as the former test levels (KYUUs) and the new levels correspond to each other.
Seeing both sides of the argument

I would argue that a paper test really doesn't offer any measure of communicative competence. I can clearly say that 4 out of 5 test levels bear some resemblance to former levels. Those of you that are preparing for the N3 have the difficult task of deciding what to study between the two extremes of the old levels 3 and 2. I don't believe the Japan Foundation offers enough information for people attempting this new level, nor any specific information about test content for other levels.

For me this seems counter-productive. I thought one of the main reasons for providing a new intermediate step between the old 3 and 2 was to bridge a very difficult gap for intermediate students. It certainly doesn't make things any easier for people who are considering moving on to more advanced levels of Japanese.

I can appreciate Max's position, having taken the decision to redesign his products without reference to the JLPT. I can also see that the Japan Foundation may have acted without any consideration of the impact it would have on publishers, and the good will that they had shown up to this point. What do you think? What impact on test popularity do you think this going to have if publishers no longer carry any reference to the JLPT on their products?

How does it affect your approach to test preparation?

As a test taker and educator, it has made things a little more difficult for me. I have decided to see the problem as an opportunity in disguise and apply some creativity to my approach. You can find out more about it in my newsletter.

Tell us what you think about the the lack of content specification in the comments. Perhaps you have a view that differs from mine. How have you found test preparation with out a test content specification?

If you'd like to ask the Japan Foundation about their decision to keep the test content specification secret their email address is

Top 10 Technical Mistakes Every Japanese Learner Makes

Getting off on the right foot when you start to learn Japanese.

To err is human. I've had a lot of people ask me recently about how to get started learning Japanese. And when you're a self paced learner getting the right kind of feedback about the mistakes you're making can be kind of difficult. There's no need to cut yourself if you're making any of these errors, even the most seasoned Japanese learner can lapse sometimes.

Chopping off my little finger
Chopping off my little finger

It's hard sometimes to see things with the beginner's mind, so I took the opportunity to ask some of my friends on Facebook and Twitter what they thought the ten biggest errors every beginner makes. I got such a good response, that pretty soon the list of 10 mistakes I had ballooned to over 30. Today I'll cover the top ten technical errors everyone makes, before moving on to the more cultural or conceptual in the next post and finishing off with something more motivational.

Top Ten Technical Mistakes Every Japanese Learner Makes:

The following 10 mistakes fall into the technical category because they are mostly concerned with what you say and how you say it when you speak Japanese. They are the type of mistakes that if captured early present no real difficulty to overcome, but it left alone they persist and make things much more difficult later on.

  1. Particles: The most common type of error you're likely to make when just starting out revolve around the correct use of particles. It's important to remember that there are no equivalents in English. Take the difference between は and が for instance, which are sometimes referred to topic and subject markers respectively. If you try to define 'subject', and compare that with 'topic' you've just hit the edge of a very slippery semantic slope. You're better off learning how they are used in the context of a Japanese sentence than applying rules from your first language that don't fit. Grab a good book, like Sue A. Kawashima's A Dictionary of Japanese Particles, or Koichi's Japanese Particles Cheatsheet.
  2. Word Order: Contrary to popular belief this does make a difference, if not to the meaning of your message, then the impact it has on the listener. It also goes hand in hand with particle use, you can't expect to manipulate word order with any skill if your particle use is inaccurate. Take the stock standard これは美味しいです (this is tasty!) compared with 美味しい!これは。。, forget the は which dangles tantalisingly on the end of the sentence and you risk sounding abrupt. Use any other particle and you end up confusing your dinner partner. Would you believe there are only 3 Japanese sentence types? Naoko Chino explains how to use them and their variations in A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Sentence Patterns. Tae Kim's Japanese Grammar Guide is another awesome free resource.
  3. Pronunciation: There aren't many sounds in Japanese that pose a problem to English speakers. The Japanese "R" is one, and つ (tsu) is another. The best way around these is to use appropriate model of a native speakers voice and to sound out each character as you learn hiragana and katakana. Other problems with pronunciation stem from the lengthening of certain vowel sounds and the sing-song rythm that results. Japanese conversationalists refer to 相槌 (あいづち) as the sound of a good conversation. We call them listener responses, but they are literally the sound of hammers meeting the anvil. Use's Hiragana and Katakana goals to hone your pronunciation, and then move on to sentence length models in the NHK Japanese Podcast.
  4. Intonation: English is characterised by a wide range of intonation which changes the meaning of certain utterances, even when they contain the same words. Japanese however is a pitch accented language where different words with the same morae (sound units) are identified by shifts in pitch. Take はし (bridge) and はし (chopsticks), for example. The mistake most beginners make is to vary pitch unnecessarily. Practice makes perfect, and in much the same way as pronunciation must be modelled on authentic sources, preferably longer than sentence length.
  5. Vocabulary: It's not just a matter of learning enough words, real word power comes from learning how to use words in the right way.You may have heard of core vocabulary, essentially in any language there are about 1500 words that make up 80% of the most commonly spoken words. Learn these words first, but also learn them in context. may give you a strong foundation, but it largely lacks context. Contextualise your vocabulary by delving into your interests.
  6. Politeness: Japanese is a highly contextual language, so how you speak and the words you choose depends very much on who you are speaking to. Good speakers are able to quickly make an assessment of their position in respect to the listener and choose the most appropriate level of politeness required.You can make yourself understood by selecting dictionary forms out a phrase book, but you won't endear yourself to people without an understanding of social heirachy and a good choice of words. Err on the side of caution and learn polite forms from the beginning.
  7. Talking too much: Japan is a society with values the harmony of the group over the needs of the individual. It is also a society with high power distance between individuals in any interaction based on heirachy. A westerner sensing silence in a meeting takes it as a bad sign and attempts to fill it with sweetners and small talk. The Japanese sees this as arrogance and an attempt to rush negotiation before a business relationship is established. The Japanese are much more comfortable with silence than you might expect. Silence can express more than words sometimes.
  8. Starting every sentence with 私は(watashi wa): Western culture is individualistic so we are always leading with what 'I believe' and responding to others with 'self' expression. Japanese culture seeks the harmony of of the group and talking about yourself too much is discouraged. Once you have opened conversation it is best to keep this to a minmum. Listening for what others are talking about, and add only when you have something valuable to add to the group topic.
  9. Hesitation devices: In Japanese hesitation devices are used both to prepare the listener for the next utterance and allow the speaker time to compose their thoughts. Without knowledge of these hesitation devices beginners often lengthen the sounds of the last word spoken unnaturally. Hesitation when used well can provide you with the time to get your sentences straight, while maintaning the interest of the listener. Watch some comedy (お笑い) where timing is everything.
  10. Using romaji: Romaji is not a logical stepping stone to reading hiragana and katakana. Romaji fell out of favour with educators about 20 years ago and it's rare to find book published recently that still uses it. Cut straight to authentic input with hiragana and katakana. Use mnemonics if you have to, whatever you do, commit the kana to memory now.
Now I can't even pretend to have all the answers here, and I'm sure that some of you might disagree with my choices here. If I'm leaving anything out please tell me. There'll be someone reading this for the first time and you just might be able to point them in the right direction. In the next post in this series we'll look at the conceptual errors every beginner makes, so don't go too far.

If you think I could describe these errors in less than 140 char, follow @rainbowhill

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Now for a little light relief. Pakkun Makkun demonstrate how important it is to be able to laugh at yourself as a beginner.