The month of December means many things: Christmas, spending time with loved ones, and what the Japanese call “shiwasu,” that extra-busy two weeks at the end of the year when no one has enough time to do the things they need to do. December is also the month tens of thousands of foreigners will go to Tokyo or one of several other large cities in and outside of Japan to take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (in Japanese, Nihongo Noryoku Shiken, 日本語能力試験). There are four levels to the JLPT, starting with level 4 (hiragana, katakana and around 100 kanji) all the way to level 1 (2000 “general use” kanji, along with listening, reading and grammar), and level 1 is what you need to get if you want to go to a Japanese university. I got level 1 a couple years after arriving in Japan, and it was nice to achieve that particular goal. I used to think of getting level 1 of JLPT was the ultimate goal a learner of Japanese could have, but I’ve had to revise this estimation as I encountered other challenges in the course of living in Japan. Currently, the most difficult thing I’ve had to do in Japanese is give the first (and longest) speech at the weddings of J-List employees, but one day I happened to witness what must truly be the ultimate test of a gaijin’s Japanese ability, when I saw a foreign reporter asking a question of Emperor Akihito in Japanese at a press conference. Sadly, the poor gaijin didn’t phrase his question well enough, and the Emperor had to ask him to repeat it in front of everyone. I could really feel that poor reporter’s pain! (For anyone wanting to study for the JLPT, see our site as we have many resouces for you.)
Whenever I have friends visit from overseas, I take them to one of my favorite places, the Gunma Prefectural Museum of History, which takes visitors through the 50,000-or-so-year history of our little corner of Japan. Crane-shaped Gunma is located smack in the center of the main Japanese island of Honshu, and while the lion’s share of the cultural points of interest can be found in the Kyoto/Nara/Osaka area, our prefecture can hold its own when it comes to stuff that’s a little more old school. Back in the Jomon Period, when the inhabitants of Japan were using flint knives and making the first pottery, Gunma’s culture was very strong, and a nearby town called Iwajuku contains the oldest human artifacts found yet in Japan. Gunma was also very big on burial mounds back during the centuries before Chinese characters were imported from Korea, and often as not, when you see a small hill in our prefecture it’s really an 1800 year old burial mound.
I’ve always been fascinated by the art of Mitsuo Aida (1924-1991), who created beautiful poetry using Japanese calligraphy. He crafted his amazing works using Chinese writing brushes, making creations which are pleasing to the eye and which express Zen-inspired short observations and messages about life, the universe and everything. We’ve got the Mitsuo Aida Museum’s 2006 calendar on the site right now and hope you’ll consider this beautiful example of his unique art!