Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Free Japanese Quizzes for Everyone (PR)

We have just launched a free Japanese quiz service with free quizzes every day at four skill levels (introductory Japanese, beginning Japanese, intermediate Japanese, and advanced Japanese).

The interactive Japanese quizzes cover a variety of Japanese and Japan-related topics, and allow Japanese students to test their skill in Japanese vocabulary, grammar, Kanji, and reading comprehension. A large number of quizzes focused on the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) is also included, just in time for JLPT test takers to do final study and preparation for the upcoming JLPT.

Unique Service Among Online Japanese Schools

The free daily quiz service is available to all visitors to If you register, you get more freebies, such as tracking of your individual quiz results and access to the Nihongo-Pro 24/7 video chat room. Nihongo-Pro is the first online Japanese school to make the chat service available to students and visitors alike, making for a more engaging conversation.

The quiz service is also unique among online Japanese schools. "Through services like our free quizzes, we hope to raise awareness of the value of our private Japanese lessons, and help everyone learning Japanese," Nihongo-Pro president Terry Phillips remarked.

"It's common to think of Japanese as impossibly difficult, but that simply isn't true. Success in learning Japanese comes from patience, perseverance, and practice. By spending a few minutes every day taking our free quizzes, for example, a Japanese student can make steady and definite progress in learning Japanese. A JLPT student who takes our JLPT quizzes every day for three months can accumulate hundreds of JLPT practice test questions for free . It's a simple investment of time to learn Japanese online that can pay off big."

According to Phillips, the free quiz service is just the first of several free services in Nihongo-Pro's expansion plan. Interactive games targeting Japanese learners are due to be introduced soon, and the online school is making plans for service expansion beyond private Japanese lessons.

Phillips added, "We're striving to make Nihongo-Pro the best place to learn Japanese online--whether through free services to the Japanese learning community, our private Japanese lessons, or new lesson formats we are planning. Three things set Nihongo-Pro apart from the competition: free services like the quizzes, the quality of our customized lessons, and the quality of our Japanese teachers. Because we pay our teachers much better than most online Japanese schools, our teachers in turn build better lessons."

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Upside Down Japanese

The other day in my online Japanese lesson, we were doing a JLPT reading comprehension question. For those of you not familiar with the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test), the reading comprehension portion consists of short, medium, and long passages of Japanese text, followed by one or more multiple-choice questions about the passage.

This passage was a reading on Buddhism, so not only were the sentence structures difficult, but there were new vocabulary words and concepts. In all, it was a difficult Japanese reading problem for me.

When it came to answering the question, I was confused. The question concerned the central point of the essay, yet I couldn’t find the right answer. That’s when my teacher led me through to the answer, and, in the process, showed a fundamental difference between Japanese and English.

Japanese is upside down, or backwards to my way of thinking, if you will. This passage on Buddhism—as most Japanese writing—is structured in almost reverse order from a typical English counterpart.

I don’t mean simply that the verb comes at the end of the sentence in Japanese, or that there are Japanese particles with no English translation tacked onto the end of words.

I mean that the author’s conclusion appears at the end of the passage, and that his supporting statements appear before his conclusion. Most English writers would start an essay with a brief statement of their opinion (the thrust of their argument), and then follow that with their supporting reasoning and description of the overall situation.

Japanese is just the opposite—a Japanese writer will describe the situation, briefly point to opposing views, and sum up his opinion as a conclusion, often by way of a rhetorical question (~でしょうか or ~だろうか).

From Upside Down to 起承転結 (kishoutenketsu)

Good Japanese writing is supposed to follow the sequence of 起承転結 (kishoutenketsu), a four-step process as follows:

  1. (ki, to occur or arise): The story’s beginning. Introduce the reader to the situation and characters involved.
  2. (shou, to receive or accept). “Receiving” the material introduced in, dig deeper in this step. Give a full, objective explanation of the situation, so your reader understands the context and detail of your topic.
  3. (ten, to turn). The crux of the writing, is where you grab the reader’s interest with a surprising or novel “turn.” The section often starts out with しかし (however ...) or そして (and...), meaning the writing is about to guide the reader in a direction the reader didn’t necessarily expect.
  4. (ketsu, to conclude or tie together). With the unexpected turn of in mind, draw your final conclusion. This is where Japanese opinion writers will state their opinion, as a natural follow-on to the explanation of and the twist of  .
The Roller Coaster of 起承転結 (kishoutenketsu)

起承転 can be compared to a ride in a roller coaster: 

  1. is the start of the ride, as the chain starts pulling your car up that long hill. You’re going slow, getting used to the new environment.
  2. takes over as you get higher up the hill. You’re still moving slow, but you’re up high now, and can see the landscape much better.
  3. hits when the chain releases your car, and you start speeding down the hill. Just when you thought you knew the landscape (going up, up, up slowly but surely), the whole scene changes, and you’re experiencing an entirely different side of the roller coaster.
  4. is the coasting from the last hill to the end of the ride, a chance to wrap up, cool down, and take in what you’ve just experienced.
If you’re a manga fan, you probably know that 4-cell manga usually follows the 起承転結 sequence as well. Indeed, the four-step sequence of 起承転結 is the very reason for the popularity of the 4-cell manga!

So maybe Japanese isn’t upside down after all (roller coasters are a lot of fun, too), but my English-thinking brain still gets easily led astray when I try to tackle a Japanese essay.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Mayor’s Vision Saves Japanese Village from Tsunami

Japan is in the midst of starting recovery from the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck the Tohoku region on March 11, 2011. Many of us have seen the horrific scenes of total devastation from the tsunami replayed on countless videos.

Seawall at Miyako City, Japan being overtopped
The city of Miyako in Iwate prefecture was devastated, despite a 10-meter (33-foot) seawall designed to protect the city from tsunamis. This time, the giant wave easily topped the wall, and surged into the city. The heartbreaking scene of Miyako’s destruction has been played over and over on Japanese TV, a grim tribute to the force of the earthquake and the tsunami.

As I watched the scene from Miyako, I thought, “If only that seawall had been a little higher...” If only the area had been protected just a little more, perhaps those people would have been spared the worst of the tsunami.
The Story of Fudai's Seawall 

Happily, there was such a place: the village of Fudai (普代) in Iwate prefecture. Fudai was protected by a 15.5-meter (50-foot) seawall, and the tsunami was no match for it. Fudai had no deaths in the disaster.

The story of how Fudai came to have such a high seawall begins with the great earthquake and tsunami in 1896, during Japan’s Meiji period. That year the village was struck by a 15-meter (49-foot) tsunami, and again in 1933, the village suffered another powerful tsunami. Altogether, 439 lives were lost.

Following those tsunami, village mayor Kotoku Wamura (和村幸得) pressed for a seawall at least 15 meters high, often repeating the tales handed down to him growing up: that the devastating 1896 tsunami was 15 meters.

The project was a huge one—a wall to hold back a surging wave five stories high and over 200 meters (650 feet) long. During the planning stage, there was strong opposition to building such an excessively high wall—after all, a 10-meter wall, dubbed “the Great Wall,” had protected parts of nearby Miyako City from the tsunami caused by a Chilean earthquake in 1960.

But Wamura did not budge, insisting on a 15-meter-plus wall. “明治に15メートルの波が来た” (In the Meiji earthquake, a 15-meter wave came), he was fond of reminding skeptics.

Wamura prevailed, and the seawall was ultimately completed in 1967. Floodgates were added in 1984.

Owing to Wamura’s steadfast insistence—and a vision of the protection Fudai needed, based on stories and knowledge handed down to him—this tiny village was spared the great tsunami of 2011. 63-year-old Sadaji Oota, gazing out at the wall from a Fudai izakaya he runs, put it best: “If we didn’t have this wall, we’d all be dead.”

As the tsunami approached on March 11, about 100 dock workers took refuge on the top of the big wall, and not one got so much as wet feet.

If you’d like to read this story in its original Japanese, please visit:

Forewarned Is Forearmed

Or, as the Japanese say:

            sonae areba urei nashi

In contrast to the accusations of inadequate disaster planning on the part of Tokyo Electric at their Fukushima nuclear power plant, Fudai is a reminder of the power of one man's vision and determination. Wamura knew what had to be done, overcame protests from all sides, and, in the end, saved his village and its people.

Fundraising for Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Relief 

Nihongo-Pro is raising money for earthquake and tsunami relief operations in Japan. In addition to a corporate donation, the company pledges an additional $10 donation for each contribution received via the Nihongo-Pro web site through April 30, 2011.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Learn to Read Japanese

Some people think learning Japanese is easy; others say it is hard. I think everyone can agree that learning to read Japanese takes time and effort. Japanese is one of the most complex written languages in the world, mixing four different scripts:

  • Kanji: Chinese characters, such as 日本語
  • Hiragana: A curvy-looking alphabet that is used to connect words and for words of Japanese origin, such as です
  • Katakana: A squarish alphabet used primarily for foreign words, such as ブログ or コンピュータ
  • Romaji: Words written in roman letters like these

Starting out learning Japanese, any student of Japanese first studies hiragana, followed by katakana. Then, we start up the Kanji mountain. There are about 2,000 Kanji in common use in Japanese, or about 3,000 if you count the poetic and literary usages found in many Japanese novels.

Kanji Readings: Kunyomi and Onyomi

Each Kanji in Japanese typically has two or more different pronunciations, or readings. When Kanji were imported into Japan from China, Japanese assigned the Kanji meanings to words in spoken Japanese with the same meaning. So, yama (mountain) was assigned the Kanji ; kawa (river) was assigned the Kanji ; and so on.

But the Chinese also brought native Chinese pronunciations for these words, as well as thousands of Chinese words using these Kanji, which the Japanese tried to mimic. The closest Japanese pronunciation for the Chinese word for mountain was san, so, in addition to yama, the Kanji could be pronounced san, depending on context. For example, 山脈 (sanmyaku) means mountain range (literally, vein of mountains).

As a result, most Kanji in Japanese today have at least two readings: 

  • Kunyomi (kun reading) is the native Japanese pronunciation, such as yama for
  • Onyomi (on reading) is the pronunciation imported from Chinese, such as san for .
Some Kanji have more than one kun reading; a few Kanji also have multiple on readings as well. On the other hand, some Kanji have no kun reading, and others have no on reading. But, as a general rule, think of one kun reading and one on reading for each Kanji in Japanese.

By convention, kun readings are written in hiragana, and on readings are written in katakana. For example:

Learning Kanji Is Easier Than You Think

Learning 2,000 Kanji may seem impossibly difficult, but you don’t have to learn all 2,000 to read most Japanese texts. In fact, according to this analysis of Kanji usage, if you learn just 1,000 Kanji you can read 93% of the Japanese you find on the web, including Japanese newspaper articles.

The key is to choose those 1,000 Kanji carefully, based on how often the Kanji are used. Many students studying for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), especially at level N1, N2, or N3, study from JLPT Kanji lists—lists of Kanji specifically targeting the various levels of the JLPT. (Strictly speaking, these lists are designed for the pre-2010 JLPT, but the Kanji lists are still widely used.)

The thinking goes that if you memorize all Kanji on the JLPT Kanji list for your level, you’ll ace the Kanji portion of the test. That is true, but it’s also true your score on the much larger reading comprehension portion may suffer.

If you focus on the JLPT Kanji lists, rather than learning the most often used Kanji first, you wind up delaying the time when you can start reading Japanese text with some confidence. You get less practice reading Japanese, and your speed of reading Japanese suffers.

Start Reading Japanese Fast!

For success in JLPT reading comprehension, or Japanese reading for any reason, I’d recommend this simple approach:

Step 1:  Learn about 500 basic, frequently used Kanji.
Try to learn one kun reading and on one reading for each Kanji. Don’t try to learn extra readings—just get the basics down for now. This will take some time, but don’t get caught up with perfection. The point is to get basic Kanji knowledge, so you can get into real Japanese reading.

Kanji flashcards work great, and there are all kinds of online Kanji resources. Perhaps the fastest way to cement a Kanji in your mind is to practice writing it. Learn the proper stroke order, and, as you write the Kanji, say out loud the Kanji’s kun reading and on reading.

Step 2: Start reading Japanese.
Online reading is easiest, because you can take advantage of helper apps that show explanations and pronunciations of unfamiliar words or Kanji. If you use Firefox, try the rikaichan addon. Another good Japanese tool for all browsers is (as in pop-up dictionary—move your mouse over an unfamiliar word or Kanji, and a dictionary entry pops up). Reading Tutor Toolbox is helpful for studying Japanese vocabulary.

Step 3: Read something in Japanese every day.
Even if just a single paragraph, make a promise to train your brain for Japanese every day. I like Japanese newspapers, because they have a wide variety of articles and writing styles. The headline articles tend to use difficult vocabulary words, but some of the articles on Japanese culture, food, or events are a little easier. 

Step 4: As you read Japanese, you will naturally learn lots of new Kanji.
Some people like to make lists of new Kanji, and study them separately from reading. Or, you might decide you like to keep reading more Japanese, and absorb the Kanji knowledge through reading alone. I think both approaches work (probably a mix is best for most learners), but by all means, keep reading!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Japanese Word Order: Pick An Order, Any Order

One of the first things you discover when you learn Japanese is that the verb in a Japanese sentence always comes at the end of the sentence.

            ano hito wa kaimono ni ikimashita.
            That person went shopping.

            Toukyou no fuyu wa kibishii to omoimasen ka?     
            Don’t you think Tokyo winters are severe?

OK, in the second example, there’s ka at the very end, turning the sentence into a question. Simple particles like ka, ne, yo, or even ze, zo, and na do come after the verb in a Japanese sentence.

Japanese Words in Any Order?

Interestingly, Japanese word order is loose compared to English—except that the verb has to be placed at the end of the sentence or phrase. When I say loose word order in Japanese, consider this example:

            昨日 彼に りんごを あげました。
            Kinou kare-ni ringo-wo agemashita.
            I gave him an apple yesterday.

In Japanese, the first three parts ( 昨日,  彼に,  りんごを) can be put in any order! The only requirement is that the verb show up at the end. For example, all of these sentences are grammatically possible in Japanese:

            昨日 りんごを 彼に あげました。
            りんごを 彼に 昨日 あげました。
            彼に 昨日 りんごを あげました。

Before you start randomizing your Japanese word order, remember that I said grammatically possible—not all of these sentences are natural Japanese. Ringo-wo kare-ni kinou agemashita is particularly unnatural, but still grammatically correct and understandable by any native Japanese.

One more point to keep in mind: The part closest to the verb is the part being emphasized in the sentence. So, if you want to emphasize that you gave him an apple as opposed to some other fruit, the choice:

            彼に 昨日 りんごを あげました。

works best.

Try doing this kind of word rearrangement in your own language, and the sentences probably won’t make sense. (“Him gave I yesterday an apple.”)

Japanese Particles to the Rescue

Japanese word order is flexible (other than the verb), thanks to particles like ga, ni and wo. By attaching a particle to a word, you set the role for that word in the sentence. Then, you can take the word and its particle and move it in the sentence around like a building block, without losing any meaning. (In English, by contrast, the placement of the word itself dictates its role, so moving an English word out of place causes it to lose meaning.)

Particles are fundamental to Japanese. Using the wrong particle can make a sentence undecipherable to a Japanese speaker. For example, if I wanted to say “I gave him an apple yesterday,” but said:

            昨日 りんごを 彼 あげました。

My Japanese listener would hear: “Yesterday he gave an apple (to someone else).” And confusion would result.

One of my difficulties with listening comprehension in Japanese (such as JLPT listening comprehension exercises) is correctly hearing these very short particles, which have a big effect on the meaning of a sentence. There are many cases where changing ni to ga or vice-versa causes the meaning to be exactly opposite. The writers of the JLPT know this, of course, so they (evilly) set out to make some of the JLPT exercises difficult in precisely that way.

If you are learning Japanese, watch your particles (and be sure the verb comes at the end), and you’re sure to be speaking more natural Japanese.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Do Japanese Talk Fast?

You hear it all the time—to an untrained ear, it seems like a Japanese speaker talks much faster than we expect.

Actually, it’s true—Japanese do talk faster—because Japanese has lots more syllables than English or most European languages. Consider an example:

            Yuube juu-ji-made hatarakimashita.
            I worked till 10 o’clock last night.

This simple Japanese sentence has 15 syllables:
            ゆうべ じゅうじ まで はたらき ました

The English equivalent has just 8. That is a pretty typical ratio, with English having half or so as many syllables as Japanese. Consider simple greetings in Japanese:

            おはようございます。(9 syllables)
            Ohayoo gozaimasu.
            Good morning. (3 syllables)

            おやすみなさい。(7 syllables)
            Oyasumi nasai.
            Good night. (2 syllables)

The syllables in Japanese are very short, so they can be uttered quickly and with very little mouth movement. Japanese talk faster to get out all those syllables, but the rate at which they communicate is about the same as anyone else.

To a Western ear, though, hearing all those short Japanese syllables takes practice. My brain is trained to pick up new English words of 3 or 4 syllables, maybe 5 at most. But in Japanese, a new word might have 8 or 9, even 10 or more syllables. Even if I listen closely, I have trouble picking up the last few syllables, and often wind up asking my Nihongo-Pro teacher to repeat a new Japanese word several times.

It’s definitely one of the challenges of learning Japanese, but also can be a lot of fun. Next time a friend asks you to say something in Japanese, make an impression with one of these Japanese syllable stews:

            Atatakaku natta no dewa nakatta ka?
            Didn’t it get warm? (lit., Isn’t it true that it got warm?)

            Atta-ka, nakatta-ka, shirimasendeshita.
            I didn’t know if it was there or not.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Online Japanese Lessons

Nihongo-Pro is an all-new online Japanese classroom that offers live, private Japanese lessons from experienced Japanese teachers. Great alternative if you're looking for a place to learn Japanese online with great services and policies for students and teachers.

For students, learning Japanese online has lots of advantages to a traditional classroom. You cut out the travel time, and you save lots of money. Online Japanese lessons at Nihongo-Pro are about half the price of an in-person tutor.

For teachers, Nihongo-Pro offers a relaxed environment without the headaches of other online Japanese schools. Pay is about 50% higher than other schools, and our "no hassle" workplace lets you focus on the job of teaching Japanese. Our software is easy to learn and easy to use. All you need is a web cam and a desire to teach Japanese online. Visit us today at