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Review: Talking About Japan

1 Feb

Japanese: 英語で話す日本 Q&A
Level: Intermediate – Advanced
Format: Reference book
Publisher: Kodansha International

Talking About Japan is a bilingual Japanese-English book that covers a wide range of topics from Japanese history and geography to the economy, government and society. This book is great for improving reading comprehension as it’s printed in Japanese on the left-hand page and in English on the right.

At approximately 300 pages the book isn’t a light read. However remembering that half of Talking About Japan is printed English, it really isn’t that huge and as each chapter covers a particular topic about Japan it’s easy to pick up and put down without losing ‘reading momentum’. Topics covered include geography, history, government and the economy, way of life and society, culture, clothing and housing, and Japanese customs.

Kodansha first published this book in 1996, so figures on the economy and population, for example, are now out-dated. Despite this you will still find the vocabulary and terminology used in these chapters useful, particularly if you have limited exposure to materials that concern more specific areas  like taxation, exports and natural resources, the political system, and the constitution for instance.

The chapters on culture, customs, food and daily life in Japan makes for an interesting read. Luckily for us Japan is very traditional in these areas so the information presented here is still relevant, even in more recent times.

Each chapter contains a range of questions and are answered in about half a page. We feel this is an appropriate length since the answers can be detailed enough without becoming long-winded and over complicated. Some questions discussed in the book include, ‘How many volcanoes are there in Japan?’, ‘What kind of crimes are the most common in Japan?’, ‘What is Zen?’, ‘What is a common wedding ceremony in Japan like?’ and ‘What is the correct way of bowing?’. There really is quite an extensive list of topics being covered here.

Like other books we have reviewed from Kodansha (see our review of Konna Eigo ga Wakaranai!?) this book has been written for native Japanese speakers. Kanji is frequent and furigana is limited unless the name of a person or location is being discussed. This means the book might be out of reach for learners who are not at an upper intermediate or JLPT N2/N1 level. The grammar used in the book averages around the N2 level.

If your Japanese comprehension is around this level then we can see this book becoming a useful resource. Talking About Japan will definitely strengthen your vocabulary given the native-level Japanese it contains and the wide range of topics it covers. If you are preparing to take the JLPT, this book would be especially useful with improving your reading speed for the short and medium length questions. On the other hand, if you aren’t sitting for the JLPT and would just like to read up on Japan and all aspects of its culture and people then you too will find this book interesting

Overall we think the best thing about Talking About Japan is the ability to read the text in either Japanese or English. Once you’ve tried reading the Japanese text you can read the English translation for extra clarification, or if you vocabulary is lacking in a particular area, you can focus on reading those chapters first. We do recommend having a kanji or electronic dictionary beside you, however, to look up the readings of unfamiliar words given the lack of furigana.

SCORE: 7/10


Review: Konna Eigo ga Wakaranai!?

31 Jan

Japanese: こんな英語がわからない!?
Level: Intermediate
Format: Reference book
Publisher: Kodansha International

Konna Eigo ga Wakaranai!? is a reference book from the Kodansha Power English series designed for native Japanese speakers. Strictly speaking it hasn’t been written with Japanese learners in mind since its purpose is to explain the meaning and use of obscure (and sometimes quite strange) English phrases.

The book contains 386 phrases which the writers say can be heard in everyday English. While some of them do pop up fairly frequently, others are pretty rare and would raise a few eyebrows if you said them at the dinner table. That being said, you could still use the equivalent Japanese phrase in conversation to sound more native-like or to help improve your listening comprehension. We recommend either asking a Japanese friend or waiting to hear the phrase used in conversation first before trying it out yourself just to be on the safe side. (There is also a graphic showing the frequency and nuance of the phrase – general, humorous or angry – though it’s not really relevant from a Japanese language learning point-of-view).

Phrases are arranged in English alphabetical order with the English phrase in large bold type followed by the Japanese equivalent underneath. A small paragraph written in Japanese clarifies how and when to use the saying, explains subtle similarities between phrases and defines any English words that may pose a problem for non-native speakers.

The entry is completed with an example dialogue in English demonstrating the context the phrase is used in. The dialogue is translated in Japanese as well, though strangely the translation does not always use the Japanese phrase. The phrase ‘Hit the books!’ is a great example of this where the writers say the Japanese phrase 一生懸命勉強なさい can be used, yet in their example they use a similar, but different phrase in Japanese.

A: Hit the books! You want to graduate don’t you?

B: Yeah, but I sure am tired after that party last night.

To gain the most from this book learners should already have a sound understanding of Japanese, particularly conversational Japanese, and a knowledge of Japanese customs and communication styles. Without this, we feel that readers might miss the subtleties of how the phrase should be used.

Keeping in mind that this book isn’t a Japanese textbook but rather a book about English written for Japanese people, not everyone is going to find it useful. So while it isn’t a ‘must have’ for learning Japanese, those who would like to improve their conversational skills may find it worth the read.

SCORE: 6/10

Review: Nihongo Kanzen Master Level 2 Grammar

30 Jan

Japanese: 完全マスター2級日本語能力試験文法問題対策
Level: Upper intermediate, JLPT N2
Format: Textbook/Exercise book
Publisher: 3anetwork

Please note this publication has since been updated to reflect the new JLPT exam levels.

Nihongo Kanzen Master Level 2 Grammar has been written to familiarize learners with grammar that is likely to appear on Level 2 of the JLPT. This volume covers a total of 173 grammar points, though a number of these have two entries, so the total number of individual points is closer to 180. It should be noted that the whole book is published in Japanese, so learners without a sound grasp of Japanese vocabulary and grammar (read: intermediate or N3 level) are likely to struggle with understanding.

Each grammar entry is complete with its meaning in a simplified form, or paired with grammar from an earlier level that shares the same or similar meaning. Construction of the grammar is explained clearly showing whether, for example, the dictionary, past, or -te form of the verb is used, or whether extra particles, such as の, must be used between a noun and the grammar. There are also three to four example sentences per grammar structure that demonstrate various contexts the grammar is used in.

The overall layout of Nihongo Kanzen Master Level 2 grammar has been well planned, with related grammar generally presented in the same unit, although the units themselves are not labelled with the theme they relate to, such as time, comparisons or opinions. At the end of each unit is a review with approximately 30 questions to test your understanding of the grammar presented in that unit.

As would be expected from a book aimed at learners with N3-N2 understanding, there is a significant amount of kanji, however most have furigana unless they are rudimentary (雨,学生,来週 etc.). In that sense it will also help with kanji and vocabulary revision.

Studying this book alone is unlikely to be sufficient to pass the grammar section of the JLPT N2 exam comfortably. Ideally it should be used in conjunction with a textbook devoted to grammar questions as the review questions at the end of each unit are varied, but limited. And as with all language learning, seeing the grammar in a real-world context will help with acquisition and understanding.

Nihongo Kanzen Master Level 2 Grammar presents its content in a logical, thorough manner, which most learners at this level will find easy to follow and comprehend. It is definitely one of the more ‘vital’ resources to be used when studying for N2 and one that all learners will gain from.

SCORE: 8/10