Friday, October 12, 2012

The JLPT: Opinion Pieces and the Long Reading Section

With the winter JLPT fast approaching, I though it would be a good opprotunity to post about one of my favorite reading exercises: the opinion piece. Let's take a look at how to boost your eye-wateringly long passage reading skills!

Chuo Koron
Since the revamped JLPT has a weighted scale that requires you to get passing marks in each of the three sections (vocab, grammar/reading, and listening), don't think you can just rely on your super kanji and listening mastery to get you through. The reading section is by far the biggest challenge of the whole test and it requires a pretty solid set of comprehension skills in addition to serious time management.

JLPT N1 is almost certain to include at least one highly opinion oriented piece, although usually there are more. This reading usually comes in the form of the much dreaded 長文 (chobun), or "long reading" section. However, they can show up just about anywhere on the test, usually interspersed amongst textbook style articles and excerpts from novels. These passages usually focus on
  1. Your grasp of the author's thesis, argument, and conclusion
  2. Your ability to extrapolate a central theme (i.e. "The author would most like agree with which of the following...")
  3. Remember what vague articles such as これ, それ, and あれ stand for.
  4. The point(s) of debate that the author agrees with or disagrees with and why.
In my experience, I have found two very good resources for those who have a fairly good handle on Japanese. The first is my favorite monthly journal, Chuo Koron (中央公論 also known as "The Central Review"). I have found that Chuo Koron has some of the best debate material in Japan, with a variety of academics, politicians, and concerned citizens writing very eloquently about a variety of topics ranging from education to current events. Most importantly, in a country that prides itself on everyone "going with the flow," there are lots of authors who are not afraid to express unconventional opinions. In addition, many issues feature "dueling opinion pieces" that pit two authors with opposite ideas against each other, either in separate articles or in full-on, "he-said-she-said" debate articles.

The content of Chuo Koron is useful for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, the JLPT often likes to throw in authors who express opinions that are a bit different from the traditional Japanese mindset. Also, the style of the articles is rather pedantic, requiring a firm grasp on the topic, jargon, debate points, thesis statement, and conclusion.

One of my preferred methods of study involves picking an opinion piece, setting a stopwatch and seeing how fast I can finish it off while gleaning as much information as possible. Since many of the articles reference current events, it relatively easy to double check facts, names, and debate points by searching online for (English) articles on the same topic. After reading I try to write out a very brief summary of the topic in question, the author's overall opinion, and the reasons he or she supports this opinion.

That being said, Chuo Koron reading is not for the faint of heart. The venerable publication is aimed squarely at the highly educated and it pulls no punches when it comes to utilizing extremely sophisticated kanji. But fear not, there is another way to boost your opinion reading skills: your newspaper's shasetsu (社説), or editorial, section.

As you may recall, last week I talked about the merits of practicing for the JLPT by way of newspaper articles. Reading the daily shasetsu follows a similar logic, this time focusing on understanding an editor's opinion rather than the raw content of an objective news story.

Since just about every newspaper big and small has a shasetsu section, usually about a pressing societal issue or current event. Using whatever newspaper's at hand is easier than going out and buying a 900-yen magazine. Also, shasetsu tend to be much shorted than long-winded Chuo Koron articles, and they are written for a much wider audience. This makes the kanji a bit less of a challenge. Moreover, every newspaper editorial board has their own editorial slant, providing a variety of contrasting opinions.

Editorial pages generally vary in length depending on the newspaper and topic in question, but I'd estimate that one daily's editorial section is roughly similar in length to a single JLPT N1 reading section.

Do you have any favorite study methods or publications that you would recommend to an aspiring JLPTer? If so, let us know!

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