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What do you know about Nippon?

A new competition rewards Japanese-language students for encyclopedic knowledge

by Tomoko Otake

These days, you have to accomplish a lot before calling yourself a Japan expert. Knowing the language, geography, history and customs of Japan is simply not enough.

In fact, to show your deep understanding of contemporary Japan, you must be able to recite, off the top of your head, the names of lead characters in Japanese TV anime programs both new and old. A true Japanophile would also know the added total of the numbers worn by three Japan-born star players in the Major League Baseball — Ichiro of the Seattle Mariners, Hideki Matsui of the New York Yankees and Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Boston Red Sox (which comes to 124). Got that one right?

On top of all that, you must demonstrate your compatibility with karaoke, the quintessential Japanese pastime. And in so doing, you cannot keep your perhaps slightly off-key voice in your usual cozy karaoke room — you must go up on stage and sing the entire tune in front of more than 800 spectators.

Sounds like a tall order? Well, this is what 72 foreign students actually underwent as they participated in the first-ever Japan Quiz Contest, held in mid-October at the National Olympic Memorial Youth Center in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward.

The event, aimed at promoting an understanding of Japan among foreign students, was organized by Daigo, a Tokyo-based publishing/event management company, and sponsored by various companies, as well as universities and vocational colleges here.

The president of Daigo, Park Tae Moon, who served as the chairman of the event’s planning committee, said he had long searched for a way to help and bring together students at Japanese-language schools.

“I also came to Japan 18 years ago to study Japanese here,” Park told the auditorium full of school-banner-holding, pom-pom-waving students during the opening ceremony. “Looking back, those were my most exciting days in Japan. You all need to try hard to learn about Japan. I hope today’s contest will help achieve that in a fun, quiz-based style.”

Park says that he wants to help Japanese learners in particular, because, compared to foreign students at colleges, such students have a hard time. Not only is there the language barrier, but there are few scholarships available for them. He adds that this is why the top prizes of the contest are cash.

So with a maximum of ¥500,000 up for grabs, students found partners with which to enter the competition. Of some 400 Japanese-language schools in Japan that Park and his staff had contacted, 36 schools agreed to participate, sending a pair of contestants each. Of the 72 participants in total, 38 hailed from South Korea, 25 came from mainland China and five from Taiwan. Then there was one student each from the Philippines, Indonesia, Uzbekistan and the United Kingdom.

Tensions rose as soon as the first round of questions began. Each team looked dead serious as they underwent a written test of 40 questions about Japanese culture and traditions that they had to complete in 20 minutes. The questions were all in Japanese, and answers needed to be in Japanese. After the test was over, a master of ceremonies shared the questions with the audience.

Obviously, some questions were more challenging than others. One audience member, Zhang Jie, a 23-year-old student from Shanghai who came to cheer his two classmates at a language school in Tokyo, smiled after hearing the first question, “What is the name of the lead character in the popular anime ‘One Piece’?”

“I know that one!” he said with excitement. “The program is very popular in China, too.”

Zhang, who speaks fluent Japanese, looked a bit frustrated at another anime question: “What is the ‘real’ name of the lead character in Crayon Shin-chan?”

“Ah, I don’t know what he is called in Japanese.”

Then the next question left him completely clueless: What is the national bird of Japan? 1. kiji (pheasant) 2. uguisu (bush warbler), and 3. toki (crested ibis)

“What’s kiji?” Zhang muttered. “Not a crow, I guess. . .”

“These questions are hard for us, too,” sighed Yuko Kado, chief instructor at Toyo Language School, who came to cheer the school’s duo contestants from South Korea. “This is not a test of your Japanese-language ability.”

But contestants on stage — most of them in their early 20s and first-year or second-year students at Japanese- language schools — looked fearless.

As the day progressed, the contestants grew more serious and competitive. Cheerleading from the floor also became intense, with responses changing from cries of “Yeah!” to shrieks and screams.

Eventually, participants were whittled down to 10 finalist teams. By then, contestants became so anxious to beat others that many started hitting push-buttons on the table before the questions were finished, despite repeated requests from the MC to calm down.

MC: “The biggest lake in Japan is . . .”

Team A: “Shiga Prefecture!!!”

MC: “That’s right! The question was, ‘The biggest lake in Japan is Lake Biwa. Which prefecture is Lake Biwa in?’ “

Of course, the high-speed guesswork did not always work.

MC: “This is a multiple-choice question. Which happens to have the same name as (then) U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama…”

Team B: “Toyama Prefecture!’

MC: “Well, we were going to ask you to choose the right number. One, Kochi Prefecture. Two, Akita Prefecture. Three, Fukui Prefecture. So the correct answer is three.”

In the end, though, fast-thinkers proved to be the winners. South Koreans Ju Eunji and her pal Kim Jina, whose competitive spirit stood out from others throughout the competition, won the contest. The duo, who attends TOPA 21st Century Language School in Tokyo, said that they did cram for the contest for three days. Yet they said they had never expected to win it.

As the two received a trophy and a certificate for the ¥500,000 prize, they stared at each other in disbelief.

Interestingly enough, they were not as fast when it came to deciding how to use the prize money.

“We will treat our friends from the school to a yakiniku (grilled beef) restaurant,” Ju said excitedly after the contest. A few seconds later, she seemed to have changed her mind. “We’ll send some to our parents and save the rest.”