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 LEARNING

Start brushing up on your kanji to prepare for the annual Japanese Language Proficiency Test, this year taking place on Sunday, December 3 throughout the country. Passing the coveted ikkyu (level one) is considered the ultimate mark of achievement for a non-native speaker, indicating a comprehensive level of fluency and a guaranteed boost on a resume. Those who want to take the test must apply in advance by September 5, and application forms can be picked up for ¥500 at many bookstores (see www.jees.or.jp for a complete list). Results will be announced mid-February.

For more information, call the Japan Educational Exchanges and Services at 03-5454-5577. NU

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Dr. Noguchi’s Journey: A Life of Medical Search and Discovery
by Atsushi Kita, translated by Peter Durfee (Kodansha International, ¥2,500)

When new bank notes were introduced last
year, it was a shock to bid farewell to Natsume Soseki, that grand homme of Japanese literature, from the ¥1,000 note and welcome in his stead Hideyo Noguchi. How could Japan, a leader in the field of hair maintenance, do business under the eye of such an ungroomed usurper? One suspects the increasingly unkempt Junichiro Koizumi had something to do with it.

No book (or person) deserves judgment by cover alone, and so I felt it only fair to set forth on Dr. Noguchi’s Journey. Biographer Atsushi Kita gives a detailed account of Noguchi’s voyage from rural poverty to international renown. Born into hardship in Meiji Japan, Noguchi’s young life spiraled further downward when a severe burn left one hand permanently misshapen. Surgery restored partial use of the injured appendage, but the stigma was lasting and drove Noguchi to compensate with intellectual achievement for what he felt he lacked physically.

The poor farm boy eventually became one of the world’s leading bacteriologists, working for a time at the Rockefeller Institute in New York. But his accomplishments did not come without a price. A penchant for drink and brothels frequently left Noguchi without even the means for daily subsistence, and the Japanese scientist relied heavily on the kindness of his mother and friends, who would go so far as to pawn their own treasured keepsakes to keep him in the black. The book is as much testament to the loyalty, trust and close- knit ties of rural Japan as any of Noguchi’s individual achievements.

The biography does not approach the entirety of Noguchi’s life at an even keel. Certain childhood episodes or scientific breakthroughs are described in minute detail (such as Noguchi’s onetime encounter with a ferocious dog), yet the introduction of Noguchi’s wife takes place in five brief sentences without prior hint or foreshadowing.

Fortunately, the author does not neglect to explain the reason behind Noguchi’s distinctive coif. In the words of one Viennese scientist, “You see how his hair curls up and sticks out from the top of his head? That’s how I know his greatness!” Frizzy-haired readers, take heart. Colette Randall

 

Tokyo Sightseeing
(Magazine House MOOK, ¥933)

I always feel sorry for tourists in Tokyo, wondering the streets looking bewildered, using guide books too try to comprehend the incomprehensible. This is not a city you can learn; it’s a city you live. Tokyo, for me, is not about the Meiji Shrine or Sensoji. Or other guidebook favorites. The Lonely Planet can point you to Kabukicho to look at the neon, it can even suggest somewhere to drink there, but it can’t predict the surprises that make Tokyo an experience as well as a destination.

The guidebook that best conveys the true scope of the city is Tokyo Sightseeing. In English with some Japanese, Tokyo Sightseeing is produced by Brutus, part of the empire of Magazine House, which also publishes Casa Brutus, Hanako, Tarzan and dozens more. Brutus and Casa Brutus are two of the Japan’s most stylish mags, and Tokyo Sightseeing is in the same vein: big on graphics, small on text and unrivaled in terms of content. Indeed, there are places recommended here—sento with a view, Japan’s coolest restroom, 24-hour kaiseki—that will be news to even the most seasoned Tokyo expatriate. Old-timers can even test themselves with the spot-the-old-plate-of-sushi contest. And, appropriately for a city where looking is half the fun, much of the 104-page book is given over to photographs, making it as valuable on a coffee table as in a backpack.

Tokyo Sightseeing was released in 2002, which means some of it is out of date (the much-missed Harajuku Aux Bacchanales, for instance), but Magazine House says it does not intend to publish a new edition, so grab one while you can. AV



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