It's all very well for The Belated Birthday Girl spending several years of her life studying the Japanese language, including three months last year at a college in Sapporo. Most of us don't have anything like that level of dedication, and are looking for quick-fix cheaty solutions. So each time we travel to Japan, I usually try to find some crash course method of learning Japanese beforehand: be it the Lonely Planet Japanese Phrasebook, Japanese for Dummies, Teach Yourself Instant Japanese or Earworms Rapid Japanese. All of them have taught me a couple of phrases apiece, but weren't much more help than that.
But why did I assume in a post-literate age that books or CDs could do the job, when a ten-minute TV programme is probably more my intellectual level?
The Belated Birthday Girl used to be a big fan of the NHK World channel when it started airing on Sky TV in 2008 - with its mixture of untranslated hourly Japanese news and subtitled factual programming, it was the perfect combination for someone with a keen interest in the country's language and culture. Sadly for her, all that changed in February when NHK World completely revamped its format to compete with the other satellite news networks. Its target demographic moved away from Japanese expats wanting news from home, and towards Westerners curious to discover Japan's viewpoint on world events: the result being that the channel's Japanese language content dwindled to almost zero overnight. But that probably explains the appearance of Nihongo Quick Lesson in the schedule around the same time. Like its much filthier English equivalent One Point English Lesson, NQL is a simple ten minute programme that picks out everyday useful Japanese phrases and finds memorable ways to hammer them into your brain.
NHK World has an NQL YouTube playlist with very brief clips - they illustrate the sort of phrases covered, but give you no feeling for the show's overall format. So let's set the scene. In the middle of a green-screen Japanese fantasy backdrop, we're introduced to our host Rena Yamada, and Mr K the CGI robot. Rena is cheerful, nice to look at, and does a good job of holding the show together. Mr K, on the other hand, is a dick. Despite being the programme's self-appointed language guru, he's a Turing Test flunker who does nothing except agree blindly with anything Rena says, or erupt in a shower of sparks wherever she asks him a question that's off the curriculum. At these points, Rena hands over to the real language guru on the show - the amiable Professor Hideho Kindaichi, who fulfils a similar role on numerous Japanese gameshows like a less punchable Giles Brandreth.
Each show focusses on one key phrase, and uses a series of short skits to demonstrate its use. The skits feature Paul, an office worker over from Canada ("I've been in Japan for aboot six months now"), played with just enough overacting by actor/model/whatever Jeffrey Rowe. The sketches are effective, but the tiny amount of character information they include forces you to make up Paul's backstory for yourself. What does his company do, exactly? What's the deal with his rarely-seen girlfriend? And why does his landlady keep bringing him presents and looking at him like that?
In between the sketches and Rena's links are some other useful bits and pieces to break up the flow - as you can see, it's pretty busy for a ten minute show. Even a seasoned student like The BBG gets some interest out of the presentations on onomatopoeic and mimetic words (such as 'wan wan' being the Japanese for 'woof woof'), and the counting words used for different types of objects. If there's one segment that doesn't entirely work, it's the one involving a character called Kanjiyama Mime (who's actually Takeo Fujikura from the renowned Kanjiyama Mime company). The use of mime to illustrate additional new words is a nice variation, but too easily prone to ambiguity. For example, in one sketch he performs various types of movement and follows them with the word 'tomarimasu'. I'd therefore assumed this was the verb 'to move', but The BBG assures me it's the verb 'to stop'. Imagine if you were in Japan and had to tell someone to get out of the way of a speeding car! That would make Kanjiyama Mime an accessory to murder, I believe.
There are 30 episodes (so far) of NQL available, and each one's currently being broadcast on NHK World three times a weekday at 1815, 2015 and 2215 BST. If you've got Sky, you can see it on channel 516, or you can watch it live on the web at the NHK World homepage. Either way, it's worth hanging on after the show for the 5 minute followup Sense Of Japan, in which a young American student is patronised by a father-and-daughter team for not understanding matters of Japanese etiquette.
Meanwhile, The BBG and I have already moved on. We're now attempting to learn Chinese from the equivalent CCTV programme, presented by a man who's apparently the most famous Canadian in China. Those Canadians obviously know a fair bit aboot Asian languages.