Archive for December 2008

Autumnal Happiness

December 12, 2008

Enough about me! Let’s talk about Japan. In the style of formal letters, invitations, and even memos, I’ll lead off with some small talk about the season. We had a national holiday on the autumnal equinox, and the day after, the temperature dropped 10 degrees and stayed there. Not many leaves changed colors here, but it does happen in other parts of the country and has its own word (kouyou, same kanji as in Chinese poetry). We’ve been running between 40 and 60 degrees for quite a while, which wouldn’t be bad at all, except Japan doesn’t have central heating, and down here the houses aren’t even insulated. This makes life drastically different, and it’s the reason foreigners who live here say that despite the poetry and seasonal themes, the country only has two seasons, “too hot” and “too cold.” At school, only the staff rooms are heated, so the kids and I are bundled up from dawn to dusk. At home, I have a combo AC/heater in my room, but it doesn’t stop the cold from coming up through the floor, and outside those four wooden walls my humble abode turns into a refrigerator at night. Eventually I’ll be stowing things inside the fridge to keep them warm. As for bathing, if monks can shower in waterfalls, I can shower at freezing temperatures with water pressure no stronger than a watering can, but it helps me appreciate why the Vikings don’t make the same sacrifices for hygiene that I do. Luckily, two people who came to my party left their futons behind, so I’m sleeping under twenty pounds of linens, like the inverse Princess and the Pea.

Discomfort aside, fall is a very busy season for Tensui, as it’s the time of the orange harvest! According to the elementary school social studies book I was reading this afternoon, one which is specifically about Tensui and features a talking orange, this is the third biggest orange city in the fourth biggest orange state in Japan, and Tensui oranges are becoming “more and more famous.” Despite shipping thousands of tons to Tokyo and Osaka, there are not enough farmhands to pick this bounteous harvest and so many go to waste. A bag goes for two dollars at the grocery store, but I haven’t paid for them because just being at school, going to the Board of Education, or walking down the street will get me an offering of forty fruits. So oranges were a food group until my mouth started tasting like citrus all the time, which meant it was time to take it easy. One of my elementary schools has a mural of kids standing in a row holding hands, and the kid in the center has an orange for a head. That’s life in a town with a staple crop. It’s social currency for the women. It’s the kids’ favorite color. It’s on the men’s minds more than sex. It’s stimulating to live somewhere so literally fertile.

On the night of the October full moon, the town had its biggest festival of the year. A grand time was had by all! Our illumination came from a massive blazing bale of straw. There were a couple gazebos with people playing and dancing to traditional music, and there were several carnival junk food stands (takoyaki, yakitori, odango, edamame, candy apples, hot dogs, cotton candy, and beer). All the adults got to see the new foreigner. One of them really wanted to talk politics. He was a young father yearning for the old days of Japan, before the Meiji Restoration in the 1800s. Every one of my junior high school students came – they seemed oddly out of place without their uniforms – and three of them had big roles. One was a member of the “advancing army,” which in response to a trumpet call charged across the plaza to wrestle with some guys guarding a gazebo every ten minutes. By midnight, the fire was down to ashes, and the army, most of them by now quite drunk, stripped to loincloths to push a huge bail of straw/locomotive across the hot ashes. My other two students did a traditional sword dance in the early part of the program. At the end, to the beat of a taiko drum, they shuffled across the hot ashes barefoot three times each to prove their manhood. I saw it, and I shouted them support, but I was a bit more plaintive than usual, and I was dressed as a Japanese fireman: the volunteer fire department, custodian of this blaze, had been feeding me beer and sushi for two hours. This was my “drink to world peace with strangers” night, and I was really feeling the universal love as we discussed philosophy and Christianity to the best of our abilities. Beer can really make people honest and innocent again. And I still have that fireman’s robe.

So that’s the temporal season. How about the political season? I followed three big election cycles this fall: Japan, the United States, and Tensui Junior High School. Japan is a parliamentary state, and the same party, the Liberal Democrats, have ruled the country since 1955. However, the LDP is split into many factions so there’s always a lot of retail politics going on. Like the US Senate, the distribution of seats over-represents the larger, less densely populated areas, leading to Japan’s high farm subsidies. (So, Tokyo is propping up regions like mine!) The Prime Minister is chosen by the party, but there have been 46 of them since the Reconstruction so the position is not very safe. Koizumi, who you might have seen on TV when he sang Elvis Presley songs with George Bush, was a remarkable exception, though his support is stronger in the cities than out here since he was a pension and subsidy cutter, and we have lots of old people and lots of subsidies.

People typically get into politics through family connections. The new Prime Minister, Taro Aso, is literally connected five different ways [/source]: “His father, Takakichi Aso, was the chairman of the Aso Cement Company and a close associate of Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka [“Shadow Shogun,” “most influential member of the LDP in the ‘70s and ‘80s”]; his mother was Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida’s daughter [“his policies….became known as the Yoshida Doctrine and shaped Japanese foreign policy during the Cold War era and beyond”]. Taro is also a great-great-grandson of Toshimichi Okubo [“one of the three great nobles who led the Meiji Restoration”], and his wife is the third daughter of Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki [“He joined the Liberal Party in 1948, and helped merged it with another right of center party to establish the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in 1955”]. His younger sister, Nobuko, is the wife of Prince Tomohito of Mikasa, a first cousin of the Emperor Akihito.”

So it can be hard to feel like your politicians represent you.

Aso and I took our jobs at about the same time, but it looks like I’ll last longer. After some unnecessary belligerence toward the opposition, verbal gaffes, official scandals, hasty cabinet resignations, and of course the continuing financial crisis, Aso could really use a visit to Dumbledore’s office. I may not always communicate things clearly to my constituents, but I’m pretty sure my approval rating is higher than 24%. You can never say never, particularly about something that really has never happened, but maybe I’ll get to see the first transfer of power in Japan since the Eisenhower administration.

As for the American election, thanks to the Internet it sometimes felt like I’d never left. I don’t like having to read all the news in English, but the most important decisions and the best writers are in that language I use the time as a language break while I’m cooking and eating dinner. I voted in October through the auspices of Japan Post. Some Japanese elites are starting to suspect that America cares more about China than it does about the world’s actual #2 economy. I blame the negative demographic tide and the economy’s failure to fully recover from the collapse of real estate in ’90 (despite all the money the government put into infrastructure to create jobs!). As big as Japan is, it looks like it’s standing still, and its current leaders don’t seem creative enough to demand attention.

Despite that, the people of Japan have a fever, and the only cure is more Barack Obama! At the adult English conversation class I volunteer with every other Saturday, the boss selected him as the topic of conversation at the end of November. The topics before that were Autumnal Happiness, My Favorite Movie, and My Hobby). A third of the regulars didn’t come because this was a really difficult thing to ask of people who can only say “I can’t speak English.” The rest, however, were effusive in their praise of Americans for looking past racial differences (which don’t exist in Japan) and for embracing a fresh start after the disastrous George Bush. They said Obama seemed like a nice guy and a deep thinker, that he could do a lot of things to help the poor, and that hopefully he could bring world peace. Many people mentioned his slogan, “Yes We Can,” and this brings me to politics on the most local level possible, the class elections at Tensui Junior High.

The positions were the same as in American student government, and the personality types were the same, too: the popular kids running for the top spots; the clever ones running for lower or unopposed positions to pad their resumes; even the aggressive student government types trying to bully meeker students into quitting. The campaign had two stages: first, candidates, along with a friend or older peer who served as campaign manager, showed up early to school to greet the rest of the kids as they arrived (a big commitment since morning is the coldest time of day here), then made campaign signs after school. Then one afternoon, we had a conference in the gym where each candidate and manager gave speeches (hard limit of 3 minutes for each team), and then everyone, including the graduating students, voted for the next year’s leaders. A group of neutral students counted the ballots. Barack Obama was an inspiration to our young leaders! Unfortunately, the kid who looks just like him didn’t run on the celebrity of his lookalike, but “Yes We Can!” landed on a couple campaign signs, and one kid explicitly used the quote in his speech to help the students feel empowered to make their school better. Which is a nice thought, but as you may remember from my last email, Japanese school is much more structured than its American counterpart, so there’s not much margin for the student government to do anything. Every kid talked about the exact same thing: the importance of giving cheerful and energetic greetings to students when they come to school in the morning and to adults who visit. (Maybe the teachers told them to talk about this?)

Having both the candidate and manager give a speech shook things up; it was interesting to see managers grudgingly rushing to get their word in when their candidates went overtime. There was an unfortunate dearth of humor. Life is too short for so much earnestness! The one kid who was a joker made himself a legend. He had me from “My name is Sawai, and that’s the only thing from today’s speeches that you need to remember.” His rhythm was great, and his tongue-in-cheek shout-out to one of his opponents, who messed up his shoulder at volleyball practice and missed the election, was a perfect finish. He won, happily. There was a very tall boy with a deep voice and an undertaker personality who had the teachers in stitches when he gave his droll example of an “energetic greeting.” He and his manager looked like stooges, the only ones who lost their places in the middle of their speeches, but they won too. There was a second grade girl who entranced me with a voice that sounded like wind chimes. She won, too. One of my English speech kids spoke in way more complex Japanese than everyone else, but maybe the kids didn’t get it…he lost. Next year’s class president is a popular and cheeky boy who didn’t work as hard as his female rival, just like this year’s president.

After our festival of democracy, I was talking to the Social Studies teacher about how life is short so the students should have had more fun with the election. He brought up the most famous quote from the Heike, Japan’s Iliad: “shogyou mujou,” or “all is vanity.” This was a great cultural gem, so I figured I’d drop it on my fellow English teacher to surprise him. And so later I said with full confidence, “Mr. Tomita! Shojou mujou!” But this means “Young girls don’t last forever.” This is probably my best pronunciation flub of the season. A close second, though, would be the time I wanted to tell some fourteen-year old boys that the “Bakumatsu” (double meaning: Falling of the Curtain / End of the Shogunate) was the end of the “Edo Jidai” (Edo [Old Tokyo] Period) of history, but instead I said the “Bakamatsu” (End of the Idiot) was the end of the “Ero Jidai” (Erotic Period). (That’s plausible, of course, but what with the Internet it’s a while away.)

After the elections came midterms, state standardized tests, and then the eighth graders’ class trip to Okinawa. My students at both the elementary and junior high get amazing field trips to places like Nagasaki and Kansai, and we have a teacher trip to Osaka in Feburary! Despite all the cramming that comes after students turn the corner on puberty, they get a well-rounded education in the younger grades here. Our tennis team won the state tournament, and the coach, also the Math Teacher, is getting married tomorrow! The basketball club, which I pop in on every once in a while, is getting better and better.

Now we’re covering Christmas, the most popular Western holiday here and the one all kids wish they had more of in their lives. The three most popular Christmas songs among kids, by the way, are “Jingle Bells,” “Silent Night,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The three most popular among adults are “Happy Christmas (War is Over)” by John Lennon, “Last Christmas” by Wham!, and “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” I’ve brought my guitar to the elementary school to play some tunes, made a giant Christmas tree-shaped poster at the junior high with pictures of things like the Nativity, wreaths, Santa, and snowmen, printed and laminated these same pictures for the elementary. Also, I was good enough at Japanese to do Q&A with the elementary kids! Some questions were impressively abstract, like “What does Santa have to do with Jesus?” and “Why doesn’t it snow here?” (That was fun to teach.) Others were the classic scientific inquiries from the Santa skeptics: even the 6th graders wanted me to tell them if Santa really exists. I was a little shocked at how easily I could tell them that that’s a question of faith and continue spin the yarns about a magic bag that holds an infinite amount of toys and how he’s so smooth, he can even get into houses without chimneys (which is every house here). In my heart I must still believe in Santa Claus since the truth about him is a beautiful thing itself.

In pop culture news, anime, outside the unstoppable double bill of “Doraemon” and “Shin-chan” Fridays at 7, is in a down cycle. Live action dramas and sketch comedy are more popular. “Bloody Monday,” “Shooting Star Bond,” “Rookies,” and “The Celebrity and Poor Man Taro” are the biggest shows. The biggest pop song of the summer was “Kiseki” by GReeeeN, a love song with a nice family-oriented video that I’ll link you to. “The Look” for male stars is more androgynous than I’m used to; it’s odd to see school bullies on TV shows who are smaller than the average American kid. The star system for girls is as intense as ever. On the school music scene, my junior high school has been playing The Carpenters every other day for a couple months. There was one day, though, where the PA knocked me over with “Asturias,” the Spanish classical guitar piece. One of my elementary schools did an Okinawa folk song for Culture Day; another one has the kids singing a fun voodoo-ish Noh chant about front being back, light being dark, and so on.

Kashima Antlers won the domestic soccer league, and Gamba Osaka won the Asian Champions League. There was a big sumo tournament, but some recent match fixing and drug scandals have dampened enthusiasm for the sport. In baseball, the Yomiuri Giants (the Yankees of Japan) made up a 13-game deficit to the Hanshin Tigers (the Red Sox) over the fall to win the Central League division title, guaranteeing a bye in the playoffs and an automatic one-game lead in the best-of-7 division championship series. (That’s a clever way to reward regular season achievement, isn’t it?). The Giants defeated the Chunichi Dragons, last year’s champs, to win the pennant. Their opponent in the Japanese World Series (er, the Japan Series) was the Seibu Lions, who had earlier bested the wild-card Nippon Ham Fighters from Sapporo. The Giants took a commanding 3-2 lead, with Games 6 and 7 to be played in Tokyo, but they then choked away the title to Seibu, which plays in Saitama in the north. The Giants have fans everywhere, including my office, so I’m sure some people were disappointed, but people don’t talk pro sports nearly as much here as they do in America so it didn’t come up. Now the Japanese baseball league is busy trying to keep more players from defecting overseas. The most popular Japanese player, by the way, is still Ichiro. The most popular still living in the country is sexy half-Iranian Yu Darvish of the Nippon Ham Fighters.

In the recesses of Tensui, dodgeball remains the most popular sport. Here, catching a ball doesn’t eliminate the thrower, and if you’re knocked out, you get to go behind the other team’s territory and try to peg them with loose balls to get back on the field. This makes a game tough to win but means everyone is constantly involved, which is more fun. Kickball is another favorite, but the kids love bunting! The variant of tag played here is freeze tag, with a team of three or four in the role of oni/demon/”it.” At one of my schools, jump rope is really taking off. And every single playground is made of sandy dirt. It was the same in Jay Chou videos and “Oldboy” so maybe this is an Asian thing. In fact, in all my time in this country, I haven’t seen a single lawn tailored in the American style.

Ah, right: “Good luck!” doesn’t exist in Japanese. Instead, before Japanese people try something challenging, they say to each other “Ganbare!” which means “Fight!” I think this is more active. So, everybody, fight! I am still not done writing so expect one more from me next week. Considering the length of this, maybe you can get to that one by Christmas.

Finding a Purpose and Working like a Maniac

December 12, 2008

As you may know, people who apply for the JET Program cannot choose where they are going to live. Rather, the international ministry of the Japanese government and the various school boards around the country, in a manner that is never actually explained, place the 2000 incoming new teachers into positions around the country in June, a month before they depart for their new homes, two months –after– they accept the job, seven months after the due date for the application. As much as everyone dreams of working in Tokyo or Kyoto, at least 80% of the positions are in towns you’ve never heard of with populations south of 200,000 people.

When I applied, I was thinking “Osaka,” but I knew everyone would want it, so I asked for Nagasaki, the most Catholic city in the country. By JET standards, I got close: Tensui, population 8000, now officially a part of Tamana-shi, population 70,000, two and a half hours from Nagasaki, 5 hours by train from Kyoto, 9 from Tokyo. I was disappointed but later made peace with it: trying to come to Japan without knowing Japanese, I wasn’t entitled to anything. When I arrived, the reason I had been sent there would become clear.

I had the same questions before I went to Duke. What I found there were amazing friends, spiritual growth, and joy. The townspeople are very polite and considerate, and my kids are really fantastic by junior high school standards, but in terms of interests we’re not exactly a match either. This area is relatively famous for oranges, ramen, and onsens, but again, I wasn’t coming to Japan hoping to experience these things every day. Everyone joked with me (but really, they weren’t joking) about getting married over here, but there aren’t any girls my age here (or anywhere in rural Japan), so it isn’t even an issue. (Sorry!)

Having read Stuff White People Like, I know I can’t take myself completely seriously when I say this, but I think I’m a high-culture city type. The place that stimulated me the most was Madrid. I felt comfortable at Duke, I realized after graduation, because it was basically a city, cultural amenities and all. I’ve watched old Japanese movies that none of the other teachers have seen, and sometimes I know of famous Japanese authors that they don’t.

The Internet, since it makes news and culture instantly available, deletes most of that “I’m stranded here and have to turn inward for inspiration” sentiment that stimulated so many of the old Chinese poets. (Boy, my sentences are starting to get tortuous and Japanese…) Regardless, this town is a little distant. Being a half hour’s drive from the train station makes a huge difference: it means anything you want to do must be planned ahead, and there isn’t much being planned or performed to begin with. But I have found something to drive me. It flared the moment I was placed in Tensui and became terminal by the time I was wandering through seedy Tokyo trying to read all the signs It never leaves my mind for more than ten minutes at a time, even when I can’t do anything about it (like when I’m teaching English or writing these emails). My inspiration is learning Japanese. I want to be fluent, as in business-level, reading-novels good, by the end of July. Or even before then, so I have time to read some novels. I’m not sure where this skill will go; it just seems important for some mysterious reason. Did Mario and Final Fantasy surreptitiously hard-wire me? That would make sense if I still played those games. It’s a little fushigi.

I’m not sure how many white people have done this in a year before. Japanese is difficult! Maybe some people just can’t do it, and I can understand that: my brain’s reaction to a page of script is still “Why are you telling me I can read this?!” If reading English is like driving on a highway, reading Japanese is like slowing down to go pass through the construction zone. (Two months ago, it was more like driving past the scene of an accident.) Comparing my progress to the other teachers is pointless. Maybe they wanted to live in big city Japan when they came, but now they seem to have settled in to their lives. They’re still doing great things in their towns, and they have fun partying with each other, but they’re just not pushing themselves to learn the language. The ones who are better at Japanese than me now are the ones who have been studying for six, seven years. So I set my goals and design my studying all by myself.

One thing I’ve considered is whether time spent studying takes away from time spent adventuring. But I’m too distant to do anything on weekdays. There’s only so much you can get out of drinking with people you can’t understand and celebrating universal love and peace and promising to visit each other’s countries – that’s love that doesn’t last. I’ve lost a few weekends to studying, but in return, I’ve been able to have more fun and richer experiences with the people at school, where I spend most of my time. And if I want to ever live in big city Japan – I still feel a tug whenever someone mentions Kansai – I have to earn my way in with test scores. I’ll do heavy traveling when my family comes in June, when I’ll also understand everything I’m seeing.

My goal for the year is to pass the top-level Japanese proficiency test in July. This officially requires 900 hours of studying. On the way I decided to try the second-level test, which officially requires 600 hours, on December 7, after four months in the country. As you can see, the math is a little lopsided – I would need to do two thirds of the work in one third of my time here – but the lower tests are too basic to mean anything so I decided I’d take a chance. After the English speech contest, I learned something like 3000 new words and 100 grammatical expressions in seven weeks. I would have liked to practice for the listening and reading portions of the test, too, but I didn’t have the time. The paradox of practicing reading is that you have to understand what you’re reading first. A class can control your environment, so you can get your sea legs on simple canned speeches, but if you want to learn to read by immersion, you have to put in hard time.

The test was yesterday. The biggest surprise was the number of Chinese people in my testing room. They seemed to account for 90% of the participants in both of the high-level exams. They looked 29 but were really 22. “If you do not make anything of what you have, even what little you own will be soon taken away” came to mind, looking at that sea of people.

As for my score, I’d love to tell you that I blew it away, but the lack of listening and reading time caught up with me. The listening was TV/radio level fast, not conversational level; the reading was newspaper-editorial level, and I haven’t been reading newspapers yet. Vocab and grammar, thankfully, were not a problem. The passing mark is 60%. I’m confident in about 40% of my answers, and I was choosing between the best two or three answers on the rest, so with luck, I’ll break the tape. Either way, no problem – July is what counts. And now that I have the basic words, I can finally begin to read.

Sorry if this was too technical! There are cultural trends I’ve been thinking about, too, and I haven’t even told you about being Santa Claus, but given the length of this note I should probably stop, especially with so many people taking study breaks and not wanting to read about more studying. So you’ll hear from me soon, and until then, best of luck with everything! We’d say “ganbatte” here, but the two expressions are completely different. I’ll tell you about it next time.