My Students, The Gladiators

Hi! Sorry if I’ve been hard to contact. My college laptop’s LCD screen broke a couple weeks ago, so I can only use the computer at work. This is not as restrictive as you’d think because my single male colleagues work unbelievable hours, so I can do personal stuff after I clock out, but it’s still less than ideal. I won’t get a new computer until September. I’m going to be traveling all over the country the next three weeks, two of them with my family, and after that I’m going to Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan for the last half of August. The third week of September, I’m visiting South Korea. If you need to reach me, email my cell phone at james.michael.smyth@docomo.ne.jp, but please send messages in the evening because I’m 14 hours behind, and your morning/afternoon is my night time.

Japanese summer vacation began the day before yesterday, July 22, which is about one week after American kids start panicking about where the summer has gone. Class resumes the first week of September. In theory, our kids have been learning a lot while your kids have been sitting around forgetting things, but I’m not sure the Japanese spring trimester qualifies as “school” in the strict sense. May is the Sports Festival, June the county tournament for all team sports (with subsequent state tournaments in July and national tournaments in August), and July the school swim meet. The elementary school kids have kept a balanced schedule, but the junior high school kids have been working out until 7 or 8 PM six days a week for the last three months. Some teams have even been here until 9, flagrantly breaking state board of education rules, before. It’s like a nuclear arms race between junior high schools – “If Tamana JHS is practicing until 8 PM, we have to do that too!”

During summer break, the 80% of the kids who are in sports clubs will keep coming here six days a week to practice all day long. So they are young gladiators, and all the anime/manga/video games starring 14-year old Japanese kids who save the world are totally realistic, but their homework is too light, and they’re too tired to focus in class. The last day of classes before summer vacation was really telling. Usually, this is the most fun day of school, because the kids are really buoyant and excited as they imagine all the things they’re going to do with their free time. But my junior high school students were as meh as always. They said that since they have sports all day and homework over break, there’s no such thing as summer vacation for them. The teachers say things always like this, and they seem to be split fifty-fifty on whether all this work is a good idea, but this is the way things are in modern Japan. There’s a mysteriously passive vibe about how major decisions here, and it goes all the way up to the Diet. It’s like, “I don’t know who decided this, but it’s the way things are so we’ll have to deal with it.” One teacher said to me, “When I was a kid, I spent all summer playing in the mountains and river! But now, the kids are always here at school!” I replied, “But that’s because you tell them to come here, right? So which system do you think is best?” “Hmm…probably the river.”

I’m looking forward to fall trimester, what with the English Speech Contest and the Culture Festival. It’s the only month when culture is more important than sports. Here at Tensui there are no clubs besides sports clubs, so October is the only month when most students devote time to extracurricular time to plays, poetry, music, art, and the like outside of scheduled arts classes.

That said, my students are handling their challenges really well. First I should talk about Sports Festival, a unique and ancient Japanese school tradition. You can tell how old school it is because in the opening ceremony, all the students march onto the field in lockstep behind a flag-bearer, lined up in units by grade. The junior high even had a segment where the students, ran, jumped, and moved in unison in accordance with the whistle and hand signals of our gym teacher, a young rugby player who looks like a tree trunk. During practices, the teachers shout instructions on them over the loudspeaker under the blazing sun. So the next time you place a wager on how many five year olds you could take in a fight (http://www.howmanyfiveyearoldscouldyoutakeinafight.com/), make sure they’re not Japanese.

Sports Day is devoted not to Western sports, but rather to various traditional team competitions – tug-of-war, chicken fights, potato-sack relays, and such. The kids are divided into red teams and white teams, and at the end one side or the other is declared the victor. The most incredible part from a physical perspective was group gymnastics: the kids do handstands and tricks and human pyramids I’ve never done in my life, let alone in gym class. The most interesting cultural section was the cheerleading section. Both teams devise routines with rhythmic chanting, drumming, and dancing to boast of their strength. The junior high students sit in the stands with colored towels and create words and pictures on cue, like the crowds at Harvard-Yale games. After the points are tallied, the losing team often cries. The ending is taped and shown on video at the commencement ceremony in March. I would cry too if I were doomed to look like a loser at my own graduation!

One week after returning from China, I ran the mile in the junior high school sports festival, and I finished ahead of the 7th and 8th graders but behind the 9th graders. That festival was on and off due to rain all day, which was thrilling in its own way. The red and blue teams both picked role models and painted giant 25×10 foot pictures of them. The red tam mascot was Daisuke Matsuzaka, and the blue team’s was Barack Obama. Sorry, Barack – in the end, they let you down. But your serene visage, mounted in the rafters of our school gym, continues to give hope and comfort to us all.

I quite enjoyed square dancing with the 9th graders. I took the girls’ part to fill in for an absent student, and I was dancing really well if I do say so myself, so I gave the boys some ambiguous feelings. In classic East Meets West style, the first tune was from “Oklahoma!” and the second was Tensui’s traditional “Tangerine Dance,” the song played on an audio tape and performed by students at all the town’s schools for who knows how many years. The dance is designed to be performed with ribbons, but we pantomime the whole thing now. So the kids whirl around with imaginary ribbons. It’s definitely one of those things the kids don’t “get,” but their grandparents do.

I enjoyed the elementary school festivals, all held on the same day two weeks later, even more. One big reason is that I didn’t have to run a mile against kids who work out 4 hours a day, but another is that the activities were really family-oriented. There were inter-neighborhood competitions to see which 10-person team could pull off the most successive jumps on a jump rope. The winning team did 13; the teachers’ team did 0. (That teaching staff lost every single competition because of the school nurse! It was so funny.) All the schools had relays in which kids and parents teamed up to do fun things like running through obstacle courses, sticking their faces in flour to find cherries inside, and carrying each other on their backs. At one school, a bunch of fathers dressed up in superhero costumes for their race. It was heartwarming to see fathers and children photographed together, beaming through the pie in their faces, after the races. Having a close family is the best reason to live in the countryside. Two of my best elementary school students are raised by three people: two grandparents and a very young single mother who moved back to the country to raise the child. I’ve done a lot of thinking about the redeeming value of children. I don’t mean living vicariously through a child: “I may not have won the state championship, but my kid sure will!” is so small. I mean that even if you didn’t get to live where you expected, or you didn’t marry the person you expected, or if a teen pregnancy short-circuited your life plan, the child that came from those imperfect circumstances is beautiful and has infinite value. Regardless of the failures of your life, you can be totally in love with that child and feel happiness whenever you see how happy he is. If you hadn’t had that child, he would never know the beauty of life. So your life won’t amount to everything you wanted, but it will amount for something.

Two weeks after elementary school sports day, we did the whole thing again, this time for all the townspeople. So I ran in relays, did tug of war, and met tons of grandparents, many of whom, naturally, knew my South African friend Azwi. (By the way, Azwi has now safely returned to South Africa for good.)

Our baseball team won the state tournament in June, and they won the county tournament after that, so they can go for another state tournament next week! The 9th graders are a fantastic class, but the lynchpin of our team is without a doubt the pitcher, Masaya, who is the older brother of my autistic student from the Graduation email. American school teams have pitching staffs; Japanese teams have “the pitcher.” We send Masaya out there every single game, sometimes four 7-inning bouts in two days, and he mows them down. He wants to play in the national high school tournament some day, and he just might do it. He pitched a perfect game earlier in the spring. His innings count is typical for Japanese youth teams: in high school, Daisuke Matsuzaka threw tons of 160- and 170-pitch games. But even if that’s normal here, it’s alarming for me. Our 59-year old science teacher, a member of the “they play too many sports” camp, just told us he was a school baseball player himself, and he randomly blew out his shoulder doing heavy lifting when he was in his 30s.

Our tennis teams won the county tournaments, too, and they were a lot of fun to watch because they hit the ball so hard they knock players on the other team down. (You might remember our boys went to the national meet in March.) Boys’ volleyball came in 2nd place. Girls’ volleyball, boys basketball, kendo, and judo were average. Our girls basketball team would have been contenders, too, but our captain, the point guard, decided to trim her own eyebrows the week before the game…and according to state rules, that’s illegal…so she couldn’t play, and we got nipped in the first round by the eventual runner-up. And everybody learned a lesson: don’t shave your eyebrows. Even if all the high school kids you know are killing their sex appeal by doing it. I drove all over town on county tournament weekend and managed to see everything but volleyball. The state tournament is tomorrow and Sunday, but I’ll be traveling.

I’ve been in Japan almost an entire year now. If I hadn’t decided to re-contract, I’d be saying goodbye, and that would have been too soon, I think. As is, my second year will break down like so: traveling through the summer, studying through the fall, and finding my school in Taiwan in the winter (provided I like Taiwan in the fall).

At the elementary schools, English education has changed a good deal. It’s now mandatory for 5th and 6th graders, and Tokyo has sent everyone activity books and CDs to follow during class. As the first ALT under the new system, integrating everything took some work – they were lucky it was me because all the curriculums and lesson plans are written in Japanese – but things are going well now. The homeroom teachers are more involved in all the elementary school lessons, so there’s less for me to plan on the spot, and there are more resources available at all the schools. At this point, I think I get more out of elementary school than I do out of junior high because reading and speaking Japanese is a big part of the job there, and I’m in good enough shape to keep up with the kids or even wear them out!

One thing I won’t be worrying about this October is the Greatest Party of the Year held at my home every Halloween. I have one of the most spacious and most rural abodes in the prefecture, and so every year, over a hundred foreigners and Japanese assemble there in costume, get extremely drunk and/or find true love, and make revelry and incriminating photographs until morning. But my Board of Education has just told me that my owner’s brother is returning to Tensui and moving into my house. I’ll have be moved, but luckily, my host mother has offered to help build a small home for me just a couple minutes away from here. It’ll be too new for parties, but on the plus side I won’t have to take military showers in winter! It’s amazing how staying in touch with her day in and day out could turn out so well! Here, as in Spain, my host mother has been my best friend and has given me an extraordinary amount of help. Old grandmothers, we study abroad students salute you.

Just like my students, my body is changing, har har har! I’m 23 now, and my body is saying to me “OK OK this is good this is your peak enjoy it now just be nice to me.” The college 2-10 sleep schedule isn’t coming back. I wake up before 8 without fail, sometimes even at sunrise, and after spending all night being a conversational wingman for my friend Eugene when we visited a female teacher’s house for a recent party, I was tired for the rest of the weekend. I’m eating half as much as I used to. “Mottainai” or “Don’t let it go to waste” is a Japanese motto, and I was using that to justify Herculean amounts that no one else wanted, but I’ve since realized that eating food you don’t need is just as wasteful, so instead I pack the extras and take them home. Instead of frosted flakes, Japan’s only cereal, I have cucumber and eggplant for breakfast instead. Instead of making two plates of dinner, I make one. Thanks to all the vegetables my host family and others give me, I’m spending only $50 a month on groceries now. My predecessors have left dozens of bottles of alcohol around the house, but I don’t touch them. Drinking is locking food in your stomach and throwing away the key. As for exercise, my knees got too sore from running every other day on old shoes, so I’ve decided to swim every other day instead, and actually it suits me better than running ever did. All in all, I now weigh between 140 and 145 pounds. I last visited this weight range in junior high school, so most of you have never seen me this light. That’s too bad, because I feel great.

As my Japanese has advanced, I’ve come to appreciate what a unique social situation I’m in. The most interesting difference for me isn’t my race so much as it’s my age. Most of my friends are old enough to be my parents or grandparents. My peers seem weirdly younger than me. So I’m talking to people about their kids, about education, about how they’ve spent their lives. Maybe it’s because as a foreigner, I’m “outside” the system enough that people can discuss anything with me. Or else it’s just that if someone drinks enough he’ll talk to anyone about anything.

In case you’d like to do deeper reading about Japan (particularly since the application period for my program is getting closer), I’ve attached three different speeches about Japan I’ve written over the last year. Two, about Japanese Culture and Studying Japanese Independently, were proposals for speeches I could give to new ALTs at Tokyo Orientation. I wasn’t accepted. (By the way, I didn’t win anything in the JET Essay Contest, either, so Tokyo totally stymied me this year.) The third, about Japanese Office Culture, is for a presentation I’ll be giving at Kumamoto Orientation next month.

Ciao for now!

Explore posts in the same categories: Education, Interesting Places, Japan, Sports

One Comment on “My Students, The Gladiators”


  1. […] My Students, the Gladiators […]


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