The Naked Man Festival and Other Hot Licks
January is flying by. Every time I look at a clock, I’m surprised at what time it tells me. All the better: in insulated America, winter looks like a painting outside my window because it’s always 72 and bright inside, but out here, winter tunnels right down into my heart and stays there for three months. My numb fingers will gather some words from the keyboard for warmth.
Culture Day is my Japanese Christmas. The kids present everything I like – music, acting, art, speeches – from 9 to 5 on one Sunday of the year. They produce great things. One of our male ninth graders is a countertenor, and he stood proudly and securely in the center of the girls’ section for his class’s choral performance. A ninth grade girl’s speech was about special education and autism in particular. (My brother is autistic.) The girl who’s always bullied got her chance to shine, as she tapped out her annual solo piano performance with shaking fingers.
One ninth grade class did a mixed video/live presentation about how to help your grandparents who have Alzheimer’s disease. In the video, students played the roles of a grandmother (one of the strongest, manliest guys dressed in old lady drag), a middle-aged father, and a grandfather with Alzheimer’s and acted out different awkward situations such as Grandpa forgetting he’d already eaten and asking where his dinner was, going to the store and spilling all his money on the cash register, and wandering into a youth soccer game looking for his house. The dialogue was thick with Kumamoto dialect, which the elderly use almost exclusively. TV has filled their grandkids’ heads with standard Japanese, sadly. After video grandpa did something crazy, the kids would yell “Stop!” (literally) and take the stage to tell us about that symptom of the disease and the best way to handle it, which would then be demonstrated when the tape started up again. At the end, the class showed us their Tensui Orange Livestrong wristbands which they’d all acquired to remember the elderly.
But the most impressive production came from the mouths of babes, the seventh graders: they flawlessly performed a play entirely in 17th-century Tokyo Japanese with several lighting and music changes. It was a true story about a starving family in the midst of a famine in the Tokugawa Period. The parents are skipping meals so the six-year old boy and four-year old girl have enough to eat, and even so the family’s in such dire straits that the mother strangles the baby just after giving birth to it in Act II because she wouldn’t have been able to feed it. The father, at the behest of his farming community, goes to the capital to petition for tax relief for the poor, and in response the government crucifies all four of them together. The other townspeople make a beautiful memorial for the family, but the state’s thugs destroy it. So the townspeople rebuild it in the dead of night, over and over and over again. The kids brought us to tears. So much for sheltering them. Kids that age want to be adults, so let’s give them that respect and that responsibility. That’s how the social studies teacher ran those rehearsals.
The English Speech Contest
Last year’s contest was a triumph. “Teaching is the happiest profession!” I said after we won three trophies out of six. But no two school years are exactly alike. This fall, I had to visit four extra schools (for a total of 9) as well as move to a new house, and I took a day off for a trip to Korea, so I didn’t have as much time to practice with the kids as I wanted. Many of our best kids opted to do club sports, which they do six days a week all year long, instead of the contest. The ones who did participate were even busier than the kids who turned it down, but they were more willing to give. Neither of the other English teachers had time to practice with the kids, and they said that given the kids’ schedules I should only practice with one grade per day, not all three, so the evenings we did have were less productive. I made a schedule for each grade, but the kids couldn’t stick to it given the rolling boil of the school year, so I had to prowl the halls of school looking for people who were free, pull them aside, and practice with them. Allen Iverson would have enjoyed being on my team.
We got their pronunciation down, and the day before the competition they all finally had their parts memorized, but they weren’t expressive or exciting enough, and enthusiasm is the most important factor. The system wants to showcase kids enjoying using English. I was disappointed that we had to give our championship trophies and flags away. Time aside, I think I was too stressed and businesslike to transfer the necessary joy and expressiveness to them.
More importantly, the ALTs at all the other schools worked really hard this year to prepare for the competition. They and their kids were great! There were even two ringers, a Chinese seventh grader and a Japanese boy who’d lived in Singapore for three years. The boy from Singapore won going away, so my best student didn’t have a chance; the Chinese boy lost because his accent was so blaring to Japanese ears.
When I moved, our annual 100-person mixed-race Halloween Party was thrown up in the air. The problem: we couldn’t find a new location. Whereas American farmers build their houses right in the middle of their land, such that homes are miles apart, Japanese farmers cluster in neighborhoods and drive to the outskirts to work their land. So we couldn’t find a place, residential or otherwise, within 30 minutes of our city center that was both big enough and distant enough to host a LOUD ALL-NIGHT AMERICAN PARTY. My old house was on the outskirts of a neighborhood itself, but since the party had always been held there, my neighbors would grin and bear it and say “well, it’s only once a year,” which is exactly what I said last year, as I lied down on my bedroom floor with a toilet-paper roll for a pillow. “It’s a poor excuse for damming up a man’s septic tank and turning his bathroom into a moat every 31st of October. Bah! Humbug!”
Three weeks to the blessed/cursed date, the teacher in the most distant town came through! The new location is a struggling hotel/resort in the low mountains called Sekia Hills. We lost the house-party feeling, and the room was a little big and hot for one hundred people, but the party was still a success. The drive up the mountain, winding through a nightscape of deep forest and the ruins of fun never had, from boarded-up shops to a Western-style wedding chapel, set the mood. We rented their “International Mall” (a big empty room with a wooden floor) for the night for $200, charged $10 a head for unlimited beer, jungle juice, and oranges, and had DJs going until 3, using speakers borrowed from the hotel. The revelers could sleep at the hotel across the parking lot, then visit a hot spring and dine at an Italian restaurant.
This year, Santa Claus came for drink every time he failed to pick up a girl, and eventually he got really sick; our doorman did a Dick in a Box gag (to deposit your money, do Step 3); there were some X-Men, Dracula, a couple pirates, an iPhone, a vending machine, a Rubik’s Cube, a Luigi without a Mario, a doctor with hard liquor in his medicine box, a mad scientist who lost all his clothes somewhere halfway through, a 300-pound panda, and two gratuitously exhibitionist Ladies Gaga. The best costume, I thought, was the girl who wore shimmering blue clothing and carried a sparkling white umbrella with silver streamers dangling from it: she was a jellyfish. My friend Luke wore a full blue bodysuit covered in felt crustaceans: he was “The Sea.” (Last year he was The Milky Way: a black bodysuit covered in stars.) Two guys came as Mr. James, the buffoonish American face of McDonalds in Japan (One, Two: these commercials are funny and famous among Japanese people.) Oddly enough, I go by “Mr. James” myself (because foreigners are addressed by their first names here while Japanese people go by their last names), and I own that book, that shirt, khaki pants, and a pair of glasses, but I went as St. Francis Xavier, the first missionary to Japan. I carried around a Bible and a brown felt beard and hosted people. The Japanese people got the joke, and the foreigners didn’t, the opposite result of last year, when I was the guy in Magritte’s “The Son of Man.”
The tag line for our “spine-melting fusion of Western and Eastern witchcraft and tomfoolery” (my friend wrote a promo so blistering that it made me jealous) was “show up in costume, check your shame at the door, and party like you still have a soul and enjoy life.” And it was good. Our hosts were ecstatic that we brought so much business and asked us to come back. And once again, East met West to celebrate the most party-friendly American holiday.
I’M ON A BOAT
According to the ALT who lives there, Nagasu, a small city 25 minutes north of here, is one of the poorest cities in Japan. You couldn’t tell by looking at it, because it’s a nice place if not a happening one, so I think it’s a statistical trick. You have to surpass a certain population to be considered a “city”; otherwise, you’re a “town.” In order to trim the number of rural bureaucrats and the payments Tokyo is required to give small towns, the central government is giving tax incentives for cities and towns to legally merge: my city, 70,000-person Tamana, was five years ago one city and three towns, one of them 6000-man Tensui. Kumamoto City will get special status if its population exceeds 600,000, but since no one’s moving there, it’s growing the cynical way, by adding more and more of its neighbors to the bottom line instead. The big cities take on their neighbors’ debts and shore up their infrastructures and tax bases, which were sagging due to flight to urban areas. So most of Nagasu’s competitors in the misery index have been wiped off the map. Finally, there aren’t any wealthy people there to boost the per capita income, the way Hollywood celebrities balance out the poverty in South Central. Everyone’s in the same lower/lower-middle class boat.
Speaking of boats, Nagasu’s most famous business is a ferry which traverses Ariake Bay to the Shimabara peninsula of Nagasaki Prefecture. You ride across in your car. To promote the ferry line, one Sunday per year the company sponsors English classes on a boat! Last year, the TV cameras came, and all my friends got on the prefectural news! So I brought my Mario box to the poop deck and teamed up with Master Chef Huy, who plays the ukulele, to give the elementary school kids a teaching. I was at my totally-nuts-and-jumping-everywhere finest. After 70 minutes, the kids went up to the deck, looked out over the water, and entered the pilot’s room for a tour and a talk. I put on a borrowed Big Bird hand puppet everywhere and played with it so much that our minds melded. Big Bird got more English out of the junior high school kids than anything else! They loved him. But the elementary school boys really enjoyed beating him up. I guess that’s what you do for kicks in Japanese South Central.
As the boat took off, the foreign teachers introduced themselves (“HI! MY NAME IS JAMES! I’M FROM AMERICA! I’M 23! I LIVE IN TENSUI! SO I LOVE ORANGES! I EAT THEM EVERY DAY! DO YOU LIKE ORANGES? THANK YOU!”), the captain gave directions to the kids in intentionally American-accented Japanese, which got a lot of laughs. As the boat came into harbor, after we’d all said thank you and bowed, an awkward silence came on: the boat wasn’t finished just yet, and everyone was expecting us to do something. So, like T-Pain, we sang. Our large numbers (ten people) were our Auto-Tune. We did the choruses of “We Are The World,” a song so loved here that elementary school kids do it for music recitals, and “Let It Be.” Afterwards we received $10 Ariake Ferry Boxed Lunches and thank-you envelopes with $30 inside, a traditional surprise gift to volunteers (such as referees at sports games). Kings of the world were we.
Testing: One, Two…
I took a Chinese exam November 8th. My reading was much better than it was in Chinese 1 and my listening much worse thanks to two years in the miso pot. I’ll send a copy of the score with my application for National Taiwan University. I took the most difficult Japanese test available to foreigners on December 7th. Once again, 97% of the room was Asian, mostly Chinese; I sat next to a young Taiwanese woman who runs a Chinese-language school in Kumamoto City. She went to NTU and married a Japanese man who’d also come there to study Chinese abroad. Anyway, I think I passed, but I’ll know for sure in a month.
Two listening section dialogues were hat-tips to otaku. The video game one was a picture of Link on a world map surrounded with three locales: “Bro, I go to the marshes and then the castle, right?” “No, no, no, the marshes are a maze, so first you get the map from the town, then the sword from the Dead Marshes, and THEN you can conquer the castle!” Another was based on the dramas with giant robots so popular in anime. This one sound effects, voices, and names similar to Evangelion: “I’m the only one who can pilot this machine! I’m going to go out and save him!” “Asuka, stop, you’re too young!”…(sound of footsteps pounding away)…“NOOOOO!”)
Anyway, my next exam will be the Business Japanese Test in June, and then the top Japanese test again in July if I failed it this one.
The Naked Man Festival
Last week, port town Nagasu again made my world a better place. Their biggest festival, the Break the Magic Bow Festival, is held in the middle of January. Foreigners call it “The Naked Man Festival,” but the Japanese title is a swell euphemism itself. The town’s men strip into loincloths, huddle together skin-to-skin, and jump around like an NBA team during pre-game intros. One of the participants was cut like Michelangelo’s David and had cameras following him everywhere, so I think he was a TV personality. They yell “Banzai!” and “Graaah!!” and hoist each other into the air (more perilous than you can imagine given the risk of tea-bagging). It was really hot. So hot that the firemen followed the guys around to douse them in water, because that much touching for that much time leads to dehydration: there’s a reason they do this in the middle of winter. 45 degree weather was not cold enough. The man-mass circles the temple for an hour and then makes a masculine march to the sea, where they jump in and break their bows because it’s so cold. Usually, people don’t touch each other here; never give a Japanese person a BIG AMERICAN HUG because he’ll feel violated. So this was special. The gods were honored, I’m sure.
That’s all for tonight. You haven’t heard the half of fall semester yet.