Sacred Ceremonies of Fat Athletes and Effeminate Grandfathers
Lately I’ve been thinking about my childhood and all the free time I had. Once, when I was 8 years old, my best friend went out of town for the weekend and I spent half my time alone walking in circles around the house. I played a handful of Super Nintendo games over and over, and when I wanted some sun I ran around the backyard fighting dragons and opening treasure chests in my mind. I spent two thirds of my time in elementary school classes sketching out my own games, reading stories or thinking about reading them, and testing how far back I could lean in my chair before it fell over.
It would be nice to get some of that time back. I’m in the middle of eight months with plans for every weekend, and I feel like I’m careening downstream. But most people would say I’m actually taking it easy, and really I have nothing to feel sorry about: my job is to teach English to children in the Japanese countryside, and on weekends I travel, attend cultural events, and receive invitations to dinners and wedding parties. I just feel pressed when I want more time to, well, study and write emails.
Mottai nai is Japanese for “don’t let it go to waste,” and I hear it a few times a day. That’s how I approach my past and future now. No experience is wasted if you use it later. A lot of kids played as many video games as I did, and as a teacher, my bad experiences as a student have served me more than my good ones. People who while away their time on movies and TV shows, like my students, can get pop culture jokes out of it, so how much more could I learn from the 300 things happening to me this year? None of this is making me any money, but…I’m alive!
Research Classes: Here’s a practice we should bring to America, since it makes instructors more accountable for how they’re spending class time. Every year, a teacher has to run a class in front of all the other teachers, who then critique it. A couple times a year, school is held on Saturday, and the parents come see their kids’ homeroom teachers at work; then they all have a conference. Sometimes, experts on the subject from other schools come in, as well. Every couple years, the Board of Education pays a visit. Every five years or so, teachers from the entire school district descend on your school. I have five schools, so I helped prepare and perform about eight different English classes for guests this year. Even if teachers spend an artificial amount of time preparing for these particular classes, the teachers and parents can spot problems in their techniques and critique them.
Home Visits: Here’s another good practice: in the first month of the school year, each homeroom teacher takes several weekday afternoons to visit the home of each of his students and get to know the parents. This makes it easier for the teachers to understand their students’ family lives and for the parents to get to know the teachers.
Thanksgiving: Twenty-five foreign teachers, not all of them Americans, had a potluck in the city. I brought the salad. We cooked a couple turkeys imported from Costco, American grocers’ gateway to Japan. We don’t have turkey, cheddar cheese, or breakfast cereal here, but I don’t miss them anymore: out of sight, out of mind. We thanks and enjoyed our little community.
Peach Boy: Each elementary school has a talent show of sorts. Instead of solo performances, each class runs its own 15-20 minute presentation. It could be a musical, a play, or a Powerpoint presentation. It could be about their town, vegetables, their grandparents, their dreams, the alphabet, environmentalism, a moral: because so many homeroom teachers create their own presentations, no two are alike. A couple classes talked straight to their parents, thanking them for giving birth to them and raising them, showing their baby pictures on Powerpoint and talking about their dreams for the futures. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Speaking of dreams, what do my sixth graders want to be? Here are some sample answers: baseball/basketball/soccer player, farmer, flower shop owner, wedding planner, architect, public servant (“because it’s a safe job”), teacher, doctor, beautician, truck driver, pastry chef. The most glaring omission: businessmen.
A 3-student first grade class did a musical about two kids flying around the world with a cloud for a day. Almost all their parts were solos! In their goodbye song to the cloud, they said they’d never forget her, and they asked her to come back and see them again some time. I teared up. It happens a lot when you travel: you meet the perfect person for the moment, and you spend an hour or a day together, then trade contact info and hope you’ll see each other again, but it isn’t meant to be.
Two of my sixth grade classes performed plays in English: a teacher wrote a script for the well-known story of Momo Taro, literally “Peach Boy.” Here’s the scoop: one day, a childless old woman is washing clothes in the river when a huge peach floats down to her. (The peach is a symbol of fertility. It looks like a woman’s hips, and “peach” and “hips” are even homonyms.) She brings it home, and when her husband returns from chopping firewood, they slice it open – and Peach Boy jumps out! They adopt him, and he grows up to be “a very powerful boy, indeed!” He tells his parents he wants to go to Demon Island and conquer the demons there. They protest that it’s too dangerous, but he throws a tantrum, so they give in and send him off with kibidango (small rice cakes) to fill his stomach. He trades in his rice cakes to a dog, a monkey, and a bird for their companionship, and together they storm the island, conquer the demons, loot their treasure, and return home as the Number One Boy, Dog, Monkey, and Bird in all of Japan!
I proofread, and the kids memorized their lines and made props and posters with Japanese captions for their parents and grandparents (who all know the story already). I took the stage in the Third Act as the leader of the demons, dressed in all black with a mask on. “MWAHAHAHAHAHA!” I bellowed ten times louder than anyone in the history of Tensui performing arts. “NEXT, I’LL FIGHT YOU!” I challenged my 12-year old peach-fuzzed rival. We did battle with cardboard swords, and as he took out my limbs I kept lunging at him like the Black Knight from Monty Python until finally giving up and promising not to do bad things ever again.
Sumo: I saw two sumo tournaments in November. The first was for the county’s elementary school students. It was a cold, cold day to be an 8-year old boy in a loincloth, but the kids enjoyed performing in front of hundreds of people, and in the afternoon, the professional wrestlers came to the temple to tutor them. A couple weeks later, I went north for the Grand Sumo Tournament of Fukuoka.
What’s it like? An all-day ticket costs $40 for a walk-in and over $100 for the better seats, which fill in the afternoon. The stadium holds a couple thousand people, and it’s a popular TV sport. Only the upper-deck seats are stadium chairs; the better digs have Japanese seat cushions. There’s a lot of money in it now, but sumo is fundamentally performed to honor the gods. Before doing battle, the wrestlers purify the ring with salt and sake; the referees dress in bright, colorful robes otherwise seen at festivals; there are drums and cymbals; the announcers sing the names of the competitors in ancient Japanese style. Before each block of matches, the wrestlers make a circle and do a Shinto dance together, and the reigning yokozuna ritually close each day’s matches. Wrestlers live together in stables (training communities) and wear traditional clothing when they go out on the town. They have their own individualized, colorful, occasionally corporate-sponsored ceremonial robes: the highest-ranked European adorns himself with the EU flag, for example. The build-up to each match, as the wrestlers glare and throw their manly auras at each other and get the crowd buzzing, can be as enthralling as the match itself. They say a wrestler can win or lose a match before it even starts.
How big are they? Sumo wrestlers are over six feet tall, and they weigh in at 250-500 pounds. There’s only one weight class, and you lose if you fall down or are pushed out of bounds, so weight is crucial. They “grow” by eating huge bowls of vegetable soup and then sleeping soon after. Matches often end within a minute: two minutes is a marathon for these boys, and if it goes that long they’ll lean against each other to catch their breath sometimes. But as big as they are, they’re still great athletes. There’s great variety among the wrestlers’ bodies and styles, and the recent Mongolian champions have been smaller, quicker, and more creative than their rivals. If you aren’t agile, you won’t get very far, and this is even more true for wrestlers than it is for NFL offensive linemen. The biggest boy in the circuit, at 600 pounds, is Yamamotoyama (his stage name means “the mountain in the center of the mountains”), but in the match I saw, he fell in ten seconds. His opponent sidestepped him at the start, and he lost his balance and flopped to his stomach.
Who are they? Futenoh (“King of the Heavens”) is only an upper-middle class wrestler, but he comes from my neighborhood, and he has the most popular blog! The two yokozuna were Mongolians: Asashoryu (“blue dragon of the morning”) and Hakuho (“white phoenix”). The current hot property is an Estonian named Balto. The Japanese are developing an inferiority complex about their homegrown sumo wrestlers, but Hakuho and Balto are still popular because they’re nice guys. Bad boy Asashoryu’s career is over now. He won the third-most tournaments in history, and he was still in his prime, but he was forced to retire this January after he slugged someone in a Tokyo bar one night during a tournament. Because of the religious element, sumo wrestlers are held to a higher standard than others. NBA Great Charles Barkley threw a guy threw a bar window once. Larry Bird once got in a fight that left him with a lacerated hand in the middle of the NBA Finals. Ray Lewis was almost charged with murder for his own bar incident. None of them were even suspended.
How is the sport organized? There are six tournaments, each in an odd-numbered month, three of them in Tokyo. Tourneys are fifteen days long, running from Sunday to Sunday with eight hours of competition a day, progressing from the novices in the morning to the big tickets at 5 PM. Each wrestler has one match a day, with his opponents determined by his rank, and the winner receives prize money. The wrestler with the best cumulative record wins, with playoffs in the 15th day to break ties. Usually one of the yokozuna wins 14 or 15 to win it all. Each wrestler’s performance factors into his ranking (and seeding) for the next tournament, which determines his opponents and also the amount of money he earns for victories. If you win a majority of matches you’ll be promoted, and if you lose a majority you’ll be demoted. Anyone who can defeat a yokozuna gets to perform a special victory ritual.
If you ever visit Japan, do yourself a favor and feast your eyes on these corpulent kings of carnage.
Kabuki: Tamasaburo, travels the country renovating old kabuki theatres and performing in them. My friends and I paid a princely sum to witness his dancing. Kabuki, like sumo, is an offering to the gods. Since Tokugawa, only men have been permitted to perform it, in order to limit licentiousness in the theatre district. So the male main character dresses, makes himself up, and acts just like a woman. Sixty years old is he, but dressed up and painted, he looks and acts more femininely than most of the female dancers I’ve seen.
He was so elegant. He moved inches at a time. No one said a word the whole hour: if you took your focus off him for a second, you’d miss something. Decades of studying motion were distilled into simple gestures. He performed costume changes on stage without lifting his arms over his head: a step here, a tug there, and he’d unravel a complex white robe to reveal a sparkling golden one underneath. We’re all physically capable of moving that way, but we aren’t mentally capable.
Kabuki is spellbinding, but you might fall asleep the first time you see it. I dozed for a minute, myself. As Americans, we’re totally not used to this kind of entertainment. Our style is Cirque de Soleil. There’s a massive stage with a myriad of dancers doing death-defying acrobatics. Tempos are fast, and performers are beautiful. Bright and lush music is pumped in through the speakers, and the special effects, props, and transitions would have been impossible twenty years ago.
Kabuki is comically different from that. You could cross the stage in three bounds, and I’ve seen high school productions with more complex sets. The script is long, but the language is so antiquated, and the lyrics are wailed in such an elongated manner, that no one can understand them. Humor is manufactured from chains of puns. The accompanists are clearly visible, playing period instruments on the right side of the stage. If you’re a guitarist, it’s all about plucking and humming spookily. And the tempo! If the American metronome beats 120 times a minute, the Japanese heart rate is 50. The first beat kabuki musicians learn goes like this: COWBELL…(rest)…(rest)…(rest)…COWBELL…(rest)…“WOOOO!!”
There was little “action” as we understand it. Most of the action occurred in the very last minute, when Tamasaburo, the beautiful woman allowed by the not-quite-pious priests to enter the temple and perform a sacred dance, revealed herself as a demon, climbed the bell, and overthrew the temple. Then the curtain fell. We went home happy. It was a different kind of beauty.
It’s humiliating to be huge unless you’re a sumo wrestler. It’s awkward to be a woman in a man’s body unless you’re a kabuki dancer. Whatever talent you have, offer it to God, and it will become pleasing to other people. Don’t let it go to waste.