Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ category

Don’t Speak of Cuts; Speak of Love

April 6, 2012

Spanish Business EuphemismsEuphemisms are especially frequent when the economy is bad. Photo by Samuel Sánchez.

Don’t Speak of Cuts; Speak of Love
Euphemisms have been part of public discourse ever since there has been public discourse, but times of crisis can bring their abuse to a comical extent or sometimes even a cynical one
El País: No digan recortes, llámenlo amor
By Amanda Mars, March 5, 2012

Never fear, my friends; no one is going to lower your salary. All that international organizations like the European Central Bank (ECB) are asking from Spain is a “competitive devaluation of salaries.” As you know, we are going through a time of crisis – or “severe deceleration” – and cuts – pardon me, we meant to say “reforms” or “adjustments” – are necessary in many places. But don’t put your head on your hands: Catalonia has absolutely not considered a co-pay for public sanitation; it is merely looking at the idea of introducing a “sanitary moderating ticket.” And the government has not increased income taxes – as they promised they wouldn’t during the election campaign – rather, the Vice President has made it clear that this modification of the IRPF consists of a “seasonal recharge of solidarity.”

They say that this period of “negative economic growth” (only alarmists hawk it as The Great Recession) has not given the same invoice to everyone; it has been pricier for the working class than for the wealthy and powerful. This is not only “the asymmetrical impact of the crisis.” Though workers continue to swell the ranks of the unemployed, it’s not because their companies laid them off, but rather because these companies are immersed in processes like “rationalizing the office network”: for example, when they fused their strongboxes.

Circumlocutions, periphrases, roundabouts, ambiguities, unintelligible jargon, unnecessary foreign words…they have a long relationship with power and seduction. The persuasive use of language has been part of the public discourse ever since there has been public discourse, and in this delicate frontier, and it dances on the thin line between makeup and masks. But the use of euphemisms intensifies in times of crisis. When all the news is bad, language abuse can verge on the comic or the grotesque.

The basic idea is that the important thing about a rose is its name, that things are what we say they are. This linguistic turn explains that language is not just a vehicle to express a previous thought but the formation of a thought in itself.

Or, to go all the way down the rabbit hole, calling something love convinces us that it is love, and not vice versa, and that’s why we say “I love you.”

“The War of the Words overpowers wars between policies and has an anesthetic effect, most of all during recession periods,” states Antón Costas, chair of Economics and Public Policy at the University of Barcelona (UB). “Euphemisms has that function, (we can’t call it a virtue,) of anaesthetizing, but from there we can abuse them in a cynical, crude, and even perverse way,” he adds.

The risk of this abuse, argues the chair, is that, as Newton’s Third Law says, every action creates an equal and opposite reaction. Or, to use a medical image, “we should take care with euphemistic language because these words can numb us for a time, but when the sick man wakes up and sees what happens, he could beat the hell out of us.”

For Darío Villanueva, secretary general of the Royal Spanish Academy (RAE), “the phrase “negative growth” is the height of all this, an anti-phrase that represents the absurd. It’s like saying “hot ice”. Poets can play those games and talk of the sound of silence, but as prose, negative growth is an anti-phrase.”

Luis de Guinos, when he took over as Minister of the Economy last December 26, gave the first demonstration of his language management style. De Guindos stated, without saying “recession” a single time, that Spain would enter 2012 with a “negative growth rate” that would “determine the profile into which we are going with greater depth” and that – why not? – it would be “relatively decelerated” (sic). But this should not be just an incentive – he said – to launch the “reform agenda”.

Soon after, he put one of his reforms in black and white. Guindos himself let slip that labor reform would be “extremely aggressive” in a conversation with EU Commissioner of Economic and Monetary Affairs Olli Rehn; his words were captured by cameras and microphones.

Fernando Esteve, Professor of Economic Theory at the Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM), reiterates that economics “is not scientific about usage; there are very clear elements of persuasion, and depending on how you express something, you can cause one impact or another.” For example, “you could call the same decision a savings method or a cut, and the sensation you generate is different: saving makes you think of something good and prudent, while a cut is a loss of rights.” Saving, when you put it that way, sounds more like love than reduction.

Every era has its fetish words. At the dawn of this crisis, it was no more than an economic “deceleration”, as ex-President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero pawned it. The real estate bubble – which was only recognized as such when it burst, as happens with bubbles – was only going to bring about “a smooth landing of prices”, to use the words of some developers.

Villanueva casts his view farther back: “During Francoism, we could also seem any euphemisms. Democracy, for example, was a taboo word, but in time it came into use. They said the regime was an organic democracy. What was inorganic was bad. Strikes were labor conflicts, and political parties were associations,” he recalls.

The risk of euphemisms – besides the risk that a user’s scheme will be exposed by a traitorous microphone – is that they lose their influence as time goes on. This is a theory of many linguists. “When people become so accustomed to a word that they immediately associate it with the concept it’s supposed to sweeten, it’s no longer a euphemism, and another word must be found to fill in for it,” explains journalist and writer Álex Grijelmo, president of the press agency Efe, who has studied the field of euphemistic language and gives some examples: “‘concentration camp’ was, in principle, a euphemism. It portrayed a remote place. Puta (“bitch” in modern Spanish) was used to avoid saying mujer (“woman”) in public.”

The media rides the euphemistic wave. “They are totally contaminated. They are now referring to information services when they are really talking about espionage,” he argues. In the economic camp, Grijelmo agrees that “I’m sure you could establish correlation between the GDP of a country and the use of euphemisms.” The author of books like La seducción de las palabras (The Seduction of Words) gives another example: a headline from the newspaper Diario de Burgos last November: “financial entities redefine their presence in small towns”. Or high-end fashion companies, which never announce “discounts” in newspaper pages, but instead “special sales”.

News reports refer to “encounters” with prostitutes and sometimes substitute the word “sex worker” for prostitute.

Political correctness in language has also lead to euphemisms like “developing country” rather than “undeveloped country”. Darío Villanueva mentions this and specifies that the key: “One way to confirm something is negative is to negate something positive.”

Economic language has been used for determined ends since days of yore, Fernando Esteve explains. “Think of all the wealth that a business creates, the entrepreneurial profits; they are called entrepreneurial surpluses, which would signify something good. But the profits for the workers are considered labor costs,” he points out. “Nobody wants to raise costs. That’s a common feeling. And we all end up in agreement that the more surpluses a business has, the better…We’ve already incorporated this into our language [and our subconscious as well],” Esteve explained. When we speak of education or public health, for example, we can forget that they are paid for with taxes.

The professor also finds a very persuasive bias or purpose in the use of certain metaphors. “When a politician or economist speaks like a dietitian, you should tremble in fear,” he says. “What he says is, ‘You have a lot of fat; you need to go on a diet, and then you’ll start to get better.’ If you give this image to citizens who don’t understand the economy, they’ll blindly believe that, in effect, they have eaten too much, and now they have to slim down, and that this diet, although it hurts, is the best thing they can do.”

The same thing happens with hangovers. Using this image for the crisis, in some way, puts the blame on someone who suffers, for being drunk. “For me, one of the most cretinous things about this crisis is the talk of hangovers. It implies that things are going badly now because of your excess, and we cannot fall for the tricks inside these metaphors,” he argues. Journalists, he critiques, “should stop carrying these facile metaphors.”

Technical terms can also make great allies for sweet talk. Referring to collective layoffs as “expedients for the regulation of employment” is a good example. Another is the “creditors’ competition”, which was a term a 2003 law chose for what was previously known as suspension of payment by a business, a much cruder and more explicit term.

Financial jargon, which is sometimes very complex, can also make communication hazy. Debt exposure and asset allocation often refer to real estate has been seized because the proprietors could not pay for credit. A little while ago, the airline company Spanair announced that it had seized operations because of “a lack of financial visibility”; that is to say, it didn’t have money, and no one would give it any more.

In this chapter of the interminable crisis, we never stop hearing the word “sacrifice” used for cuts to programs (seeking a “fiscal consolidation”). The European project is staggering because of budget disequilibria and sovereign debt crises.

It’s interesting to listen now to the Javier Pradera’s analysis published in this same newspaper August 1, 1993. The negotiations between government and social agents on an employment plan went beyond euphemisms. “The Byzantine wording the executive branch is using to convince Spaniards that convergence with Europe will demand effort but not sacrifice has nearly exhausted its reserves of verbal gunpowder,” Pradera wrote. “The useless semantic struggle to determine whether the rigor of the new government’s budgetary politics will lead to a cut in social spending sometimes distracts from the summertime blues, but it won’t do much to help negotiations progress,” he continued.

Miguel Boyer presented the budget like so May 17, 1983: “The fight against inflation will be facilitated by an attitude of salary moderation.”

This type of language is expressed not only by the lips of public powers, Antón Costas points out. “Corporations also use them when they have to defend certain pacts, such as those for salary moderation.” Moderation moderates: it tempers, tightens, and cleans up to avert excess.

Some debates and their linguistic resources are timeless. There will be more bad years, some melancholy poet said. Businessmen, on the other hand, evade “problems” in their interviews and instead speak of “challenges”. There will be cuts for some and adjustments, reforms, or fiscal consolidation measures for others, but a third group will call it love.


“This Crisis is Counterspiritual”

January 20, 2012

Álvaro Pombo
Álvaro Pombo, winner of the 2012 Nadal Prize.

“This Crisis is Counterspiritual”
The recent winner of the Nadal Prize calls for people to “take to the streets to denounce institutionalized egoism”
El País: Pombo: “Esta crisis es contraespiritual”
Carles Geli reporting from Barcelona January 7, 2012

Here he goes. Tireless, he cites quotes from one philosopher after another early in the morning although it’s been just six hours since the conclusion of the award gala for the 68th Premio Nadal, which he won for El temblor del héroe (The Shaking of the Hero), about the worries (or lack of them, rather) of a certain Román, a retired university professor who isn’t the least bit concerned about the misfortunes of others, as dramatic as they may be, and which he criticizes in one way or another. “I’d thought about titling it El furor heroico (“Heroic Fury”), in honor of Giordano Bruno, for that delirium to achieve divinity, beauty, the good, but I left it as it was,” drops Álvaro Pombo (born in Santander in 1939), who has an aquiline nose and a beard on a booming chin, a face like a reflected half-moon from a reflective short story; he has defined “the poetry of the good”, and it pervades his almost thirty titles. And he’s not tired of it all despite the limited effect his sermons have had on Spain society. “Yes, my Román is tired and frustrated with the world; I am not, which might mean I’m an idiot; I have spikes, but I enjoy good health, and perhaps that’s what lets me keep thinking about the Platonic world: I believe that we should do good, otherwise we’ll be unfinished creatures; the problem is that today we’re really installed in a philosophy of unfinished business, of letting everything flow really quickly, everything on the Internet…what I don’t know is how to redirect this; that’s why I write, because the novel is fizzy with its dynamite: you can do emotional experiments without causing too much damage.”

Pombo admits, nevertheless, that he feels “pretty much alone” in his crusade in Spanish letters. “I see it more in English fiction, in Ian McEwan, Iris Murdoch, Graham Greene…in Spain, perhaps the person who’s closest would be Javier Marías.” It could be that what Pombo has denounced many times is not alien to him: the predominance of the paralyzed intellectual, like Román, who feels “blocked up” after his retirement, “without feedback, flirting with boredom” and also a young digital journalist for a site symbolically named The Non-Current, “which could interview me, as well…yes, the intellectual paralysis of Spain is notable, and in part it’s because of our politics, which have intervened badly: our political discourse is paralyzing, as well, with the repetition of slogans and over-discussion of topics; today, here and in Europe, the conservative discourse seems less paralyzing – perhaps because it’s not monolithic? – than the social democratic movement, which has not thought to rethink labor and the duality of the rich and the poor…”

“We don’t have any intellectuals like Ortega y Gasset.” The author of The Platinum-Iridium Meter, a reader of essays, drops Ortega y Gasset’s name twice; he quickly clarifies that he also monitors two or three other good authors – “Villacañas, Pardo, and Marina”, but he does so in the context of a society where “we cannot make exquisite culture, where everything has to be divulged because 50% of youth would need someone to explain Plato and the steam engine to them.”

The economic crisis has not facilitated the solidification of the liquid society that Pombo has already advanced (“much earlier than Kundera and Bauman”) in Relatos sobre la falta de sustancia (Stories on the Lack of Substance) in 1977. The crisis has accentuated this: “this crisis is counterspiritual; the philosophy of the personal salvation of the soul rules over that of the city, and is so distant from that of saying that I don’t save my circumstances, I won’t survive…we can see it now: Ortega continues to be seminal.” Solutions? “I can’t accept everything as it is; we have to take to the streets and denounce it, but we can’t leave the discourse like this either; we have to get up, and to get lively, and that’s why I joined Union, Progress, and Democracy; for that and for Fernando Savater.”

Hard times require a different kind of literature. Pombo admits that he has changed his way of writing, shortening it, as if it were dictation. “Now I make my works much more brief; in Spain we have constructed a very large and heavy kind of fiction; The Shaking of the Hero [which will be published February 2 by Destino] will be a short novel, 200 pages long, to avoid becoming a sprawling reflection; it’s a bit like the works of Henry James, following the Borgesian idea of having self control and a powerful image,” he says while, without realizing it, he shakes the table. Like he shakes his readers.

大眾電信與人際關係 ~ Mass Communication and Interpersonal Relations

January 26, 2011





去年聖誕節,一個四十二嵗自己住的英國女生故意地過量用藥,同時在臉書上告訴她一千多朋友她正在自殺 。有的離她住得很遠的朋友擔心不過沒辦法救她。有些離住得較近的朋友卻不幫她忙,並回覆說她在騙她們,她很好笑,如果她想自殺她就應該自殺。隔一天她母親跟社區醫院才發現她的情況,不過,已經來不及了 。

上個星期六,一月八日,在亞利桑那州圖森市公共政治機會一個二十二嵗的男生突然向陌生人開槍。造成六個人死亡 ,包括一個九嵗的女孩子,以及十四個人受傷 ,包括一個美國眾議院代表。




Mass Communication and Interpersonal Relations
Author: James Smyth
Editor: Ji Shou-hui

Since we discovered how to produce electricity, long distance communication has become easier with each passing generation, to the point where even though I live abroad, I can chat with my friends at home every day, and I can see my father and mother’s faces whenever I like.  Many an iPhone user feels like the entire world is in the palm of his hand.

There’s no doubt that the development of mass communication has done many good things for us, but such a fundamental change in our lifestyles has brought its share of problems, as well.  Quite a few sociologists and writers believe that the use of mass communication devices damages our social skills and social cohesion; to put it simply, the more time we spend looking at screens, the less time we spent talking to people face to face.  If you don’t want to meet your neighbors or have close relationships with your family members, you don’t have to, because everything that you could want is on the Internet.  Some people go days without speaking.  Under this kind of social system, we don’t have a way of knowing who needs psychiatric care.  Some of these troubled individuals commit suicide or snap and injure others.

Last Christmas, a 42-year old Englishwoman intentionally overdosed, then informed her 1000+ Facebook friends through her wall what she had just done and that she was committing suicide.  Some people were worried about her but were too far away to help her.  Others lived closer, but instead of helping, they replied that she wasn’t serious, that she was ridiculous, or that if she wanted to die, that was her own choice.  A day later, her mother and the hospital finally heard about the situation, but by the time they reached her apartment, it was too late.

Last Saturday, January 8th, at a public political assembly in Tucson, Arizona, a 22-year old male suddenly opened fire on strangers.  He killed six people, including a 9-year old girl, and injured 14 more, including a U.S. Congresswoman. Political commentators ceaselessly debated the shooter’s political views.  In reality, you couldn’t understand his motivation just by understanding his opinions.  I believe his political views had very little to do with the attack.  According to psychiatrists with knowledge of the situation, he is schizophrenic.

He lived with his parents, and his classmates said he was a troubled person.  He seemed quiet, but he made the Internet his bulletin board: he posted recordings, writing, and the like online; his work made it clear that he was unstable, unsatisfied with the government, and able to use weapons.  But no one realized he was crazed enough to cause this tragedy.

We’ve changed very quickly from a local agricultural society to a global one, but in my opinion, we have to nurture local community spirit.  Mutual concern between neighbors was the safety net of rural society.

太陽的聲音 ~ The Sound of The Sun

November 20, 2010


The Sound of the Sun
There once was a boy who had been blind since birth. He couldn’t comprehend what the colors, shapes, and properties of objects were.
One day, he heard some people talking about the sun.
The first said, “It’s been raining the last few days, and the gloomy weather made everyone depressed. But today the sun came out, so we’re all feeling great.”
The second said, “It’s spring, so it’s not too hot and not too cold. The sunshine feels really comfortable.”
The third said, “But when the summer comes, and we’re out working in the fields, the sun will make us sweaty and uncomfortable, and we’ll want to get away from it.”
The fourth said, “Even so, if it weren’t for the sun, I’m afraid we wouldn’t be here.”
The blind boy was intrigued by their conversation, so he asked them very politely, “Excuse me, sirs, could you please tell me what the sun is?”
They didn’t know what to say to him. Finally, someone ventured,
“The sun is round and shiny, like a cymbal.”
But the boy didn’t understand the words “round,” “shiny,” or “cymbal.”
The man had no choice but to bang a cymbal he was holding and say, “It’s like this. Do you understand?”
The boy nodded in affirmation.
The next day, the boy was passing by the temple gate at the very moment the priest struck the gong. The boy remembered the sound he’d heard the day before, and he ecstatically shouted, “Listen! It’s the sound of the sun!”



The Light of the Sun
Author: James Smyth
Editor: He Yu-wei

“The Sound of the Sun” reminded me of a similar story from Plato’s Republic. Allow me to explain.
A long time ago, there were some captives in a cave. They’d been chained together since birth, and there was a wall before them and a fire behind them. Since their backs were leaning against a screen, they couldn’t see the fire or anything else behind them, merely the shadows that the fire projected on the wall. The captives talked to each other about what the shadows were. Whenever their captors moved things around in the cave, the captives speculated about what the new shadows were.
One day, one of the captives was suddenly freed and taken outside the cave. The sunlight hurt his eyes so much that he was blinded for a time. Yet he slowly adjusted to his new environment, and he came to understand what colors, shapes, and properties really were. He saw the beauty of the world, and he was joyful.
Some days later, he thought of his friends in the cave. He wanted to show this world to them, but he worried about not only the resistance of his captors, but that of his own friends, who might want to stay in the cave because it was the only world they’d ever known. What to do?
This is an allegory. The sun is the truth. We are the captives. Education brings us closer to the truth. At first we’re uncomfortable and lonely, and we want to escape back to our old lives. After we’ve gotten used to it, though, we’re happier than ever and feel like our previous lifestyle was dark and gloomy. Do we have the courage to free our friends from that same captivity?
I think “The Sound of the Sun” is also philosophical. The sun is the truth. We are the blind person. The cymbal symbolizes religion. Since our perception is limited, even the sages don’t know how to explain things to us, so they have to use parables to explain the real state of things. Though we cannot completely understand the truth, religion and philosophy bring us closer to it.
The sun is big and beautiful, vital and ancient, and it has greatly influenced our thinking. Its symbolic importance transcends cultures.

Confucius’s Birthday Ceremony

October 6, 2010

My article has been included in the 35th ICLP (International Chinese Language Program) Bulletin!

一個不容易回答的問題 ~ A Difficult Question

October 5, 2010

September 28th was Confucius’s birthday. The President of Taiwan and I (and a few hundred other people) celebrated at a dawn ceremony at the Taipei Confucius Temple. More on that tomorrow, but today I’ve translated a tale from my textbook that I liked. I should print this and post it so it can wave at me in warning when I write.


A Difficult Question
While Confucius was touring the countries of China, he saw two children arguing on the side of the road. Since he was sitting inside his cart, he couldn’t make out what they were debating, but their faces were beet red, their voices were getting louder and louder, and they were on the verge of fighting each other. Confucius came down from his cart, stepped in front of them, and told them to break it up. He asked them, “What are you arguing about?”
One boy said, “Grandfather, who are you? You must know more than us, so please tell us who’s right!”
Confucius said, “I am Kong Qiu from Lu. Please tell me, what were you debating?”
The other boy said, “You must be Confucius. You can definitely settle our problem, because everybody says you’re the most educated man in the entire world.”
Confucius said, “Quickly, tell me what your problem is.”
One boy said, “I think the sun is closer to us at dawn and farther away from us at noon.”
The other boy said, “He’s wrong. I think the sun is farther away at dawn and closer at noon.”
Confucius said, “Each of you, please give me your reasons.”
The first boy said, “At dawn, the sun is as big and as round as a wheel, but at noon, it’s as small as a dish. When things are far away from us, they look small, but when they’re close to us, they look big. So the sun must be closer to us in the morning and farther away from us at noon.”
The other boy said, “He’s completely wrong. At sunrise, we feel cool, but at noon, we sweat. When you’re close to a fire, it feels hot, and when you’re far away, you don’t feel it. So I think the sun is closest to us at noon.”
The boys asked Confucius who was right.
Confucius seemed flummoxed. For a while, he didn’t know how to reply. Finally, he said, “I can’t tell you who is correct because I haven’t studied this question.”
The two boys thought, “If Confucius is the most learned man in the world, and he doesn’t know the answer, then how could we have been so sure that we did?”

To Be Rather Than To Seem

February 1, 2009

“Be yourself,” we always say in America. Uniqueness goes a long way in our culture, be it university admissions, tryouts for Broadway musicals, or national politics: John McCain, Sarah Palin, and Barack Obama distinguished themselves with their personalities rather than their records. Kids hear from both teachers and media that they should be genuine, and noisy personalities like Donald Trump and Terrell Owens get more media attention than their more accomplished and introverted peers. Hypocrisy is the greatest sin a politician can commit – it seems better for one’s reputation to always be an evildoer than to do evil while claiming to uphold good.

Variety is the spice of life, and a heart full of love, freely expressed, warms everyone who gathers around it. But what if what’s inside you is bad? If your true feelings will hurt others, should you still express them? If your heart is twisted, wouldn’t it be better for everyone if you tried to be someone else?

The fathers of Japanese society must have thought about this a lot. Social interaction, especially between strangers, is heavily constituted of set phrases, language, and rules which create a minimum floor of courtesy only encountered in high society in the West. Every radio interview sounds exactly the same, from the words to the tone of voice between the host and the guest. In fact, Japanese-level politeness is linguistically impossible in English because there are five modes of speaking the language: plain Japanese between friends and family, which often follows the local dialect; polite Japanese between associates (this is the kind taught in textbooks), honorific Japanese addressed toward social superiors (service workers are drilled into treating their customers as social superiors, for instance, which shocks Westerners), humble Japanese used when talking about oneself to social superiors, and finally, imperial Japanese, which you get to use if you’re the Emperor. Americans can try to express these degrees of respect through their bearing, their tone of voice, and so forth, but it’s more difficult without the natural cover of the language. Even if you know nice and polite things are said to everyone, not just you, they’re comforting to hear.

Young people, especially girls, learn that being shy is considered attractive. Various love songs, even in rock music, praise women for their “quiet smiles” more than any other endowments. Class clowns are sometimes quietly disliked by the rest of the class for taking attention away from the teacher. You’re more likely to teach a group that’s too quiet and introverted in Japan than one that’s too rowdy and impolite, and when I run into my students with their parents at the grocery store, they’re always too shy to say anything, even if they talk a lot at school. Instead of asking them how they’re doing, I should just read them their Miranda rights.

Of course, artifice can only hide so much of a telltale heart. In Japanese, there are several ways to say you couldn’t help doing something, or feeling a certain way. Not coincidentally, negative feelings are often held inside, and problems are not mentioned, until they either disappear or explode. One of the section heads at the Board of Education had been having financial problems for a while. No one at the office offered to lend him money, so he got it from the yakuza instead, and he got so deep that last week, he was arrested for breaking into and robbing an old neighbor’s house. Polite as public servants may be, they’ll still steal from the people; deferential as children may be to their parents, there will still be family murder cases in the news.

The dark side of Japanese society is well-documented by Western journalists. If you know anything about Eastern pop culture, chances are good you’d heard of “otaku.” Otaku are super-fans of anime, manga, and video games: not those who enjoy them an hour a two a day, but rather those who spend all their time consuming pop art, hentai (animated pornography), and online games, never leaving their parents’ basements or producing anything of value – besides those who are paid to write reviews and run web sites for the rest. Shows, pop idols, and now even politicians pay lip service to this demographic to drive their own sales. Before he became a widely hated Prime Minister, Taro Aso was an avowed anime and manga fan who went to Akihabara and addressed the crowd as “dear otaku.” However, the existence of so many indolent youth in a country that already can’t replace its present work force is a problem. Otaku spend all their time embracing their own interests, and the language of “being yourself” and personal independence imported from America helps them stay comfortable with choices that violate Confucian ethics of hard work and sacrifice for past and future generations.

More worrisome than the young men is the unbalanced relationship between work, school, and family evident in the country’s demographics. Schools and families drill children to work very hard, to be competitive, and to try to finish projects no matter how long it takes. They grow up, go into the work force, and pull extremely long hours without complaint. For this reason, Japanese schools and companies are extremely successful, and an island nation with no natural resources has the second largest economy in the world. However, family life is suffering. These workers are often too busy to get married, or too tired to have children, and so the country has to get more and more production out of fewer and fewer people. Because most jobs are in the city, the modern family is more often than not split apart, with the elderly living alone in the countryside they love too much to leave. “Tokyo Story” is Japan’s classic movie about this, but for a more commercial example Yakult, a probiotic milk company, has been making a lot of money in the countryside because its delivery people hang around their elderly customers’ houses and chat with them for a while. If the Japanese do have children –there are plenty of perfectly domestic couples who don’t – there often isn’t the time to properly raise them, so the schools have to carry more classes about morality and home ec, distracting the kids from academic subjects and forcing them to go to cram schools at night to get ahead. The teachers become superheroes, often covering both the parents’ emotional and PTA volunteer-type duties. The children write diaries every single day for their homeroom teachers, who read them and discuss problems with the kids. In all cases, whether there are family fights or students committing crimes, things are kept as private as quiet as possible between teachers, parents, kids, and victims to avoid reflecting badly on the community.

Here’s where I come into the story. The JET Program is nominally about teaching students English, but really it’s about internationalizing small towns, and the way to get foreigners there is to have them teach English. I didn’t know any Japanese, and I hadn’t taken any education classes in school, but I was accepted in front of a lot of people who had both, presumably because I looked bright, outgoing, and adventurous, which are the qualities an international exchange program would be seeking. I received a couple hours of training in teaching and Japanese, and no information at all about the Japanese education system and the rhythm of school life, before I was put in front of my students for my self-introduction lesson.

In a sense, anyone can be a teacher as long as he knows something the students don’t, so there’s nothing criminal about what the Japanese government did. The program has run for 20 years so in their estimation it’s a success. Some of the best education foreign teachers do here, I think, is unconscious. The Japanese value system on everything from art to beauty to language is extremely complex but also quite limited from a Western perspective. The easiest analogue is the language, which is over 2000 years old and has untold levels of depth but only five vowels and ten consonants. The vocabulary is greater than 20,000 but foreign words like “the” and “year” cannot even be accurately written in their alphabet. I am “Jehhh-mu-su Su-ma-ee-su.”

Because foreigners have been raised outside the Japanese value system, the way they look, talk, walk, play sports, and laugh (well, especially the way –I– laugh) are completely new, even incomprehensible to the students, or else something they’ve only seen portrayed facetiously on television. When I tell a teacher she looks good today, she’ll turn to one of her male counterparts and say, “See, the –foreigner– thinks I’m beautiful!” When I dressed as Santa Claus and surprised the kids at a kindergarten with loud merriment and presents, some were excited and jumped up and down, but most were shocked! They stared at me and received their presents shyly, so amazed were they by a white-bearded foreigner in red throwing his personality around. Most applicants hope for the city, but the most life-changing work is done in the places no one else goes because no one knows they exist.

Regardless, the distinctions between the responsibilities of the Alternative Language Teacher (that’s me) and those of the other teachers create tension. My job, contractually, is easy. There’s a 35-hour work week with 20 vacation days and a 3.6 million yen salary, which covers cost of living in the big cities but could cover three years of expenses when you live where I do. You’re teaching your native language, something you already have decades of experience with, and there is always a native teacher in the room with you, technically in charge and often literally so. You can’t grade or discipline the students. The Board of Education handles your legal paperwork and often your living situation. The responsibilities are intentionally played down in order to make the position more attractive and the application process more competitive. These ALTs, however, invariably share the office with the actual Japanese teachers who are running the school. Being a Japanese school teacher is hard. University education programs are competitive and challenging. When you get out, you become a teacher, parent, and coach at the same time. Everyone works until 5:30 every day, most until 7 around half the time, and the youngest one will have ridiculous hours, often ‘til 10. Not only that, the native teachers don’t make as much as the ALT until they turn 35, at least in my state. So there is a strong sense of camaraderie between teachers, and the ALT is often left out of it.

To begin with, ALTs, alone among adults in Japanese society, are referred to by their first names. I am “Mr. James.” This is friendly, and my social superiors have the right to call me whatever they like, but it also has a patronizing tinge that I’m not entirely comfortable with so I am really happy with the class of 7th graders that calls me “Mr. Smyth.” More crucially, there’s a lot happening at school that isn’t communicated to ALTs, and not necessarily for language reasons because the English teachers could translate for them. This goes from school activities (many a teacher finds himself abandoned in the staff room while everyone goes to the auditorium) to work parties, a central part of Japanese culture that the foreign teachers sometimes aren’t invited to. I alone among the teachers was left out of the math teacher’s wedding this winter, which was totally understandable because he had a lot of friends and not enough room but still a little awkward. Because teachers want to avoid conflict, feedback about ALTs goes up to the Board of Education, not down to the teachers themselves, so ALTs often don’t hear the complaints and criticism about them until much later, if at all. Everyone at my 200-student school seemed perfect. Then I learned Japanese and realized that when morning meetings go long, it’s because the teachers are talking about students’ mental illnesses, shoplifting, deaths of parents, fights between family members, and the like. They’re telling each other things to be sensitive of and deciding what to do about it, and awareness of these issues would help me do my job better, too, but they would never actually tell me. The communication gap even extends to the administration of JET. At a meeting for first-year teachers and their supervisors last week, in its concluding remarks about Japanese-ALT relations the coordinators held up a poster-board that said in Japanese, “Errors and difficulties are opportunities for growth.” They then turned the page to their English translation, which breezily stated “Enjoy the difference!” To understand your environment, you can’t just hear what Japanese people are saying to you: you have to understand what they’re saying to each other.

I’ve shot the communication gap because I learned Japanese so quickly. I don’t need anything to be translated for me so lack of communication isn’t a problem, and I have a more normal working relationship with my teachers and faculty than the other ALTs might. I’ve worked until 6:30 several days since I came here so I have a reputation for work ethic. Since I work at exceptionally friendly schools, the kind I’d like to stay in forever if my calling were primary school teaching, I probably would have been accepted regardless of language ability. However, I’ve also been exposed a lot to the other foreigners, too: one weekend with 200 new teachers out of the Chicago consulate, Tokyo Orientation with a thousand more newcomers, two 2-day seminars for my state, the 120-person Halloween party at my house, and seemingly weekly get-togethers with the teachers in surrounding towns. So I’ve been watching the other foreigners react to things quite a bit. That’s been interesting itself.

As an ALT, you’re teaching your native language at a basic level, you’re educating others by expressing yourself – the perfect job for Americans – and negative feedback isn’t given in order to avoid conflict. What this all means is that after the frantic move-in, the job can get very, very cozy. Like other teachers, you can repeat the same curriculum year to year, but you don’t have all the other responsibilities they do. Some ALTs treat the job as a vacation or as an extension of college and fill their leisure hours with partying and traveling. The re-contracting deadline is halfway through the contract year, before locking up future employment is even possible for most people, so people who applied to the job because they were aggressively seeking adventure are encouraged to be defensive and cautious; the combination of adventure, decent pay, and low stress creates a mantra of “You don’t know how lucky you have it here.” One year becomes two, three, four, or five, all blissful but not necessarily funneling toward a higher-paying opportunity or a marketable skill. (Most JETs leave the program without literacy in Japanese.)

Another problem the Japanese have with some foreigners is in their attitude toward institutions. Many Westerners, in contrast with Japanese, react to institutions with hostility and to moral authority with cynicism. Only the worst ALTs let these feelings interfere with this job, but one of those bad eggs was in my county the last two years. He was the type who always wanted to see how much he could get away with at work. He regularly showed up late for school, watched “24” in the teachers’ office, went to Thailand without telling anyone, had a shouting match at the Board of Education, got in trouble with the yakuza, fought another teacher over a girl and let his depression over her into the classroom, and on his departure brought two 14-year old girls to America with him, with the permission of their parents but without the permission of their school. The BOE over-retaliated by making things difficult for all the other teachers, too. They refused to give legal help to my predecessor when he got in a car accident, and they didn’t give any of the foreign teachers the mandatory annual physical. The Americans joined the problem teacher in opposing the Board, and eventually the year was ruined for everybody.

Now we have mostly new teachers in the county; everyone has good intentions, and there is peace and happiness. My reverse culture shock was benign, and it came from a Thanksgiving party. The meal was a potluck, and all the traditional Thanksgiving fare was eaten, including turkey ordered from a Costco a couple hours down the road. There were too many people to sit around a table so we stood and ate from paper plates, luncheon-style. After the meal came a good-natured drinking party. It was a pleasant evening, but I laid down to bed that night and realized we hadn’t said a single prayer, and indeed we hadn’t expressed anything we were thankful for at all, besides thanking individuals for bringing certain tasty dishes.

Thanksgiving, the Founding Fathers, Christmas, the Church: all are flawed, but if you cut down everything that tries to embrace higher concepts, you’ll be left browsing in the grasses for food, shelter, and sex, like everything else that lives on this earth. Because customs and traditions are so carefully guarded in Japan, there are rarely debates about whether people are losing “the true meaning” of a festival day. Newspapers, without commentary, run haiku submitted by readers. The country’s history, language, and culture are taught confidently but also truthfully, at least at my school. Japan’s Emperor was humiliated in war and thrown down from his seat in Heaven by the United States Military, but the Royal Family is still greatly respected and has the loyalty of the people. Genji looks like a womanizer to today’s reader, but the novel about him, now celebrating its 1000th anniversary, is still greatly revered. Sarcasm is one of the strong points of American writers, but perhaps we would benefit from a little more reverence.

To be, rather than to seem, “esse quam videri,” is the motto of North Carolina, where I went to college. So much of what I’m facing now revolves around it. I have to reserve judgments about people, knowing that each day as I understand more they could be completely different. I have to keep pushing myself to improve in an apparently consequence-free occupation, remembering Father Time will hold me accountable even if no one else does. Most importantly, I have to be Christ in an environment where many are too afraid to express themselves at all, and remind myself what that means when no one else can provide an example. To seem faithful without having to be so: that is the lotus that is offered to me every day in this foreign land.

This Friday, which would be the middle of the night on Thursday for most of you, I have to tell my Board of Education whether I intend to re-contract for August 2009-July 2010. Please pray for me to choose wisely!