Friday, August 13, 2010

Friday, July 2, 2010

English education

English education is compulsory for all Japanese students from the first year of middle school through the end of high school. And yet, if you visit Japan, you'll find almost no one speaks English. Let's talk about why!

First--the education system. Most Americans are used to hearing about how the East Asian countries whoop our asses at math. It's true that students here are doing fairly sophisticated calculus that Americans might not encounter until college, if at all. (I dropped pre-calc halfway through my junior year of high school and never looked back.) The stereotypically Japanese method of rote memorization and practice, practice, practice is probably well-suited to math and science, and basically any subject where you can commit accepted facts, and how to apply them in accepted situations, to memory.

What I find troublesome is that this same method is used for language learning. I teach the first year reading classes, and their textbook consists of chapters that are basically stories or articles on a particular topic that also introduce certain grammar points. I teach them pronunciation of new vocab and phrases, reading comprehension, and some writing. There is very little speaking involved, and no creative work from them--they are not asked to apply the English they learn to making their own sentences or dialogues, for instance. Not to mention when an ALT isn't present, English classes are conducted almost entirely in Japanese.

The English exams are exactly what was covered in class--the stories are reprinted with phrases missing for the students to fill in, and basic questions about the content. So basically if they pay attention at all or do their homework, they should have no problems. In fact, the composition portion of their last test was an assignment I'd given them in class, corrected, and returned--so all they had to do to pass was memorize the corrected version of their homework and re-write it for the test. Now how on earth will they know what to do if they're approached by a foreigner who needs directions somewhere? Maybe one of their readings included a "giving directions" dialogue, but unless that dialogue is word-for-word what this random foreigner needs, they won't be able to help. Never mind actually going to a foreign country themselves and trying to navigate.

Second--the culture. It seems to me that it is unbearable for a Japanese person to make a mistake. They believe in practice makes perfect, never mind that what they are practicing might not be particularly useful or applicable to real life. Jonathan has told me about how the basketball club at his school will do the same drills ad infinitum until they are flawless, but are utterly unprepared for the chaos of an actual basketball game. So it doesn't matter how flawlessly you can do a particular maneuver on the basketball court, or how good your pronunciation of the word "ubiquitous" is, if you are unable to improvise in a random, real world situation.

This focus on very specific perfection means my students are mortified if I ask them a question they weren't expecting in class, because that means they haven't rehearsed the answer and so may make a mistake. It seems to me the bulk of language acquisition happens when you are verbally trying to express yourself, making mistakes, and learning from them. But if you are so humiliated at the idea of garbling grammar or mispronouncing a word, you're obviously too inhibited to speak naturally, right? Part of the aversion to learning this way may also be that most Japanese people are not used to interacting with foreigners with imperfect Japanese language skills. As a New Yorker I'm accustomed to communicating with people with heavy accents and broken English, both of us trying our best to understand. Whereas in Japan if you mispronounce a single syllable in a word you may get looks of total incomprehension. They're just not used to bridging that gap. The students here think it is the height of hilarity when I make a mistake; yesterday in my English club the kids were cracking up that I'd written けんど (kendo) instead of けんどう (kendou), the correct spelling. I was like, I didn't laugh at you when you spelled lacrosse "rakkros." (OK, I laughed in my head.)

Anyway, it is may be seen as ethnocentric for a foreigner who isn't a real teacher to criticize another country's methods... but the proof is in the pudding. Odds are that if you meet a Japanese person who can speak English, it means they spent some time living in a foreign country, NOT that they gained their fluency within the Japanese system.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Daily Life

I feel like taking a break from writing about special occasions in Japan, which while very fun always feel like a "You had to be there [to appreciate the ridiculousness]" kind of thing. Don't worry, though: the DVD I'm bringing home of Jonathan performing Beatles songs with two senseis for the annual Culture Festival should give you a taste of that. For now, let's address some matters of daily life, shall we?

Cooking in Japan
I, and maybe some other people, tended to think of Japanese cuisine as rather refined, light, and healthy. But after buying some Japanese cookbooks, that has turned out not to be the case. Home cooking here is fairly simple and often yields pretty hearty stuff. The holy trinity of Japanese cooking is sake, mirin, and shoyu, which serve to up the sugar and sodium content of everything, and based on my daily bentos at school it seems that the Japanese can katsu-ify anything; there is a TON of fried stuff. I can get absurdly cheap (by New York standards) fish, sashimi, and sushi at the supermarket, but there's also karaage (fried chicken), katsu (fried pork cutlets), tempura, and so on. Another popular and easy recipe is curry, which in its Japanese incarnation is a sweet brown glop, and there is tons of white rice with everything. A lot of JET girls (apparently known as "land whales" by some of the JET guys, who frankly should not be talking) gain weight quickly. Winter means heavy stews or nabe, which is a hot pot you can put pretty much anything into.

I cook a lot of rice bowl dishes including gyudon (beef and onions in a sweet sauce) and oyakudon (minced chicken and scrambled egg.) I also have recently come upon the multifaceted wonders of my rice cooker, which can be used sort of as a crock pot or to steam vegetables and even, apparently, can bake cakes. I make my own Japanese curry with ingredients as odd as green apple and a dab of peanut butter (trust me, its good) as well as tempura and katsu. When I'm lazy or broke, the frozen meals options at the supermarket surpass what we tend to have at home; Jonathan is particularly obsessed with their champon, a Chinese noodle soup with seafood. Another easy thing we love is only three ingredients: a stir fry of the thin sliced beef or pork they sell here and kimchi over rice. Now that it's summer I'm trying to learn lighter things, such as a peppery seared tuna with wasabi dipping sauce that I made the other day.

Needless to say it's far easier to just cook Japanese. Favorite Western dishes have to be modified or Japanified, especially considering none of our apartments have ovens. I find myself most missing pizza, Mexican food, real New York deli sandwiches, bagels and lox, and anything with cheese. (The best you're going to do here are expensive and microscopic blocks of cheddar, or sliced cheese product [American cheese, basically.]) Probably the thing I'm most looking forward to for my upcoming visit home, other than seeing Catticus, is stuffing my face.

The heat
Now that it's June it's a steam room outside. Working at a high school means no skirts that end above the knee, no sleeveless shirts, and absolutely no cleavage. Also, Japan is so eco-friendly that schools turn on the air con by the date rather than the temperature (I had the opposite problem at the onset of winter) which means profuse sweating simply from sitting still until July 1. Because of the dress code, back sweat, underarm sweat, and the dreaded in-between-boob sweat is unavoidable. To deal with this I've found the best clothing policy is a tank top or camisole and a light flowy shirt over it; the under garment absorbs perspiration and keeps nicer clothes from staining. I also use these Biore wipe things that cool you off and leave a light powder behind on your skin to prevent your face from becoming an oil slick. Unfortunately they also take off makeup, necessitating a bathroom re-application trip, and the movement this requires of course starts the sweat cycle over again. Help. The craziest thing is that Japanese women are so deadly afraid of having any contact with sunlight that they walk around carrying parasols and wearing long gloves to prevent their arms from burning. AND they never look sweaty. If I didn't already feel like my Westernness makes me an ogre here, I do now.

Friday, May 28, 2010


I've been a bit of a sourpuss in my last two entries so I thought I'd write about the interactions with Japanese people that actually brighten my day rather than make me feel really awkward.

I feel like the most charming things happen outside of the classroom--one is the elementary school kids that Jonathan and I pass each morning on our walk to the train station. Since the school year started in March and a new crop of students started heading to the school near our jutaku, we've encountered a more emboldened gaggle of kiddies than in the past. It began with one boy shouting "HARRO" and "GOOD-O MORNING" to us; then some of his friends joined in, including one little girl who is so cute I want to eat her. Then they started reporting the weather to us--I guess they only got as far in their monthly ALT visits as a few adjectives, so instead of "Today is sunny," they tell us, "Kyou wa sunny desu!" Yesterday we corrected them that it wasn't actually sunny, it was cloudy ("kumori") and they were shocked to find we speak Japanese ("Nihongo de shaberu?!?") Then this morning we saw two of the boys waiting for us and clearly planning something. When we passed one of them asked us, "Tomodachi ni narimasen ka?" which means, "We're becoming friends, right?" So we told them of course, and they were very pleased. I'm looking forward to what they'll ask us on Monday; their ridiculous cuteness gives me a little boost at the beginning of a long day.

I think I've mentioned cleaning groups before, which is something I also look forward to. Every day at Japanese schools there is a 10 minute cleaning period during which, theoretically, students and teachers clean designated areas together. What usually happens is the teachers clean and the students run around shrieking and enjoying their brief period of freedom. But since I'm a lazy American, I don't clean either, so I spend the time chatting with my cleaning group, invariably an ever-expanding clique of girls (once they realize I don't make them do anything, they invite their friends.) Yesterday they came tearing up the stairs screaming "ALANNA, WE HAVE MANY QUESTIONS!!!" Basically anything I tell them about myself is greeted with an "IIIIII NAAAAA!" as though I promised them a limitless supply of cake and cute shoes (based on the consumption habits of the young Japanese woman, these seem to be the most treasured products.) I've had a few different groups at this point, and so far they've been: 1, The Naughty Group, who always wanted to talk about sex; 2, The Gamblers, who taught me a million different Japanese card games, and 3, The Girly Girls, who like to discuss Gossip Girl and what my (entirely imaginary) wedding will be like. It's a small part of the day but I'm able to get to know some of the students beyond, "Harro I am fine sankyuuu" and blank stares in response to questions about their English reading assignments.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Korea vs. Japan

So it's probably not fair to compare Seoul to the Fukuoka suburb I live in, which, although near a city is in a part of Japan rarely reached by foreign tourists, but I couldn't help doing just that when Jonathan and I visited earlier this month. We both felt that our experience in Korea was closer to what we expected visiting a foreign country to be like--there are language difficulties, many things are unfamiliar and challenging--whereas Japan has defied our expectations in often seeming more like an alien planet. Impenetrable etiquette aside, things like this happen to me in Japan: people literally slow down in their cars so they can turn and get a good stare at me while I wait for the bus. A stranger runs up and snaps my photo when I am posing for a friend in front of Kumamoto Castle. On visiting day, parents come into the classroom where I am teaching solely to take my picture, then leave. A group of young men come into the ramen shop where we are eating dinner and spend the entire meal looking at us and making comments to each other; we have no idea what the hostility level there is, because there is never direct confrontation. I think the most draining aspect of being here is not the work, which is almost embarrassingly minimal, but the constant awareness of my sticking out so dramatically and people's behavior confirming that I am not in fact being paranoid--at best everyone notices me and is curious; at worst they are resentful that I am here bumbling around their town speaking English. I suppose it's a worthwhile experience to be a minority somewhere if you haven't been before, but I don't think I particularly needed to be enlightened as to the difficulties of, say, new immigrants to New York--I was aware at least intellectually that it must be very difficult indeed.

Even Tokyo has this aspect; there are organized anti-foreigner groups that demonstrate publicly and even in that huge and diverse (for Japan) city the neighborhoods are still relentlessly Japanese; there is very little familiarity. (If you go, don't expect to find an "East Village of Tokyo" or any such thing.) This may be because Japan generally does not allow foreign franchises (save apparently for McDonald's and Starbucks) and doesn't even allow foreigners to own businesses without a Japanese partner. I don't necessarily blame the country for resisting the forces of globalization and wanting to preserve "authenticity," but it is a bit strange coming from such a major participant in global economic forces, one that so readily incorporates foreign ideas (but then, of course, Japanifies them).

Korea, or at least Seoul, on the other hand, seems really eager to be considered a "modern country," to be welcomed into the global power fold (whatever that is). Maybe that's due in part to the massive American military base there. In any case, it had a savvier, more New York feel to it, with hip college neighborhoods, aggressive street hawkers speaking Korean, English, and Japanese, men who look less likely to blow away in a strong wind, etc. AND great international restaurants. Jonathan and I were super thrilled to find a delicious Greek place in Itaewon, the uber-foreign neighborhood. There is Krispy Kreme and California Pizza Kitchen and Outback Steakhouse. Not that I crave mediocre chain restaurants particularly, and they are outnumbered by Korean barbecue and bibimbap and juk (delicious porridge!) but these things made me feel less conspicuously other. It's not like I'm saying all countries should have these things--I don't feel entitled to be made comfortable anywhere I go in the world by the presence of friendly American franchises--but visiting Seoul did highlight for me how completely bizarre I am often perceived to be in Japan: "Every day in America--BIG STEAK?" "Do you have four seasons in your country?" "Do you argue with your family in English?" (Actual questions from Japanese people.)

Not that your average American high school student knows f*ck-all about Japan, but it occurs to me that the kids' world here is very, very small. The centuries-long tradition of insularity and the obsession with preserving Japanese culture has made it so that for many young people, America is a fantasy land, and anyone who can speak English fluently is an awe-inspiring miracle creature. At least, that's how it is for the kids in the Fukuoka burbs, where every foreigner you see is surely an ALT, imported here to open the world just a little--and then, of course, go back to their own country.

Monday, April 26, 2010


As I think I've mentioned before, the Japanese school year ends in March and begins in April. (No break for you, students!) At this time every year, teachers, office staff, and administrators may be transferred to different schools. It's not a guarantee but it seems that if you've been at a school for 3 years or more, the odds are good that you will have to move. People seem to get no say at all in where they're sent, though allegedly the higher powers at the BOE take commuting times into consideration.

Quite a few teachers I was friendly with had to go to new schools, unfortunately, and I haven't yet had enough time to get to know the teachers who replaced them, so work feels a little lonelier than before. One of the teachers who left sat next to me and would talk (and talk, and talk) to me every day, whereas now I am abutted by two non-English speakers, so I'm kind of unintentionally antisocial.

I also have new supervisors at both my home school and the blind school--the new guy at the blind school is fun because he's fresh out of college and energetic and isn't set in his ways about teaching at all, whereas the new woman at the high school has very specific (and in my opinion, boring) ideas about team teaching. Something JETs are continually forced to accept is that there is very little they can do to change the Japanese methods of teaching English... we aren't "real teachers" and we aren't in any way a long-term fixture in the system, so we kind of have to tag along and make the best of it most of the time. (The "methods" often involve rote memorization and repetition that I feel does nothing to actually teach English in a way applicable to real life... but maybe that will be another post.)

I think one of the major advantages of this transfer system is that no school will be stacked with amazing teachers where another one gets screwed--something you often see in the States, as seasoned teachers have the leverage to choose high performing schools in affluent areas, whereas newbies get sort of counter-intuitively dumped at failing schools in troubled areas, thus perpetuating the problems of said area. In Japan pretty much any school a student attends will more or less have the same quality of staff as all the others. While schools range from vocational to high academic, teachers can be placed anywhere in that range, regardless of their skills. It seems a pretty egalitarian system, but on a personal level I'd think as a teacher it probably feels really Big Brotherish in its elimination of any control you have over your professional life.

For JETs it's nice because we stay in the same place as long as the school doesn't cancel our contracts, so if we're stuck teaching with someone we hate we know it won't last forever, and we get to try a variety of teaching styles based on who we work with each year. But right now I definitely feel the same awkwardness I experienced when I first came, before I got to know some of the teachers here and the rhythm of each day became more natural--I'm back in the sticking out like a sore thumb mode of being the clueless foreigner who hardly knows anyone.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Special Days

It's graduation season, which has led to a host of "special days" at my school. (My school's name is two words, both of which start with Ch, so let's call it Cha Cha School.)

I've heard the reason that the Japanese school year begins in April is to coincide with the blooming of the cherry blossoms. Can anyone confirm this? I hope it's true, because that's just precious.

Anyway, Cha Cha School had its graduation earlier this month, and despite the jaunty school name, it was one somber affair. Before the ceremony even started, it was dead silent. Seriously, none of the parents were even speaking to one another. Once things got rolling, each student was addressed individually and had to leap out of his/her seat with a "HAI!" And the standing and bowing, oh my Lord. Possibly 20 times we did that, at the start and end of each speech. And before speaking, each person had to bow to: the Japanese flag, the people on the right, the people on the left, and the audience. Of  course I couldn't understand a word of any of the speeches but I'm guessing they all amounted to, "Well done," and "Wasn't Sports Day great?" At the end, the students left by class in a single file line. First the boys (SEXIST!) then the girls, 50% of whom were weeping. Which like... you WANT to stay in Japanese High School? Buh? Strange form of masochism maybe?

Probably the funniest part was the immaculately dressed and coiffed parents with... garishly colored bedroom slippers on their feet. (Indoor shoes required.) This is a hilarious Japanese phenomenon. Dress code is super important, but it's totally cool to wear your power suit with Crocs. Nice shoes are for outdoors.

Today is also a special day: junior high students come to take Cha Cha School's entrance exam. Students have to be accepted to high school, and it's this whole intense process bla bla, but then they often choose which schools to apply to based on their uniforms, so, you know. Very serious stuff. Anyway, the teachers are all UBER stressed out because apparently if they make any kind of mistake with test administration and/or collection, the BOE will have them drawn and quartered. Having nothing to do, the following conversation transpired:

Me: Oh, can I do anything to help? Like, I could grade the English exams or something...
Teacher: Well... if we make any mistake the Board of Education will punish us.

In other words, they won't let me help because they think I'm likely to eff it up. Since I'm a native English speaker and all, I'm much likelier to make an error grading the English exams than the Japanese teachers... oh, wait.

So yeah, today is test day and tomorrow is grading day, also known as Two Days of Bullshitting Around Online and Getting Paid For It for me. Not too bad!

Another cool thing about special days is that we can order special bentos. Now, I have no idea where these come from, but they're way awesomer than our usual bentos, and if I wasn't too embarrassed I'd have taken a photo of the one I just probably grossly consumed. Maybe there's a Special Bento Shop that eagerly awaits Cha Cha and other schools' events so they can bestow upon them their wares, I don't know. But they're definitely the best thing about special days.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Kanji lesson from a complete Japanese novice

I'm really impatient with learning grammar and have a much better memory for vocab, so with my ample down time (students are taking exams now and don't need my foreign clown services) I've been studying kanji. I enjoy this for a few reasons: it feels sort of like art, albeit within very strict parameters, and therefore something even a simple drawing-impaired person like me can do. Basically just like cooking--if you can follow recipe instructions, you can make something regardless of how uncreative you are in the kitchen. I've also been meeting with the calligraphy teacher here and doing a lesson exchange (she teaches me calligraphy and tries not to laugh, I teach her English and try not to laugh) and learning kanji in a very "JAPANESE CULTURE" sort of way.
Another study incentive is that I am tickled by seeing how Japanese words are built with kanji. Sometimes it seems really simplistic and silly, as in:

大人 (otona) -- This means adult, and has the kanji for big (大) and the kanji for person (人). So, adult = big person.

火山 (kazan) -- This means volcano, and comprises the kanji for fire (火) and mountain (山).

But then sometimes words are made of kanji combinations that I find quite poetic, as in:

空想 (kuusou) -- Daydream; fantasy. 空 means sky and 想 means idea.

里心 (satogokoro) -- Homesick. 里 means village or one's parents' home; 心 is heart.

赤道 (sekidou) -- Equator. 赤 is red and 道 is road.

It makes me wish I could somehow read Japanese novels or poems in the original, to see how having metaphor built right into the very words of the language impacts the authors' choices. I've noticed in the few translated Japanese books I've read that the writing seems straightforward to the point of being almost stiff, but I wonder if that's just a failure of rendering already-descriptive and evocative kanji words into English. You know what I mean? Maybe Japanese writers feel less compelled than, say, your average American MFA student to aim for particularly brilliant lyricism in their sentences because it's already right there in each word (sky idea, red road, etc.) Maybe someone who actually knows Japanese and isn't a total poser like myself can enlighten us.

I leave you with my (so far) favorite poetic kanji compound: 無口 (mukuchi) which means laconic and is made up of the kanji 無 for un- or without, and the kanji 口 for mouth.

I am definitely with mouth, though.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Quick thought...

One of the children's shows I watch in the morning as I'm getting ready for work is called "You Gotta Quintet" (I know) and features puppets playing classical instruments and singing songs. Today, one of the puppets covered Sinatra's "My Way," in Japanese. But since "doing it [one's] way" is totally not how things work here, and since I still don't really speak Japanese, I was left to wonder how the puppet version of the song might translate...

"I did it in a way that would preserve group harmony"? "I did my best to fulfill the goals we have collectively decided upon"? Or simply, as Jonathan suggested, "I did it our way"?

Another pop culture-y thing I wonder about is J-horror films, which allegedly are uber-scary. But I can't imagine Japanese ghosts are all that vicious... like, there's no way they lose their intricate system of courtesy and respect for others just because they died. I imagine a Japanese ghost wandering into a room, startling a living human, and responding with a bow and a "SUUUUMIIIIMAAAAASEEEEEENNN..."

Hence I'm not too concerned about hauntings in my apartment, even though it's super old and creaky. American ghosts--now those are something to worry about.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Kawaii Culture

Most people know that Japan is obsessed with cuteness, considering its major exports are Hello Kitty and girls dressed like Victorian dolls. But having lived here for going on six months now, I think I'm beginning to understand some of the complexities behind it.

First, make no mistake--the cuteness thing is not an exaggeration. I haven't found any vending machines of schoolgirl panties yet, but when I graded class papers on New Years resolutions, I found that easily 50% of the female students wrote, "I want to be very cute girl." And even though I'm hardly a novel presence here, almost every time I say hello to a group of girls passing in the hallways, I hear them squeal, "KAWAIIIII!" as soon as I'm out of sight.

So what are the criteria for being kawaii? From what I can tell, the principal element is silliness. Specifically, the kind of innocent, helpless silliness associated with youth. Things I've done that are considered kawaii include wearing mismatched socks and mistaking the Japanese word for cheap (yasui) for the word for vegetable (yasai). Clumsiness is kawaii, to the extent that girls will often pretend to trip and fall in front of boys, and there is even a word for such imposters (which I unfortunately forget), who are generally recognized only by other girls. Wearing oversized clothing so that you appear extra small seems to be a kawaii thing to do. On our daily walks to the train station, Jonathan and I have noticed a young woman who rides an absurdly small bicycle, who is always cutely hunched over it and wearing extremely high heels. And when we visited Osaka, upon exiting the subway on a particularly cold and gusty night, a group of Japanese girls proceeded to run spastically into the wind, shrieking, which set off additional groups who presumably saw this as an excellent and very kawaii idea.

Kawaii behavior falls into two camps: unabashed silliness, and intense, straight-faced seriousness which is applied to being silly. In the former, I'd place the girls who ride the same train as Jonathan and basically go into giggling paroxysms of joy every time they see him. He reports seeing their heads collectively bent forward as the train pulls in so they can stare out the window at him. And when he gets off at his stop, they wave frantically, again clustered at the window, until he is out of sight. Extremely cute! In the serious camp, I'd place Hunchy, who pedals her teeny bike in her precarious shoes with an expression of deep focus and determination. Also, very cute.

So what are the roots of kawaii? It seems to be designed for men, although it has expanded and morphed to the point that girls can be seen acting like this all the time, whether or not a man is near. But we are talking about a country where not too long ago, women were expected to walk ten paces behind their husbands, a country with a commercial of a baseball player watching TV and grunting "o-cha" at his hovering spouse, who duly obeys him, and that isn't even the point of the commercial. Jonathan and I have noticed a kind of pigeon-toed walk many of the women here do, which upon some investigation I've discovered is based on how girls had to move back in the kimono-wearing days to keep their garment from flapping open in the front, and is now considered a cute and demure way of moving. Many women also tend to cover their mouths when they giggle, and giggle at every attempt at humor that a man makes, regardless of how feeble, since supporting their egos is pretty much the universally done thing--which may explain why so many Japanese men seem downright afraid of me, because I wouldn't know better than to just look at them blankly when their jokes fall flat.

All this leads to a slight conundrum for me, because I'm aware of the outrageous sexism upon which kawaii-ness is likely based, but I nevertheless am very entertained by it! Every day, I see Japanese girls doing something adorable and hilarious and I can't help but laugh and want to pet them on their heads. And, I am regularly rewarded for my own apparently kawaii nature without even trying. So, here I am, benefiting from and enjoying the fruits of a system that to American eyes is terribly outmoded and offensive. My sisters, is it time to turn in my feminist card?