Dana Goes to Japan


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Thursday, February 27, 2003

Cultural Enrichment
Last night I went to a modern dance performance here in Sendai. By myself, even. See? I can get out of the house on my own, I swear. Anyway, a few weeks ago I got a flyer on my desk about the performance and I got Kamiyama-sensei to call and reserve me a ticket.

The performance was by Kim Itoh + the Glorious Future, and I thought it was really neat. There’s something about going to a dance performance that seems to be the same all over the world. I’m not really sure what it is, but all auditoriums hosting a modern dance performance have pretty much the same feel. The auditorium at the Asahigaoka Civic Center even looked like the ones at Duke where ADF is held. (That’s American Dance Festival, for those who aren’t up on their modern dance knowledge.) The national theater in Santiago felt the same way, on a larger scale, when I went to see Pilobolus in Chile. It’s such a comfortable feeling, like everyone there belongs to some small world of artistic appreciation, no matter their everyday life.

Back to the performance. The thing that really struck me, from the very beginning of the performance all the way to the end, was that it incorporated what is quite possibly the most innovative use of light I’ve ever seen. It played an integral part in the staging of the dance, the division of the stage, even the levels the dancers danced at, by which I mean whether they were down near the floor or jumping in the air. The light was more integral to the performance than the music was, which is a rare thing.

It was also probably the longest single-piece performance I’ve ever seen. There were no breaks in the entire hour. It was amazing to watch. Kim Itoh was alone on the stage for maybe 20 minutes before any of the other dancers ever entered the stage, and he didn’t stop moving the whole time. Most of the movement used was very spastic, like robots shorting out, but just when you got used to one kind of movement, they’d switch to another, and just as suddenly, they’d be moving normally. Dancers are so amazing to watch, the way they have such control over their bodies. The movement in this piece was so different from what one typically sees that it absorbed all of my attention, distracting from the fact that it wasn’t trying to tell any kind of coherent story. I wish I knew what the title of the piece meant.

In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed the evening. I wish I could afford ADF tickets more often.

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

I have finally seen my first theater movie here in Japan. Saturday was the opening day of “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” I’m sure that this doesn’t seem like a big deal to most people, but there are several factors to take into account in this case.

1) When I was in Chile, I saw movies in the theater almost every other week. It became a large part of my abroad experience. I got used to seeing just about every movie that came out, if it looked even remotely interesting. There are still movies that I have a hard time remembering the names of in other than Spanish. Tickets were less than $2, there was a doughnut counter and an ice cream counter. (Note on Chilean ice cream: it’s actually gelato, they have more flavors than you can imagine, the smallest serving is two scoops, and they look at you funny if you want both scoops to be the same flavor. Trips to the movies also became ice cream flavor experiments.) All theaters had stadium seating, with air conditioning and heating, as Chile, like here, didn’t believe in household temperature control. I still have all the ticket stubs. They take up two pages in my scrapbook.

2) Going to the movies in Japan, on the other hand, is a production. Tickets cost $12. You have to buy your tickets for assigned seating. You can pick your seats as you would for a theatrical performance. They have caramel popcorn. Also, the theater is not a 10-minute walk from my house, but instead at the next-to-last stop on the subway line, in the 4th through 6th floors of The Mall.

3) It’s Lord of the Rings! What more do I need to say? Although liberties may have been taken with the books, these movies are absolutely gorgeous. Besides, I only ever read the books in Spanish anyway, so I’m not going to get all picky the way true fans do.

So, yeah, I was really excited to go see this movie. Three hours passed so quickly. After it was over, even the two people in our group of 5 who hadn’t cared at all about seeing it were impressed. I entertained them all with random movie facts, such as they had a bank of white Christmas lights strung up off camera which they only turned on when filming Cate Blanchett, which is why her eyes always look all extra elf-sparkly. Yes, I did see the extended DVD version of the first movie. Yes, all of my friends who own it are geeks who regaled me with such random facts from the special features section. Yes, I am quite comfortable with my geekiness. Why do you ask?

If this is the one movie I see in a theater in Japan, it was worth it.

PBS Enforcers
NHK finally found me. After living in Japan for 7 months without having to pay for my television service, they finally realized someone lives in my apartment. Phooey. I don’t feel that bad about it, since I did get away with it for so long, and it’s not that much, about $10/ month.

What’s NHK? NHK is sort of like the Japanese version of PBS. They have lots of educational shows and the bilingual news, among other things. It’s not really free, though. Instead of the begging month, they send out collectors directly to people’s apartments. When you pay them, they put a little NHK sticker on your door so other collectors won’t bug you because you’ve already paid.

They’re very organized. Most other collectors or advertisers who have come to my door went away quickly when I just looked confused at them. This guy, though, had brochures in 4 different languages and seemed very practiced in patiently getting people to understand him, all while being very friendly. It seemed worth it to pay him. I wonder what would happen if PBS found out about this system, though.

Sunday, February 23, 2003

Mujer florero
I want a Japanese girlfriend! It’s not fair. Boys come to Japan and pick up Japanese girlfriends who teach them to cook properly, and I get stuck with old female teachers who all insist they don’t know how to cook very well, they couldn’t possibly teach me.

What brings on this rant, you ask? It’s that on Friday night I went to dinner at Richard’s, and his girlfriend, Keiko, made udon with mushrooms and broth. Japanese cooking looks so easy! I know I could do it, if I just had a clue what all that stuff was that she put in the pot and stirred together. I think I even have a bunch of it in my kitchen already, I’m just not sure what to do with it when not faced with a specific recipe.

Keiko is very nice, and quite fluent in English. She is studying to be a nurse, and in fact has her qualifying exams this weekend. She was the school nurse at Richard’s girls’ school during August, I assume filling in for the regular nurse. She has a twin sister, and I’m wondering if I could recruit her to come and be my Japanese housewife.

(Incidentally, that’s basically what mujer florero means, “housewife,” in Spanish. I just heard the song by that name, and it seemed appropriate.)

Richard is from South Carolina, and although he doesn’t have any more of a Southern accent than I do, we teamed up to teach Keiko how to speak horrible Southern English. In return, she taught us a little bit of Sendai-ben, but in my experience, accents are much easier to distinguish when one is more fluent. It was an entertaining evening.

Baseball Fever
I’m betting that the job everyone in Japan wishes they had right now is that of the NHK reporter who is doing an in-depth report on the various Japanese baseball players currently in spring training in Tampa, Florida. She always looks very pleased with herself as she greets all of us freezing cold people in her light blouse from in front of the baseball stadium under the Florida morning sun. I certainly envy her job right now.

Just to prove how obsessed the Japanese are with their American team baseball stars, Matsui has been the highlight of all sports news for weeks now. The other night, they devoted 5 whole minutes of the half hour news broadcast to the fact that Matsui wore sunglasses for the first time at practice. They also showed footage of him almost running into a teammate while trying to catch a ball in the outfield, for which the comment was, I swear, “It was probably because of the sunglasses.”

Matsui is, for those of you who don’t know, the latest player drafted for the NY Yankees, and is primarily a power hitter. In Japan, he played mostly night games, so getting used to the “bright Florida sun” is an anticipated problem. Very few people in Japan wear sunglasses, supposedly because it’s a sign of belonging to the yakuza, but I’m not sure how true that is. I still don’t think it deserved 5 minutes on the news.

Tuesday, February 18, 2003

In the news…
I’ve been having an interesting time watching the news lately. These past two days have been the days of Korea, mainly for Kim Jong Il’s birthday. The Japanese bilingual news (which is just the regular news dubbed over) had footage straight from North Korea, showing the same stuff all the national networks over there were broadcasting. Very 1950’s Cold War style celebrations of his time in office, clips of him touring military barracks, exhorting the troops to do their best, interspersed with red title screens, and backed by uplifting “let’s go conquer some nations” music. All the while, a Korean-speaking Japanese person was dubbing over the narration into English. I’m sorry to say it didn’t occur to me until too late that I should start counting the number of times they said the phrase “the Great Leader.” It was very strange, in a time-warp kind of way.

Also, I learned how to make a big snow hut, a la the ones in Sapporo for the snow festival. You can make little ones, too, with buckets to pack the snow in, then dump it out, make a hollow, and then put a candle in it. The big ones for people are made in exactly the same way, on a much larger scale, and then instead of a candle, people make snow shelves, put in carpeting, a table, and a heater of some sort. Most of the people manning the traditional snow huts were students from a local high school, at least for this news story.

Speaking of Sapporo, according to the weather report a day or so ago, I’m really glad I don’t live in Hokkaido. One of the more northern cities on that island had a low of –23 C. Personally, I think it’s plenty cold in Sendai, but I hear they actually insulate their houses and use double-paned glass further north. I’m sure Sendai is still warmer.

Technological Advances
For those of you I haven’t already complained to about this, my BOE (Board of Education) has done something really annoying. They “upgraded” their server a week and half ago. I’m not really sure what this accomplished, as it certainly doesn’t run any faster, but in doing so, they also installed a new piece of software called Net Filter. Before, the proxy server that all the high schools ran their LANs off of blocked questionable sites, which was understandable and all that, but now they’ve just gone overboard. Now, any computer connected through the proxy server cannot access free email providers, such as Yahoo and Hotmail. Since all ALTs use either one of these or another like them, none of us can access our email at work anymore. I find this exceptionally annoying, as I was compensating for the fact that no one can get my computer hooked up to the network printer by emailing all the necessary files to Kamiyama-sensei and getting him to print them for me. With the final exam coming up, for which I am supposed to write the listening portion, this is a problem.

When I told Kamiyama-sensei about it, he found a solution. Not a solution that allows me access to my email, of course, but at least he can get the exam from me. Ever increasing the number of things that can plug into the USB port on my laptop, he handed me an external hard drive on a key chain. Seriously. It’s tiny. All I have to do is plug it in, save my files to it, unplug it, and give it back to him to plug into his computer. No discs that might get corrupted, no horribly slow email transfer, just hand him the hard drive. Spiffy!

As for the email issue, I got elected the unofficial ALT technology representative, since I’m the only one amongst our group who even knows what a proxy server is, let alone what it does and why it’s being a pain. I emailed Kristin, the liaison for ALTs to the JET bureaucracy, and she said that they had no idea that free email sites were being blocked until ALTs started telling them. They’re looking into it and will get back to us, which means that maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to access email from work again before I leave Japan in 5 months. I find this whole thing kind of ironic, since all JET business is conducted via Yahoo accounts.

(And just to round out my griping, not that any of you care, I will point out that all my IT friends have said there’s no good reason for them to do this. If they want to restrict traffic on the server to speed things up, they’d block actual sites, not email access. If they’re worried about email virii, they should install virus protection, rather than blocking email accounts that automatically scan every attachment you try to open, whether you want them to or not. If they’re concerned that people are wasting time at work sending personal email, they need to give ALTs more to do. Personally, I haven’t had a single class to teach for 3 days. I wrote the listening portion of the exam in about half an hour. The most productive thing I’ve done is write this blog entry, and now that it’s done, I’m going back to knitting. Wheeeee, final exams, when Oral Communication is most definitely not a priority class.)

Random Japanese Fact
Before I forget, one random Japanese fact for today. They have blackboard eraser vacuums here. I’m not kidding. They’re little boxes with a depression in the top for you to run the eraser back and forth over, with a little vacuum slit opening that cleans off all the chalk dust. That rather takes the fun out of clapping the erasers.

Saturday, February 15, 2003

English Camp
Where have I been this past week? Why, I've been at English camp! What’s English camp? Oh, that’s right, you’re not here, you don’t know what I’m talking about.

As you might recall, I mentioned that my base school, Mukaiyama, has a special math and science track. At Izumi SHS, they have the same kind of thing for English. They have two classes worth of students (80) who get twice as much English instruction as everyone else, and at the end of the first year students’ first year (okay, that sounds redundant, but it gets the idea across) they have an intensive English camp, for which they spend 2.5 days in a hotel with a bunch of ALTs and some other English teachers. Izumi has been running this camp for 8 years now, so they’ve got it pretty well organized.

There were 8 ALTs there. Two of them work at Izumi, Simon M. and Cindy, and they were the ones that contacted the rest of us and asked us if we would help out. In the end, the cast consisted of Simon Martin (UK), Cindy (USA), Danola (SA), Sharon (UK), Catherine (Wales), Simon Tipping (New Zealand), Alex (USA), and me. Each of us were assigned a group of about 10 kids to help in individual group time, by correcting compositions, preparing them for the speech contest, helping them practice their drama, and correcting the grammar in their nightly diaries. Just to prove that I can remember names if I see students often enough, my kids were Shou Sugiyama, Shou Seino, Sou, Ryouta, Ayano, Kaoru, Satomi, Tomoe, and Rie. Aren’t you impressed?

Day One
On the first day, we arrived at the hotel in the morning and met in the large tatami room for the opening ceremony. The Japanese really, really like opening and closing ceremonies. It wasn’t very exciting, and was mostly conducted by Mr. Tadano, who technically speaks English, but mostly manages to confuse everyone. He also ended all assemblies by informing everyone that they could use the ensuing break to “Go to the bathroom.” While I’m sure this was useful information, it’s not usually phrased as a command. Anyhow, then we broke into our small groups and met our students for the first time. I think I speak for all the guest ALTs when I say, wow. It’s quite a change to work with students 1) in small groups, who are 2) enthusiastic and 3) actually willing to try and speak English.

After the introductions were over, we moved to our small group rooms and the students prepared for the preliminary speech contest. I walked around and corrected grammar in the written compositions. When they felt they were ready, each one gave his or her speech for the group. I had to pick two finalists to go to the final speech contest. Three students wrote about Japanese traditional holidays, one about tigers being endangered and what we can do to help them, one about getting his dog (“She chases her tail. I think she is lonely. She pretends her tail is another dog.”), and one about the necessity of clothes and fashion. (There were two more, but I can’t remember them now.) My finalists were Sou, with the tigers, and Ayano, on the Tanabata festival in Sendai.

After lunch, the groups competed in quiz games about South Africa, New Zealand, Britain, and the US. I was Cindy’s assistant in the American quiz room. We ran the quiz four times, with two groups competing each time and then rotating to the next room. Each team had two representatives answering questions for them. I wish I could say that the students had a blast in our room, but they really didn’t. Cindy has some good ideas and spent a lot of time helping with the organization of the camp overall, but really, she’s not so good at implementing said ideas, and she was totally unprepared for running the quiz. This was not my favorite 4 hour period. And really, how could she compete with Simon T., who was demonstrating the traditional haka dance of New Zealand, which the national rugby team performs before every match to get pumped up? The haka became kind of a theme for the rest of the camp.

After the quizzes, we went to the final speech contest. My kids did not win. The content of their speeches was good, but their delivery had nothing on the kids who came in in the first three places. The boy who won spoke about what happens to abandoned animals and how he feels that animal cruelty should get harsher penalties. The contest was followed by dinner, a movie for the kids, and general socializing for the ALTs. The students had to turn in their nightly diaries by 9 pm, so we corrected those before going off to sleep.

Day Two
On the second day, after breakfast we were treated to a song extravaganza by the students, kind of like a big group karaoke presentation that they’d been practicing for weeks. They were all English songs, of course, but I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what they all were. I do remember there were two Beatles songs, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (how Suzuki method), and one group performing on recorders. However, they finished too quickly and Mr. Tadano made the ALTs get up and sing, too. I hate karaoke culture. And it’s not like everyone knew the words to “You Are My Sunshine” off the top of their heads. I had to teach it to Alex in about 30 seconds. Bleh.

But then we escaped off to our group rooms again, after being told to go to the bathroom, to have writing activities. Each of the students had brought an item for show and tell and got half an hour to write a script to present it. My kids had a hip hop CD, soccer shin guards signed by his teammates, his first Japanese/English dictionary (the first word he ever looked up was “garden”), manga books about a baseball player (all the characters have names starting with “H,” hence the title H2), a ring, a necklace, a Snoopy key chain, and um, something else that I don’t remember. After that, we were supposed to teach them a bit about Valentine’s Day, and I told them they could make one for everyone in the room or make one for a famous person, (ex: David Beckham, Britney Spears.) Most of them opted for the “make one for everyone” option.

After lunch, we got to the best part of the camp! At least, for me it was. It was time for foreign language classes! I was teaching Spanish; Sharon, Italian; Catherine, French; and Alex, Chinese. Like the quiz games, we had two groups worth of students in each of four rotating sessions. Each session lasted 25 minutes. My lovely assistant was Simon M., who was quite excited at the prospect of remembering the Spanish he had picked up in Spain 8 months ago, but has since forgotten with all his Japanese. The kids seemed to really like the class, and I was pleased with my organizational skills. 25 minutes was just enough time to teach them a very simple self-introduction without making them repeat things too many times or lose interest. Class went like this:

Students entered the room with Spanish music playing from my computer. After they got settled, I welcomed them in Spanish and then had a short “Hello, Simon! How are you?” conversation, followed by “Eso es como hablar en español. ¿Alguién entiende lo que nosotros decimos?” I then repeated that in English: “This is how to speak Spanish. Does anyone understand what we said?” After the expect blank looks, I said, “Well, the first thing I said was ¡Hola! What does this mean?” Because I was waving my hand while saying it, someone would say “Hello” and we’d go from there. In the end, I taught them hello, good morning, good afternoon, good night, I am called…, I am from…, How are you?, I’m fine, I’m not well, the numbers 1-20, I am ___ years old, yes, no, please, thank you, and right at the end, good-bye. Ta-da, 25 minutes gone!

The rest of the afternoon was given to drama practice, for which there was too much time allotted and I let my kids out early. The girls asked me to come talk to them in their room, which I did, and it was neat to talk to them. They, of course, asked me questions about Mark, is he nice, is my ring an engagement ring, etc, etc. I explained to them that engagement and wedding rings go on the other hand, and this one was just a present. There was much excited discussion, and then a dictionary was brought out to find the word “envious.” It became the word of the discussion. They also went to get an MD player that could clip into speakers and played some Exile for me, one of the numerous boy bands here. I taught them to spell their names in American Sign Language, which was a big hit. They even remembered how to do it the next day.

Then was dinner, another movie, onsen (hot spring) for me and Danola, and socializing with diary correction, once again.

Day Three
On the final day, we got up and packed up our stuff. We trundled it all down to the main tatami room, put it in the back of the room, and settled down for the drama presentations. I was one of the judges for this. Each of the groups had been practicing a drama for a month before the camp. My group had The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Others were The Grateful Buddhas, Momotaro, Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, The Ants and the Grasshoppers, Little Red Riding Hood, and The Three Little Pigs. These kids had put a lot of time into planning for the dramas. There were costumes, sets, music, props, everything. For my group, the Piper was Shou Seino and there was much discussion of what he should play on his recorder to lead the mice and children out of Hamelin. He offered “The Sound of Silence,” the Indiana Jones theme song, and “Doe, a Deer.” In the end, “Doe, a Deer” won out, but in the meantime we were all entertained during practice by lots of piping. The other judges really liked it because several of my boys were real hams (how can you go wrong with a first line of “Ow! How savage! Ooooo…”), and the girls playing the mice did a good job of drowning in the river. Honestly, they did a really good job, better than they had in practice, so even I was quite impressed, and I’d already seen it 6 times.

The Pied Piper tied with The Grateful Buddhas for second place, after Momotaro, which won mostly for flawless presentation. However, among the students, I think the favorite was Hansel and Gretel, with the winner of the speech contest cross-dressed as Gretel. He even did a little jump for joy with a girlish squeal at the end, when they reunited with their father.

Then we had picture taking, another favorite Japanese activity. Somehow, we still managed to end that early, so for the hour before lunch we just chatted with our students. My boys went off to do gymnastics in the back of the room after distributing their Valentines, and my girls and some of their friends sat and talked to me, interspersed with lots of individual picture taking. At one point, several of them were petting my hair and saying how soft it was. Because my nice, fine, soft hair also sheds everywhere, I later had Rie come up to me and show me one of my hairs, saying she had found it in her pocket, and could she keep it? I told her sure, it was a present, and she looked absurdly happy. After lunch and the short closing ceremony, Kaoru and Satomi came to say good-bye and actually gave me hugs, looking close to tears. They’re all so cute!

We ALTs got on the city bus back to the station, while the kids got on the group bus, and they waved at us out the windows the whole time.

Friday, February 14, 2003

Valentine's Day Update
Okay, this is just for clarification. When I said that many female ALTs in Japan think the exclusive only-girls-to-boys aspect of Valentine's Day here is unfair, I wasn't really meaning that I felt that way. Personally, I just think it's rather weird. I mean, it's not like the rest of Asia is like this, at least not according to this article from the BBC. It's just Japan.

Anyhow, I spent the past 3 days around Danola, who has been rather depressed about the prospect of spending this Valentine's Day single in Japan, where she can't even expect pity presents from male friends, and thus, I was representing her rather forceful opinion, rather than my own, since I don't really have one. For the record, in past years I have only ever gotten Valentine's Day presents from my parents, grandparents, and platonic friends. I have strategically managed to live out of the country both times I've been dating anyone during this holiday, which hinders the gift-giving. So, yes, I know that in most other countries around the world, men give humongously more than women do. I have even been sent links to statistics to prove it. I believe you, I really do! That wasn't my point.

My point was, as always, Japan is weird and we should be amused. Oh, and that you should all send me chocolate-covered marshmallows next month.
Happy Valentine’s Day
As an actually timely entry, I thought I’d tell you how Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Japan. It seems marvelously unequal to gaijin from the Western world, or at least, to the women. Here in Japan, only girls profess their love (or whatever) to boys, in the form of chocolates. Boys don’t give girls anything. No cards, no flowers. They don’t really even have to acknowledge the girls’ feelings until a month later, March 14, which is White Day. On White Day, boys are supposed to give girls chocolate-covered marshmallows. According to my JTEs, this holiday is purely an invention of candy companies.

To even things up, all of us ALTs made our classes at the English camp (update forthcoming) celebrate the holiday “the American/British/South African/New Zealand way.” I made my kids make a Valentine for everyone in our group. I got 5 Valentines today, 3 from girls and 2 from boys. Awwww…

Loose Socks Update
As you may remember, I said that it was the fashion for high school girls here to wear really baggy, scrunched socks that end halfway up their shins with their uniform skirts. Today, I found out that they actually glue the tops of these “loose socks” to their legs. They have special roll-on glue and everything. My students asked me if I wanted to wear them. I told them I think they look better on students.

Monday, February 10, 2003

Self Defense Lesson
We’ve all heard about how safe Japan is, especially compared to all those other countries, like, say, New York. (What? Are you serious? There’s actually more in the United States besides New York? I had no idea.) In the main, this is true. I never feel worried here, walking home from downtown Sendai at night or taking the late train back from Shiogama. Men don’t even openly leer at me in the streets, the way they did in Chile. This isn’t to say they’re not covertly leering, but really, after Latin America, my standards for the amount of leering I’ll tolerate have been rather changed.

Back to the point. If I feel safe here in Japan, coming from the crime-ridden streets of suburban North Carolina and small town Iowa, the contrast for Danola, from Johannesburg, South Africa is truly huge. Her house in South Africa had an electrified gate and fence, and was basically in a walled compound, and she wasn’t particularly upper-class, either. So, after 6 months of life in Japan, her guard has dropped quite a bit.

This is why she was so freaked out when a guy followed her home last weekend. It doesn’t happen very often, but often enough that female JETs are warned about it. We stick out, we are objects of curiosity, we sometimes attract interest we don’t want, particularly from men late at night who have been out after work drinking with their colleagues. Danola was walking home from Sharon’s apartment, which is maybe a 15-minute walk, and some man started following her. Her reconstruction of the conversation was that he said he was from China and trying to ask directions, to which she responded she didn’t speak Japanese. She tried to make him go away before she went up the stairs to her floor of the apartment building, but he followed her up and asked if he could come into her apartment. Fortunately, she was standing in front of Alex’s window and announced in a loud voice that she was going to get her neighbor, because he spoke better Japanese, so Alex saved her. When he opened his window and said the guy could come into his apartment to ask his questions, the man said no, no, he would come back later and talk to Danola. She went to school the next day and reported it to her principal, who took her to the police station to report it there. Now she doesn’t open the door unless her visitors can speak English and identify themselves, and is reluctant to go out at night.

My response to this was to go to Shiogama on Saturday and teach Danola and Kristel some simple self-defense techniques. I taught them what to do if someone grabbed their wrists, shoulders, or necks, or grabbed them from behind. They won’t have a lot of opportunity to practice these things, but Danola said they were simple and logical enough that she thought she’d be able to do them in an emergency anyway, even if it’s not second nature yet. She said she felt better now having some idea of what to do at all, because at the time, she felt helpless at the thought of what might have happened if he had tried to actually touch her. I’m glad I was able to give her at least a little bit more confidence again. It made me realize that I haven’t ever been in a situation where I would be that scared of being attacked. I started taking karate when I was 11, and I really do think it has changed my entire life. I’m glad.

Saturday, February 08, 2003

A Tomb for Fireflies
On Friday night, I actually initiated human contact and got out of the house. I’m so impressed with myself. I went downtown with Richard, of whom I haven’t seen much since he got a Japanese girlfriend. We went to McDonalds to replenish the grease and salt deficit in our diets, got coffee, of course, and then Richard rented DVDs, since he actually bought a DVD player that can play Region 2 (or whatever region Japan is in) DVDs. He’s become a big fan of watching Japanese movies with the English language option, such as “Princess Mononoke,” and “Spirited Away,” just to name two of the most famous recent anime movies. Of course, our movie picking in the anime section was mostly based on the cover art, and we ended up with (translated) “A Tomb for Fireflies.”

We had no idea what it was about. Turns out, it’s a gorgeously drawn and animated movie about two kids orphaned during WWII, sent to live with their mean aunt who doesn’t feed them so they move into a cave to live on their own, and in the end die of malnutrition. In true Japanese style, it seemed to end in the middle of the plot, and was just very, very weird. No one in the American tradition would ever have thought of making this story into an animated movie. We just sat there blinking at the screen through the credits, trying to figure out exactly what it was we had just watched, and what we were supposed to think about it.

Engrish Hunt
In my efforts to cheer myself up in the long, cold days of the season that is winter in Japan, I have been indulging in consumer therapy, egged on by the cheap prices at Uniqlo. I realized this, and felt somewhat dismayed at the amount of clothes I am suddenly inclined to buy. In the past week, though, I have discovered a way to prevent myself from buying lots of winter clothes that will be too hot for my future life back in the land of proper indoor heating. This new strategy is in the form of a grail hunt.

I am now on the quest to find the perfect Engrish clothing items. The beauty of this is they tend to be cheap.

Last weekend in Uniqlo, on the Y1000 shelf, I found a t-shirt that says “Form Follows Funkiness.” I was quite pleased with this. It amuses me greatly, and is actually grammatical while being totally bizarre.

However, yesterday I far surpassed that shirt in perfection. For a mere Y500, I found, in the Jusco in Shiogama, the ultimate ALT sweatshirt. It proclaims, in huge letters across the back, “Greet People with a Big Smile and a Clear Voice.” On the front, it says the same thing in smaller letters, prefaced by “Go One’s Way. (bigger letters) Way. (underneath slogan, between stars) Happy.” And then there’s a drawing of an astronaut. No, I have no idea why. It’s just Japan. Come on, laugh. I’m working on a way to get to wear it to school.

The Perfect Woman
During my famous Valentine’s Day lesson, mentioned two entries ago, the students have to interview each other about “Who is the Perfect Man or Woman?” according to the example sentence “Is it important that s/he is…?” with the possible answers of Yes, No, and Sort of. There follows a list of 13 qualities with which to fill in the blank: Handsome/Beautiful, Rich, Honest, Intelligent, Funny, Friendly, Romantic, A good cook, Hard-working, Adventurous, Enjoys traveling, Comes from a good family, and Other.

They are instructed to be creative and put down anything they want for Other. Some example answers are taller, shorter, kind, younger, older, long hair, short hair, sportsman, gentleman, quiet, nice body, strong, likes insects (the boy who put that one down is very quiet and shy), etc. You get the idea.

After they finish interviewing each other, they exchange papers and rank these qualities in order of importance, 1 being most important. I spend a lot of time walking around the room making sure they’re using English, remember to put something down for Other, and understand the ranking. In doing this the other day, I noticed a kid who had checked in the “no” column all the way down except for his Other quality. My first thought was that he had just cheated to be done faster and get to goof off for the rest of the time, which is not terribly unusual. When I actually got over to his desk, though, I saw what his Other quality was, and laughed out loud.

There, written in nice, clear, printed English, he had written “living.”

He had, of course, ranked that quality as #1. Anything else was just considered gravy. At least he had his priorities straight.

Thursday, February 06, 2003

A Mid-Year Reflection
or, Why the JET Programme Isn’t Effective

All this week, I have been giving up my lunch periods and staying late after school to administer individual oral pronunciation tests. Every 2-3 minutes, I go through the same routine again and again. I say:

“For the first part, I will say a word two times, and you should circle which word you hear.”

I then say one word of a minimal pair. (ex: light/right, think/sink, bolt/volt) There are 5 pairs. Then I say:

“For the second part, you should read the sentences out loud.”

There are 4 sentences involving minimal pairs, including the famous “She sells seashells by the seashore.” (No, I’m not evil. They can try as many times as they want to, as slow as they want, and I grade really leniently, based on whether they are really trying to differentiate the sounds.)

Very few students get everything right.

I also spent a lot of time yesterday grading the translation part of an exam. Students were given Japanese sentences and expected to translate them into grammatical English. For example, one target sentence was “She shared her apple(s) with her (younger) brother.” I got many answers, many switching “her” with “my,” others not getting the first possessive at all (“what her had an apple”), and of course, some people sharing their brothers with their apples. While this is amusing, it’s also depressing. These students are all finishing their fourth year of compulsory English. Many of them cannot produce grammatical English beyond, “Hello, how are you? I am fine.” They cannot come close to understand the entirety of a simple conversation, if the participants are speaking at normal speed. Under the current level of English education, they never will be able to. Kamiyama-sensei pointed out that by the time the average Japanese person graduates from college, s/he has had between 7-10 years of required English, yet English majors are the only ones who can actually speak or understand it.

When I took the class titled “Latin America and the US” in my final semester at Grinnell, we read a book looking at the impact of various US foreign policy programs, one of which was the Peace Corps. The author noted that though many Peace Corps volunteers came back talking about what a powerful experience it had been for their lives, when one looked at the original aims of the program, it could be seen that the program as a whole was failing. This strikes me as an accurate description of the JET program as well. The aim of the JET program is to have native speakers present in the classroom in order to encourage students to see English as a living, useful language, as well as produce more fluent speakers of English. This is not happening.

The theory behind the JET program is sound. I have seen extremely effective native/non-native speaker team teaching. The native speaker provides an innate understanding of grammar and sounds, and offers the students an example of easy fluency to serve as a goal, as well as someone with whom they can converse. The non-native speaker possesses an understanding of the problems the students face in acquiring the target language, since s/he has already gone through the same process. S/he can offer the students more in-depth explanations that they can relate to their own lives and native language.

Unfortunately, this does not happen with the average JET program ALT’s teaching experience. That sort of team teaching requires the native speaker to have a frequent presence in the classroom, really, no less than 2-3 times a week, at a minimum. The teachers should know each other well and have good rapport. Instead, ALTs are spread rather thin in Japan. I teach at two schools, with 10 different teachers, in a total of 20 classes, visiting each class only once every 2 weeks. I know none of my students names. My teaching style is constantly in flux. Each teacher has a different way s/he wants to make use of me, at least one of which is not at all. My classes are labeled “Oral Communication,” and not really treated as an important part of the curriculum at all. Some teachers view me as an interruption in their imparting a stream of grammar into their students’ minds, others view me as the students do, as an entertaining class with little substance. It is a constant struggle to get them to speak in English at all.

I just this morning filled out the form stating that I do not intend to re-contract for the next year. This has been my intention all along, as I plan to go to grad school next year, but I suspect that even if that was not the case, I would not really want to re-contract anymore. Living in Japan is great, but this job is unfulfilling. I am not making the impact on these students that I know I could, and it frustrates me beyond belief. Perhaps I was too qualified for this position, as I have too much educational theory behind me, letting me know I’m doing a bad job. I will come back from Japan with a great year of personal experience, and having absolutely not accomplished the intended goal of my professional position.

Wednesday, February 05, 2003

Star-crossed lovers
Okay, not really, but it was the phrase the popped to mind. Since it’s February, I’m teaching a bunch of lessons on Valentine’s Day. (As a side note, by the time I leave Japan, I will know the origins of every American holiday, so just ask me if you want to know the story of Halloween, Valentine’s Day, etc.) Anyway, at the end of my Valentine’s lesson, I talk about what Valentine’s is like in the United States, have the JTE compare it to Valentine’s in Japan, and then open the floor to questions. Here comes the point of this entry. I’ve gotten this question twice now.

“Are you going to give your lover a gift?”

Yes, in English, even, so I have to praise their efforts. But really, being asked about my “lover” by high school students, and their teachers, because I have also been asked things about Mark referred to as such outside of class by numerous JTEs, is kind of disturbing. I haven’t quite figured out the tactful way to explain, in class, the difference between one’s lover and one’s boy/girlfriend. It’s not exactly a subject that just naturally comes up. Also, even though they use the Engrish phrase “boifurendo” (boyfriend), I don’t think it has quite the same connotations in Japanese. Ah, cultural differences.