Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Ouen, ouen, will I be famous?

In my third week here I started going to one of my schools (I won't identify it or its staff by name, although if someone really cared I'm sure they could deduce the information). Let me explain my situation. I will teach at six junior high (12-15 year old) schools. Somewhat unusually, none of these is my base school; I am officially based at city hall, though I only spend one afternoon a week there. Also a little unusually, I have a block schedule, meaning that I spend two or three weeks at a time at each school, so a full rotation takes around four months. There are pros and cons to this setup: I'm never really going to feel at home anywhere, but the frequent changes should keep things fresh. I like to think of myself as a educational ronin.

I was immediately struck by a number of differences between the Japanese school environment and that which I grew up in. Since I have only experienced one school, I'm not sure how universal these points are, but anyway:
  • The students stay put and the teachers move between classrooms.
  • For students, the staffroom is not the forbidden sanctum that it is in the UK. In fact, students are always floating in and out, though they do have to ask permission to enter at the door. This setup makes a little more sense when one considers that the teachers do not have classrooms, so the students must come to the staffroom if they need to talk to them.
  • The dress-code for teachers is very casual. Everyone pretty much wears sportswear, which initially caused me to erroneously conclude that everyone was a PE teacher. It's like being in a school run by Goldie Lookin Chain. I think it's because it's hot here (the classrooms appear not to be air conditioned; the staffroom thankfully is), and the teachers often join in with the student's sporting activities.
  • The students clean the school every day. At first this idea made me feel deeply uncomfortable, since it seemed pretty close to being child labour. But actually, since there are several hundred of them, their many hands make light work. So really it's just 15 minutes of holding a broom or a duster and chatting to your mates. The other day I found a bunch of kids playing baseball with a broom and a ball of sellotape in the music room. They didn't stop when I appeared, cementing my status as not a real teacher. Which I'm fine with.
  • The students pretty much live at school. They are there at half eight, and although the school day officially ends around four, it seems very few actually go home then. Instead, they participate in various after school clubs which seem to go on until six or later. There are clubs at the weekend too. Thus, the teachers seem to work crazy hours. Fortunately, not being a real teacher, I am allowed to approximate a 40-hour week. I do feel like a bit of a jerk leaving before everyone else though.
  • The students seem to spend a staggering amount of time doing various character-building exercises rather than actually learning anything. To my Western value system, this is the hardest part to stomach. For example, twice now the school has spent the first period weeding the playing field. Eager to show that I was willing to (literally) get my hands dirty, I joined in, once I figured out what the hell was going on. I'm no horticulture expert, but giving kids little trowels and telling them to dig up plants does not seem like an effective method of weed control. Either use weedkiller or live with a weedy field, I would have thought. I suspect it's purpose is actually to teach some lesson in community spirit, or something. I was very pleased to notice that the kids would just sit in circles chatting, occasionally making ineffectual weeding motions. However, this pales in comparison to the hours they spend practicing ouen - more on that below.
Term hadn't really started up properly for my first week there, so I did no teaching. Thus, more exhausting attempting to look busy all day. I'm not being sarcastic; I would say that looking professional with nothing to do is substantially harder than actually working. My only educational duty was to help some students prepare for an English speaking contest after school. I realise this post is getting close to breaking my no-negativity rule, so I'll just say this: I'm not convinced that drilling students to memorise the exact pronunciation and intonation of a piece of text is the most beneficial way to promote English proficiency. But speech contests are commonplace in Japan and thus are a part of most JETs lives. An added difficulty is that they have been taught American English, so my Scottish vowels were causing all kinds of havoc.

The highlight of my first week was the opening ceremony. Boy, do the Japanese love a ceremony. This was an exception to the sportswear rule, so all the teachers were wearing suits. Though of course no outdoor shoes are allowed anywhere inside the building, so even very serious people were wearing white trainers. It was now more like being at a school run by Run-DMC. I was somewhat bricking it, as I had to get up in front of everyone and introduce myself in Japanese, and I felt I should retool and extend my speech a little bit for the occasion. I muddled my way through, and at the end I was asked some questions, including - I thought - "Are you a singer?". "No, unfortunately not," I replied, to confused looks. I then deduced that that the question had been "Are you single?", with the classic Japanese l/r difficulty. Which is a pretty weird question to ask in the situation anyway, now I come to think about it.

My self-intro over, it was the students' turn to welcome me. They all produced red headbands which they tied around their heads, and proceeded to do a kind of mass synchronised cheer/chant/dance that was approximately two-thirds Maori Haka and one-third Vogue-ing. They were led by a spirited boy at the front, who was standing on a table, bellowing at the top of his lungs, and waving his arms wildly. Another kid was at the side was keeping time by pounding a taiko drum. It was a surreal and oddly gratifying sight to see 300+ Japanese schoolkids chanting in my honour.

This ritual is called ouen, which according to my dictionary means support or boost. I have since seen the effort that goes into this display. The school usually splits into four houses, each with a different coloured headband and their own leader and drummer. Hours are spent ensuring that their vocal and physical synchrony is perfect. Towards this end, some older kids are appointed as spotters, and prowl around correcting anyone who is, say, not leaning back far enough. Thinking back to social psych, I was cringing inwardly. Arbitrarily assigning kids into groups and giving some power over others? What could possibly go wrong?

However, I feel it is very important to remain Zen. As much as the Japanese way might frustrate me at times like this, I should strive to keep an open mind, and not dismiss things just because they are different to what I have been brought up to accept. "Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it", as my man Lao Tzu said. Anyway, now that I'm actually teaching, things are a lot more fun, but that will have to wait for another post because this has become an epic.


  1. Odd that you expected an ambiguous l/r to make the question 'are you singer' not 'are you single' (though both questions are strange). Did you have a kareoke reputation going ahead of you?

  2. Well, my predecessor was a virtuoso pianist and singer, so I guess I was thinking they might expect the same of me. Also, being a Zen master, thoughts of sexual relationships don't enter my mind. :)

    More to the point though, the Japanese apical postalveolar flap tends to sound closer to 'r' to an English speaker's ear in most contexts, and is thus transliterated as such in words like karate, samurai and origami.