Saturday, January 30, 2010

That Zentertainment

I just experienced an earthquake while doing zazen (meditation). If only a geisha had been somehow involved, that would have been a Japanese full house.

After my initial enthusiasm, I pretty much fell off the Zen wagon. It looked like Zen would go the way of Twitter, learning to skateboard, massage classes, and countless other pursuits that I thought were the bee's knees for a couple of weeks before embarrassingly abandoning them forever. It turns out that sitting still and looking at a wall is quite boring.

However, at my office shinnenkai (New Year party), I got chatting (through a considerable language barrier) to my local Zen priest, who appears to be some kind of honourary or advisory member of the Board of Education. He is also the husband of one of my middle-aged drinking buddies - this isn't a big town. I told him about trying zazen and being very interested in it, and I think impressed him by asking which sect of Zen he belonged to - I'd done my homework! He invited me to come to the temple and do a spot of zazen with him sometime, and he sent a few English-language booklets to my desk at City Hall.

I'd like to take him up on his offer, so I decided to get practicing. I had a flick through the books, and they had some interesting stuff, but I found them kind of hard going. When every tenth word is some italicised Japanese term, it becomes difficult to follow what's going on - a point I shall try to remember when writing this blog. They also spent a lot of time talking about what some dudes in India said and did thousands of years ago. Perhaps it is a failing of mine, but I am deeply uninterested in history. Scientific publications have a relevance half-life of maybe around a decade, so reading 2500-year-old accounts of the nature of reality doesn't sit easily with me. Lastly, the booklets just seemed a bit too, well, religious. They put a lot of emphasis on what one should and shouldn't do, and if I wanted that I could have stuck with the Abrahamic faiths. So, Hardcore Zen remains my text of choice.

As for the meditation itself, it's interesting in a boring sort of way, kind of like 2001: A space odyssey. I am a restless, fidgety person; I'm forever biting my nails or picking at various parts of my face or doing something similarly unattractive. When I was writing my thesis, I would always be fiddling with something while I was thinking: my favourite items included adjustable spanners, bulldog clips, and little assemblies of Lego. I think this physical restlessness is a reflection of a similarly chaotic mind. So it's an interesting exercise for me to attempt to achieve some kind of inner peace. I'm still not sure whether I'm doing it right - the books say that rather than trying to think of nothing, one should just passively let thoughts come and go, neither fighting them nor pursuing them. That makes a bit more sense to me, but it's still easier said than done. And I keep getting distracted by the weird mental screensaver that kicks in if your eyes don't move for a while. At one point today I wasn't sure whether my eyes were open or not. I've not read anything about this aspect of meditation, so I'm starting to worry that there's something wrong with my eyes and/or brain.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Movin' to the country, gonna hear a lot of speeches

My ankle is healing remarkably well. But, I've said enough about my alpine buffoonery. Today I'm going to talk about school in Japan. Now, when I started this blog, I identified that it would be inappropriate to use it to criticise the Japanese education system. So the following are merely observations. If you think they sound like criticisms, you're wrong. Ok?

So last wednesday was the speech contest for which I'd been helping students prepare. On the day, I was to be the sole native speaker on the distinguished panel of three judges. As happens at virtually every event like this, there was a communication breakdown caused by the combination of my inability to read memos sent to me in Japanese, and no-one really being sure whose jurisdiction I'm under. I've been here long enough to know that formal attire should be worn for pretty much any occasion down to and including the opening of an envelope, so at least I didn't slip up in the apparel department. No, my problem was punctuality. The contest started at 12:30, so I figured if I rocked up just after noon I'd have plenty of time to get set up. But I got a call at 11:45 (when I was still at my far-flung school) demanding to know my whereabouts, because the judges' meeting was starting now. Further compounding the debacle, an expensive bento had been provided for my lunch, which I had neither the time nor the hunger to eat, because my school had kindly given me a couple of sandwiches to keep me going.

Anyway, the contest got underway after the usual opening ceremony rigmarole. It was quite hard work being a judge. I had to listen to 27 five-minute speeches, with only about 30 seconds between each one (there was an interval in the middle). I had to give comments and marks for damage, control, style and aggression English and delivery, and write a little personal message to each competitor. I made these comments exclusively positive – I'm more of a Cheryl Cole than a Simon Cowell. For the judging proper, I adopted the Edinburgh University standardised marking scheme, which is to never under any circumstances use any number outside the range 35-85%.

I spend most of my life worrying about the objectivity of my judgements, so I found it particularly stressful trying to ensure that my assessments were fair and consistent. Complicating this task was the fact that I had coached about two-thirds of the entrants to varying degrees, so I had tuned into their accents and knew what it was they were trying to say. Social psychologists, who make a living out of stating the bleedin' obvious, know that familiarity biases value judgements favourably. But knowing that, was there a danger I would overcompensate and unfairly penalise the students I had worked with. And that's not even getting into ordering effects. It was a minefield.

My judgements were drastically out of whack with the rest of the panel in a couple of instances. Though there was a chief judge and I was not it, I couldn't help but feel that my judgements were more valid since English is my mother tongue. The biggest bone of contention was a girl who had a very animated style of delivery which won over the other two, but I found just over-the-top, unnatural, and detrimental to actually understanding what she was saying. Kind of like William Shatner.

But the judgements were made, the prizes were awarded, and happily there was a reasonably even distribution between schools, though a couple of the small schools punched quite a bit above their weight. I was called up to the stage to give some brief comments, and while my speech may have sounded like a hackneyed amalgam of every judge's cliché in the book (“You should all be really proud of yourselves”, etc.), I really meant every word of my platitudinous praise. These were first and second year kids, so in the case of the former they have been formally studying English for less than a year, but were able to give five minute speeches from memory in front of a room full of people and a panel of judges. That's impressive in my book.

Following the prizegiving, we had a kind of private debriefing. Now, you would think that in a meeting in which you can't understand a word of what is being said, you would do well to keep quiet. But for reasons I can't really explain, I decided to stick my oar in. When asked if I had any comments, I pointed out how terrible an idea it was to have the same person coaching and judging, because of all the conflicts of interests that entails. I suggested some kind of ALT exchange for next time. A little later, I offered the unsolicited opinion that in the section of the competition where the students gave speeches they had written themselves (in Japanese), it was a bad idea to give 40% of the marks for content, since that reflects in large part the teacher's skill as a translator (and the ALT as an editor, more often than not).

After the contest I was invited out for drinks by a few teachers. It was a fairly last-minute thing, so only a handful of people came along. None of them were particularly senior, giving the evening a relaxed, off-the-record kind of feel. One teacher - let's call her Motoko - told me that my outspoken comments had raised a few eyebrows. Evidently the Japanese aren't used to being told that their way they do things is wrong, much less by upstart gaijin. But she reckoned that my points were valid and was glad I had made them, commenting that perhaps it took an outsider's perspective to challenge the received wisdom on how things should be conducted. So hopefully I didn't disgrace myself too much.

While I typically swan off home at around half past four if there is nothing for me to do, I was dimly aware that the average Japanese teacher's (and, for that matter, student's) day went on substantially longer. I sensed that this would be a good opportunity to ask the teachers what their work was really like. I was disturbed by what they had to say. An average sort of time to call it a day seemed to be around 8pm. That's a 12-hour day, five days a week. At a certain school which has a similar attitude to work as I have to snowboarding, working until midnight was not uncommon. I remind you that these were not headmasters, nor even heads of English. Furthermore, if there is some school related event at the weekend, which there often is, teachers are expected to attend.

Japanese teachers are only contracted to work until 4:50pm (my day officially ends at 4:15pm); the rest is all unpaid overtime. Motoko hasn't always been a teacher, instead working for a private firm in a big city until fairly recently. How do these hours compare to the private sector, I asked. She said that 12-hour days were de rigeur there too, but at least she had the weekend to herself.

What do they spend all this time doing? Well, the things that I imagine teachers do after school, i.e. marking and preparing lessons, seemed to represent a pretty small percentage of it. For a start, there are club activities. It seems that almost every teacher is expected to lead some sort of after school club, typically sports-based. The fact that said teacher may have no interest or ability in the sport does not excuse them from this duty. Then there are all the events schools put on here: chorus festivals, cultural festivals, sports days, graduation ceremonies, speech contests, school trips, etc., etc. These all take organisation. And there seems to be a lot of newsletter writing that goes on. I'm always having mysterious sheets of paper put on my desk that appear to be roundups of what's been going on in each year, which must take up a lot of someone's time.

But for me, the hardest part of a teacher's job to get my head around is the bizarre quasi-paternal responsibility that teachers have over their students. One example of this came during the evening, when Motoko-sensei excused herself, explaining that she had to phone the parents of one of her speech contestants to apologise for his disappointing performance. This was one of the moments when Japanese society was just so at odds with my cultural expectations that I had to laugh out loud. But this is the way things are done. Say a kid gets caught shoplifting: his or her homeroom teacher will go to the police station to deal with it. If a parent has some problem with their offspring's education, the teacher is expected to drop everything and discuss the matter with them. Teacher friends of mine have canceled nights out in the past for this very reason.

The teachers present admitted that they frequently didn't get enough sleep because of their workload. Indeed, this evening out was a rare opportunity to socialise. They seemed to realise that this wasn't really healthy; everyone seemed to know someone who had got sick from stress, and there are government initiatives to attempt to reduce the instances of karoushi ("death from overwork" - yup, the Japanese have a word for it). But they all had a resigned, well-what-can-you-do sort of attitude to it.

They did seem a little peeved when I told them how comparatively easy teachers in the UK have it. They were particularly outraged by their famously long holidays, and the revelation that they are indeed on holiday for the duration of them - apparently students and teachers still have to do some form of work over the summer holiday here.

They asked how the UK manages to have such a well-respected education system given all this slackness. This is a good question - for all people might moan about falling standards, the fact is that according to the Times Higher Education rankings (sure, you can argue about the validity of any given ranking, but whatever) Britain has four of the world's top ten universities (the rest are American). My own alma mater comes in 20th equal, just above Japan's best effort. My personal, biased, uninformed take on this is that British schools cut out all the nonsense and just teach. It's all killer, no filler. Actual lessons in a Japanese junior high school only take up five or six hours, i.e. pretty much the same as in a British school. Unlike a British school, the regular schedule is frequently interrupted for the various special events I mentioned previously. Getting an afternoon off to practice for the Christmas carol service or whatever was a rare treat at my school, but hardly a week goes by without something like that happening here.

Obviously I don't see much of classes other than English, but I am vaguely aware of 'morality class'. To be fair, I guess we had pointless stuff like religious education and PSE as well, but it seems to me that quite a lot of time is spent trying to build children's characters and make them into proper members of society. I know a lot of people in the UK think that we should have more of this, but I personally think it's a very good thing that we don't. This is partly because I am pathologically individualistic even by Western standards - I view attempts to socially engineer schoolkids as at best futile and at worst downright sinister. But from a more practical standpoint, students and teachers can only concentrate for so many hours in a day, and the more time you devote to nebulous extra-curricular development, the less actual, proper, useful knowledge is going to get learned.

Woah, it seems I had a lot of opinions - I mean, observations - bottled up. Thanks for listening.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Big limpin'

Or, "Sunshine on a sprainy day".

This post is probably going to contain a lot of snowboarding, and not much Japan.

I went boarding again yesterday. It all started so well. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and I had no accompanying n00bs to impede my progress. The snow was a little firmer than I would have liked, but that's no biggie. I soon set a new speed record for the season of 67km/h, then took it up a notch to 72 clicks.

However, my fortune was about to take a turn for the worse. Like Icarus soaring ever closer to the sun, my hubris was to cost me dear.

The first incident wasn't so bad; merely a foreshadowing of the world of pain I was about to enter into. I was doing a spot of tentative freestyling in one of Zao's three parks. One particular feature they had was a kind of tabletop with a metal barrel on top of it for bonks, jibs, plants, etc. (For the uninitiated, I am not making up snowboarding jargon, tempting though it is to do so.) I avoided the barrel - I'm not insane - instead coming off the approach ramp at an oblique angle. The trouble with this was that there was no slope to ease my landing. Even though I must have only got four or five feet into the air, I landed on the flat surface with my legs rather too straight, sending a jarring jolt up my spine. Best not do that again, I mentally chastised myself.

Later, in park two of three, I tried a boardslide on a box (that is, riding along a fairly wide raised platform with my board perpendicular to my direction of motion). I used to be able to do this, but I seem to have lost the ability. To pull it off, you have to put your weight much further forward than you ever would on snow. If you lean back, the board slips out from under you on the low-friction surface and you land on your arse. Typically, the momentum carries you off the end of the box and you reprise your derriere impact on the snow. This is precisely what happened to me, and it was painful enough to make me decide it was time to have a karee raisu for lunch and attempt to regroup.

After lunch, I decided to leave the parks alone. I was zipping along a run that would probably be a fairly fast blue in the European system, probably going at something in the region of 55km/h (35mph). At that kind of speed, you really don't want to fall. But that's what I did. I'm not quite sure what happened, but before I knew it I was tumbling head over board, trying to get into a foetal position so as not to snap any protruding limbs. I largely succeeded in this regard, but the nose of my board dug into the snow, putting rather a lot of force onto my left ankle. As I got up, much to the relief of concerned-looking onlookers, it was my ankle that hurt the most.

I took a long break with a can of Royal Milk Tea (a diabetes-inducingly sweet 'British style' tea that I'm sure Anisha would enjoy) bought from one of the slope-side vending machines. My ankle hurt, but I reckoned I was ok to keep riding, and besides I had to if I wanted to get back to the car.

So, I continued, taking it a little easier. Zao is blessed with a lot of steep banks at the sides of its pistes, making something approaching a natural quarter-pipe in places. I very much enjoy building up some speed and then carving up these at a steep angle, performing a 180 at the apex, and then dropping back into the piste. When I'm feeling less adventurous, as I now was, it's fun just to ride up onto to the bank in a big lazy arc. This is what I did, with my drop-in taking me through a patch of little twigs sticking up out of the snow. One can usually get away with riding straight over little plants without incident, but it's always hard to judge just what flora is going to present significant resistance. On this occasion, I had underestimated the little shrubs' resilience, and the sudden deceleration sent me straight into a vicious faceplant, rather like putting a stick through the spokes of a bicycle. As I sat at the side of the piste, spitting blood from my cut lip, I realised that this was getting silly. Snowboarding was becoming little more than an expensive and elaborate form of self harm for me.

My ankle was getting no better. I was realising that it was one of those injuries that is acutely painful, then is reduced to a dull ache by adrenaline, but gradually comes back, progressively limiting one's mobility. Due to my profound grippiness, it really pains me to leave a ski resort while it's still open. I also have a slightly masochistic obsession with 'getting back on the horse', i.e. if you suffer a painful injury you have to go back and do whatever it is you were doing again, so that you won't develop a fear of it. But sense eventually won out, and I threw in the towel at around quarter to three.

Fortunately I ride regular and drive an automatic, so my ankle did not restrict my driving ability. By the time I got home, it had seized up so much that I was loudly grunting with pain as I tried to take my boots off. I prescribed myself a hot bath, painkillers (oral) and whisky to take the edge off it.

At school today I was limping around like Gregory House MD. Eventually someone who I'm assuming was the school nurse took pity on me, and administered a cold compress. She advised me to see a doctor. Being male I have a natural aversion to this suggestion, but the fact that I neither know where a doctor is nor how to communicate with the hypothetical physician means it's really not going to happen.

So, for the second time in a month, I'm hobbling around like an old man. I'm not sure what my problem is. Maybe I'm just getting old; perhaps my haggard 27-year-old frame can't take this kind of punishment any more. Or maybe it's because I'm used to having my X-treme ambitions checked by the crappy weather, sketchy snow conditions or heinous overcrowding of Cairngorm. Long, quiet, visible, sunny slopes may be like sirens beckoning me to the rocks of epic bail, to overuse Ancient Greek metaphors. Or it could be bad karma for being an antisocial ponce; I could possibly do with some boarding companions to slow me down. Anyway you look at it, I think I need to be a little more careful on my board from now on.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Dancing clean

This post is kind of like when they say “Captain's log: supplemental” on Star Trek. As I think I've mentioned previously, schoolkids in Japan spend 15 minutes a day cleaning the school. If I'm not doing anything important, as is the case 90% of the time, I join in. There are many kinds of cleaning that happen, and I think the students have some kind of rota worked out. But I usually just grab a broom, and head for a room that might actually be dirty, like an art or home economics room. Normal classrooms don't have much opportunity to gather dust in the 24 hours since their last sweeping, and I find it kind of depressing to sweep an already clean room.

But there's currently a much more fun cleaning activity on offer. Since there is 60cm of snow on the ground (they have a measuring stick), some students shovel snow out of the carpark and onto a nearby frozen pond. This is my kind of cleaning. Physical, manly cleaning. I particularly like breaking up the snow mound by wielding a spade like I'm some kind of wintry samurai.

Anyway, during this cleaning time they always play music over the school PA system. Their choices of tune often strike me as a little odd. One of my schools plays The land of hope and glory, which just seems a bit too stirring for idly sweeping fluff from under bookcases. Another plays music that made me feel exactly like I was playing an RPG on a 16-bit console. I eventually asked a student what it was and he told me it was from Kingdom Hearts, so I was more-or-less right. But my current school takes the prize. They play a weird mid-90s dance style reworking of Abba's Dancing Queen. It's amazing. Today I managed to record a little sample of it on my phone. Apologies for the quality. Check out the funky breakdown and the pseudo-scratching sampling effect.

You're cold then you're hot

Sorry for the sporadic updates, blog fans. Last week I was being kept busy coaching students for the upcoming speech contest. Being at school at 8:30am on weekends and working ten-hour days during the week was the order of the day. This meant that I neither had the time to write in the blog, nor to do anything blogworthy.

On friday I had another training seminar. JET is by no means the only organisation providing ALTs to Japan, but I think it's fair to say that we are to English teaching as Hoegaarden is to continental beer or Burton is to snowboards – expensive but supposedly of high quality. In order to ensure a tip-top standard of teaching, they lay on these frequent training events. This one was pretty good. It was just for the 11 JET ALTs working in this region of Yamagata Prefecture, so it had a cosy, friendly feel. We all had to present a novel lesson plan to try and give each other some fresh ideas. I whipped out my trusty JavaScript English sumo game, and though I made a pig's ear of explaining how to play (I only had a ten minute slot, and I rushed it) it seemed to go down very well.

Some ALTs from the nearby town of Yonezawa had taken it upon themselves to play host to gaijin from all over Yamagata for a weekend of revelry. First on the agenda was a trip to Tengendai Kogen ski resort on saturday. I'm keen to check this place out; while it is only small (about 0.5Cg), the word on the street is that it has the best powder around. However, while everyone else flocked to Tengendai, I headed up to Zao on my own. I'm concerned that this move has been perceived as rather antisocial by my contemporaries, so allow me to pointlessly defend my decision here:
  • I have my Zao Ekusaitingu (exciting) 10 ticket, and due to back injuries and weekend speech contest sessions, I had only actually used two of my ten prepaid days. So I'm somewhat reluctant to pay to go anywhere else until I've milked that ticket dry, or at least demonstrated to my own satisfaction that I will have sufficient opportunity to do so.
  • They were planning to go for the afternoon only, which strikes me as shamefully softcore. Of course, there was nothing to stop me going in the morning and meeting them up there.
  • So, the real crux of the issue: I think I actually prefer to snowboard alone. Well, let me qualify that. If you have people who you get on well with, who are of a similar level of competence as yourself, and with a similar attitude to snowsports, then it's really nice to have the company. Weaving in and out of each others' tracks is fun, and it's good to have someone to chat to on the chairlift. Even then, you need to have an understanding that anyone can go off and do their own thing at any time without fearing recriminations. It's not easy to get into this magical sweet spot of snowboarding harmony, and as the size of your group increases the chance of it occurring drops exponentially. If you just go with some random assortment of people, you'll probably spend all your time hanging around, waiting for decisions to be made, and fighting your growing resentment of the person who refuses to go on anything harder than a blue run. And you can forget about going to a park. So, I'd rather not take that risk, and consequently I enjoy going solo. Come to think of it, this paragraph reflects my attitude to relationships pretty much perfectly.
So, I went to Zao. Even though it was bitterly cold and overcast and the snow was quite tracked out, I had an awesome day. Either I've got my eye in for the season now, or it was just that fact that I wasn't sleep-deprived and hungover like on my last two visits, but I was on top of my game. I tackled the legendary 38° black run for the first time, and even though the snow was fairly shredded, I negotiated it in a respectably aggressive manner. I located a couple of snowparks (I don't think they had yet been built on my previous visits), but my tricking wasn't up to the standard of my riding. I fell on my ass on funboxes twice, which probably wasn't the best for my back, but three days later I'm still standing.

Feeling guilty about being so antisocial, I decided to meet up with the rest of the crew for dinner in Yonezawa. The 15km trip took an hour due to the blizzard conditions that had set in. Dinner came in the form of my second visit to a baikingu (Viking) restaurant – an all-you-can-eat buffet with a surprisingly wide selection of food for 2000yen. (I'm not sure why it's called 'Viking'; maybe they're thinking of smorgasbords?) The highlights are make-your-own crepes, and yakiniku (literally, 'grilled meat'), whereby you have a little grill recessed into you table and you help yourself to raw pieces of meat that you then barbecue yourself. Of course, it's hard to leave without a painfully distended stomach and a deep feeling of disgust at your own gluttony.

I didn't partake in the evening's revelry because I was driving, and I had a speech contest session at 08:30 on sunday. But once that was out of the way, I rejoined the growing crowd of gaijin for the main attraction: the firewalking festival. A little temple in the woods outside Yonezawa was hosting this event. It was quite a scene: the temple and surrounding trees were covered in a thick layer of snow, and big fat flakes were continually tumbling down from the sky. It reminded me of the end of Kill Bill part 1. Contrasting this muted winter setting were colourful kanji banners, priests in bright yellow robes, and a huge bonfire. We each paid our 500yen, which bought us a cup of hot, sweet rice drink; some kind of paper lucky charm that would supposedly offer specific protection against house-fires; and - most importantly – the right to walk across some burning wood.

Once the flames died down the priests flattened out the bonfire into a five or six metre long pathway, all the while solemnly chanting and drumming. One of the priests was the first to walk it, clasping his hands serenely in front of his chest and proceeding to stride across with a relaxed, unhurried gait. He didn't burst into flames, so it was deemed safe for the punters.

We all lined up, the foreigners respectfully hanging back to let to locals have their turn first. Although we knew there was no real danger – they were letting anyone over the age of seven firewalk – there was quite a lot of nervous joking around in the queue. As our turns drew nearer, we took off our boots and stood barefoot on the snow, which really is quite uncomfortable.

When my turn came, I was determined to push the envelope by walking as slowly as possible over the coals. I put my hands in the prayer position, adopted my best peaceful Zen face, and waited for the priest to slap me on the back to tell me to go. When he did, I strode out at a languorous pace. It wasn't too hot – the magic of specific heat capacity worked. The trouble is, the heat builds up. About three quarters of the way across, my foot started to feel distinctly hot. Someone watching me said that he saw a grimace flash across my Face of Zen, and I completed the last two steps of my spiritual journey in a rather less composed manner than I began it. I think someone was filming, but I haven't seen the video yet.

Anyway, I emerged unscathed. I had dirtied my soles but cleansed my soul. Some people (men, of course) felt the need to push the zenvelope further, and ended up actually blistering their feet with their ponderous firewalks. Idiots.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

JET Programme interview tips

Or, "B-B-B-B-B-Benny and the JETs".

I got an email from a friend-of-a-friend today who has his JET interview coming up and wants some pointers. It got me thinking that since it's interview season (mine was in late January), it might be nice to give some advice not just to that guy, but to any other stressed-out applicants who stumble across this blog.

Thus, this post is a little different to my other ones, as signified by the boringly functional title. If you are one of my friends back home, this may not be very interesting, so please feel free to stop reading now. I thought about starting a separate blog for this kind of thing, but I'm not sure whether I'll keep it up and there's nothing more embarrassing than an abortive blog.

So, interviews. What should you expect? Well, the first thing to say is that obviously it depends greatly on which embassy or consulate you interview in. For the record, I came through Edinburgh. If you get accepted to the JET Programme, you're going to hear the phrase "every situation is different" (ESID) a lot. It's like a mantra in these circles. At times it's a feeble cop-out used by responsibility-shirking scoundrels, but usually it really is true. The second thing to say is that I don't have any inside knowledge about the selection process, so I'm only sharing my experiences as a punter.

First of all, dress smartly. For men, we're talking full-on suits here. I can't emphasise this enough; Japan is a nation obsessed with ceremony and protocol and by dressing insufficiently formally you're shooting yourself in the foot right from the get-go. I don't have piercings, but if you do should should probably remove them. I've heard wildly conflicting reports about the acceptability of beards, but I kept my goatee (very neatly trimmed, of course) for the interview, and have retained it all the time I've been here, with no problems.

Having some insomniac tendencies, I slept extremely poorly the night before my interview, which wasn't ideal. When I arrived at the consulate I was met by a former JET. The first thing he did was to give me a five-minute written English test. I consider myself pretty strong in the English department, but this was quite tricky, with the spelling section in particular causing problems for my tiredness- and anxiety-addled brain. But I wouldn't worry too much, as I really can't imagine that it's a central part of the selection process. Maybe it's like a tie-breaker. I wouldn't even rule out the possibility that it's just a psychological trick to try to rattle you.

Next I was sat down on a sofa in front of a looping DVD about the programme. The former JET floated around near me. Now, I stress that this is just speculation, but a friend of mine who had been through the process before reckoned that this was actually part of the test, i.e. that the former JET was a 'good cop' assessing your personality in a more relaxed setting. I think she may be right. So I decided to give the DVD little attention, and instead focus my efforts on chatting to the guy. He was a friendly sort, and I had lots of questions to ask him about his experiences, so the conversation flowed well.

Then I got called into the interview room. My panel was just two people, a slightly surly-looking Japanese man and a smiley but intense British woman. I would say the atmosphere was fair-to-intimidating. For one thing, they were behind a desk and I was sitting on a chair in the middle of the room, which is a textbook way to make someone feel exposed and defensive. I have heard other JETs say their interview had a hostile atmosphere reminiscent of a war crimes tribunal. I've also heard stories of deliberate ploys to unsettle you, for example them saying something like, "Why did you request placement in Hiroshima?" when you in fact you didn't, to see how you will handle a misunderstanding. So, bear in mind that they may well try to mess with you, just to see if you lose your composure. If things seem to be going wrong then it might all be part of their plan.

My aforementioned (female) JET veteran friend was asked "What would you do if a male teacher asked you what your bra size was?" and I was asked "Imagine you had a snowboarding trip planned for the weekend, then on friday, your headmaster asked you to come in on saturday to help clean the school. What would you do?" At the time I thought that these were both examples of the deliberate playing of silly buggers to try and get a rise out of the interviewee, but now that I'm here, both of those scenarios actually seem fairly plausible. In any case, expect some question along the lines of your cultural norms being violated and how you would handle it. My advice to you is to be spinelessly compliant in your answer. I said "I would cancel the snowboard trip; I understand that flexibility is a very important requirement in a JET." I think this was the right answer. If there's one thing the Japanese don't like, it's a free-thinking maverick.

Seriously though, flexibility is key. You could be teaching three-year-olds on monday and 17-year olds on tuesday. You could be living in a metropolis like Osaka (as a rule, virtually no JETs are placed in Tokyo), or on some tiny godforsaken island off the coast of Hokkaido. If you don't think you can handle being thrown into experiences outside of your comfort zone, this probably isn't the job for you; just read this blog for examples of some of the odd situations I've found myself in. So, play up you flexibility, but try not to sound like you just don't care about anything.

You may well be asked to improvise a lesson. As it happens I wasn't, but I know plenty of people who were. So for instance you might be asked to talk for a couple of minutes about yourself, your country, Christmas, etc. to an imaginary 12-year-old Japanese audience. I was about to say that this is an unreasonable thing to ask you to do, because no-one would ever expect you to freestyle a lesson with zero notice, but sadly that's not true. Anyway, they obviously can't expect it to be well structured or thought out, so all I would say is keep the language very simple, speak more slowly than you think is sensible, use lots of gestures (maybe even use imaginary props), and above all be genki: big smiles, expressive voice, animated movements.

What else? Obviously you'll be asked some variant of "Why do you want to be a JET?" so have an answer ready for that. They will probably test your knowledge of Japan; I was asked for three places excluding snowboard resorts that I wanted to visit in Japan. You can try to bone up for this kind of thing on Wikipedia, but it's easy to stress yourself out trying to cram names of Japanese places, musicians, actors, politicians, etc. into your head. Hopefully if you're applying you already have some interest in the country, so try to steer the conversation around to whatever your specific flavour of Japanophilia is. If, like me, you're coming from a slightly otaku direction, then I think it's perfectly acceptable to talk about your love of anime, manga, games, cosplay, or whatever, since these are all legitimate facets of Japanese popular culture (well, maybe not cosplay). Just try not to sound like a socially retarded nerd when you do it; play up the social aspects of these hobbies, and talk about how you can use them to connect with your prospective students.

You should also expect to be asked about your own country. In my preparations, I actually tried to remember the names of members of the cabinet, which looking back was fairly insane. Think about what colourful traditions your town/region/country has that would be interesting to foreigners. Scotland is blessed with quite a lot of these, so I milked them for all they were worth, prompting the Japanese guy to ask me for three interesting British places outside of Scotland. I rattled off Buckingham Palace and Stonehenge immediately, then dried up horribly on the third, meekly suggesting "Blackpool?" after an agonising protracted silence.

I also got quizzed about my insomnia. As you will already know from the application form, JET are very jumpy about anything that even slightly resembles a mental illness. While this does seem like a somewhat outrageous invasion of privacy, I can kind of understand why they do it - moving to a foreign culture where you know no-one and are illiterate is quite a challenge to one's mental stability, and the last thing they want is embarrassing and inconvenient suicides to deal with.

The final thing to note about the interview is that it's short. I couldn't have spent much more than ten minutes in the interview proper, which at the time I took as a bad sign. But I am living proof that it's not - I was accepted initially, not upgraded from the reserve list.

So if you have an interview, ganbatte kudasai! I can exclusively confirm I shall be re-contracting for another year, so that's one less vacancy, sorry.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Coccyx-six-six, the lumbar of the beast

Happy New Year! Actually, four days in, 2010 hasn't been so great for me. But I'll get to that.

Hogmanay (obviously, it's not called that here) was fun. I typically eschew big public New Year parties in favour of cosy nights in with friends or family, and my first Japanese New Year was no exception, as I spent the evening with Marie and her husband. There are an astonishing number of traditions surrounding New Year here, many of them food-based. Below is a list of things I consumed, along with their supposed magical effects. As you can see, there is a charmingly insane kind of logic to this voodoo:
  • Noodles. People eat soba at New Year, for longevity. You see, noodles are long, so if you eat them your life will be too. An alternative interpretation is that the buckwheat plants from which soba is made grow pretty much anywhere, so you can inherit their hardiness by consuming them. For some reason, we deviated from the norm by eating ramen (Chinese noodles) instead of soba. They are similarly long and thin, so I should be covered.
  • Beans. This one appears to be a simple pun. The Japanese catch-all word for beans, peas and pulses is mame. But mame also means hardworking, so eating beans will clearly make you more productive.
  • Prawns. This is probably my favourite piece of tortured superstition logic. Prawns have curved backs, right? So do old people. (As an aside, I've seen a lot of old people with very pronounced stoops around here. I'm not sure why – maybe it's just because Japanese people live so long – but I'm a little worried it has something to do with war-linked malnutrition in their youth.) Thus, prawns symbolise longevity. Therefore, prawns and soba will turn you into a veritable Methuselah.
  • Herring roe. This is fairly straightforward: eating eggs will make you fertile. Why it has to be herring eggs as opposed to, say, chicken eggs I don't know. I suppose you can eat a far greater number of herring eggs. Marie said she looked forward to spending future New Years with my resultant big family, and I taught her the English idiom “don't hold your breath”.
  • Sake. It was no ordinary sake for the last night of the decade. Oh no. This sake had flakes of real gold floating in it, symbolising prosperity. I'm not sure how canonical this tradition is; I suspect my hosts just enjoyed the big pimpin' atmosphere created by quaffing back tiny pieces of inert precious metal. I know I did.
Conspicuous by its absence was mochi, a New Year favourite whose stretchy consistency also supposedly confers long life to those who eat it. But I think I got my fill of mochi at the party a few weeks ago. The grasshoppers also made a welcome return to the menu, despite having no alleged magical effects.

The entertainment for the night was Kouhaku Uta Gassen (literally, “red and white song battle”), a four-and-a-half hour musical marathon broadcast on NHK, the Japanese equivalent of BBC. This is a national institution in which male and female (white and red, respectively) singers battle for crooning supremacy, as judged by some mysterious combination of a celebrity panel and viewer votes. Appearance is by invitation only, and the line-up was impressive; virtually every mainstream Japanese musical act I've heard of was there, including my male students' favourite, AKB48. Foreigners rarely appear on the show, but this year the red team featured none other than SuBo, embarrassingly.

Due to its campness, pyrotechnics, over-earnest balladery and above all its gruelling length, the show had a very similar feel to the Eurovision Song Contest. As we neared the conclusion, the large amounts of golden sake I'd consumed got the better of me, and I made a wager with Marie about who would win. I was sure that SuBo's might would propel the red team to victory. After some enjoyable trash-talking, I came out 1000yen poorer as the male team bagged their fifth consecutive victory. “Thank you, Finlay-sensei” she said as I handed over the note, her use of the honorific suffix being the first instance of Japanese sarcasm that I've understood.

At midnight people go to a shrine (Shinto place of worship), where the priest rings a big bell 108 times to mark the beginning of the year. My hosts were satisfied to watch the spectacle on TV, but I wanted a piece of the action for real. Marie explained that because she had suffered a bereavement this year, it would be inappropriate for her to go to the shrine. The Japanese take the concept of mourning very seriously, with it being forbidden to be seen to be having any fun following the death of a loved one. However, due to a curious religious loophole, it's acceptable to go to a Buddhist temple while mourning. So that's what we did. There weren't many people there, because everyone was at the shrine, which meant that we were allowed to ring the bell once each. Looking out over snow-covered Akayu from the temple was certainly a memorable way to start the decade.

The following day I got up around noon and had a Skype chat with my parents, who of course were still up despite it being 3am GMT. After that I was doing something mundane like going to the kitchen to put the kettle on, when I felt a sudden excruciating pain in my lower back. I quickly realised that standing was not a viable option, and crumpled to the ground in the manner of someone being unplugged from the Matrix, overturning my sofa as I fell. With a strange presence of mind, I decided that I should get to the toilet, because it might be a while before I'd be able to do that again. I crawled to the lavatory, and sure enough by the time I'd attended to that business (I decided not to pan for gold) my muscles had seized up and rendered me virtually immobile.

This presented me with a problem, because my toilet is outside the heated zone of my house, and there was a blizzard raging outside. I realised that I really had to make it back to the living room one way or another. It took me about ten minutes to cover the couple of metres, dragging myself along with my arms because even crawling was too painful. Once I made it back into the warmth, I lay on the floor for a while and considered my situation. The prawn voodoo had worked too literally, I mused ruefully. I wondered whether my problem was linked to snowboarding two days previously, when I had bailed off a kicker and landed on my tailbone with sufficient force that I actually bounced. It hadn't hurt that much at the time though.

Whatever the cause, I had more pressing concerns to address. I was unable to get food, water or painkillers, and I wasn't sure I had that much kerosene left in my heater. When it became clear that my situation was not improving, I decided to reach for my phone and call the cavalry.

I called my supervisor Hosokawa. While his English is way, way better than my Japanese, it's still far from perfect, and I wasn't sure he'd properly understood the unusual situation I found myself in. So I decided not to take any chances, and called Aoyagi-sensei, an English teacher that I've become quite good friends with. After I helped her out with speech contest preparations, she said I should get in touch if I needed help with anything, and I reasoned that this scenario qualified as me needing help.

They came, sorted me out with food and water, and put anything I might need within arm's reach. I had done well to call Aoyagi, because it turns out she has not one but two nurses in her family, so was able to hook me up with all the medical supplies I could ask for. The thorniest problem was what to do about going to the toilet. In the end she supplied me with empty bottles and adult nappies (from the hospital), neither of which I ended up using, thankfully. Once doped up on painkillers, I was able to crawl slowly to my bathroom.

Some of the painkillers she gave me were not intended for oral administration, if you know what I mean. Apparently that kind of thing is commonplace in this country. I'd never used a suppository before, and it wasn't an opportunity I was relishing. “Think of it like tea ceremony” she encouraged me, “a new, Japanese experience that may be a little uncomfortable”. I decided that this would be my second-to-last resort, before euthanasia.

The next morning they both came to check on me again, bringing me a hearty breakfast of gyuudon. Following a lengthy discussion in Japanese, it was decided that I should go to hospital. After a lot of waiting around on a stretcher, I got an X-ray (interestingly called a rentogen in Japanese, after its inventor Wilhelm Roentgen). Nothing was fractured or dislocated, so there was nothing to do but keep taking the painkillers and wait for it to heal naturally. The doctor also advised me that rectal medication would be the most effective way to treat the pain, so that evening I gave in and cracked out the waxy torpedo. It's not so bad really, and it did relieve the pain better than pills. I'd give it the thumbs-up, so to speak.

So I spent the weekend listening to a lot of podcasts and watching a lot of downloaded TV. Saturday night was an important milestone, as I was able to sit up and thus play BioShock. By yesterday I could walk, albeit it slowly and painfully, and now I'm back at work, functioning normally other than hobbling a bit and occasionally wincing with pain when I attempt to do something like sneeze. Bowing is also a little problematic.

Marie told me that the way you spend January 1st reflects how your fortune will be for the year. I hope she's wrong.

Epilogue: I wrote all that at City Hall, and I'm now back home. The FM transmitter I bought on eBay came the other day, so I drove home with the bass turned up and Shakira and Sophie Ellis-Bextor blaring out of the speakers, like some kind of homosexual ned. I can't tell you how good it sounded to my English-language-pop-starved ears. Also, Lady Gaga just gets better with every song; Bad Romance is excellent.