Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Cherry cherry bloom bloom

Or, 'Bloom bloom pow'.
Or, 'Bloom bloom bloom, let me hear you say "Way-oh!"'
Or, 'They call me Mr Bloombastic'
Ok, I'll stop now.

Last saturday was the long-awaited 'Hanami in the minami' here in Akayu. (You see, minami means 'south', and Nanyo is in south Yamagata. In fact, Nanyo literally means 'southern sunshine'.) It was postponed from the previous weekend, and just as well, because on the day it was originally scheduled, there was a thick covering of freakishly late snow on the ground.

The event was supposed to begin at 10:30am, so being the kind of person who takes punctuality seriously, I was in position at the park then. No-one else was, leaving me mournfully munching edamame on my own. There are few experiences more depressing than a one-man hanami, or Hanami Solo, as I like to call it. Fortunately, after about twenty minutes another guy showed up. I was impressed by his choice of drink - while I had opted for a 1.8 litre bottle of cheap sake from the supermarket (don't tell Marie-san!), he had gone the route of a Japanese old man and brought a bottle of shouchuu (like vodka, but weaker and made from rice), a portable urn of hot water with which to dilute it, and his own special ceramic tumbler.

Over the following three or four hours our party gradually grew like a gaijin Katamari. Conditions were less than ideal; thankfully it didn't rain, but it was decidely chilly, and our exposed spot atop a small hill meant that we were buffeted by icy gusts. We actually resorted to building a makeshift windbreak out of tarpaulins, camping stools, and people. Because of the recent cold snap, the cherry trees themselves hadn't yet reached their full glory either. The buds were swollen and deep pink, but not yet exposing their petals. I found the fuchsia blush on the branches rather fetching, but everyone who had witnessed full-blown sakura evacuated their bladders on my French fries by insisting that this was nothing.

Despite these setbacks, we spent an enjoyable afternoon chatting, drinking, and eating our way through the small mountain of communal food we had assembled in the middle of our main tarp. The previous day had been Marie's birthday, so I was feeling a little jaded from the drinking that had accompanied that. Thus I made the very restrained decision not to crack open my huge bottle of sake until the arbitrary watershed of 14:30. Someone had prepared a Yamagata quiz to entertain us - I impressed with my knowledge of local dialect and the regional differences in Yamagata's traditional stew (down here it's beef and soy, those jokers up north use pork and miso), but slipped up by only knowing one of our prefecture's three sacred mountains. We also played a Taboo-style game, and I got a little overcompetitive, as is my wont.

As the sun sank, the complaints about the cold rose. I guess not everyone grew up at 57deg north, nor enjoyed the insulating effects of a sake jacket and a generous layer of subdermal fat. We decided that the best way to warm up would be with a dip in one of Akayu's famous onsen. (Continuing the etymology lesson, Akayu literally means 'red hot-water' [hot water and cold water are different words in Japanese], which comes from a legend about a wounded samurai who bathed in one of our hot springs, turning the water red with his blood but becoming miraculously healed in the process.) This split the group into two camps: those who love a good onsen, and those who are troubled by the required nudity. The latter group is composed of two factions: those who will not participate in communal bathing under any circumstances, and those who are alright with nude strangers but draw the line at nude friends.

Given that I'm generally uptight and self-conscious, it's surprising that I fall into the onsen-loving group. Maybe the fact that I can't see very well without my glasses - coupled with my general social obliviousness - helps take the edge off it; I can't really tell if people are staring at my white genitals, or Cauc-and-balls, as I like to call them. Anyway, while the prudes holed up in a cafe, we went to my onsen of choice, which features two pools: uncomfortably hot, and hotter. Immersing yourself in liquid substantially warmer than the inside of your body - having drunk sake all afternoon - really does make one feel light-headed, but is strangely enjoyable. Interestingly, one of our female members apparently has several tattoos, including some rather racily positioned on her breasts, but didn't encounter any problems.

After the onsen we took the party to my house. Seeing my webcam, someone teasingly asked me whether I was into Chatroulette. For the record, I am not. However, a few people had never heard of this phenomenon, so I fired up my laptop to demonstrate. For those who don't know, Chatroulette is a website that throws you into a webcam conversation with a random stranger, and either of you can terminate the session at any point and move onto a new partner. Given the internet's predilection for filth, it should come as no surprise that at least 30% of participants are exhibitionist men operating their computers with one hand, if you catch my meaning.

For the duration of the party we had a Chatroullete session open, with people periodically floating in and out to talk to the randomly-assigned strangers. Top tip: having some females on camera substantially reduces your chances of being instantly skipped. We managed to have one long, civil, sensible, clothed conversation with a 17 year old kid from California who was interested in Japan, and to be honest that was more than I was expecting. We also stumbled across a rather uninhibited and attractive heterosexual couple, which raised a few eyebrows.

The rest of us played Rock Band, with the Lady Gaga tracks that recently became available proving popular. As the night wound down, the few of us who were planning to sleep at mine topically chilled out with spot of the ambient, artsy non-game Flower. It was one of those rare occasions when I felt I'd drunk the exactly optimum amount, becoming relaxed and jovial without descending into shambolic intoxication, and as a result I felt fairly fresh the next day. It's a refreshing change to drink with Westerners, who aren't constantly urging you to imbibe more with relentless refills.

My city hall time-killing is almost over, as I am back in the classroom on May 10th, and between then and now is Golden Week, a contrived arrangement of four public holidays in quick succession. Recently, my underemployment has not been quite so painful, as I've been getting out of city hall for two afternoons a week. One of my Japanese teachers' day job is working at a school for kids whose learning problems prevent them from attending regular classes. Because of both depopulation and a move towards including these students in normal schools as far as possible, the place is not very busy. So I've been given permission to hang out there, receiving some fairly laid-back Japanese tuition (in stark constrast to her brain-fryingly hardcore evening classes) and occasionally playing games with the kids.

One of the games I played was Blokus, a four-player game that's kind of like reverse-Tetris, in that you must place blocks in as sprawling a configuration as possible to command the board. Being a bit of a board game geek, I was surprised I'd never heard of it. After being humiliatingly beaten in the first game by a primary school child with learning difficulties (I think she was hustling), I revised my strategy and dominated the second. I was hooked.

As we were tidying up, the sensei mentioned the sub-challenge of arranging all 12 five-blocks (pentominoes) into rectangles of various dimensions (10x6 is easiest, 20x3 is hardest), commenting that neither she, nor any of her students, had ever been able to do it. Well, to someone with a degree in artificial intelligence and a lot of time on his hands, this was a red rag to a bull. (Yes, I realise the answers are readily available on the internet, but that's not the point.) I spent most of the next day writing a Java program to tackle the problem. The answer eluded me, but after sleeping on it and coming up with a smarter, less brute-force approach, I nailed it.

This task is a textbook problem that you might do in second year of an AI degree, but I enjoyed every minute of it. I can get absorbed in a juicy programming problem the same way that people get lost in books or mediatation or art: my awareness of everything but the task at hand falls away giving me a kind of beautiful clarity. It made me realise that whatever I do for a living after JET should probably involve programming.

So, having warmed up on the pentominoes problem, I think I will tackle the game proper next. Multiplayer games are a bit more saucy than single-player ones, as the behaviour of your opponent(s) is ouside of your control, so flexibility is required. I think I'll start with the two-player variant, as that should be a bit more tractable than the full game. Danny, consider this an AI-gauntlet (which I imagine would look like the things they use in Minority Report) being thrown down.

Monday, April 19, 2010

I think I'm alone now

This post isn't going to have much by way of a point. It's really just a dump of what's going on in my brain right now. Hope that's ok.

It's monday morning, and I'm on my own as all the other members of my sub-section of the board of education are curiously absent. They were here for the morning meeting, dressed in casual clothes, then they mysteriously left, joking that I was in charge of answering the phone. Before leaving, the beautiful (alas, married) secretary who sits opposite me - already unusually easy on the eye thanks to her street clothes and functional ponytail - literally donned a nurse's uniform. I was quite excited. It turns out she's helping out with students' health checks today.

I had quite a lazy weekend. I got an import copy of Fallout 3 last week, so I spent an inordinate amount of time playing that. It's awesome! I love all the anal stat-tweaking of a good RPG (role playing game, for my over-40 readers), but the goblins-and-orcs fantasy nonsense that usually accompanies it leaves me cold. But the ruins of Washington DC following a nuclear apocalypse? That's something I can get behind!

I didn't play all that many video games during my Edinburgh years, and particularly not during the PhD, as I reasoned that while stuggling to motivate myself, buying something that would provide me with endless hours of unproductive distraction would be somewhat self-defeating. So, I think I'm still judging games by the standards of the late-90s to some extent, and clearly, they've come on a bit. Thus, I'm not really the most discerning games reviewer. I have a similar thing with books. I don't read fiction all that often, so whenever I actually sit down and read a novel, I'll generally like it.

I don't see this as a bad thing. This is something I've been thinking about a bit lately: people seem to think that there is something admirable about learning to dislike things. People here laugh at me for eating at the down-market Kappa Sushi, just as people at home mocked me for being happy drinking instant coffee, eating doner kebabs when sober, liking Girls Aloud, and making no attempt whatsoever to decorate my home. I don't see why everyone is in such a hurry to become too jaded and world-weary to enjoy simple pleasures. Pursuing 'quality' seems to me like a recipe for unhappiness. Maybe I'm becoming Zen.

I find that when I spend a whole weekend playing English-language games, listening to English-language music and podcasts, and talking to my friends and family on Skype, I experience a strange miniature culture shock when I step outside the door and find that signs are still illegible. It's a curious, disorienting feeling; you'd think after eight-plus months it would have sunk in that I live in Japan. In other ways, though, I think I am slowly assimilating. In the supermaret yesterday, I found myself thinking that my fellow shoppers didn't look very Japanese. They did, of course, it's just that my concept of a generic person has shifted.

Tonight I have been invited to the Nanyo Rotary Club's hanami party. After a quick look on the internet I am satisfied that they are not, in fact, a shady Masonic-style secret society. The venue is a sushi restaurant, and I imagine nomu-nication will be the order of the day, so it should be fun. I'm just debating whether this would be a good time to wear the kilt.

Afternoon addendum: Ok, I've messed around for two weeks now; it's time to pull my finger out. I just realised that I was studying Japanese more conscientiously whilst struggling to finish a PhD than I am now that I have nothing to do. I supposed this can be explained by the fact that I was motivated by fear of the unknown, along with a desire to do anything to take my mind off fruit flies. Now that I know I can survive in Japan, I don't have such a pressing reason to learn the language.

Nevertheless, it's time to up my game. I don't particularly like the official JET textbooks, because they are in romaji, which just feels clumsy to me now. Neither do I like the textbook that I got for my evening class, mainly because it's all in Japanese (so that people of different native languages can be taught together). I have to consult a separate translation book for any English, which is irritating. So, as of tomorrow, I shall dust off my Japanese for Busy People (volume 2!) that I haven't opened in about six months.

Talking of my PhD work ethic, I just took a nostalgic look over the 'Thesis progress' spreadsheet I kept during my write-up. It details my word count every day, along with little one-line comments about what was going on. You can see it all: the bold start in October '08, the three-month flat-line from January when everything went wrong and I seriously considered just throwing in the towel, then the final push in May, including the legendary day I produced 2380 words.

I experienced a strange mix of emotions looking at it. Those times were hellish, and though I can feel my selective memory attempting to revise my personal history into a rosier light, I feel strongly that I must strive to remember just how awful it was, lest I am ever tempted to try something like that again. But, I also felt a certain sense of pride. I constantly worry that I am a lazy and/or incompetent person, so it's nice to see documentary evidence of me working strenuously and effectively. On top of that, I felt deep relief bordering on elation that it all worked out in the end, because I know how much I doubted that it ever would during the dark times. And finally, I feel a kind of longing for the excitement that I felt then about going to Japan. I'm not complaining about my current situation; it is just the nature of things that the anticipation of anything is more exhilarating than the reality of attaining it.

It's all gone a bit philosophical today. Don't worry, I'm sure I'll go back to blogging about Lady Gaga, maid cafes and suppositories soon.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Do you have to, do you have to let it lingua?

There's not much going on here for me to blog about, so let's talk Japanese. I had my usual weekly Japanese class last night, and I came away feeling a bit dispirited. It's just not getting any easier.

At times like this, I bitterly reminisce about the only other non-programming language I've studied in any depth: German. For a native English speaker, learning German is almost comically easy compared to learning Japanese. Half the words are the same! Compare:

I drank water.
Ich trank wasser.
Watashi wa mizu o nonda.
Or, indeed: 私は水を飲んだ。

Japanese does have a few nice features that, if I was designing a language, I would incorporate. So, before whining about how difficult it is, I'll point out the good bits:
  • No plurals. All nouns in Japanese basically work like English mass nouns (e.g. "water", "butter"), so I don't have to worry about forming plurals. The language doesn't really distinguish between "a tree" and "trees". The downside of this is that when you want to specify that there are three trees, you have to use a counter word ("three glasses of water", "three knobs of butter"). There is a bewildering range of counters used depending on what you are counting: long thin things are hon (or bon, or pon), flat things are mai, small animals are hiki (or piki).
  • No articles. From teaching English I realise that deciding whether to stick "the", "a", nothing at all, or something else like "these" before a noun is very tricky. None of that nonsense here.
  • No gender. One of the biggest pains in the ass with German was remebering that dogs are masculine, cats are feminine, and girls are (oddly) neuter. English has much less of that, but gender still creeps into personal pronouns. Japanese uses pronouns very sparingly, so there really is virtually no gender in the language. (However, the language does change depending on the gender of the speaker, as I explained before.)
  • Logical sentence structure. Sure, it's very different from English: it's subject-object-verb for a start ("MmmMM, you the Force must use."), and every clause it tagged with a particle at the end to indicate what part of the sentence it is. But it makes sense. It's the kind of thing a programmer would come up with. Compare this to the mess of English, where positive sentences have the verb second ("I drank water."), but negative sentences and questions inject a silly auxilliary verb ("I did not drink water.", "Did I drink water?").
  • Easy phonology. Japanese doesn't contain any sounds that are alien to an English speaker. Sure, the halfway l/r consonant is a bit tricky to pull off like a native, but you can just say 'r' and you will be understood. Or indeed 'l' - they literally can't tell the difference. And the consonant+'y' combo causes some people to come unstuck. Tokyo has two syllables (to-kyo), not three (to-ki-o), regardless of what Gwen Stefani tells you.

So thats the good news. Now the bad. For me, learning Japanese has been charactised by smashing headlong into a series of brick walls: linguistic features that seem so gratuitously, perversely confusing that my first response is just to get angry at them. Imagine you're trying to assemble an Ikea coffee table, then someone comes along and cheerfully plucks the screwdriver from your hand. As you struggle to make do with a butterknife or something, he comes back and tells you that you must stand on one leg. A few minutes later he informs you that he's just dumped a load of screws that are slightly the wrong size into you bag of parts, and demands that you now sing Bad Romance in a loop until you finish the table. That's what learning Japanese is like.

Here, in roughly chronological order, are the things that have made me want to tell Japanese to just frak off:

  • The writing systems. Yeah, I've covered this before. Suffice to say, the main problem with a non-phonetic writing system is that it means reading/writing and speaking/listening are separate skills. There are lots of words I can say but not write, and there are also written words whose meaning I can guess at, but which I have no hope of saying aloud.
  • Tense-marked adjectives. Verbs having a past tense is fine. But adjectives?! Give me a break. In Japanese, you don't say "The sushi was delicious"; you say something like "The sushi is delicious-ed". As if this wasn't bad enough, about a third of adjectives don't follow this pattern but behave more like they would in English, so you have to remember which ones are which.
  • Politeness. Depending on just how polite you want to be, "I drank water" could be watashi wa o-mizu o nomimashita, or boku, mizu o nonda. These aren't even extreme examples; they are, respectively, how you would talk to your boss and your friend. If you want to address an emperor or something, it would be completely different again.
  • Insane verb morphology. Let's take our favourite irregular English verb - "drink" - as an example. This can morph into "drank", "drunk", "drinks" or "drinking" depending on grammatical context. Now compare with Japanese, where it could be nomu, nomanai, nonda, nondanakatta, nomimasu, nomimasen, nomimashita, nomimasendeshita, nonde, nomimashou, nomeru, nomou... And that's just what I've learned so far; I'm sure a whole bunch more will come out of the woodwork before my textbook is over.
  • Transitive and intransitive verbs being different. This is the one that upset me last night. In English, you can say "I open the door" (the door is the object) or "the door opens" (the door is the subject). In Japanese, the verb would be akeru in the former case, and aku in the latter. These are similar enough that you could mistake them for conjugations of the same verb, but no, they are in fact different. There are a whole bunch of these transitive-intransitive pairs, and as far as I can discern, no pattern to convert one into the other.

Comparing my experiences with German and Japanese, I wondered if anyone had compiled a ranking of how hard languages are, coming from English. It turns out they have, and wouldn't you know it, Japanese is considered the most difficult language in the world. Linguist Richard Brecht said, "I would like to learn Japanese but I don't have enough time in my lifetime. That's very depressing." I'm kind of glad I didn't know this when I started. At this stage, I actually find it kind of encouraging. My glacial progress not due to me being an idiot, but to the fact that I'm undertaking the most hardcore linguistic challenge the world has to offer.

I think I should be commended for not using the phrase 'cunning linguist' at any point in this post. Dammit!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Like a mergin'

I shall have to watch what I say in this one. Loose lips, and all that.

Well, term has started, and all of my ALT friends are back in the classroom. Not me though. I am still in city hall, struggling to fill my days. Why? Well, things have been, and continue to be, very hectic here in the board of education. In March there were six junior high schools, three big (>200 students) and three small (<100). As of this month, there are only three, with each small one being assimilated into its nearest mother-school. Last week we had an official ceremony to dedicate the shiny new school buses that will shuttle the displaced youngsters to their new place of learning. For some reason, the buses are deepest flamingo pink.

The reason for this restructuring would appear to be depopulation. As you may know, the population of Japan has peaked, dropping by 0.6% in 2008. The cities are still growing, masking a much sharper depopulation in rural areas like mine. Yamagata's population is falling at a shocking annual rate of 8.5%, the sixth fastest of the 47 prefectures. Spare a thought for our neighbour Akita, number one at 11.4%.

So, the schools were operating way under capacity. I can't really argue with the economic rationale behind the move - my smallest school before the merge had just 38 students (and the biggest class just graduated), which doesn't really justify the all the teachers, admin, janitors and other support staff required to keep it running. Being a resource that can only be in one place at a time myself, I can be used more efficiently by three schools than I can by six.

However, I am very sad to see the small schools go. They had a really nice atmosphere, and on average, their students were better at English. Small classes mean more individual attention, which in turn results in happier, higher-performing kids. And small classes are more enjoyable to teach, as you can do activities with 15 students that would never work with 30. One of my big schools would sometimes split classes into two for English lessons, so I'm hoping that more of that will happen this year.

So, as you can imagine, the logistical challenge of pulling off these three simultaneous mergers has kept Nanyo's civil servants on their toes. Understandably, sorting out a schedule for the ALT was not high on the list of priorities for the transition. Consequently, I have no schedule until the beginning of May. That's right, I will do zero teaching for the whole month of April. However, I am still expected to show up at work every day. This is a little frustrating.

One of the toughest things about this job is how little work one has at times. I'm not joking; having nothing to do really does drive you crazy after a while. It's tough to keep your morale up when every day represents a waste of both your time and Japanese taxpayers' money. To any other ALT reading this who finds themself in a similar position, I would advise you to think of yourself as a USB port. Ports are useful to have even if you don't have things plugged into them at all times. Your contracting organisation is paying to have the option of using you. To keep myself sane, I've managed to settle into a routine of writing lots of emails and text messages (when these communications are in Japanese they become valuable time-killers indeed), blogging, studying kanji, and reading whatever takes my fancy for the day on the internet.

It's really not so bad though. This time last year I was working my gonads off for no money; the inverse arrangement is infinitely preferable.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Tsumami, tsumami, came washing over me

Or, "What's made Milwaukee famous (Has made a loser hanami)"

I'm hungover. This morning I felt so sluggish that blogging was beyond me; all I could do was not-so-furtively read William Gibson novels on the Archos and knock back Pocari Sweat in a bid to rebalance my trashed electrolytes. Now that I've had a big bowl of gyuudon for lunch, and a can of 'Advance' coffee, I'm feeling a bit more human.

The reason for this boozy malaise is that yesterday was my first experience of hanami (flower viewing). It seemed the party had been scheduled somewhat prematurely, as the cherry trees weren't showing off the goods yet; the pink petals were still concealed inside tight little buds on their branches. So, our get-together lacked its ostensible raison d'etre, but that didn't seem to bother the dozen Japanese people in my party.

It seems that hanami is about two things: food and drink. Every guest contributed some of each, meaning that we had a picnic with an impressively diverse selection of tsumami (snacks to accompany drinking). While I could have just picked up a sashimi platter from a supermarket, I decided that I would raise my game and cook something. So, I brought along a tupperware container of battered haggis balls with whisky and mustard dip, which I had got up especially early that morning to make. Though the haggis was tinned and thus of questionable quality (it was made from pig organs, for a start), they turned out alright and seemed to go down well. In the booze department I went with Chimay from the previous day's Yamaya run, as well as some less exotic Kirin. (Japanese lagers are all much of a muchness, but I think Kirin has emerged as my favourite.) I also took a hipflask of Bowmore, which proved very popular - the Japanese have a real reverence for Scotch whisky. I got the hipflask in my most recent shipment from home, and it's fast becoming my personal gimmick of choice.

We assembled in the park around Yamagata City's destroyed castle at 11am, and wasted no time in initiating the 'Kampai!' to start the eating and drinking. The person who had invited me is both an accomplished cook and a committed Anglophile, so he had brought along a couple of homemade Cornish pasties, upon which he eagerly awaited my native's judgement (filling very good, pastry a little too dry). Some of the more challenging tsumami on offer included Chinese-style pig ears and trotters, horse tongue and cheek, and some pungent heavily fermented fish. People were impressed that I could stomach the fish, though it's not something I would rush to do again - they were very nearly as bad as natto. When you think about it, 'fermented' is really just a euphemism for 'rotten'.

Over the course of the day I drank: beer of various types, champagne, red wine, sake, Chinese plum sherry, whisky, and 53% bourbon that some joker had brought along in a ominous unmarked bottle. Naturally, everyone was mashed within a couple of hours, i.e. by lunchtime. It's good to know that while public drinking is illegal in an ever-increasing number of jurisdictions of the civil-liberty-hating UK, getting wasted in parks is a cornerstone of Japanese culture.

There was some sort of event going on in some nearby tents, so we kept seeing dainty women in kimono and men dressed as samurai wandering past. Koto music from their speakers formed the soundtrack to our afternoon. At one point, a few of us went over to investigate, and ended up in a tea ceremony, albeit a very softcore one: no kneeling, and we were in and out in less than five minutes.

Other than that, we just sat, ate, drank and chatted. The day had a similar feel to a Scottish summer barbeque, in that it was overcast, chilly and threatening to rain. Only when the sun made a brief appearance in the afternoon could we take off our jackets. One person demonstrated the amazing Japanese talent for sleeping anywhere, by facing out of the circle, slumping forward on her knees, covering herself with a jacket, and nodding off for about an hour in the middle of an increasingly rowdy picnic.

When the sun went down at around 6pm, the inevitable call of 'nijikai' (second party) went up, and we relocated to the French restaurant owned by the sleepy woman. The wine came out, and people were now so drunk that a game of strip janken (scissors-paper-stone) was initiated, but thankfully quickly aborted. Around 9pm, i.e. after ten hours of drinking, I decided it was about time I got myself on a train home.

So here I am, tired and dehydrated in an unironed shirt. Next weekend will be more of the same, as most of the gaijin community of Yamagata are coming to my hood for hanami. Hopefully there will be some flowers to view by then.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Cycle killer, qu'est que c'est

Or, "I can't ride my bike with no handlebars"

Well, winter is over. Last weekend I managed to exhaust the last credit on my Zao ticket, enjoying a triumphant day's riding on soft, melty snow under a cloudless sky. I now find myself in the all-too-brief period where I need to use neither my kerosene burner nor my aircon.

Something else I did last weekend was purchase a bicycle. This move was prompted by a number of factors:
  • My six schools have become three (something that I'm sure I will discuss properly in the near future), and two of them, along with city hall, are within easy cycling distance of my house.
  • The pavements are no longer covered in snow.
  • My weight, which had been holding fairly steady in the 86-88kg range, started troubling the 90kg mark. So, I thought it was time to get some exercise into my daily routine.
  • While there is zero tolerance for drink driving, cycling after a few shandies, though technically illegal, is done by just about everyone.
I splashed out 20000yen (£140) on the most basic, yet largest, utility bike I could find. It's a standard-issue Japanese street bike: three speed hub gear (I've puzzled over that for some time now, and I still don't really grasp how it works), dynamo-powered LED light, insubstantial-looking built-in lock on the back wheel, ladies-style lowered crossbar, basket on the front.

Today I decided to christen it with its first serious ride, to Yonezawa. While the hilly terrain of Yamagata prefecture would generally make for challenging cycling, Nanyo and Yonezawa lie at opposite ends of a flat-as-a-pancake plain ringed on all sides by mountains. It was a beautiful day for it too: 17 degrees, hazy sunshine, not too humid. To be honest, I'd be happy if it stayed that way until next winter. (Note to Graham, who's coming to visit in July: Don't worry, it totally won't be any hotter in three months. You'll be fiiiiine.) I slapped on the factor 30, and headed off down the main road.

I was quite pleased with the ease with which I conveyed myself the 15km to Mos Burger, where I stopped off for lunch. I then went to my favourite shop - Yamaya - and stocked up on Belgian beer, Mexican salsa, Thai curry paste, Italian gnocchi, and American peanut butter.

For the return journey, I decided to mix things up and take a slightly less direct route. Lining the main road is a sparse but continuous procession of houses and shops, so one never really feels like one is in the country. Taking the back roads, however, I was in no doubt that this is rural Japan. Rice fields (not yet featuring much in the way of rice, obviously) spread out in all directions, terminated only by the still white-capped mountains rising steeply up at the edge of the plain. It was an impressive sight. Occasionally I saw very old women - wearing actual straw hats - stooped over with trowels, tending to some agricultural business apparently in much the same way that their ancestors would have done 500 years ago.

I also encountered a few children, who would shout and wave at me as I passed. At one point, a car overtook me with a boy leaning out of the passenger window, greeting me. I'm not sure if he was one of my students - I teach over 900 kids in total, and they all, you know, look kinda similar. The car stopped, somewhat obstructing the road, and I had the following conversation with the boy's mother (in Japanese, I'm pleased to say).

"Hello! Where have you come from?"
"From Yonezawa."
"And where are you going?"
"To Nanyo."
"Heeeeeeeeeeeee?! [my family will understand this Japanese expression of surprise] How long does it take you?"
"Ummm... One and a half hours...." [I wave my arms around, trying to convey "each way"]
"Really? Wow. So you come from Nanyo?"
"Yes, I live in Akayu."
"That's great. Well, take care."

Like I said, people are friendly to me.

As I was nearing Nanyo, my legs were starting to feel the burn quite badly. I reckon I must have ridden something getting on for 40km (25 miles) in total - I had my GPS but I didn't put in in record mode, so I can't be sure. Anyway, I'm fairly pleased with that for a saturday afternoon. I'd be lying if I said my buttocks didn't hurt, though.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

JET Programme acceptance notification

Or, 'Tay tay tay tay, t-t-t-tay-tay, tay, tay, we ain't never gonna be acceptable'.

Alright, time for another functional blog about the JET Programme. Move along friends and family, nothing to see here.

I've just received a rash (OK, three. For a small-time blogger like me, that's a rash.) of hits from New Zealand, representing anxious Kiwi JET hopefuls Googling about their reserve status. The acceptance notifications must be dropping all over the Anglosphere right about now - for the record, I got mine on April 4th 2009, thereby urinating all over the barbeque of my brother's 23rd birthday.

Your letter from JET will tell you one of three things: accepted, reserve, or rejected. In the manner of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, I shall cover these possibilities in turn:

If you were accepted: Congratulations! Enjoy that feeling of excitement tinged with the slight fear you're about to make a huge mistake. Frustratingly, you won't have any details yet regarding where you will be or what age you'll be teaching, making it difficult to do any material preparation. I didn't get this info until late May (29th or thereabouts, as I remember), so don't hold your breath. For what it's worth, I requested Hokkaido and ended up here in Yamagata. I imagine few people request Yamagata, what with it being voted the 38th most interesting of 47 prefectures.

The placement system is shrouded in mystery, though it is rumoured to involve blindfolds and dartboards. Actually, that's a little unfair; the JETs around this mountainous area all seem to be quite outdoorsy types. Also, I suspect that if you can drive and/or speak Japanese (one out of two ain't bad), you're more likely to end up in the countryside - it would have been pretty cruel to give my placement to someone who couldn't use a car. But at the end of the day, it all depends on what the contracting organisations request, and their requests can be quite specific. I'm the eighth British male in a row to teach in Nanyo.

Oh, and a quick tip for when the info does come in: if your contracting organisation is a city or town, you will be teaching elementary and/or junior high. If it's a prefecture, you're in senior high.

My advice to you now is to learn as much Japanese as possible. I know it's daunting: there are three different writing systems, all of which look like unintelligible squiggles at first. But no matter how much or little you currently know (assuming you're not fluent), every single word you learn will make your life incrementally easier once you get here.

Everyone learns in different ways, but my tip would be to avoid textbooks that use romaji (i.e. Japanese rendered in the Western alphabet, as I use in this blog). I know it seems like the easy option, but Japanese was never meant to be written that way, and it's hard to suppress your English pronounciation instincts. For example, 'Osaka' is actually spelt 'Oosaka' in romaji, and it's very tempting to read that double-O as an 'u' sound rather than a long 'o'. 'おお', on the other hand, doesn't cause the same mental interference. Besides, you're going to have to learn the kana (hiragana and katakana) sooner or later, so I would advise you to man up and use them from the get-go. I've heard people claim you can learn hiragana in an afternoon, but if you're not a ritalin junkie or neural-prosthesis-using cyberpunk, I'd say a week should do it. Worry about kanji later.

The other preparation I would suggest is learning to sing at least one well-known song. The Beatles are the obvious choice; Queen and Michael Jackson are also firm favourites. I guarantee that within a couple of weeks of arriving you will find yourself in a karaoke bar having a mic thrust into your hand. If you really want to blow them away, learn a Japanese song. This is something I'm working on but haven't yet achieved.

If you are a reserve: This means that you will get 'upgraded' if enough acceptees turn down their offers. You have my sympathy; being stuck in that limbo must be really hard. All I can tell you is that I know lots of people who were upgraded, but at the same time, plenty of people aren't. There's no way of knowing whether you're top of the list or a real long shot. Hang in there, and attempt to prepare yourself mentally for either outcome.

If you were rejected: Bummer. At least you haven't been strung along as a reserve for three months. If you're really determined to come to Japan, there are other ways. Private agencies will generally not pay as well as JET, and you'll have less in the way of support - JET sorts out (and pays for) things like flights and visas, which I think I'm right in saying that the others don't. But it's not all bad. Once you're actually here and teaching, ALTs of all stripes are in pretty much the same boat, other than a few minor contractual differences. And speaking for Yamagata at least, there are sufficiently few foreigners around that all ALTs hang out together regardless of affiliation. I've heard it said that JETs can be cliquey, but I've not seen any evidence of that here. The most prominent private agencies I've come across are Interac and Heart, so check them out.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Can I bigot? Yes you can!

Or, 'I want to be a minority'.

Happy new fiscal year! I'm currently wearing my suit, as we had the hyper-formal welcoming ceremony this morning. I'm used to seeing schoolkids do the elaborate sequence of bows before taking the floor, but then schoolkids are made to do lots of dumb things, like PE. Watching grown men (and women, Adrianna) shout "Hai!", stand up, walk to the stage, bow left, face forward, bow right, bow centre, bow to the empty stage, take the stage, bow to the lectern, then speak, is pretty strange. All I had to do was stand up and say "yoroshiku onegaishimasu", thankfully. There are lots of people coming and going now, so I have to keep standing up and bowing. It's just like playing thumbmaster - I'm in a constant state of paranoia that I'll look up and everyone else will be on their feet. And then once I'm standing, it's very hard to know when I can sit down again.

I'm enjoying this blogging-to-order concept. Today, as suggested by 'Karoushi'-sensei (to explain to my Edinburgh friends, he's a family friend who works as a secondary school teacher), I shall discuss regional rivalry and bigotry in Japan.

As he points out, the UK is home to an astonishing variety of factions, between which exists anything from friendly rivalry to barely-contained hatred. There's not so much of that in Japan, and I think there are two main reasons for this.

Firstly, Japan is a very homogenous country. Around 98.5% of the population is Japanese, compared with 85.7% white British people in the multicultural UK. While ethnic minorities may receive some fairly rough treatment here (more on that later), it's just not so visible because there are so few of them. Just as in Britain, what immigrants there are tend to live in the big cities, so to a first approximation, everyone in my town is Japanese. Furthermore, everyone has dark hair and brown eyes, so there isn't much scope for activities analogous to the British national pastimes of mocking gingers and blondes.

There are two dominant religions in Japan - Shinto and Buddhism - so coming from the UK, one might expect them to be locked in an eternal bitter feud. But no, I am continually impressed that the two co-exist peacefully; a person can be Shinto and Buddhist. The key to this is that no-one takes religion very seriously, as I've said before. Shinto is a primitive polytheistic faith that's a bit too fanciful for anyone to actually believe in (actually, saying that, it doesn't stop the Abrahamic religions), and Buddhism is fairly laid back, offering more guidelines than rules, such that many variants of Buddhism are probably better understood as philosophy rather than religion.

Of course, your average Old Firm football thug doesn't give a great deal of thought to the theological issues surrounding transubstantiation. 'Catholic' and 'Protestant' are just convenient labels for 'us' and 'them'; if it wasn't that, they'd fight over belly button convexity or something. This brings me to my second point. The Japanese mindset seems more based on co-operation and harmony than competition. I notice this in school a lot; less emphasis is placed on rewarding individual performance, and more to achieving things together as a class, or a year, or a school. As a concrete example, my high school back home had a prizegiving at the end of the year where the best students were showered with glory and book tokens. Here they have a graduation ceremony at the end of junior high, where they recognise the achievements of the departing year as a whole. Being a functional part of society's machine is reinforced every day at school through the various ceremonies and extra-curricular activities. In some ways this is a good thing - people are generally much more respectful and considerate - but it makes me quite uneasy. If you're looking for a reason why Japan could do such terrible things in the war, I would suggest that having a populace conditioned to unquestioningly do what they're told is dangerous indeed.

The point I'm rapidly drifting away from is that Japanese people don't seem to feel such a strong need to have an 'us' and 'them'. While Japan is split into 47 prefectures, rather like the American States, I think everyone feels Japanese first and foremost. There is a much greater sense of national pride and unity here. Outside the window I can see a fluttering hi no maru (Japanese flag, literally 'circle of the sun'), and there was another one in pride of place at the ceremony this morning. This doesn't sit entirely well with me either.

However, the Japanese aren't a Borg-esque hive mind, and the different regions do have some fairly good-natured stereotypes about each other. Foremost among these is the divide between Kanto (the eastern part of the main island (Honshu), around Tokyo) and Kansai (central Japan, including Osaka-Kyoto-Kobe). This reminds me a lot of the divide between the north and south of England. People from Kanto are said to be stuck-up, pretentious and unfriendly; while those in Kansai are accused of being common and uncouth. I think Kansai, like Scotland, Canada, New Zealand or any other underdog region, deliberately plays up its differences from Tokyo. They are very proud of their food, particularly takoyaki (octopus dumplings) and okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes), and bizarrely, they stand on the right of escalators, whereas people in the capital stand on the left.

Analogously to England, 'Standard Japanese' is the Tokyo dialect, from which Kansai dialect differs quite considerably. Incidentally, Japan is more like the UK than the USA when it comes to accents, in that geographical neighbours can speak in radically different ways. I am told that it is possible to tell from someone's speech whether they come from Nanyo or Yonezawa, which are less than 20km apart.

Pushing the UK analogy further, I would say that I live in the Japanese Somerset. Somerset is in the south of England just as I am in the east of Japan, but no-one would accuse either of us of being flashy city slickers. No, Yamagatians have a (not entirely undeserved) reputation for being backward yokels, and their slow, lazy style of speech is roundly mocked by the rest of Japan. Yamagata-isms that I've learnt include appending an 's' sound to certain words for no real reason and using the tricky-to-pronounce nda as a sound of agreement, a bit like the Aberdonian inhaled "aye". There was a 2004 movie called Swing Girls that was set in Yamagata and milked these stereotypes for comic effect.

Ok, let's get into the nastier territory of persecuted minorities. Like most places, Japan has indigenous peoples that it has screwed over pretty badly. The Ainu people are from the remote northern fringes of the country (and eastern Russia), and from what I can gather they were historically treated as second-class citizens, and it could be argued still are. The indigenous people of Japan's far-flung subtropical outpost Okinawa have faced similar problems. Slightly stranger is the case of the Burakumin. Though Japan ceased to have a caste system when the feudal age ended in 1871, these people are the descendents of the outcast people. They were considered unclean due to their professions: undertakers, executioners, butchers, etc., forcing them to live in ghettoes. A lot of that stigma seems to persist today. If you're looking for an equivalent of the much-persecuted Jewish, it would probably be the Burakumin.

That last paragraph is all based on book learnin', as I have never knowingly come across any of these people. The only foreigners not here to teach English that I have met are Asians, mostly from China and Korea. The vast majority of these are women, coming here to marry their way to financial stability. As you might imagine, this leads people to have a somewhat negative view of them.

I think Asian immigrants get quite a hard time from the famously insular Japanese. One Korean woman I chatted to (very slowly, in Japanese) said that while Japanese people give the appearance of being very kind and polite, she felt that a lot of them didn't actually behave that way towards outsiders like her. However, I suspect that Koreans probably have an easier ride than most. From what I can gather, Japan feels a certain empathy with Korea (I mean South Korea; no-one even talks about the North). Both countries are democratic and capitalist, and a little like Scotland and France in the past, are united by common enemies, specifically the dangerous loose cannon that is North Korea and the Death Star-like menace of China. Japan and China really don't get on well. They seem unable to put the unpleasantness of the war behind them, and China's recent Google-hacking, dissident-suppressing antics just add fuel to the fire.

So what about my experiences as an ethnic minority? I have to say that everyone is very nice to me. Japan seems to have a kind of weird Stockholm syndrome thing going on with America in particular, and the rest of the Anglosphere by extension. America inflicts untold carnage on Japan during the war, then comes in and rewrites their constitution, essentially denying them the right to an army, and plonks a bunch of military bases on the strategically-handy Okinawa, and yet Japan seems to love them. In fact, Japan seems to want to be America, even more than the UK does. Baseball is the number one sport here, and Disney characters are second only to the unstoppable Kitty-chan in the school pencil-case popularity stakes. The timing of my arrival gave me a unique opportunity to compare British and Japanese reactions to the death of the King of Pop: Japan seemed a lot more bothered. Of course, the very fact that people like me are paid by the government to come here and speak our native language demonstrates that Japan welcomes the influence of the West.

Consequently, I feel that my white skin gives me a kind of minor celebrity status here. Some old people seem reluctant to talk to me, possibly because the remember the war, but probably just because they never learned any English at school. Everyone else treats me with real warmth.

Finally, you'll have noticed that I frequently use the word gaijin, which literally means 'outsider' (gai = outside, jin = person). My dictionary lists this word as 'sensitive' - it's not an out-and-out racial slur, but you won't hear it used on TV or see it in the newspapers. I've noticed that Marie-san avoids using the word, substituting it for the more neutral gaikokujin ('foreigner'), but I detected someone in the office today referring to me as a gaijin. My take on this is as follows: if I were a Japanese-born Caucasian who could speak fluent Japanese, I might resent being called 'gaijin'. But as I am indeed an outsider by any sensible definition of the word, I have no objection to it. Plus, I like the idea that I'm taking it back.