Monday, May 31, 2010

Get this paddy started

Or, "Heart of grass".

My last post was a little morose, so you'll be pleased to hear that I'm back on genki form.

On friday I went for drinks with one of my teachers. I don't often go out in Akayu - there's a couple of places I regularly go with Marie et al, and there's the occasional work-related drinking party, but my gaijin friends have little reason to come to this little town, being as it is about half an hour away from two much larger settlements: Yamagata City and Yonezawa. Also, being a cautious type, I'm reluctant to just rock into a random drinking establishment, mostly because the probability of it turning out to be a sleazy hostess bar is dangerously high. Recently, a local advised me that I was right not to venture into strange bars, as there are some that are operated by the Yakuza, and are not above a little extortion of unwary foreigners. I'm taking that with a small pinch of salt, but I was still quite taken aback at the thought that gangsters could be operating in sleepy little Nanyo.

So, I was surprised at how lively things were on Akayu high street at 8pm on a friday. The place was jumping! We got turned away from the first two izakaya we tried, as they were full - unlike pubs, izakaya are strictly seating-only. Once we found a place, a very enjoyable evening of frank discussion / bitching about the education biz ensued.

When we eventually finished talking shop, we moved on to Japanese culture more generally. My drinking buddy taught me an excellent new word: soushokudanshi. This literally means 'herbivorous boy' (sou: grass, shoku: eat, dan: male, shi: child), but my dictionary informs me that it idiomatically means 'young men who reject the avid pursuit of money and sex as masculine, and who may also be kind, co-operative and family oriented'. It seems that as a kind of backlash to Japan's strictly patriarchal society, and the cult of flashy high-powered executives in the post-war boom, a new breed of gentle, sensitive men who feel they have nothing to prove to the world has sprung up. The older generation are filled with predictable consternation at the thought of these un-Japanese, emasculated meek inheriting the earth. Even my drinking partner, a young and progressive-minded sort, was concerned that the grass-eaters would be the downfall of a country whose economy and birthrate are both slowing already. I however embrace the movement fully, and am thinking of getting a T-shirt made.

Saturday was lazy. I tried and failed to repair my bike, but it wasn't a complete waste of time as I feel that I now understand enough about my bike that I'm confident for the next attempt. Then I watched Inglorious Basterds: pretty good. However, it did once again anger me that European languages are so comparatively easy to understand.

On sunday I planted some rice. This is a task that is usually done by machines, but as a special event members of the public were invited to stand ankle-deep in mud and poke seedlings into the ground the old fashioned way. We were in fact creating a work of tanbo (rice field) art - the paddy was marked out with sticks and tape indicating where to plant which colour of rice (green and purple seemed to be the main ones). The image was distorted beyond all recognition, in order that it would appear correctly when viewed from a nearby hillside. Neil Buchanan eat your heart out. Wisely, they put the gaijin (along with the primary school kids) on a background section of uniform green.

However, this didn't stop me from screwing up. I listened intently to the instructions we were given at the start of the day, and managed to hear that the shoots were to be placed 15cm apart. Apparently none of the other foreigners had bothered to listen, and just copied roughly what everyone around them was doing. I meanwhile stuck rigidly to my 15cm grid like the scientist I am. After a while, a woman came over to me. "You're doing it wrong. Take these ones out. Everyone is worried about your planting," she barked at me. I don't think it was her intention to be mean; I think she just lacked the English finesse to sugar-coat her instruction. I ascertained that the shoots were to be placed 15cm apart in the y-dimension, and 30cm apart in the x-dimension, and thus my patches had twice the rice density they were supposed to. Seldom has there been a clearer illustration of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing.

Though this stinging reprimand took the shine off it a bit, it was still a very pleasant morning, wallowing around in the mud in the sunshine, with frogs leaping around our shins (phonetically at least, 'frog' and 'return' are the same word in Japanese, facilitating some weak puns). For the 1500yen asking price we got lunch, during which I discovered that I have finally acquired the taste for konnyaku. Also included was a trip to a local onsen to clean off all the mud. This was pleasant enough, but I'd have to say onsen are less appealing on a hot summer's day than they are after a day of snowboarding. As an added bonus, 5kg of rice will arrive on my doorstep come harvest time, assuming that the crop doesn't fail due to overly dense planting.

After that a few of us went for ice cream, with me going for an avant garde soybean and sesame combo. Since it was still only mid-afternoon (the rice planting had started early), we decided to go for my first daytime karaoke session. I'm now convinced that daytime karaoke is the way forward: it is literally as cheap as chips. In fact, if you go during the day on a weekday, the price can be as low as a token 10yen per hour. I attempted singing a Japanese song, with predictably disastrous results.

As of today I have rotated to a new school, which means introducing myself to the new first years. My first lesson went really well; I donned my kilt for a shortened version of my jikoshoukai (self-intro), and spent the rest of the lesson playing various revision games. The kids loved it. Admittedly, it's quite an easy sell - stressed out kids with mid-terms coming up are glad of the opportunity to spend an hour playing hangman and watching a gaijin in a skirt waving fluffy Nessies and Highland cows around, rather than hitting the textbooks. But it still felt good - I led the entire lesson, which hopefully redeemed me a little in the eyes of the learning support teacher, who appears to be on the same schedule as me.

For lunch I was invited to another meeting of the Rotary Club. Of course, TANSTAAFL, so I was required to give a 15 minute English lesson. I was a little anxious about this - I had a very vague brief, and clearly one can't do any meaningful language teaching in so short a period. I was worried too about patronising the esteemed businessmen who were to be my class. While I obviously had to go fairly basic, every Japanese adult knows some basic English because of the ubiquity of Western culture. So, I decided not to take the obvious route of greetings and introductions, and instead taught them how to order drinks in a British pub, complete with an intro in (probably very bad) Japanese. It's always hard to guage how well these things are being received by the inscrutable Japanese, but I felt it went alright. I got a laugh by using some local dialect, at least. Afterwards I experienced that buzz of relief that something you were worried about is out of the way; the same feeling I used to get after delivering a seminar. While I am very glad on the whole that my life involves a lot less dread these days, I do quite enjoy that rush.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sub-tricenarian homesick blues

I'm not someone who tends to suffer from homesickness. When I left home to embark on my lengthy university career, I surprised myself by not experiencing any particularly strong separation anxiety. I suppose I was so excited by the possibility of getting drunk any night of the week with impunity that I never looked back. Just like that time I got whiplash.

Nine years later, I had a similarly easy ride leaving my country and culture behind. That's not to say I was completely untroubled by the experience; much as I would like to be, I am not in fact a Spock-esque emotionless robot. It seems just about every ALT bursts into tears at some point in their first week here, and I was no exception. For many, it is the first time they left alone in their new abode, after all the madness of arrival, to quietly contemplate their situation. But for me it came a little later, on my first sunday in Nanyo (I arrived on wednesday). I went for an evening stroll around my neighbourhood in the rain, and although I didn't even feel particularly sad, before I knew it, my eyes were assisting the rain's efforts to moisten my face. I suppose I just got overwhelmed by how alien it all felt, walking around a strange and humid town with illegible writing and incessantly chirping cicadas, and trying to tell myself that this was now 'home'.

After that initial phase, all I experienced were occasional pangs of longing to be back home. Curiously, these always seem to be pub-based. I really, really liked hanging out in pubs. Izakayas are great, but they aren't quite the same; it's typically a frenzied couple of hours of unlimited drinking. I miss the relaxed, slow and steady, straight from work at half five on a friday, still there at closing time, vibe of the UK. And more to the point, I miss all the friends with whom I would spend these boozy hours. When I start thinking like this I try to just acknowledge the thought and then dismiss it, as one should do while meditating. There is no point in pining over something that you can't have.

Special occasions are when this kind of mental discipline becomes more challenging. Spending my first Christmas Day away from home, eating supermarket chirashizushi while I watched my family tucking into turkey and all the trimmings was a real downer. Thankfully my spirits were soon buoyed by my friend Alda throwing an excellent Boxing Day dinner, and by the snow.

Yesterday was my birthday. I've always subscribed to the 'just another day' school of thought, so I wasn't making a big deal out of it. However, being a wednesday, Marie clearly wasn't going to miss this opportunity for a party. Along with her friends, we went to our favourite Italian restaurant, and they showered me with little gifts (the highlight being monogrammed chopsticks). But my heart wasn't in it, for which I felt really bad.

I think part of the problem was that I had spent all afternoon trying to plan what to do with my five friends who are coming to visit in July. Working out which combination of trains, rental cars, planes and boats will result in the perfect Japanese holiday is a formidable challenge of optimisation. The task is further complicated by the disparate attitudes the various members of my party hold towards travelling. At one extreme we have someone whose idea of fun is hanging out in third world hell-holes, and at the other someone who objects to barbecues on the grounds that they represent an unreasonable level of inconvenience. Coming straight from a six-Firefox-window intense data mining session to a party maybe isn't a great idea.

Another problem was the perennial issue of language. I can tell that Marie is disappointed by my Japanese ability. I think my problem is one of temperament rather than skill. My Japanese is coming on; listening carefully at the restaurant I would usually be able to pick out enough words to give an executive summary of roughly what was being spoken about, even if the specific meaning of each utterance escaped me.

In what was presumably an attempt to encourage me to use Japanese, Marie was largely holding off on translation, or even on explaining to me in toddler-level Japanese. This removal of my communicative stabilisers meant that I would spend long periods with only a vague idea of what was going on. Thus I didn't really feel like taking part in the conversation, for fear of either having massively misunderstood, or for asking something that had been explained moments earlier. If I did decide to speak up, I would face the tough choice of whether to do it in English, disappointing everyone but getting my meaning across swiftly and clearly; or in Japanese, forcing everyone to shut up and listen while I reduced the conversation to about a fifth of its former pace in order to produce a mistake-riddled sentence that, thanks to my severely limited expressive range, was a very crude approximation of what I'd actually wanted to say in the first place. I think that to get good at a language one needs the chutzpah to just wade into conversations, all linguistic guns blazing, without a care in the world about looking like an idiot or about boring or irritating one's listeners. This is what I lack.

But, to bring this back around to the point I was initially making, I suspect maybe the real source of my melancholy was the occasion. For the 27 birthdays preceding this one (actually, I can't really speak for the first few) I've been around family and/or friends with whom I was relaxed and comfortable. As much as I appreciate all the kindness and hospitality Marie and her friends have shown and continue to show me - and I really am supremely grateful for that - there was no getting away from the fact that for number 28 I was with five middle-aged women who were speaking a language I couldn't understand, eating spaghetti with chopsticks. I really wished I was back in the 'Leslie.

Friday, May 21, 2010

S.P.-cially for you

What a week! I've been so busy that I wrote the following on monday, but I've not had the time to upload it since then. Please read the following in black and white with an echo-y voice to create the impression of a flashback.

Remember what I said about lessons one plans oneself having the potential to blow up in one's face? Well, after I went to all the effort of renting a DVD with Japanese subtitles, my The Sound of Music lesson turned out to be an IED duct taped inside my mouth.

Firstly, I misjudged it a bit. Perhaps I forgot that not everyone has seen the film as many times as I have, and thus seeing one scene in isolation could be a bit confusing, particularly if your English is about as good as my Japanese. And the pine cone scene is actually quite confusing, since a) it refers back to something that happened previously in the film (the kids putting a frog in her pocket) and b) it involves irony - Maria is not in fact grateful for the aforementioned amphibian.

But these are minor issues that I feel I could have dealt with on the fly. The real problem was technical. After a lot of messing around to get the projector set up, for some reason Windows Media Player refused to show the DVD. Like, my desktop showed up on the screen nicely, but the window containing the movie (which was playing on my monitor) was just a black void. I had to somehow carry on, but in the absence of my primary teaching material, my mind resembled the offending window. I ended up getting the whole class of 28 to huddle around my laptop, at which point I knew I was on a hiding to nothing. Crushingly, this debacle was not only witnessed by the English teacher, but also by some mysterious teaching advisor we have at school this week [having spoken to her, it turns out she's a learning support teacher], and - I shit ye not - a party of important-looking guys in suits being shown around the school. I later found out that they were local politicians (so probably in charge of funding for education), and they could not have picked a worse moment to drop in on my class. One of them was taking photos! I felt like just committing seppuku there and then.

Having since spent some time actually testing my setup (time which, in my defence, I was not given before that travesty of a lesson), I found that VLC Media Player doesn't have this problem. Say what you like about its clunky interface, VLC is reliable. I should have just set it to be my default player a long time ago, and this would never have happened.

Ok, enough self-recrimination. There was yet more ouen in the afternoon, but since it's a glorious sunny day, it was out on the baseball field. (Field? Park? Pitch? Ground? Area? Zone? Quadrant? I'm British; I don't know.) It was beautiful out there, with a river on one side and the mountains rising steeply up on the other. So beautiful that I almost forgot my objections to the whole business.

Everyone got a good laugh at me applying suncream in preparation for standing outside for 45 minutes, but I stand by it. Once again, my photochromic lenses turned heads. "SP!" the kids all shrieked when the saw my shades. Now, this is the second time this has happened, so I knew what they were talking about on this occasion. The previous time was at graduation back in March, when we went outside to see off the departing third-years. I had no idea why they kept saying those two English letters to me, but a few minutes on Google that night informed me that SP means "security police", the elite bodyguards that protect high-ranking members of the Japanese government. I suppose that with a shaved head, dark glasses, a suit, and a broad-shouldered 181cm frame (big by Japanese standards) I must have looked like some kind of hired muscle. Actually, one of the English teachers commented that I looked like Agent Smith. Today, wearing as I was a pink checked shirt, I imagine I looked rather less menacing.

Ok, flashback over. You'll be glad to know that I got back on the Sound of Music horse, and I'd say that with the projector working, the lesson went middling-to-well.

On tuesday night I hosted my second poker night, and it was well attended, with nine players crowded into my small living room. I came ninth in the first game, but redeemed myself with runner-up position in the second, and to be honest I was unlucky not to win. I like hosting poker nights, as it gives me a reason to tidy up - a task which I can otherwise postpone indefinitely. Plus I usually end up with more snacks than I started with.

Wednesday is the night I customarily spend drinking with Marie, but this week was a special excursion. We went to Yonezawa to watch a three-piece jazz band. Niiice. Jazz may not be exactly my cup of koucha, but it was very enjoyable. On piano and accordion (and melodica, and toy piano) respectively were a father and son duo, but for me the drummer stole the show. Jazz drumming blows my mind - I suffer a kind of rhythmical meltdown if I try to clap along to music on the two and the four, so I am amazed by people who can produce a syncopated beat. This guy was a bit of a maverick, with a kit comprising bongos and a whole rack of novelty items (baby rattles, maracas, cowbells, etc) as well as the traditional components. He would frequently switch between various types of drumstick, including the null stick, i.e. his karate (empty hand). The highlight was a noodly ten-minute reworking of My favourite things.

Thursday was the day for automotive rigmarole, starting with a trip to Yamagata City to get my UK driving licence translated. This is a precursor to getting a Japanese licence, which I have to do before my one-year international permit expires. Thankfully, as I am a UK citizen this is a formality, with my eyesight being the only thing they will actually test. Americans are not so lucky, having to sit a driving test. In your face, Americans. After that I took my car to the garage because one of the tyres (I used the American spelling there first and had to correct myself - I was still in classroom mode) had a slow puncture. I love this long term rental deal - at the first sign of a problem I just take it there and get it fixed for free, no questions asked.

Tonight I have been invited for dinner with someone from the Rotary Club. He called me a couple of times and shamefully I didn't answer; the reason for this being that I have met many many Takahashis, and I got him confused with some random dude that I met in a karaoke bar once and had no real desire to speak to. But he tracked me down through the Board of Education. Apparently he wants me to give a 15 minute English lesson at the next Rotary meeting, which should be interesting.

Then on sunday it is the inter-school sports day that all this ouen practice is building up to. Fortunately I get monday off in lieu, which isn't as good as having monday off in Liu, but I'll take it. Also, on sunday I may be going for coffee with someone that one of my Japanese teachers wanted me to meet, telling me that she was 22, single, pretty, and fond of foreigners. For reasons I have previously elaborated on, I am not as excited about this as you might imagine.

So, that's my week. Everyone wants a piece of me!

Finally, in science news, my paper got published this week! If you are not reading this from a university with a subscription to the Journal of Experimental Biology, you won't be able to read any more than the abstract for six months. I imagine you're gutted.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

I think I'm gonna need some terebi

Let's talk Japanese TV (terebi is Japanese for television - they don't have 'v's). I don't watch a whole lot of it because, well, it's in Japanese. Considering that I have an internet connection and not too many scruples about copyright law, I have access to all the English-language entertainment I could ever want. Paradoxically, it's more difficult for me to watch Japanese movies or shows here than it was at home; piracy really is my only option if I want to have English subtitles.

So, I think whole months may have gone by when I never took my TV off HDMI mode (for the Playstation). Kanji flashcard-covered toilet notwithstanding, I see my home as something of a sanctuary from the Japanese language, so I don't often feel like inviting a tsunami of morale-crushing linguistic confusion into it. However, I am paying a licence fee to NHK, so I occasionally feel that I should turn it on and get my money's worth. I did that just now.

There are a few things one notices straight away about Japanese TV. Firstly, they love captions. There's always some sort of graphical nonsense scrawled across the screen. Frequently, what people are saying is subtitled for no discernible reason whatsoever; even if they are speaking loud and clear their every utterance will be transcribed into garish neon symbols. The only theory I can offer as to why they might do this is to overcome the substantial variations in local dialect across the country.

Their penchant for subtitling is actually quite useful for me. Since Japanese writing is largely non-phonetic, the visual and auditory information streams are fairly uncorrelated, in the information theory sense. As such, they present a handy educational opportunity. Interestingly, this works both ways. Sometimes the sound will help to jog my memory for kanji that are right on the periphery of my knowledge, while other times seeing the meaning distilled out into symbols that I can read at my leisure can give me enough of a foothold to make sense of the rapid-fire barrage of syllables reaching my ears. These days, given perfect conditions of mental alertness and straightforward subject matter, I can figure out maybe 30% of what's going on.

The second thing you notice is how crappy Japanese TV generally looks. NHK fleece me for an amount comparable to the BBC, but their shows certainly have the appearance of operating on a much lower budget. Actually, I just had a look on Wikipedia, and apparently fee-dodging is rife, as there is no real penalty for not paying it. Boy, do I feel like a chump now. A lot of the programming seems to be very local - Yamagata prefecture has its own news and weather - so maybe that also explains why it all looks a bit low-rent. The dramas are the worst though, with the kind of acting and camerawork one would expect from media studies assignments. The samurai dramas with their obvious bald-caps are a particular low/highlight.

Their is a noticeable surge in production values during every ad break. Just like my man H.M., I often enjoy adverts more than the shows they interrupt. To try to convince you to part with your hard-earned yen, the advertisers ramp up the cuteness and surrealistic quirkiness to intoxicating levels. My all-time favourite ad was a three minute saga that I think was advertising a type of nori, the dried seaweed used to make sushi rolls, amongst other things. It told the story of a girl who was sent to the shop by her grandmother to buy some nori, and finding that it was sold out, embarked upon an epic quest involving some kind of Mr Miyagi-style sensei on a beach. The best part was when she finally returned home and was distraught to find a skeleton on the futon where her grandmother had been, then the camera panned to reveal the old lady patiently lying right beside it. Though the whole thing was live action, it was done in the style of anime, with lots of jump cuts, crash zooms and sped-up footage. It left me slack-jawed and blinking, wondering whether I had just imagined the whole thing.

The third weird thing about Japanese TV is that it seems strangely educational. Light, fluffy magazine-style shows are very popular, but even these are usually imparting some kind of knowledge. For instance, I once saw a 45 minute show all about persimmons (which is not actually as esoteric as it sounds - they are a popular fruit in Japan), which covered the little orange fruits from every conceivable angle: interviews with persimmon farmers, discussion of different methods of preserving them, taste-testing in the studio, and a man in a persimmon suit prancing around to demonstrate... something.

This leads me to another strange feature of Japanese TV. It's very much focused on people reacting to things. They will never just show you something; they'll always show you something and then show you an assortment of super-genki presenters reacting to it. In the aforementioned persimmon show, the information was presented not only to the viewer, but to a panel of three celebrity guests. (Typically these will be: hot young woman, strange camp man, and slightly intimidating-looking older man.) During the video packages, a box would appear in the corner of the screen showing the guests pulling facial expressions in response to what they saw, usually lingering longest on the hot woman. At the risk of reading too much into this, I think it perhaps illustrates something about the collectivist Japanese mindset that their TV shows are so socially-oriented.

My favourite programme is a travel show filmed from the first-person perspective of someone walking around a different place every week, voiced over by someone who clearly wasn't there at the time. While I'm sure a certain amount of stage-management goes on, it's done in the style of a random sightseeing stroll, chatting to whomever the protagonist comes across. One week they were in a little town in Germany, so I got a rare opportunity to struggle to understand two languages at once. I often watch this show with Marie and her husband, who of course made sure to record the episode where they went to Edinburgh. I delighted them by assessing the social status of each speaker; while Marie can speak fluent English she can't extract metalinguistic information such as the level of pretentiousness indicated by someone's vowels. Probably the highlight was them coming across an ├╝ber-Scottish old guy in a kilt on the Royal Mile. Maybe it was set up, but I don't know, you do actually see a lot of men like that, particularly around Sandy Bell's.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Ouen I think about you I touch myself

As the kanji-filled schedule that just got put on my desk tells me, there is some sort of inter-school running competition coming up. When I first got wind of this a few days ago (I was tipped off by the folks at city hall unpacking several boxes of athletics paraphernalia), I was worried that I might be expected to participate too, though that now looks unlikely. Consequently, I surprised myself by going for a 7km run on wednesday, taking my quest for evening productivity to the next level.

Many of you will know that I used enjoy a circuit of Arthur's Seat. I fell off the running wagon (to use a confusing turn of phrase) when I came to Japan, for two main reasons:
  • I used running as a means of stress-relief, and my life is a lot less stressful now than it was during the latter half of my PhD, removing my motivation.
  • In Yamagata, it is too hot and/or humid for running for about 40% of the year, and for another 40% it is too cold and/or snowy. Right now I'm in that springtime sweet spot.
I live right on the edge of town; so if I run east for about five minutes I find myself amongst well-irrigated rice fields. I ran around Lake Hakuryuu ('white dragon'), which I've been told is officially Japan's smallest lake, an accolade that is surely up there with the all-time weakest claims to fame. Who arbitrates what's a lake and what's merely a pond anyway? Like I've said before, I'm consistently surprised with just how agricultural an area this is once you step outside of the towns. I couldn't help but imagine what the Deliverance music would sound like played on a shamisen as I ran past various run-down-looking farm buildings.

I was reasonably pleased with my performance. I guess snowboarding and cycling have kept me in some kind of shape, though my legs are astonishingly stiff today.

It's been a busy week. Every single period that wasn't taken up with spurious non-educational activities (more on that later) I was in the classroom - I am spread more thickly in three schools than I was in six. If I'm honest, I was a little nervous about coming back to the ALT gig after my prolonged absence; I was worried I would have forgotten how to do it. But it turns out that it's like riding a bike. Because I've had such a full schedule, there has been precious little time for lesson planning, so I've tended to just be winging it. This is a perennial bugbear among the ALT community, but I don't mind it so much. While it is less satisfying than having a lesson you personally planned go down well, there is a lot less scope for these lessons blowing up in your face, as the Japanese teacher of English will tend to take the lead and relegate you to a supporting role.

Andrea will be either delighted or outraged to learn that the one activity I did plan this week was based around constructing alibis for the brutal murder of Hello Kitty. I'm currently planning an activity around a scene from The Sound of Music (I'm thinking the bit where she sits on a pine cone and then makes all the kids cry), but I don't have the DVD on me so I'll have to work on that over the weekend, which is why I feel justified in blogging at school now.

Alright, let me be clear that the following comments are not directed at my current school specifically, nor at the fine schools of Nanyo generally. From my interactions with other ALTs, I'm fairly sure that the phenomena I describe are common to all schools in Japan. And at the risk of sounding like a mealy-mouthed cultural relativist, I'm not necessarily saying that Japan is wrong (hey, a near-zero crime rate is not to be sneezed at), but am merely pointing out the things that are hardest to reconcile with my Western values.

So, in preparation for the upcoming sports day, the whole school has being practicing ouen (pronounced like 'Owen [Wilson]') in the gym. I have blogged about this before, but that was very much in the early days of my Japanese career. Now that I've been here for over eight months, I've accepted many things that initially shocked me. For instance, students cleaning the school every day now seems perfectly normal and reasonable. Ouen, however, still sticks in my craw.

To recap, ouen means giving a boost or support, and is usually awkwardly translated to 'cheering' for my benefit. It is a meticulously choreographed synchronised chant with accompanying actions, performed by the whole school, except for one kid who beats out the rhythm on a taiko drum. This in itself I have no issue with. What troubles me is the inordinate amount of time spent drilling the kids to shout and clap and lean in perfect synchrony. I defy any Westerner to watch an ouen session without getting a creepy militaristic vibe from the whole affair.

Earlier in the week the actions had been limited to fast raised handclaps and a weird clasping of one's hands high up behind one's back (like trying to touch your shoulder blades) whilst thrusting one's pelvis forward and shoulders back. But today they must have introduced a new verse or something, and the whole thing took on an even more troubling air. The new action was to hold one's right fist over one's heart and repeatedly straighten the arm upwards at a 45deg angle. That's right, today I was essentially watching the Nuremberg Rally re-enacted by Japanese teenagers. To be fair, I should point out that left hand is jauntily placed on the hip, meaning that the move combines Teutonic fascism, Dale Winton-esque campness, and "I'm a little teapot" in roughly equal measure.

Thankfully I am not expected to take part in ouen - I suppose it would be favouritism for me to participate in any one school's cheering. As I have nothing to contribute, I just quietly survey the scene from the back of the room. I find that just being there makes me feel simultaneously sad and angry, kind of like reading comments on YouTube. The nicest thing I can say about ouen is that it's a huge waste of time that could be spent actually learning. At worst, it's something more sinister, like a kind of low-level brainwashing. It's all the more troubling because about a fifth of the students recently transferred from another school because of the merger, and are now having to repeatedly and vocally show their allegiance to their new masters. Incidentally, these students are easy to spot because they have been allowed to keep their old uniforms, a measure which I'm sure was taken for perfectly good reasons of economy, but does seem a bit like an ill-advised social psychology experiment.

Reassuringly, I think some of the teachers here might share my misgivings about ouen. A few people have said "This must seem quite strange to you", which I suspect is a typically Japanese indirect way of saying "Don't worry, I think this is pretty frakked up too". One of the English teachers, with whom I have previously enjoyed some after-hours bitching, whispered to me today during ouen: "I think your feelings are the same as mine. I'd like to talk about this with you sometime". I very much hope that happens, as it may help me to unravel some of the mysteries of the Japanese mindset.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

I'm now an ALT (yeah, you know me)

As of yesterday I am once again doing what they pay me for, i.e. being an assistant teacher of English. It feels good. In this line of work, sometimes one does wonder whether one's existence is really justified: does the addition of a second teacher who can't speak Japanese really enhance the educational experience all that much? Nevertheless, I feel infinitely more useful here in school than I did in city hall, which is good for my sanity.

I like being around the kids. Plenty of them - probably a narrow majority (remember those, fellow Brits?) - either feel intimidated by me, or just have no interest in talking to me. But when one has over 300 students in a school, a vocal minority who are really keen to speak to me (even the girls who timidly say "Hello" then run away in fits of giggles), it's enough to really brighten my day. I'm enjoying the teaching too. The reshuffle has resulted in my current school having a pretty good English line-up, so I anticipate this month's team teaching being a fairly pleasant experience.

I've been reasonably busy, with two full mornings of lessons so far. This has once again demonstrated to me the curious fact that the more work you have, the more productive you become in your free time (up to a point). I found the best way to get through a day devoid of work at city hall was to try to foster a kind of sleepy mental detachment - like underclocking my own brain - which proved difficult to snap out of once I left the office. Yesterday, by contrast, I found the energy to go to the supermarket, actually cook (I made some fiery enchiladas, and the leftovers should be good for some quesadilla tonight), do the dishes, and still have time to unwind with a couple of hours of post-apocalyptic violence before bed.

Though my mornings are packed, all my afternoons this week are wide open. The reason for this is yet other outrageous expectation placed upon teachers in this country, of which I was blissfully unaware until yesterday. All the home room teachers (like registration and guidance teachers rolled into one), which is to say most of the teaching staff, are visiting the homes of their students to talk with their respective parents. These twenty-minute meetings, taking place all over the school's now sprawling catchment area, mean that they are kept busy from 2pm until around half six every day this week. I'm not sure exactly what the kids are doing during this time, but they sure aren't receiving regular classes.

I learned about this arrangement from a slightly exasperated-sounding English teacher who I'll call Yoko. I commented that this was different to the UK, where the parents periodically come to school to meet the teachers. No, she explained, they have parents' night too (although I think the student is also present at these meetings, weirdly). Incidentally, in addition to the demonstration lessons given for the purpose of training other teachers, I've also heard of demo lessons that parents are invited to. Thankfully I've not had to take part in either of these yet.

Yoko went on to explain to me that the purpose of these visits was to help them understand the kind of environment the student was coming from. I think she was trying to be euphemistic, but it's quite hard to mince your words in a foreign language. Consequently, I got the (possibly mistaken) impression that this was an opportunity to snoop into the precise family circumstances and/or socio-economic status of each of their students, which strikes me as more than a little dodgy. However, given the intense pressure parents put on teachers here to perform, it is perhaps understandable that they want to gather all the intel they can to aid them in their unending educational struggle.

Update: The quesadilla were good.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Long hot samurai

Happy election day! It's my first day back in the office after Golden Week, a five-day weekend. Unfortunately I had an attack of spontaneous insomnia last night, so apologies if my prose isn't up to its usual standard.

We currently have wide open windows and very few suit jackets being worn, as the temperature is in the mid-twenties (and it's only 9:20am). Within a month we've gone from snow to what would be considered the peak of summer in Scotland. Spring and autumn don't last long around these parts, though I am informed that this is unusual weather even by Yamagata's standards. Climate chaos. An unexpected effect of the warm weather is that it reminds me of when I first arrived – with the olfactory modality in particular having its curious potency in evoking memories. Just by the power of association, I'm finding myself feeling like a jittery n00b all over again. This, combined with the physical discomfort of the warmth, may be what prevented me from sleeping last night.

Anyway, let's cover Golden Week. The weather was beautiful last friday evening, so I took a stroll through Eboshiyama Park, which was at long last filled with sakura. The atmosphere was very pleasant: families, couples, and a big party of Chinese youths (Mandarin sounds very different to Japanese) were all enjoying the petals, the setting sun, and the festival food being sold at various stalls. A group of four girls aged around six came across me, the pluckiest one announcing (in Japanese), “It's an English [language] person!”
“That's right”, I confirmed.
“Where are you from? America?”
“No, Britain.”
She pondered this for a few seconds, then started jumping around excitedly, shrieking “Igirisu! Igirisu!” ('Britain').

I like talking to small children, because a) they're extremely cute and b) they tend to use simple sentence constructions stripped of politeness, so they're easy to understand. The girls continued to orbit me for a while, shouting out any English words they knew, which seemed to be mostly fruits.

Saturday: Yamagata prefecture has three sacred mountains, and I hadn't been to any of them. So, I managed to muster a group of four to take a trip to Hagurosan. This is comfortably the most softcore of the three, requiring no actual hiking to reach the summit, as there are stone steps all the way up – 2446 of them to be precise. The shrine at the top was nothing special, but the walk through the forest in the sunshine was highly enjoyable. Even the car journey there was stunning; the mountains of northern Yamagata put my 'hood to shame. We concluded the day with – what else? - karaoke. I would submit that Like a prayer by Madonna (the old Lady Gaga) is the ultimate karaoke song.

Sunday: I woke up feeling terrible (I had been driving and thus not drinking the previous night), having apparently caught a nasty cold. I seem to have a habit of getting ill or injured during my holidays. Because I could neither taste anything nor face the thought of drinking alcohol, I regretfully turned down Marie's invitation to go for sukiyaki that evening. Instead I rested up, drank lots of C.C. Lemon (“the vitamin C of 210 lemons in every bottle”!) and played Fallout 3 all day.

Monday: This was the climax of the Uesugi festival in Yonezawa, featuring a battle re-enactment at which yours truly was to be one of the warriors. This appointment in the middle of Golden Week was what prevented me from making any more ambitious travel plans. Thankfully I was feeling a good bit better, though still a little suboptimal.

My grasp of Japanese history is so poor that I couldn't even tell you what century the battle we were simulating took place in. The most advanced weaponry on display were some very cumbersome looking guns, if that helps. My battalion comprised about 30 Caucasians (many of whom I'd never seen before – I suspect they came from another prefecture) and a bunch of Chinese kids, forming a kind of elite anachronism squadron. The women among us were of course doubly anachronistic. We were to be bottom-of-the-chain infantry for the antagonist side, i.e. those opposing Uesugi.

Our first task was to suit up in a school gymnasium. Our outfits consisted of a basic white tunic and baggy red pantaloons. On top of this we had armour in the form of heavy material with metal sections sewn onto it. Separate pieces covered our shins, torsos and arms. Our heads were protected by nothing more than a red band with a metal plate over the forehead – you had to be a major or general to qualify for a helmet. We wore tabi on our feet – soft boots with a separation between the first two toes, and then put straw sandals on over the top of them. While my tabi fit nicely, my sandals were a good 5cm shorter than my feet. This situation wasn't helped by the fact that I was attempting to wear them backwards until about lunchtime. Finally, we had the all-important accessories: a fake katana (sword) with sheath, and a yellow flag attached to our backs and extending a good metre above our heads.

Dressed for battle, we walked the ten minutes or so to the riverside park that would be the venue of the skirmish. This turned quite a few heads – as if 30-odd samurai walking down the street wasn't remarkable enough, we were 30-odd predominantly white samurai. As we walked in the blazing sunshine, I realised that I was going to stand out like a sprained opposable digit, as my photochromic lenses meant I was the only samurai with shades. And a ginger goatee.

We were given a brief walkthrough of what we were expected to do, but this was sufficiently vague and not in English that most of us remained fairly clueless. I ended up right on the front corner of our formation, further boosting my conspicuousness. After that there was a lot of waiting around, during which time a big guy who possessed both considerable knowledge of swordsmanship and a deep fondness for the sound of his own voice discussed tactics with anyone who was prepared to listen. I stayed out of this, reasoning that it was just for fun and any talk of tactics was surely flawed on the grounds that this wasn't real, and as such the best tactic would be simply refusing to acknowledge your own death. Some people – or more accurately, some men – take any kind of simulated warfare way too seriously.

When showtime came, we had to march around and do a warcry for the large audience that had now assembled. There was then a great deal of waiting around as the opposing side did the same. Though I had applied the factor 30 liberally that morning, I was growing concerned for my melanin-deficient skin, so I pioneered a technique for using my own flag to shade my face. At long last, it was finally time to move. Our battalion was to mount a classic Japanese surprise attack by fording a river, so we jogged energetically over the bridge and into position.

More waiting awaited us on the far bank, where some of us were issued with flares tied to sticks (the actual battle happened at night). I've never used a flare before, so I eagerly grabbed one. When the ninjas with headset mics who were directing us (ninja gaidence, as I liked to call them) eventually gave us the command to attack, we struck our flares and I immediately wished I hadn't taken one. It was spewing acrid smoke into my airways, and hot little bits of debris onto my hand. I was terrified that I would set someone's banner ablaze.

Thankfully that didn't happen, as I charged through the thigh-deep river, which was actually very refreshing in the heat. Reaching the battlefield I threw down my flare and drew my katana. We were under strict instructions not to die yet, as we were to retreat after a minute or so of battle. I was glad when the call to retreat came, as running around in armour in the sweltering heat with lungs full of smoke and an immune system full of cold was causing me some problems.

Finally, it was time for everyone to charge into a battle to the death. I don't think I was a very honourable warrior, staying out of head-to-head confrontations as far as possible and favouring sneaky attacks on my foes' backs or legs as they ran past. Perhaps I'd have made a better ninja than a samurai. After a while I came up against a kid with a spear. I managed to get in close and score what I considered to be a lethal blow, but by the time I had engaged him two of his mates had flanked me. Clever boys. I decided it was time for a histrionic death (in which I pleasingly managed to knock off my flag), and viewed the rest of the battle from the perspective of a corpse.

After the battlefield resembled the end of the video to Radiohead's Just, the call went up for everyone to resurrect themselves, to a hearty round of applause. After a final warcry there was a kind of pitch invasion as the audience rushed to have the photos taken with the samurai. Some women rushed up to me shouting “Sunglasses!”, demanding photos and complementing my spirited warcry. Having since seen a video, it seems I was channelling Mel Gibson. By which I mean his depiction of William Wallace; I didn't insult any Jews.

I'm glad I took part in the battle. It was an unforgettable Japanese experience, especially as our unusually cold spring meant that the cherry blossom was still very much in evidence around the park. At one point a strong gust of wind showered everyone in petals, prompting a round of applause directed at nature itself. However, I probably won't do it again next year, due to the inordinate amount of hanging around, and my long-standing issues with any kind of role play. After all, it's a slippery slope to LARPing.

That evening we staged an impromptu hanami party. Still not feeling 100%, I wasn't really in the mood for getting as drunk as many other people were, so I left fairly early. Tuesday was another day of Fallout, though I did leave the house for a tasty Mexican meal and a movie at one of the Yonezawa peeps' places. Yesterday was also fairly lazy; by late afternoon I was so sickened by my own sloth that I jumped in the car and went for an aimless drive into the mountainous hinterland north of my town. It really is beautiful up there; so beautiful, in fact, that I felt like a jerk for not having ventured there sooner.