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.


  1. Sounds like you're on the brink of the inner circle - but have you misconstrued "I think your feelings are the same as mine"?

  2. You know, I sometimes think Taku feels similarly about the fact that his daughter is learning Scottish dancing at school here in Edinburgh.

  3. Your image of a mass Nuremberg meets Dale Winton performace does seem bizarre to us Westerners. Done well, I'm thinking Queen's Radio Ga Ga, done badly - Monty Python's Military Fairy. Dad

  4. Gosh!! I am enraged about the very kawaii Hello Kitty's murder... I hope it was a quick death though. As for the cleaning of schools, I remember having to do it while in primary school in Malaysia. Then I became class monitor and school prefect which got me out of all those chores :)

  5. The kids in the schools I taught in in China had to do the cleaning too, I think it makes sense