Thursday, February 16, 2012

Samue over the rainbow

I've been meaning to write this post for over two weeks, but things have been a little busy. Making preparations for my new life in Kanagawa, starting the mammoth hassle that is exfiltrating Yamagata, coming up with kindergarten lessons, maintaining a relationship... I would say I've been kept on my toes, but this time last week I was hobbling around with an agonising pain in my left Digitus minimus pedis. I have no idea what caused this; my uninformed opinion has been oscillating between mysterious bone fracture and chilblains/frostnip. In any case, it seems to be fine now.

As you may know, I rotate between Nanyo's three junior high schools, typically spending a month at each. Since I'm out of here at the end of March, the last week of January was - in quite a real sense - the beginning of the end, as I had to say my final sayonara to one of my schools.

I didn't think this would be a particularly big deal. Public servants (including teachers) get mercilessly reshuffled with every new fiscal year without any particular fanfare. Given that I'm not even a proper teacher, plus the slightly dishonourable circumstances under which I'm departing, I thought it would be a case of sneaking out the back door. But of course, I was a fool to think that the Japanese would miss an opportunity for a ceremony.

About a week prior to my final day, I overheard my name being used in the staffroom. I strolled over to find the third-in-command (in effect, the vice-principal, since as far as I can make out, the principal of a Japanese school enjoys a monarch-like ceremonial role) asking an English teacher to interview me. In a move which could be seen as either helpful or cocky, I plucked the sheet of Japanese questions from his hand and declared that I could handle this myself. I spent the next hour or so writing in Japanese about my experiences as an ALT.

The vice-vice-principle also asked me what leaving present I would like. This felt like a faux pas minefield, but I was pleased when I came up with the idea of a yukata - a light cotton kimono worn when attending summer festivals or lounging around after an onsen - which is something I'd idly been meaning to buy myself for some time. Finally, he informed me that I'd be expected to make a short speech in Japanese at my wakarekai (farewell ceremony).

When the day came, my co-teachers kept telling me only to come to the last ten minutes of our lessons. This was just as well in a way, as my speech still needed quite a bit of work. Anyway, this premeditated tardiness was to allow the students to spend the first forty minutes making cards for me, which they would then present at the end of the class. Though one could could question the sincerity of their coerced well-wishing, the gesture still gave me a lump in my throat every time.

The plan had been for my wakarekai to take place at the end of the school day, in the dojo. (Many Japanese schools have a separate gym hall especially for martial arts.) But the whole school was on lockdown because of a flu outbreak, so instead the ceremony was held over the PA system at lunchtime, to minimise the risk of contagion. Thus, my last day at Akayu Junior High was also my first glimpse of the 'broadcast club' at work in the school's little soundproofed studio.

A girl read out a bio of me based on my interview answers (edited into grammatical and polite Japanese, obviously). Then I was presented with my requested gift, and an impressively huge bouquet of flowers, although sadly I guess the impact of this was rather lost on radio. Of course, flowers are about as much use to me as a chocolate kotatsu, but I've bought enough in my time to know that this bunch would have run to several thousand yen. I gave them to Amber the following weekend, and she seemed to like them.

Then, it was time for me to take to the mic and spit some Japanese. I'd decided not to have anyone check my script, because a) I'd only finished it about an hour previously, b) I was a bit embarrassed, and c) I always tell my students not to be afraid of making mistakes in English, so I figured I should practice what I preach. It seemed to go down reasonably well, eliciting compliments from a few teachers.

Returning to the staffroom, the VVP apologised that he'd not, in fact, been able to get me a yukata. Evidently, trying to buy a yukata in January is like shopping for mince pies and brandy butter in July. To his credit, he'd thought outside the box and got me the next best thing, a 'samue'.

Now, I'd never heard of a samue, but it turns out it is the name given to the everyday, non-ceremonial clothes worn by a Buddhist priest. It's a loose-fitting two-piece affair consisting of trousers and a kimono-esque double-breasted jacket, all in navy blue. Topping (or rather bottoming) it all off was a pair of tabi, the weird split-toe black shoes worn by ninjas. Incidentally, these had come from a shop called Workman that sells apparel for labourers, but I'm struggling to see what line of work, other than feudal-age espionage, tabi would be appropriate for.

He urged me to try the outfit on. This generated a lot of excitement in the staff room. I suppose it was quite an unusual scene: an office full of Japanese people wearing Western clothes, and one white guy looking like an extra from Seven Samurai. I wasn't sure whether it would be rude to change out of it again, and since it was now about 3pm on my last day ever at the school, I decided to just ride it out.

I really like this gift. Yukata are ten-a-penny (in summer at least), but this is quite out of the ordinary; having told this story to various Japanese people, I've realised that I was not alone in my ignorance of what a samue is. As it happens, the word sounds exactly like one of my male students lazily enunciating the fact that it's cold ('samui'), so that's usually the first source of confusion that must be overcome. I typically end up spelling the word out in kanji. This is a not-uncommon occurrence in Japanese conversations, because of all the phonetic ambiguity. Not that you care, but it's 'sa' as in sagyou ('work'), 'mu' as in gimu ('duty') and 'e' as in 'ifuku' ('clothes' - I know there's no 'e'; don't ask), which is a completely different proposition from, say, 'samu' as in cold and 'e' as in picture.

This tedious digression into the Japanese language serves as a handy segue into wrapping up this post by telling you that I finally got the results of the JLPT N3 test that I sat in December. I neglected to prepare for it on account of trying to land an assistant professor job, so I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I'd passed with a respectable 78%. In a reversal of fortunes from last year, I struggled most with the reading section, while my vocabulary was potent. This was thanks in large part to using a program called Anki (specifically, it's Android incarnation AnkiDroid) - if anyone out there is trying to memorise a lot of information about anything, Anki is where it's at. Anyway, this means that I officially possess "the ability to understand Japanese used in everyday situations to a certain degree", and I'm one step away from achieving N2, i.e. the lowest level that has any sort of professional value.


  1. This post is really lacking a picture of your samoo.

    1. If you were on Google+, you'd already have seen it.

  2. Samue desune! Make sure you bag N2. Enjoyed that you wore your outfit longer than you had to - I've often wondered with robes and things, are you supposed to wear pants?

  3. Finlay, thanks for leaving this blog up. I’m an incoming JET heading to Hokkaido this August. I am also called Finlay and come from the North of Scotland (Orkney in my case). I have also spent too much time studying up at King’s Buildings and am starting the JET Programme at the ripe old age of 27 without a scooby about the future direction of my life. Because of these similarities I felt I should read your entire blog in case you are living my life seven years in advance of me and leave some helpful hints for dealing with the future.

    You write very well and I’ve been pretty hooked on your blog despite not knowing you at all. I know you have tried to keep a positive bias in your blog, but I feel a little better informed about what life may be like for me in Japan and you have filled me with optimism for my own adventures on the other side of the world. Thanks for leaving an honest account of your time on the progamme!

    1. Wow, it's not every day you are contacted by someone who appears to be a time-shifted doppelganger. Just to bring you up to date, I'm still in Japan, still studying butterflies' eyes. Still enjoying the life here, though the novelty has pretty much completely worn off.

      I'm jealous you got Hokkaido! That was my first and only request when I applied to JET. Don't know if you're into snowsports, but Niseko has the best powder I've ever experienced. And if you're from Orkney you'll be used to being on a remote northern island.

      As for advice I'd give to myself seven years ago: buy bitcoin! I'm not sure that's really applicable though...

    2. Ah I'm glad you are still there and enjoying it! You seem to have landed on your feet. Are you likely to get/accept your five year contract extension?

      Yeah, I'm happy with Hokkaido. I almost listed it as a preference, but then decided not to bother with specific location requests and just ticked the box for a rural placement. I got a prefectural placement so I'm still waiting to find out where in Hokkaido I'll be heading.

      My only "snowsports" experience so far has been a painful hour at Hillend, but I'm looking forward to trying out the real stuff.